Smokescreens

[Visto: 170 veces]

It was so old that it felt natural to see it closed. Its look, its smell. Its locks were extremely worn-out, and its covering leather was so dark that its geometric decorations were almost lost. The old trunk was the place where for years my grandmother had kept her valued objects. It was also the place where she would keep the gifts that she used to bring from her trips to the US. Those treasures. I recall seeing the old trunk open only once every few months.

What might be inside now? Perhaps an extra-large bag of M&Ms.

As opposed to my other grandmother – my maternal grandmother, who had spent her retirement traveling around the world, I had always questioned the repeated trips of my paternal grandmother to the US – why spend so much money going always to the same place? The reason was that she used to go to visit her daughter about every other year. My grandmother’s oldest child had married an American about 30 years before. She had left Cusco and moved to Gothenburg, a small town in the American Midwest, that, as my father said to me with a smile when I tried to find it in the map of the US, “It’s not there, Gothenburg isn’t even in the map of Nebraska”.

From those trips, my grandmother would usually come back charged with a bunch of gifts. Except for some specific requests of my father or his brothers, my grandmother would be very cautious with what she brought. Most of the gifts would rest in the trunk awaiting the next birthday or Christmas celebration.

In those days in Cusco, she would spend her time seating in her bedroom, wrapped up with her immense jackets and always wearing her SAS shoes, watching ballet shows in the Film & Arts channel and perhaps eating some artichoke. But always just in an angle that allowed her to look in the direction of the trunk at the end of the corridor. Inevitably, as kids that trunk would cause my cousins and me a lot of anxiety every time we would visit my grandmother’s house.

What might be inside now? Maybe some board games as fun as the Guess Who game that arrived last year.

However, despite the curiosity and the consciousness of being so close to the content, we never did much advance in order to force it open. The fact is that not only the old trunk was locked, but it was also blocked with other objects. A candelabrum was always impassive on top of the trunk as a tribute to the painting of my deceased grandfather that hanged in the wall behind. The smell of the fire and the wax of the candle. The habit of my family of always leaving the lights of this room off. Everything seemed to warn you to be careful.

The only couple of times that I saw the trunk open were the occasions when Elena opened it. Elena used to be my grandmother’s aide. As such she was not only the keeper of the whole house but also the only person entrusted with the key to the trunk. She had been with my grandmother since before I was born and our affection ties with her had grown as much as her authority over all of the grandchildren of the house. Forcing the trunk and knocking down the candelabrum? I would not want Elena to catch me in that moment.

One day, she came with the keys that were hidden god knows where and opened it to take out a request of my grandmother. I was with Alvaro, maybe also with Arturo. Our children eyes immediately searched the interior looking for toys or candy. We could not see any. The trunk was full of documents and some office supplies. Perhaps legal documents, perhaps title deeds, nothing that I as a kid would be interested about. However, our disappointment was quickly broken when Elena took out a bundle of candy canes and gave one to each of us. We received them with immense joy, no such candy could be found in my hometown.

In an instant, the trunk would be closed again, the candelabrum replaced, and its contents hidden to us. All until it would be briefly opened months later to reproduce the same scene. In the new occasion, it would be some cherry Twizzlers the smokescreen to distract us from the old trunk and to keep alive the permanent curiosity about its content.

Napoleon

[Visto: 145 veces]

My name was given by my parents. My mother wanted me to be named after her father “Jose”, and told my father that he could add any other name before or after. He chose to add his own name after and I ended up being called “Jose Carlos”.

It is for me a little annoying to live with my name because it is impractical. Two names, though common in Peru, ends up being too long when sharing it with people. However, I can not share only one of the two names as many people do, because “Jose” or “Carlos” alone are too generic names. And I don’t identify myself with them, I am not Jose, nor Carlos. This has been even more problematic outside of my home country. It is quite difficult to share my name with foreigners for whom even its pronunciation gets complex.

I wonder how it would have been to have a more simple name. I think I would hate to have a very common one such as “Pedro” or “Diego”. In that case, I would prefer to keep “Jose Carlos”. However, it might have been incredible to have an uncommon one-word name such as “Hercules”, “Ulises” or “Napoleon”.

