Sunday, January 27, 2008

Wild life

LEANING over to check out the motionless monitor lizard plastered against the cement wall of its pen, I almost squashed the millipede.

My little finger alone is fatter than that industriously wriggling body. The combined weight of my leaning torso would have turned my fellow creature into splat art, a personal tragedy for the millipede and its progeny, but, on the scale of my zoo moments, just another speck in my acquaintance with caged specimens of “wildlife exotica.”

Since a Girl Scout fieldtrip exposed me to a masturbating orangutan in the former city zoo, I’ve always viewed a visit to any manmade animal “sanctuary” with mixed feelings.

Still drawn at 42 as I was at nine to pythons, crocodiles and other animals my father never considered adding to my childhood menagerie of 12 dogs and a cat, I like animals more than I can stomach most humans.

But while I can be transfixed by a freshly caught squid pulsing purple and silver in the translucence of its last moments on a vendor’s slab or watch my cats watch their flicking tails, I can’t linger around the pens.

It’s not the stink—urine, rot, some festering sore matting an animal’s pelt—but my smell, what, if I had an animal’s finely tuned senses, I would have detected as emanating from my body as naturally as skin warmth or sweat: horror, pity, loathing, shame.

No Indiana Jones or Crocodile Dundee, I see and am reassured by the bars, screens and walls that keep me beyond the animals’ reach while fixing the beasts in my sight.

But where is the barricade to sanitize my viewing? The partitions that allow me a ringside stance to observe the fine, brown-red hair on an endangered Philippine deer’s antlers are the same ones that keep me hostaged to the sight of penned-in civet cats, Philippine leopards and monkeys manic pacing around their prisons, surely a sign of domestic psychosis not afflicting the most simple-minded, slow-witted but free-range chicken ever to cross the path of an onrushing vehicle?

Is it only decrepit and underfunded zoos that transplant the sensitivities of concentration camps, ghettos and resettlement camps among the great untamed?

In an upscale Bangkok crocodile park, I once jostled with other tourists snapping photos of young men wrestling with crocodiles. One half-naked fellow in red pantaloons roughly embraced an undersized crocodile while his smiling colleague forced open the croc’s jaws so he could insert his head.

Remembering my younger avid self, I can think of a use for “lockjaw.” We foist our craving for entertainment on creatures that would disagree, if they were higher up in the food chain.

Bereft of our boys, who would have lightened the visit to this mini-zoo with the charm of a day’s escape from the humdrum, my husband and I wander among the cages. He tries to teach Cebuano to a chatty Myna that will only utter “hi” and “goodbye.” After several tries, the mentoring breaks down: the hubby resigns himself to simply translating the bird, who outparrots the parrot in sticking only to his learned English, perhaps expecting an early breakfast, only to be disappointed by the human’s obtuseness.

Emerging from the gloom under the thick canopy of planted trees, we leave that otherworld of caged smells, plaintive cries and sudden, despondent lunges.

The breaking sun catches bits of color in the dew-moistened sward around us: discarded styro packs, “puso” leaves with sticky grains of rice, even three cans of Coke thoughtfully wrapped and sealed inside a plastic bag, which someone deposited under a log.

Our parks certainly reinvent the wild life. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 27, 2008 issue

Saturday, January 19, 2008

View master

HERE’S my unsolicited advice for Sinulog revelers: the best accessory today is neither flipflops nor a hat.

It’s a view.

Commuting around the city for the past days, I couldn’t not see them: the bleachers, stands and other platforms positioned beside the road.

Driving home on the wee hours of the morning of Saturday, I saw men still putting up some structures that will be later filled with people, starting with the Saturday afternoon procession of the Santo Niño image and lasting till the Sinulog Mardi Gras on Sunday.

The bleachers look odd in an urbanscape almost palpably vibrating in anticipation. Unlike the waves of pennants unfurling over the sea of humanity that will blanket the main thoroughfares, these structures are skeletal, bare.

