“It is a useless life that is not consecrated to a great ideal. It is like a stone wasted on the field without becoming a part of any edifice.”
Jose Rizal, Noli Me Tangere
Of Martyrdom and Making-Do
It was raining heavily when I got into Manila. Gallon after gallon of relentless tropical rain, cascading like an epic waterfall from the sky. Through the windows of my airport taxi, racing along a semi-flooded Roxas Boulevard to my hotel, I peered out into a dream-like, technicolour world, populated with skyscrapers in shades of shocking pink, blue and green; and by monstrous psychedelic rides that had been pimped out of control. Jeepneys, the Filipinos called them – these hybrid vehicles, originating as military jeeps the Americans left behind after World War II; a cross between mobile discotheque and Optimus Prime; the outcome of fevered and flamboyant imaginings of post-war Filipinos, making-do with the ruins of a fledgeling identity.
This was my first trip to the Philippines. Before this, my impression of the entire country – and particularly of Manila – had been shaped by a succession of Filipino maids who had quite literally raised me to young adulthood while both my parents focused on their careers. This impression, captured in a few sentences, goes as follows: Manila is a very chaotic, poor and dangerous city; Filipinos speak very loudly in a distinct accent that replaces “v”s with “b”s and “f”s with “p”s; Filipinos are also very religious, sometimes ridiculously so, but that didn’t stop them from having a very good time. Not really the most politically correct impression of an entire country. But then, when I was growing up, with my succession of Filipina surrogate moms, most news about the Philippines tended to be bad news – Imelda Marcos anyone? And most news nowadays about the Philippines doesn’t seem to stray too far either from presenting the country as a… well… basket case.
I thought Manila a much-misunderstood city. And my trip to the city confirmed my suspicions. To wit: Manila is a gloriously complex, colourful and chameleonic place, if one managed to look past its obvious failings. Therein lies the catch. The failings are almost too obvious to look past. For starters, Manila is indeed riddled with crime, and very dangerous. Before I left, I was advised by friends who had visited the city not to travel on my own, and if I insisted on doing so, not to wander around on my own with a DSLR camera in full view. I defied their warnings on both counts, except for the part about the DSLR camera (I brought a discreet point and shoot camera for this trip). But I was glad to have been warned beforehand. On the first afternoon of my trip, I almost fell victim to a scam that would have seen me drugged and abandoned, without my clothes and valuables, in some unknown hotel somewhere in the city. At least that was what I found out (through online forums) could have happened to me if I had agreed to throw in my lot with a friendly and harmless-looking “family” of middle-aged “tourists” from Cebu, who tailed me for fifteen minutes from Rizal Park to my hotel, insisting that I take a jeepney ride with them to Chinatown. Not.
Manila is also somewhat caught up with its past. Ok, let’s revise that. It is completely, irretrievably caught up with the past – particularly that of its National Hero, Dr Jose Rizal, who in 1898, led a failed revolution against the Philippines’ Spanish colonisers (who had occupied the country for a staggering 330 years!). I say “failed” because what followed the revolution was a second shorter period of colonisation by the Americans, who, with all their talk about democracy and liberty, turned the tables on their one-time Filipino allies, citing the country’s general “unreadiness for independence” as a convenient excuse to simply gobble it up.
But no matter. To the Filipinos, it was the spirit of the revolution that counted, not the outcome. And so Rizal is immortalised in a park that bears his name, within which sits a stupendous Monument that also bears his name along with his mortal remains, and is guarded 24/7 by two “Knights of Rizal.” The park also features a Diorama cum Light and Sound display presenting, in graphic detail, Rizal’s martyrdom, from his imprisonment in the colonial-era Fort Santiago, to his execution in the Park itself. The exact spot, just beyond the compounds of the Light and Sound Show, is commemorated with yet another immodest monument.
Everything makes for a rather unhealthy obsession with martyrdom. Which, I suppose, makes complete sense, when one considers just how much the city and its inhabitants have endured in their four hundred years of existence. The Spanish didn’t just colonise the city – they plundered and exploited it, locking themselves up each evening for three centuries in Intramuros (“Within the Walls”) – the impenetrable fortress-city they built to protect themselves as much from invading foreign armies, as from rebellious natives. One small consolation of colonial rule was that Manila prospered and grew to become one of the most beautiful and opulent cities in the world, renowned across the oceans as the Pearl of the Orient. But all this beauty was laid waste in a few short weeks during World War II, and Manila attained the dubious honour of being the second most devastated city, after Krakow in Poland. Independence followed total devastation, like a phoenix rising from the flames. But even then, there was no respite from oppression and misrule. A few short decades of economic recovery would be followed by twenty years of martial rule by the dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda, during which the city and entire country would be systematically impoverished and a generation of its people forced into slums or out into the world as domestic workers.
Manila is a byword for epic tragedy – and Manilans? Well, in spite of what the city has endured, they continue to be a spirited and hopeful lot, always waiting for the next Rizal to come along to get them out of their present fix. For that alone – that boundless optimism and ability to make do in the face of overwhelming adversity – I admire and envy Manila and Manilans, particularly as those of us in far wealthier and better run cities fret and complain about problems that are trivial in the larger scheme of things. I am reminded of the jeepneys – those ubiquitous symbols of the Philippine nation that I saw upon my arrival. It seems to me that therein lies a model, or an approach rather, to life – grab it by the balls before it turns around to bite you.