Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Creating good fortune

OF THE many Filipino traditions welcoming a new year, one of the most enduring is readying 13 round fruits on the last night of the old year.

Combining the shape of coins and the bounty of nature, the fruit collection is believed to augur prosperity and good fortune.

For Alegria housewife Okit Patriarca, a fruit bowl she received as a Christmas present is already brimming with the auspicious "lucky" fruits days before January 1. To avoid the high prices of the market, she relied on her backyard garden and neighbors' gifts to fill her bowl.

"There's no harm in following what old folks believe," says Okit.

Her sister, public school teacher Nene Baylosis, thinks differently. "The (13 fruits) is a useless superstition," she dismisses in Cebuano. "What's more important is hard work and thrift."

Since coming home to teach at the upland barangay of Guadalupe in Alegria, Nene has continued her mother's practice of running a retail store, breeding livestock, raising corn and other crops for consumption and commerce, and volunteering for community events.

Learning from the past

Nene's visitor from Cebu City, Edgar Heredias, is quick to point out the significance of the fireflies that flock around a "dalanghita (native orange)" tree growing close to Nene's store. In the inky darkness of a foggy night in the uplands of Alegria, the fireflies look like strings of gold wreathing the tree, which holds out a few late fruits.

"According to old tales, a household is lucky if it has a tree that attracts fireflies," notes Edgar, observing aloud that while the nearby trees are dark, the dalanghita tree seems to glow in the dark. "Since this tree is growing close to Nene's store, her store will draw unlimited customers."

Then Edgar laughs, as if dismissing his own words as mere whimsy. A Toledo native who found work in Cebu City as a shellcraft designer and worker in the 1990s, he now runs a small store, with his wife's help, in their neighborhood at Sitio Kanipaan in Basak-Pardo.

A skilled worker who could fashion seashells and stones into fancy earrings dangling elephants and turtles for export during his prime years, Edgar had to give way to younger workers when his eyesight made it difficult to drill fine holes and attach thin wires.

He pooled his savings to buy household basics that his neighbors need. Since their community sleeps late, he also closes his store late, hoping to draw late-night customers. But like Nene, he follows the rule of prudence, not serving customers who knock after he has closed. He says that it might be roughnecks wanting to borrow drinks or robbers posing as buyers.

But if the late-night visitor identifies himself and turns out to be a neighbor needing medicine, Edgar says that he has not refused to open his window. He pools his store's profits with the earnings of his children, who are all working. Though living together in Kanipaan means maximizing cramped conditions, this sharing of resources has enabled Edgar, his children and in-laws to cope with life's vagaries.

Retooling for the future

A trip down the south of Cebu confirms the pervasiveness of "palihi (fortune-making)" traditions that echo farming practices. Instead of costly fireworks and other noise-makers, a banana plant, complete with a full "bulig" (stalk) bearing several banana clusters, adorn many a threshold. This practice is supposed to signify a year of plenty for both homeowners and visitors.

But for Edgar's son, Richard, and his cousin Joel Martil, their childhood in Bayugan I in Agusan del Sur left them with an unforgettable symbol of bounty and generosity: an "abuhan" (hearth) that never went cold.

According to Joel, his grandmother, Isabel Bongo, always had a fire burning at all hours because she invited anyone, even strangers, to stop by their home, eat and take a rest. The cousins remembered it was their duty to stoke the fire, an unnecessary act as firewood was unlimited, from felled hardwood.

Even as he remembers that their playing was rarely interrupted because hardwood, especially "tugas" (molave) can burn for hours, even days, Richard can still picture how the last standing forest near their ancestral home dwindled with every kaingin to clear land for more homes and rice fields.

Today, the forest and their grandparents, as well as their way of living, have passed. But industry, perseverance and family bayanihan continue to serve well Joel and Richard, privately employed in Mandaue City.

While there may be no harm in continuing some traditions, what remains ageless and reliable is human striving. On the last Saturday of the old year, Okit, husband Domi and son Franklin take the family tricycle to Badian to look over a "trisikad (foot-pedaled cycle)" that's for sale. Taken aback that the price has risen to P7,500 from last year's P5,000, the couple mull it over: can they make this investment work for them?

* Published as Sun.Star Cebu's Dec. 29, 2008 editorial

Manna in the city

THE PLATE of bananas broke the pall of pork.

In their speckled olive coats, the boiled plantains appeared one breakfast. Their presence was a drab contrast to the glazed meats and holiday sweets, some of which were still festooned with red and green ribbons.

Slight and curved, the bananas' silhouettes resembled boats rocking in the swells of an immense sea. The shape reminded me of the distance traveled by the bananas to reach our table.

When I bit into one, steaming and plump, I imagined how relatives of friends who wanted to savor Christmas in the city must have picked them, green and still dripping sap, before boarding their bus.

In the countryside, bananas are so common and cheap, they get none of the respectful handling bus conductors reserve for, say, a pig.

To be a banana means to be always tossed on board. A few "sipi" of "saging" (a crownlike cluster) will get squashed in a box that's squashed again into the running board, a furnace-like compartment located near the bus engine.

Even when it's a "bulig" (a stalk containing several "sipi") placed inside a nylon sack, the bananas still get unceremoniously tossed to the bus "top load," where passengers caging a free ride sometimes perch.

If during the journey, a "dawin" or a finger of banana detaches from a "sipi" and ends up splattered on the road, no one will pause to reflect: what a waste!

Bananas are common and cheap, unlike a pig.

A pig transported to the city gets consideration from the surliest conductor. That's because, though noisy and noisome, a pig is a commodity. Lechon (roast pig) on its way to a party in the city will deserve three paid seats on a bus or, at least, a commissioned motorbike delivery, including the cushioned seat of its messenger's lap.

Yet, these stellar attractions of Cebuano feasts sometimes leave an unfortunate aftertaste. Aside from raising cholesterol and uric acid levels, the lechon of Cebu requires aficionados to run the gauntlet, specially during Christmas, when consumption is at a high.

Horror stories abound. Of underweight lechon. Or the grossly overweight, the bamboo spit breaks and the carcass falls on the coals.

Of lechons that collapse right after a knife is stuck between the ribs because the "mangangasal" (lechon maker) has slyly carved away the "lomo" (prime cuts) lining the insides. Of stale pig's blood that bubbles and stinks, turning "dinuguan" (pork blood stew) into an inedible mess.

Or the lechon that is delivered without its traditional package of pig's blood and "ginhawaan" (internal organs). Of roasting so uneven, the carcass oozes red when the guests cut into it. Or roasting so perfect but the delivery is three hours late so guests have either expired or begun to gnaw each other.

Hearing this yearly whining, I wonder why Cebuanos do not make the sane decision to let pigs root in the mud in peace and turn to bananas instead.

The plantains I had that breakfast were just right, combining a still green firmness with the foreshadowed sweetness of maturity.

In Barili, I've heard it told that when there is nothing to eat, uplanders grate unripe plantains. Boiled and salted, the banana soup keeps hunger at bay.

Some bananas are sold to raise fare for a trip to the city. Others, to pay for school projects.

After bananas wind their way from some mountain remoteness to grace tables in the city, what can be tastier? 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu
's Dec. 28, 2008 issue

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Better than plastic

IN THE hinterlands as in the cities, plastic and human lives intersect.

But while plastic swiped makes the mall lines move, the plastic dominates the slopes and uplands of this country as plates, recycled mineral water bottles, and reused soy sauce containers that hold the lunch and drinking water that keep a student in school until class ends in mid-afternoon.

Walk into any public school in this country. There is enough plastic to make an environmentalist cry.

From joy. Out of the sheer humbling sense of inadequacy. Advocacy for Mother Earth's preservation is redundant when poverty dictates that nothing should be discarded for self-preservation.

Plastic is a savior for children that walk two hours to attend school, and another two to reach home, where, before they can eat or study, there is work waiting to be done in farms, with livestock, to accomplish chores without end.

When city visitors of a school sponsor lunch, plastic is what the children hold out. It is not just convenient; it is not only reliable. It is the only one that most children have.

Some of the children pair off, receiving their share of lunch that's good for two or three on a plastic plate or container that barely holds enough to satisfy one.

Among city career girls, lunch in a tiny box is a concession to diet and the anorexic trend among wristlet-bags.

When children in the uplands "make do" with a matchbox-sized lunch, they eat half now and reserve the other half for a later meal, the security of later satisfaction more preferable to one-time fullness.

Visitors ladling out the hot meals are confused when a small hand reaches out a plastic bag that's been used and washed. Just as plastic littering landfills is not uncommon, plastic bags washed and air-dried attracts no comment in places that are closer to the vault of the sky than to a store.

But not even plastic can hold interminable dominion.

Dispersed among the synthetic blues, greens, yellows and pinks of food containers spotted in the lunch line is the natural green of banana leaf.

Some parents strip off nearby plants to give their toddlers and other children too young yet to be in first grade any available container to allow their inclusion in the lunch line.

Juxtaposing the residents' spontaneous impulse with the visitors' plans, the banana leaves change the tenor and texture of lunch.

Instead of organizing a feeding, the visitors end up learning.

The initial awkwardness of twirling a pliable but shifting leaf is considerable but easily overcome.

In finding their rhythm of folding a rippling green skein of leaf into a spill-proof lunch pack that's better than plastic, the visitors discover an act akin to handing to each child a blossom plucked from the first Eden. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 21, 2008 issue

Saturday, December 13, 2008


GROWING UP, I knew it was nearly Christmas because the nights became longer, the days, shorter.

Today, I know that’s still a fact because malls have pushed back their closing time.

