Saturday, May 26, 2007

Green talk

WOKE up to rain drumming on eaves and remembered 15 bottles.

One Sunday afternoon, our group followed the source of water in this upland barangay. The village officers we met at the health center held back at first. But while we were tramping about, they started to give many versions why the water would not reach its destination.

One spring had to be diverted to the Poblacion below. Another’s network of pipes stirred up a lot of discussion.

Some criticized siphoning the spring with small pipes and then distributing through wide-mouthed ones whatever trickle was left. Others believed small diameters were necessary for coaxing the water up steep inclines.

Nearly everyone had a theory that pipe openings were not so much water- and terrain-sensitive as apt to take the shape of political caprices and the division of spoils.

When the talk wallowed in pork barrel and swinish matters, I lost interest. Squatting, I spotted several makahiya, which I loved to nudge as a child, just to see the plant’s featherlike leaves fold up.

A Japanese visitor was ecstatic years back when he chanced upon a small commune blanketing the shoreline. In Japan, makahiya is cultured and sold, so many yens per pot, to those fascinated by its shrinking charms.

Catching the drift of their talk, I asked a woman in her 50s if she really did notice the disappearance of water. In the city, a dry faucet is the closest we get to noticing the absence of water. My companions talked about the local springs as if they were neighbors that had suffered misfortune and were wasting away while everyone watched helplessly.

Linda Obligado, 56, is barangay secretary. She nods at a tree jutting out of a nearby canopy, saying when they cut down a tree taller and larger than this, the water level of the spring beside it subsided.

When yet another cousin got married and the clan had to reduce another tree into lumber, another spring was reduced to a trickle. This minor spring, mocked as dakung tubod long before Linda was born, now needs a change of name.

Why don’t trees reinvent, I ask Linda. She says some trees, with “moist” cores, sprout again around the cut trunk. Dry ones are never seen again, backlighted against the sky. She remembers how cleaning the dakung tubod pipes showed it was nearly blocked by fine root-like hair that might have belonged to the lady of the forest nursing the spring.

Watching the darkening sky, I muttered that the end of May might bring back the rain, which can be saved in their pasong (catchments).

The children won’t like it is all Linda says. Once, the local trees groaned under the sack-like hives of potyokan, fat bellicose bees whose sting could keep an adult in bed.

The excellent quality of pure potyokan dugos (honey) was all the incentive needed to think up different ways of fooling the bees: building a fire to smoke them out, blowing tobacco smoke to drug the insects, chanting a spell.

The commercial growing of mango put an end to this. Linda says the bees collected the nectar of flowering mango trees, which were sprayed with pesticide. Now, one has to walk among the older trees to spot a single potyokan hive.

The local children can still gather honey though from the rock-dwelling ligwan. Smaller and less ferocious, these insects seem immune to chemical spraying. A drop of honey is given to a newborn; others take it for cough and aches.

Linda says a gout sufferer once paid the children to bring him one ligwan a day. He pinned this behind the useless knee. There was no describing the sting of the dying insect. After a few years, he walked again.

To buy food or materials for school projects, the children bring her ligwan dugos. Linda sends a few bottles of honey to her children studying in the city. She does not know what to do with the bottles left at home, 15 at last count. She cannot turn down the children when they bring her another bottle.

But the rains put an end to honey-making, Linda observes.

How does it feel—I address the sky—to watch the impossible come to pass, trees and water disappearing, children dreading the rain? 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 27, 2007 issue

Siomai resolutions

MY STAIN-FREE finger damned me.

Last Monday’s ballot-casting made a fashion makeover in the sense that sporting a bluish nail that looked as if it had wriggled out of a shut door became suddenly PC (politically cool).

I’ve lost count of the number of people, including the house ad of this paper, niggling me about my blemish-free pointer. “How could you, deserter?”

But things really skidded closer to the bottom after I read columnist Jovenir F. Bataican’s reflections in Sun.Star Weekend’s May 19 issue.

Entitled “Leave a tender moment alone,” his column shrugs off the million and one things that went wrong in the recent election. “We have trumpeted cheats for so long now we forget the honest ones outnumber them by the millions!”

Singling out his mother—who dove into the crowds massing to get their precinct numbers, as well as assisted strangers—Bataican believes that the “patch of indigo ink” testifies to his family’s faith that “if you can just go past the usual hassles, the time and energy spent are so much worth it.”

