Saturday, January 23, 2021


SEEK the marrow.

The first thing I found in Silang this year was half a seed pod of mahogany. 

Our street explodes when from the stand of trees across our home a pod cracks open and drops its outer shell. 

The sheath of a mahogany pod has a variegated speckling of brown hues. Rock-hard and heavy, the pieces, listing like small boats, accent my desk and keep in place piles of papers and notes. 

Inside each pod is an egg-shaped core. Freed of the outer casing, the inner sheath left on the branch cracks open with maturity and unfurls, ochre petals of an exotic flower hanging upside down. 

This is the moment revealing the true core of the mahogany: spatula-like capsules that tightly spoon inside the chambers. 

The symmetry seems perfect until the wind whips off each mahogany seed and starts its free flight.  The lightest part of the pod and shaped like the blades of a helicopter, a capsule twirls to the ground, where it may continue the next phase of changing from seed to sapling, from sapling to tree. 

Some seeds end under car tires or on desks and cabinets, catching dust. 

I think of mahogany pods as nature’s version of the matryoshka. Like the Russian wooden dolls that open to reveal diminishing versions of the outermost “little matron,” the mahogany pod is an unboxing, a laying bare of what is essential.

Following the livestreaming of the novenario held at the Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño de Cebu, I heard Father Ric Anthony Reyes of the Order of Saint Anthony (OSA) frequently drop the Cebuano word, “uyok,” in his homilies.

Sometimes sleepy, I always got jolted as the word, “uyok,” brings to mind “utok,” referring to the bone marrow that was Sunday lunch treat when I was a child and is now a dangerous indulgence in middle age.

If I could not suck out “utok,” I slammed the bone until the fatty and fleshy leached onto my plate. The “uyok” referred to by Father Reyes is harder to come by.

Father Reyes urges an indwelling to begin finding the core of one’s belief in the “Batang Balaan (Holy Child)” of Cebu.  This seeking of the core comes to fruition when the believer finds the Sto. Niño not in the beloved visage of a family heirloom or decades-old rituals of worship and petition. 

The core of faith is the face of a stranger in need, the mask of paradox since to the beholder, the stranger is one he or she needs more than the other way around.  

Unseen, mahogany fruits mature and launch a cycle beyond my head. Pods and capsules adorn my desk but it is the absent filling the silence.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s January 24, 2021 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, January 16, 2021

"Sa bangkito"

LIKE the “kabo (dipper),” the “bangkito (stool)” is a ubiquitous prop for the Pinoy’s art of making do.

It is cobbled from “retazo” wood, leftover pieces from a bigger construction project. In a country more intimate with dearth than surfeit, we learn to not just not throw away but also to put everything to use.  

Pail and dipper are necessities where faucets drip water by appointment and spew air the rest of the time. In the countryside, where meals are communal affairs, the “bangko (bench),” with its long plank of wood balanced on legs at each end, enables folks to squeeze in for meals by batches. 

The “bangkito (foot stool)” is an adaptation, a diminution of the bangko in size but not in resourcefulness. Before coronavirus disease (Covid-19) demanded physical distancing, public utility jeepneys squeezed in commuters on the bangkitos conductors pulled out from under the seats and positioned on the aisles.

Bangkitos also seat the vendors and patrons of “pungko-pungko (sidewalk-squatting meals sold by the plastic bags)” and other street hawkers of candies, cigarettes, lighters, newspapers, magazines, SIM cards, and face shields.

Papang taught my sister and I how to shine our school shoes like the boys in Colon, straddling a bangkito he painted in bubblegum pink (left over from another job). Is it because our center of gravity is close to the ground that the bangkito is a seat of repose? 

On a visit to Paete, I did not notice the bangkito in the corner of a large showroom of monumental, lushly detailed wood carvings. When the husband asked my opinion, I had to look twice at the reclining figure, so absolute in its stillness.

Barely two feet, the sleeping boy emerges from a stump of wood.  His shirt bares the uncircumcised penis, plump cheeks, and round legs ending in dingy soles.

Pillowed on his right arm, his head radiates ripples of wood. The unknown carver indulged the deep sleeper with a sea for a pillow. Only the splayed legs supporting each end of the stump reminds the viewer of a humble crib, a bangkito.

Every January, when the “novenario” begins for the Sto. Niño, the sleeping boy is not at the center or anywhere near the family altar.  This time, a spray bottle of surface cleanser keeps it company, a reminder of the universal, perpetual fight against the virus.

On the bangkito, the young-old face, slightly bruised around the eyelids, sleeps on.   When construction workers take a nap, they cover their faces with a shirt to keep out the sun or the gazes that catch them with their guards down. 

The boy bares his face, as an animal lies in its lair with exposed belly, the world with its appetites held in abeyance sa bangkito.


( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s January 17, 2021 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata” 

Saturday, January 09, 2021


I DISCOVERED the bookshelves on our last day in Moalboal.

Visiting the coastal part of this southwestern municipality, our family had breakfast at the same table at an inn’s dining area. Aside from the generous soaking of sun, the table afforded a view of the parade of folks heading off for or returning from a swim or a dive. 

Then on the last day, another family occupied the spot. Moving to another table, I picked a chair facing the interiors of the room, where I spotted against the wall three shelves of books slouching with the ease of pensioners.

Several of the titles are in German; the rest in English. German is the mother tongue of one of the owners and many of those drawn to nearby Pescador Island or the Sardine Run for leisure or research.

I could only flip through the water-warped pages of Peter Hoeg’s “Fräulein Smillas Gespür Für Schnee”. Although I know well from frequent rereading the story of a woman who understood ice better than other humans, I can translate only less than 10 words of German. 

Locked out of the familiar by the unfamiliar. In another cabinet of books in a room overlooking the Hoan Kiem District or the Old Quarter of Hanoi, I found, among the hardcovers in English, a copy of Haruki Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood,” translated into Vietnamese.

Murakami has quite a following in Vietnam, with nearly all of his novels translated into the mother tongue.

When did I bring during a trip a novel written in Cebuano or Filipino? Never but twice, I spent a sleepless night in the 24/7 book shops of the Changi Airport, unable to decide which titles to squeeze into my backpack. English is not my mother tongue but among the shelves of books in English, I am at home in Changi.  

In Yogyakarta, my friend and I, waiting for a downpour to cease, chatted with a local man who, delighted to discover we were not Indonesians but Filipinos, wanted to practice his grasp of English. 

That image of the German edition of “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” hovered when I bought the first books of 2021, all written by Filipinos. 

One of the novels is Carla M. Pacis’s “Enrique El Negro,” a re-imagining of Enrique de Malacca who traveled with Ferdinand Magellan.

So little has been written about Apuy Yabon, he could very well not exist. Yet, when the 14-year-old slave bought by Magellan in Malacca returned to the islands of his birth, he eased into native life by way of the language.

“Hindi nagsasawa ang mga batang pakinggan ang aking kuwento (the children never grew tired of listening to my stories),” says the first but not the last person to, after circumnavigating languages, return at last to self.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s January 10, 2021 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”