I left the Quiapo section towards the direction of Santa Cruz. Now, this route is not very familiar to me, I hardly explored it during my college years because it did not offer me anything by way of food or shelter. Binondo is located here, in the historic business district of Manila, adjacent to Pasig River. It had been a commercial center since ancient times due to the Pasig’s port lying in close proximity to the seat of government called Intramuros. Binondo metamorphosed into many incarnations throughout Philippine history. But her worst transformation occurred during my college years. Those were the years Manila was at its lowest ebb, impoverished, serviced by spotty utilities and limited sanitation. Garbage bins and bagged wastes piled up on the streets for days waiting to be picked up by trucks. When residents got tired of waiting, they dumped the waste into Pasig. At certain times of the year, floating debris of dirt swam on it and at other times it was fully blanketed by purple hyacinth water lilies, which could fool anyone of glamor and beauty. Underneath, she was rotten with pollution and dead fish and other creatures deprived of oxygen and the sun, blocked by these water lilies.
In the 1930s, observers noticed the increasing pollution of the river, as fish migration from Laguna de Bay diminished. People ceased using the river’s water for laundering in the 1960s, and ferry transport declined. By the 1970s, the river started to emit offensive smells as a result of waste from swine and poultry establishments in the area where protected Marikina watershed is located (Pinugay, Baras, Rizal) and in the 1980s, fishing in the river was prohibited. By the 1990s, the Pasig River was considered biologically dead (wiki)
I crossed many streets in Binondo, got lost many times. I ended up in Chinatown that appeared so alien to me. One end is a series of high-rise buildings, mercantile banks and offices and on another are the usual storages and warehouses crammed in a small area, the main street turning into parking space for trucks that spilt different types of merchandise. The remaining free space of the street is traversed by trikes and cars and jeepneys all vying for their right of way. I could not find a sidewalk and if I walked on the roadside, I was close to being hit by a random vehicle. It was pandemonium under the scorching heat. I looked and felt lost as I tried to navigate my way looking for the Pasig River. I made a turn somewhere and I ended in a place full of shanties. All I wanted was to get near the river which was not hard to find but for some reason my sense of direction was whacked. I turned on my Iphone’s GPS, I tried to avoid data roaming to save money but being cheap could be dangerous in places where you are deemed a stranger.
I passed by the shanties, all cardboard boxes from thrown away materials. Walls were made of patched up boards and tin roofs, some flat and some were corrugated sheet irons secured by rubber tires. They reminded me of my childhood pretend-house that I built with 4 bamboo posts where I hooked and wrapped a blanket as my pretend walls, I used palm fronds for its roof. These shanties I see now are made worse by the sheer soiling of the linens hanging on every wall to cover the interiors. The overall house is grayed by congealed dust glued to some exposed boarded walls. some positioned pots of plants, of bougainvillea and hibiscus that tried but failed to hide the dirt. Shirtless men and naked children roamed without a care in the world, women gathered around a water hose washing dishes and clothes. A car passed by and carelessly landed fast on a puddle spraying me with dirty water. I felt like one of the squatters, my observers were amused by my misfortune. I kept walking and avoided eye to eye contact with anyone, God forbid, because I learned early on that a simple gesture of acknowledgment would trigger begging in places like this. I have never met so many poor people whose impromptu response to ‘Hello’ was ‘Can you spare me change?’
But don’t get the idea this is common in this developing city. In the first place I should not be here, nobody in his right mind should be here. Being lost and alone should never cross anybody’s mind in strange places, it is a sure invitation to disaster. The only reason I get this audacious landing on my feet in these grounds is because I don’t look any different from them. It is my skill to blend. I have lived in this impoverished city in my youth though not to the level of the settlers I see here but the notion of poverty and homelessness is not strange to me. I can easily transform myself from well-to-do in the USA to a pauper in the Philippines, a blessing in disguise because it saves me from becoming a target of criminals. Or maybe I am just lucky.
