The Sky Garden of the city mall was a lavish expanse of flashing green, yellow, and red— a beautiful painting of colors under Quezon City’s night sky. The evening was breathing alive with the sound of people— families seated on clay tables enjoying the cold and the brightness of December, couples walking hand-in-hand into stores and restaurants, adults plowing through the mall’s December sales and promos, and individuals just enjoying their same old world temporarily revamped by the dawning of Christmas.
Three Badjao kids, who all could not have been older than 8, were running around the labyrinth of adorned Palm trees and bushes a few feet from where I was seated. The Christmas lights dangling on wooden shades and lamp posts cast Christmas colors on their dirt-smeared faces as they enthusiastically played tag. Their eyes reflected the bright glint of the Sky Garden. Their tattered dirt-brown shirts were a stark contrast in the vividly colorful garden.
“Taya!” The largest kid cracked into a huge smile as he reached his hand to pat the butt of the smaller Badjao boy, taunting him with a broken laugh. The smaller boy then went to chase the only Badjao girl into the rows of Santan bushes, trying his hardest to maintain his balance at the same time.
While the two smaller Badjao kids were at it, the largest kid walked to a clay bench nearby where he recollected a pile of twenty or so Ang Paos (Chinese red envelopes), and two rusting tin cans. By the time the other two returned laughing and catching for breath, the older one was already on his way to the steel platform at the entrance of the Sky Garden, emptying the contents of the Ang Paos into one of the tin cans as he walked. My eyes followed their trail until the last Badjao kid disappeared into the darkness beyond the steel platform.
It was already half past seven. A few more minutes of stalling was the last thing I needed on a Friday night when more people than usual are going to flood the bus stations. It was 18 days before Christmas, after all, and most students and workers here in the city would come home to the Provinces for the Christmas break. I lifted two of my handbags containing a week’s worth of used clothes with one hand, and a paper bag of half-eaten cheese burger and lime juice on the other, and went towards the steel platform.
The steel platform was connected to a large footbridge that branched to different commercial establishments, crisscrossing 20 feet above the huge sea of vehicles along the North EDSA road. With the railings already wrapped in white Christmas lights and tiny tin foil lanterns, you can easily see exactly where the Christmas wonderland stopped, marking a demarcation line from a separate, entirely different world— one which appeared to have a different Christmas.
The footbridge was cloaked in a muggy darkness. If it wasn’t for the few hand-held lamps, it would’ve been nearly impossible to walk through what appeared like a jungle of beggars, makeshift-stalls, and vendors.
Where there were bursting lights and colors on the other side of the steel platform, there were barely any light here in the footbridge. Plastic snowmen, trees, elves, and lanterns were nowhere to be found; carts, stalls, products, and plastic trashes were the only decorations. Jose Mari Chan's Christmas music was replaced by the buzzing vendor chants, street children noises, and beggar pleas.
I saw the three Badjao kids darting towards the area where the footbridge branched out to three other walkways. They joined a group of other Badjaos who were huddled on a circle. As I approached the crossroad, the faint light from a huge billboard just less than two meters away showed what appeared like a beggar banquet— six large Spanish bread, four pieces of Saba banana, and three Balut eggs laid on a folded Manila paper. Just beside the Manila paper was a huge tin can where all the Badjao kids' collected coins and paper bills for the day were stacked.
Before I could turn to the left walkway leading to the bus stop, a thin hand stretched out to me. It was a Badjao woman. In her stretched-out right hand was a worn-out Ang pao. In her left was a baby.
“Merry Christmas.” Her broken accent matched the frailty in her voice. Her eyes bore an innocence that was very telling of her age. She couldn’t have been older than me.
I've been here many times before, and it's always been the same marginalized individuals stretching the same frail hands with the same recycled Ang Paos. Nothing much has really changed; the dawning of Christmas never really had an effect in the footbridge.
I took the Ang pao, slipped in the 50 pesos change that I had in my pocket, and turned on my heel to continue my walk just in time before the guilt and powerlessness burdening my chest to swallow me whole.
As I neared the end of the footbridge, I can't help but look back at the steel platform. The Sky Garden, along with the whole city mall in all its hugeness, is a piercing shimmer of affluence in the midst of the mute shades of city dust and smoke and poverty. In my weekly journey along this footbridge for the past three months since I started my first semester in college, I have clearly seen how Christmas amplified the dichotomy between two worlds that existed on either side of that steel platform— one with nights that have become more brighter and livelier, and another with nights that haven only gotten darker and colder.