American author Dan Brown’s mystery thriller novel Inferno mentioned that one can find the gates of Hell right in the city of Manila! The book goes on to describe the city as filled with six-hour long traffic jams, suffocating pollution and horrifying sex trade, where young children are sold to pimps by parents who took solace in knowing that at least their children would be fed.
In the face of desperation and government ineptitude, some of its denizens turn to substance abuse to dampen their senses which consequently made them not only as drug addicts but wild animals.
The grossly offensive filth, highly unpleasant and almost inhuman congestion, hostile criminality, would indeed qualify the capital city as Hell. In Greek mythology, they refer to it as Hades. It’s a bit tamer though than the Christian or Dante Alighieri’s Hell although in Hades the atmosphere is dapper, lonelier, more depressing and gruesome. It was exactly Manila when Brown was writing his novel.
In mythology, there was a mortal hero Odysseus who consulted a friend who can give him directions to go home. There have been a lot of changes since he left his place he could no longer determine his way back. His work as warrior has finally been completed. His friend expressed confidence because he knew someone knowledgeable but there is a problem. The expert is dead. If Odysseus really wanted to consult the dead adept, then he must go to where the souls are—in Hell or in Hades. Another problem presented itself. Those who reach Hades can no longer go back from where they came from.
Odysseus came through. And despite the challenges and nerve wracking encounters with monsters, deadly threats, perfect storms he charmed himself away from danger. Hhe eventually reached his destination badly bruised, mortally injured and grossly disfigured. But he is alive. He recovered instantly and lived happily ever after.
My elementary classmate was no Odysseus. He was just a lucky guy who fortunately conducted his way towards a bright future. And definitely, the Manila he eventually landed was no longer smelly like Hell. There was political change and the country has improved a lot. If there was anything that would compare my classmate with the Greek hero, it is their absence for a number of years from their respective homes.
This is his story.
After almost two decades in USA, a classmate of mine in grade school, one of the bullies during that period, decided to go back to his country, The Philippines. He retired as postal worker in the US Federal Mail Services. He probably wanted to spend his dollar pension in his country where a green buck means almost 50 times its purchasing power in the local currency. Not bad.
If a dollar pensioner receives, say, a thousand bucks a month, over in his country of origin, it instantly translates into more or less 50 grand. I tell you, for as long as he receives that amount, he will never go hungry, well, unless he chooses to have a vice or two like unlimited booze, drugs or gambling.
My classmate however never had that predilection anymore since he already had too much during his youth. When he went to the States, he reinvented himself and worked seriously until his family became stable and in his case, became steady up until his career faded positively away. As a Federal employee, he had a worthy and respectable occupation for some time. As soon as he was given the chance to retire, he immediately took the opportunity to make good with whatever is left for him to enjoy. He got his retirement benefits in dollars and in spending it, it would be in pesos. For him, it was like having a cake and eating it too! He chose not to reduce himself into a non-entity in a country known for its work ethic. He might as well go back home where he could live comfortably without stretching too much and ingesting a number of stressful expectations. He stood to win at any price.
It took a while though before he finally decided to go back to his country. It’s appalling because it means leaving his family and latter day friends behind. It’s sickening because it will forego with the means to enjoy residing in a technologically advanced environment. It’s nauseating because he has learned and adapted to the equable climate of America.
But his country offers more. He can personally check his ancestral properties in his province without being duped. Without any family member with him, he can travel light. He can even choose whoever is the person he wanted to be with for a while. He can procrastinate until kingdom come. He has no one to adjust whatever his idiosyncrasies are. He has freedom in the strictest sense. Now, that is priceless for a senior citizen to bargain for.
He chose Baguio City, the summer capital of his country as his base. It is in this pine scent of a community, up above the mountain ranges, where real clouds no longer resembles the usual smog of lowlands, where morning dews are directly dripping from the heavens, where he procured a studio where he could house his personal effects, with enough space to stretch his body and his mind. Everything important to him, documents and pictures are all in that tiny thumb like USB anyway. He can travel anywhere and everything precious is in his pocket.
And he moves around quite sparingly and at times clandestinely. He knew personal security like the back of his hand. He is in a country where laws resemble a neighborhood ordinance and he knows that everything, including public safety is always trifled. Much as he wanted to look like stateside, he is aware that the better part of valor comes from being commonplace. He must have taken quite a time marking mud over his genuine Nike shoes to make it look like a hand-me-down.
He was excited to see his peers. He was very excited to have bonding with his best friend, already a lawyer of note. But it was a little tragic because his buddy had a heart attack and crossed over. It was unsettling for him to lose someone he adored. Last year, he was there during our 50th year of Reunion. Sometime last year also, we had coffee and that’s it. The next thing I heard was his journey from one local tourist spot after another.
For this expatriate, he must see the world not in the global sense but in a nationalistic way. He may have explored Sierra Diablo Mountains of Texas but has not explored Tacloban City, Leyte where the strongest typhoon in the world flattened a whole province. He intends to crawl down through the South road and explore the innards of Mindanao. I bet he must be fidgeting to see a real Muslim in person or a tribal gang in in its tangible form!
By now, he must be somewhere in Mindanao. It is one promise he kept on himself and which he intends to realize while his skin and bones, flesh and spirits are still youthful and strong.
We will definitely meet in Mindanao, specifically in its de facto capital— Davao City, for another round of coffee before the curtains of old age would finally roll down on us.
In a way, we were both like Odysseus—we are both at home.