Saturday, April 30, 2011

Dumaguete upstart

OF the ones we love, we think we only expect constancy.

Only later do we realize that we are hardly capable of that ourselves. The inability to change does not hold off betrayal or loss. At a certain point, the unvarying, the predictable is the terminal, a diminishing, death.

We found ourselves stuck in Dumaguete on Good Friday. For the past two days, we managed to squeeze in all we planned, work and bonding, Dumaguete and Siquijor.

However, a call confirmed that no ferry would be connecting Sibulan to Liloan or Tampi to Bato to get us home to Cebu by Friday.

After piling into one of Dumaguete’s spacious tricycles (steered by her inimitably polite and honest drivers), we unloaded knapsacks, bottled water and Harry Potters five minutes later at our transient quarters for the next two days.

Had we worried less about the day’s heat melting our stash of sylvanas in their pretty white-and-blue Sans Rival boxes, we would have walked the four blocks or so connecting the Boulevard room we vacated to its reserved guest to this downtown inn, which, contradicting years of hard-earned wisdom that it was impossible to find in the city any vacancy in accommodations, without reservation, in the middle of Holy Week, did have this unreserved family room, modern, reasonably priced and equipped with a mini-fridge that guaranteed the sylvanas would melt in our mouths, not inside the box.

Apparently, the city we thought we knew and loved well for two decades had some surprises up her sleeve. The Boulevard still has among the best places to stay, which require reservation. Even the vintage homes converted into halfway houses do not just inveigle their guests into a tryst with the Boulevard’s ambrosial view of century-old trees, the sea and the sky-mantled outlines of Siquijor but also with history and quaintness.

Minutes after we checked in by the Boulevard, the shower head would not stop gushing and the aircon iced itself and only heated the room; the inhouse plumber had to wait for the hardware shop to open after noonbreak to get the thingamajig to silence the weeping shower; the replacement aircon was too small, cardboard strips plugged the hole until the service crew fixed the ice-queen aircon and we could finally drown in the butter-drenched pleasures of nearby Sans Rival.

What mitigated this cartoon caper from escalating into a holiday disaster was the niceness of the staff (the word is trite but not misplaced when applied to Dumaguete citizens) and World War II history (a place that survived Japanese military houseguests should rise above domestic debacles).

If one cannot find a room along the Boulevard, Dumaguete’s newer inns are within walking discovery. Although many of these enterprises don’t have a website and cannot be conveniently tracked (as well as reviewed and contacted online), several are right in the heart of the main commercial district.

That is another of the city’s pleasures: walking. Much of Dumaguete we discovered by walking around: tree-lined avenues, apple-mangos in the mercado, streetside chess players, waterfront debaters, musicians and proselytizers, tempura-by-the-sea, the rare bookshop. That’s how we also found out that, unlike in the Dumaguete of yesteryears, the national fast food chains are open during holidays and Sundays.

Purists might sniff about lining up for a burger or halo-halo that one can get in Cebu or Manila (Dumaguete, after all, is Sans Rival, Chin Loong and the Silliman University cafeteria, which has tragically stopped serving buko bar made with fresh carabao milk). Being once marooned in Dumaguete on a Sunday or Good Friday, when shops closed ala Cebu of the 1960s, confined one to gnaw on day-old sliced bread and cheese, still in its coat of tinfoil, while watching cable reruns.

And, yes, Jo’s Manukan, which once served the tiniest mound of rice, excruciating to extend when taken with their classic charbroiled breastmeat dipped in biting fish sauce, now offers unlimited rice.

I miss the older, slower Dumaguete but can live with this upstart.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 1, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, April 23, 2011

To Dumaguete

ALLEGIANCE seems always reduced to choice. My affection for Dumaguete is not so much a matter of choice but of incidence and accident.

Although my father’s fears aborted my high school dream of studying Literature at Silliman University, I still found myself in Dumaguete, either on job-related trips to nearby Siquijor, Bacolod or certain towns of Negros Oriental, or on personal pursuits where I explored the city by foot.

Whatever the objective, the trips always ended on afternotes of pleasure, which are conducive for remembrance and affection.

Secondly, residing in Cebu, I consider Dumaguete as falling within the sweep of “just across,” as easy to spot, squinting from the shores of Santander in the southern tip of Cebu, as to cross by pumpboat or fastcraft from the port of Liloan in Santander.

