IN THE MOTHERLAND: Thank you, ManilaBy Laurel Fantauzzo
I confess: I was afraid to move to Manila this year.
Strange. I had never been afraid before. It was my fourth time here. I’d previously done a Tagalog language program, and the usual visits with relatives. I’d tried for three years to earn a Fulbright grant to return to the motherland.
But those stories. Those terrifying commuting stories I kept hearing. My Tagalog teacher, held up in our neighborhood by a cab driver who’d stopped to “check his oil.” My friend whose bag, and arm, were slashed by an anonymous blade in the women’s section of the MRT train. My friend whose friend was murdered on a jeepney for her laptop. The acquaintance, who, on her way to the airport, was kidnapped by her driver, then shoved out of the cab three hours north of Manila.
My roommate in Quezon City, an amiable, fit Filipino dude raised abroad who’d preceded me here by six months, laughed out loud when I told him I was considering hiring a private driver. But later he asked me, with a serious face, “You have kidnapping insurance, right?”
“Do I have what?”
“Kidnapping insurance,” he repeated. His policy, for example, would pay up to one million pesos to anyone who might shove him into a van and demand a ransom. No, I said, I did not have this.
So, to avoid commuting, I spent a lot of time at home, venturing out only to the Ateneo nearby, or to eat at restaurants in walking distance. I hated when my landlady and roommates left me alone in the condo for the weekend. My friends here taught me train and jeepney routes, but I refused to use them alone. I was convinced that my ethnically ambiguous face bore a simple message: “Rob me! Hurt me!”
So I stayed clenched and tense in the backseat of every taxi, in the sidecar of every tricycle. I carried two wallets; one with cards, and one with cash, so I could toss just the latter to anyone who held me up.
But it was the cards wallet that went missing one day in Katipunan, on my way to the MRT train I finally felt bold enough to ride (sometimes). I went home in an appropriate sudden downpour, feeling punched, ready for the long, international slog to replace my credit cards, IDs, license—
My phone buzzed with a text from an unfamiliar number.
“Mam,” it read. “Npult ko ang wallet ninyo.”
My last tricycle driver, Lito, had found my wallet on the floor of his sidecar. Inside it he’d found my business card, which had my cell phone number. He drove it 20 minutes to my house directly. He grinned when he put the intact wallet back in my palm.
How to thank him? I gave him the pesos equivalent of $30 as his reward. He didn’t look at the amount when I put it in his hand. It didn’t feel like enough, but he texted me his gratitude anyway. I keep his number in my phone, like a cellular ‘anting-anting': “Honest Trike Driver Lito.”
It was the first moment when I finally felt Manila nudging me to know something. Yes, if you’re frighteningly wronged here, the will and resources for crime intervention are often close to nothing. And robberies and kidnappings and assaults are real possibilities. I must always lock my cab doors.
But during this first moment, I felt another real possibility: that Manila might just carry me, too, if I could trust its everyday people a little bit more than fear them.
My second moment came a few weeks later, when I met a fellow Fulbrighter who commuted alone in Manila not by train or by jeep, but by bicycle. Folding bicycle. This was a level of boldness I only gawked at, at first; I had never met anyone, Filipino or foreign, who bicycled in Manila. And I had never seen a folding bicycle before.
I love cycling; I have no special speed or talent for it, but it’s my main method of commuting at school, and my favorite way to see a new city. I assumed that the wild danger of Manila’s traffic was its own DON’T! HUWAG! sign to me. No way, I said at first, would I use this fellow Fulbrighter’s extra bicycle in the motherland.But I couldn’t deny the odd grace of the ‘tiklop’ bicycle. The way the stem and handlebars descended obediently at the pull of a latch. The way it became a kind of wheeled, compact, metal sandwich to be carried up and down the LRT train stairs. I couldn’t deny how subversively freeing it would feel, to weave between stalled cars in the maddening rush-hour traffic.
So I found myself, at 5 a.m. one Sunday morning, riding along Taft Avenue in Malate on my friend’s borrowed ‘tiklop’ for the first time. This shouldn’t be happening; I thought; I shouldn’t be able to do this. But the bicycle carried me. I kept both eyes open. I found that the anarchic traffic had its own built-in safety philosophy: drivers looked everywhere, paused at anything, assumed everything and nothing in their path. I yielded to drivers; drivers yielded to me. I covered my face with a bandana against the exhaust, but I breathed.
On a ‘tiklop,’ I saw the Manila that I’d missed before, fretting in the backseat of air-conditioned taxis. I stopped along the Pasig and watched the pink and purple sunset, the fish struggling in the water. I saw the clotheslines and pickup basketball backboards and carinderias where the guards and drivers and servers lived. I braked for ‘taho’ and ‘turón.’ When I blew a back tire in Quezon City, the shirtless guys at the vulcanizing shop gathered around us with curiosity in their faces during the repair. I felt cautious, but not afraid. They said simply what every Manila dude seems to say to us in English when we ride by on tiklops; “Nice bike!”
It is slightly reckless, but possible, to trust this city to carry me as any other home in the world might. It was possible for me to purchase my own tiklop bicycle, to supplement my cab and train and jeepney commuting, and maneuver Manila.
I found it on Facebook, of all places; a sleek, light contraption the 20-year-old builder had nicknamed Tron. It had a speedometer, a strong-sounding bell, and, on the black frame, near the seatpost, two small Philippine flags. When the builder pulled it out of his car trunk to show me, I rode it in a wide circle to test it. Even before I did, I already knew it was mine.
“Get a helmet!” the builder warned me gently, when I paid him. “Be careful when you ride in Manila!”
I gripped my new ‘tiklop’ by the frame and lifted it a little under my arm. It felt like something I could handle. It felt like my newfound portability. Like the slight but significant quieting of my fear.
“Thank you,” I said to its builder, simply. “Thank you.”
Laurel Fantauzzo is currently living in Quezon City, Philippines. She’ll be returning to the University of Iowa’s MFA in Nonfiction program in January 2012. She will be in the Philippines until December on a Fulbright scholarship for her writing project, “Jolli Meals: The Rise of Filipino Fast Food.” Check out filipinofastfood.tumblr.com.