Fact, Fiction and Fantasy: Of Dan Brown and Francis Tolentino

There is too much noise these days on Dan Brown’s depiction of Manila in his latest best-selling novel Inferno, where Brown’s character, Dr Sienna Brooks, a 32-year old English doctor on a humanitarian mission described Manila as the “gates of hell”.

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A GMA News Online report gives us a glimpse of what transpired in the novel:

“When the group settled in among the throngs in the city of Manila—the most densely populated city on earth—Sienna could only gape in horror. She had never seen poverty on this scale.”
 
Brown then enumerated what Sienna saw: hungry kids gazing at her “with desolate eyes,” “six-hour traffic jams, suffocating pollution, and a horrifying sex trade, whose workers consisted primarily of young children, many of whom had been sold to pimps by parents who took solace in knowing that at least their children would be fed.”
 
The book also mentioned panhandlers and pickpockets, and how Sienna “could see humanity overrun by its primal instinct for survival. When they face desperation … human beings become animals.”
 
Sienna, like many visitors to Manila, also saw her surroundings as “a kind of shantytown—a city made of pieces of corrugated metal and cardboard propped up and held together” with “wails of crying babies and the stench of human excrement” in the air. She saw herself as having “run through the gates of hell.”
The otherwise quiet MMDA Chairman Francis Tolentino was quick to send Brown an open letter expressing disappointment over how Metropolitan Manila was described in the novel, The Professional Heckler however was as quick to write a parodied reply of Dan Brown to Tolentino’s letter. Needless to say, social media channels were abuzzed with #GatesofHell #ReplaceManilawithGatesofHell hashtags. Journalists, broadcasters, social commentators and a Malacanang spokesperson had a field day.
 
What is fact and what is fiction in Dan Brown’s novel then? Is it right for people to take offense in Brown’s fictional characterization of Manila? Is MMDA’s Tolentino a better fantasy writer by stating that Manila is actually “the gateway to heaven”? Let us scan recent headlines, sans election-related stories to see what’s in fact a fact.
 
 
Poverty, prostitution, pollution and traffic jams are facts of life in any urban city of the world. Fantasy is to escape such reality. Why don’t we just take it as it is and move on. Better yet, especially for those working in government, step up and do more to save our metro from further decay. At least Erap, the new Manila mayor recognizes this as fact.
 
Like what I posted in one of the online discussion boards, Hell’s Kitchen is already in New York, so why bother?
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Re-discovering public transportation

After more than 10 years of car dependency, I recently went back to commuting to work and re-discovered, gladly, the joys and travails of public transportation.

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The universe conspired for all these to happen: it was the cold drizzling month of December, my old car’s air conditioning was broken, expenses for the holidays are shooting up and- the Philippine Business for the Environment launched around that time, together with Honda Philippines an eco-safe driving campaign dubbed as 1’M Blue for Blue Skies– and I happened to be present during its launch at the Ayala Museum.

It was of course the broken air conditioning that forced me to put on my walking shoes and commute to work while my car spent some time in the auto repair shop. The December weather was the encouraging factor to use public transportation while the frequent drizzle discouraged me to use my car and risk getting stuck inside in the event that it rains (although let me confess that I did try it once and it was terrible- I was sweating inside and I can’t clear my windshield of fog that formed while I was driving). The PBE-Honda campaign, I must say, kept me going until today even though my car is back to its tip-top shape. Needless to say, the savings I generated were also good motivators.

 Trade Off

There are trade-offs in taking public transportation, especially in Metro Manila where there is no real public transportation system to speak of. Then there is the missing walking paths for pedestrians, the possibility of long and winding queues, the unsafe conditions of public vehicles and exposure to bad elements: pollution and petty crimes.

Gain

But my experience recently allowed me to discover the gains in commuting to work: less expenses for gas (P1,000/week) , toll fees (P118/P84)  and parking fees (P125/day); more relaxed travel (social media time while commuting or- sleeping time); faster travel (GTE vans take the Skyway and less time spent negotiating one’s way looking for an empty parking slot); and the sweetest of them all- more savings (Pxx,xxx).  More importantly, choosing public transportation over driving to work reduces my carbon footprint. That’s one big cheers for blue skies!

A devel­oped coun­try is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use pub­lic trans­port
– para­phrased from Enrique Penalosa, for­mer Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia

Wish List

I guess I am just lucky that commuting to work- from Paranaque to Makati and back- is easy and convenient. All it takes is a short walk to the jeepney stop, a short ride to the shuttle terminal, and some 20-45 minutes travel to Makati CBD depending on the traffic situation. Going home is a lot easier as it takes only another short walk to Makati Medical Center where the shuttle to Paranaque holds its terminal. The other GTE terminals are located at the Ayala Car Park Center behind Hotel Intercontinental (this one’s always crowded) and beside Landmark, near the Glorietta 2 entrance.

