Sardinas na pala ang pambapahaba ng buhay, hindi na pansit eh,” Mama jokingly said after I told her how I managed to survive months of lockdown in Quezon City eating relief canned goods, mostly sardines.

It was June 5, a day before my mother’s birthday, when I decided to go home. Before the lockdown in Manila last March 16, I usually went home at least twice a month, and on special occasions like birthdays and holidays. But, due to the quarantine, mass public transportation, especially provincial buses, were banned from operating. There was no means for me to travel from Quezon City to Quezon, Nueva Ecija. Until one lonely afternoon in May when I received a text from Ate Isay, the owner of the apartment where I was staying in. She told me that someone from the neighborhood was willing to pawn his motorcycle for P20,000.

I learned how to ride a motorcycle at 12 years old. I also have my own motorcycle in the province. But I wasn’t able to bring it to Manila because it’s too far, and the traffic and drivers’ attitudes here are not very friendly. However, P20,000 was also a huge amount of money, so I had to think about the offer for weeks.

After thinking about how much I missed my family and my mother’s cooking, and how I even missed Mother’s Day, I finally took it.

I braved almost seven hours of solo motorcycle riding. I started driving around 10 in the morning and arrived late in the afternoon. It was 139.5 kilometers, according to Google (excluding, of course, the times that I got lost and Google Maps kept telling me to take U-turns). Half of both of my hands were sunburned since I had no gloves, and there were some prominent, itchy, and painful marks. My knees were jelly-like and my shoes were filled with both dust and mud. When I wiped my face with white cloth, the cloth was left smudged with dirt.

Along the way, I had time to contemplate.

Magulo sa Maynila. Hindi mo magugustuhan doon,” my mother used to tell me when I was young.

As a kid, I knew Manila as a scary place. If Manila were a person, it was the villain in movies that haunted children in their dreams. My mother loved to talk about how vehicles in Edsa moved like turtles in a race, how Manileños were squeezed like sardines in a can in the MRT and LRT, how the walls and streets smelled like Lola’s unwashed chamber pot, how snatchers lurked like the big bullies who would steal my pencils and notebooks, how the food was unhealthy and tasteless as sand, and how they would sell the internal organs of children like me to heartless “mandurugo” in a white van. 

Mama said she knew these things because she once lived in Sampaloc, Manila, as a young adult. According to her, the only good thing in Manila was Luneta. Later on, I found out that these “scary” Manila stories weren’t originally from Mama. Lola told these stories to Mama and her siblings, too, and they were passed on through generations.

Pag-uwi n’yan kung hindi ‘yan adik, wala nang respeto.”

Respect for elders is a highly regarded value in the province. Elders viewed Manileños as rude, and we were always warned to stay away from them as if they had some contagious virus.

Bawal bumarkada sa mga taga-Maynila.”

Mama said Manileños do not have a sense of time and boundary.

Bisita ka lang sa loob ng tatlong araw. Pagkatapos noon dapat magtrabaho ka na.”

She hated that most Manileños who had stayed with us took these unwritten rules lightly. For her, vacation meant helping out with household chores.

As we grew up, Mama became less strict, but we were still not allowed to go to Manila. I studied at the nearest state university, and even after graduation, I had to work nearby for almost a year. 

A year ago, I qualified for a promotion in the central office of the government agency where I’ve been working since 2016. The post would be in Manila, and convincing Mama to let me go was like commuting in Edsa during rush hour.

I didn’t know much about Manila, aside from the horrors I had heard. All I knew was I needed that promotion; my sister was graduating from college and our debts were piling up. So I took the job.

Months before my awaited transfer, I took a certificate course in PUP Sta. Mesa. Every Saturday, I’d travel from Manila and return to Nueva Ecija after class, commuting through jeepney or LRT from Cubao. It was my way of conditioning myself. On the first day of class, rain poured heavily and the street was flooded. As I rode a tricycle, I had to stand on the sidecar’s chair so my feet wouldn’t get completely soaked. I then understood what Mama once said: “Doon, umihi lang ang butiki baha na.”

But that didn’t shake my decision. I knew I could handle the horrors of Manila. I was no longer a child and won’t be easily scared off. I was ready to brave the heavy traffic, the pollution, the snatching/robbery stories. 

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, something I was not prepared for.

When I finally reached home and hopped off the motorcycle, I realized I couldn’t hug my family or take my parents’ hands and say “mano po.” The next day, I was the talk of the town. Though I secured a medical certificate and travel pass, I was told to stay home. Then I knew how it felt like to be a Manileño visiting the province.

A month later, I had to go back to Manila and be part of the government’s skeleton workforce.

Mama was silent and avoided my eyes as she prepared pancit for breakfast the morning I was leaving.

“Wow, pancit for long life,” I said, trying to break the silence. I was about to laugh when I realized that my mother was already crying. I learned later that she had heard the news that around 150 employees from our office had tested positive for COVID-19.

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