One night saw me and the hubby trying to finish our list of presents. When we heard a disembodied voice inform shoppers that the gift-wrapping sections were about to close in half an hour, we decided to split the tasks.

While he finished purchasing, I lined up to avail of the wrapping services.

I fell behind the couple that was being served. There were several carts parked around us, more items for wrapping.

A clerk emerged from behind a wall dividing the counter from an inside workroom. A blur of white polo, he slotted into the wall an enormous bag of brightly wrapped packages.

Looking at the overflowing slots, a towering wall of festive cheer, I noticed that the crowd favorites were the colors of gold and red.

Under the mall lights, the gold and the red glinted, talons clawing for the eyes.

I borrowed a pair of scissors from the one clerk working behind the counter.

When he looked up from the item that he had been wrapping, his eyes reminded me of the “swimmy” way the yolk jostles against the whites after one has broken a fresh egg over a bowl.

Stooping from my perch to reach the bowl of eggs I was whipping for my grandmother, I once imagined that all the yolks were trying to escape this gelatinous prison. To help them with their nascent rebellion, as well as hasten Lola’s baking, I pierced those yellow eyes with a fork until the yellow bled through and overran the whites.

I snipped off the price tags. I hunted down and scratched out the prices stuck on the underside. I placed each item inside a box. And then I went back to waiting for my turn.

The Voice announced that the mall was closing in 20 minutes but “they” would be more than delighted to have the “dear shoppers” again the following day.

The couple, that had been as immobile as park statues waiting for birds to roost, stirred when the clerk seemed to be doing the last item. The man commented that it surely was a busy time of the year, even more so for those in the “wrapping department.”

His woman companion did not add anything. The clerk went on wrapping. Looking at that bent head, I wondered why in rotten eggs, the yolks just seep into the whites but they never coalesce and encircle that white prison.

The man made a final attempt at fraternal talk after the clerk replaced the packages and summoned a porter. You’re a very fast worker, he said. Have you been working here long?

The clerk replied: No, I’m not a regular. I’m a charity case.

This made the man pause. His woman companion, about to follow the porter and their cart, also paused. I gave up trying to pretend I was not eavesdropping.

Do you mean an emergency worker? the man said, attempting to laugh.

No, the clerk replied. I looked at him and saw his face then, not just the white blur of his uniform or the yellow of his eyes.

No, sir, the clerk corrected himself. I’m a charity case. When someone works overtime and does not get extra pay, isn’t that called charity? 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 14, 2008 issue

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The clue of the bloated boa

REMEMBER Ben Stiller’s fright in the “Night at the Museum”?

Stiller, a single father desperate for a job, gets hired to guard the Museum of Natural History. On his first duty, he discovers that a curse brings to life at midnight all the stuffed specimens and dioramas.

Dodging everything from a rain of poisoned arrows to a playful T. Rex fossil that wants to play “tag,” Stiller displays a bug-eyed horror.

I empathize. If I came face to face with history coming alive, my confusion may even be greater than the sum of my fears. Should I be scared for my life or for my wits?

I stepped into Ben Stiller’s shoes the afternoon I went to the Cebu Normal University Museum. I wanted to buy a copy of Manuel Segura’s “The Koga Papers,” which accounts how Cebuano and American resistance turned the tide in the fight against the Japanese during World War II.

My quest to locate the museum turned out to be a degree less arduous than if I had physically attempted to go back in time to identity the body fished out of Sangat Cove, crash site of a plane that may or may not have carried Admiral Mineichi Koga, commander of Japan’s Imperial Navy, according to Segura’s fascinating account.

University guards made a hasty conference when I inquired at the gate how to find the museum. When the directions finally came, it was a relief to hear that these were slightly more specific than “part the misty curtains of time.”

Bibliophile juices already flowing for Segura’s history, I slipped to the side of an imposing CNU building, stepped over a leaking faucet and overflowing drains, ducked under dripping eaves and skirted past a backdoor foyer that had a wet mop and a half-full dust pan welcoming visitors and history-chasers.

Why is our glorious past invariably reduced, if not to the tender ministrations of forgetting and whitewashing, then to the clinging and sopping-wet attention of janitorial industry?

Yet, when I reached the second floor and saw a crowd of student visitors milling around the exhibits in the hall outside the museum, I reflected that the CNU was more visionary than many colleges, which, for lack of funds or desire, maintain no museum.

(At the University of the Philippines in the Visayas Cebu College, where I teach, we have a cultural center that has stood empty for years and a library containing an extensive collection of journalism references that would be highly respectable had these been reclassified as genuine fossils.)

The students milling around the threshold parted to let me in. For a dispiriting second I wondered if they, like Stiller, mistook me for a museum piece that just stepped out for a leak.

My first glance inside the museum allayed my insecurity. There was barely space to move so the student visitors had to come in by batches. Informed at first that the book in-charge had stepped out and later that the museum was out of copies of “The Koga Papers,” I stayed to look around or, more accurately, allowed the current of pressing bodies to swirl me past milestones of our history.

University museums reveal the idiosyncrasies of the minds (or spirit) animating them. The former Southwestern University Museum awed me for its prehistoric gold (and the legends behind their acquisition). When I stand before the folk-carved santoses and images of Christ in the St. Theresa’s College Folklife Museum, I reflect why religion class failed to raise me to the paroxysms moving the untutored hands of fishermen, farmers and carpenters that carved, out of driftwood, shell and corn “hair,” an invisible but palpable faith

I hardly visit now a favorite, the University of San Carlos Museum. It has come to exude a strong whiff of mothball and guilt, reminding me of the industry and intellect of decades of university scholars (and my inadequacies in history-chasing).

But no such reservations held back my fellow visitors at the CNU Museum. The teenagers poked, stroked and even snapped their fingers at specimens of taxidermy. They flattened their noses and pressed shiny foreheads against glass cases containing rusty medals and other memorabilia.

Finally escaping with the human flow that let out of the museum one batch and let in the next one, I concluded that young people cannot read even three inch-high signs that warn, “Thank you for not touching the exhibits.”

But also with equal certainty, I realize that museums reach some hidden, unsuspected spot inside the young. Perhaps it is seeing and touching that infuses life into a past that otherwise lies inert in a heavy history tome.

If a constipated-looking stuffed boa constrictor with an acute complexion problem can do this, imagine what it will mean for the young and the memory-challenged to listen to the likes of born storytellers like Segura? 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 7, 2008 issue

Sunday, November 30, 2008

For Frodo, fellow female

Reposting this column, which was a runner-up for the best opinion/editorial piece in the 4th PopDev Media Awards. Started in 2005 by the Philippine Legislators' Committee on Population and Development Foundation (PLCPD), the awards scanned 406 entries in 2008 to award "outstanding and responsible journalism on population and development." The Mindanano Times' Rene Ezpeleta Bartolo won for best op-ed piece for his "The seesaw for survival." His other piece, "Hunger," was also short-listed for the award.

Sunday, March 09, 2008
Tabada: What a woman can expect
By Mayette Q. Tabada

THE CAT is at it again.

From my desk, I espy the white cat sleeping on its perch: a pot of flowers with maroon petals.

Later, I see the cat has transferred. It is now napping on a pot of herbs.

Of all the cats that treat our place as a half-way home and diner, this white cat alone sleeps so unusually. Perhaps it thinks it is a plant, improved a little by way of four feet for hopping from pot to pot.

For a while, I thought the vegecat was a “he” until I saw it being sniffed at and then tailed by an orange Tom. Although I can’t be sure, the din he makes around her has me convinced that the white cat beds in a pot because there is no space for him to join her.

If I were reincarnated as a cat and had to bear a litter three or four times a year, I might also pretend to be a potted herb.

Reproduction and survival of the species inevitably came to mind last March 8, observed as International Women’s Day (IWD). When a male friend sent me an early morning text greeting, I was befuddled at first. Then I thought of my sons and wondered what I had, if at all, contributed in making them become better, more empathetic and truer friends and partners of women.

More than two centuries of observance of IWD seems to counter Sigmund Freud’s theory that “biology is destiny.” Yet, typically, every IWD commemoration is accompanied by findings that the survival of future generations rests on the promotion of the quality of women’s life.

Investing in mothers is the only way to ensure children’s survival and well-being, points out the “State of the World’s Mothers 2006,” a report produced by Save the Children.

This US-based humanitarian organization releases with its annual report a Mothers’ Index, which ranks the best and worst places to be a mother and a child. According to the 2006 report, Sweden led other countries in Europe and Northern America as the best places to be a mother. Somalia and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa were at the bottom of the ranking of 125 countries.

The Save the Children highlighted that education and access to health care, specially family planning services, are factors that guarantee women survive child birth and their children live beyond the first month or year of their life.

In the Mothers’ Index 2006, the Philippines fell in the median. Improvements in the typical Filipina’s life-cycles were predicted, though, by a 1974 University of the Philippines (UP) Population Institute study that found life expectancy improved dramatically: in 1900, a Pinay was expected to live to the age of 25; in 1960, it was 52.5; and in 2000, it is expected to be 67.5.

The chances of the Filipina and her husband surviving to old age have thus risen. According to a March 7, 2008 Inquirer Research item, women in Central Luzon have the highest life expectancy (74.42 years) in the country, with those in Eastern Visayas having the lowest (69.79).

The same UP study found that infant rearing will be delayed and shortened substantially by 2000. “A woman's first grandchild arrived around age 39 in 1900, around age 42 in 1960, and will not arrive until about age 50 in 2000.”

According to the National Statistics Office (NSO), women also live longer. Life expectancy is estimated at 72.2 years for Filipino women and 66.9 years for Filipino men.

