Living in a Bipolar City

This fairly long entry is one of the pieces I submitted for my creative nonfiction writing workshop class I took last semester. It was originally a short writing exercise we were encouraged to develop further and turn into a longer piece. This is what creative nonfiction is mostly like: writing about you and your world.

Hopefully someday though I’d get the chance to write about a wider range of subjects apart from myself. I don’t know about others, but it will never feel enough to write about one’s self all the time. But for now, this is what I’ve got.

Taken at the swimming pool deck of Marriot Hotel, Newport City Complex

I’ve got gadgets and gizmos aplenty; I’ve got whosits and whatsits galore. You want thingamabobs? I’ve got twenty. But who cares? No big deal. I want more. I wanna be where the people are. I wanna see, wanna see them dancing. Up where they walk, up where they run, up where they stay all day in the sun− wandering free, wish I could be, part of that world. “Part of Your World”, The Little Mermaid


Once there was a girl who did not care how big the world is. She believed Manila was the only city where she was meant to be. Content in any place she finds herself in, she spent the first twelve years of her life in an apartment along Caballeros and Lavezares Streets. She did almost everything in the bedroom−watch cartoons, study, eat dinner, dress-up, play, sleep. The whole family slept there together, too−she and her sister on the floor on an inflatable mattress, her parents on a queen-sized bed. Occasional dripping from the ceiling, pesky rats, creeping cockroaches did not bother her, nor did she ever question if there could be a better place to be.

Her childhood alternated between home and school, a fifteen-minute drive or a thirty-peso calesa ride away. In school, she savored the thrill of writing down new vocabulary lists and the challenge of proving geometry theorems. A twenty-minute recess each day was packed with games of Chinese garter and jackstones, teasing chatter and lively babbles.

At home, she created colorful worlds in Lego towns, spurring friendships and catfights among Barbie and Bratz dolls, making up stories in Polly Pocket world and Sylvanian villages populated with little velvet animals. On Saturday afternoons, she and her younger sister first learned to play dress-up and throw the best sleepovers from her neighbor friends who live across the street: two bright and beautiful girls trained to speak in straight English and had such mature auras about them.

In spare moments, she immersed herself in solving mysteries with Nancy Drew, relate with quaint preteen life in Sweet Valley, felt Madison’s angst in Madison Finn series, found the meaning of friendship in The Baby-Sitters’ Club, learned magic spells with Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and relished teenage royalty in The Princess Diaries.

All the while, this girl, naïve as she was, did not for once give a thought about what freedom felt, what religion is for, nor what being committed meant. She did not aspire for things beyond her reach. She was not indifferent about world geography and foreign lands, but simply knowing they exist is good enough. She remained in a small corner of the world, satisfied and carefree.

* * *


Stepping down from the car, she walked toward the station keeping her gaze straight ahead, reluctantly letting the lady security guard inspect her bag. She felt frustrated that bag inspection and body frisking was protocol in Manila train lines. Subways of Hong Kong and New York do not have security people in sight.

Two minutes till the next train. Sullen, emotionless faces wait with her. Some seemed as if they preferred not to be there. Some were in all-white uniforms, some were in grayish salesperson attire. Some were in slippers, some clutched copies of Inquirer Libre.

Riding the train would be a dozen times more pleasant, she thought, if only the stations’ gray walls were painted with blues and lavenders, if only two strangers could naturally exchange kind words, if only the speaker system played classical tunes, instead of robotic voices repeatedly reminding passengers to practice good passenger etiquette.

She loved looking at little children, imagining the kind of men and women they will grow up to be. There was a bald man wearing white robes−he definitely had to be a monk. Standing beside him was an indifferent teenage boy in a sleeveless shirt, smeared shorts, and slippers. A couple sat holding each other’s hands, with dreamy expressions, as if nothing else mattered.

Four stations left. Someone offers her a seat. Between squeezing in between strangers and standing, with her laptop in one arm and bag in the other, she always preferred the latter. She stepped outside and stumbled upon more nameless people, seemingly having nothing better to do than walk the streets aimlessly, dreaming the same dreams of the finer life, owning thoughts she could never possibly know. She looked up; the sky was on the verge of tears.

* * *


It was a rainy Saturday morning as she stepped inside the black SUV. Classes were put on hold. Her white polka-dotted skirt and black cotton lace blouse matched the grayish blue skies. “I wonder if we are the only crazy college students who went out during a storm today,” she told him. He smiled, keeping his eyes on the wet roads before them.

After grabbing some cinnamon churros from a nearby supermarket, they walked towards the two-story café. She always nagged him to go there; and finally. he obliged that day. They walked along the empty streets on Manila’s equivalent of Upper East Side, with numbers as street and avenue names to boot. It was easy to imagine she was in another city, to momentarily forget the images of drudgery and despair. It was even easier to trick her mind that this city didn’t have any problems of hunger, corruption, scandal, crime. It was the easiest to feel there is nothing wrong in the world at all, especially when surrounded by shops selling luxury pastries and gelato, where people walk their dogs dressed in pink tutus and matching ribbons.