They hover beside the roads like old men summoned once again to be of service. No need to garland them with bursts of color. At the height of their greatest use, these bleachers will be invisible, crawling with spectators craning for views of swirling dancers, floats of imagination, giants, pretty faces and yet more cavorting.

Strength of materials and the power to give a vantage point: only two reasons why somebody remembers to take the bleachers out of storage.

According to Jarenz in, these “retractable tiered benches for spectators… will not cost you anything except for a sun tan.”

The Sinulog Foundation Inc. has even assigned a committee of engineers to oversee the bleachers, as well as risers, judges’ stage and platforms.
The police also advised that “illegal” bleachers, put up by establishments to monopolize the view along the Sinulog carousel route, will be taken down. According to the authorities, only one firm is authorized to put up the public bleachers.

Bathed in the dingy pool of streetlights and reflections from the rain-flecked streets, the bleachers do not seem as if they have to contend with the gravity of their self-importance, on top of the crush of curious humanity.

Fixed at their stations until their use is over and dismantling alone awaits, these bleachers have seen more Sinulogs than I, residing here for 42 years, have seen. These bleachers may see twice or more that number of future events, unless rust or technology gets to them first.

I claim no intimacy with bleachers as I am phobic around crowds. The few exceptions I make to walk with a mass—for the Santo Niño, press freedom and a few pet causes—I find I prefer the view seen from the level of my eyes.

To view upwards is to assume an adoring, blind gaze; to view down is to belabor under the conceit of privilege, conferred always with a vantage point.

Trailing behind in the Santo Niño procession, I often watch that red-and-gold vision dwindle to a mere speck until it disappears while a sea of devotees break through the streets’ cordon and push me farther and farther away.

Why the need for pilgrims to wave after a figure that’s no longer within sight? If the bleachers could speak—they who are most functional when they are invisible— I think they will say: a view is not a prerequisite for faith.

In this life, few things can be more anomalous, or miraculous. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 20, 2008 issues

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Queer fish

BIZARRE is just a view. For a yearend assignment, my editors gave me a compilation of archived stories on events that went beyond the ordinary in 2007.

While the rest of our household had meatballs and Parmesan in the hours leading to the new year, I was rereading and spending time with the man in Alcoy who, in a drunken fit, beheaded his friend and was caught later in his house, chewing on his late, unlamented companion's ear.

So, even though bizarre is just a view, happenstance like this makes one re-evaluate a steaming ball of meat swimming in pulpy red sauce with flecks of melted white.

Sight and insight. Thanks to newspaper work, I'm on the front row, most days, watching life flash forward, move back or stall. It beats a movie ticket: life is a narrative that's rarely causal, linear or predictable. A few months before, the Alcoy fisherman had opened his home to a friend who was fleeing his past, the law or both. What were the odds that he would breach, after a few bottles, the seemingly endless gap between savior and cannibal?

More than history, literature has shaped in me a lifetime habit of solitude and reflection. I want to hear myself, is a reason why I rarely chat with fellow travelers, like eating alone after writing, or hole up in our household's single toilet, deaf to the furious knocking and hollering of a desperate world.

But how much of insight is prescient, if at all useful? If I had foreseen the meatballs' congealed state on my plate, would I have stopped the boys from methodically eating the bread crumbs we toasted that afternoon? My husband, the chef, had instructed that any bread leftovers were to be diced and toasted for mixing with the meatballs.

When my sons seemed to be dipping too often in the bread crumb bowl, I asked them to desist as we had no buns left. Our village's favorite baker had gone home to await the New Year. This meant either buying bread at the nearest mall, clogged with last-minute buyers, or buying pan de sal from a corner panaderia that had only a few flies tending the empty shelves after a dog was seen defecating near its sacks of flour.

On the other hand, the reader may not see at all the line drawn from the bakery jinx of a dog with a poor sense of hygiene to the bizarre gourmand nibbling on his dainty in Alcoy.

