Fabulous Earthquake Baroque

The phrase was coined to describe the peculiarities of the architecture on this side of the Ring of Fire, where earthquakes, volcanoes and typhoons make almost monotonously regular visits, not to mention catastrophic wars of genocidal ferocity. It means that you build as opulently as you can afford to, keeping in mind that you'll probably have to rebuild again, on average about every 75 years. You build with whatever you've got at hand, with whomever you can find to build it, as asymmetrically as you can manage. You build your bell towers at least 15 meters away from the main structure of your church, on the theory that if that damn thing has to collapse all over the place again, maybe this time the plummeting solid brass bell will miss the main vault of the nave.

You incorporate eclectic references to previous structures, both from this site and from the other side of the world. Pineapples, thistles, and aquiline nosebridges all show up in the friezework. You blend colors and motifs derived from wildly divergent spiritual traditions and all but extinct physical environments. Vaulted ceilings and a floor surface that varies in height from room to room, are both useful in keeping the interior cool. Maybe you build a bit lower to the ground than you would otherwise expect. You flood the space with flowers and open windows. Peeling stucco is frankly mandatory, and the wood fixtures must incorporate ornately carved bamboo and rattan extravagances.

Earthquake Baroque is my new favorite aesthetic. To me, Earthquake Baroque is Manila, a vast melange of improvised influences--jeepneys and charismatic syncretism and Steve McQueen driving and anime forcefulness, where traffic is a state of being, where time is savory and simmering-slow, where people of all privileges pack and tumble together in a city of crumbling concrete rubble, roosters and hens all scratching the same patch of dry earth all at once, strutting and clucking in their preening, dusty finery everywhere you look.

Bargaining, whether in the markets or even sometimes in the malls, always follows the same fascinating, hilarious routines, reminiscent of Commedia del'Arte performances. The buyer's face contorts with astonished, contemptuous incredulity at the mention of the seller's first price. The seller's face settles into a jaded, pursed-lip sneer at the buyer's lowballing counter. The duration of the bargaining then lasts for as long as both parties can deliver their shaded variations on these first two themes. Truly talented performers manage elaborate physical motifs, like the walk-away, the exasperated hand-through-the-thinning-hair, the shocked chest-clasp, the subtle shoulder-snub. Mouths and eyes flash with dexterous expressiveness. It's a creeping fascination to see, like watching matadors mate. My Grandma will wrangle every peso for everything she's worth, and even though she looks frail, she can be obstinate like a carabou if she feels the ocassion merits it. Me, they hear me speaking English and the game is over even before I try to play it. There's Harlequino, there's Columbine, there's Pantalone, and then there's me, the Chump.

I think the fetish for bargaining is another function of Manila's Earthquake Baroque. You wrangle for every sentimo because everyone's hoarding for the next coup attempt, or when Mt. Pinatubo wakes up again, whichever comes first. Manila suffered almost complete devastation during the Second World War, on par with Warsaw. And like Warsaw, the city was rebuilt in a frenzy of hastily mixed ferro-concrete; to this day basic city services remain nominal at best. The Fire Department consists of antiquated third-hand tanker engines from Seoul or Hong Kong, run by volunteer firefighters wearing threadbare gear dating from the Truman Administration, complete with vintage 48-star US flags. Tanker engines, because there are no fire hydrants.

One of my Uncles is a Barangay Captain--truly, an Earthquake Baroque office, which combines the attributes of a city councilman, a police commissioner, a fire marshal, a godfather, a justice of the peace and a tribal chieftain. He wears pinky rings and pomades his slick black pompadour, and drives a battered Mitsubishi with silvered windows. He doesn't have to obey traffic laws. He administers his prestigious office with a safe, paternalistic rigor. But should he ever leave empty the open hand of some dark street urchin, his little kingdom would soon forget him.

At all hours of the day and night, Manila is simmering with activity, hurrying up and waiting, roiling with movement and hunger and desperation. The smell and the taste of the air is delicious and rank, the stars are entirely obscured, the seawater of the Bay occluded with landfill, bamboo fishing platforms, forests of kelp and bloated animal carcasses.

We fly home in a few hours. I'm not done posting about the Philippines yet, there will be more to come on this, as usual. I can't wait to go home, to be alone again, to speak English without feeling exposed, to be able to talk to people without someone asking me if I'm married yet. I'm nervous about walking into a supermarket after everything I've seen. I'm hungry for Splendid Isolation (but I miss her so very much). I'm worried about my cousins and uncles and aunts back here. I'm worried about Grandma's failing eyesight. I can't wait to work in an ensemble again. I miss my books and my bike. But I already miss Manila.

Be good, get something to eat, I'll be back soon.



The Lioness said...

You make it sound real to me, I can almost smell it! Sorry that SI is a literal pain now.

paulmonster said...

Trust me, dear Lioness, you really don't want to smell it.

Hey, Splendid Isolation is what it is. Harden your heart, the poet says.