The Night Bus Travels On Again
The night bus which plies the route between Bikol and Greater Manila Region has assumed its trip some months. For me though, this night bus - my night transportation - began only some three days ago. It was the Friday of last week, May 20, 2022, when I mustered enough courage to travel to Manila, the city where we assumed the virus for this country originated.
The memories are viciously fresh. It was the 12th of March when I decided earlier than most to leave the city and chill it out here in Naga, and go back to that place, my old apartment and my tasks. I, like the rest, thought the disease spreading would be soon checked, and we could all go back to the usual pattern of life. It never occurred to me that it would take me more than two years to regain my old self and the old world where that persona thrived and lived.
Two years and three months. That was how long I stayed away from life.
Now, I am back patronizing these two bus lines, Peñafrancia and Isarog. This means rushing into the bus, checking out the seat one has been lucky to secure, and always not forgetting to greet the drivers that one had known in the weekly schedules of trips to the big city.
In those nocturnal trips, I endlessly and copiously documented the solitary homes in the middle of dark, lonely farms, those strips of low-roofed homes whose porches were always lighted by naked bulbs, waiting for the man or youth to come home. But two years away from these scenarios have taught me to forget these memories. In my first trip after the grand lockdown, I wanted no brooding memories of sleepless homes; I dreamt of seeing lives being lived again.
I was correct about one thing: the pandemic that had kept us at home in our own towns and small cities was also the prerequisite about loving life, counting those who lived and not forgetting those who had not lived after the first or second year of the plague.
I would be counting memories of faces and events, even processes in the city of more than three decades of living. There is always for the Bikolano that charmed moment when we, with the bus, leave seemingly wooden edges of a wide highway and hit roads overlooked by tall buildings and poor population, You know, the old women tending to a stunted low table arrayed on which the candies, cigarettes and more candies cover the dirty dwar display window of her own survival. You know the men, women and small boys and girls asleep on the sidewalks or covered by the bushes and shrubs garnishing the island.
Poverty frames the city of my dreams with the dirty politics and dirtier horizons. How did I survive this megalopolis?
There were friends and associates who helped me out. There were organizations that propped me up when I was beginning to question my own ethics about the academic world. There were these documentaries, rare books, that became the source of my own answers.
It was almost six in the morning when the bus entered Manila. PITX is the name of this huge area that clears the destination - arrival and departure - of buses of all mechanical persuasions and degree of disrepair. I was in the Skybus, a name I recalled to spell comfort and wider leg space.
Getting down from the bus, I confronted the chaos of the city. After two years of acclaiming to be kind to each other because the world was facing death and destruction, Manila was again unkind to each other. The structures did not allow ease of movement but created once more the instruments for the lack of discipline and order.
It was some thirty minutes - the post-pandemic, if we can call it that, has not yet brought back the evil traffic in the city - before I got to my hotel. From my window, I surveyed the surroundings. There were vestiges of the control that the local governments put in place for the different lockdowns in these places. The pass. The thermometer-reader. The ubiquitous security guard is now at ease with people walking through their gates without the need to show proof of vaccination.
Then it was time to come home. The next step is to find where the ticketing offices of my bus are. The usual regulations have neglected the comfort of the passengers and have only considered their notions of controlling the population riding into and out of the city. I discovered that the bus was still in that area beside the great highway of EDSA. I took a bus that left at 7. Totally forgetting how these buses are constructed according to the social stratification of the passengers, I got on the bus that had seen better days. It was the poor man’s bus, as presumed by years of practice. The pandemic has not forgiven us of our sin that we act always to others in terms of whether they belong to our class or not. I would confirm this when the bus, at almost midnight, stopped at a dingy place, with food questioning our confirmed concept of hygiene. Instead of the instant noodle, the store has placed behind the counter their own version of the “instant”: bows with noodles and eggs, no lid to keep the ingredients from dust, flies and bacteria. I am not eating.
The toilet beckoned. Stinking and dirty again. The absence of hygiene for five pesos.
The night bus moved into the darkness once more. In and out of sleep, I woke up to see from the window fields and fields. Even in that haze, my mind reminded me I am two towns from my old city.
I survived. The huge city of my old dreams has survived. The critics with whom my mind and heart for cinema blooms forever are all alive. Bien, our national artist, is gone but not from the virus.
My old city, my home, is also vibrant. The rivers, old and dank, flowing to an eternity we assume to be our own forever. Its people are breathing for the faith that has not left but is in fact reassuring of the rituals that will take place soon, in September, the month when we could confirm whether our religion shall be greater than any pestilence or affliction.
At the back of all this looms a new infection. This is the politics and its aftermath - neither comforting nor promising. A virus unseen. Felt. Terrifying.