SHE said her name is Arlene. She lived and worked for a time in Manila, handling the carvings sold in the stall she handles now in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan.
Though it was quicker and more lucrative to sell goods to tourists and locals who didn’t count the cost, city life tired her. She went home.
A short-cropped girl, Arlene hardly stood out among the other vendors in the warren of stalls our group dropped by for about 20 minutes before proceeding to the airport.
By some fortune, we espied an intriguing carving in the stall Arlene was tending. It caught our eye despite the hordes of lookalikes that jostled in every corner in the crowded agora.
The figure was in the likeness of a woman. From her pendulous naked breasts and drum-shaped torso, she resembled a woman whose body was worn out by many births and heavy manual work.
Yet, from her erect carriage, which gave those drooping nipples the dignity of having been suckled and bequeathing life, radiated a certain power that transformed that misshapen lump of a body.
It seemed that the hands carving this figure did not want to come up with just another commodity for the souvenir market. Our group earlier visited the Palawan Museum. Among the artifacts in the ethnological section of the museum are the “tawo-tawo,” hand-carved miniature figures of a couple that, by their garb and accessories, seemed to till the land or live in the uplands.
If I heard the guide correctly, the “tawo-tawo” was traditionally made by the Pala’wan tribe, one of the indigenous peoples of the province. There was no time to ask questions, but the carven images intrigued. Why were they made? They did not look like children played with them. Were they objects of worship?
Most curious was the presence of the female figure. It is unusual to see women preserved in a semi-permanent form even though they may have contributed significantly to primeval households and communities. Would primeval machos worship a worn progeny-bearing vessel?
In the souvenir arcade, the “tawo-tawo” appeared to be popular among tourists because there was a glut of copies, ranging from the small and desk-bound to spindly, meter-high decors that can dress up a boring corner of the house better than a pot of plant.
So coming upon the handiwork of a mentality that did not demystify the past to fit the exacting demands of modern housekeeping led to our conversing with and knowing Arlene.
The earth mother figure was half-hidden by carved wooden boats and immense masks and sun dials. Arlene pulled it out. We found it heavy, unlike the other carvings. Arlene said this one was made of nato, also known as the Philippine cherry because of its reddish tint. Ipil, pale in tone but much lighter, is a more popular choice among souvenir makers.
We wondered why the carving was covered in dust and filaments of cobweb. She said the figure was difficult to sell as a pair because its partner looked odd beside the female figure.
Arlene located the male figure. When it was placed beside the earth mother, the difference was indeed striking. The top of the man’s head barely brushed the woman’s shoulder.
Beside this pygmy, the woman seemed even more powerful. I asked Arlene in jest if the carver was female.
Arlene said the carver, a male, was bound by the material that was available. The nato pieces were found in the forest, not cut from trees felled for this purpose. Even if one has a license for its harvest, nato is now scarce since this hardwood was much used for building houses.
The August 2011 issue of the Mabuhay magazine cites Puerto Princesa, Palawan’s capital, as the country’s first carbon-neutral city. Verified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international body monitoring climate change, this means that Puerto Princesa City removes carbon eight times more than the amount it emits.
Not content with Arlene’s sales talk, I prodded her: even if the fellow could only carve according to what was available, why did he not reserve the larger nato piece for the male and the smaller one for the female? Why the other way around?
We eyed the earth mother’s gigantic thighs, those immense breasts swinging from the thrown back shoulders. We turned our gaze at the slight male, feeling protective and somehow maternal. Arlene said:
Isn’t it that even among real couples, some women dominate their men?
Manila’s loss is Puerto Princesa’s gain.
(firstname.lastname@example.org/ mayettetabada.blogspot.com/ 0917-3226131)
*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 12, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column