In the 1990s, the land trip from Cebu to Dumaguete was punishing. The poor roads, the dust, the unreliable buses and the mad dash for a seat on the ferry or the bus turned many into unwilling converts of the overnight passage by slow boat and later, the more costly day trips via fastcraft.

Happily, things are much saner these days. For less than P200, an air-conditioned bus, no longer creaking and endangered but tuned-up and efficient, will take the traveler from the South Bus Terminal in Cebu City to Liloan, Santander within three hours.

This route also throws in a scenic run past arguably the best vistas in the province: the green corridor of Perrelos’ century-old trees, the pretty plaza of Sibonga with its flowering cherry blossoms, Boljoon’s breathtaking Eli curve and its grand approach to the heritage landmark, the Nuestra SeƱora del Patrocinio Church, the bright splotches of bougainvillea rioting along Oslob’s undulating ribbon of a road.

Unaltered for nearly 20 years, the duration of my travels through these parts, is Liloan’s pristine waters. Despite hosting two ports, several residences and resorts, the water is still pure and clear, allowing anyone with even poor eyesight to watch the dense schools of fish darting and hovering above a bed of fine sand. That they don’t seem to be afraid of humans is a credit to the people of Liloan.

Not to neglect the bladder, use the restroom at these points: at the South Bus Terminal (secure a seat first, inform the driver so they will wait for you, and flush by “bubo (pouring a pail of water)” as the toilets don’t flush); midway in the trip (somewhere in Argao or Dalaguete, still inform the driver, and still flush by “bubo”); and at Liloan (the fastcraft port CRs have flowing water; those at the port serving the pumpboats are best used without looking down the hole).

If you’re traveling with children or a lot of baggage and cannot rush to the queue, you might miss your seat in the departing fastcraft. If you don’t want to wait an hour for the next trip, walk for five minutes along the coastal households to reach the pumpboats, which depart 30 minutes earlier than the next fastcraft. Ticket and terminal fee total less than P50; the Coast Guard regulates the loading of passengers.

By pumpboat, it’s about 15 minutes across the sea. The jitney in Sibulan will take you to the common unloading site of PNB in the heart of Dumaguete for P11; a tricycle will take you to any destination within the city for P8 per passenger. The entire land trip from Cebu City to Dumaguete is from four to five hours: departing at past six in the morning, we were in Dumaguete before lunch.

A faster alternative is by plane or land trip via private vehicle. One can leave one’s vehicle for a fee at a Liloan carpark or ferry this across on a roll on-roll off barge (RoRo). The cost of the last option is about ten times more the land trip by bus.

While having its advantages, private travel is the poorer without chance encounters of piquant personalities and out-of-body experiences with public restrooms.

( 09173226131)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Emails from Japan

“I’M still alive,” Fr. Jack Serate, a Franciscan missionary serving in Japan, emailed on Mar. 22.

This was 11 days after Mar. 11, a day whose claim to history lies in approximately two minutes: a magnitude-8.9 quake, a seven meter-high tsunami, and nuclear contamination.

Yet, framed by human quirks, the scale of these triple disasters I narrowed to this pinpoint of concern: how was Fr. Jack?

A Cebuano whose ministry took him from the Philippines to the Saitama Diocese in Japan, Fr. Jack has served for years a multicultural parish: Filipino, Japanese and, due to intermarriages, the Filipino-Japanese.

As a news source, he was first known to me as an advocate of migrants and overseas workers. Later, I learned from the advocacy he and his parishioners pursued among upland school children in the southwestern town of Alegria, Cebu.

Last year, after the death of his sister, Fr. Jack disappeared. We knew he was in Japan but we received no emails until 11 days after Mar. 11.

Family, friends and parishioners may brush off that first line in his email—“I’m still alive”—as typical of the man’s humor, generous and self-mocking.

Reading and rereading his Mar. 22 email, though, I realize that more than stating the obvious that he was alive and well enough to reply to our email inquiring on his welfare, his first line affirms his own resurrection after Japan’s triple disasters.

With Fr. Jack’s permission, I share excerpts of his emails to point out what is often overshadowed by the tragedies befalling overseas Filipinos.