Having walked in circles, and unable to skip the shanties as I walked in circles, I finally found a police station that stood guard in one intersection. The guard kept his eyes on me, perhaps puzzled about what I was there for. I may look no different from the residents of this shanty town but I am not familiar to him. I greeted him and asked where the foot of the new bridge is, the one connecting Binondo to Intramuros. This bridge is aptly called Filipino-Chinese bridge, recently built and funded by China. It is a testament to the Chinese presence, since the beginning of time in Manila, as most Chinese migrated to this city out of misery in their country or out of adventure or out of business. The book El Filibusterismo testifies to this fact. Rizal, who had descended from a Sangley himself, included a character, the Chinese businessman Quiroga, a man who carefully and expertly placed himself between the conflicting classes in the city, catering to the material needs of both the rulers and the ruled, navigating the dangerous waters with apathy or indifference, while making the most money out of it.
Danger and beauty, this is how I would describe the Binondo-Pasig section of Manila. And I don’t mean this figuratively though there can be danger in beauty, like a beautiful flower that can poison. I am talking in the literal sense as I emerge from the shanties to the bank of the river. It is amazingly beautiful here as the local government had cleaned the river and built a concrete wall to replace its old muddy bank. Then, they featured endemic Philippine plants to my utter delight. I have heard the names of these plants since I was a kid but had no idea how they looked.
I stood at the foot of the bridge. Away from the shanties, one cannot help but marvel at how beautiful this bridge and the Pasig River it crosses is. In places like Lake Worth where I live, I can imagine a place like becoming busy with walkers and joggers because it is perfect for such endeavors, the air smells fresh and the commercial buildings alongside the river paint the horizon as a modern business district. Alas, I am the only one standing and walking. Solo and alone. There is something amiss, besides the suspicious informal settlers behind me who were enough to dissuade anyone from getting into the bridge by foot, and this is something I have noticed since I have come to this city: The people are very preoccupied with their personal businesses and quests, whether it is selling coconuts or mangoes or small trinkets or beauty products or slippers or cheap clothes or food or baby products. Even the well-to -do Filipino Chinese businessmen are walking seriously, unaware and unperturbed by their surroundings, giving the impression that everyone is self-absorbed.
Which in a way makes it easy for me to explore without fear, nothing bad will happen to me here unless I provoke anyone. So long as I attend to my own purposes, no one will bother. I ascended the bridge imagining what it was like a long time ago when people crossed the Jones Bridge (which is similar to this one although the bridge I am standing on is much more modern) which was known as Spanish Bridge in the 1600’s.
I imagine the people who traversed this area. The Binondo was the commercial enclave that served the ruling Spaniards who confined themselves to their walled city. And their connection to the Chinese traders was through this bridge. The contrast was palpable. On one side was the hustle and bustle of merchants and their customers, ranging from poor farmers to the elites, from native Indios to mestizos, all their needs being provided by the resourceful mostly Chinese traders; surely, the traders got involved in society and political and economic matters, but their involvement depended on which situation profited them most. (That is a severe statement about my Chinese friends who are more nationalistic than myself. I beg their pardon).
I stopped midway the bridge. There must have been a time when this area was teeming with people, there must be a heavy foot traffic between the Chinese Merchant and the Spanish Empire. Between these was Indio, the connecting link to this unstable alliance. This dynamic has been in existence for centuries, it gave birth to the first international trade of the world, the so-called Galleon that raked in millions for everyone — Spanish, Chinese, Indio. It ushered in the early development of the Philippines patterned after the West. Cathedrals rose up, universities were established, cartels and manufacturers and warehouses sprang like mushrooms. Money started flowing. Along the way towns and cities and provinces were expanded. And the rich Indios and children of mixed marriages between all races assumed the Filipino label, their accumulated wealth in their coffers allowed them abroad to study and they formed the germ of the first Filipino revolution.
