The Great Beyond – No Man’s Land

A 2000 hit from R.E.M, man, how did this happen?
This took me back to 1991, talk about time travellin’,
It’s funny how innocuous events can come back to haunt you,
Here’s one of them, a random moment from my childhood.


For the first six years of my life, before we migrated to Australia, my family and I lived in the Philippines where I was born. We lived in an apartment building in a complex located very close to my parents’ alma mater, the University of Philippines’ (UP for short) Diliman campus. The city wasn’t a long drive away and if I recall, school was only about ten to fifteen minutes away depending on the traffic so it was conveniently located.
The apartment complex and its garage were at the end of a rather long driveway on the side of a narrow, peaceful street, lined with banana trees, tropical flowers and other homes. The air was hot and thick with humidity, as it was typically in the Philippines, but the trees provided some welcome relief from the sun and despite not being too far from the city, the air wasn’t clouded by smoke and Lord knows what else.

That or I was just oblivious to it since my six-year old self had yet to grasp the idea of air pollution.

I remember scraping my left knee by the side of that road one morning when I was running around with my sister in the front yard and tripped over my shoelaces. I still have a faint scar on my knee as a reminder of that day.


Beyond the driveway where residents’ vehicles were kept there was a pathway that led to a couple of apartment buildings. The pathway separated the buildings from one another and cut through what seemed like a mini botanical garden as residents’ various plants and flowers were kept in front of their buildings. At the end of the pathway was a giant, concrete wall with an iron gate that allowed access to the world in the back.
It wasn’t quite as rosy as the front. It could have doubled for the setting to a ‘hood film’. An old dirt road ran through the middle, lined with telephone poles, some of which had frayed wires, and old steel drums, tires, boxes and other random garbage. Stray cats and dogs also roamed freely around the road and sometimes played with the children.

On one side of the road was some type of small, gated home that seemed to be made of cement, fenced away from the outside by a heavy, red steel gate and partially shielded by a sprawling guava tree. I can recall one afternoon when the house maid, on a break from her daily duties, effortlessly climbed that tree and picked off a ripe guava before slumping onto one of the thick branches and having a snack.
I remember another time when my friend and I were playing with our toy cars close to that gate and my friend accidentally rolled his little blue sports car, his pride and joy, on the other side of the gate. In a panic, he scrambled to try and retrieve it, but he had rolled it beyond arm’s reach and to his horror, the house’s family dog, seeing a new toy to play with, picked that car up in his teeth before running off. My friend bawled his eyes out as only a child that had been robbed of his favorite toy could while I sat next to him, trying to comfort him but also trying hard not to laugh. Looking back, it wasn’t cool to be amused at my friend’s misfortune but you had to laugh at that damn dog and his perfect timing!

Across the street from that gated home was a small shanty town where families sold candy, chips, dried fruit and other snacks from their front windows as a means to make a living while their kids played in the street. Some folks in our apartment complex were rather wary of those kids as they were rough around the edges and unkempt, but they were very friendly and we had some great times, although almost all the games we played involved pretending to be superheroes and some type of play-fighting that would be interrupted at times due to someone crying over skinned knees and/or being hit too hard – but then they would shake it off like troopers and the mock-brawl resumed. Those kids lived rough but none of that seemed to dampen their cheerful personalities.


Beyond the apartment complex, the gated home and shanty town, the dirt road continued into a rather steep, downward slope. Us kids never ventured beyond that point because our parents forbade us and so it became some sort of no man’s land for us. We would joke among ourselves that at the end of that downward slope was a portal to another dimension but in reality it led to a busy road that would gradually lead to the city.

It was one of my childhood ambitions to see what was on the end of that road and one day, my wish was granted when my parents took me down there to get a haircut at a barbershop on the side of the road. My mother normally cut mine and my sister’s hair but on that particular day, they decided that I should have a feel of what it would be like to have a professional cut my hair. It should have been some type of monumental occasion but such sentiments didn’t register in my mind. I was just excited to explore the forbidden road but I ended up getting more than I bargained for. While that downward slope was only a ten minute walk one way and, in hindsight, wasn’t all that steep, it seemed to go on forever in my six-year old mind and might as well had been as high as a mountain. I was fatigued even before reaching the halfway point of that road and the dramatic score for some sort of environmental disaster drama film might as well had began playing in my head. It was funny how I was an indefatigable machine when it came to roughhousing with those shanty town kids while walking down a road left me completely deflated.


“Don’t stray to the middle of the road!” my mother called out from behind as she walked with my sister.


Geez, how the hell can I walk to the middle of the road when Pops has a vice-like grip on my hand?


But despite struggling with the walk I took in the experience of walking down this road while the rest of my buddies stayed behind. It made me feel quite special, like I was one of the privileged few given the green light to explore this mysterious place. Such silly, egotistical thinking seemed to mask the discomfort of walking downhill and before I knew it, we had reached the bottom. Boy did my legs let me know it loud and clear!

Talk about anti-climactic. Here I was, expecting to see something extraordinary like something from the superhero cartoons I adored, and all I got was a busy road filled with cars slowed to an aggravating crawl due to peak-hour traffic. Some drivers were not having it and blared their horns, their only means of communicating with the driver in front to move, but it was a fool’s errand that only led to unnecessary noise given that the highway was choked to the point of resembling a parking lot and one would have been fortunate to be able to move a few meters at a time.
The barbershop was one of the stores on the sidewalk, surrounded by other stores and abandoned lots. I took a long look at the traffic in disbelief before entering.

Is this it? Geez, those guys aren’t missing out on anything!

Oh well, at least I finally had my answer. I wonder if the climb back up will be fun……?

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