With apologies to literature, insight may just be a figment of one's pretence. It's probably more "out" than "in" sight, at least for healthy, ravenous boys who can't see why one's mother has to be stingy with stale dry bread when she has obviously lapsed in stocking up on snacks.

Reading too many newspapers does pose a bit of danger beyond the usual smudged fingers and heightened paranoia. Woozy after one dawntime rereading of online news stories, I stepped out of my classroom one rainy morning.

The balcony overlooked a pond. As raindrops hit the water, the fishes moved under a decorative column of rocks arranged in the pond.

Were the fishes taking shelter from the rain? As I watched, the grey crescent forms retreated. Diamond heads emerged from under the rocks. Contrary to the philosophical musing, do fish in water notice after all that their world is not just wet but bizarrely wet, as when rain falls into their pond universe?

I can still hear myself, as a child, ask: can fish hear? With a head full of news, a 42-year-old addressed a school of fish in rain-with-the-pond one morning: sight, insight, out of sight, earsight. mayettetabada/ 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 13, 2008 issue

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Out of Eden

ANIMAL cruelty: only a human being could have devised a terrible slur and palmed this off on another class of beings in our deceptive Eden.

If you think I am exaggerating, just look at our stories. While Noah got to secure several members of his clan, the animals had to narrow their choice to a small universe of two members for every species.

How difficult it must have been for the four-legged, the winged, or those who slithered by on their bellies! The Holy Book is silent about the selection process: did the animals use necessary “animal cruelty” to find who among them was the primus inter pares (first among equals) and his mate?

So even a creature like the dodo, two-legged but unfortunately not a member of the Chosen Humans, had to unload all the prospects of their species onto two luckless fellows that bred so poor a line of heirs, they survived the flood, only to be upgraded to the extinct class by the close of the 1600s.

Yet, for all his well-intentioned elitism, Noah of the Ark did not invent personification. The Chinese zodiac should be blamed for the universal impulse, every start of the year, to blame a certain animal for 12 months’ worth of repeated mistakes, foreseeable mishaps and vague fears.

The anthropomorphic tendency to attribute human-like traits to animals is the thread running through the fabled race among animals organized by the Jade Emperor of China thousands of years ago.

According to many sources on the Internet, two best friends—the cat and the rat—asked an ox to carry them across the river. But when they were halfway across, it occurred to the rat that when they reached the other side, the cat would undoubtedly pounce away and outrun her.

So the rat pushed her friend off the ox’s back and, upon reaching the other side, reached the Jade Palace first, winning the race.

For this act of sordid betrayal, the rat is the Chinese zodiac’s premier animal, followed by the lumbering ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and finally, pig.

Any human owned by a cat knows very well that all feline creatures detest water. The ex-best friend, the cat, was never able to finish the Jade Emperor’s race as, after dragging its yowling self to dry ground, it had to groom itself first.

Plotting revenge, of course, takes time. According to the legend, cats are still catching mice up to this day, to even out that first betrayal.

Though owned by a dozen cats and their disreputable-looking street Lotharios, I am not averse to prosperity and good prospects. To get into the mood of the Year of the Rat, officially starting on Feb. 7, 2008, I tried to convince my mother to watch “Ratatouille” and the less popular but wittier made-for-a-rat British animation, “Flushed Away.”.

Otherwise a softie for purple dinosaurs and grammar-challenged teddy bears, my mother put her foot down: no rats, not even high-browed ones, for her. To avoid setting the wrong tone on Dec. 31, I dutifully played my mother’s favorite Jodie Foster-starrer, “The Brave One.”

Watching again this beautiful, intelligent actress solve the male infestation problem through mindless vigilantism, I commented aloud that Foster’s character was indeed like a rat, a lean and mean survival machine.

Thanks to personification, we watched New Year glide into view via “Blades of Glory,” the Will Ferrell comedy about two men, confused and confusing but hardly resembling a certain twitchy, long-tailed creature from out of Eden. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 6, 2008 issue