Finding My Way

The author soaks up the sun in Boracay. — PHOTO BY IKE EICHENSEHR

Did I really just forget how to start a keyless car after not driving for six months?

WHEN I CAME home to Manila after half a year of living on an island and not driving at all, I realized I had forgotten how to start a keyless car.

Let me explain. I bought a new car in April and left for Boracay in July last year. The car, a Ford Territory, replaced my old Honda CR-V, which was a joy to drive, but being a 2011 model it didn’t exactly come with bells and whistles.

I had never driven a keyless car prior to the Ford. From April to July, the new car’s mileage barely reached 500 kilometers because I was working from home and only used it to do groceries. If not for two weekend trips to Tagaytay, it probably wouldn’t have logged 200 kilometers in three months either.

The plan to work from Boracay was initially for a month. Then it stretched to almost six before I came home for Christmas and left again after New Year.

When I got back to Manila in mid-December I sat in my car, pressed the start button and the dashboard and entertainment system came to life, but the engine didn’t start. Pressed it again and everything turned off. I did this several times until the dashboard said, “Step on the brake to start it, idiot!” (It didn’t really.)

How could I have forgotten this? Sure, it’s a car whose system I barely knew before I left — but was that how much I was not used to cars now?

It wasn’t just that which jolted me back to the realities of life in Manila after living on an island where the main modes of transportation are electric trikes and walking. Sure, Boracay is a microcosm of Manila in many ways but it also stands a thousand ways apart in everyday life.

The island is so small you can walk everywhere. I would just step out of my hotel and run into friends on the beach and we’d have a chat or coffee or a quick swim before going back to work. If I wanted to go to the island’s mini mall, I’d just hop on an e-trike in my tsinelas (I didn’t wear shoes for six months even when I was going to parties) and pick up supplies in the supermarket.

Someone once said the world isn’t just the way it is — it’s how we understand it, and from that understanding we bring something to the table. I knew Manila pretty well, I understood its rhythms, tantrums, petulance and beauty, but coming back in December felt like I was coming home to a stranger.

It took days and being with close friends to help me slip back into Manila’s tempo. It took an afternoon in an empty BGC on a Sunday, browsing in a bookstore and eating overpriced frozen yogurt to make me feel it was all right to be here and to miss Boracay at the same time.

Even when going out to eat wasn’t as simple as walking out the door, driving gave me comfort. These were familiar streets, routes I’d driven a million times. Plus, driving a new car is like having a new boyfriend — you’re happy, you’re giddy, it smells good, and you like everything about it, especially the entertainment system.

I was in the big city again with all the restaurants, shops, galleries, and people I knew. I explained to a Boracay friend who made a pit stop in Manila that half the decisions I made about going out depended on parking. If it was a Friday night in Poblacion pre-pandemic, those drinks better be damn worth it or it would be a hard pass; if it was a Sunday brunch, sure. If it was a face-to-face interview in Makati or BGC, my first question was always, “Is there parking?”

Then Christmas Eve rolled along and I drove from Parañaque to Quezon City and it was quite a breeze on the Skyway (except I missed the right turn from Araneta to Quezon Ave.). After Christmas, a friend celebrated his birthday at Rockwell at the Grove along C5 — which to me is Manila’s version of highway to hell with all its barriers and cops waiting to flag you down — but even then, traffic was not as bad as I expected.

My sister lives in the same neighborhood, so I went up to her condo and stood in her balcony looking at the city. I was longing for Boracay, to feel sand on my feet, but being in Manila also made me feel like I was part of something massive, like one of those flickering lights in a sea of lights.

We stood under the light drizzle for a minute or two. She sensed my sadness, my loneliness, and said, “It’s okay to feel like you have two lives, to be in two worlds you love and leave. No one really stays in one place anymore.”

“Isn’t that last line a song?”

She laughed and I said, “Sometimes it feels like I’m trying to catch a cyclone in a paper cup.”

That was December, we were on the brink of a new, promising year, and I drove home speeding through every yellow light. January was a whole different story about stoplights.