It has been noted in the 2000 population census that around 76 percent of the 2.6 million widowed persons were females and only 24 percent were males. Explanations forwarded for this is that Filipinos generally pass away before their wives while Filipinas are less inclined than their male counterparts to remarry after the death of their spouse.

In the NSO’s Family Planning Survey of 2001, nearly half of married Filipinas (49.8 percent) used contraceptives.

This survey of figures convinces me that, at least in this life, women in this country will not have to take to the pot.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

A harvest of questions

HOW many women enter the orbit of a 10-year-old boy’s attention?

Only one, as I happened to learn one night when my son, Juan, and I played with the Cebu Province’s Heritage Cards.

A friend had given me the maroon box, which contained cards showing the photographs and profiles of the “Cebuana Trailblazers (Sugboanang Tag-una).”

Launched in August 2006, the heritage cards honored 60 Cebuanas, selected by a research team drawn from the academe and non-government organizations during the 437th founding anniversary of the Cebu Provincial Government.

Although I’ve seen the maroon box displayed at the University of San Carlos’ Cebuano Studies Center, I never got to scan the contents until that night.

And I might never have explored the cards if Juan had not asked me about the lady on the box’s cover.

The photograph showed a Cebuana, in native finery, posed against a painted studio background of oversized leaves. The sepia tone, the shadow of a smile hovering along those prim lips, the butterfly sleeves in gossamer piña brought to mind a gentle spirit warming some pre-war hearth.

Except for those anachronistic eyes. With a stare as direct and unflinching as any pants-wearing, take-charge alpha female of the Now generation, the cover subject seemed to coolly appraise me as I faltered before Juan’s question.

Hers were not the only eyes that saw through my ignorance. Juan, a schoolyard veteran at trading cards, and I had wrangled over his Filipino assignment a few nights ago.

Aren’t you a teacher? Juan asked, much too innocently, the woman with the butterfly smile.

I frowned but still barged into the trap when I explained, feebly, that I didn’t know the woman as she was born decades before my time.

To make up for that asinine excuse, I shuffled the deck until I found her card: Ines S. Villa-Gonzalez. According to the researchers, she was the only woman among four Cebuanos given the Premio Zobel, the country’s oldest award for excellence in Spanish literary writing.

In the 1930s, Gonzalez was an educator, a journalist, and an advocate for women’s suffrage. The woman with the butterfly smile and fighter’s eyes made me ashamed that I failed to cast my vote in three national and local elections.

Juan and I ended up taking turns, flipping 10 cards at a time and challenging the other to correctly name the Cebuanas. My three-decade headstart allowed me to show off (and recover face) before Juan.

But, gradually, I felt proud for another reason: to be mentored by and to work with Cebuanas like outstanding teacher and researcher Felisa Etemadi, journalist and historian Concepcion Briones, broadcaster Virginia Vamenta and gender advocate Portia Dacalos is to be aware that “heritage” is not old history but continuing present.

For 10-year-old Juan, heritage was even stranger than mastering verbs in Filipino. He wondered if the prolific writer Lina Espina-Moore was the mother of Hollywood actress-singer Mandy Moore. He took another look at Julia Ramon-Gandionco only after I explained that it was her avatar (using computer lingo for the gaming alter ego) used in Julie’s Bakeshop, maker of his favorite cheese bread and cornbread with the crunchy tips.

Juan did perk up when I flipped one card. “Gwendolyn F. Garcia,” he crowed. “Horse lady.”

When we came to slain lawyer Arbet Sta. Ana-Yongco, Juan said she was a “hero.” A teacher told their class that Yongco helped many women and children “find justice.”

One of her sons is his batch mate. He was on the second floor of their home when someone shot his mother, narrated Juan. “If (my classmate) didn’t see (the killer’s) face, how will he take his revenge?”

History can’t be dead if it raises such a bristling harvest of questions.

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 30, 2008 issue

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Cut that hurts

THE PAST semesters have made me change my views about call centers.

A student had to quit school to support herself last sem. Since it was midterms and her performance was exemplary, I proposed a flexible arrangement so she could at least continue the subjects she had with me.

The nature of the family crisis that figured in her decision to work seemed, to me, an even better reason to finish her studies.

After some weeks, though, she emailed that her training schedule changed. She had to pass this course because she needed the call center work. I respected her decision.

As I write this, I’m not sure if she’s back in school. But quite a number of the 80 students I’m working with this semester are working at call centers.

I used to flinch when I learned this. By the late 1990s, a few of my students just managed to drag themselves to my 7:30 a.m. class, except they often reached their seats with just a few minutes left before dismissal. Writing assignments’ 8 a.m. deadlines confused them, even though I’ve never bent this rule in over two decades of teaching.

And these were the survivors. Working on the graveyard shift seemed like a mordant prediction for preterminated university life. Unable to make up for the make-up work they missed in their classes, call center-working students dropped their school loads.

Or they wrote us off as an irrelevance. I once did the math while seating in my favorite chair, which has this student’s doodle: “push button to eject teacher.”

To acquire college “excellence,” a Mass Communication student pays, conservatively, P20,000 for one semester’s tuition and fees. She sits for three hours a week in a class moderated by a lecturer that might get P300 per hour. She spends another P20,000 for assignments, transportation, meals, lodging, all-night cram sessions. Upon completion of a writing class, she might now qualify as a neophyte reporter at P10,000 a month or at P300 per article, as a correspondent.

The math becomes increasingly malicious, based on figures: aside from a basic pay of P11,000 to P13,000 a month, a call center worker gets a monthly P2,500 food and transportation allowance and a performance appraisal bonus of P4,000. An agent meeting target quota sales gets an additional P11,500 commission plus a 30-50 percent night differential. “Spiffs” like appliances, cellular phone loads and gift checks boost the workers’ “sales per hour capacity.”

“All in all,” notes, “a well-performing agent gets a gross monthly income of more than P31,000.”

Unable to reach them in the confines of writing standards and class deadlines, I connect with them better when we’re both carping about jumping life’s hoops: work loads, bills, families.

For many a student, call center work is heaven-sent, specially when one’s parents decide they want a second adolescence. While many do support latte-and-Replay lifestyles, a lot also help younger siblings get the college education they defer for themselves. Supervisors and personnel officers haunt them every time they play musical chairs with call center employers.

“We must,” some say when they stumble in before I even open the classroom. The early morning light is no kinder on their tired 18-year-old faces as it is on my middle-aged wattles. After eight hours or more of professionally-induced self-control, they’re drunk with the desire to talk. Or keep one of the hardest silences.

Recent news of hundreds of Filipino workers getting laid off due to call center clients going under in the US meltdown has sparked anger, denial, jitters and fears on Internet forums. “Shove (layoff rumors) up your arse,” commented one, scoffing: where else can you find labor cheaper than the Filipino’s?

During early mornings with students, I listen and try to remember I’m not anyone’s mother. Still, I warn them from drinking too much coffee, smoking, unprotected sex. Listening to them rant against policies forcing them to fake accents and nationality, I really want to tell them to save their earnings, get their college degree and be whole.

But what is “whole?” For some 18-year-old breadwinners, a contact worker’s pay is passport to independence and family support.

So I never thought I’d see the day when I’d wish the business process outsourcing centers would remain the “sunshine industry.” Life’s tough when there’s no contest between losing the young and keeping them whole. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 23, 2008 issue

Saturday, November 15, 2008

In the presence of malice

BAITING bishops is a reprehensible pastime in this country, even for a dog like Monsi.

Monsi is not the real name of the mongrel that barks and chases the personal vehicle of a certain priest whenever it leaves the convent of a certain town somewhere near the tip of a certain province.

Although calling his name makes Monsi wag his tail more and give an answering comradely grin, work ethics demand I should withhold his real name.

One must protect the innocent, even canines that, due to a habit of chasing a cleric’s wheels, are at serious risk of losing either their teeth or immortal soul.

Those with malice in their hearts may read anything in Monsi’s barking-mad behavior: from the most uncharitable (“even the dog knows what the priest is up to”) to the simply impatient (“keep it shorter, is what that dog thinks of his last sermon”).

Since no one has ever said this to the face of the man behind the wheel that attracts Monsi’s constant aggravation, I presume no malice exists in the town.

But when I heard my students discuss how a packed crowd hearing novena in one of the historic churches in the city was urged to sign a petition denouncing the Reproductive Health Act, I not only remembered my irreverent wheel-chasing pal but also felt my incisors perceptibly lengthen and my saliva production increase—in Monsi, a sure sign that the priest’s vehicle was leaving the driveway, unholy opportunity for a chase and a chance to sink teeth.

During a chat with my teenage son, I again had this wolfish desire.

We were both reading in bed. While flipping a page of my book, I asked him if he had signed in school any petition on House Bill 5043.

What’s that?, came the mumbled response from behind his book.

I told him that it’s a law some lawmakers are trying to enact. If passed, HB 5043 will provide for population and reproductive health programs to be implemented from the barangay to the national level.

I added that the Reproductive Health bill mandates government agencies to inform Filipinos of the available safe choices about managing the size of one’s family, protecting the health of the mother and children, preventing sexually transmitted infections and other concerns related to reproduction.

Sex education will also be introduced in schools, I concluded.

Yes, was the only reply coming again from behind the book.

Unsure whether it was my son speaking or his book ricocheting sounds from the chaotic jungle of adolescent thoughts, I asked him to explain what the “yes” referred to.

Now recalling what transpired then, I realize that I didn’t ask only one follow-up question at a time, as the tradecraft of interviewing dictates so the source does not feel he’s dropped in the eye of a storm (or being chased by a tire-happy mongrel).

