MenagerieDown the drain, but still dreaming
Down the drain, but still dreaming
November 29, 2011
November 29, 2011

Stepping out of South Gate and on to Taft Ave. is like stumbling onto a different planet.

The lights die down, the noise, though just as loud – transitions from the laughter of the youth typing on their white, hundred-dollar laptops to the slurs and curses and cries of the countless have-nots rummaging through trash.

A few jeepney rides away, we stumble upon Jun-Jun, who wants to be an astronaut, whatever that meant. Across the river, his eldest sister Ida once imagined herself teaching her five younger brothers once they reach high school. But then their father, a raging alcoholic, got himself shot dead in a bar brawl, leaving them and their mother to fend for themselves.

Today, both children have left such childish illusions behind.  Empty coke bottles are Jun-Jun’s rocket ships; balikbayan boxes are now Ida’s black boards, stretched out in the sun to dry for later recycling. Alongside hundreds of other kids, and dozens more literally popping out every day, the two collect trash from morning to night, passing by the Lupang Hinangad elementary school, after surmounting the Smokey Mountain of their broken dreams.

The contrasts we walk blindly through every day are worth our attention. We were all Jun-Jun and Ida once, if not in reality then at least in spirit. I, too, had dreams of becoming an astronaut one day, then an ecologist, then a geographer, before realizing that all three careers involved number crunching beyond the limits of my mathematical prowess. More about me, unfortunately, is to follow.

Jun-Jun and I

Apart from being a self-admitted 21st century hippie (minus the braids, free sex and marijuana) I resist definition, and have always shied away from writing about myself.

Nineteen years have brought the inevitable – often painful–realization that other people’s lives are every bit as valuable as my own. After all, there are billions of them out there and just one ‘me’.  I once ignored the voice of compassion, but 19 years later it screams louder than ever and it forced me to see past myself and wonder…had I been born elsewhere, saw things differently, met different people, would I have been another Jun-Jun? Should I idle away and do nothing to help Ida?

My family calls my cousins and I luckyto be born where we are. Luck is a myth. Justice is something I believe in. I have no intention of waiting for the world to end until I start acting to make it happen right now, if only to rant on a school paper in the vain hope of making future generations of corrupt lawmakers, greedy businessmen and bankers, ignorant citizens, etc. turn from their ways and see the light.

For I can no longer bear, without at least a twinge of shame and a desire to change the way things are, the sort of lifestyle I live knowing that someone, somewhere out there has nothing, while I have everything. Not out of despair or a lack of gratitude, but out of shock at why I am any different from that boy on the streets, a grade school drop-out selling sampaguita, picking trash or doing drugs with nothing to eat while, his mom works as a prostitute and, his father beats him up as he comes home drunk.

Something in me breaks to think that this same kid is my brother, suffering, devoid of the right to dream, the right to live. He should be enjoying the same things as I, going to school, sharing the same hopes, having an equal shot at a decentfuture.

Yet the image is fitting somehow, testament to how Jun-Jun’s life and the lives of those in even more dire straits have turned into little more than the junk they sell for ten pesos a kilo. People stripped off their dignity, stripped off their humanity, by what in Gandhi’s words is the “worst violence” in a world of plenty: poverty.

Same dreams, different drains

A different world lurks a few miles from Tondo, a seeming land of opportunity, but no less tragic.  Access to quality education is available, but reserved for an elitist few. Here one steps out of the façade, the pristine, sheltered green palace that is De La Salle, and on to the streets to see an old man with a bag of  trash on his back – a teacher turned beggar – one of many scenes that play out every day, but go ignored.

Safe on campus, some choose to turn a blind eye to the pains of the outside world, preferring to agonize over their petty dramas, romance crises, allowances, grades, and bad hair days. The few once hopeful candles of youthful idealism, thinking themselves invincible, revolutionaries to change the world, are nearly extinguished. On both counts, for both the bum and the idealist, reality sinks in.

In 2004, a study by the UCLA in America surveyed hundreds of thousands of incoming college freshmen, and revealed that the last 25 years saw a sharp decline in the value students place on “developing a meaningful philosophy in life” (42 percent), with 74 percent now finding greater importance in “being very well-off financially”.

Education in general has, for the most part, sadly turned into a “graduate factory”, a pricey pass reserved for the upper echelons of society to quick  (albeit boring, with no relevance or help to society whatsoever ) corporate employment, stifling creativity in the process. There is rarely any genuine “learning” going on: just desperation for a 4.0, and fear of 0.0.

People become trapped in jobs, they do not really want, working for people they do not really like, for purposes that hardly serve humanity’s higher ideals. With passion for real work, compassion, enthusiasm and resolve relegated to the sidelines in favor of mammon, true happiness is beyond reach. It is tragic to reach the end of life with dreams left unfulfilled, in a corporate suit.

But with the global economy in the state it is in, who can blame them? We find ourselves in the same endless treadmill, making money to spend on ourselves, trapped in an economic consumerist hell, forever unhappy with ourselves, never having enough, while the environment suffers as a result, and Ida and Jun-Jun slowly starve.

Rich or poor, the same dreams go down different drains. The ballerina is now a business executive; the poet, a civil engineer; the artist, god-forbid, an accountant. The five year old who once dreamed of joining NASA is stapling papers for his boss at the HR department, or selling coke bottles for another meal under the bridge.

So when a potential employer asks me what I have to offer, I would rather have the guts to say (in my head of course), “I have nothing to offer. I work for nobody. I am here to do what I love.”The worst mistake by far is to have nothing to work for, die for, live for. It is great to wake up one day and realize how much you regret or despise or loathe your job (despite the hefty paycheck), and you would rather leave it all behind and climb Mt. Everest, or spend more time with loved ones – make life worth living.

Despite having been beaten up both metaphorically and otherwise, dismissed as too “idealistic” for my own good, and repeatedly tempted to lose all faith in human goodness, I hope to keep the heart to live according to the mantra: live with enough passion to transform the world, touch people, make your mark on this ‘good earth’, laugh, love all, hate none, fear nothing.

Look up. Pay no attention to those who call you too young and naive to understand it all.

You at least know enough to realize that ours is not the kind of world – the kind of society, the kind of planet – we want our children and children’s children to grow up in, unless we mend our ways now, remember all that we have already lost, and all that we can still do to change it for the better.