Saturday, June 25, 2011

Weather breaks

RAIN, rain, go away.

I remember this childhood chant when brooding skies open up these days. Squeezing inside a jeepney minutes after an early morning downpour raised the stakes in the usual dementia of reporting for work on time, I noticed how, aside from nearly interlocking passengers’ knees blocking the aisle, I had to go through a gauntlet of furled and dripping umbrellas.

Once upon a time, we referred to them as parasols. They came in summery or frothy colors because only women could be induced to carry these in their purses.

Now, even man bags are flipped open to reveal a black or neutral-colored umbrella when the skies open. Though not quite as indispensable as the mobile phone, umbrellas guarantee a livelihood beyond the assembly line.

In our neighborhood, a fellow regularly does the rounds, crying out for umbrellas to be repaired. Once, I asked him if the fee he was asking wasn’t too high, considering the flood of cheap imports.

Have you tried relying on this in windy weather? was the rejoinder.

Darn, I said to myself as I surrendered my disabled “payong” to the king of sales rap, who had already made himself comfortable by our gate, enthroned against bristling spires of recycled umbrella ribs.

The search for the longest working umbrella is, fortunately, only what’s preoccupying me these days. Remembering the flash floods that immobilized many parts of Cebu City last January, I am glad that it is not yet necessary to tote a pair of boots, a foldaway boat or complete diving gear.

I believe, though, in the daily necessity to have a plastic bag or two in my purse.

When I was a teen, my grandmother took out from her smart black purse a thin square that she shook out to become a plastic bag. With this, I was able to dump the sticky tamarind seeds I had been clutching because I ate first and looked in vain for a trash receptacle only later.

I stashed this bag holding the remnants of our fruit repast and only remembered to throw this in with the household trash when I had to empty my knapsack for a needed wash almost a year later. At least, my garbage didn’t end up on the face of a motorist, as happens when you jettison stuff out of the window of the vehicle you’re riding.

I live by my lola’s advice to always carry a disposable bag or two “in case of emergency”.

Does today qualify as one? A little rain nowadays means watching anxiously the gutters for the steady rise of waters. You walk out to the streets for lunch and kick yourself later why you didn’t just row out in a boat after a downpour makes one of those startling urban makeovers, converting a street into a lake, a dusty spectacle into a muddy obstacle.

Invest in boots, a friend advised my husband, who relocated to Manila when the skies were bright and dry. This week, we sound like a pair of bloody Englishmen, opening and closing our chats with a comment or two about the rain. A 30-minute drive from the office stretched to three hours, he reported, sounding several scales less chirpy than Kuya Kim, my favorite weather commentator.

Keep a green bag or two always in the car, I advise. You might net yourself a passing tuna or something for dinner.

In Dumaguete City last weekend, it rained and rained. I didn’t even see a puddle for motorists to swerve away from on Perdices St. or in the minor tributaries. It became even more surreal when walking into one of the quiet tree-lined streets that seamlessly blend the commercial with the residential areas, I saw children play in the afternoon drizzle.

No, they didn’t sing “Rain, rain, go away”. I still watched them for a long time.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 26, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Survivor's tales

WE crossed the sea between the south of Cebu and Negros Oriental while a storm was whipping up little white, wild horses and flinging these with skeins of water against the side of our fast craft.

In the lower deck, we sat and watched a white wall. Three hangers held men’s shirts, used from the way these were turned inside-out. For nearly half an hour, we watched the shirts tilt left and right and tilt left again, in consonance with the frenzied waves.

It was very trying, doing my best to prevent the breakfast and lunch sloshing inside me from joining the sea spray that covered our persons and everything else except for the imperturbably dancing shirts.

Aside from thanking the laundry gods that men’s briefs dry so quickly, we also considered the lower deck as superior to the upper deck. While it did have a limited view, the lower deck was where the life vests were stocked, still in their original sealed plastic packets.

Tourists in this country fall under two types. Those who expect surprises planned like the itinerary; and the others who find them when they find them.

Being in a deck full of virgin life vests while a mean old storm tossed us still compared favorably to one pumpboat of recent acquaintance.