What I actually did was to bombard my son with questions, some of which ended with an interrogative inflection but with an imperative tone: what were you told before you signed the petition? How can you sign a petition for or against anything and not know what the matter is all about? Did you consider not signing that petition?

When my son finally put down his book, I saw that he considered the last question as one of those silly-mother thoughts: Ma, who would do anything against the priests?

I reversed tactics, hid my bared fangs: do you ever discuss sex in your lessons?

The book again went up: No.

Though I know my son sometimes despairs for my soul, my record of bites and misses attests that I am better than Monsi in resisting the lures of baiting bishops, if only because it feels that, as a Catholic, I am trying to bite my own tail.

For the nation is least at risk of impassioned debate, whether for or against the Reproductive Health bill. I cannot say the same for the Catholic form of obedience. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 16, 2008 issue

Saturday, November 08, 2008


G is a bottomless wonder. Since college, I’ve seen her cram in a lot of stuff—communication theories, jokes about men, law studies, jokes about men, liaison pressure, jokes about men, possible studies in finance.

Looking at that unflappable, endless profile, a stranger can have no inkling of the oceans sloshing inside.

But if you were to spend an hour with her, G can’t help but give herself away.

One, she whets her waspish wit on anyone born unfortunately not female.

Two, food commands her absolute focus but not as much as obsession no. 3—coffee.

Yet, last Friday, I was racked with doubt and seriously considered revising the Rules of G after my friend exhibited alarming unpredictability.

For a full 20 minutes and 37 seconds, she abandoned a steaming platter of spicy back ribs.

After placing her order for lunch, G excused herself, saying she would return after “quickly checking out something” in the mall.

When she finally returned, I thought my friend was a little too bright-eyed.

Later, after G ignored her brewed coffee for a full millisecond, I watched her with concern.

Just as I was beginning to wonder if something, or someone, she ate was wreaking havoc inside my bottomless friend, G takes out three things from her purse, which holds a notebook, phones, a coffeemaker and its back-up.

The three books rivet my attention.

And I end up plotting to murder my friend.

G turned out to be one of the first to check out “Their Books,” a benefit sale of books and magazines that were owned, read, reread and hoarded by what must be the most rabid sub-species of book lovers: writers.

Those familiar with the malady know that reading is a two-edged possession. At the outset, a person simplistically thinks that buying makes one own a book. But when turning a page already holds one in thrall, the balance of power shifts to the irreversible, and the possessor becomes the enslaved.

Short of the divine, can any earthly force induce a book lover to part with his opiate?

Now on its third and last day on the second floor of Ayala Center Cebu, positioned just across Watson’s, the sale is organized by the Tsinelas Association Inc., a group of volunteers that has been helping public school children and their families.

(Check out The Tsinelas Diaries ( to find out what this tireless bunch has been doing, from contributing chairs and setting up libraries to sending upland high school scholars through college.)

To fund two months of free art lessons for selected public schools, Tsinelas cajoled journalists, artists, musicians and just about anyone that cannot be trusted around a pen to contribute the books that moved them, blew a chill through them, made them howl when they saw the moon.

If you want to feed a book habit on a Third World budget or just desire to own a copy that was possessed by (or once possessed) your favorite writer, check out “Their Books” before mall closing today.

G’s coffee actually went cold while we examined her finds. We smelled the paper, tasted how the first pages read, and left the best for last: finding out who owned the books.

Her “Chicken Soup for the Soul” was well-thumbed by Louie Nacorda, memory warrior extraordinaire, whose collection of antiques and intimacy with old Cebu and Church lore confuse many to refer to him, very seriously, as “Monsignor.”

Black without relief and nearly unreadable, the signature scrawled on the inside cover of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories” is unmistakably Insoy’s of Missing Filemon. The disenchanted seminarian and Bisrock diehard is also the tireless idealist behind Tsinelas and their collective dream of helping children discover the world of ideas and possibilities.

G’s last book was the easiest to place. Handsome, pristine and rare, the hardbound collector’s copy of Sylvia Plath’s poems was signed by the flowing but precise pen of Isolde D. Amante. Plath rivals Hemingway as America’s most prominent writer-suicide. Less morbidly, she shares with Amante, Sun.Star Cebu journalist and Peryodistang Pinay blogger, an ear for words and feel for nuances.

Looking across at G, I contemplate slitting my friend’s throat and walking away with her copy of Plath/Amante’s poems. Then I shudder, and the murderous thought abandons me. I return G’s books, smiling.

I have my revenge: her coffee’s cold and “Their Books” is still on. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 9, 2008 edition

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Identity crisis

IF you could take a piece of Cebu with you, what would it be?

The supermarket of a mall near the Mactan airport was an education. The native delicacies ranged near and far, such as Bacolod, Iloilo and Camiguin.

It might have been due to my eyeglasses, but I swear the dried mangoes from Guadalupe looked a little sallow and overshadowed.

Munching later on toasted peanuts from Iligan, I wondered if Cebu, as an entrepot, can still offer something unique and vibrant to visitors.

Somehow, the lechon of Cebu has become quite the cosmopolite, often boxed and ready for claiming from many an airport's conveyor belt.

In one TV magazine show episode, the host lifted a grimacing compatriot from its airport box, peeled away its suit of tinfoil, cubed the rubbery skin and meat, and then slathered the cuts with the sweet sludge-like sauce favored in the nation's capital.

If that lechon could protest about the disrespect, I bet it would have gathered what remained of its bodily parts and walked out of that show. Cebu lechon must be crispy on the outside, moist inside. It needs nothing more than a dash of pure coconut vinegar, with kolikot pepper and tiny but pungent Bisaya nga ahos.

It's not just the lechon that's having an identity crisis.

When my New York-residing cousin was here last month, he had an unusual request. Ito wanted to read about the alibata, the 14th-century native writing, or anything about the Cebu of our childhood.

For the record, he was born less than a year before I was. For complex historical as well as plain personal reasons, I set out to look for books to correct my cousin's time-warped recall, mainly that we were not born before the era of Spanish contact.

As it turned out, the task demanded a missionary's zeal.

After visiting bookstores around Cebu's malls, I concluded that publishers think there is a voracious market out there for the secret lives of cats, and none at all for Cebu and its past.

Going through one of my accidental purchases ("The Tribe of Tiger"), I had to agree. (To mark its territory as inviolate from other toms, a cat can twist his penis to spray even the undersides of leaves, where the rain cannot wash away the spray.)

As I had no intention to arouse in my cousin a deeply atavistic and competitive side, I shelved the books about the super cats and continued the search for the invisible Cebuano.

For the evidence seemed incontrovertible: Cebu has changed and yet remains the same.

In my childhood, there was only the Paul's Bookstore along Sanciangko St. Today, there are even specialty bookstores fulfilling every bookish desire except the wish of a Cebuano to bring back with him a whiff of the old home to his children, born across the seas.

My cousin would have gone back to Huntington with only just the murmuring of desire, if not for the excellent Cebuano Studies Center.

Here, I came upon a copy of Ayala Foundation Inc.'s "Cebu: More Than an Island." Published in 1997, the coffeetable book is unrivalled for its essays and photographs distilling the essence of being born in the kinapusoran (navel) of the country, to cite the unforgettable opening in Dr. Resil Mojares' essay.

I would have bought more than a copy except the few remaining ones in the library were reserved. When the Cebuano Studies Center's last stocks will be claimed, there will be no more copies left for purchase.

I hope there will be a reprinting, or a coming out of new works preserving what is surely passing.

Back in Huntington, my cousin found that jetlag or age was making it difficult for him to settle down.

Reading "Cebu: More Than an Island," Ito once "imagined tartanillas passing by my house at the crack of dawn."

Even more disorienting than hearing a horse-drawn carriage break the stillness of the New York suburbs is trying to glimpse the Cebuano in the narratives back home. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu's Nov. 2, 2008 issue

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The usual suspect

FIRST, the Church.

And now the president, too, wants media to be “agents of hope.”

During the Oct. 17 opening of the P1-billion studio of GMA Network, Gloria Arroyo urged media to “sustain our people’s hope” in the face of a “global economic crisis that is responsible for driving up the prices of food, fuel and rice in the Philippines.”

In the next paragraph, however, the president debunks the country is in a crisis. Although the US is going through an “economic meltdown,” Arroyo says we only “face strong challenges.”

I check the mirror for signs. Whenever I hear doublethink, the cynical journalist in me always rears her head, an unlovely sight.

Doublethink can make two contradictory realities exist in a politician’s mind. As George Orwell wrote in his book “1984,” a fictional political party adopted these three slogans: “WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH."

But what did Orwell know? The man didn’t even get the year of the new dystopia right.

So I decide to take up the president’s suggestion, and go undercover in the sunny isles where journalists are loathed to tread.

I choose a day when I don’t have any deadline to beat. One has better credibility as an instrument of positive thinking when future articles are still at a hazy remove and one’s editor has, as yet, no idea what’s going to hit him or her.

I walk around our village. I smell the flowers along the roadside, and end up sneezing from the dust-coated petals.

I drop by a neighbor’s stall of local and national dailies to seek inspiration (and to be honest, some shade to relieve the headache that’s threatening to erupt from this excessive strolling).

Every reporter begins the day by scanning with hope the competition’s coverage. To survive in this business, we hope to have more scoops than our rivals.

I scan all four dailies. I scan them again. The story I’ve hoarded has not come out in the others. I’m alive!

About to give myself one point for giving one person—myself—hope to live till the next deadline, I catch the well-curdled face of my neighbor beside the weathered sign of “No free reading.”

When I walk away, my ears strain to listen to the jingling coins that have crossed over to my neighbor’s palm.