Despite of all, I think I have come into terms with Jose Carlos. The nickname of “Seca”, that people have used to call me since I can remember, helps to have a one-word label. And also it has helped to think about people like Mariategui and Borges that might have shared this thought at least for some moments.

Los Respetuosos

[Visto: 180 veces]

No importa tu tamano, ni lo que en ese momento tengas entre las manos, al ver la senal te tienes que agazapar, tratar como sea de esconderte entre los chatos arbustos y quedar en silencio. Los ojos todos se enfocaran en esas dos personas. La mama que lleva de la mano a su pequeno y que se detiene de improviso. Con esa naturalidad en su movimiento se agacha a los pies del nino para amarrarle las zapatillas. El nino casi instintivamente extiende sus brazos a los costados, preparandose para mantener el equilibrio y con una gracia casi torpe trata de levantar su pie pero consigue mas que todo levantar su rodilla. La mama lo regresa a su posicion normal, con solo un distraido gesto, con casi solo su voluntad, sin tocarlo o mirarle a los ojos. Y tirandose el bolso hacia la espalda empieza a atar los cordones. Y lo hace en tres partes. Primero entrecruza las agujetas y tira de ellas fuertemente. Luego hace una oreja y la asegura con un nudo. Finalmente hace la segunda de las orejas, asegura el nudo y acomoda los excesos. Cuando se levanta y lo toma de la mano para seguir caminando, las imagenes vuelven a difuminarse y la bulla de los espectadores renace progresivamente. Ya se escuchan algunos gritos. Se escuchan algunos reclamos. Y sientes que alguien esta detras de ti, esperando a que dejes de interrumpir el camino.

Higher Speed

[Visto: 177 veces]

From the very first hours in Bangkok, it could be felt a special level of intensity in the city. Among other elements, you could witness an additional speed of the people walking in the street, an additional layer of diversity in the restaurants and shops, and a juxtaposition of the contemporary growth of the city with some very local elements of the built environment. When exploring the city, one could find a very popular Japanese restaurant with an amazing variety of beers and dishes from that country, all behind an infinite density of cables hanging over the street. At the same time, it would immediately call the attention the fairly well-developed infrastructure overlaying the continuous presence of the golden architecture and symbols of the country in almost every big building, public space or crossroad. Naturally, another omnipresent element in that mosaic was the water, which is what we came to study in the city. The group of interviews that we had in this city introduced us to the idea of a metropolis whose familiarity with the water could be dated up until the agrarian origins of the canals that today go through the urban area. Nowadays, all those canals are part of a complex infrastructure that is devoted to carry the increments of water in the rainy season and eventually take it to the sea. In addition, something that entirely contrasts with the two cities that we visited previously is that the canals also play a role as a means of transportation for Bangkok with a very smart system of water-taxis that cross the city or take the people from one edge of the Chao Praya River to the other. One cannot help to envision this level of coexistence with the water as a possible future for Manila, Jakarta and other cities where the water is perceived as a latent threat.
As in the two previous case studies, the interviews and research that we carried out took us to one specific site, Phoemsin Village. It was an informal settlement in both sides of the Song canal near the Don Mueang airport. Among the objectives of the government is the widening and deepening of the canals of the city, in order for them to perform better the task of serving as a container and pathway for the increase of the level of the water. One of the things that hinders that task is the presence of communities that live in the informal settlements in the banks of the canal. Something quite interesting is that, despite the people in the area do not have legal title to the land, there appears to be clear consciousness of the impracticability of making a complete removal of the residents of the settlement. Be it for the conviction on the unfairness of a forced displacement of the communities or for the fear of the political costs of such a program, the projects developed by the government have procured to keep the residents of the informal settlement in their original place. With that objective, the government has developed several stages of housing opportunities. Despite the relative success that the program appears to have had, this case shows some clear differences with the previous two cities, since the intervention of the state has come with a very little explicit participation of the people. On the one hand, when asking professionals that had worked for the government about the input of the residents in the design of the developments, the main reference that we received was that of the different colors that the stages of the developments have. On the other hand, when asking the own residents of the neighborhood about practices or strategies that they adopt in anticipation to episodes of flooding, we were also told that there were not particular physical elements or organizations that they rely on, and that they trusted the work that the government has been doing in order to deepen the channels for avoiding the flooding of the area. All in all, the community that we visited seemed to have a very thriving environment and with a lot of room for activities in the public space, a landscape that contrasts very starkly with the very precarious shacks that are still located in the other edge of the river.

