I live in one of the northern cities of the National Capital Region. For a month last summer, I commuted every day to a commercial center in Muntinlupa right at the south corner of the capital region, and it was a 20-km or so affair, one-way. 20 kilometers is not a lot, but for Metro Manila, no distance is ever short enough to be a comfortable, predictable ride. The biggest problem was that I initially trusted EDSA to be a reliable enough route for getting to my destination. I endured the resulting three-hour ride for several days, until I was driven by exasperation to take the MRT, which I’ve always known to be a hellish place to be in during rush hour. And it was, but it is a tolerable kind of hell in the morning, as I found out. It is the evening ride home that is always torturous.
There was one part of that daily grind that I came to appreciate, however. To get from EDSA to Muntinlupa, and vice versa, I took a bus that plied the Skyway. Skyway is an interesting indicator of the state of Philippine traffic: when the highway more popularly known as South Luzon Expressway reached its capacity and traffic jams started bogging down the route, they built a second road supported directly above the old pathway. (It’s a ‘grade separated’ system, as the civil engineers call it.) But to enjoy the higher speed limit and protection from jams afforded by Skyway, you’ll have to pay more than the already steep toll fee of the lower road.
It’s not the prospect of a Speed-type scenario of buses jumping across (or falling from) raised highways that I appreciated while cruising on the expressway, however. It was the inexplicable, shallow joy of watching the city pass by at 60 kilometers per hour from a bus window. The specific vistas offered by the Skyway include an international airport’s runway, a fish cage-saturated lake with a decommissioned coal power plant on its equally-congested shores, and an endless urban sprawl featuring malls, condominiums, and townhouses, some in construction and some starting to show signs of desolation. It’s not exactly a beautiful sight, because a concrete jungle has no intrinsic aesthetic value. It was probably just the diffusion of warm and cool colors falling upon the scenery—more often than not, it was sunset when I passed the road on my way back home.
At twilight on the day of the Offering, as Maya lifted her saltwater-soaked feet onto the boat, when it seemed like she would not turn and take another look, I repeated in my mind the words she whispered to me on the night before.
Even the constellations are not eternal.
They say she was born near midnight, at a clearing out in the woods before her mother could return to the village. When she came out she was feared dead because she was not crying, but when the mother looked at the child, she saw its eyes bright and dazed and fixed at the sky, its hand reaching out for the stars.
She would spend almost every night of her life observing the heavens. Outside of their hut, while weaving mats out of palm leaves whenever moonlight permitted it, she would just look up and gaze, allowing a meek smile every time she sees a bulalakaw. She would sometimes be seen at the fringes of village gatherings. She would not talk with anyone; as the elders recited the epics, she would watch the sky, as if she could see the old heroes’ adventures among the stars.
Two months ago, misfortune struck our community. Life left the sea, our source of living. The fishermen would set out at dawn and return at dusk without so much as a single, wriggling alumahan caught in their nets.
A few days ago I had the delightful experience of being in Cubao, the metro’s Bus Terminal District, just when the annual Holy Week exodus to the provinces was starting. I was stuck in traffic for nearly an hour, and during that time the bus I was riding was able to cover a grand total distance of about 50 meters. That corresponded to one corner of a mall (featuring McDonald’s) to the next (featuring Jollibee). The view was fantastic. I later found out that the cause of the negligible, forgivable delay was not some terrible road accident as I initially thought, but simply the mass of people swarming the bus terminals lining the Cubao portion of EDSA.
It was already late in the evening, but being the nocturnal person I am, I was wide awake the whole time the bus was speeding from McDo to Jollibee. I enjoyed seeing my fellow passengers in various stages of consciousness: from wide-eyed to sleepy-eyed to nodding off and to asleep and snoring (or so I imagined). My sight-seeing was interrupted at one point when I sensed that everyone in the bus was peering and chuckling at the bus to our left. A gap had developed in the lane, because the driver had fallen asleep while the vehicles in front had moved on. It didn’t take long for someone in that bus to bother waking him up. I thought about what could’ve happened if, upon falling asleep, the driver stepped down on the gas pedal. I guess professional drivers don’t do that.
I cannot claim personal significance on the EDSA People Power Revolution, which took place nearly six years before I was born. My parents could’ve joined the protests during those fateful days in February 1986, but they didn’t; my mother was explicitly ordered by my grandfather to stay home for her own safety. Interestingly, my grandfather was actually a police officer working in Quezon City then. As to why I haven’t heard of any story yet about what he did in those days, I just assume that there really is none—that he simply stayed out of trouble, which would be in theme with all the other stories my mother has told me about him.
That’s no reason for me to ignore history, however. No one in my extended family suffered human rights violations under Martial Law, but that either means we were lucky, or that they were just apathetic enough that they were never a concern for the offenders. I cannot blame them. I can’t tell what I would’ve done myself if I lived back then. But now, the essays, stories, and films on the subject collectively paint a picture of an era that should’ve incited more anger and more protests from everyone who had a conscience.
Gazing at the night sky to make sense of the countless blinking lights is clearly a universal hobby. All the ancient civilizations loved it: the geeky Greeks, the elegant Egyptians, even the mysterious Mayans. In between farming, warring, and the other simply joys of ancient civilization, these people found time, lots of it, to just look up and imagine all sorts of pictures that could be outlined by the random positions of the stars. (They found, among others, a crab, a cup, and a hunter along with his two dogs.)
Equipped with only their eyes and inquistive minds, they left us with all sorts of fascinating explanations for the persistent wonder of the night-time sky. We have stories of gods and goddesses, huge sky domes and celestial machinery that keep the sky moving through day and night.