I am no closer to finding elusive hope but am richer by four dailies that I’ve already partially read. My heart plummets.

It zooms up again when it encounters half-way down the evilly cackling journalist that’s just bidding her time to resurface.

When I reach home, I spread the newspapers and read, page to page. I reread a couple of times just to be sure.

I realize then my fatal mistake. Why did I undertake this experiment in the first place? I should not have read the news at all.

Pandora opening the box released all evils except one: hope. The Greeks, in this legend, believed hope to be a weakling but still a risk

What is more dangerous than holding out a lifeline of optimism that life will ever be free of lying politicians, greedy generals, interfering journalists?

Yet what good is there in denying or ignoring the hard truths behind the headlines: “rice crisis,” “financial crunch,” “euro-generals mess”?

Beyond the pittance of her pay, a journalist exacts no influence on economic policies and trends, but she will report on these.

A journalist has no discretion over public funds, but will probe how these are spent or misspent.

Whenever hope becomes a fatality, why do we not look accusingly at those who betrayed, lynched, murdered and bragged with impunity afterwards?

Why do we blame the messenger? 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Oct. 26, 2008 issue

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Flavors and farewells

LONG after the last farewells, our refrigerator still holds out a few tendrils from what seemed like an endless clan reunion.

Poking my head in the ref one morning, I saw dried mango, mango tarts, maringo, barquillos and other delicacies that had to be farmed out among those of us staying put in the country because relatives returning to distant shores could no longer stuff it in their already excess baggage.

Food defines us; it perks up our welcoming and flavors our farewells.

When my grandmother turned 90 last month, she can still thread a needle at daytime but can no longer spend hours in a hot kitchen anymore. But since her sons, daughters, sisters, in-laws, grandchildren and other family members were coming home with their well-wishing, as well as unflagging appetites, the meals that always defined her table took on an even more prominent place.

For the tongue is an unflagging organ of memory.

When returning Pinoys want to see how the city of their birth has changed, the guided food tour is de rigueur for local relatives who want to show off either the new cosmopolitan diversity or the constancy of the city’s culinary heart.

The availability of 101 coffee variations and the most eclectic fusion of food fads still pale to the discovery that the favorite hangout from the old days of cruising the streets from dusk till dawn still serves the best sinugbang atay ug batikon (even if its former habitués are now less free to indulge, much chastened from elevated cholesterol, spiked blood sugar or disastrous HB1AC tests).

But nothing can beat a home-cooked meal for making a Pinoy realize he never left.

Home is in one’s tongue.

It’s not just that home is the only place where one is awakened by the immigrant’s luxury: the sounds and smells of breakfast being prepared at dawn. Or that Pinoy families have a gift for talking, chewing and swallowing at the same time.

Or that home is the only place where, in one of those unexplained miracles, the slow, long and mysterious ways of preparing dishes are carried out by an unbroken line of younger disciples, who, secreting kitchen wisdom from their pores, know that only native chicken can produce the broth that makes the bam-i unforgettable, or that homemade sorbetes demands that a group of sweating men should take turns at the antique ice cream-maker (although the link between male sweat and light-as-air ice cream is less a kitchen secret and more of a family joke).

Distance and time have yet to dull that leap. Among the left-behind pasalubong in the ref, I saw a strange but familiar packet.

Before leaving, my cousins and aunt shared with us some of the special baye-baye delivered by Bayawan City relatives. Smelling of toasted cacao, the candied coconut meat reminded me of an uncle who was unable to join the latest reunion.

We would have gone after the fish down south. But while my uncle searches for a worthy enough fishing rod and we convince the fishes they have to save their strength for the fight of their lives when he comes home, I hope he will look closer at the photographs his sons took during their stay.

It’s unmistakable: images of beaming faces during reunion feasts betray this telltale sheen.

For nowhere but home is the Pinoy most articulate: when his mouth is shut but his heart and guts are bursting. 01973226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Oct. 19, 2008 issue

No comfort food

WHEN I recently caught my mother in the act of breaking a house rule, I had no choice. I helped her finish a suspicious-looking can of peach preserves.

After several health scares involving lead, melamine and even monosodium glutamate, my fifteen-year-old son now bans all foods that are made in China from the small kitchen cabinet where we store our snacks.

But he cannot ban his grandmother.

Ever since my sister and I were no larger than a plump wrinkled heavenly salty “dikiam,” my mother always kept jars full of these preserved fruits on a recess above her clothes.

When she was trying to work up an appetite (she chain-smoked then), she sucked a seed. When she ate too much, she had another to calm down the threatened revolt.

Whenever she heard my grandmother about to enter her room, in went another black (“dikiam”) or red (“kiamoy”) ball to disguise the smell of nicotine on her breath (by jumping up and down the bed, my sister and I took care of the telltale smoke wreathing my mother).

As I remember of those days, things were simple: it was good to eat and bad not to.

Now, I have to remember with an effort that the act of eating is no longer pure or simple or good.

In 2007, China-manufactured toys were recalled in the United States. Overnight, these pricey imports were the least cool things to be found inside your kid’s mouth.

It wasn’t just because of the choking hazard. US authorities discovered that many of the toys contained a toxic amount of lead.

Ingesting lead can damage brain cells, I reported my Internet browsing to my boys. Though my sons are no longer at an age that can be bribed with a fast food meal that comes with a free toy, I still spent hours trying to recall if they ever, just once in the past, popped inside their mouth the made-in-China fireball-blasting ray gun that came free with their burger and fries.

When the recent mass poisoning cases in China were traced to melamine-positive milk, I reconfigured parenting’s minimum requirements: some chemistry background, journalistic sixth sense and baking know how to detect traces of melamine in the most angelic-seeming “polvoron,” éclair and other milk-based products.

Will this melamine episode rewrite the unwritten rules of amatory food-giving? I have other worries. Our family strolls around the Danao plaza are often punctuated with a P10-plastic cup of streetside mango shake.

When all that mellow golden silk slides down my throat, I don’t have to imagine real mango slices because I watch our “suki” scoop these into his blender. But will I be able to live with, let alone swallow and keep down, niggling questions about his milk?

With my family in mind, buying grocery has become a domestic rigor, a discipline in ferreting. Before putting an item inside my cart, I read and reread its list of contents as if reviewing a resumé. Every bag of noodles is a job applicant that must be interviewed and background-checked in case it harbors some life-altering chemical.

Occasionally, though, my inner rebel throws a fit. Then I remember the bags of candied plum, “haw-haw” flakes, dried black and white melon seeds and White Rabbit candies with wrappers that melted in my mouth. Then, there was no aftertaste: of shoddy consumer product safety, of world trade conspiracies.

While I grant that the past always catches up with us, I didn’t have in mind the long shadow of tainted food imports. Numbered are the days when comfort food meant the bite of sugar and salt, plain water and tart secrets. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Oct. 12, 2008 issue

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Email from a “kasama”

Dear Dom Pantaleon,

I admit I opened your email last night because of its subject: “Rachelle Mae.”

I wondered if you were reacting to last week’s column, which ruminated on the impact of Cebu Press Freedom Week on student writers, who may or may not be aspiring to be future journalists.

Despite my optimism, I digressed last week on the Sept. 18 death of nursing graduate and campus journalist Rachelle Mae Palang during an encounter with the military in Dauin, Negros Oriental.

I’ve come to expect either sympathy or an argument from readers. I did not expect a “Thank you very much!” from the Pulang Mt. Talinis Front Command of the New People’s Army (NPA).

And the three poems attached with your email sunk me deeper into the unease I feel over Rachelle Mae’s dying.

On one hand, an email is an improvement over the handwritten notes that were handed down by different couriers during martial law. An email is more readable despite one’s glasses, which, though old and familiar, tends to blur scrawls, especially those made in white heat (or should I say, revolutionary fervor?).

But I am now 43, less romantic than I was at 16 and just initiated to Emman Lacaba, Fr. Ed de la Torre, Pablo Neruda and the libertarian theologists.

Now, when I open an attachment emblazoned at the top with red fonts, I think, “cool,” and ask my older son to show me which software can make the same letterhead. The graphics remind me of graffiti sprayed by spelling-challenged punks or a movie victim’s last message, scrawled in blood.

Once, long before Red letterheads became the vogue, letters passed from hand to hand were also typed. Pica or elite. More often than not, pica was used because the portable models used the larger type (a portable typewriter made it possible for a friend to type tracts while hiding in the hollowed-out middle of a bamboo stand, but a university dancer lost her bearing after years of moving from place to place, even during raids, with a typewriter strapped to her back.)

Emails do not have personalities like a letter. Once, one learned to watch out for quirky signs to establish a letter’s authenticity; one group’s typewriter’s “s” key always jumped and left a space after it so “kasama” became the vaguely patriarchal, reactionary “kas ama.”

Your email could have been sent by anyone: punk, trying-hard movie victim or Red fighter of the NPA Pulang Mt. Talinis Command.

I confess that when I opened the attachment, “HALAD SA MGA MARTIR.DOC,” I worried more about potential virus. After scanning the three poems, I sent my standard reply: thank you for your contribution. I no longer edit for a paper but you may wish to contribute this to…

It is hours since I emailed my reply. I am still uneasy.

I realize now my mistake of seeing the forest for the trees. I should not have worried over the contradictions in who you said you were: a “Red fighter” whose nom de guerre of “Ka Dom Pantaleon” includes a title synonymous with “don,” adopted by royalty and Church hierarchy since the word’s root lies in the Latin "dominus," meaning "lord” or “master."

