On sinkholes and homelessness

Commute

FOR THE past four weeks, I have left my dorm room and started commuting daily from Quezon City, where my brother lives, to Manila, where I work. It has taken me about an hour--two hours tops--to traverse Quezon Avenue into the perpetually congested España Avenue, which flows either to Lacson Avenue (which is, after office hours and at night, populated by huge delivery trucks and is almost rendered impassable), or to Quiapo, where the jeepneys use half of the road as parking space.

You probably won't believe me when I tell you the reason why, and even my good friend Paul Balite, whom I called immediately when I heard the news, is still in shock: the dorm complex was about to be swallowed by a sinkhole. "Not a sinkhole--a subsidence," said a geologist Facebook friend-of-a-friend, but regardless of its geological designation, it was still a piece of the earth's crust whose instability was causing the surrounding buildings' foundations to crack. This wasn't a freak of nature. A huge multi-storeyed building, just a stone's throw away from where I lived, was being constructed for the College of Medicine; during the digging, the soil's foundation became weak. The administration decided that all buildings be vacated, including the Medicine Library (where I've done a lot of private studying, where the internet connection was tolerable), the most proximal structure.

sinkhole
Photo credit: ABS-CBN News


I heard the news as I was being swallowed by the Emergency Room myself. My friend Paul Filomeno, who lived in the second floor, texted me, "Have you heard? We need to vacate as soon as possible; we can't sleep there anymore"--this, while I was about to intubate a patient going into acute respiratory failure. All thoughts of my being homeless were pushed to my subconscious. The patient was intubated eventually; we had kept her alive for the time being.

After I left the ER, I went home to pack my things. Exhausted and spent, all I wanted to do was take a quick shower, change into comfortable bed clothes, and sleep. But outside the dorm was a huge blue tarpaulin. On it was a sign: "Do not enter." I had to write my name on a log book, explain to the security personnel the reason for my going in ("I'll just retrieve my things"), then I packed my essentials: some documents, clothes, books, my laptop. At the lobby were boxes and tables and suitcases of the other residents. The lights were still on, the faucets were still functional, but the orders were clear: leave or die, should the sinkhole progress in size.

To tell you the truth, it was an emotional moment for me. I hate packing, and the mere idea of moving out and transferring all my stuff exhausts me. I said my goodbyes to Tom Suratos, my kind, understanding, and super-smart neurologist roommate. But I was reminded of how temporal things are. Jesus said, "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:19-21). At that point, I had to decide which things to leave and take with me. I realized, to my relief, that I didn't own a lot in this world.

Paul Balite, coming from his office, cancelled a meeting to get me. He was laughing at me: a sinkhole, of all things! "Let's take a selfie," he said, for which I had rebuked him.

"A selfie? In the current state of things?!"

"This is too memorable to pass up," Paul said.

God works in mysterious ways, indeed. I almost felt like a Syrian refugee denied entry to, say, Berlin. Yet again, I was reminded that "Lord Thou hast been our dwelling-place in all generations" (Psalm 90:1).  And if this was His way of reminding me that He provides for everything--even the roof over my head--then I had to submit to His will. I hadn't thanked Him for giving me the most basic of things, like food and clothing; that was a time to be rebuked of my ungratefulness, too.

My state of homelessless was only temporary. Since then, I've lived with my brother who gladly accommodated me. It meant, of course, that I had to wake up extra early to avoid traffic, hail a cab or get an Uber or Grab at the most appropriate moments, and rearrange my itineraries accordingly: no dinners or meet ups in the Manila area. If we could meet in Quezon City, why not? My friend Carlo de Guzman, who was on his "outside" rotation, even met me for dinner in Maginhawa Street, and I was just too happy to tour him around. To see a familiar PGH face in far-flung QC was refreshing, like seeing an alien.

At the start, it was difficult, as most adjustments are. But I got used to the routine and eventually loved the feeling of detachment. It was as if I had ceased becoming a resident-in-training as soon as I got home. But that also meant that I would need to start preparing at 5 am. The trick was to be on the go before 6 am. After that, the roads become queues. The cars' backseats would be my new office. I would finish my reports. I would write emails. I would do literature searches in PubMed. I would listen to Cecil Baldwin in the podcast Night Vale. I would pray, have my devotions, and Bible-reading. I would have breakfast, my favorite being freshly brewed coffee from Pan de Manila with three small pieces of freshly baked pan de sal.

The greater challenge is going home, where hailing a cab along Taft is ten times harder, and where taking the LRT is almost a non-option, given the massive population density of humans during rush-hour. I would bring extra clothes, a change of underwear, and a comb, so I could take a shower in the call room or some colleague's nearby apartment on post-duty days.

Meanwhile the dorm has opened. My friends Uly Gopez and Jerry Vallente are going back in. I might transfer back before the month ends. At the end of this ordeal, my thoughts would probably be that it was good while it had lasted--my homelessness, my time away from the hospital, my commutes.

Meanwhile, my Uber has arrived. Hashtag ubos-sweldo.

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