Illustration by Rob Cham

EDITORIAL: The most patriotic thing to do is to move out of Manila
THE DOWNBEAT - DLS Pineda (The Philippine Star) - June 9, 2017 - 4:00pm

(With this piece, DLS Pineda revisits a column he wrote for Independence Day three years ago, entitled “Most Patriotic Thing to Do: Move Out of Manila” [June 7, 2014]. Since 2014, he himself has moved out of Manila and settled in a town in Agusan del Norte — an act that has given him a renewed perspective. — Ed.)

Life in the province isn’t how I imagined it would be. I came here thinking I would stay only for a year, do something worthwhile, “leave a mark” —whatever that means — and fly back to Manila. But I’m now pushing three years here and I find myself asking for more time; Agusan being my comedy of errors and a gift that keeps on giving.

What they tell you about life in the province being slow is not true. For starters, we move fast; we don’t have Manila’s traffic. On weekdays, I work as a college instructor in Butuan City, 35 kilometers away. The drive takes half an hour and I spend P200 on gas. Taking public transport costs half that, but eats up twice the amount of time.

Driving to the city, I sometimes listen to AM radio and hear commentators babble about our local politicos and their dynasties, about the unreliable water supply in the city, about this new pothole in this and that road, about the commentator’s daughter going to law school, etc., etc. But whenever I commute, in-van entertainment consists of talks of the town: about the “fast-approaching” fiesta in three months; about a priest celebrating his ordination anniversary; about the tricycle driver who won big in the last cockfight, etc., etc. If it’s not gossip, what I’ll hear in the van will be my co-passengers singing along to “Standard music” most van drivers here enjoy playing. “Standard music”: Air Supply, Billy Joel, old folk songs, old Pinoy pop songs, The Corrs, and rather strangely, full-length Dishwalla albums.

Everyone’s Business

Here, nothing is too personal. Everything is everyone’s business. Once, a stout, unshaven co-passenger kept talking to the man beside him and we were all privy to his stories, about the balikbayan he’s fetching at the airport, about their great times in high school, about his wife who left him, and about life in general. When he alighted from the van, the person he was talking to faced us and said, “I don’t know who that guy is, but he kept talking and I didn’t want to be rude and shut him up.” The van burst out laughing and everyone started talking about the man’s sorry life.

In another instance, I was reading a book in the van to work when a man beside me said, “I’m done reading books,” his index finger pointing at the page I was reading, “There’s nothing more books can teach me.” He then asked me what I did for a living. I replied, “I read books,” and he laughed at me and I laughed with him.

In many ways, Agusan is a world away from Manila. My Manileño friends often joke whenever I fly out and see them, “How is life as an OFW?” And my staple reply is that strangest to me is how clinking beer bottles and saying “Cheers!” is not a common practice here, which instantly stuns them into disbelief — “How foreign!”

Then I tell them about that time when I was jogging in our town and I passed by this drinking joint where a brawl had just broken out, bottles of beer shattered on the asphalt road, and a man reeking of alcohol tried to stop me on my tracks and asked me to help him beat up the guys he was up against. It made me run even faster and I cut my time by a few seconds, like that other time when I was jogging and a white rooster chased me and pecked my shoes while bystanders laughed and cheered for the chicken, also here in Agusan. Beyond the unintended witticisms from misspelled signs and the odd fashion sense of manangs who still enjoy wearing leopard prints, there is magic here.

Not worlds apart

But also in many ways, the province and Manila aren’t too far apart. As the Personal is the Political in the country’s capital, so is it here. Pushed further, the idea presents the peripheries comprising the center and not the other way around — it is the provinces that make Manila what it is.

When Alex Tizon’s “My Family’s Slave” came out in The Atlantic, it couldn’t be more real for us here as Mindanawons have often been the butt of Inday jokes (in fact, once upon a time “Bisaya” was wrongly used to refer to housemaids). When Duterte declared martial law, Mindanao was at the center of the discussion and it was Mindanao that should have shaped the debate — ironic because, even now with martial law in place, government is hardly felt here. Life in the province is not as irrelevant as primetime news purports it to be. Just because life in the countryside isn’t as supersized as it is in Manila, it doesn’t mean that one can no longer do great things here.

What they tell you about provinces lacking life is not true. Get a job — get two, if you want — and before you know it, you won’t have an idle day. Once you’re done with the initial shock of moving in and finding out that there’s nothing for you in the countryside and that the salaries can never match your pay in Manila, you pick yourself up and join those who are trying to make the place better — there’s a lot that needs to be done precisely because life in the province is what you make it. With no time wasted in traffic, no pastime so wildly enjoyable you’d forget about doing anything productive, and no desk job working on someone else’s dream, there’s a lot you can learn and do with your time here.

A Life Outside

Recently, I’ve taken to farming. On an idle plot of land that my father bought some time ago, I am trying to grow crops. With the help of two experienced rice farmers, Ser Boboy and Ser Alex, who have plenty of time waiting in between harvests, I am learning about things I was never taught in college. Up on that farm on a hill, they teach me the many uses of a sundang and how to use nylon strings to lay out even distances between plants, how to earn enough in my day jobs to pay them on time, and how to wait and have faith in miracles: that the rain will fall and the crops will grow and the pests will never come. Nothing’s certain, but we do what we can.

The funniest thing about moving here, however, is how I seem to be late for the party and that the young seem so eager to leave. While I preach of moving out of Manila, what I often hear from my students in college are their dreams of moving to Manila, or to Canada, the US, or Dubai, and someday “retiring” back to the province as if they already knew what retiring meant. I can’t blame them, however; many have done the same with considerable success, and I am aware of the high horse upon which I sit and preach. But I also can’t help wishing they’d stay. Nothing good is going to happen here if the good ones keep on leaving.

* * *

Tweet the author @sarhentosilly. He talks more about farming cacao online at http://cacaoatako.wordpress.com.

 

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