Sunday, January 30, 2011

The flood: excerpts

I ENVY water. It can be whatever it wants to be. Or, paraphrasing a grade-school science lesson: liquid assumes the shape of its vessel.

- Basilica del Sto. Niño spokesman Fr. Tito Soquiño, OSA, on the heavy rains and flash flood during the Jan. 15, 2010 Saturday Grand Procession:

“These rains can also be a calling for us to purify ourselves. The small flash floods are an indication that maybe the government should put more attention to solid waste management and the drainage system.”

- From M, who waded in the Grand Procession:

“Morag nag-riot na akong imagination, thinking of all the possible things to be found in that flash flood… I'm amazed nga our footwear held out (during the procession). We came upon some soles and heels left in the procession route.”

- From the Jan. 17, 2011 email of J, a Cebuana now living in New South Wales, to her sister M in Cebu:

“Pit Senyor! I've seen in Facebook that D. and his family went with the procession, and basa kaayo sila (they were drenched). But it looks like his son is enjoying it.”

- From the Jan. 14, 2011 email of J to M:

“Did you hear about the Queensland flooding?... there was a report of horses being saved because they just kept swimming until they reached a house whose roof jutted out of the water. Somebody saw them and dragged them one at a time to land… when they went out (of the water), puro samad na sila (they were covered with wounds). The owners really bawled their eyes out when they saw their horses again kay ila sad laging panginabuhi (because it was their livelihood).”

- From the Jan. 28, 2011 email of E., who once lived in Cebu and has returned to Melbourne:

“Down here in the state of Victoria, we have had a lot of rain, too, and up in the north-east (the grain food basket of the state), which has been through drought conditions for 12-15years, they are slowly being inundated with waters that fill long dried creek beds, rivers and eventually lakes... small miracles for children and teenagers who have never seen such water... the temptations to swim and play were just too great and they have ended up quite sick.”

- From M, stranded by the flash flood submerging the North Reclamation Area last Jan. 25:

“I stood for three hours, waiting for the waters to go down. Others were more urgent about crossing the dirty, turbulent waters encircling this mall. The tambays pulled out all the pushcarts, bicycles with sidecars, even the floating carcass of a junk fridge, anything that could be used to ferry workers and customers to and fro the mall. They charged P10 a head, carried four or five passengers each way. They worked fast because the waters would not stay high forever. Two half-naked entrepreneurs drove by, whooping, “Balik unya, baha (come again, flood)!”

- From a Jan. 28, 2011 Sun.Star Cebu article on Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia’s views about relocating informal settlers to partially solve the flooding of Cebu:

“The problem with the informal settlers is, the governor said, ‘you can't touch them because they belong to the urban poor’ and city officials seem to be coddling them because they ‘mean thousands of votes.’… She said the informal settlers should be going back to their towns.”

- From M, watching the reactions of people confronted with the unusual phenomenon of a mall rendered inaccessible during mall hours:

“Not everyone readily forked over P10 for the chance to arrive, dry, at the mall. It wasn’t just because keeping one’s balance in a rickety sidecar and avoiding the waves set off by passing vehicles was tricky. For the service crew working for mall locators, P10 was too steep. Many workers only paused long enough to remove the parts of their uniforms they could still save. Women rolled off stockings; men, rolled up their pants. Shoes were carried. A few wore the flipflops they brought with them. Most were barefoot when they waded into the waters. They were still the lucky ones. School children, dismissed for lunch, tried to carry their bags above the waters but many were just too short. The students apparently lived in an informal settlement located near the mall, where the flood went as high as an adult’s chest.”

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 30, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Finding Leon

FOLLOW the stories. Find the way.

Last Saturday, we left home too close to noon and had to walk from Plaza Independencia to reach Leon Kilat St. Some streets in the downtown area were already closed to vehicular traffic to clear the route for the 1 p.m. Grand Procession of the Señor Sto. Niño.

Our older son was assigned with his college batch to man the cordon along Leon Kilat St. As we were all preoccupied with our computers till mid-morning, we realized quite late that my son was clueless about downtown Cebu.

He checked Google maps. Thinking a landmark would be more helpful, I mentioned that along Leon Kilat St. was a branch of my favorite bakery. The mention of Chinese “masi,” birdseed “ampao” and special mongo “hopia” only deepened the furrows on my son’s forehead.