Clinching his point for participatory democracy, he urges: “Leave a tender moment alone and just count our votes right.”

If Bataican stirred something lying inert under sediments left by stories of exasperated Filipinos leaving for better shores, the fire of Sun.Star Zup! columnist Elisabeth Baumgart purges and purifies. “Dude, wake up!”

Actually pacific and gentle in real life, Baumgart, a college junior taking up Mass Communication at St. Theresa’s College, wrote in her Inkblots space last May 14: “If you see anybody giving out money, trying to buy your vote, kick them where the sun doesn’t shine.”

In an earlier column, Baumgart wrote about the discussions she and her friends went into, to arrive at a list of candidates they deemed fit to steer the country.

Among other deciding factors, a candidate’s choice to conduct an expensive TV campaign could not be used to eliminate anyone because, according to Baumgart, that would leave no one to vote for.

With such prescience, she demolished a long-running argument I had with myself: why vote when almost all candidates end up tasting like grocery siomai even though they’re packaged with ingenuous names like Siomai ni Mai-Mai or Siomai sa Tisa, with D’ Original appended, to boot?

For quite some time now, these steamed pork dumplings have taken over the struggle for dominance in the street food market. Once a staple in pricey dimsum places, these devious little balls of meat have rolled off the red-and-gilt tables and taken over holes-in-the-wall, street corners or wherever workers and students can get three siomai balls on a small paper plate, with puso (hanging rice), for about P30.

Unlike barbecue, ngohiong and other “generic” street food, siomai started the trend of popularizing a brand, the inimitable Siomai sa Tisa. My college students, from whom I first heard about this pungko-pungko (sidewalk eating) phenomenon, insist that the Labangon outlet has the best of all worlds: taste, price, hygiene.

Mothers rarely buy street food, if only because it shrinks the budget and might harbor a whole commune of alien life. But on the trail of the best D’ Original Siomai, which has taken me from supermarkets as far as Danao on the north and Carcar on the south, I have yet to taste a frozen siomai that tastes better than the Styrofoam and plastic it’s packed in.

In a puerile way, these siomai lessons made my up mind against voting. Who believes TV realities? Who can trust spin masters?

But as Bataican, Baumgart and all voters trooping to cast and protect their votes last Monday have shown, the Filipino is more than just fat and gristle, wrapper and chili paste.

These Pinoys just redeemed the vote. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 20, 2007 issue

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Xman redux

CHEAPSKATE that I am, the first thing I bought when I had something left over from my salary was this mobile phone.

Inexpensive and simple, the new phone fit me, down to the longish time it took to unlock and the limited memory of my ancient SIM card.

As far as coexistence anxieties went, this new phone and I settled down in no time, except for a few days ago, when this infernal gadget went crazy.

Fumbling with the keypad, I panicked every time the phone tone indicated an incoming message. Each time, I feared the worst: my younger son finally swallowed his older brother and was regurgitating him out, with the pieces in odd order.

Every time, it was this and that writer asking if Myke was gone, had gone, was really, really gone.

Texting is really ideal only for thumbs that fly over the keypad and eviscerate nimbly the rules of English writing. It is not for technophobes that feel they have to use the shift key every time to begin a sentence with a capital letter; or leave a space after punctuations (two if a period).

Also, texting is just too bloody for explaining to the young, the heartbroken, the dreamers that the mentor they wrote for, imitated, drank with—heck, loved—had, as of 3 PM last Friday, taken off for an 18-hour flight with his two young sons and a pocket full of finger puppets to go home to his beloved Arlaine.

Thanks to Myke, my editor-on-leave, I discovered a facet of the phone I thought I knew: push the buttons too quickly and this unremarkable piece of plastic will rear its spirit and refuse to execute a command.

Toxic, my editor would have said, nodding his bangs sagely while smiling roguishly.

Yeah, everything’s toxic alright, Xman. Some just use the poison to make poetry.

I first worked with Myke U. Obenieta in 2000. Our group of writers and photographers were prowling in the firecracker-making countryside of Babag, Lapu-Lapu to catch children and minors assembling in the illegal trade.

