On Walking and Writing

My slippers scratched on the concrete sidewalk along Aglipay road, retracing the usual route me and my significant other regularly took. The whole road and sidewalks were empty except for the occasional jeepneys passing by. The grey weather added to the ambience of this ghost town. It was chilly yet I started to sweat. How unnerving it was to see a once busy area become deserted. I breathed deeply behind my mask. This was a few days in March before the lockdown officially began.

If people asked me how well I know Mandaluyong, I’d say the map is already in my feet’s memory. I don’t remember all of them by name but I know which road and street branches into an area. Every time I am in this city, I am taken by this urge to go along the streets. To keep walking and walking. And if it was possible to leave a mark on concrete, I would have already left a small rut in the roads and streets.

After work, I would walk from España to Recto so I can ride a jeepney or UV to Kalentong. Once I’m at Kalentong, I’d walk into A. Luna, where the build-up of traffic can be found, until I arrive at Aglipay road which eventually becomes the huge trunk of Boni Avenue that has countless wide and narrow streets branching from it.

If I took the main road, I would cover approximately 3.6 kilometers, according to Google Maps. Most of the time, I made use of the inner streets connected to each other. There was less noise, people, and pollution in these places. I might’ve walked more than 3.6 kilometers but who knows.

When we reached the end of Aglipay road, my significant other asked if I was tired. I nodded but we continued to walk into the road of Martinez. This was the road which opened after the church of San Felipe Neri. There were few people coming in and out of the alleys and smaller roads. They rushed to the pharmacy and 7-Eleven. Panic was in the area but we persisted and took our time.

I began to appreciate walking long stretches because I didn’t want to go home. Home had a different definition at that time. It mostly involved abuse, the piercing smell of Red Horse, and the curses throughout the house. Walking delayed this inevitable outcome and it helped me muster my patience and courage before I went inside the house.

It was around my first year of high school when I discovered this fondness for walking. I was being homeschooled at that time because of financial constraints and problems in the family. Both cases for another essay. My classmates from elementary continued high school in that same school in Sta. Ana, Manila. While I was at home, trying to learn my first-year high school modules amidst chaos.

I was able to visit one classmate’s house. She lived in the tenement in Punta, Manila. It was one of those miracles when my mother and aunt let me travel by myself. Normally, both of them would have said no or if one said yes, they would be mad at each other. But there I was, riding the jeepney alone. I had a 6PM curfew though. I found travelling to be something exciting especially when the traffic wasn’t that bad years ago. The jeepneys would go full speed and I’d just enjoy it.

Before 6PM, I asked my friend to walk the slithering road of Punta until Kalentong. We spent the afternoon catching up but because I was gone for almost two years with minimal contact through Yahoo! Messenger, we hardly covered the surface. Walking made time longer as if it put more sand in the upper part of an hour glass. There was a kind of peace found in walking especially when I didn’t want to go home yet.

At the crossroad of Boni Avenue and P. Cruz, there were fewer people than the usual barrage of traffic and noise this area had. The grocery, Wellcome, had people inside buying what they can. On the other side of the road, the gas station was also open. It catered to the vehicles passing through. We maneuvered carefully to avoid being an obstruction to drivers.

I imagine these people were also anxious like me. They had an internal countdown of the lockdown and there was nothing but uncertainty in the pandemic. It really was a matter of life and death. Survival was the priority. As we walked, I brushed off tears. My significant other squeezed my hand tightly, reminding me to be strong. At that time, the government announced it was going to be a one-month lockdown.

Even if it was only for one month, I couldn’t digest being trapped in the house with my family for a long time. But what choice did I have? I didn’t have work anymore and I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I swallowed any thought of freedom and healing. We entered the street of San Joaquin. The file of tricycles waited for passengers and more cars were parked on both sidewalks. Everything was readying for the stand-still.

In my college years at UST, I experienced a little freedom. And bit by bit, they had no choice but to accept my lateness in going home if I said it was traffic or I had something to do. When I commuted to different places, I always looked for opportunities to travel on foot: from Makati to Kalentong, from Sunken Garden to PHILCOA, Sta. Ana to Mandaluyong, and España until Mandaluyong. These were just the few that I can vividly remember. Often, I was walking with friends or a significant other. Though mostly, I was alone.