It shook my complacency when my shortsighted eyes focused and I realized that someone had nailed down the lifeboats. Aside from wondering if the crew carried a hammer to pry those nails in case of an emergency descent below the waves, I was rendered speechless by the carpenter’s design predilections: the wooden lifeboats resembled floating white coffins.

What a convenient duality of purpose: if the vessel fails to save you, it will still ferry you to the River Styx, where all souls wind up.

What lies beyond this life is not always the major preoccupation of travellers. Often, it’s how to survive the restrooms, or the lack of such, in the country.

Local governments have tried to get business establishments to cooperate and make clean restrooms available for stopovers.

If you see too many Hollywood movies, restrooms, though squeaky clean, are often the scenes of so much violence: holdups, rapes, dismembering, sneaky attacks by the outerspace blob that lives inside the toilet.

But innerspace invasion by outerspace aliens notwithstanding, a clean restroom is a wonderful sign of civilization. A dozen restrooms or so means the Golden Age of Tourism is upon us.

Land trips often mean a bus disgorging dozens of passengers with urgent zipper business to consummate. In the best of times, Pinoys have to be convinced to fall into orderly queues. In a natural emergency, only copiously flowing water and several free cubicles can avert a disaster.

When I first began to ride buses for the countryside, a restroom break lasted as long as it took the bus driver to have his meal, use the john and stand outside the bus, picking his teeth.

As a form of return courtesy, passengers could even ask the whole bus to wait while he or she drank his tsokolate, brushed his teeth, and kissed goodbye everyone, specially the beloved cocks.

Times have changed. Either bus drivers have gone into multitasking or their seats are programmed to eject the driver if he’s not back within five minutes of taking a break, but one should be adept at piss-and-go if one wants to finish the rest of the trip in the same bus. Twice, I had to holler the dialect version of “man overboard” because the hubby had not yet returned from a restroom visit and the bus was pulling out of the station.

What if restrooms are not existent or, to sanitize the description, beyond a state of grace?

Men, lucky devils, can always look for any desolate spot: outside a cadena de amor-trailing cemetery, say (just look twice in case you miss the lapida-maker chipping at a gravestone for so long, he’s blended with the stones and moss).

Although women don’t have the male perpendicular advantage, they can take a cue from the manangs who wear loose flowing dresses or skirts, nothing else. When the call comes, they squat and look, to the rest of the world, busy, counting the ladybugs doing their business on the ground.

While waiting for the Golden Age of Tourism, let’s take our surprises where we find them.

( 09173226131)

* First published in the June 19, 2011 issue of the "Matamata" Sunday column of Sun.Star Cebu

Rated “F”

SEX teaches.

School began this week for many of us.

Returning to the world of syllabi and prerequisites, I surfed
the Net in between classes and found a seemingly more efficient
teacher prowling out there.

This month, U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner catapulted to the top of
several Internet searches after he exposed himself as a serial sharer
of self-taken photos.

In the Age of Facebook, a fondness for one’s mug hardly
merits a reaction.

However, the congressman became infamous after he posted on the
micro-blogging site, Twitter, a “Blackberry photo of an underwear-clad
erection,” which he sent to a female college student.

After first denying the crotch shot and claiming his Twitter
account was hacked, Wiener later confessed he was behind the
cyber-exposure. He also admitted sending sexually explicit photos to
other women before and since his marriage to an aide of Hillary

On one hand, the self-destruction of another womanizing and
lying politician isn’t any loss.

And yet, Weiner’s quick descent into public burlesque (the
man himself cracked “weiner (a popular Austrian hotdog)” jokes with
reporters covering him) made me pause because, as a “prolific and
savvy user of social media,” he used the Internet to get in touch with

How many politicians personally use the online portal to not
just reach the public but also push advocacies, account for their
performance, and generally keep communication lines open and two-way?

However, Weiner, too, was undone—as he pointed out, the
jokes and puns just seem to write themselves in his case—by the
so-called “freewheeling” nature of the social media.

The “freedom” of a limitless and uncontrollable Web enabled
not just Weiner, an archetype of the economic and political elite, to
bend the rules but also Cordova cybersex operators typifying the
so-called digitally disenfranchised.

