Art by Mags Ocampo
Culture Spotlight

In defense of walking an unwalkable city

A lot of people might scoff or raise their eyebrows at going on foot anywhere in this chaotic and polluted city. But if you can look beyond its inconveniences, there is a lot to be learned from the exercise—about yourself, and about the metropolis we inhabit. 
Jacs T. Sampayan | May 02 2019

It was 2010. I was working for the local Town & Country magazine and our office was in Mandaluyong. One evening, I clocked out of work earlier than usual, which is rare for people in publishing. As I stepped out of our office building on Pioneer Street, an idea of making the night more unusual popped into my head: why not walk home?

The thing is, “home” is in Quezon City. 

Some might think the idea ridiculous. But I do ridiculous, along with other largely inconvenient things all the time. Not the least of which is choosing to—actually preferring to—go on foot a lot. So after checking if my clothes were comfortable enough, off I went, trekking along the fringes of the desperate abyss that is EDSA.
 

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I have loved walking long distances since college. Maybe it was a way of breaking away from a childhood spent in the suburban south, where life was basically an endless loop of school-home-and-church. Maybe it’s a way of building courage, and developing warm familiarity about my surroundings. I was 16, after all, and found myself studying in UP Manila, right at the heart of the noisy, smelly, disorganized beast that is our country’s capital. Maybe it was just morbid curiosity choosing to see life from a pedestrian’s point of view. At any rate, I walked everywhere—to classes and beyond—anywhere my flip-flopped feet would take me. (Hey, it was freshman year and it was UP. They cared if there’s something between your ears and not if you wore leather shoes or tsinelas.)

But back to my slightly less ordinary night. I passed by the old Ricoa factory near Shaw, the enticing smell of chocolate filling my nose as I listened to “Scar Tissue” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. When I tell friends I walk along highways a lot, they would dramatically decry the pollution and the city’s lack of urban planning. They’re not wrong. But there are other scents and sensations the city offers, and some are even pleasant surprises: warm tablea in Mandaluyong, random earthy greens in Makati, metallic sculptures in San Juan and Pasig, the assortment of street fare near Cubao, and many more you won’t fully appreciate when sitting inside an airconditioned car.

Perhaps there is also an amount of satisfaction one derives from being in total control. When you walk, your pace is all you, and hair-pulling factors like traffic, or mindless queues are not hindrances. In high school, I remember being stuck in an FX packed beyond capacity while a storm raged outside. The weather and ensuing floods had us passengers sitting inside that tiny vehicle for eight hours, while I dozed in and out of sleep. I believe my muscles discovered the point beyond numbness. Those eight hours have stayed with me. I never want to feel like a hapless lemming ever again. 
 

What do we need?

If we want our city to be more walkable, perhaps we should think of building more structures to support it—walkways, overpasses, pedestrian paths that are maintained and not left to the mercy of the elements, acts of God, or the discipline of citizens. (With what money, the government might ask. The money that usually lines politicians’ pockets, I would answer.)

I reach Robinsons Galleria and go up the overpass near the Shrine to cross to the other side. Further down EDSA, I pass by landmarks that I only usually see swoosh by when I ride the train. (Well, “swoosh.” This is the MRT after all, and not the Shinkansen. Its speed makes it seem that the trains are only intermittently powered and that they let momentum take over the rest of the way.) The POEA, the handful of car dealerships near the Singing Cooks ‘n Waiters, the gasoline stations sandwiching Connecticut, and the barely maintained midlevel buildings after it. Camp Crame’s blue and white motif makes it look basic when it should be imposing. Samson College. The smattering of “hotels” and bus depots that define this side of QC. This has been a good workout so far, I think, as I turn a left at Timog.

Walking is a viable exercise, so say my numerous fitness trackers in the past. (I started out with step counter feature of my old Nokia. Now I wear a FitBit, and my daily goal is to maintain the distance between me and the pretenders to my top spot in the step counter ranking. Being gay and competitive allows me such mental constructs. Ridiculous, remember?) 

I am almost at my goal, and I turn a right at Morato and take a left at Esguerra. My shirt is soaked with sweat and my face is an omelet of oil, grime, and whatever else our woeful air has hiding in its thickness. This is less convenient than taking transportation, that is true. But then I can always bring a change of shirt, and wash my face and neck when I get to wherever I’m going. 

Finally, I’m at Panay and I walk the relatively short (compared to the rest of the journey) distance to get to the elevator-less condo I live in. I check my time: Manda to QC in two and a half hours. Not bad.
 

Why do this?

Manda to QC is not even the farthest I’ve ever walked. When I was starting out as an editorial assistant, I’ve trekked from my childhood home in Bacoor, Cavite to my first office in Makati. But there is something about Metro Manila and its winding spine EDSA that induces more contemplation, and has a lot more to say. I usually use this experience as an ice breaker when meeting someone new. “Hey, do you know I’ve gone from Mandaluyong to QC on foot?”

“What, why?!” the other person would usually say. 

Well, the answer really is, apart from everything else I’ve mentioned, walking helps me think. It helps me find words—ones to describe things, people, moments, fully and accurately. For someone who plays with words every day, it’s what I live for, a process that comes naturally to me. Finally, it helps me understand the city I inhabit, from what makes it fantastic to its most real needs.

I’ve read somewhere that the way government treats its commuters is how it really thinks of its general populace. If that’s the case, administrations then and now think and have thought of all of us as cattle in a questionably-run farm; acceptable conditions be damned, the point is you are herded to where you want to go—well, eventually.

With these mismanaged schemes and underdeveloped structures, the ones who have to and choose to walk are similarly neglected. Maybe, in a way, I’m trying to tell myself that sometimes foregoing the everyday inevitabilities of bottlenecks, queues, and gridlocks will open my mind to the possibilities of Metro Manila. That might sound poetically pretentious, but a writer needs such literary devices to survive.

Maybe it will remind me that there is still a lot of beauty here—and that crooked leaders and wicked plans will not take that away from me. From any of us. Maybe, by choosing to observe the world from this point of view, we can take the city back.