...because you thought Sweden was Switzerland!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Sheep in the big city

Week 1: in Quezon City

Beijing Airport - one of two stops to Manila

I couldn’t explain why I was feeling restless and on the verge of tears waiting for the flight/s to take me home to the Philippines over Christmas. Maybe because it was Christmastime. Maybe because I was reading “Never Let Me Go” (Damn you Sarah for giving me this book!). Maybe it was because I haven’t, since flying the first time to Sweden 7 years ago, been on a long haul flight alone. Sitting and waiting for a flight to take me to my home away from home – I can’t explain the feeling of anticipation and anxiety, hopefulness and wariness, that were going on inside me as I thought about my past and my future. Most of the time, having a footing in two countries can make me feel like I belong in both, but sometimes I also worry about being alien wherever I am. A pragmatic voice nagged inside me: “You’re worrying too much again.”

Anyway, whatever traces of overthinking I had during the transit vanished when I was finaly lining up at passport control at NAIA. I saw two figures that looked like my dad and my brother (my brother always has a coffee cup glued to his hand) behind the glass of the arrivals hall. I jumped up and waved and they saw me. The passport police, whose last name was Maligaya (“Cheerful”) glanced at me and my Swedish passport. “What took you so long to come back?” he asked. I guess what he really meant was “welcome home”.


There are both subtle and big changes in Quezon City, but it’s comforting to know that I still fit in in this landscape somehow. I am a QC kid after all, and perhaps always will be despite also being Norrköping gal. Only thing is, I’m so out when it comes to “in” things around here, and I’m too old fashioned to care.

One thing that I find truly crazy going back here – and especially since getting my Swedish license – is the lack of any existing traffic rules. Everyone’s violating something. Right turn from the left lane? U-turn from the rightmost lane? Slalom-driving? Overtaking from the inside? Taking off passengers in the middle of the road? Crossing a solid line? Parking on the sidewalk? Jaywalking? My siblings think it’s strange that I now find this strange and, not least, dangerous. What? C’est normal!

(1) EDSA (Circumferential road) and North Avenue
(2) Quezon Avenue near Roces st.

So today I had to kind of muster all the bad Filipino driving habits out of me when I had to drive my family home after a Christmas party. Dad was too drunk to drive, mom had problems with the clutch pedal, and Lea refused to take the wheel. What I learned from this half hour driving in Metro Manila traffic again is that Filipino driving has a totally different logic of its own. I had to put the intuitive rules of Swedish driving aside for the self-evident rule of Manila driving, which goes: Quickly grab any space available, but look out for everything! Children dart off the streets here; motorcycles and busses swerve, and jeepneys abruptly stop for a passanger in the middle of a 4-lane avenue. Now I think I shall avoid any reason to drive in this traffic, if I can help it.


SM North Edsa, the city's largest shopping mall spanning several blocks.
Here you can buy anything from flip flops and native rice cakes to 
motorcycles and ski gloves. Outside temperature: 33 C. 

Theoretically, in this megacity, you can go around and do all your activities without needing to put your feet on the ground. It’s like The Jetsons or a sci-fi book, only for real. Imagine malls as cities in the sky, the hubs of every thinkable activity from shopping to spas to medical check-ups. Connecting them is the overgound MRT trains, and most malls have a direct connection with the stations. In theory, if you had a flat somewhere in Cubao with an MRT connection, you can work, buy groceries, buy appliances, go to the gym, eat in restaurants, go to concerts – even see plants and gardens and fountains – all above ground level. It’s an awesome feat of urban living, but also scary and dark.  Especially if you consider the contrast between the world above and the one below, where poor people, “the human dustbunnies”, feast on leftover food (“pagpag”, literally “brush off” – because they brush off the dirt) from trash bins after malling hours, before they finally find a corner to sleep in. In this city – in this country – of contrasts, this I’m afraid, is also one of those normal things.


One of the things you can't get in Sweden: 
a really yellow, sweet, banana-tasting banana

Long, slow days – just like a vacation ought to be. Most days this week I’ve been at home with mom and dad doing things I would have done if I still lived here, like washing dishes and hanging clothes. Mostly though all three of us do whatever we like. At the end of this week, I’ve had watched two movies, gone to a concert, read two books, and clocked three hours on the exercise bike. I’ve also been looking for stuff that I can take back home to Sweden with me, and been scanning some more old photos from the family’s Gigantic Unsorted Photo Box.

Those old photos are worth another blog item some other time. In the meantime, I’ve also been talking to mom and dad about how they remember this city when they were younger. Mom was from a nearby town, but Dad had always been a Quezon City boy, born of Ilokano parents who moved to the city to study and work. When dad’s parents bought a lot and built a house here in 1953, this residential area was newly developed from unused land overgrown with trees. There were only three houses in the street then. Young Dad and his friends used to be able to play by the creek. In 1948, QC had a population of just above a hundred thousand. In 2010, there were nearly 3 million. I suddenly realized that both dad and mom had witnessed such a great change in this city in just their lifetimes. It's pretty mind-boggling.

Next time, I will blog about something lighter.


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