Monday, December 25, 2006

At heart

IN THE mountains, Christmas is a brown affair.

From makeshift stalls along the highway, the colors of tinsel sometimes glimmer. Silver or gold can be glimpsed in the latest braided belt or hair clip of habal-habal (improvised motorcycles) passengers taking a break from work in the city.

But for these reminders, the mountains are unchanged by the holiday cheer that has taken over the city we left behind.

Recent rains have left the place green. But it is the ordinariness of brown that provides rest to senses fatigued by the city clamor.

Brown is the hue of old newspaper, folded, crushed and tied to become an improvised bag holding candies and gum.

Why does such an ordinary thing, when it hangs above a blindfolded child swinging a pole, draw from children a sound like a thousand lungs bursting?

Brown, too, is the color of half an onion, forgotten and molding behind plastic containers of water.

Water is buried deep in this mountain bosom. Yet, in the moist December air, a sprig of green sprouts from a shriveled onion cheek.

Our hosts offer pork stewed, diced, fried. But it is the bisol in its gnarled brown skin that we peel and name.

Bisol in Alegria is bisol in Dalaguete, lying on the other side of the mountain.

Public school teacher Domingo knows the root crop as karlan in Davao; apara in Negros Oriental.

Why would such a homely lump go by so many names?

Fellow teacher Nene observed, after decades of crisscrossing Visayas and Mindanao, that bisol is central in life in the mountains.

Few can compare with the bisol’ for sustenance and dependability. It stores well so people fall back on it during drought or in between planting seasons.

Not half as pretty as the purple-veined gabi, bisol thickens and makes any soup tasty.

How is the root crop called in English?

We trail for a while after yam and plantain before giving up. Quite possibly, bisol does not exist in the English language.

Edwin, teacher of Spanish, believes we can only name what is part of us.

Orange in color and sweetness, dawat (newly harvested coconut wine) is savored by two kinds of sips. Tilaw will test the brew’s character, whether it is tam-is, halang-halang, kisom, aplod.

Edwin claims that among friends meeting in a tayakan or tuba-an (place collecting and selling tuba or coco wine), friendship is savored slow and best through takmi.

Who has time for takmi today?

Looking around the table, I see persons who could have halved their backlog had they chosen not to play under the sun and shout themselves hoarse with school children.

I remember unexpected gifts with clods of earth still clinging: the weed mangagaw to be brewed to shield a child from dengue, the elusive kutsitsai finally found and brewed for diabetes, and bisol of course.

I am grateful for the endless, listening silences found in a life in the mountains.

Most of all, for the gift of stories. One of my favorites comes from Edwin, who spent seven years as a student-missionary in Mexico.

The Aztecs’ version of “kumusta” is polysyllabic: tlenketohuamoyoltzin.

Rather than ask politely how someone is doing, the Aztec addresses directly his or her center: what says your heart? 0917-3226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 24, 2006 issue

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