A day at the museum

On Thursday I suggested the family get some culture instead of patronizing another mall. So we visited the Ayala Museum.

Ayala is not the biggest museum, but it has a wide sweep. The first floor contained a retrospective of Elmer Borlongan, who died in 2012. His subject was often Manila’s poor, depicted with bald heads, deformed faces and grotesque limbs. It was a far cry from the art on the third floor, with its idyllic, 20th century depictions of Filipino farmland. The first floor was closer to the Manila I’ve seen.

The second floor contained a series of dioramas depicting the history of the Philippines. I was struck by how often foreigners occupied the country: the Spanish in 1571, the United States in 1898, the Japanese in 1943, and the United States again until 1946. And independence brought a series of homegrown tyrannical and corrupt rulers.

As I gazed down at the slums on the train ride home, I thought about all the wealth and prosperity that must have been stolen or squandered. Much of the Philippines’ prosperity now comes from people working abroad, and more recently, from the call centers, housed in gleaming new office towers, dedicated to aiding Americans confused about their new toys. But these things won’t balance the checkbook.

Market economies are built on trust. People won’t work if they think they won’t be rewarded. An exchange can’t happen unless the partners believe they won’t get screwed. And the Philippines has been getting screwed for centuries. It’s not a solid bedrock for capitalism. Perhaps all that’s left for Filipinos to do is leave, like my parents.

Lolo’s grave

We visited Lolo’s grave Friday morning. A year has passed since his death. When we arrived at the cemetery mom said we should pay our respects but I didn’t know what to do. I don’t know if I believe in an afterlife. But I stood at his grave and thought about him for a few minutes: How he picked nails and rubber bands off the street when he walked me home from school, how he always sang old songs to himself, how he would drift off as he and Lola recited their evening prayers. I remember his sense of humor, his mumbling way of speaking English, his square smile. I thought about that as I stood at his grave.

Morning Routine

I have been negative about the Philippines but there are some things I love: Waking up just as dawn breaks in the massive library assembled by my aunts to the sound of cocks crowing, coming down the stairs as Lola lays a bag of hot—no, warm pan de sal on the table, pouring myself a freshly brewed coffee, sitting beside my dad, watching the butter melt in the torn-open rolls and starting the day before the golden morning sun curdles oppressive and orange and the cacophony of Manila—the roar of motorcycles, the chorus of mangy dogs, the slap of tsinelas against the dirty street—rises to a crescendo.

Manila traffic

Manila may be the most congested city in the world. On Monday we took the two dominant forms of public transportation for a trip to the fish market. The first was a tricycle, a motorcycle with a sidecar. Swarms of them pour through the streets filling the air with noise. We took the tricycle to a jitney stop. A jitney is among the most enduring symbols of the Philippines, a short chrome bus decorated in garish colors. They work like this: A man, working with the driver, stands outside yelling “Ari, ari ari,” over and over to indicate that the bus is taking passengers, almost until people are sitting on each other’s laps. Once on board, each passenger passes money up to the front. Whoever is sitting behind the driver yells “Bayad, po,” as each payment reaches the front, and the driver reaches a hand back, sometimes making change, all while navigating the busy streets. When it’s time to disembark, passengers yell “Para,” and the driver stops.

This is the most prominent form of mass transit in the Manila, among the biggest cities in the world. The city recently built a small train service, but it is always packed. We’re taking it to dinner tonight.

My aunt and uncle’s commutes take two or three hours each morning and afternoon. Manila’s streets are arrayed like veins and capillaries, a far cry from the grid of Manhattan, the ideal of urban planning. A typical commute is spent winding through curled backroads and then stuck in the clogged arteries of the city. Yesterday my aunt left for work at 6:30 a.m. and only returned home at 8 p.m. My uncle typically sets aside two-and-a-half hours for his journey to work. It’s difficult to imagine how many productive hours are lost to Manila traffic each day.

The drive back to Quezon City

We left a resort in Candelaria Sunday. The drive back to my Lola’s home in Quezon City took hours. I saw rows of shanty houses from the car window. The most run-down are made of cinder blocks with tin roofs. It seems like there are few homeless because the very poor are able to squat on other people’s property. In this way poorly enforced property rights are a benefit to the poor. But they are also a symptom of an ineffective government. Enforcing property rights is the most basic role of government. A government that fails at this basic function likely can’t provide welfare or effectively collect taxes.

I’m not sure what can be done to help the Philippines.I need to learn more about the country. But part of me thinks it’s a lost cause, that maybe the best thing people can do is leave. That’s what my parents did. Leaving thePhilippines might be the most economically beneficial thing they did for us. They likely raised our potential incomes and standards of living by a greater degree than we did by attending college. If only it were possible for everyone.

A town divided: Boroughitis leaves South Hackensack split

A town divided: Boroughitis leaves South Hackensack split

I came up with this story idea after I had to travel to South Hackensack for another story. Living on the south side of Hackensack, I thought traveling to South Hackensack would take a few minutes. Instead, my GPS took me through several towns. South Hackensack is south of Hackensack, but it’s also in two other places, a byproduct of the Boroughitis that afflicted Bergen County in the early 20th century.

Full story: nj-ne.ws/uEZJJ