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