Authorities recently arrested a couple in Cordova for using
five children, aged three to 15, and their 13-year-old niece in their
home-based cybersex operations. The police confirm but have yet to act
on reports of similar cybersex activities in the town.

Decades ago, when computers and then the Internet began to
revolutionize the exchange of information in the affluent West,
critics warned about the so-called “digital divide”. The resulting gap
of online resources and opportunities will create a new class of haves
and have-nots, they warned.

Then, no one foresaw the Internet opening backdoors for
those who are pushed by need or lack of scruples to pursue whichever
ends. Asked how he could stomach pushing the children to disrobe and
pose sexually in webcam chat sessions with customers, the Cordova male
partner blamed their poverty.

Getting the old and entrenched to adopt the new, or
motivating those in need of resources and skills to learn a new
skill—these are the conundrums classically challenging classrooms.

How can students be prepared for lifelong problem-solving?
“Think out of the box” is our mantra.

Sex—primal, undeniable—seems to be quite the efficient
mentor, breaker of walls.

To recall an old copy-editing lesson, “efficient” implies
a high ratio of output to input, optimum production with least waste
of time and effort.

Yet a Tweet that causes the collapse of a marriage, a
reputation or a career seems hardly “effective”—the second “F” that
asserts it’s not always about the maximum output but also the desired
or intended one.

A home computer bringing in cybersex dollars may
efficiently return one’s investments but it ineffectively breaks the
cycle of poverty. It creates new victims and sinks the criminally
affluent into a hidden poverty of soul.

In classrooms, getting an “F” means bad news. In life, it
matters which “F”.

( 09173226131)

* First published in the June 12, 2011 issue of the "Matamata" Sunday column of Sun.Star Cebu

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Roadside spells

AS an eternal passenger, only one thing interests me about highways and roads.

It often falls on me to look for signs and landmarks to assist the person behind the wheel.

Unlike this person, though, whose priority is to get to some place at a certain time, I’m happy enough to be distracted by roadside views, “being here” taking precedence over “getting there”.

In this country, a chief roadside attraction are the signs that do more than advertise business names; they show the Filipino flair for creativity with English, as well as humor and double entendre.

Along Gen. Maxilom St. in Cebu is a row of grill joints that always look tawdry and decrepit in daylight. Its chief attraction for me is a signboard that shows a danciferous sow gyrating below the words, “Belly Idol”.

For a people who love to imitate what’s imported, trendy or successful, we hold the adjective, “original,” in so high esteem, we usually precede its usage with the article, “the,” creating a kind of informal title to confer the stamp or seal of excellence, if not originality.

Witness, for instance, the uncontrolled proliferation of these unabashedly contradictory roadside claims: “The Original Siomai sa…,” “The Original Chicharon of …,” etc.

I used to be jaded about these assertions of excellence by way of first privilege. I decided that my selection of the entrepreneur to patronize would be determined not by whether one’s ancestor was the first in the town to discover the sinful secrets of a pockmarked pod of cacao, but rather by the choice in the business name to display a properly spelled “The Original,” instead of the modernized awfulness of “D’Original”.

However, a trip to Los Baños reconfigured my perceptions.

If you ever find yourself driving along the national highway in Barangay Anos at Los Baños, Laguna, do persevere past the glut of roadside bakeries blandishing monotonous signs of “The Original Buko Pie” to ferret out a similar-looking stand with a similar-sounding claim.

Despite the predictable branding and packaging, Orient, The ORIGINAL Buko Pie Bakeshop, stands out in the highway stretch because of the parked vehicles and people waiting for the bakery to pop open the ovens.

I cannot vouch for the espasol, uraro and banana bread—intriguing-sounding but unfortunately, untasted—but just smelling the goodness wafted from a steaming buko pie explains why people would wait for 20 or even 30 minutes. (After the first mouthful of the fat strips of naturally sweet-tasting buko, not candied, jellied or frozen, you might even take another 2-hour trip from Manila to expressly catch the next batch.)