It is that we learn from others.

As one who said funeral masses for loved ones and comforted the bereaved even though he was one of them, Fr. Jack could not vent his own grief. Resuming his pastoral work in Japan, he felt the repression more since the local practice was to hold a wake for two days, cremate and then report back to work.

His dim view of the Japanese “automaton” changed after the Mar. 11 disasters. After that major quake—the strongest to hit Japan since recording began in the 1800s and reportedly 8,000 times stronger than the one that ravaged Christchurch, New Zealand last February—Japan had to deal with powerful aftershocks, sometimes one every 30 minutes, for days after. Three-hour brownouts, scarce food, nuclear contamination—in Fr. Jack’s words: “Mora ug Third World country ang Japan ug First World country ang Philippines.”

Yet, Fr. Jack witnessed and learned from the Japanese how to be a person for others. Public servants report to work despite suffering the loss of many in their family, he wrote. Although the Japanese are not perfect, he observed that the Japanese sense of honor and community made him reflect on the penchant of Filipinos to sometimes treat love of country as a fad, like a flag worn on one’s shirt, and just as easily discarded.

Fr. Jack wrote: “A few years ago, the police station in Tokyo expanded their ‘lost and found’ compartment because of the big bulk of returned or turned-over things that the citizens found in the trains or on the streets, (like)… umbrellas, key chains, wallets, money, cell phones, etc.”

“In the disaster areas (after Mar. 11), people found a lot of money and other valuable things (like safe boxes) that they found when they were searching in the rubble. I was expecting that the people who found the cash would keep them because they badly needed cash for their own survival but all were turned over to the police. The people who found the money suggested that the money will be used for the rebuilding of their city…”

“Children at a young age are being trained to be honest and they should not take what is not theirs. And it is the policy here that if you turned over to the police what you found, after three months when nobody claims it, the one who found it can own it. But usually they don't claim it, thinking that three months is not enough for the owner to know (about) it. That is why a lot of found things are still in police custody.”

“Kanus-a kaha ni mahitabo sa Pilipinas ang honesty?,” Fr. Jack emailed.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Apr. 17, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, April 09, 2011

History, rewinded

ONE day while scanning symbols—coded for the unexplored terrain of economics and finance—I realized how the discourse that flows around us exists side by side with small, still pools that separate their secrets from the pedestrian.

While we bob around, content to be carried here and there, by the streams of language we pay only half a mind to, it may happen that our attention is snagged by a tree-overshadowed shallow that, in its stillness, hides creatures that have yet to creep into our fervid dreams.

This summer, I am coaxing the hieroglyphics of numbers and symbols to unlock secrets. More than three summers ago, there was history to circumnavigate.

I like to listen. I like how stories intersect and mesh into a fabric from which surprises emerge, a conclusion that sprouts doubt or a fact disrobed as a lie. I believe in literary journalism, a genre that mines the layers underneath beat coverage and deadlines.

Such quirks and habits from writing features and special reports I brought with me when I joined 54 writers assigned to research and document the histories of the Cebu Province, its 44 towns and nine component cities, and the Provincial Capitol.

The Cebu Provincial History Project was envisioned by the Provincial Government to be the first in the country to preserve and publish local history. Within a year, writers had to pass the manuscripts of 55 volumes that were to be published and read by public school children.

During that heady maiden assembly in December 2007, it was not just the approaching Christmas or the cash advance that plastered huge smiles on our faces. All of us anticipated our appointments with history.

And as for the challenge of luring school kids to line up for their local histories, our smug smiles foresaw the Province going through several reprinting to accommodate the hue and cry to install a 55-volume set in every Cebuano town hall, reading room, library, hut and local watering hole. Foundations might just partner with local governments to convert the histories into graphic novels and resurrect reading among children AND teenagers.

Twelve months later, we reconvened. It was lunch before business as usual. Unusually, though, we were fewer. The present ones had either the skittish look of those haunted by a specter of the past or the fixed stares of those who already saw the hereafter after a quick exit from the painful present.

While lightning, thunder, wind and rain played the chorus to our editors’ dark mood, our project manager reported that, in general, our manuscripts were not just delayed but disappointing. Of infinite patience and incurable optimism, he said he looked forward to seeing us complete our commitments by January of the following year. My final manuscript was received for copy editing a few days before the end of December 2010, or two years after the original deadline.

