Character Building

(published 25 January 2015, MST)

“You’re from Valenzuela? As in Valenzuela, Bulacan?”
I get that a lot, to which I always reply with a smile: “It used to be part of Bulacan, but now it’s part of the National Capital Region and is actually, officially Valenzuela City.”
Such a conversation happens in the context of my hometown being at the northern tip of the metro, and that I take public transportation to get to wherever I need to be.
Note that my job and other engagements give me more than just an 8-5, Monday to Friday, home-office-home routine. On any given day, I may take several different modes of transportation, from the pedicab to the taxi, to and from and across different cities, north to south, east to west, sometimes on a crisscross. It does not happen every day, but it happens often enough that I would describe myself as a “seasoned commuter.”
Nothing fancy there, too. The description would apply to millions of others here in Metro Manila. Actually, I know more of them have been in a lot more hellish situations than I have, come scorching hot weather, or torrential rain and consequent flooding.
Recent experiences have caused me to reflect on this daily feat.
Just this week I found myself amid a sea of bodies waiting for a ride at the Megamall bus bay. It was usually a breeze to get a ride there, especially when the rush hour had passed -- but that night was different. It was well past eight o’clock and there were many people but few north-bound buses passing by. Every time one did, 50 or so people swarmed the doors, through which only two or three people would alight.
I remember thinking, while taking a break from running after a bus and being turned away because there was just no room anymore, that the experience of commuting is a great equalizer. It is humbling, because you shed whatever pretenses of affectations you might have. At the end of the day, you are just another exhausted body desperate for a ride. So don’t you fancy yourself better than anyone else.
How did I finally manage to get home? It’s like I blocked it from memory. One moment I was there waiting; the next I was home. I must be so fortunate.
The following day, Friday, I had to take the MRT to Makati. It was a lunch meeting, so I figured the crowd would not be as thick. Wrong, of course. I was lucky to be seated, coming from the first station, but I looked down and I saw the lines in succeeding stations and reminded myself not to underestimate the train situation, despite the higher prices. People had no choice but to take it.
And by the time we reached Cubao, the train doors had difficulty closing because of the sheer volume of people. It amazed me however that some girls near me were just giggling and one was even impersonating a flight attendant giving instructions to passengers. The other passengers were suppressing a smile. Trust the Filipino to find humor in the most adverse of situations.
Then again, that was my first time in many months to take the MRT again. Imagine what it must be like for those who have to take the MRT every day during rush hour. Empathy kicks in, and again one is humbled.
And then you have to ask: Must it be this way? Must all these productive people, able and willing to get out there and do their work, be subjected to difficult conditions? Shouldn’t their government do something to make their routines a little more bearable for them, so they can channel their energies into the actual work (or actual studying in the case of students), instead of being tired already when they get to their workstations?
I read somewhere that the public transport system reflects how a government regards its citizens. If this is true, then our government must really think so low of us that we don’t even deserve some comfort and dignity, not to mention safety.
Commuting in Metro Manila is more than getting from point A to point B. It tests your will. It moves you to explore why you’re still here and not elsewhere. It allows you to evaluate what you can, and what you will not, endure. It builds character.
To be a commuter in Metro Manila is to know it all. I take my hats off to all commuters who brave the streets every day.