Saturday, January 18, 2020


THE SMELL of sulfur wafting in through the open bedroom window was odd in the usual Sunday mix of neighbors’ cooking odors. Alone at home, I was reading a novel to break days of plodding through philosophy and talking to an absentminded self.

When I went outside to feed the stray cats, Kitkat had something grey sprinkled on her coat of white-with-isles-of-egg-yolk.

I stooped to flick off the dust and saw a portion of the porch neatly coated in the same grey: ashfall from Taal Volcano’s phreatic explosion of steam and ash that took place earlier that afternoon.

In more than half a century, I have weathered calamities. But even the strongest typhoon—Ruping in 1990, which sank a record number of 88 ships in the Cebu City Harbor—spends its fury after hours. Power and water are restored; roads are cleared. And the comforts of daytime lying in bed, listening to the wind howl and the rain attack the roof, soon end with the resumption of classes.

Taal Volcano is an unexpected education. We live in Barangay Putingkahoy, about 15 kilometers away from Taal, at the margin of the 14-km radius danger zone initially redlighted by the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) for the immediate evacuation of residents.

Since Sunday, the Phivolcs has extended its hazard mapping to the 17-km radius and continues to flag the Alert Level 4 six days after, warning of a “possible hazardous explosive eruption… within hours to days.”

Since we moved to Silang more than five years ago, I have yet to glimpse the white trees after which the barangay is named. In last Sunday’s twilight, prematurely ushered in by ashfall mingling with the downpour, the eponymous white trees suddenly materialized all around.

Ash is a strange opponent. Wind, rain, and flood bring devastation in the blink of an eye; after a storm, though, we have cleared, repaired, and restored. And moved on.

As a metaphor for indeterminacy, the wind-borne ashes of Taal fit an environmental and political catastrophe that defies scientific forecasting or PR-finessing. Even the cats, feral and eternally watchful, favor napping on the pillows of ash that have accumulated under the trees. Dark congealed crusts drip from leaf blade like filigrees of oxidized silver and delicate lace.

Ashfall is experienced differently by farmers raising livestock and vegetables, “bakwits” (evacuees), rescue workers and volunteers, homeowners, scientists, town officials, journalists, and businessmen. Even the animals are stratified by ash: those with economic value like pigs and horses; and those without, like dogs and cats.

The indefinite delineates us.

Photo: Kitkat and her coat of ash, day after Taal Volcano’s phreatic eruption on January 12, 2020

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* First published in SunStar Cebu’s January 19, 2020 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, January 11, 2020


DONNING my first pair of eyeglasses made me realize what I missed in the world.

An incorrigible habit of reading while traveling or lying in bed made me astigmatic by my early teens. As the optometrist made me read letters projected in diminishing sizes on the wall, I was more confused than aided by the frequent changing of lens. Did I see better with this than with that lens?

Yet, when I looked at trees with my first pair of glasses and saw the variegated shades of green in the rippling waves of leaves, I realized how my connection to the breathing, murmurous mysteries existing beyond words and ideas rested on two small discs of glass.

The limits of our way of seeing is explored by Ursula K. Le Guin in her 1972 novel, “The Word for World is Forest”. She describes the “oppressiveness” felt by a Terran walking among wild trees in the fictional world of Athshe.

In Terra, there is no tree left standing. Driven by the obscene price of lumber, Terrans “settle” on Athshe to “turn the tree-jumble into clean sawn planks,” an act of colonization that pits the extractive, macho Terrans against the matrilineal, nonviolent forest-dwelling Athsheans.

Small and covered in green fur, the native “creechies” are treated by the Terrans as “green monkeys” or humanoids. For the Athsheans, the Terrans are just as incomprehensible, no language in the Forty Lands existing for the violence the Terrans unleash on other creatures, the trees, or fellow Terrans.

In her introductory essay, Le Guin said she drew on imagination to create the society in Athshe that studies signs in dream-time to guide decisions made in world-time. A reader of the novel, Dr. Charles Tart, asked her if she had based the Athsheans on the Senoi people of Malaysia, who, at least in 1935, passed from generation to generation a culture of dream-interpretation to solve “interpersonal and intercultural conflict”.

For hundreds of years, the Senoi people have no record of murder or war.

Le Guin reflected that both Terrans and Athsheans dream; they differ in their receptivity to dreams. While the Terrans dream only when they sleep and regard dream-time as “unreal,” the Athsheans dream with eyes open and act guided by their dreams, a seamless crossover uniting the waking and non-waking halves of the same reality.

Dream-fulfillment is a theme this sci-fi pioneer explored in another novel, “The Lathe of Heaven.” In “The Word for World…,” the split in dream-time traps Terrans and Athsheans into a tragic collision.

To dream is to see. Or as the fate of Athshe augurs—whether as metaphor of the Vietnam War or American War (depending on whose perspective) or for present times—we are what we dream.

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* First published in SunStar Cebu’s January 12, 2020 issue of the Sunday main editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Friday, January 10, 2020


WATCHING pigeons in the plaza of Valencia puts me in mind of waves purling froth and crashing and withdrawing from the shore, endlessly.

On the second to the last day of last year, we ended up in Valencia, seeking “tinowa (fish stew)” for breakfast. The municipality is only about nine kms. west of Dumaguete City but these two Negrense communities are distinct enough to seem like siblings raised by different guardians.

Coastal and central in the traffic between Cebu, Negros island, and Siquijor, Dumaguete has over the years become quite a hub. In the 1980s, Dumaguete was a laidback soul that dutifully stirred itself up and clocked in during the week, slowed down on Saturday, and closed shop for family and worship on Sundays and holidays.

As a transient, I learned to stock up on food to tide me over weekends, Lent, and New Year. When the air of desertion hovering over silent streets made me oddly miss the infernal buzzing of tricycles, Dumaguete seemed to urge me back to Cebu as I had no Negrense hearth to go home to.

These days, everyone is welcome to Dumaguete. At 8 a.m. on a weekday that happened to be the first day of the year, baristas were already taking special instructions for personally designed coffee and bars were serving hangover miracle brews.

So when my Negrense friend Y. suggested exploring Valencia market for tinowa, I assented even though the town is ensconced in a crucial watershed area, with the twin peaks of Mt. Talinis, the “Huernos de Negros (Horns of Negros),” overlooking the Hispanic-influenced cluster of town center, church, “agora (market),” and plaza.

Given its centrality, Dumaguete may have better fish catch. In Valencia, we missed the fish (an entire cauldron snapped up by Rizal Day attendees) but landed a carinderia owner who retired as a teacher to take up storytelling as new calling.

Weaving her family’s recipe for the classic Visayan dish of braised pork “humba” with tourist foibles at the local Casaroro Falls, her family’s blessings from the town patron Nuestra SeƱora de los Desamparados (Our Lady of the Forsaken), and Valencia’s flirtations with tourists drawn to her waterfalls, hot springs, and crater lakes, this local historian reminded me of a time when conversations with locals regularly seasoned meals taken in an earlier Dumaguete.

We ate homemade ice cream at P10 for two scoops before a flock of pigeons that rose and settled and crested again like foam-flecked waves on the plaza grounds. I have seen the remains of giant clams unearthed near mountain peaks. That primeval seas covered the earth at these elevations are mutely attested to by these shells. In Valencia, I have seen the Dumaguete I knew.

Photo: Valencia, Negros Island, December 30, 2019

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* First published in SunStar Cebu’s January 5, 2020 issue of the Sunday main editorial-page column, “Matamata”