The Cebu Provincial History Project yields so many lessons for local governments and other entities attempting to preserve local history. There are insights to be gleaned from not only the diversity of the writing expertise but also the unpredictability of the creative sensibility—a monster of so legendary an appetite it will swallow its own self before it ponders on the technical difficulties of a mouth swallowing itself.

After the 55 volumes are completed and submitted to the Cebu Province, a reunion of writers and editors would be nice. We should choose a date when hearts are light again, no deadlines hang over our necks, minus lightning, thunder, wind and rain.

I remember the serious amusement of my journalist-friend when I mumbled I was still lost in the mists of pre-Spanish history. This, while ostensibly turning a colonial letter of eggshell brittleness in an air-conditioned library of a modern university or listening to an upland healer recount the rites of “dulodiwata” passed down generations venerating both the Christ and the spirits animating water, air and land. She kidded, “What can one possibly write about a small and sleepy town?”

The smaller and the sleepier a subject seems, the more difficult the trail. Only by staying as still as the pool can one see that it is far from shallow.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s April 10, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, April 02, 2011

“Matamata”: Summer showdown*

SO many books to read and not enough time is a dilemma that never afflicts my boys.

It plagues their mother, which should balance some divine scale but fails to bring the poor woman any comfort or her children, any rest.

When summer begins, the battle of will and wits begins in our home.

For my boys, the first day after final exams spells glorious liberation from everything that smells like a requirement. Unfortunately, books fall in that detested category.

It falls on me to set aside and pack their textbooks for giving away, and to scatter around our house, without any attempt at subtlety, works of fiction and soaring imagination with which I hope to inveigle the boys into unplugging their computers.

Every summer, the electricity bill only jumps to a heart-jolting level.

I’ve mulled not paying the bill so the utility firm will be forced to cut us off. No power means no computer and no Internet. Also, candlelit quiet evenings with a book for companion.

On the other hand, the boys might just start a nightly habit of bonfires, using my old books with their lovely dry pages. As the insatiable flames reach for the sky, will the brightness induce the boys to scan a novel, instead of chucking this into the fire?

Then I spotted my younger son playing a game where he took on the virtual role of a medieval lord storming a castle with torches and pitchforks. Forewarned is forearmed.

Another tip I find dubious is rewarding a child who reads with another book. How do you get them to pick up one in the first place?

From a Mr. Bean video that’s very popular at home I’ve ruminated about the strategy to leave invisible glue on book covers in case the boys mistake it for a bar of chocolate or an external hard drive. When they reach out for this, splat!
If you’re glued to a novel, wouldn’t you be curious to check out how the first page reads?

Then it happened one day that one of the boys (no one has confessed) spilt maple syrup near a pocketbook (while I was a bridge and a city away because never in several lifetimes will I endanger a book this way).

One of the cats came to investigate. The family dog happened to pass by. What remained of the book afterwards was, I am sorry to say, not enough to infer an ending, even a cliffhanger.

In a recent school event, the father seated in front of me held a book for the daughter perched on his wife’s knees. “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” so well-thumbed and sporting proudly curling cover and pages and totally unlike the uptight like-new copy at home, read seven times, all by yours truly.

When the little girl’s older sister came by, she got the book from her father and after pushing her spectacles up her small nose, bent over a page she showed to her younger sister. Two readers! All in the same family!

Short of swapping my wired boys for my bookish niece—at her pace of three hours per pocketbook, my sister’s older daughter can minister to all the books suffering from inferiority complex at home—I’ve negotiated an agreement. For this summer, the boys choose a time in the day to read a title of their own choice.

While my 12-year-old cracks with much melodrama the stiff spine of “The Philosopher’s Stone,” my teenager wonders if I can find him a biography of Lee Kuan Yew.

We don’t have anything on him, I say. We have Wimpy Kid and Lyra and the daemons and Bilbo and company. Nothing on someone who believes caning makes good citizens.

He suggests searching for an e-book on Lee.

You mean something that requires a gadget to read? I croak.

With a promise to find a free format to download, this son of mine escapes back into his computer. I don’t expect to see him again until the end of summer.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Apr. 3, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column