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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Tale of Two Drivers

Josh West is a 39-year-old bus driver from London. He drives a shiny double decker bus. Rogelio Castro, 49, is a Filipino jeepney driver in Manila. Rogelio and his family (wife, three children and their families—eight in all) live in a cramped two-storey home in San Andres Bukid, Manila.

We meet them in Toughest Place to be a Bus Driver, a BBC television series that puts professionals from the United Kingdom in a Third World setting. (There is another episode, “Toughest Place to be a Midwife” that places a British you-know-what in Liberia).
I must admit, the episode’s premise is fascinating—a London bus driver driving in Manila? I simply had to watch it.
Mr. West however did not really drive a bus in the Philippines—he gets to drive a jeepney.
“Madness,” observes Mr. West, referring to Manila’s traffic, the first time he experiences it. He is also fascinated by the fact that there seems to be no “bus stops"—people just “wave” at the jeepney to get on. And as to collecting passenger’s fares, well, it perplexes and confounds him. How the driver steers the vehicle while collecting and figuring out change for the fares of different passengers is a trick he finds almost impossible to learn.
The show’s commentator informs viewers that Metropolitan Manila “…is simply running out of space.” With twenty million souls packed into 638.55 square kilometers, the metropolis is one of the densest areas in the world. And it will only get worse: it is estimated that in 30 years, the population will increase by 50 percent.
That anybody could think that the metropolis is not overpopulated is ridiculous, yet the country’s Catholic Church opposes any government measures that would promote family planning. It boggles the (sane) mind, but many Filipinos believe that the Church is right, and that controlling the number of children that one can have is a sin against God. The priests constantly remind them that this is so; and to not worry about the little children that they can’t feed. They may go hungry; they may roam the streets dirty and naked, but no matter. They will surely have a better life. Only not in this life; when you die, you will have a better life, oh yes, baby. Some parents however find it difficult to explain all this to a hungry, crying infant; or to the toddler who looks at them with puzzled and hurt eyes, asking why there aren’t anything to eat, or why they have to go hungry at all.
This show provides compelling argument for the Reproductive Health bill.
Consider Elsie, Rogelio’s neighbor. Elsie has 13 children, and had been giving birth yearly since she was 14 years old. What often happens is while a child is celebrating a birthday, she is giving birth to the next one. She doesn’t know anything about family planning, she informs Josh. Presumably, she and her husband just procreated and procreated, until finally she decided to have a go at this family planning thingy. Elsie’s whole family (her husband and thirteen children) lives in a six-meter-wide— well, house, if one could call it that. The house is too small even for Rogelio—who is considerably shorter than Josh’s six-foot-four frame—to stand in; while inside, people have to duck. There is simply no room to stand straight. Priests and bishops should try living at Elsie’s house.

“In the Philippines,” the commentator intones, “contraception is not free, and few women in Elsie’s situation could afford it.”

Edith, Rogelio’s wife, is asked if she used contraception. After three children, she admits that she did. “I know it’s a sin,” she says, “but I decided to do it and just ask for forgiveness.” A point to ponder, that.
The Briton learns about Filipinos through Rogelio (“If they don’t work, they don’t eat,” says Josh), and after a side trip to Tondo, he learns about pag-pag, a unique dish with an interesting history. Cheap but delicious, according to the patrons of the “restaurant” whose specialty is the aforementioned dish.
The show has many gut-wrenching moments, but it has some comic moments too, like the time when Josh, who is six feet four, tries to hunch in front of the jeepney’s steering wheel while looking out of the windshield. “It’s like looking out of a letterbox,” he observes.
Josh struggles to learn how to navigate the city's chaotic streets, learning the route, and getting tips from Rogelio on steering while calculating change (and the very useful trick of folding bills on one’s knuckles). He does it finally, though; he gets to drive in a place where it is indeed tough to be a bus driver.
Or anything else, for that matter.
Josh’s jeepney trip is nerve-wracking, and not only for him. He gets lost, and his passengers have to help him get back to the correct route. Rogelio, waiting at the end of the route, is visibly relieved when Josh finally shows up. The two men whoop it up; Rogelio lavishly congratulates Josh for safely completing the route. Josh looks happy and proud of himself, as if he just completed Mass Effect 2 on Insanity Mode.
The last part of the episode shows Josh back in London behind the wheel of Bus 148, his hi-tech, air-conditioned double-decker bus, which he finds ridiculously easy to drive. He feels he could drive it blind-folded. Well, if he could drive a passenger jeepney in the streets of Manila…
Josh West, at the beginning of the show, confesses that all he knew about the Philippines was that Imelda Marcos had once been its president, and that she had two hundred shoes (it was her husband who was president, and she had three thousand pairs of shoes). After the show, I'm sure he learned much more than that.
And I'm also sure that one of the lessons he learned is that Filipinos manage to survive despite the grinding poverty. Despite everything, they still manage to cope.
It is a useful trick, surviving.
Here's the show:

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Redemption of Severus Snape

Severus Snape fooled us all.
Those who actually finished reading the entire Harry Potter series would know what I am talking about (or writing about, if you want to be literal). Snape is one of the series’ bravest and noblest characters.
Yes indeed—in fact, I would name my next dog Severus in his honor (If it’s a female, I think… Hermione?—Here, Hermione! Come, Hermione! Nah, I don’t see it. But I digress).

Of course, until the last part of the last book, most readers think Snape is a hateful toad, and would gladly cast a Killing Curse (Avada Kedavra!) in his direction, given the chance. J. K. Rowling (the author) neatly ties up all the loose ends (well, almost all the loose ends), and, in my opinion (which admittedly is as sought-after as a Blast-Ended Skrewt), provides a very satisfactory ending.
The Deathly Hallows unravels Dumbledore’s strategy in defeating Voldemort, which explains his previous actions, and also answers Harry’s doubts. Snape, as I have intimated, is the biggest surprise; a Shakespearian-like figure with his conflicted and tragic life, he finally reveals where his loyalty lies. Harry, Ron, and Hermione find out that the Invisibility Cloak is now too small to hide all three of them, which makes me wistful—I still remember the time when they used to sneak out of Hogwarts to visit their friend Hagrid, hiding under the same Invisibility Cloak. Neville Longbottom, their bumbling classmate, finally overcomes his lack of self-esteem and emerges as one of the heroes of Hogwarts. Also notable is Luna Lovegood, Harry’s endearingly eccentric friend, and a member of Dumbledore’s Army. Indeed, the series is filled with many fascinating and memorable characters.
There are few in the literary world that are as fleshed-out, as rich, as complex, with as colorful characters, and as--well, magical-- as the Harry Potter universe. Miss Rowling may not be among the world’s literary giants, but the universe she created is one of the most unforgettable.
The first time I saw the movie “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” I was not as taken in as I was with “The Lord of the Rings” (the movie), which was shown in cinemas at around the same time. However, I’ve always thought that the Potter book, surely, is better than its movie adaptation. That turns out to be the case.
But I never got to read a single Harry Potter book—until recently. I started at “Philosopher’s Stone” and five days later, I finished the entire series—all seven books. I read the series voraciously, feverishly; it was as if I was making love, savoring every precious second, dreading the time when it will all be over, but couldn’t stop, the idea of stopping too terrible, couldn’t wait for the end, hurrying, rushing, frantic, to get there.
The climax of the book (The Deathly Hallows) and of the entire series, is cathartic; the epilogue a post-coital cigarette.
I don’t know if the movie would do justice to the story, but however great the movie version turns out to be, it would not be as awesome as what you, the reader, see in your head as you read the book. I am, however, particularly interested to see the epic Battle of Hogwarts on film.

So if you still hadn’t read the Deathly Hallows, go and read the book first before watching the movie.
Or better yet, read the entire series, and don’t mind the literary snobs who raise a supercilious brow at the mention of J. K. Rowling’s books.
A little magic in our lives would not hurt—unless the magic is one of the Unforgivable Curses, that is.
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