While cities rely on sky-high billboards and outdoor movie screens to entice traffic, roadside displays of local produce or crafts serve as the best one-stop museums/craftshop/info centers of towns and cities outside urban centers.

The stretch of the national highway leading away from the center of Los Baños to Anos is lined with stalls selling all kinds and colors of pool toys, floats and other inflatables, as well as swimming apparel. Having a fog-wreathed Mt. Makiling tower above these seaside sights stumped me until it was explained that the favorite local recreation is provided by hot and cold springs, already popular in Anos since the Spanish era.

While other fog-draped celebrities—Taal Lake and Volcano—dominate the first-time visitor’s experience of Tagaytay, its roadside vendors, selling wooden sculpture and furniture, bananas, pineapple, jackfruit and other farm produce, were more than eye-catching.

The bananas seemed to be of one type. Small and narrow, each fruit resembled curled children’s fingers. Only when I was back in Manila did I find out the name of the bananas: señorita, a variety that’s incomparably sweet and filling.

When I do taste señorita these days, it comes from my grandmother’s farm. I’ve been told that few farmers cultivate this because it’s less commercial than the fat and hefty-priced cardaba, lakatan, latundan, bangan and bulongan.

Though I missed tasting the señoritas of Tagaytay, it feels good to know, from a roadside glimpse, that the rare and passing still thrive somewhere somehow.
( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 5, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Lost, still

Museum- and night-prowling are spectator sports I discovered in Manila.

As a small-town person with small-pond predilections, I find the capital overwhelming.

To understand a new place, I usually walk around to wait which pinches first: the calluses of my feet or the preconceived notions in my mind.

But this sprawling, brawling place demands a marshalling of resources. When finding my way out of the subdivision takes a good part of an hour, I resolve to break down this city into simpler units.

What can induce a Filipino to stroll in this country?

Malls and food.

Someone with pitifully poor resources—no sense of direction, Filipino so thick sieving the natural Cebuano results in an odd patois that sounds more like English than the even more alien Filipino—is imagined to be of less danger to herself when deposited at any of the city’s myriad malls.

Planning a reunion with old friends? Malls are the landmarks and arteries of convergence that the plazas were of old.

Except that in Manila, many malls are not merely “tambayan (hang-out)” but mini-cities.

I realized this one afternoon when I entered one mall as a storm was gaining strength, emerging hours later in an adjoining mall whose expensively aged promenade was spotless and dry as a parched desert of glass and chrome.

It is not only not strange to find a rainforest juxtaposed with an English countryside and a Mediterranean courtyard, all courtesy of a sleight of urban planning. Some malls make me wonder if selling is just about moving goods and services.

Once, sitting on a bench I first mistook as sculpture, I contemplated a whole wall of glass, the storefront of a brand I cannot pronounce. The centerpiece of this expensive display of space, glass and silence were three stumps.

The middle one was pale and blotched, with the sheen and solidity of stone though it was indubitably of wood. A small sticker was easy to read because the upside-down figures contained just one primary number and the rest were zeros before a decimal point.

Was this obscenely priced trunk my first sight of ironwood, rare remnant of a native forest species ship- and church-building Spaniards forced Filipinos to fell into extinction?

More than an emporium, a mall can be a museum, affording one a glimpse of the rarefied and extravagant or the plainly unimaginable. To find something one thought no longer existed, and to discover it has a price, is instructive.

While Manila’s malls seemingly leave nothing uncommodified, their evening streets sent me off on a quest for the elusive “BBQ”.

Malls, with their dining cornucopia, are depots for refueling before one jumps into and risks the undercurrents of Manila traffic. Ironically, all that variety palls.

One evening, sleepless and nauseated from hicupping the remnants of another arcade repast, we kept our eyes peeled for the smoke-wreathed figure of the streetside barbecue vendor, a Cebuano institution, wizards in not just converting cheap cuts or throwaways like intestines, heads and feet into pocket-friendly exotica but also in juggling the myriad tasks of informal enterprise: skewering one’s dinner, roasting, pouring “sawsawan,” slicing open “puso” with half a blade, rinsing dishes, receiving payment, returning change, catching out freeloaders, and—the truly best—preventing nightcrawlers from falling into your food.

