A Soundtrack to a Waking World

Most mornings, I wake up before the city stirs. I breathe in the utter quiet and stillness of the early hours, lulling myself into believing that the moment is a womb, and there is no one else in the world.

This is usually around three o’clock. It is a waking hour that has become my life’s new surprising constant — and another evidence of how the pandemic has changed the DNA of our days. In the old life, in my night-owlish existence that had seemed set in stone, 3 AM would have been the time I would grudgingly start succumbing to sleep, fighting the drowsiness until my tired body lost the battle. But the hours and days since March have become floating and empty signifiers, and from that murk of timelessness, I have become a mutant: a morning person.

You know how it is to wake up in the earliest hours of morning? My question springs from the surprise of the ignorant. You see, I never knew until now that the early morning stillness had weight — a sweet embrace that feels like water in a pool — and I’ve since learned to take that in as an invitation to meditate. Or more often: as a repudiation of the craven, virus-filled world. For a few minutes, the silence has me believing nothing else existed beyond the cocoon of my bedroom, which is lit in the warmth of yellowish lamplight. It calms me. But it is a fantasy that does not last — the sound of early plying tricycles soon rips through the quiet, and the light of dawn creeps in through the windows. And then it is another day.

Most mornings, around five-thirty — every other day to be exact and when it does not happen to be drizzling — I’ve taken to another new surprising constant: walking. Who is this early morning waking, early morning walking person I have become? I don’t know. But I’m sure my suddenly useful white sneakers know. I reach for the pair in a ritual that now feels comfortable, and once properly clad — and with my face mask and ear buds on — I step out into the bluish hue of the outside world, and feel my body ease into the gravity of walking.

I have my preferred route for my morning walk, which is really encompassing the familiar and comforting geography of my childhood growing up in several houses along this very route. Was this by design? I’m not sure. From my apartment near Tubod, I go northward along Hibbard Avenue, then turn right on EJ Blanco Drive on the way to Piapi Beach, hopeful that I could catch the sunrise breaking from the horizon. Then I go northwards once more past Escaño and into the enclaves of Bantayan, turning left on Silliman Farm, on to Magbanua Road, turning left on Rovira Road, and then the tail-end of the walk homewards along Hibbard.

Sometimes I vary the route: sometimes I turn right on Rovira from Magbanua, and then take the road through Mango — and suddenly it is 1983 again, and I am a rail-thin first grader taking to this very road in the early morning to catch the flag ceremony at West City Elementary School. We lived for a while in a house a stone’s throw away from the Mormon church — a brief miserable period made happy only for the fact that we lived so close to Silliman Beach. The empty lots along Mango, which were fenceless and overgrown with flowering bushes where I used to chase butterflies or catch damang in matchboxes, are still empty lots today but are now fenced in — and there is the look of rot in their wild vegetation now, no longer paradise to butterfly-chasing children.

I very rarely take this route. It is potholed with vengeful ghosts.

Sometimes, when I feel impossibly adventurous, I go opposite my usual route. From my Hibbard Avenue turning point in Bantayan, I’ll find myself walking the entire southward direction of Flores Avenue, from Silliman Beach to Lo-oc, and then into the bricked walkway along the paseo of Rizal Boulevard, turning right into Burgos Street, and from Quezon Park walk all the way home to Tubod. I will have run out of my usual walking music from my Spotify playlist by the time I behold Rizal in his monument — and that’s when I tune in to the goddesses Sia, Robyn, Madonna, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Icona Pop, Sandra Bernhard, Janet Jackson, and Carly Rae Jepsen, in choice songs meant to add zest and wings to my last stretch home.

I have my preferred soundtrack for walking, of course. In my Spotify, it’s all cued up under a playlist titled “Meditative Zen” — consisting exactly an hour or so of mostly classical music that I love, which feels like the perfect complement to my morning routine. Walking past Harold’s Mansion in Tubod, the sound of Barber’s “Adagio for Strings, Op. 11” feels like a gentle nudge from dreaming to waking, the violin strings reaching out to some unformed hope. It is morning personified in sound.

Tubod — a sitio so named because there is a natural spring here where lavanderas of old used to wash the clothes of their clientele of Silliman students living in nearby dorms [now the spring has been paved over in concrete] — is old stomping ground for me. When I was in third grade until sixth, we lived in the basement of a wooden house somewhere in Tubod’s bowels, and when I close my eyes I can still recall the lavanderas chattering in the spring. Our mailing addresses insisted on calling the place “Springville” though; the sitio was aspirational that way.

By the time I turn right on EJ Blanco Drive in my morning walk, Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” kicks in, sometimes with the moon still hanging in the lightening blue of morning sky. And with Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” I am watching the sunrise off Piapi Beach. On good days, the glint of bright sunlight swathes seaside Flores Avenue in golden hue, and the effect is striking. On very cloudy days, I see the shadow of rain pelting Siquijor, the sun peeking shy behind the mass of angry grey. But always — good day or not — in the low tide, and to the sound of Saint-Saëns’ “The Carnival of Animals,” the sight of distant figures poking in the shallows.

