Tuesday, February 20, 2018


I THOUGHT I knew sleepy towns until I reached Calapan City in Mindoro Oriental.

Usually there’s not much to separate “sleepy” from “sleeping” as the degree of inactivity is hardly discernible.

After leaving the Batangas Port, our group docked at Calapan City. At dusk, the lights of a sprawling mall twinkled in the rearview mirror of the vehicle as we left the city behind in a bid to catch a 9 p.m. roll on-roll off (roro) crossing from the port of Roxas to Panay Island.

Though I assume life would be settling down with evening fall, I didn’t expect the passing towns to be in thrall of the dark like the fairytale kingdom that lies under a sleeping spell.

At some point, I noticed in the nearly deserted town centers we passed that only two types of establishments had their lights blazing on: police stations and funeral parlors.

The latter riveted my attention as, aside from the business name, this information was also displayed: the name of the licensed embalmer and the fact that the establishment operated on a 24-hour basis.

Death, of course, calls at a time that’s only convenient to itself, never to the visited.

But in a town of a couple of hundreds of families, what were the chances that there was a showdown of embalmers; hence, necessitating the advertisement of so-and-so?

And this emphasis on “licensed” embalmers: did it mean that there were unlicensed ones? Why would one bring the dead to an artisan operating without a license and, one presumes, the expertise to preserve a vessel of corruption into a simulacrum of incorruptibility?

Such thoughts made rather morbid companions for a journey that was initially uneventful. The highway was wide and almost deserted at just past 7 p.m. Even when the road turned all twisty like chicken entrails, luminous arrows and signs cautioning about “accident-prone areas” guided our negotiations around the hairpin curves.

And then from out of the dark loomed the first motorist, driving without lights. The husband let out a mouthful after swerving just in time. A few hundred meters later, another averted tragedy, a couple and a child motoring complacently in absolute darkness.

In the end, the inscrutable dark became like a gleeful foe, throwing in our path motorists and bicyclists with this aversion to lights and baffling apathy to personal safety.

Suddenly the pre-eminence of the embalming profession made sense. Even the shuttered roadside houses were witnesses in denial: no, we did not see what happened.

We arrived at the port of Roxas without accident. At midnight, a three-motorbike smash-up was reported, word-by-mouth.

One dead. And plenty of embalmers to choose from in a place deserted by common sense.

(mayette.tabada@gmail.com/ 0917 3226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s February 18, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

New “bakwits”

“RUN for your life” spun off to a different direction this week. A double whammy last Thursday—another MRT breakdown and the sidelining of Quezon City jeepneys by an LTO crackdown—left many commuters stranded again at rush hours.

Joining the march of commuters, I realized once more how urban living hones certain survival skills. To carry out the necessary—go to work, catch class, go home—the new bakwits have to “walk for life” to go on.

“Bakwits” is a Bisaya neologism for “evacuees”. Refugees are usually associated with the mass movement to escape war zones or avoid bearing the brunt of natural disasters.

Commuters are the new “bakwits”. Many of us carry our worlds on our backs. Even presuming we could rely on mass transit, we leave our residence with what is only necessary and assemble everything else along the way: meals, assignments, even faces (many women apply make-up in the MRT or bus under the sometimes watchful, often indifferent panopticon of strangers’ eyes).

Urban transportation grows apace with urban spaces. What happens when mass transit doesn’t?

It gluts digital space, as many fellow commuters let off angst by posting images of last Thursday’s bakwits, stranded by the MRT unloading some 800 passengers due to a breakdown of electrical sub-components, most likely cannibalized from out-of-running trains (from about 20 trains carrying an over-the-maximum daily capacity of 500,000 commuters to only five trains last Thursday).

Creating more commuter paralysis, the Land Transportation Office (LTO) conducted a blitzkrieg operation in the middle of Thursday. The “Tanggal Bulok Tanggal Usok” campaign looks good on paper because it protects commuters by ensuring only roadworthy public utility jeepneys (PUJs) ply the routes and don’t endanger commuters.

In practice, the absence of jeepney queues only means another headache: no jeepneys because the drivers are choosing to stay home or parking to wait for the inspections to end and the chances of incurring fines go away.

In the end, we help jeepney drivers skirt the law by holding onto a seatbelt that doesn’t really fasten and secure front-seat riders or keep our eyes peeled for lurking enforcers who may stop a PUJ to inspect it has the regulated fire extinguisher.

The public’s sympathy is for the “bulok” of society, trying, like the rest of us, to go through their day despite the pesky interference of the state.

When the wrong trains run (the TRAIN law that has made all basic good prices shoot up, from rice to LPG) or don’t run (“heartbreaker” topnotcher MRT with its record-breaking number of breakdowns and separations), it’s time to the new “bakwits” to “walk for life”.

(mayette.tabada@gmail.com/ 0917 3226131)

• First published in SunStar Cebu’s February 11, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”


WHAT torment pierces more than betrayal?

Last Friday, when a major mall in the north began its weekend sale, snarling the usual Friday traffic along Edsa into a monstrous Quezon City pretzel, I headed for the Manila Metro Rail Transit System or the MRT 3, the cheapest and fastest public transport for the southbound trip.

Later, inside the train, with my left arm pinned behind by the press of bodies, my right arm trying to keep a trembling grip on a handhold I was sharing with two other commuters, and my back pulled backwards by a heavy knapsack and commuters hellbent on getting out of the train and battling an opposing flow of commuters as single-mindedly fighting to get in, I remembered, of all persons, Rousseau.

Just the day before this earthly taste of purgatory or inferno—any distinction, if at all, was indistinct then in the MRT chaos—my class was discussing Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “The Social Contract”.

“Every act of sovereignty… every authentic act of the general will, binds or favours equally all the citizens; so that the sovereign knows only the body of the nation, and distinguishes none of those that compose it.”

The act of surrendering one’s rights, including liberty, to the sovereign power is not a “real renunciation,” argued this thinker of the Enlightenment. There is instead an “advantageous exchange of an uncertain and precarious mode of existence for a better and more assured one”.

Dear Rousseau (I said in my head during the 20 minutes it took before the train doors could close after the passengers inside won the battle to keep people outside from pushing in and turning our existence into the world’s most compact sardine can): I’m a fan from the future. Does a disaster like the MRT 3 rescind the social contract? Love, Breathless in QC.

In 2000, when the MRT 3 began full operations, it originally served 450,000 commuters. In 2013, 650,000 rode the same system intended to decongest Edsa and give the people a faster, cheaper mode of travel.

According to the news, the MRT manager “offered to resign” after a Senate scolding; spare parts to fix the sidelined trains were “expected anytime in February (2018, I hope);” and about 30 Japanese experts will conduct a “system audit” to find out what ails the MRT.

Meanwhile, last Friday, only seven trains served a conservative estimate of half a million passengers commuting regularly via the MRT 3.

For all his wordiness, Rousseau refused to say anything more in last Friday's babel. A spark of enlightenment came, though.

“It’s not so bad,” a grandmother shouted while we were buffeted like driftwood by the mad surge of bodies. “When you have to put your bag on top of your head…”

(mayette.tabada@gmail.com/ 0917 3226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s February 4, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata"