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