Upstream Marikina River

[Visto: 298 veces]

I don’t even remember where I heard that of the two things to which a person could stare forever and ever, the fire burn and the water fall. Worried so much throughout this trip by the destructive effects that water can have for the daily life of entire communities, there were not many moments when we stopped to watch the water in its beauty as we did today in Wawa Dam, northeast of Metro Manila. The rural landscape that you find along the river over here is a diametrically different type of coexistence that the water has with the people than in the two cities that we have visited so far. The rocks, the waterfall, its sound, the surrounding green did nothing more than remind me of the similar places along the Vilcanota River that I used to visit with my family when I was a child. Of course, something that you don’t find there in the Andes and that is so common along the Marikina River is the use of bamboo. I will not try here any clever description of the different benefits of using bamboo in the building of houses in the edge of bodies of water, I shall leave that to the big-time expert on that, Astrid. I can only choose one of the million pictures that I took of this amazing house, that in a beautiful synthesis combines rather contradictory ideas such as strength and flexibility, space and verticality, definition and incompleteness.

An unexpected friend

[Visto: 208 veces]

Though he has not yet reached the thirties, he has already a beautiful family: his wife Elaine, a lovely Italian-looking lady, and their 3 children. Elaine and him are Christian and attend to service every Thursday and Sunday in one of the many “Iglesia ni Cristo” of the city. I know that it is a stereotype but I cannot help to attribute much of his kindness to his religion, since basically every practicing Christian that I have personally known has that sort of tranquil soul when you talk to them. When he was younger he had the fortune to get to know almost all the cities that compose Metro Manila. He learned how to drive when he was only thirteen or fourteen years old and would drive her grandmother’s car all over the place. That is how he can very well explain what is going on with the floods in Navotas, Caloocan and Malabon, and also tell you why is it that there is a wall surrounding the La Mesa Watershed in the east of the metropolitan area. He recalls one of those occasions as the time when he had to spent the most time stuck in the traffic jam. He had just taken her grandmother to buy some groceries and when they entered the highway he saw that the cars in front were all stopped and, since the level of the water reached almost the knee of a person, he just had to stop the car and wait in the place for seven hours. Not being able to go anywhere, he had time to go further by walk and see the situation closely and even go to a restaurant and get some food for his grandma and him. Fortunately, he nowadays lives in a house that does not suffer that much with floods. He recalls that it was during the heavy floods of 2009 the only time that there was a moderate level of flooding at his home, but it was not of the severity that made so many people lose all their belongings in other parts of the city. He is not the most outgoing person that exists, he usually goes through some doubts when approaching a new person, but he usually manages to do it. In most of the cases, his youthful air and his kindness make people like him quite quickly. That is why it was just some minutes after we began the fare in his Grab taxi that he decided to speak to the person next to him, me: “excuse me, boss, and where do you come from?” Two days later, he had helped us in our research in Barangay Tumana as driver, intermediary, translator, security, negotiator, photographer, tour guide and, above all, local friend, and I had already gotten used to the “excuse me, boss”, “thank you, boss”, “see you tomorrow, boss”.

What to do next?