I should not have searched for authenticity in the empty militancy and stiff imagery of your poems: “Build peasant organizations/ In the heat of agrarian guns.” I fail to see how a poem entitled “S.O.W.” (for the revolutionary jargon of Solid Organizing Work) can be a tribute to fallen comrades.

I don’t write poetry. (I have too much respect for it.) I don’t believe in making a religion out of martyrdom. (We are diminished by any death, Red fighter, soldier or bystander.)

Dom Pantaleon, stay alive. Write and do not line your grave with a tired cause and petrified metaphors. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Oct. 5, 2008 issue

Saturday, September 27, 2008


CEBU Press Freedom Week has become a stepping stone for many students over the years.

For opportunity-strapped schools, the fora, exhibits, movies and other events sponsored by the local media and companies are a boon. This year’s lineup, which culminated yesterday, showed the diversity of opportunities for work in communications: lifestyle (not just hard news) reporting, online journalism, convergence in newsrooms and corporate communications.

These are welcome developments since local schools offering Mass Communications have grown from three to seven. For students who feel trapped between call centers and newsrooms, it is reassuring to know there’s a smorgasbord of employment that will tap their training and compensate them better for their diplomas as graduation often means more family responsibilities.

For the few but determined to work in journalism, Cebu Press Freedom Week allows several glimpses of the rigors and the rewards of covering one’s community. Although journalists’ salaries have fallen behind the leaps of technology and multi-tasking, some students still overcome their undergraduate ambivalence about newsroom careers to take that leap of faith.

In the four Press Freedom events I’ve attended this week, I counterchecked that a significant number of new reporters and correspondents for local newspapers and the TV networks were schooled in local colleges. The newsroom practice of hiring Mass Com graduates promotes professionalism, journalism practiced according to standards and ethics.

Hopefully, the newbies will eventually follow other colleagues that have made time in their tight schedules to lecture to college students about journalism, broadcasting and even Cebuano. As former UP Cebu student leader and now Sun.Star Cebu reporter Jujemay G. Awit commented about former Sun.Star reporter, now lawyer, Rosemarie O. Versoza, who lectures on the law and mass media at UP Cebu and volunteers for the Cebu Media Legal Aid, professionals teaching college undergraduates is a way of “paying forward” to the community.

I’d like to think that the Mass Com graduates who end up in other professions cultivate a lifelong healthy skepticism, which, coupled with their college training, makes them effective as critical news consumers and citizen journalists.

But Cebu Press Freedom Week also reminds me of the others. Since it was launched 14 years ago, the celebration is timed with Sept. 21, the day martial law was imposed in the country, muzzling the freedom of the press and other rights for years.

This year, Cebu Press Freedom Week is made poignant by the death of Rachel Mae Palang, killed last September 18 after the group she was with clashed with army soldiers in the town of Dauin, Negros Oriental.

Initially, there was some confusion when some misheard that the incident involved a UP Cebu student. The rumors were dispelled last Sept. 24, when UP Mass Com senior Rachel Chloe Palang stood up to ask Sun.Star editors during the “Reaching out to Future Journalists” forum how journalists can handle being harassed by sources.

Seeing Chloe made me think of the other Rachel. Then a student, distinguished in her nursing studies and campus press duties, Rachel Mae was a source interviewed by a former student whose angle about press freedom focused on campus journalism.

Reading my student’s drafts, I was drawn to Rachel Mae. Though swamped by the academic demands of her school and course, traditionally one of the most apathetic to student activism, she broke the mold by getting her campus publication to focus on student welfare, such as access to school services.

Many of us, working journalists, trace our start to the campus paper. Long before journalism teachers required publication of article assignments in dailies and newsroom editors opened sections to contributions from campus journalists, the campus paper was the furnace stoking our inchoate passions.

When our pens and keyboards found their groove, we all moved on: worked in newsrooms for our bread and butter or because we believe the truth is out there and it could set us free.

This column is dedicated to all those who believe. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 28, 2008

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Green sap rising

PALPABLE as a pear was the silence that received the closing lines of Carolyn Forché’s prose poem, “The Colonel.”

“… The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves… He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.”

One Friday afternoon, I sat behind a group of writers participating in the “Mugna sa Pagsulat,” a writer’s symposium organized by the University of the Philippines in the Visayas Cebu College (UPVCC).

Poet and Ateneo teacher Larry Ypil was asked to read Forché by UPV Tacloban professor Merlie Alunan to illustrate the importance of point of view in storytelling.

I joined the group only after lunch and was unable to hear their morning interactions with Larry, speaking on poetry, and University of San Carlos professor emeritus, Dr. Resil Mojares, discoursing on creative non-fiction. I had no gauge to assess the writers: how well they read, if they ate words for breakfast, or slept with them.

But the sight of so many school uniforms in the group made me perceive the hall as filled with young writers. Inevitably, this idea summoned two other phrases: “green sapling rising” and “the promise of new fruit.”

Whether the metaphors applied to the group as promise or cliché I could not make up my mind on until I heard them after Larry read the last of Forché’s lines.

In truth, the group said nothing at all. Even though Merlie negotiated the world of the colonel with them, picked out the images the poet flung about like trophy ears, no one seemed able to say anything that came close to explaining what Forché must have lived through when she worked with Amnesty International in El Salvador in the 1970s.

But for the silence.

The silence of the hall after Larry read the end of the poem was eerie. As a teacher of more than two decades, I am familiar with the effects of certain works. Essays are the classic headscratchers and ignite a pandemonium of ear-pulling. Many youths are raised to paroxysms by photographs and lyrics; utterly depressed by news writing.

But a poem that opens a fissure of silence has not spent itself, just given life to echoes ricocheting inside its listeners.

I found the silence eerie not only because a poem is usually just an unfortunate casualty, subjected to class postmortems and dissections that bleed sawdust and theories.

I found the silence of that hall filled with school uniforms eerie because many of the writers are young enough to know Martial Law only as a footnote in history books, and Ferdinand Marcos as the man who may or may not have killed the father of Kris. Those school uniforms are probably part of campus papers that will never volunteer for fact-finding missions that try to trace what is left of a hinterland community that’s just oozing and ripening beneath shallow mass graves.

And yet for the silence.

It is true that one must have lived to create a song, a painting, a poem. But the sap is greenest and the hunger is keenest when one is just beginning.

Perhaps our tragedy is that we pour resources into staging political showdowns between old dogs with old tricks. Shouldn’t we be holding more workshops to make us read more, create more, live more?

Or partake more of the pleasure in witnessing green sap rising. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 21, 2008 issue

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Ruminating on ruminants

GOATS can haul us out of poverty.

To encourage more Filipinos to invest in these excellent sources of meat and income, the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCARRD) published a goat-raising book and maintains an online message board, which attempts to answer all questions one can think of about goat breeding. (For instance, how many goats can fit inside one hectare of grazing land? The answer from Los Baños: six mature animals during the wet season; during drought, if native pasture is planted with legumes and grasses, 10-12 bucks and does.)

But the opening line of this column, and the brainstorm it spawned in me, was not sourced from PCARRD’s “The Philippine Recommends for Goat Farming.”

I have to credit Juan. Then nine-year-old, he blurted this statement out when he was in possession of a failed quiz on Friday night. In our household, this is the schedule for dispersing weekend rewards, such as computer time for games.

Perhaps reflecting that decades in school surely doomed him to the perpetual agony of gaming withdrawal, Juan declared that he would stop studying and be a farmer.

Okay, I agreed, cool as cucumber. But you’ll have to raise plants in pots since that would be all the land we own. No cows, I added as an afterthought, remembering my feline cabal and what it might do to any slow and placid animal silly enough to stray into their enclave.

That’s when Juan decided on goats.

As a former community extension worker in the uplands, I see no fault in my son’s logic (let’s not go into his motives).

A goat is a type of herbivore called a ruminant. As I told my son, his four-chambered stomach makes the goat efficient at feeding. Food goes to the first chambers for initial digestion. Then the cud moves out from the rumen and reticulum into the mouth where the goat “chews the cud” some more. He then slides it back to the last chambers, the omasum and the abomasum, before taking on another mouthful.

Eww, said my farmer.

Goats need less water because of the moisture in plants, I replied brightly, ignoring the spittle Juan was trying to dribble, in imitation of a drought-resistant goat.

From livestock traders that met regularly in Mantalongon, Barili, I learned that imported and upgraded breeds were desired but the bottom line in fixing the price was the size and the meatiness of the goat.

Though often portrayed in children’s literature as a solitary and idiosyncratic fellow more at home among rocks than with other creatures, a goat needs care from its human owners, if not to carry off handsome portraits while framed against a cliff then at least to look attractive, cut up and garnished, on the platter.

In a goat dispersal project, more crucial than hybrid pedigrees is the recipients’ expertise and commitment to care for the animals. Humans have to construct sheds, raise napier or forage, cut and feed these to the livestock, and give dewormers and vitamins—all these efforts just so goats can have a thriving sex life.

For as in all dispersal exercises, procreation is the end-all and be-all: get the does to produce kids (one of which is turned over to the next recipient or goat raisers’ association as “payment”) and bucks to mount does (so its owner can also earn from stud fees).

I skipped this portion of the lecture with Juan.

Unlike noisy cats and indiscreet dogs, goats make a pretty good impersonation of long-haired ascetics. Even though the English language is replete with sexually implicit expressions, from “buck naked” to “old goat,” the animals are publicly fastidious and dignified despite all our capering about and monitoring of their private lives.

Last month, while Juan fed and pulled around a white kid we named after him in the upland barangay of Guadalupe in the town of Alegria, I wondered if my son had stumbled on the secret that will liberate us from, if not poverty, al least scapegoat voyeurism. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 14, 2008 issue

We the living

I SLIPPED out of a library consultation to get a mass card before the church office closed for lunch. Priests take the longest break in this country, and I wasn’t sure if their offices also kept the same siesta hours.

