October. Manila. Home at last to my own bed, my own bathroom, my own aromas. My bruised and battered suitcase unpacked after weeks on the road, my portable wardrobe tossed onto the laundry floor. A glass of wine waiting.
From my tiny balcony that clings tenaciously to the side of the skyscraper that I call home, I listen to the endless cacophony of car horns, and watch the horizon, hazy with heavy, turmeric-coloured pollution that refuses to be dispersed by the torrential rain storming through the city two or three times a day. In the distance, a herd of cranes stretch long iron necks towards the mercurial lightening. My wine is warm in minutes, and I must commit the cardinal sin of adding ice to keep it chilled. In the background, the washing machine whirrs softly, industriously. Thunder cracks unexpectedly above my head, gleeful as I flinch histrionically. The air is thick and steamy – even up here, so close to the angels – settling over my lungs like a wet woollen blanket.
Down below, in the protected fortress that is Bel Air, familiar rooftops slumber in their safe, green nest, unperturbed by the sharp, incessant barks of anxious dogs. Beyond its boundaries, the concrete river, the main vein of the city, flows sluggishly southwards to the sea, bearing madcap buses and myriad cars in its wake. Behind me, the elemental river takes a more circuitous route to the sea. Squeezed like a hardened artery into a straitjacket of high concrete walls, the murky cloaca of this over-burdened city is choked with green weed, broad barges and all the detritus of the human hoards that cluster along its banks. Insect-like ferries flit from side to side. Battered jeepneys roar along its flanks, spewing clouds of black smoke into the submissive air.
It is a far cry from the southern land in which I was born. Familiar yet fantastical, I have grown fond of this seething, subversive city over the years; of its gently smiling, kind and tolerant people with their incorrigible, child-like enthusiasm for celebrations and all things familial and edible; of its quiet acceptance of the harsh disparity between rich and poor; the incongruous juxtaposition of religious fervor and shopping fever. Always challenging, often frustrating, and endlessly patient with my intolerance and inflexibility, Manila has taught me the strength of adaptation and acceptance, skills I had wrongly assumed I possessed in abundance after decades of living as a footloose and transient migrant.
I come and go from this hectic city, born, alternately, on wings of furious frustration to flee and inexpressible relief to come home again, the returning as much a necessity for my sanity as the leaving. Grounding me. It is a home I have not chosen but have learned to love like you might a recalcitrant child, despite all its crimes again my innate need for order and self-control. When I frown, it smiles warmly and holds out its arms in forgiving, eager joy that I am still here. And I succumb. I sip my watery wine. My shoulders drop. I exhale.
*Thanks to Google Images for the view.