Reading, Writing, Walking
Monday, September 17, 2007
one trip down One Quiapo Lane

I wake to the sound of metal scraping. I sit up and peer with grogginess through our half opened bedroom window. I wrinkle my nose as I catch a whiff of a strong sour stench emanating from a floor down, almost knowing that a certain neighboring storeowner has ever so inconspicuously dumped his garbage again in front of our store sometime in the dark of the night.
Two stray cats rummage the trash for salvageable feline necessities. In the middle of the narrow bumpy road of Evangelista Street, a group of boys has started their own version of a soccer game by kicking an empty rusted tin can around thus, making the scraping sound that woke me. I rub my eyes then I start to get ready for school.

It is the eighties. My family has lived on the floor right above our appliance store since the early seventies. My Chinese-Filipino family thought it wise to have work and home close to each other. Right here where it once thrived as a river village with abundant water lilies named Kiapo. Hence, Quiapo. This is the district where the unique third-world dreamlike experience is strong with grittiness. This is where people come for the cheap bargains from electronics to native handicrafts, otherwise called Manila’s downtown. This is the place I’ve come to call home for most of my first ten years of existence.

After I’ve been forcibly fed a bowl of oatmeal, my yaya takes me by the hand and leads me out to the busy streets of Quiapo. Right across our appliance store is an old man early at work engraving epitaphs on marbled blocks. He waves his hand and calls out, “Magandang umaga!” My yaya greets back. I smile in answer.

The street is slowly coming alive as some storeowners have decided to open shop early today. There aren’t much people walking in the streets yet, mostly just the homeless getting up from their banigs or balikbayan-box-beds. Stereos begin blaring on both sides of the street; owners believing the notion of the more noise they make, the more customers they’ll attract.
I look down at the concrete navigating my way around phlegmy spit and careful not to soil my black newly polished school shoes in anything as nasty as muck. Most likely horse dung since kalesas or colorful horse-drawn carriages are popular in this part of town. Another colorful means of transportation, with even more adornments and accessories than a fashionista, is the jeepney. A group of them huddled in a corner of the street waiting for passengers. My yaya and I get in one of them. The driver honks at the jeepney blocking the way, whose driver angrily yells, “Paliparin mo!” The jeepney finally moves as a cloud of thick dark smoke spews out from the muffler. We then head for school.

Hours after, after classes, my yaya and I get dropped off by a pedicab at Plaza Miranda because I usually get a pink cotton candy on the walk back home. The plaza is packed, as expected during afternoons, with vendors selling and people buying rosaries, Sta. Nino statuettes, herbal medicine, and even love potions. We pay for the cotton candy and move deeper into the crowd and closer to the renowned Quiapo Church, otherwise known as St. John the Baptist Church. The church houses the Black Narazene, which many religious devotees claim to bring miracles. As a child, naivety makes you believe anything’s possible. I always smile at the thought of seeing miracles.

Just a few feet away from the church are rows upon rows of fortune tellers which I always found funny because of the rather close proximity of religion and the mystic world. I waved hello to the manghuhula who foretold weeks ago that I’d get married by the age of twenty-seven and bear ten kids. We pass men selling funny-looking bright-colored bird puppets and plastic yoyos; men in low crouches looking the sinister type to pounce and mug you. Unbothered, I put a pinch of cotton candy in my mouth and let the pink puff melt on my tongue as we stroll out of the busy plaza.

* * *

Months after, my family moves out of the store’s second floor and into a house. I have never set foot again in Quiapo since. Until just last month, my mother needed some stocks delivered to our store in Quiapo so I decided I’d visit my hometown, see how it is and if it’s still as grubby and frenzied like how I remembered it almost two decades ago. I decide on wearing old sneakers, expecting to get my feet dirty from the grimy downtown pavement. I call Miyagi to brush up on my martial arts to fend off thugs and muggers. So imagine my shock when I finally see my old home again.

My voice gets trapped in my throat. Yes, it’s still the same feisty place heady with personality but better. A blanket of filth from its signature garbage piles in the streets, fecal matter, the homeless and the disorderlies to the dark gloomy atmosphere… majority has been chiseled off to show a cleaner place with a little more structure.

I stand in awe in front of our appliance store and take in the lively go-getting mood of the district. I see the shop which does the epitaphs for the dead is still there right across the street but not the same man at work from twenty years ago. With the roads less congested, I go out for a walk and see if the old church is still up and running. It still is. Seeing it for the first time again gave me a rather nice surprise --- Quiapo Church is a sight now; Plaza Miranda is stripped bare of the swarming vendors to reveal to me its gloriously clean tiles. It truly is a wonder. I ask a little girl selling sampaguitas, where all the vendors are now. She points to the side streets of the church.

True enough, the vendors have moved to a more concealed area. It still caters to the masa for bargains from the mundane to the spiritual. I see branded imitations, cellphone accessories and pirated DVDs in every corner. The market is where having the right haggling techniques could bag you the cheapest buys.

The palm-readers and the fortune-tellers are still there. Candles in all imaginable colors are sold for specific spells. Wooden or plastic statuettes of Mother Mary and the Sto. Nino, rosaries of all sizes, a plethora of dried or powdered leaves, seeds and roots of medicinal plants. A wide choice of sidewalk and turo-turo cuisine for the adventurous palate.

My tummy doesn’t feel bold today. I walk over to a cotton candy stand right beside the Quiapo Church. I plop a tiny ball of candy in my mouth and becomes nostalgic. I think of the years spent here. I remember the fortuneteller’s hula that I’d get married at twenty-seven (HA!). I remember about the Nazarene and its miracles. I gaze out to the extraordinary change Quiapo has gone through. And I smile and let the pink puff melt in my mouth.

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