She and her son were seated on the stairs outside the church office. They might have waited there all morning. Or all their life.

I was in a hurry to go back. She should have been gripped by the same urgency. It looked as if her kid had not eaten breakfast or dinner or meals before that.

It was hard to look at him. I could say that it was why I looked at her instead but that isn’t the truth. I was just in a hurry and she was sitting in the way.

Sister, can you spare something for lunch? We have not yet eaten breakfast.

I pointed to the desk. This was not in answer to her appeal. This was just the natural reflex of someone who thinks the hungry is someone else’s problem.

But she apparently took my careless gesture as a response, more than what she expected from anyone that day. She followed me inside the office.

While I spelled out the name of my deceased tiyo on the slip of paper, she stood beside me. She ignored the church worker answering phones beyond the glass partition. But her thin voice, directed at that glass screen, fairly trembled in indignation.

I’ve asked them for help but they won’t give me rice.

The phone rang again. Before answering this, the church worker spoke to the glass: I told you that we don’t distribute the rice anymore. Go see Ms. SoandSo in the office next to ours.

Uncertain, I held on to the slip of paper, my petition for my tiyo’s eternal rest.

The woman told me: Since morning, I’ve been here. They won’t give me rice because Ms. SoandSo says I’m always turning up in her weekly list of 50 recipients. How can that be? I don’t see her fat face every week so how can she say she sees mine?

The phone was finally silent, or perhaps was now on siesta. The church worker took my petition and my money, and disappeared. We listened to the sound of typing. When the worker reappeared, waving the mass card to dry the ink, the woman began again.

What does Ms. SoandSo have against me? Will she believe her list more than our hunger?

Don’t take offense, sister. Ms. SoandSo is just having a tantrum and has closed the NFA today.

This reference to the National Food Authority was made by a woman who just stepped inside the office. The phone rang. The worker listened briefly and then told the second woman to pop into the next office and tell Ms. SoandSo to answer a call.

The NFA is closed today, the second woman repeated. But she still went out to check. When she came back and saw that a priest had just entered the office behind the partition, she perked up and greeted him: Here is Father. Hello, do you have good news for us? Ms. SoandSo is not giving rice today.

How long does typewriter ribbon ink dry? I wondered. The priest kept looking down. I wondered if he was avoiding her question or our eyes. But then he found the tape dispenser and secured strips to affix a label for a package he left behind.

He then spread his hands as if to bless the women waiting for his answer: you are better-off than I am because I come from a poor province while you are living in Cebu City.

What brought you this far, Father? Asked the second woman. I came from Danao. Now it looks like I’m going back without any rice to bring home.

While I was thinking if being poor in logic makes one a better priest, the church worker finally handed over the mass card. The wall clock showed it was noon.

Before I could escape, the mother of the boy slumped against the wall outside appealed again to me: sister, can you spare anything for lunch?

Had the choice been given to him, my tiyo, who hardly stayed sober for most of his 66 years, would have not dithered over his choice: rather than bribe to secure eternal rest for a soul, better feed the hungry, who will always be with us. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 7, 2008 issue

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Mermaid’s tears

TRAVEL puts you in the mood for the unexpected.

I chant this to myself when, at the end of the road, is not a bath and a book but a “No Vacancy” sign.

This mantra usually works unless there’s a triple whammy of the unanticipated: a frustrating chase for a fact that might be camouflaged as fiction, a favorite room found to be taken, mosquitoes that end up as surprise roommates.

To be fair, the mosquitoes—long-legged beauties with hungry whines—were as taken aback as I was when I opened the tiny bathroom attached to our room. It was too late to fuss then about the in-house bloodsuckers: notebooks used in the fieldwork had to be sorted out; Juan demanded to swim.

At the pool, we found the staff applying chlorine. Best to wait for one more hour, they advised.

As my son’s grumbling was beginning to sound as maddening as the creatures we left in the room, I told him we could walk along the shore and look for mermaid’s tears.

A National Geographic article read some time ago ran a photo essay about sea glass. These are the small, frosted remnants of bottles and other glass items that end up in the sea. Sand and sea water break them down, smoothen and mold them, even etch patterns on the surfaces.

While looking for sea glass is as popular as and even more politically correct than taking seashells and corals, collectors covet the colors of red and black, which are more unusual since present-day beer bottles are usually green, brown or colorless.

But even the most common shard of sea glass, when it is slick with the sea or glinting with reflected fire, is not difficult to imagine as pearls of a weeping sea maiden or, found once on a beach in Dalaguete, a glass slipper just waiting for a royal foot.

A beachcomber’s dream, this coastline is a trifle treacherous for swimming because of the white-capped waves that slap and curl around the slabs of stone. Juan and I took a close look at the undisturbed hoard strewn along the coast. It is nearly beyond human capacity to fully appreciate even just a square inch of the shore. Just when one thinks the shade of this stone is unlike any hue seen before, the sifting of sand will reveal a tiny periwinkle with a shell design more intricate than any pattern woven by human hands.

Yet, sea glass remains my favorite as a showcase of nature. Where is the maestro to rival sand and sea in creating art from the meanness of garbage and negligence?

If only life’s surprises were all as delightful: a few hours before retreating to this place, my husband and I listened to a resident recount stories of a war I only read about, even grudgingly, from course-required references.

To reach the beach after the interview, we drove past a patch of trees. It looked the same as always: canopy shadows dappling the ground, a sleepy breeze ruffling the overgrown grass. Passing by this place countless times, I’ve never really seen it.

I could not now look at it, remembering the source’s stories of children tossed in the air while soldiers made a bet to see whose bayonet could impale the most number of bodies. Whole families were executed once fingered by the hooded informer, star and sole witness in the town’s juez de cuchillo (justice of the knife).

It is said that something nameless still flits across the faces of oldtimers when the name of the war collaborator is mentioned.

When a name was finally given in answer to our question, I was slow to react. Perhaps the hours of listening played tricks on my mind. Maybe I had been asleep in actuality, dreaming only that I was interviewing. It is hard to wake up when you are working so hard to convince yourself that you are awake.

Like a pretty glass washed ashore, memory can become anything. Increments can compress to bear down, reduce bottle into shards into a fairytale slipper or pearls rolling from a sea maiden.

When a name was uttered that afternoon, I remembered the stern face of a senior who said, write as if you are chasing the truth, while another recalled bodies transfixed on the lance of an unforgetting, unforgiving memory. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug. 31, 2008 issue

Veneer of language

MY sons’ school required students to come in Filipiniana for a day to usher the month celebrating the national language.

This year he broke his personal record and chose to go as a farmer: plain white shirt, denims and my old slippers (that are not made of rubber harvested from some South American rain forest).

I considered but later abandoned voicing out my suggestion that a field-battered native hat and a Made in China cotton towel slung around his neck would make him look more like the Filipinos, male and female, who turn the soil and raise the greens we eat.

Due to some star-crossed accident, my son, a fastidious dresser, happens to have a laidback, sartorially clueless mother. Since nursery, when August rolled into view, I always sent him off to school dressed as a farmer while his classmates came in barong.

During those years when I could dictate to him, I mounted an elaborate song-and-dance to convince him to choose comfort over appearance. I could think of no more horrible torture than to be stuck the whole day in an itchy top that took itself so seriously.

Who has a better job than the farmer? I expostulated to my son then. To have all those sun-drenched fields to yourself and a placid colleague, who, if he gets too warm, will simply cool off in a mud pool? In a barong, all one can do is to look honorable, which is of not much use if you want to shuck off your slippers, look for guavas or catch fat frogs.

For a couple of years, my son complacently marched to school as a farmer. I don’t know when he stopped making concessions to me and ushered in Buwan ng Wika in a barong. It must have been at about the time I grew up myself, and stopped deciding what he should read, how he should structure his free time, etc.

So I was not just mildly surprised when he chose his farming “threads.” I speculated on the reasons: was his crush going as a barrio lass? Days earlier, his younger brother left for school in a barong, looking like a pure, unblemished acolyte of new politics. When Juan came home, his barong suggested that he must have spent the rest of the day cooling off in a mud pool with carabao chums.

When Carlos, my farmer, came home, he looked as fresh as ever but a tad sheepish. He had debated calling home to ask me to send his barong, formal pants and shoes after he learned that his particular garb was forbidden by the school. He and a few others of the same bucolic fashion were excused only after it was learned that a teacher had failed to communicate this policy.

I was furious the way a carabao, creature of legendary placidity, becomes a frothing element of red wrath when he finds that his pool is being converted into a mud spa for tourists.

When did the country become an archipelago of barong wearers? Sure, piña and jusi confer dignity but you only have to watch three minutes of the House and Senate in session to realize how thin a veneer of intelligence and honor the costliest barong can guarantee. If all of us stayed inside a barong, would we have any rice to shovel down our throats? Would you be drinking dalandan juice right now? I asked my befuddled son.

I was still mumbling that ukay-ukay (used clothes) and cheap Chinese imports were drastically changing the way many Filipinos dress when the TV news showed footages of civilians caught between the conflict between the military and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Kauswagan, Linamon and Kolambugan,

Widows no longer seemed to cry. After losing partners and breadwinners, these war widows draped themselves over coffins and bodies in the timeless, wordless posture of uncertainty. On their children’s faces was the blankness of shock. What future can we expect if our hatreds rob the young of their hope?

A few days ago, I was crossing the college quadrangle when the public address system aired the noontime angelus. I paused in the shade of a mango tree and looked at a blinding blue sky.