But for some people commuting remains a challenge as it is difficult, dirty and dangerous. For cleaner and bluer skies, we need more integrated, safe and cheap public transportation system that encourages car owners to leave their motor vehicles in their garage and take the public transport instead. Or for shorter travels, there is always the healthy bicycles.

End Notes

GTE is short for Garage to Terminal Utility Vehicle Express. It is a relatively new Filipino invention taking after the success of FX (another Filipino invention). GTEs are more systematic than FX because it travels strictly from point to point, unlike FX which is just an air conditioned jeepney. Therefore, GTEs are more fuel efficient than FX.

GTE fare from Paranaque to Makati via Skyway is a measly P60.

Trivia: I read this somewhere but just can’t find the original article online. When the government was busy thinking (yes, sometimes they do that) about a name to call the GTEs, they had a serious dilemma. One suggestion was to use Terminal to Terminal or TT for short but it was junked as it sounds like a male appendage. So another bright man (or maybe woman) suggested to use Point to Point or PP but it was again dropped because this time it sounds like that member of female anatomy. Later on, perhaps after several long meetings and heated debates, they settled on the term GTE. Applause!

The Pacman: Icon Without a Cause

The world’s pound for pound champion is also Time magazine’s one of the most influential persons alive, according to its recently published annual TIME 100.

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The list is a result of an online poll where readers were asked to vote for any living person (or entity) who currently influences the re-shaping of our world, for better or for worse.

Manny Pacquiao shares the distinction with the likes of US President Barack Obama (leaders and revolutionaries), First Lady Michelle Obama (heroes and icons), Twitter guys Biz Stone and Evan Williams (builders and titans), Nouriel Roubini (scientists and thinkers) and Rush Limbaugh (artists and entertainers). 

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Lennox Lewis, a former heavyweight champion and now boxing commentator for HBO Sports, has this to say about The Pacman:

Manny has connected with the people of his home country, the Philippines, to the point where he’s almost like a god. The people have rallied behind him and feel like they’re a part of him, because they can see his talent, his dedication, his grace and his class. The grip he holds over the Philippines is similar to Nelson Mandela’s influence in South Africa. I can surely see Manny becoming the Philippine President one day.

If leadership is about influence, how come Manny Pacquiao was knocked out by Rep. Darlene Antonino-Custodio in the battle against the congressional seat of General Santos City?

If Manny’s influence is comparable with that of Nelson Mandela, my question is:  what is he influencing?  what is his cause?  what does Manny Pacquiao stand for?  is he changing the world, even just our own corner of the world for the better, or for worse?  Is he capable of influencing or is he the one being influenced?  Is he a leader or is he being…misled?

Obviously, Manny Pacquiao is hell-bent on resuscitating his dismal political career through his People’s Champ Party.  Manny Pacquiao wants to be a Congressman.  And not everyone is happy about it– from Malacañang to the Senate, to civil society groups to radio commentators and columnists (At Large and Method to Madness) and down to the man on the street. 

I don’t find fault in Manny’s desire to run for public office.  In his simple mind, he has not achieved anything substantial yet.  He may be rich, famous and yes, influential but Manny the Pacman, the icon, the hero wants to do more for his fans, for his countrymen.  The man needs an outlet: he is fierce, fast and furious to some extent.  He is passionate and energetic.  He is a dreamer.

But being a dreamer is not enough.  Donald Trump said, “Don’t just think big, we must think expansively”.  That I think is Manny Pacquiao’s problem:  his own limited blueprint of public service.    

Maybe Manny thought that in order for him to serve his country, he has to be in government holding an important position.  His exposure to trapos might have given him this wrong idea.   Remember, Manny Pacquiao is a young man still, and very impresssionable inspite of his physical prowess.  What he sees is what he gets.

Again from Donald Trump:  “the fastest way to change is simply to change your environment”.  For Pacquiao, that means breaking down the cordon sanitaire that envelopes him.

To return the favor, for making us proud to be Filipinos on those days (and only those days) when Manny Pacquiao rallies in front of our television screen as a symbol of unity, bravery and courage, let us help Manny Pacquiao expand his options.  Instead of critizing him for his choices, let us open a whole new world for Manny, avenues where his vision for his country is not compromised by political divide.

This is actually a challenge to our civil society organizations.  Rethink your ways of recruiting advocates.  Re-evaluate your methods in communicating your advocacies.  Reach out, get down and get dirty.  Make extraordinary people icons without a cause –no more. 

Before the dark side gets them.  Before the dark side gets Manny Pacquiao.