My Air-Con Experience

by alex

Outside there are mangos growing in the trees.  A beggar walks by with a child in tow.  They look hungry. The mangos grow covered in urban dust.

It’s early, but it’s getting hot already, corrugated iron reflects heat in every direction.  I’m on the fourth floor of Vince’s family home.  I scan this entire scene from the balcony of our private room separated from their home by a sheltered open-air courtyard.  

There are bars on balcony, to prevent burglary no doubt.  The area is quite decent, middle class homes and rentals for working families.  Much, much nicer than I’m used to, but to middle class Canadian eyes still rough around the edges.  While the homes are walled out from the outside, it is not a walled community, so reminders of majority Manila are not far from view.

The scene rumbles with the sound of seen and unseen Manila traffic, ever present, ever a reminder of where I am.  Tricycles rumble by in different states of motorized health, yet no matter what they push along—until of course one day they won’t.  Puffs of exhaust create ever dissipating, but never quite disappearing clouds of smog.

A woman hangs Tide-fresh laundry on a rusted metal wire off of plastic hangers made in China.  A few metres away a middle-aged man with his shirt pulled up over his beer belly smokes a cigarette.

Across the road two mangy dogs fuck in a concrete courtyard in front of a water-stained formerly white house.

In the opposite direction a man wearing a red star on his t-shirt loads empty bottles of RC cola into a big orange and blue company truck in front of a sari-sari store.  Royal Crown Cola, “Great Taste! Great Value!”

Vince’s family lives well.  A family of working professionals, doctors, nurses, dentists, and engineers (of those I’ve met).  Their multi-storied home in Quezon City, where four generations live, is spacious and comfortable.  It’s built to have separate homes for different families.  On the lower floor they rent out to other families.  They have air-conditioned SUVs, air-conditioning, and internet.  It’s different from what I’m used to.

*umm... extreme sando tan warning...

Right now as I’m writing this it is hot but there is a slight breeze.  Yet I consider moving off the balcony, closing the door and windows, and turning on the A/C.

I realize that I could get used to this.  It’s a luxury I’ve not had on my personal travels to the Phils in the past.  Vince wrote of the “Air-Con Experience,” of traveling with family, of the usual balikbayan experience.  Well to be honest I can’t relate the same way.

To me that ‘experience’ is foreign.  It belongs to a different world that inhabits the fringes of ‘my’ world, the world of my family here.

Yet during this trip, staying with Carlos Celdran in his air-conditioned apartment in Malate, and now with Vince’s family in QC, I am living the Air-Con Experience.  And I am uncomfortable with the comfort… or perhaps I am uncomfortable with my lapses of comfort with comfort.   It’s unhealthy guilt to be sure.  I try to snap myself out of it whenever I become aware of it.

My tito's (uncle's) house back in the day, I lived with them here for four months in 2001). They were since relocated by the gov to Bulacan, where they were a four hour commute from their streetstall in Quiapo. Typhoon Ondoy washed away thier home, simple homemade car, and belongings...

The skies above are slightly overcast today.  It actually rained for a couple seconds (almost literally a couple seconds) yesterday.  This is good.  There is a major drought happening in the Philippines right now.  Already poor farmers are being hit hard, very hard. 

Seventy-five percent of the population of this country are peasant farmers, sometimes being in Manila it can be easy to forget that.  Very few of them own the land they til.  As feudal serfs to hacienda owning landlords, no harvest equals not only no income, but greater debt.  The downward spiral continues.

I read in the paper the other day that the government has put money into seeding the clouds–an aerial prayer under the guise of science.  I suppose in some circles this illusion of action is better (and more economically beneficial—to their interests of course) than simply providing actual help to the farmers. 

There.  The sun has broken through again.  The dogs (no longer fucking) are barking at passerbys.  I guess they needed something else to do.  The women, walking shoulder to shoulder under a yellow umbrella holding grocery bags of fruits and vegetables, pay no notice.  Above the mangos seem noticeably dustier in the sunlight.

My only ‘air-con experience’ before was in my lola’s cramped rented home in a tiny alley.  My lola (who is also a Canadian citizen) was able to renovate the home and include one A/C unit in her room.  When I lived with them I stayed in the 4x4m room with her.  There were six or seven of us there (depending on how many grandkids there were in the house at the time).  My lola, her daughter-in-law, and her two grandkids slept on the bed, my tito and cousin on the floor to her right, and I slept on the floor at the foot of the bed.  Basically, when all was said and done, all the bed space was filled by people, and the floor space by people and furniture.

This is the alleyway (or 'esquinita') that leads to my lola's (grandma's) home.

While my lola’s family have lived there since before the war, they never owned the land.  Before WWII it was a mango plantation I was told.  The plantation owner converted it to cramped living spaces after the country was granted ‘independence’ by our American masters.  Where once my families home was one of few, suddenly they became one of many.  I guess having a hacienda of homes is much less prone to instability than having a hacienda of rain-dependant plants.

The other visits with family included a simple home of corrugated iron and wood built over an open canal next to active railroad tracks, and a former middle-class home that hadn’t seen any repair or renovation since the 60s.  My beds have been floor, or bedframe with a plywood mattress, or a old mattress so old that it had to be covered in layers of cardboard so as to be somewhat comfortable.

Vince’s tita comes in with snacks and water.  I thank her and notice that there is a layer of dust over my computer.  I smile.  Dust, that and the smoggy air, is something the middle and lower classes share.

Vince’s family is fortunate and I am glad that they are.  All Filipinos should have this sort of opportunity and stability.  Whenever I feel the guilt of my privilege I remind myself that I shouldn’t attach any romance to poverty.  It is backwards that I should feel comfort in lower class neighbourhoods.  

… but the reality is, until that day comes when the country finally has more or less the same level of opportunity for all it’s citizens, I will always feel a bit out of place sharing in the air-con experience.

It’s getting really muggy out.  The smog is getting thicker.  It’s getting harder to see very far, despite being so high up over the other homes in the area.  In the distance I see the EDSA highway and a billboard looming over the corrugated iron rooftops.  It’s advertising real estate and reads “Build Houses the Right Way.”

My eyes move to the snacks left behind by Vince’s very kind tita—and my mind wonders if maybe snacktime is a good excuse to turn on the A/C…

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©2005-10 alex felipe
All Rights Reserved.

Please contact the photographer with use inquiries.

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  1. Oh pare, I can definitely relate to you. I never lived in an air-con place until I came to Canada. This is something we share in common. Thanks for sharing. Let’s go home together sometime in the future and I will share to you my own “un-air-con” world. It might not be as bad as the “skwaters”, but definitely a humble abode – simple quiet living.

  2. always electric fan for me! it seemed…more natural somehow. the tropic weather always meant for me, oneness with nature and air-con separates me from that experience. and also, my times with air-con were always bad: it was always on full blast, no control of the switch, the room gets so freaking cold you can’t get a goodnight sleep and all i had was a thin blanket. Cold and thea does not equate. Hahahah good times!

  3. good post, alex. you captured the scene and your state of mind perfectly. thanks.

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