In the Escaño stretch going to Silliman Beach, I see the fishermen going about their boats and nets and fresh catch to the tune of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot. Some of them are shirtless, lazing about on the seawall with a mug of coffee in hand.

This is a long stretch of new road. Some people call this Cheesesticks Avenue. My music segues to Gounod’s “Ave Maria” as I change movement, my legs now going for an ambitious jog. I pass by what used to be the beachfront of old South Seas Resort, now paved over with concrete road. It is hard to believe that I was seven once, and my older brothers and I used to swim in the waters here, which is now a stretch of concrete road. Once we frolicked too long in the waters off South Seas and evening caught us, and as we swam to shore, we spied the hubbub of a party in the grounds of the old resort. I remember the bright lights and the sound of distant chatter and the big band music, and that inchoate wonder of stumbling upon a different world. I am now hearing the strains of Mozart’s “Requiem: Lacrimosa,” and my legs are aching from the effort of running.

When I turn left from the entrance to Silliman Beach, I hear the plaintive longing of Williams’ “Cavatina” from The Deer Hunter, and I suddenly break from the run and go back into brisk walking. My breathing is hard, and my shirt is clinging to my skin in alien sweat. Silliman Beach was my Bantayan childhood’s safe haven: I spent countless spirited days browning my skin here, playing in the surf with other kids whose names and faces I now no longer remember. And the tree-covered road along Silliman Farm — what is the name of this road? how do I not know the name of this road? — that leads to the beach will always be tinged in nostalgia for me. [The strains of Dvořák’s “Serenade for Strings in E Major Op.22.”] I love most of the split-level bungalows along this route of Silliman Park. Every morning, I see this middle-aged man going about the grounds of an immaculately kept house, walis tingting in hand, his zest for order and cleanliness gleaming like the house he lives in. Most mornings, I also see Colby Palm in a little veranda off his house, reading a book, sipping his coffee.

By the time I hear the strains of Massenet’s “Méditation” from Thaïs, I’m past the sad-looking houses in the next block of Silliman Park I see. I’m also past the entrance to Silliman Farm, gunning now for Magbanua Road, past the vast empty greens that mark the beginnings of Golden Rule. Why do we call this place “Golden Rule”? Do we still call this stretch of lonely road “Golden Rule”? I run past the sad shadow of what was once the glorious Hikaban, the late Elena Maquiso’s center for traditional arts. I run past the Mamicpic residence, but I never see Leo. [Once I caught Jasmine, his niece, walking the dog.]

Eastwards of Rovira and swerving right into Hibbard, Giacchino’s “Life and Death” from Lost begins. This stretch of place — where Piapi gives way to Bantayan — was my childhood neighborhood thrice, first when I was around six and we lived in a wooden house fronting Silliman Village, which is no longer there; and then from my high school years and we lived in an amakan house fronting ABC Learning Center, which is also no longer there. So many things are no longer there. [And so many of the old places I love have also been paved over with concrete.] After college, we finally moved into a house of our very own beside Silliman Village, where my mother now resides gracefully in her greying years. She is 86. But I don’t live with her, and this is not yet home. I still have a lot of ground to cover before I am home. I stop at the entrance to the little road that leads to the family house, and from my spot along the highway I see in the distance my mother’s bedroom window. I wish her good morning in the truest sense of “social distance.”

This is my last stretch of morning walk, and I take it easy. By the time I hear Saint-Saëns’ “Le Cygne,” I’ve gone past North City Elementary School [where I once spent a grand total of one month trying out first grade before stubbornly dropping out] and I stop by the curbside vendor selling puto maya and tsokolate at the corner of EJ Blanco and Hibbard. The stand is recessed into the ugly concrete embankment that had swallowed the beautiful willow tree garden of old Casa Flores, now gone. The puto maya is ten pesos per cone-pack of banana leaves. I buy twenty pesos worth for breakfast, and ten pesos worth of tsokolate. Tradition is comfort.

I turn when Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel” — which is eternally mournful and nostalgic — finally leads me the rest of the way home in Aldecoa Drive. It occurs to me there is more to my morning walk than just a token for fitness. It has become a map of memory, sometimes for the good, sometimes for the heartbreak.

But I also think it has become a quest for moments, and this is the lesson it has to teach me. What is beholding a moment, and remembering what is lost, except basking in the brief beauty of things? There’s the rising sun, and it is beautiful, and it presages another day — and it moves on. It’s effervescence we worship: the futility of stillness, the end of a cycle of music, the past paved over by concrete, and even when we store them in our memories, we know these too will erode, or sink into the cold comforts of forgetting. But we still love waking up early to see the sunrise anyway.

Interpreter of hamsters. Author of Beautiful Accidents: Stories and Heartbreak & Magic: Stories of Fantasy and Horror