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As she waited a split second for the whizzing click from her digital SLR, a barrage of raw images keep loop-playing on her head, like a pirated CD that got stuck in some sad little piece of lyric from an old love song. Her eyes and hands are simply not fast enough to capture each astonishing moment, made sacred by its fleetingness and the reckless abandon as a manner upon which they were conceived. Everything is so unabashedly beautiful, but nonetheless reachable, like a supernova explosion of dazzling lights and colours that originate from the orbs that are the eyes of each and every soul present in the snaking streets of Quiapo.

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The kid was bawling her eyes out for her broken slippers, abused and beaten to a pulp by her scrawny feet that have walked the miles, which will make my own Havaianas-clad feet inundated with shame. She felt a certain ache at the pit of her gut, which was followed by a startling discovery that this might be the purest manifestation of loss she has ever laid her eyes on, making her feel lightheaded and stunned and sick and amused at her sheltered existence and her befuddled reaction to it. She walked towards the kid, but caught herself before asking the tot to come with her to the nearby store to get a new pair, lest she be accused of kidnapping or worse, being a sexual predator. Instead, she handed over a 50-peso bill, hoping that it will be enough for a new and sturdier pair of Spartan’s, a hot soup from the corner ‘gotohan’, and relief for her own denigrating self-disgust.

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Passing by the line-up of fortune tellers, she was tempted to burn a few bucks to ask the stars above how she would be and other mundane questions she will come up with, for which she will later on feel so stupid for, outside of the fact that she had asked a completely clueless fucking stranger about a life, which she herself is having trouble understanding. She went on.

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Now feeling a weird knot forming on her stomach, which may be due to the funky-looking buko juice from the makeshift cart littered at the landing of the Hidalgo side of the underpass, or a skipped breakfast, she headed towards the corn-on-the-cob joint manned by a meek-eyed boy of around 15, 16 years. She was greeted by the tantalizing aroma of the bulk of sticky corn ears that seem to have absorbed all the sunshine in the world, and are now basking in a pool of salty goodness. ‘Magkano?’, she asked the boy. ‘Tatlo sampu ate’, he answered. As she looked up after rummaging her purse for spare change, she saw the boy running away in a frenzied hurry, and it was only then that she recognised the group of sinister-looking policemen heading towards her (and the boy’s) general direction. The boy was already a couple of metres away from her, and it was only then – as if she has just awoken from a straight-from-the-movies dream – that she ran after the poor thing to give him his ten bucks. Then, she turned and was in an instant eye-to-eye with one lanky officer who looks a bit uncomfortable terrorizing the vendors with threats and a constant waving of yantok sticks. For a solitary moment, she heard him crying for help.

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Amidst the sea of devotees of the Black Nazarene (it was a Friday), she waded through the throngs of maroon-clad men and women who perpertually mumble under their breaths, effortlessly creeping her out. They all seemed miserable in their pretend holiness, and what she would love if for them to be struck down by lightning and be branded in their foreheads: RELIGIOUS OFFENDER. They approach the church’s majestic gates as the gloomy cloud of impending rain threathened the burning afternoon outside, and she can hear the kids playing at the mouth of the cathedral holler, “ayan na ang mga manang, takbo!”. One of the kids has burnt his foot on a live cigarette butt on the hot pavement, but he didn’t dare stop and be in the way of the high and mighty authorities of Quaipo’s holy kingdom.

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As she will herself against buying a small pack of smokes, (she’s quit for some time now) she revels in the life that is all around her hitting her in a speed that can knock her out if she takes one small misstep. She wants to beat herself up for she feels that she has missed out, she’s not good enough, and she’s stunned so easily. Yet in the centre of her wallowing in self pity and inadequacy, she was surprised to learn that peace had completely enveloped her. In that moment, at that step in the Echague rivulet of the Quaipo underpass where she stood, she felt peace like she’s never had before.

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