Bare minimum

It was roughly four years ago when Manila hosted the APEC Leaders' Summit.

I remember that very well, but not because I was here as it happened. I was in Hong Kong for a work trip, on the very week that the government decided to implement a convoluted series of road closures to ensure that world leaders can move from hotel to venue and back quickly, at the expense of pretty much everybody else. I remember browsing through my social media feeds and seeing nothing but people complaining about being stuck in traffic for hours, getting home at almost midnight, all for the sake of impressing, perhaps, foreign dignitaries.

Well, I was affected too. These Hong Kong trips can be repetitive, so I know too well to take the evening Cathay Pacific flight back as the second day of the conference I'm attending (well, technically covering) winds down. But the government was also closing down the airport to allow world leaders to arrive (and leave) the country in an orderly fashion, at the expense of, well, pretty much everybody else. Our flight was bumped to three in the morning the following day, which meant a rare instance of me sleeping in the airport terminal, and an ever rarer instance of me sleeping in the plane itself - but not after watching Stellar on the in-flight entertainment system. I was starting to really get into K-pop, but that's another story.

I also remember hearing about how the government was taking extra measures to beautify the routes these world leaders would take. Most of them would take EDSA, so that meant workers repainting things and officials threatening to be stricter towards bad drivers. (We've heard that many times before.) That also meant the EDSA-Ayala tunnel get new lights installed. At least something good came out of all this, I thought. That tunnel had always been terribly lit, although you never really could lose your way because traffic moves slowly anyway.

And true enough, when I drove through the tunnel a few weeks later, it was well-lit. Perhaps too well-lit. It was bright, blindingly bright. A long strip of LED lights was installed where darkness used to be. But it was a good thing. It is a good thing. No matter how good of a driver you are - and I'm not saying I am - you can never be comfortable driving in almost-complete darkness.

Of course, that was not meant to last. A few months after the summit, half the lights were switched off. It was no longer a continuous strip, but it still did it job. But a few months later, more lights have been switched off, and the experience became familiar yet again: almost-complete darkness at the EDSA-Ayala tunnel. It meant driving a little more defensively at night - and even during the day, because there's this one stretch of the tunnel at the northbound side which sunlight cannot reach, and it's, well, so fucking dark your high beams don't do much.

A few weeks back - a Friday night, so traffic was terrible - I drove through that tunnel again, and all the lights were off. Back to where we started.

I've had this story in my head for four years, as part of a series of essays about Filipino values I was supposed to write in time for the 2016 elections. I never got around to it because I never could expound on this one example - this one example of how we, as a country, are happy with the bare minimum, of how we exert the least possible effort, of how we say "puwede na 'yan" to every situation. I couldn't expound on it because there are many examples of how we go the other way. But that one of those examples is how we installed all those lights to impress foreign dignitaries. It was always going to be superficial.

I can't really say we only go for the bare minimum, because if that was the case we would not be annoyed when we're served just that. We wouldn't feel intense embarrassment in situations like, say, when the government leaves foreign athletes stranded at the airport, waiting for beds in a hotel, and serve them food they can't eat for cultural reasons - although, let's face it, kikiam (or ngo hiang, as it's called elsewhere) isn't street food in other parts of the world, and also, it's chicken sausage, supposedly.

I don't know. Chicken and egg situation? (Chicken sausage and egg situation?) I, for one, want to do that little extra, but would also end up saying "puwede na 'yan" in certain situations - especially ones where you're absolutely certain you can get away with it. Perhaps it's unfair to say we Filipinos are happy with the bare minimum. But then I think of how most of us are left with no choice but to slug it out on a handful of slow trains in the middle of rush hour, or of how we've replaced public spaces with more opportunities for profits, or of how we always have low expectations of whatever government promises they'll do. All right, that last part depends on how fanatical you are towards whatever politician you've sold your entire self-worth to. We've been served the bare minimum for as long as we can remember, and so we're not as hesitant to give it, even if we know we shouldn't. I mean, a little extra money in your pocket is never a bad thing, right?

And your responses...

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