Thursday, May 13, 2010

You always end up on Ledesma Street

When Filipinos ask me about what I miss from the States, my answer is predictable and culturally appropriate: I miss my family. I miss my home. I miss seasons and cold weather and southern food. That’s as far as I usually go with my answer. There are many other things I miss, but I’m not sure Filipinos would quite understand. I don’t quite understand myself.

I miss gas station convenience stores. Those in the Philippines sometimes have a small auto-supplies store attached, but I want rows of dangerous junk food, vibrating Icee machines and soda fountains. I want to drive up to a gas station, jump inside, grab a Dr. Pepper and Doritos, and be out in under two minutes.

Monterey, CA (2007)

I miss accurate maps and knowing the names of streets. Every road in Iloilo City is Ledesma Street to me because it’s almost the only name I remember from the time when I cared about such things. I say it with the same blatantly nonchalant inaccuracy of a Filipino letting you know that an event will start at noon, when of course it won’t start until at least two in the afternoon: I say it, knowing even as I do that it’s meaningless. I used to carry a map of Iloilo City around with me everywhere; now I go by landmarks and memory. Ask me for directions and I’ll use large buildings, Jollibees and the one traffic light to direct you.

I don’t particularly miss grocery stores, but I do miss vending machines. I’ve always been a fan of non-human transactions – I rejoiced when Wal-Mart started testing self-checkouts – but here, everything always has a human element, and I suspect that automation would get low scores from Filipinos in any case. Relationships aren’t just important here, they’re what holds the society together. And there’s no relationship between me and a button.

Central Park, New York City (2006)

I dearly miss parks – real parks, not the Spanish-inspired (or Spanish-built) flat geometric plazas that offer nothing of interest and nary a bit of shade. I miss parks with trees and benches under them; I miss ponds that aren’t contained by concrete, twisting paths that obscure the mysteries ahead, and rusting swing-sets.

I don’t miss television – which in any case I could have here if I wanted. I mourn, however, the dearth of decent movies. I was spoiled by Los Angeles, of course, but here only the bitterest of the blockbuster dregs seem to make it into theaters. (Don’t get me started on the Philippine popular-film industry.) I will say, however, that Philippine theaters – like their airplanes and their people – are generally more inviting and cleaner than western ones.

It’s a weird truth that sometimes the little things are the ones you miss the most. I think it has something to do with resignation: if you’ve signed up for two years overseas, you’ve resigned yourself to unfamiliar food, lack of hot water and reliable power, inefficient transportation, questionable medical services and hamstrung personal freedoms. But you didn’t think about the lack of vending machines beforehand: that did not enter the equation when you accepted the invitation. You didn’t grill your Peace Corps interviewer on the availability of Icee machines (did you?), so while their non-presence might not be exactly a surprise, it is nevertheless a disappointment at some deep level of the psyche. And you worried about remembering the names of the people you met at Staging, not the names of roads in some city you’d never heard of; you were concerned about getting lost in the bustle of starting a new life, not in the tangled, congested lanes of a town that street signs forgot.

But it’s okay: you can’t really get lost, because – anyway – you always end up on Ledesma Street.

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