The high ceiling, the scent of warm mocha, her arm gently touching his made her never want to leave. The people around them were preoccupied with iPads and Macbooks, probably catching up on work.

Five minutes left. She wished time could stop.

If only he did not fret about the rain and the weather, she prefer to walk around the streets. She could walk all day. Walking is her therapy; a time to think, a time to savor this flurry of independence and freedom, a time to make sense of things.Time could not stand still. She stepped back into his car, rushing to get home.

* * *


From the station, she hurried to her dad’s car. Beyond the glass window of the cold interior of the SUV, she glimpsed figments of strangers’ lives. Passing through narrow streets, they were surrounded by people whose main worries were about having something to eat each day and waking up the next morning with their sense of hope still intact.

Young men in matching white polos and black slacks military-cut hair, learning how to guard the city well. High school girls dancing on a cemented area underneath the highway, with cars around them and gray smoke in the air. The men slept idly on their sidecars, waiting for someone looking for a ride. Women with vegetable and fruit carts. A blond girl walked by, her mere presence exuding light from the dullness of it all.

She closed her eyes, not wanting to see anymore. Seeing poverty and chaos around her made her selfishly wish that she didn’t live in this wretched place. She remembered sending a thought via Twitter, into the void, lamenting on how she did not want to live in Manila anymore, how she wished this city could be walk-friendly so she could go anywhere alone. Wanting to forget the people she saw from her backseat window, she closed her eyes. But it was too late.

* * *


She opened her eyes and glanced outside the car window: she was surrounded by lush green trees, cars of varying shades and sizes, multitudes of students walking past. She stepped down the car and walked towards the campus grounds as she mentally planned the day ahead, unconsciously forgot about yesterday, inevitably fretted a little about tomorrow.

In Philippine history class, her teacher assigned the class an individual project, instructing them to make Philippine history relevant to us, in the most creative way we can. Intramuros, she immediately thought. I want to go to Fort Santiago in Intramuros. I will take pictures, portraying how I see that historic site through my camera’s lens. It has been four years since I’ve last been there, with my best high school girl friends. This is my chance to go to there again. This time, by myself.

Staring into space as she habitually does, she began to wonder how different it could be, to walk down the streets of a foreign land. She wondered how it felt, to wear a trench coat and boots on snowy winter mornings. She wondered how her meek self would blend in a university filled with impassioned students her age, how she would make international friends from more than a dozen nations.

She once learned in cognitive psychology class that children’s spatial abilities are different from those of adolescents and adults. Children’s still undeveloped brains have a distorted sense of space, wherein they make plenty of exaggerations about distances and land areas. More mature people on the other hand, have more accurate spatial representations in their minds and are able to estimate distances better. Perhaps this is why in a sudden epiphany, she sometimes feels like a prisoner in her own city, and has become more aware of the need to pop the bubble she finds herself in. There isn’t enough life to be found by going around and about a constant number of square kilometers of land. She needs to see more.

Although she does not want to be a tourist; the dream is to live in a foreign country independently, to walk freely along streets and go someplace new.

She believes that her greatest dream would knock down her greatest fear of not be able to accomplish the things she was meant to do. There must be more that she could be capable of, and that meant going to places, to meet people apart from familiar circles, even if it meant leaving everything else behind.

* * *


In recent years, she realizes that Manila is disorderly, quirky, perennially interesting−in short, bipolar. Middle and upper class societies live similar urban lifestyles in Manila in two ways. First, malls and theaters are the second sanctuaries of people after Sunday masses. Secondly, being on chaotic Manila streets is inescapable, where all forms of commute−jeepneys, calesas and sidecars, tricycles and bicycles, creaky trains and light rail trains, buses and taxis galore−fill up the streets, finding both drivers and passengers inevitably dazed as they travel towards their destinations.

This capital city is painted with the loud colors of popular culture, media, and postmodernity splashed with contrasting personalities of 11 million people, sprinkled with the grayness of poverty. Living in this city reminds her to be thankful to be raised in a middle-class family as she goes out often seeing less fortunate ones sleeping on the streets, little girls holding out their grubby hands on car windows.

A select few corners of this metropolis springs of quaint and modern architecture, of skyscrapers and palatial residential buildings. Places for shopping abound, from sari-sari stores to designer boutiques. Students and employees in uniforms stride quickly to their schools and offices in a not-so-walk-friendly city.

For her to walk in the city’s streets alone, going wherever she wants without anybody driving her to the places (including the train station, the only form of commute she is allowed to make use of) is a rarity. Being a restless, travel-thirsty girl, one simple dream is to live in a beautifully structured city where she can wander away with a carefree heart, albeit momentarily.

Her love-hate relationship with bipolar Manila remains, until the city government finds a way to let her go places without having to ride a car, until the city becomes walk-friendly, until she can go out of her home whenever she wants, and not worry about anything. This girl eventually began to care how big the world is. She will not cease treading new paths, until she discovers where she is truly meant to be.

I get lost in the beauty
Of everything I see
The world ain’t half as bad
As they paint it to be.
~ Come Home, One Republic