A Street Observation
by Clinton Palanca
from The Likhaan Anthology of Philippine Literature in English There are some people who say that, in order to understand a country, one should not rush about visiting endless museums and monuments, but simply sit quietly with a drink and allow the country to come to you. I think this is a good idea, but only for a certain type of country. I would agree that the essence of Paris is to be found sitting on a terrace with a cup of coffee. But what about Manila? Where would you sit quietly with a drink? For that matter, is there anywhere that’s quiet in Manila? I think that if you are a foreigner and wish to understand the soul of the city, you should hire a car and drive around for a while. This is, after all, how most Manilans spend much of their lives: those you aren’t examining the blank faces of the row of passengers seated opposite them in the jeepney are most likely to be found staring at the backside of another vehicle. The first lesson to be learned if one plans to stay in Manila for some time is how to do various things while inching your way through traffic: reading the newspaper, clipping your nails, transcribing Beowulf. There is so much we take for granted about our roads that causes foreigners to balk up when they first arrive. I had a highly entertaining discussion on the subject a few days ago with U, who is among other things, a foreign semiotician relentless in his attempt to interpret Philippine culture. One of the many things that frazzled him when he first tried driving in Manila was the apparent superfluity of the white stripes on the road. In Italy, he reported, vehicles actually attempted to stay between the white stripes. We all expressed polite surprise and told him the truth: in Manila, the stripes are there to help you drift across the road more effectively, allowing you to gauge the distance between the zero back-log paraphernalia on one side, the bus picking up passengers on the other, and the...
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