I learned from GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire series that each city in the world has a distinct smell. Despite living here all my life I haven’t put my nose out for a general sensing of Manila in that way, although I’ve wrinkled said organ far too many times over ditches, motor exhaust, and dog poop. I fear those bad smells don’t do the city’s identity any justice, for it could also be musty for history and just reek of generic airconditioning if you stay indoors.
But this is the city where I was born and raised, so in a way I’ve worn its odors and forgotten about them every time I arrive in a new country. I went on a recent trip to Kota Kinabalu, near enough for a break from habits, far enough topographically and demographically for a change of scene. In the heat of Philippine claims to Sabah this trip would hold insight about geopolitics slanted in a very personal way: Will I ever find my country in another and be at home while being away?
I never had that compelling reason to pack up and live in another country. It’s pretty funny how Manila has enraged me so many times—its inefficiencies, its food’s undeserved prices, traffic, pollution—yet I miss it all the time when I’m abroad. Kota Kinabalu was a bit of an eye-opener. There were Filipinos at every street corner, locals who knew what a Filipino looked like and where the Philippines is. Talk was ripe about what Sabah’s fate would be if it were annexed to the Philippines. While the cab driver with whom the political discussion transpired refrained from overstating his position, the way he described how metropolitan Malaysia governed the island drove home the point that no matter how ethnically similar the population of the island is to that of the southernmost island cluster of the Philippines, my country might only end up superimposing its bad smells onto this island’s city proper, where the dampness of not far-off vegetation could be discerned from the Sunday market. Not to be overly cynical, but the Philippine government does get a lot of scolding from its own citizens for not cleaning up Manila.
For some brief moments as the loquacious cab ride took us off-center toward Tanjung Aru, the family beach, we passed very decent housing, not shanties, for the workers. Small and independent business establishments were thriving, but not overflowing with crowds. The dirt roads in the periphery retained a rural, quiet feel. From the vehicle, it was an outsider’s slideshow. The scene was very livable. I could do with those spacious houses that seemed common there, as opposed to the luxury they were in Manila. I wondered what sort of job I’d get in the city proper, how often I’d go to the beach after work. The police station rose up from a basement office to several storeys of housing for the force, presumably so they could be relied on at any time of the day. The cab was furiously monitored, so the driver could neither rip off passengers nor take a malicious route. These were the bare necessities that eluded me in Manila, and not another nice city in the world had tempted me as much to be a migrant. From Sabah, home would be as far as a day trip to the province.
I snapped out of all that when we arrived at Tanjung Aru. First of all, an administrative reality: Sabah is not a province of the Philippines. I was still a foreigner there, unarmed by custom and papers. Second, I was as much a tourist as the many Chinese families who were probably escaping to the beach for warmth and weekend. And that’s when the atmosphere started feeling overly clean and neutral-smelling. Even as we went back to more urbanized Sadong Jaya later the idyllic vacation smell clung. I don’t know what it’s composed of, maybe hotel lobbies, less pollution, maybe even the river being rehabilitated across our hotel. Back in the hotel room, a well-intentioned e-mail inquiry about my trip from my boyfriend in Manila drew an insane rant from me, but really, I was just telling him in a bizarre angry way what I saw during the day. But as I put on the indignant, perennially inconvenienced Manilena cliche, I was telling home to wake up to rude comparison. Yes, I love Manila that much…so attached to it, that’s why it had to get to changing.