Then his friends posted on Facebook a photo of a downtown branch of this international chain of burgers, fries and shakes. New age, new signs.

When roads were closed at the pier area, my husband and I decided to walk with our son until we found his group. Born nearly half a century ago, my husband and I know our downtown. Years of walking these streets made us slip through the crowd. While my husband knows street names and grids, I love the stories.

I wanted to tell my 17-year-old that Leon Kilat St. is named after the great Bisaya, Pantaleon Villegas. Born in neighboring Negros, this authentic revolutionary stumbled on his fealty to Philippine independence by way of Cebu’s lumpenproletariat.

The lumpen: lowest of the low, common and vulgar. Yet this social substrata produced a Visayan patriot and legend. In Cebu, Villegas worked in a pharmacy, bakery and circus before he was recruited into the Kataas-taasan, Kagalang-galangang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan (KKK).

Immortalized in Krip Yuson’s “Great Philippine Jungle Energy Café,” the bravery of Leon Kilat the Legend was as magical as his “anting-anting,” a handkerchief that supposedly enabled him to appear and disappear like lightning (“kilat”) in battles against the Spaniards, as well as shed bullets as if his being was coated with “lana (blessed coconut oil)”.

Yet more unforgettable than the amulet-protected, bullet-shedding warrior-myth is the common and vulgar figure of Villegas, uncompromising and thus undimmed. In college, I first heard the story from a friend who took the pseudonym “Leon” for his work in organizing lumpen and who signed his poetry by the same nom de guerre.

This stirring quote, though, came from the research of Sun.Star Cebu editor Max Limpag, who is also the award-winning blogger known as Leon Kilat. In an Aug. 16, 2005 post on his blog,, Max wrote that Villegas was not cowed even when the Katipuneros in Cebu were exposed and arrested.

“Kadtong saad ayaw na’g hulata, dili ta kini palabyong adlawa,” Villegas reportedly said. In Limpag’s translation: “Let’s not wait for the promised help, we will not let this day pass.”

A few days before Good Friday of 1898, Villegas was betrayed by members of the elite in Kabkab, now known as Carcar. Its skull crushed, the body of Villegas was still stabbed by the killers in a bloody parody of a hanky shredded by “patriots” who believed that by trapping and murdering one of their own, they were buying time and favor from the enemy.

A few minutes before the Grand Procession was due to start, we found Leon Kilat St. My son merged with the crowd. Google maps and the Facebook photo were indeed more accurate than my childhood food trips: my son’s schoolmates were congregating closer to the burgers and fries than to masi, ampao and hopia.

“Okay na, Ma.” The SMS came while my husband and I waited for the procession from the sidelines. One hundred and twelve years ago, Villegas died and set free two myths: that faith resides in any object, stone, hanky or scissors; and that those who have more in life will put first the welfare of the least.

Standing on the street named after a lost liberator, I slurped my sundae.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 23, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Sinulog stories*

WHAT’S your Sinulog story?

As I was thinking of what to put in the article that will occupy this space on Sunday, I realized for the first time how, for years now, the piece I compose for every third Sunday of January is invariably about the fiesta of the Sto. Niño de Cebu.

I must have been in my mid-30s when I walked out of the newsroom a few minutes before Saturday noonbreak to find the streets sucked empty of vehicular traffic. The main thoroughfares were being prepared for the 1 p.m. Grand Procession.

Rose, a newsroom colleague, was my companion to my first procession. Unlike Rose, who has heard mass every Friday at the Basilica and attended the novena leading up to the fiesta for as long as she can remember, I’m proof that one can be born in Cebu and not have any inkling about the devotion for the Sto. Niño.

Of this quintessentially Cebuano side, I had a label retained from a college lecture: syncretism. Fusing bits of Catholicism and folk beliefs does not always yield a seamless byproduct, a blending free of contradictions, I reasoned.

That year, though, I met my deadlines early. Rose and I joined the streams of people converging downtown. Weeks before the novena, my editor assigned me to look for historical anecdotes to run as sidebars alongside the paper’s daily coverage of the fiesta. I trawled the Net, read old newspapers, scanned books and visited museums. There was a surfeit of information about Cebu’s “Patron”.

However, the most engrossing stories came from people. It seemed everyone had a story to tell about the ways the figure in red and gold touched their lives.

