Night Train to Paris

Night Train to Paris
Panorama, 08.30.09

SOME YEARS AGO in May, I took the night train to Paris. I was a guest of an Italian poet in his house in Rome, and that evening his assistant, Romy Sibug, was taking me on a tour of the nearby countries. I occupied a sleeping berth near the window, and waited for our time of departure. The bed was a bit cramp, but the pillow and mattress were clean and comforting. I had already brushed my teeth and changed my clothes in the small washroom in the next compartment.

As always in such a situation, I could not help engaging in the pastime of comparisons. Why could we not have such kind of trains in the Philippines? The last time I saw the Bicol Express stopping by the España station, it was a pitiful sight—rusted on the outside, uninhabitable inside. Time and hooligans had rendered it obsolete, but the government seemed to have no time for its rehabilitation. I gazed out in envy at the many trains lined up for various destinations in Europe, looking proud and sturdy in the twilight.

Romy seemed to have followed my thoughts. "I was in Manila last summer," he said, "and I could not believe how backward it has become. So many hungry people, so many without jobs. I visited Leyte and was just in time to prevent my two sisters from dying of starvation with the goods and money I brought them. I went to Bicol in the PNR train to see some friends and I must tell you it was a nightmarish ride! Dirt and garbage in the corridors, stinking toilet, mutilated couches— "

"I know. And cockroaches everywhere."

"Those too. And they say Martial Law is a blessing from heaven. I shouldn’t care, you know. I’m already a Roman resident, but I worry about my relatives there. My uncle was picked up on suspicion of being with the underground. He was just planting eggplants on the mountainside. From what I hear in the Filipino community here, the people in power overreact to criticism of their rule."

"That’s the trouble. They see things that are not there and impose sanctions for imagined violations. Soon the imagined assumes real form and becomes their enemy. They are sometimes paranoid in this regard but they hate being ignored, so they must act. Power is not power unless it is used."

"Even to the extent of imprisoning innocent men or confiscating their properties?"

"Often to that extent, I’m sorry to say. No one is safe from their scrutiny and suspicion."

"That’s why I felt an unusual silence in Manila even though the traffic mess has not changed," he said, shaking his head. "What, the silence before the storm? Or of helplessness? But can they not do good things in the meantime? They have all the power, so why not change some things for the better? Like the train system, for a start. You see in Europe that efficient train transport contributes to the overall prosperity, for it brings people and goods everywhere they are needed. You can go anywhere in Italy by train. But I suppose they will say that will involve a lot of money and the Philippines is just a third world country."

"Don’t fall for that trick of us being called poor. We have money, only it goes in the wrong directions, if you know what I mean," I said. "That is why no public project, like a road or a building, is ever done to specification, so the people ultimate gets the rotten end of the deal, with the road or the building deteriorating after one year."

"You know I want to go home and retire in the Leyte. I am not really at home here. My heart and soul long for my place of birth, but as things are going, I might be forced to be stay here till I die. When will things improve in our country?"

As I said, that was years ago, and as our train pulled out of the station for the overnight trip to Paris, I had no answer to Romy’s question. I have no answer to the same question now, for we seem to live in a perpetual cycle of promises and disappointments when it comes to our national life. Each government seems to be like the previous one. All we can do is hope that the storm will not demolish us this time.


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