Monday, September 25, 2006

Alien at home

MY SYMPATHIES are with embattled Emelia.

Emelia Tabotabo is principal of the Mabolo Elementary School. After she was directed by Cebu City officials to clear the nearby premises of vendors, she received a letter allegedly from the New People’s Army, warning her not to do so.

My sympathies are with Emelia, embattled by forces that seem resistant to centuries of education (or fostered by miseducation, is also another mata-mata way of viewing it).

The problem besetting Emelia does not come from the political right, center or the left but from our perverse hospitality.

Emelia heads a school that is sandwiched by two of the city’s biggest malls. According to reports, the city dads want to dress up the vendors in Filipiniana or remove them before they become eyesores at the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to be held in the city at year’s end.

Perhaps upon seeing the sidewalk stalls, carenderia on wheels, street food hawkers and the untidy ornery Cebuano mass spilling onto sidewalks and streets, visitors might lose their bearings and realize that, instead of cruising around a neo-international city, they are trapped in a Third World morass of poverty, unemployment, crime, lack of clean water, vigilantes, and cyber perverts lurking behind screens of virtual reality.

Reality though is not Cebu’s problem. Hospitality is.

So far, no one has suggested creating a super network of overpasses that will drop off our guests at malls, resorts and other breathtaking sites meeting world-class standards. A gigantic opaque shield can hide the city’s underbelly.

Lacking imagination and results (the city’s first international convention center has yet to sprout from the ground), housekeeping officials are falling back on the easiest, the cheapest and the time-tested technique of sweeping the poor under the rug.

In proper pecking order, officials direct poor Emelia to drive away vendors, bottom feeders made powerless as this is not election season.

Harassing one’s social inferiors seems to be defining Cebuano hospitality. We welcome our visitors and we are rude to our taxpayers— men and women who, if they had not been trying to earn, might have fallen into a life of crime.

Poor Emelia must be hard put to reconcile the textbook concept of hospitality—a distinct Filipino trait making visitors feel at home, as all school children are drilled to memorize—with the demands of pushing the country into a global tourism destination.

The technocrat’s definition of hospitality is derived after all from hours of tedious sacrifice inside air-conditioned luxury vehicles, being driven past scenes that don’t resemble Rome, Paris or New York. The poor become glitches in the landscape, not a public to be served.

The poor are dirty and unsightly. Nightly arenas where you can rub lotion on the young thing performing in a private show, are not.

Even the greening of the city reflects a touch of the unreal. In Lapu-Lapu City, most of the trees were uprooted from the islands separating lanes along the Maximo Patalinghug Avenue. Until we vote for folks who walk to work and appreciate a tree’s shade and poetry, flowers, pretty pots and insipid landscaping will be here to stay.

My sympathies are with Emelia, but deeper commiserations are for our visitors. When we say we want you to feel at home, you don’t know yet what home is.

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