Seen: liempo, lechon manok, pork lechon packed in clear containers, neat squares of congealing skin arranged on top in an odd mosaic, an abbreviated version of the whole pigs sprawled near great chopping boards back home.

Not seen: BBQ baboy, BBQ manok, BBQ isda, BBQ nokos, BBQ saging.

The food we grew up with may send us off to a too early meeting with our Maker. But for as long as we strive and barter skies, food provides the crawlspace for shutting one’s eyes and pretending we’re back in our beds.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu's May 29, 2011 issue of the "Matamata" Sunday column

Moving still

I WATCH bags during airport waits. Then I check their owners’ faces to see if they match the way they’ve packed to go.

Why not look at the persons first? It’s a game I play to calm myself. I’m used to waiting—all the queues I’ve joined, out of obeisance to bureaucracy and curiosity—but airports, with their technology and (in)security, unsettle me.

I have mixed feelings about travel. I can understand that not all flights can be consummated by opening a book and becoming a character in a world imagined, scene by scene.

But a lifetime of pulling up stakes has not simplified the complexity of deciding which of my possessions to take with me, which to leave behind, shed off, or return to.

How did the ancients travel? What did it take to make the leap from “leave” to “leave behind”?

The necessity and ease of travel make it now natural for us to pair off departures and arrivals, rattling off ETDs and ETAs with the nonchalant assumption of using the same points of reference. A terminal is a terminal and not a terminal, in the double meaning of modern travel jargon. A round-trip ticket as an axiom, not an option.

So why is there nothing lighthearted about packing up?

Perhaps it’s just me since, scene after scene in the airports I’ve waited at, the bags and their owners flow with more regularity and insouciance than one can expect from the luggage conveyor belt unrolling surprises after the standard interminable wait.

Packing has become such a science and a business, it comes no longer as a wonderment that the singular gastronomic, cultural and sensual experience conjured by a mere kilo or more of lechon made the Cebuano way can now be reduced to a small tidy white box held in a clear plastic bag dangling from a traveler’s wrist. Only a tiny red stamped image of a happy porker with jaunty heels inviting a nibble allows one to imagine the herb-impregnated, cholesterol-steeped indulgence sent across the miles to barely sate distant, pining appetites.

The minimal is king in this transient, transcendent world.

Even folks who don’t look as if they’re traveling on business prioritize in their carry-ons a laptop or gadget whose screen is of a size that’s totally disproportionate to its power to suck in all that is human, leaving behind a facsimile in flesh biding its time at a terminal that may not be one at all.

What people take out of their bags to endure waiting may not be as revealing as what they keep in, but it is all that is accessible to the mordant but not criminally curious. When dealing with inevitable irritants, such as delayed departures or unwelcome seatmates, one reaches inside that carry-on and escapes.

I thought minimal, synthetic and black defined these modern lifesavers until one evening, during three hours of waiting, I saw the unexpected make its appearance.

At first, I thought it was the herding instinct of a group traveling together or attending the same seminar in Cebu. But as one “buyot” or “bayong” after another rolled off the checking counters and were picked up by owners who drifted apart, I wondered whether the green movement would not just save the earth but also bring a resurgence of the artisan.

These native totes, made of leaves, fiber and vines, are picked, pounded, dried, woven and traded by those who travel not just from faraway places—Guihulngan, Antequerra, Baybay, Badian and others of musical-sounding provenance—but transmit the instincts and memories of those for whom the making was integral for possessing and using.

Cleaving the sea of travelers pigeonholed in their digital solitudes, the Caucasian lady carried a folded woven sleeping mat. In one of our checked-in bags, I brought the still stiff and resistant undyed mat of “tikog” reeds a friend in Alegria wove and sent to me.

Heading for the perpetually lit, unsleeping highrises that skyscape a city for whom I hold little love, I thought it best to bring this talisman of a world that drew sustenance from the earth and would, in time, return to its roots.

( 09173226131)

* First published in the May 22, 2011 issue of Sun.Star Cebu's "Matamata" Sunday column