[Visto: 208 veces]

We first heard about Barangay Tumana (Marikina City) through the article of Nick Espina, a scholar introduced to us by Marikit Soliman, who, in turn, was introduced to me by Erlyn Rachelle, a classmate of mine that I was fortunate to meet in the GIS Institute course that I took in June. This kind of chains have explained so many of the experiences that we have had in this trip and that I have had in the recent time that sometimes I wonder if I should just try to ride my luck rather than my effort. Unfortunately, Nick, with whom we met during the weekend to talk about his paper, did not have the contact of the people leading the Barangay anymore, since there had been elections in the recent years. Despite of that, this candidate of a site made much sense to our research as a vulnerable informal settlement on the banks of a river and we chose it for our visit. Two days later, just informed by that meeting, the weekend news about the floods in the area and a small exploration over google street, we took a Grab (the equivalent to Uber in Manila) directly to the place. In Jakarta our modus operandi had been to do a first exploration of the neighborhood by ourselves and then to come back with a local person who would ease the communication and would help us conduct some information gathering technics. However, thanks to the unexpected help of our Grab driver, from the very beginning we were able to go directly to the best sources of information: we talked first with the Captain of the Barangay, the leader of a population of around sixty thousand people, a guy very pleased to talk with us while also signing some papers that were brought to him during the conversation. He was also kind enough to assign a person for coming with us in our walk around the neighborhood. The moment that the place was going through was the opposite to that of our visit to Melayu in Jakarta. Here not only we are in the rainy season, but a tropical storm had hit the area last weekend, and this Barangay is located in one of the areas with the highest risk in the whole Metro Manila. That risk materialized during the weekend and in our walk we could see the level of losses due to the overflowing of the Marikina River. Most of the houses had a giant pile of things in front, which was composed of all the belongings that they had in their first floor and could not manage to save from the water that in the majority of cases covered most of the first floor and that in the lower areas of the neighborhood reached even the top of the second floor. What to do next?

A Matter of Language

[Visto: 244 veces]

Manila has been a bit rough for me. I came with a cold that I caught back in Indonesia. In part because of having been fortunately a fairly healthy person and in part because of not paying much attention to the everyday things of life, like making the bed or cooking an egg, a cold usually takes a toll on me. It is extremely difficult for me to understand what the symptoms are or what the process of it is. How can a person tell if one has a fever or not? You are inside you, so how can you have a sense of your own temperature. It is like when the doctor asks me: Oh, you have a stomachache, tell me, what kind of ache is it? In my head that one really falls under the category of the metaphysic questions and my inability to answer would normally bring the bad humor both of the doctor and of the person going with me to the clinic. But this cold is the only suffering of this trip, hopefully to be fixed with a ton of pills that the doctor already prescribed. What is not a suffering is the life in a city like Manila that has real rain. 10 years of my life I have spent in Lima, a city where the slightest drizzle was already called a rain by the people, before them putting on a large coat as if we were in Kaliningrad. I think there is a thing with the language in this matter. Something similar to what I think my Finnish friend Timo told me once about the different names that snowing has in his native Oulu. For instance, a person like me coming from Cusco, a city where it never snows, did not know the difference between the icy snow and the snow that is perfect for making snowballs and snowmen, nor had a different name for those two kinds. The first time I heard rain (“lluvia”) referring to that drizzle in Lima it sounded very weird. I would use the word “garúa” or “llovizna” for those shy fallings of water. I would call “lluvia” a real rain like the ones that I have seen here in Manila, one that would make people use ponchos and umbrellas, and that will turn the taxis into the most valuable good for the human being. And we would call a “chaparrón” to those showers with such an intensity that you could feel the god making a true effort to throw the water ferociously to the city while making the lightning sound like a final war. Occasionally rain was combined with solid pieces of ice (“granizada”) that after a while would leave a city completely covered in white, a very different white than the one of a snowstorm, that very rarely happens to fall in Cusco. Evidently, having seen myself the rivers formed in the streets of the city take with them Ticos (small cars popular in Peru in the 2000s) with their drivers inside as if they were small boats, my view of the rain in Manila was slightly different than the one of my groupmates. It has been a moderate level of rain these first days in the city, in many moments combined with a very strong wind. A new element is that the temperature is still fairly warm, and, under the umbrella, people are wearing t-shirts or even sandals. There are not people wearing boots and raincoats. A reality that must be true here in Manila and anywhere in the world: traffic goes simply crazy and getting a taxi becomes an almost impossible task. More for us, foreigners, since we could not see any taxi available in the street and were told by the smartphone app over and over again that all the taxis were busy. It took us almost 5 extra hours to manage to get a taxi booked in the app, time that we had to spend having an early dinner and walking around the mall where we had had an interview earlier in the day. Quite an interesting first taste of the monsoon season of the Philippines.

