Over dinner, Miguel—my nine-year-old nephew—shared his idea of a beautiful place with his brother and cousin, and with a condescending enthusiasm. “I don’t like Tuburan,” he said, and tailed it “because it does not have a mall. A beautiful place has a mall,” in an accent quite close to the characters he watches on Cartoon Network.
As someone who adores trees, his statement was nothing short of alarming to me.
His grandfather—my father—is a farmer, whose life now centers on planting varied fruit trees around our house up on the mountains of my hometown. But Miguel loves the occasional trips to Cebu City, the land of fried chicken, malls, toy stores, and air-conditioned establishments; while his grandfather does not fail to toil the land. Just recently, the grandfather boasted about his mangoes that yielded a lot of fruit without the aid of pesticides.
Everytime I go home, there is always fresh bounty on the table: sinegwelas and pomelo in summer; mangoes, kapayas, nangka, and atis during the rainy months; endless supply of lemonsito for us and our neighbors all year round.
I once brought two city friends to the old man’s world, and they asked why he was growing everything, which they marveled at, especially the marcotted pomelo trees, so short for a tree that its fruits lay on the ground.
He is doing it for his grandchildren, he said.
Of course, his circumstances and our leaders’, navigate in two different worlds. He is a farmer, he runs a small field; the politicians run cities, towns, provinces; some have been my midweek refuges, some are my weekend lovers, some remote islands hold promises of friendship and camaraderie.
It is a common knowledge among my friends a month would not pass by without me leaving Cebu City. If circumstances required me so, it was expected of me to run a fever or a cold. Romanticizing such simple illnesses to the need to move, to travel would be easy. But a more honest answer would be: Cebu City is hardly an ideal place to live for long. To make a living. Yes. But to live for good. No.
It lacks the very basic element: trees. Trees make a city livable, alive.
Many asked why I went to Taiping, a laidbak city in Perak, Malaysia: a destination unheard of, an unlikely place for half-witted gutsy female traveler who ventured outside her own country for the first time. And perhaps some friends found it odd when I said I fell in love with its acacia trees. The acacias in Taiping Lake Garden reminded me of the trees in Perrelos, Carcar—whose centuries-old trees always threatened by human’s greed and ignorance.
In Taiping, the tree branches that yield too low are marked with different vertical clearances: 5M, 6M, of which the vehicles followed; the motorists learned to slow down and follow the curb of the branches, follow the rules of nature. Red, orange clothes hugged the old trees in Bangkok; spirit houses, food and water, incense sticks, flowers, garlands scattered by the tree roots; passing Thais wai-ed, (wai is a kind of bow with the palms are pressed together) towards the tree. In this part of Asia, people respect their trees.
I wonder why we, Filipinos, cannot do the same? Why do we not respect the beings inherent to earth?
Most, if not all, cities in Asia are trying so hard to be cities that we become generic and artificial. Cebu is not an exception. Horrendous is our definition of a city. An ethical city is not just about huge buildings and cutting down trees as an immediate solution for easing traffic problems.
Why seek an alternative solution when real, not illusory, solutions have yet to be met? Built in ill urban planning, Cebu has a lot of unlearning, regretting to do. The leaders are not solely at fault; they inherited the sins of the city. But we are not expecting them to add more to a long list of mistakes our cities have made.
I wonder if they have ever walked the city they are running. Have they ever walked the length of General Maxilom Avenue to the dire little streets in Pasil? Have they walked Colon Street or Carbon in the middle of the night? Have they seen the yellow blooms of narra trees along Osme ñ a Boulevard come summer?
Have they planted a tree themselves?
If so, what happened to the tree now?
I am writing this letter not because I am directly affected by the traffic problems. It has never occurred to me to own a car. I trust my feet and Katorse, my bike, to bring me to places around the city; I trust my stubbornness to keep me safe on our dangerous streets.
I do not know about lasting solutions.
Running a city must be complicated: there are constituents, enemies, voters, businessmen to think of; every decision has a consequence. I do not know about lasting solutions, but I know cutting down the trees will not solve anything.
I do not know anything about lasting solutions, but I know the streets need lights to aid walkers at night. I do not know about lasting solutions, but I know the streets of Cebu double as rivers come rainy seasons.
A real city has citizens who are not afraid to walk even in the middle of the night. A real city has bike lanes. A real city takes pride of its trees more than of its unsightly buildings and huge malls that only benefit the very few. A real city takes control of the vehicles running on its very streets.
I am wary of the kind of community we are conditioning our kids to believe in nowadays: a place must have malls, video games, Cartoon Networks, fried chicken to be considered beautiful.
Please, fellow citizens, learn to discover, if not rediscover, the art, the solemnity, the religiosity of walking. Please, leaders, walk the city you are running.
Jona Branzuela Bering is a writer and photographer from Cebu, Philippines. When she is not traveling, she gardens, teaches, and becomes the slave of two cats. Follow her travels on Instagram @travelingjona or on her blog Backpacking with a Book. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org