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9:20 A.M., September 11, 2001

Fear, the rush of adrenaline, mounting hysteria. I open my door to an eerie sight: hundreds of people are standing in the middle of Washington Street, looking worried and lost. My neighbors, my friends, the maintenance workers who take care of my building, total strangers—all staring at the huge, ugly black clouds engulfing what once was the World Trade Center. There are those poised with their camcorders and cameras, ever ready to document any catastrophic event. I, too, stare at the smoke and flames, mesmerized by the awesome beauty of destruction. The sky is a hard, brilliant blue. It is the end of the world, yet the sun is blazing and it is a crisp, gorgeous morning. We are very much alive. All around me, eyewitness accounts are repeated like some gruesome mantra: Not one plane, but two. Not two, but four. Not accidentally, but on purpose. I saw the whole thing go down, bodies falling from the sky.

I think of the troubled Mindanao region of the Philippines, where I have just been. Where the surreal and the real are one and the same. Where the sunsets are the most glorious on earth and acts of violence are a daily occurrence. Where an equally vicious sense of humor seems the only sane and logical response. Chaos reigns, life is cheap and everything is possible in the Philippines, where I was born. The people adapt, the people survive, the people retain their grace and sense of irony and humor. But thirty years in New York have made me soft –I am cocooned by arrogance and privilege, prone to First World delusions. I thought I lived in the toughest city of the world and was therefore safe.