Language is not just about words. It can also be the wordlessness that constricts the throat. In the presence of a particular shade of blue and tolling bells that summon grace. Or under the mercy of an open, ambiguous sky.

When we honor the Filipino this month, may we never forget one word, garbed in whatever language: kalinaw (peace). 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug. 24, 2008 issue

Food trip

THE FIRST thing you leave behind when you travel to the country is your fraternity of adjectives.

When you step off the bus into a town that gazes back at you with the stolid gaze of unseeing, you can’t reach out for the customary comforts: “exotic” does not describe the scenery, only the public toilet no one has tried to flush for years; “hospitable” suits the mosquitoes that hum around you just as the market’s only vendor shuts her stall just a little after twilight to cook dinner at home.

But Ernest Hemingway questioned the use of adjectives in life. Who am I to argue with a man who traveled hard and wrote lean?

I bring baon instead.

Translated into Filipino terms, brown-bagging is an honored tradition of not just bringing one’s lunch to work. A trip to the countryside, a day in the beach, the quest to find the precinct to cast one’s vote, recuperation in the hospital—the Filipino’s life is replete with situations that require a long wait, the Deity’s disposal, and standby food ready to be brought out of a bag.

My generation was hardwired from birth to anticipate food scarcity, avoid diarrhea and cut down on “eating out” costs by cooking at home and packing provisions in plastic (recyclable, not “disposable”) containers, pots and pans or the suddenly stylish banana leaves.

When my 89-year-old grandmother recently replaced the car she took to travel up north or go round south, she examined models with one crucial consideration: is there space to hold a cooler?

Men are quick to roll their eyes at female fussiness. They are the first, though, to pop the tab of a cola drink chilled since 4 a.m. and after a road trip has logged a dizzying number of digits on the odometer. When you are in the middle of nowhere, staring at roadside softdrink bottles glowing with the extra-terrestrial pink or nuke orange of gasoline, female compulsiveness can emit excellent, even life-saving, vibes.

Provincial tours have changed much. Now, anyone can sign up for a group tour, step out into nowhere, and be met by festive bands, gyrating root crops and tables groaning with local “specialties” that would not be shy on a cosmopolitan grocery shelf.

Alas, my lack of fortune relegates me to the bus-riding, adjective-swapping masses. And after years of brown-bagging, I have to concede to my husband’s wisdom: being open to the unexpected is a lot easier than lugging along a kitchen, with a collapsible table or two.

Human optimism, though, has thresholds of elasticity. Walking into the Alegria highway market, hours after the weekly tabo packed up, there was only a single stall still open. The store owner was playing with her grandchild, already in pajamas.

All that stared back at our rampaging appetites were a few forlorn pieces of humba. I resigned myself to death from cardiac attack, which is at least quick.

But after our friend Ronie asked hopefully about other choices, Luciana “Nanay” Gomez Borda volunteered that she still had a fish head left in the fridge. An hour later, the 60-year-old barangay councilor, volunteer fish warden and cave guide who had risen at 3 a.m. to prepare for the tabo crowd invited us to sit down for spicy stew, crunchy vegetables and stories that drifted and lingered in the darkened, quiet market.

Long after the fish head was sucked dry and tales wound up at their origin, Nanay thanked us for the stories although, in truth, we groped for words when she said guests did not pay for dinner.

Much as I revere Hemingway, adjectives have some use during travel. Use “exotic” for places that open to strangers; “hospitable” for sustenance that goes beyond the momentary.

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug. 17, 2008 issue

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Dream team

THE CATFIGHT between Tom and Gwen may do for now, specially with the national pug, Manny Pacquiao, resting on his laurels.

I am not a ring connoisseur, preferring the more quiet excitement of a book. But the latest clash between the Cebu City mayor and the Cebu governor may hold out some tidbits.

For one, I am curious if Tom and Gwen’s spitting will reinvent the meaning of “catfight”?

My dictionaries define a catfight as one involving a lot of shirt-pulling, eyeball-scratching and hair-tugging between two “cats,” a figure of speech for a spiteful woman.

The question of gender has never been publicly raised in the word war between Cebu City Hall and Capitol. Maturity, intelligence, self-control, sense of humor—these have been speculated as lapsed or absent in one or both parties.

Perhaps news pundits should drop the gender-obfuscating “catfight” for “dogfight,” especially if Tom or Gwen or both abandon the public exchange of spite and start punching or arm-wrestling.

According to references, a “dogfight” is an aerial combat between fighter aircraft. But since the contested object is territory, not a man, “dogfight” is more appropriate than “catfight” for the current lack of love between these two politicians.

I said so to Natan recently when I submitted my nape again to his labaja (razor). My barber disagreed.

Tom and Gwen are one, was Natan’s take. No division, just addition.

One? I snorted. You must mean “one,” as in an eye for an eye.

Since he has been shearing my head and my boys’ for more than a decade, I have deeply absorbed the political analysis Natan dispenses as freely as the sneeze-inducing Kateena powder that he dumps on my nape.

The first time I saw him, Natan had hair so long, I mistook him for a follower of Father Tropa, the Lamplighter. But since he obviously knew his labaja as well as an abattoir worker, we go to him for our haircuts. Not only has he never cut us, I endure even his choice of powder to listen to his political commentary.

If you make a long and scholarly study of tabloid news—as Natan does—you will arrive at the conclusion that love and war are opposing faces of the same coin. The drunkard who smashes in his woman’s face will tenderly caress that purple visage in front of network cameras to avoid rotting in jail.

Yet I was not ready to accept that my barber had indeed become a Lamplighter, a peacenik, during the interval it took for my tresses to grow a quarter of an inch.

‘Tan, I was referring to Tom and Gwen, not Tom and Katie.

To the unkempt youth that just stepped inside the barber shop, my barber shouted advice that he should first pour gasoline on his hair, set this on fire, and then come back for his haircut.

‘Tan, Gwen just launched “One Cebu.” You think that’s a subliminal wish to repair fences with Cebu City?

Or is she just maneuvering to gouge out the city even if this will make Cebu a one-eyed freak?

His scissors snipped, snipped: Tom said that if the right hand gives an award to the left hand, that’s the fault of the ego, not the hands.

Sure, I said. Because Gwen awarded her father and brother in the Garbo sa Sugbo, Tom paid a compliment to the Garcias’ healthy ego.

The scissors snipped and stopped: Tom’s healthy, too. You seen him from the waist up?

The Tom-Gwen dogfight puts Cebu in the news better than just Tom or just Gwen. When my barber predicts that the addition of two bloated egos can better launch a PR campaign, I have no reason to suspect his mathematics; only his choice of powder.

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug.10, 2008 issue

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Other side of the mountain

SHORT cuts rarely work.

When the hubby and I took an approximately 40-kilometer detour from the town of Alcoy in the southeast to Alegria in the southwest, we were trying to shave off travel time and expense. A route via Carcar or Oslob would take thrice as long, and make us late for an early afternoon appointment in Alegria.

We left the timeworn but picturesque convent near the Poblacion of Alcoy a few minutes before noon. We coasted down the slopes of Montpeller, a short distance away from the Alegria town center, before 1:30 p.m.

The trip would have been shorter had the way not been so distracting.

In the '80s, a four-wheel drive, motorbike, horse or a sturdy pair of legs brought us close enough to brush the "ceiling" in the south.

But though we could see as far as we wanted to while standing at the summit of sitio Libo in Barangay Lepanto or Barangay Nug-as in Alcoy, we were stalled then from taking an unbroken east-west sojourn across the mountains for lack of roads.

It was rumored that there was more than one trail used by those pushing the illicit trade of marijuana on both sides of the southern range. But we sought nothing more exciting than the nip of mountain air and the mystique of fogs that descend from nowhere. So the "other side of the mountain," a title of a popular romance in my youth, became a fitting name for this elusive connection.

But a recent call to the town of Alcoy and a visit to their website,, verified that Nug-as and Lepanto were now connected by a combination of asphalted and cemented strips. The family sedan made it up effortlessly, though we wished we had a new muffler to tone down the sounds of our intrusion after a huge bird, flame-crested and with dark plumage, swooped right across our path before crashing into the trees.

Years ago, I envied vegetable traders and mobile disco crews because their work brought them to these remote, unspoilt places. It did not yet sink in to wonder about the cost of intrusions.

The creation of a road is always hailed from the standpoint of travel, trade, progress. Yet this innocuous strip is hardly as black or as white as it seems. A road marks off the poor, who cannot afford habal-habal fare and balance their laundry, tools or purchases on their heads as they head for the footpaths.

A road also exposes the uplanders. Many will take off valuable slippers or shoes to make a rare visit to town, donning back the footwear only when the church or town hall is near.

As in the '80s, when the scarcity of water drove residents to harvest banana sap for drinking and washing, the slopes leading to Nug-as still show few signs of habitation: no roadside resting place, only five habal-habal (motorcycle-for-hire) ferrying passengers. The Alegria side is a stark contrast, with its modest traffic of traders and weekend commuters.

Mutely testifying to leadership and community, the Nug-as-Lepanto road reveals the other side of the mountain. We drove past a government team finishing the asphalting of an all-weather portion near the center of Lepanto. Descending to Alegria, we carefully negotiated road portions that already required extensive repair. Perhaps the barangays had to dig or maintain canals to divert water runoff. Or the layer of asphalt could be thicker so this would not flake off, specially in water-logged areas.

We broke off for lunch and drank in the silence under the pine trees of Libo. I can believe that the wind in Lepanto can blow anyone across Tañon Strait or over that vault of clouds.

The roads made by people, though, are rarely the short cuts they seem to be. 09173226131