It was my first special report but my heart was not in it. Why punish the victims? For Myke, his interest was not to expose and investigate; he wanted to listen to the stories woven by those small, nimble fingers before an accidental spark sent them flying all over the countryside.

In the exacting world of journalism, Myke and I felt, more often than not, like mutants. In the backyards of Babag, we took to calling each other Xman, or “X-Man,” if according to Myke, as he was more straitlaced about grammar than I.

Over the years, in the newsroom or during coverage, we bumped into each other desultorily. I knew him better though as one of the most graceful editors to light up a classroom or a young writer’s dreams.

Some students stumble into writing because, caught between the devil and professors who believe in “publish or perish,” they have nowhere to go but into the roiling waters of the publishing world.

But the ones that grow into their craft have, hovering over their pens, not just Muses but angst-ministering angels and nurturing mutants. Until he finally made good on his travel plans last Friday, the Xman did not assign writers as go off with them on rambling, irreverent, offbeat, funny explorations of language, the movies, drinking, poetry, parenting, loving and other digressions that inexplicably fed the Craft.

For those unable to believe he has left, let me comfort you with Epictetus.

It’s not only because quoting some long-dead Greek confers the proper gravitas on leave-takings. The fellow is in one of the books left behind in the normal clutter of my editor’s desk.

This, as well as an oil-and-pastel painting of a ballet dancer, the communities of writers woven around his four scrupulously updated blogs, and the unfinished series of despedidas requiring at least half-a-year to complete, are portents that Myke has just stepped out and will, one afternoon, pop up to declare to us, day-shift stiffs: “Hi, beautiful people!” 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 13, 2007 issue

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Roadside attraction

THE ART of sitting by the road is alive and well in the south.

In the past, rivers and other major bodies of water gave rise to settlements.

In modern times, highways and roads attract development: eateries, gas stations, advertisements, lodging places and department stores that shout the local demand for more than the once-a-week tabo or fiesta displays.

Commerce is served best by the directness and ease of the roadside exposure. Most travelers regard highways as the safety cord connecting two knowns—the point of departure and the destination—separated by the unpredictable and the unknown.

It was axiomatic, when I was a child, to go to the comfort room before leaving on a long trip. Among the women, it was protocol to prepare food or bring grills, pots, charcoal—a slightly reduced version of the dirty kitchen to ensure food on the road or at the beach was plentiful, home-cooked and safe.

Thirty years ago, it was impossible to find a clean restroom or eatery along the road.

Times have changed. Shopping and fastfood joints have encroached on the towns. Even gas stations are now one-stop miracles: gas up, use a restroom with running water (but hardly toilet paper yet), and buy ice-cold blended coffee.

In their private cars, travelers can believe the illusion they’re not too far from the city, lulled by the absence of traffic snarls.

Those yearning for local color can still take the bus. Even then, not all buses are created equal. Fleets with many units leave and arrive on schedule. If a tire gets busted, there’s another unit to pick you up minutes later, not an hour after or the next day.

All this efficiency though whets the nostalgia for the old coffins on wheels. Some are still on the road, fighting extinction, with seats for three that sit 2 1/4. Aisles were for standing in, windows for clambering in to grab a seat. Those who wanted to arrive on time took the bus a day early. Indulgent drivers were known to wait or return for town regulars still finishing their breakfast or toilet.

Where is the roadside spectator in all this modern upheaval?

They’re still there but never outside an internet cafe. (Is there an online junkie that sees the light of day, let alone watches life pass by? Does a chicken look to the right and left before crossing?)

If there is just a road, a bench, and an innate sense of having nothing to do but interested in everything, there you’ll find a watcher.

One dusk found us looking for a landmark near a town square. A boarded up house by the highway had two little ladies seated on an outside bench. Slight of frame and dressed in floral dresses, they were smiling at no one in particular.

A side street away was an old couple sitting outside their house. Beside their roadside bench was a pile of leaves blowing a thin thread of smoke. He was telling a story; she was looking at him.

When we missed a turn and went back the same route, another little old lady had joined the other two. The couple was giggling, looking at each other.

We found the landmark and did not pass that way again. But I like to think they’re still there: the little ladies, now permitted by the years to cross their legs in their short shifts and flick their foot at the road; those two conspiring to keep their joke, that life is best when one’s neither waiting nor going but merely watching. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 6, 2007 issue