When the traffic became a monstrosity, I preferred to walk if I couldn’t sleep in the jeepney or UV. This decision to walk was also fueled with fear of what would happen to me if I came home late. I made it a point to manage my time when walking. If I had about 30 minutes or even an hour of lee way, I would walk through the streets of Mandaluyong until I arrive at Halcon street — the location of our old apartment.

By the time we were in Maysilo Circle, silence resumed. The chorus of engines and footsteps were gone and the Archdiocesan Shrine of the Divine Mercy was empty and closed. The clouds overhead made the gloomy scene consistent. It turned the white church into any grey building in the metropolis. When we walked around the circle, the rustling of trees and birds communicating could be faintly heard like the dreams we attempt to remember in the burning light of morning.

Sleeping felt better when I was exhausted from walking. I could sleep while chaos happened downstairs. The bottles smashing on the floor and the curses resounding off walls hardly woke me during that time. In the morning, my mother and I would just tiptoe around shards of red horse bottles, puddles of beer, and an unconscious aunt or cousin (sometimes both) in the living room before going to work and university respectively.

We re-entered the connecting road of Boni Avenue. The Jollibee, Greenwich, and Chow King branches there were already closed. We got closer to the Mandaluyong City Medical Center and saw the staff setting up white tents to separate patients with the coronavirus disease. Knowing how the hospital was only two small buildings and how they always get an influx of patients all over Mandaluyong, these tents already contributed so much.

Writing was another way. It opened a path and guided me through thoughts when I was not allowed to go out. I brought with me notebooks so I can write anywhere. I’d write a page or more when I was in UST’s Miguel de Benavides library. Even on weekends, I went to UST so I can breathe. In university, I felt like it was okay to exist. I wanted to have that headspace for as long as I could.

Writing was a habit I had difficulty developing. I remembered I had a burst of writing spells in 6th grade. I was able to write poems and shorts stories during that time. I even wrote fanfiction when I discovered my love for anime. It was a fun time I had on the page. Creativity is a wonderful world for a sad child.

When high school happened, I stopped writing. Mainly because I wasn’t able to escape into writing while things continued to be bleak at home. It wasn’t enough anymore. My family has the habit of touching my belongings. I wrote a letter to Santa Claus once. It was mainly a wish list and I included a small keychain in the envelope. When the letter went missing, I found the envelope slashed open and the keychain gone. The letter and envelope were stained and yellowing into a leaf left to dry. I was sure it was my cousin because she wanted that keychain. She eventually threw the keychain out. I saw it in the trash.

The area of Barangka had everything: a grocery store named Topway, pharmacies, fast food, palengke, laundry places, sari-sari stores and computer shops. To our surprise, there were places which operated minimally. The line of customers outside Topway coiled in the parking lot. People in masks stood there waiting with their arms crossed in anticipation and impatience.

We crossed the road ahead and made our way to Rizal Technological University. The photocopying places and supplies store already closed as, it seems, the school also cancelled face-to-face classes early. My family’s current house was a few blocks away. I walked a little more slowly and breathed deep. The space of the sidewalk added time. I could stay long as I like.

I lived in fear of being read because when I was writing, people in the house would snatch it while I was writing or they would steal it when I wasn’t there. After reading what I wrote, I would experience either physical or verbal attacks while I was eating lunch, sleeping, or playing with friends online. This happened often to the point I was scared to feel anything. I couldn’t even feel safe in my own notebooks let alone in my own house. When I walk through the words written on those notebooks, I can barely breathe.

We entered San Roque street and found ourselves faced by the church. It was devoid of people, color, and music. The unwelcoming façade seemed identical to the Divine Mercy Shrine. Each step I took was heavy and my lungs heaved. As we neared the house, I asked my significant other to leave me. At first, he hesitated but he relented. As he walked away and I closed the gate, the click of the lock signaled the beginning of my lockdown.

Julienne Maui C. Mangawang

Julienne Maui Castelo Mangawang finished BA Asian Studies at the University of Santo Tomas. She is taking up her MA in Creative Writing at the University of the Philippines — Diliman. She loves gardening, dogs, and esotericism. Email Maui at: maui@voxpopuliph.com.

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