The Second Floor City

[Visto: 233 veces]

A little more than a year ago, CONURB, the research group of the Catholic University from which I am a member back in Peru put me as the leader of one of its various projects: the creation of an application that would serve as a platform for people to know the level of risk of flooding of the area where they live or plan to live. It would show the level of risk through a traffic light, red, yellow or green, based on the reports of information uploaded by the own residents of the metropolitan area of Lima. It was one of many initiatives launched in Peru as a response to the catastrophic flooding that the coast of the country suffered in the summer of 2017. It was called “Mapa de Riesgos – CONURB” (CONURB Risk Map), uncreative name although with the intention to keep positioning the name of the group amid the community interested in urban matters. The idea was to participate in a competition of ideas launched by the Ministry of Production in order to get some funding. The process of my moving to Boston to begin the master studies among other situations put a halt to the project. Today I recalled that old application in a conversation about one of the most amazing projects I have learned about in the recent time: PetaBencana.Id. (link) a platform for crowdsourcing real time information about flooding in Jakarta. The great Astrid managed to get a meeting with a group of young people working in the development, maintenance and escalation of the platform. Nashin, Pritta and Emir explained to us with great patience the details of the functioning of the application and the facts that have made it that successful. Clever elements developed through both creativity and experience like identifying the unpredictability of the location of the flooding events in the city, the advantages of using already existing channels like twitter instead of the development of a new application or the use of automatic replies in order to use the right level of intrusiveness with the users, were examples of the several things to learn from the project of this organization. In addition, it struck me the fact that the project did not involve any patent of industrial property to “protect” any idea, maintaining itself true to the concept of openness of information (a small reminder of the uselessness of the idea of intellectual or industrial property in the 21st century world) and, on the contrary, showing a strong willingness to collaborate with similar projects in places like Mexico, Hong Kong, Saigon or, why not, Lima. Even when we asked about the topic of our research, it was amazing that in a way the same philosophy underlying the development of this platform also informed their assessment of the problem of flooding in the city of Jakarta. This idea of drawing on the knowledge already developed by people throughout the time and of accepting a coexistence instead of an antagonism of the people with the flooding episodes. The rich conversation took us to the necessity of thinking how the built environment of a place like Jakarta might need to progressively move upwards in order to make the first one or more levels of the buildings prepared for the reception of the water on a periodic basis, an idea similar to the design of the “Vertical Kampung” that earlier in the day we discussed with the people of the NGO Ciliwung Merdeka. Little by little it keeps coming the idea, so relevant for my other research about urban verticality, that Jakarta is in a path to become what in the conversation occurred to me that would be in the future a “Second Floor City”.

Turquoise

[Visto: 244 veces]

About a month ago I had the chance to visit Philadelphia for the first time. Besides the unbelievable experience of walking the epicenter of the conversations about the American Revolution in the eighteenth century, I also did a part of the hipster circuit and visited the Magic Gardens by Isaiah Zagar. The place is a big installation composed by a house, its yard and some attached buildings all decorated with inlaid work of different tones of turquoise, a mosaic at the same time chaotic and beautiful. The moment I saw this house in our second visit to Kampung Melayu I could not help to think in that visit to Philadelphia, since the second floor of this house looked like pulled out from the Magic Gardens. The owner of this house gave us an incredibly valuable time to talk in the tent that lies across her store in the edge of the embankment that separates the houses from the Ciliwung River, all of this with the language help of our great friends Zaza and Cintya. She explained to us that the building of the embankment involved a strong impulse of the government and the relocation of the people that was previously settled in the edge of the river to social housing buildings in a higher area. That is the process that gave birth to this interesting street on top of the embankment, used as a public space by the people of the area. The residents that were not relocated accommodated their houses to this new configuration and performed their own strategy. They organized in a way that allows them to move themselves and their belongings to the second floor when the level of water of the river overfloods the height of the embankment. The first floor, a functional space full of belongings that can be carried and made of materials that are easier to clean up later, and a second floor, a space for the dwelling and the most important objects, and that is also the object of the decorations.