In the vicinity of the Gates of Hell

Makeshift tent of streetfolk along Timog Ave near GMA Center
First they were just daytime resting places, temporary parking spots for makeshift trash carts that competed in vain with SUVs and big cars for sidewalk space. Increasingly, the carts became sleeping cots with covers, like doghouses on wheels. In the rainy season the exposed ones turned into makeshift tents, like doghouses wearing raincoats. Many homeless folk have started to make the sidewalks along Timog Ave and EDSA their home, especially near the GMA Center. Not that there's a significance of so many homeless folk living near one of the biggest media centers and a historic road this side of Metro Manila. But there's irony simmering just below the surface.

“Manila deserves the tag ‘Gates of Hell’, when a man kills himself on the MRT tracks, and inconvenienced riders simply groan and say, ‘Namerhuwisyo pa.'”

That recent remark, posted recently on my Facebook page, was my little contribution to the fast-growing social media commentary among Filipinos that seethed around Dan Brown’s latest book, Inferno. Some Filipino observers had whipped up a titanic controversy out of a 3-page passage that described poverty-stricken Manila as the seeming gate of Hell in the eyes of the novel’s major protagonist.

For now I won’t dwell on the broad range of Philippine social-media reactions triggered by this issue. Here I merely want to share my own thin slices of insight into what our metropolis has turned into.

Commenting on my FB remark, a London-based friend noted that similar deaths—with people throwing themselves onto the tracks of that city’s Tube—totaled about 40 incidents per year. I wasn’t sure what Metro Manila rail suicide stats are, but I told him I don’t think it will reach that many fatalities in a year, especially considering that the whole metro rail system here consists of only three lines.

Maybe my point is more general, not just self-inflicted MRT/LRT deaths or jump-from-building/bridge/billboard-to-busy-street-below-to-add-to-the-existing-mayhem type of suicides. It’s that Metro Manila slums are bursting at the seams, its streets literally overflowing with human detritus, and at night you can barely decide whether the bodies sprawled on the sidewalk are merely sleeping, dead-drunk, or dead.

Witnessing this everyday occurrence on the city streets tends to deaden the senses, until one simply tends to routinely hop over the “obstacles” like they were garbage, while muttering excuses, perhaps curses, to oneself: I don’t need this shit, I’m already late for work. Why don’t the MMDA workers clean up this mess. These people should just go back to the ramshackle villages where they came from and not bother us hardworking people who pay our taxes. They should at least get out of our way and crawl into some hole to die, silently and invisibly, without inconveniencing anyone else.

It seems most of us can’t afford a minute’s delay to check if that big clump of rags lying in the gutter is just the result of someone’s irresponsible waste management habits, or might in fact cover a person, perhaps an old decrepit, perhaps a desperate mother and child, perhaps an abandoned fetus, in any case someone barely living, someone dying, someone already dead.

That, for me, is a sign that the gates of hell are just in the vicinity and fast opening up. Prepare to fall into its maw. #

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