There was a time I was so enamored by the city that I would escape the confines of my room just to experience what I thought back then was beauty. It seemed obligatory, as a pretentious teenager, to go out and get lost as part of a quest to “find myself.” I used to be under the impression that everything would make more sense once I had a sense of self, but somewhere down the line, I figure maybe identity is not the end-all-be-all of life, because people are prone to change. There is nothing truly essential about a person anyway, so why force the issue?
It started out as solo walking tours around San Juan or Quezon City—I would meander after hours, tiring myself out before even considering navigating my way home. At some point, I would spend entire days out just exploring different areas. At nineteen, I was comfortable enough in Quezon City, San Juan, and Makati City to last a whole day on less than minimum wage at the time. Manila City, the portion north of the river, was necessarily disconcerting, but by the age of twenty-one, I got used to the feeling.
When I was fourteen, I had the opportunity to explore Mandaluyong in the summer; my friend who lived there would invite me to hang out, and so we did. That summer, I found out that I enjoyed photography and physical affection. I remember holding hands in the cinema during a particularly bland action movie. It was more fun to walk around and take photos of nothing in particular—I gravitated to geometric subjects. I did not yet have my own camera at the time. I just intuitively figured that photography was fun because of the skill involved.
For the most part, I would get lost on my own, with no clear goals in mind. I would go out and watch movies by myself; eat cheap food by myself; and think to myself. It was about stimulating myself on my own—part of finding out what I resonated with and what I did not. I resonated with sensory experiences. I did not resonate with grays. I resonated with urban decay. I did not resonate with stagnation. I resonated with lived experience. I did not resonate with death. The journey enlivened me; the city lived with me; and living meant activity, whether in solitude or with company.
It used to be rare that I would invite a friend to join me, but I find it has been easier for me to reach out these days. (It might be the loneliness.) Usually, it is Makati City at night, or Manila City in the daylight. Familiarity helps; it feels like I want to rehearse for tours, or mostly I am the tourist, rediscovering the city each day I get lost.
It has been a while since I got lost. I think by twenty-three, I had exhausted most of the areas I could get lost in. I lost the taste for the city; I think I felt I went through them all—the sweet secrets behind doors, the bitter crossings, and the soured memories revisited.
(How I learned language was thus: I listened to the ambient noise of the city, absorbing the phonologies of cacophony. Language does not roll so much as percuss—the stiff tongue strikes dent or palate. The lips purse and stretch almost arbitrarily, and air escapes the throat, sounding off stiff consonants and liquid vowels. The rhythm is exhilarating. Eventually, I would learn how gongs made sound, in a similar way. I learned language by eavesdropping on conversations to which I was outsider, stranger. I learned language by asking questions in words parroted from others. I learned language by listening—sometimes by listening to the subtleties of breath.)
Every other year, I would go with family to Dumaguete City. It was—and still is—not a city in the way that Quezon City is, but it did its best to emulate a platonic city. I tried getting lost, but I always ended up somewhere familiar—somewhere strangers still recognized me. I thought the whole point of getting lost was that people would not know me; I thought that I could get lost in a city I did not frequent. But they seemed to know me, with my alien tongue, percussing to a different tribe. They prefer it when I speak in English; I prefer it when I do not have to. It is a city of silence, in which words are stolen from strangers, never to be heard unless agreed upon.
I used to know my way around Diliman, but the memory fades. Everything changes, and I keep getting lost. There is a new cinema in the area, and I find myself attracted to the isolation of its location—the top floor of a building along a dimly lit highway. It screens mostly local films, and I feel I can get lost once more, even while at home.
When I was twenty-four, I went to Baguio City alone. It had changed since I was a child—even the air felt different. The cinemas were closed, but Session was alive at all hours, inviting me to coffee served in bars, and beers served in cafes. I rested that first night in the smoking area of a cafe; the heat of the sun and the whiff of reds woke me up. (The black coffee helped too.) They had to hide from the public eye; I had to remain a stranger so as not to accessorize the disorder.
There are parks in Baguio City that, at night, remind me of the cinemas in Quezon City. But the air is crisper, not as cold, not as damp. Maybe if the pine trees could grow in the darkness, the cinemas would be desiccated. There are movies about people who prefer trees over people, and there are movies about strangers getting lost. Sometimes there are movies about these movies, and I am perfectly satisfied to watch in the darkness of a cinema. Something about losing myself soothes me; I do not always have to be myself, and that provides solace, maybe.