In this quarantine, something so innocuous hides both immediate and long-term dangers
There was the smell of rotting gmelina fruits, a tree species oft-harvested for paper. There was the smell too of drying carabao dung as I took the footpaths reserved for park maintenance crews—it was almost a trek, watching each step, each footfall throwing up a tiny dust storm, all in contrast to the paved roads used by joggers and bikers.
Rather than repel me, like Proust’s madeleines, these odors brought me back to childhood summers spent in lolo’s fields in the northern province of Isabela. Compared to droppings of cats and dogs, the vegan, organic carabao’s diet made for a fertilizer that smelled more of life than of decay.
Don’t believe the old joke by uneducated city folk. “Tae ng kalabaw” isn’t as bad as they make it seem.
The Marikina river bank, now river park, used to be a picnic spot during the Spanish colonial era and today it retains much of that character. Stretching for 11 kilometers across the city’s barangays, the park is one of the last truly green spaces in the concrete sprawl that Metro Manila has become.
It’s a no-motor-vehicles-allowed zone where some iconic, if archaic, idylls of Philippine life persist: fishermen bait tilapia and catfish by the banks as corn and vegetable farmers work fields nourished by the waterway. Old-timers play chess under nipa huts as sorbeteros and buko vendors help park goers fight the May heat.
I took a walk earlier this week. It was the best way to beat the heat and save electricity and get exercise in.
It wasn’t just the near-clichés of Amorsolo copycats that persisted this time around, but also scenes of once-contemporary, pre-pandemic life.
Under some bamboo groves, construction workers set up hammocks to nap in, parents with toddlers strolled as the dads tried to jog, always falling back into a walk, and, weaving through the sorberteros and mambubukos were tusok-tusok vendors whose carts blasted a heady mix of K-Pop and ‘90s OPM rock.
A woman around my age zipped by, commuting home in a skateboard, wearing a sleeveless dress that could double as casual and professional wear, her helmet providing an interesting contrast to her outfit.
A couple approaching their senior years bickered as the husband tried to pluck some fruits, standing on one of the park benches to reach a low-lying clump of berries.
“Mulberry ito, pramis,” he insisted to his incredulous wife as she began to walk away.
Like Proust’s madeleines, these odors brought me back to childhood summers spent in lolo’s fields in the northern province of Isabela.
“Mulberry-mulberry ka diyan.”
“‘dinga! Pakita ko sa’yo sa Google pag-uwi natin…”
A little bit further, at a bend in the river, a teenaged boy on a bike was staring in awe at the sky, at the towering cumulonimbus clouds, at the wispy hues of orange, blue, and indigo. He took out his phone, and took a panoramic shot of the Rizal mountains’ skyline. I saw myself in this kid, and wanted to chat.
I remembered how dangerous that could be. To both of us.
In that moment, reality sank in. To get to the park, I had to dodge crowds forming at grocery store lines. Roads were rerouted for quarantine checkpoints set up by cops. And I felt my chin, the warm air on my nostrils and mouth, faint traces of lunch mixing with sweat—all under that ubiquitous face mask.
The breath, which yoga and meditation highlight as the most important focus of the practice, now seemingly betrays us, either through being in such short supply for those in critical condition or through being a harbinger of disease and death.
Small interactions and small talk with trike drivers, vendors, and other leisure walkers, which put the “life” in “city life,” remain a hazard. I wanted to reach out, to quip with the old men playing chess, the couple and their mulberry debate, the teen caught in poetic ecstasy, the young woman on her skateboard.
Stay at home, in theory, is the best way to stay safe, but for the people in the river park today, not just livelihoods, but sanities were also in danger.
But now I’m back home, and despite my temporary escape into people-watching – truth be told a handy euphemism for eavesdropping and voyeurism – familiar sounds return: the endless wail of sirens, some from police vans, most from ambulances, the indistinct chatter of news alerts from the TV from the elderly couple’s unit next to mine, the humming of high rise power lines.
I try to call to mind the smell of rotting gmelinas, the shape and color of mulberries, but the sirens persist, and insomnia lurks just around the corner as my social media timelines warp into a weekly obituary.
This pandemic, as well as the quarantine and the ensuing solitude, is forcing me to confront questions I’ve always avoided, questions present even before the virus began ravaging, back when the world was “normal,” back when the questions could be deferred to another summer afternoon and evening gaming or trawling Población’s bars, seeking others to forget myself.
What are you living for? What is the price of convenience? Are you posting that status to get likes or will you actually go out and vote? Is giving money via GCash the only thing I can do to fight poverty?
But it’s not just me, it’s also making us collectively confront our shadow. What is the price of convenience? Why is social media designed that way and why are we the products, not the clients? Why is charity merely palliative? Why do we pretend that we have so much time on our hands? Will I be able to handle power if it ends up in my hands?
Maybe it’s avoiding those questions that brought us here in the first place.
I wonder if my grandnephews and nieces will ever experience that the smell of drying carabao dung, under the mango trees in May, isn’t as bad as city folk make it.