Come to think of it, as I looked at the far horizon of the river that seemed to have no ending or beginning, how many people crossed this bridge, how many had spoken words or negotiated or engaged among themselves. Even bantered. I imagine Rizal and the other students crossing the bridge. They were a well-dressed lot, I have seen old photographs of them. They walked with hats on, shirts of the finest fibers, usually carrying papers and books or else walking with canes even when they didn’t need them. They inhaled the same Pasig winds I am inhaling now.
I wish their ghosts would accompany me here, even for just a second. I am interested in what they have to say. I am curious about their view of the city now. I stared at the two sides of the river. On one side are the sprawling buildings that keep popping up and altering the city landscape, while the other side feature the ancient walled city, it is glued to the city history, the bricks that make up its walls are covered with moss and its landscape is a blanketed by greenery dotted by ancient Spanish houses and churches and old government buildings and monasteries and universities. The other side, as I have mentioned earlier, is teeming with busy all-sorts of people and their businesses.
It is a refreshing sight, one that surprisingly isn’t enjoyed by the self-absorbed Filipinos. I feel like the only soul who at this time is seeing what the others don’t see. Here is the miniature Philippines, here is the original source, the ground zero of Philippine history and culture. and their ghosts come to me, I see them all now, the ancient people parading on their boats, transporting goods, holding celebrations, laughing and bantering, exchanging money. Binondo is carefree, inviting and allowing anyone who has business while walled city Intramuros is guarded by the Guardia Civil who keeps a sharp eye on who comes and goes demanding a cedula and threatening and whipping even imprisoning the suspicious wanderers, and is usually an Indio or Chinese having no business to be in the walled district at all.
My eyes are glued to the horizon, stuck where I stood, thinking and reflecting over the things that come to me every time I visit this place. I try to understand why I have this close affinity to this place, is it the history or its ancient ruins now being rebuilt? Or am I simply the drama king of Manila?
There are people obsessed with things like cars or houses or fame or money or power. My contemporaries are obsessed with their families — kids, grandkids especially. The peak of their happiness usually revolves around family and while spending precious moments with them on holidays and special occasions. Others are obsessed with recapturing old times by hooking up with their old friends and mimicking what they enjoyed as children. For some reason I am different from them.
I am single and old, obsessed with the past and stories of the past. I walk around like the mythical Visayan Samuel Bilibit condemned to roam the four corners of the earth. To me, this is more of a gift than a curse. Looking at the view of the Pasig River alone is like communing with the river itself. There was a song that I recall, Mutya ng Pasig (Maiden of Pasig), about a beautiful woman who travels via banca the entire length of the river, singing her song. I am one with her but unlike her, I stand where I am, like one of those old nilad bushes that watch time and history unfold while in a deep trance. But this is more like a romantic notion about myself. The truth is, being alone I have no choice but to move. I would get depressed if I were to stay put in, for example, my parent’s empty house in the barrio. I will probably get crazy doing nothing. I am better off standing alone here on the bridge crossing the Pasig River.
After a few moments, I continued my walk on the bridge gearing to land on the other side of the river. I chanced upon a road blockage — No wonder no one walks this bridge, I had to climb over a 4 foot fence. I encountered a city worker that was attending to the small garden at the other foot of the bridge. I asked him about the closure. ‘This is temporary’, he said. I knew it was a lie. Everything seemed to be in top shape. But I noticed some graffiti on the wall of the bridge; and a makeshift tent he was dismantling. It dawned on me that behind this beauty, lies the homeless folk that furtively invade any available space they could occupy. It doesn’t matter whether the space is meant to be left untouched to keep its beauty or not. An empty space is a useful space for them. Thus the road leading to it is blocked. The informal settlers on the other side of the bridge can easily cross this same bridge and build shanties on this end as they did on the other end. Given how lax the city is when it comes to the homeless, and there is nothing one can do when a person has no place to go to, I guess the only measure that could limit the invasion was to block the road.
I climbed the fence gingerly, thank God for my old marathon running, but I will do this climb only once. My age can not risk a fall or getting stuck on a fence. I continued my walk until I reached the Intramuros side of the Pasig River.