The narratives came even when I wasn’t interviewing: classmates having an impromptu reunion in a jeepney going to the Basilica; a devotee assisted by fellow passengers to get a towering Niño in a battered hat and muddy sandals be seated in a stifling, crowded Vhire.

As with other icons, the Sto. Niño does not lack for history, dogma and pageantry. Yet, people also refer to Him as if He were their father, son, brother, confidante, best friend. What’s the fate of skepticism in the inner circle of divine and familiar ties?

I admit I was still on assignment mode when I walked out of the newsroom with Rose. Not having experienced the press of bodies anticipating their sighting of the red-and-gold figure, I led Rose too close to the Basilica gates when, in a great clamor of bells, a vision in red and gold issued forth and the world erupted into a sea of waving, upraised hands. I found myself waving, too, a queer but not unpleasant taste of the novelty of participation while on coverage.

Seconds later, awe turned to helplessness and panic when the crowd surged forward to follow the flower-bedecked carriage. I lost touch with the ground as I was gripped and propelled by neighboring bodies as we all turned from an avenue into a narrower street. As suddenly as it came, the fear went. The crowd adjusted; I was deposited gently back to the street. I found Rose but could not tell her anything, my throat still gripped by something suspiciously salty.

Many of the stories I’ve heard explain why January is not just an extended holiday but a second Christmas to Cebuanos. Most of the stories attributed to the Child’s intercession are momentous: the desperate answered, families healed, the straying recovered, wishes granted.

As it is with miracles, even the small ones are seismic: about to kiss the image of the Holy Infant for the first time, it is not the spectacle within the glass case that stills me but the depression on the floor just before the image, as if heavy marble gave way under the weight of the intangible gifts offered by pilgrims.

On the second day of this year’s novena, I was standing in the still empty expanse of the Pilgrims’ Center, waiting for the 1 p.m. mass. The sun was not out but there was still enough noontime glare to make me squint. At first, I wasn’t sure if I saw the iridescence because the mere idea of dragonflies was bizarre and fleeting in the pollution of downtown Cebu.

It was no trick of the eye, though. A dragonfly, its wings like a shimmering bolt of silk, hovered then flitted above the simmering granite ground. A few minutes later, a butterfly traced a lemon-colored swath in this most unlikely of gardens.

Were these drawn to the flowers carpeting the altar and draping the walls? Or to something else, an intangible garden of flowering faith?

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s January 16, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Be happy

WHEN Happy Pup barreled into me and greeted me like a long-absent
friend, even though it was our first time to smell each other, his
mistress, S., told this anecdote to explain how such a short-legged
fellow came to trail around not just one but two impressively extended

The dachshund greets everyone, two- or four-legged, who walks in this
Badian retreat. Without even barking a sales spiel, he always gets
them to stay for a day or more after he sort of caroms into view, a
brown flurry of flapping ears, wet leathery tongue and sticky doggy

Such an exuberant welcome always wrings out the inevitable
reaction: “What a happy pup!”

Although meant as praise, the name does not give full credit to
this fine fellow. When he lost his puppy fat and was ready to be the
man, Happy Pup learned that nature does not always nurture exuberance.
All the ladies he was hopping ready to pay attention to was, due to
the unequal distribution of height, one hop too high for him.

After observing Happy Pup’s frustrations in the war of rising
but unmet expectations, one admirer offered to send an assistant from
his veterinary clinic to hold Happy Pup so he could, finally, see
“eye-to-eye” with a certain long-legged neighbor he admired only from
a distance.

S. found the offer solicitous but ludicrous. They always find
a way, she said.

And he did. When the tawny-coated Labrador lay down, Happy Pup
finally presented his case,a horizontal blitzkrieg that was greeted by
S.’s grandchild declaring, “Look, Happy Pup is now Happy Dad”.

If you find yourself in Badian and get drawn to a row of quiet huts
under towering Talisay trees, expect a whirling, tumbling mixup of too
long ears and scrambling paws to catapult into you and knock you off
your feet.

If you want to make a friend for life, you’ll squat and rub his
tummy, pick a few ticks, outgrin futilely what seems to be the most
generous propensity to live up to one’s name.

Happy—that’s what I decided to call him—can only be called off by
tossing for him to fetch any of the round, wave-smoothened stones on
the beach. He chews them like a bone, and leaves them lying around, an
expansive sand mosaic littered with happiness.

If we can’t be like Happy, folks, remember the Horizontal Maneuver.

( 09173226131)