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