Friday, May 25, 2012

On the road

SOUTHERN Luzon is a strange place to endure a waiting.

The plains stretch as far as the roads will take a traveler.Accustomed to the sere shadows of mountains back home, the eye is startled by lushness. A wild orchid confronts, without coyness, from a roadside perch. Egrets descend and lift as clouds of dazzling whiteness blanketing farms.

A fine tracery of narrow roads dissects the heart of these southern towns. Unlike the south of Cebu, though, the intimate layout of towns is awash with the impersonal, inexorable tidal currents of commerce.Here, strangers come and go, uncommented.

In this traffic of transients, the most interesting are the places of convergence. From Laguna to Naga City in CamSur to Daet, Camarines Norte to Lucena, Quezon Province to Lipa, Batangas, the flow of traffic is controlled by road improvements.

While a portion of the road is being repaired, vehicles wait for the signal that they can use the available lanes. Often, the wait is as long as 15 minutes.

The alternating intervals are used by residents to sell food-on-the-go. Hard-boiled chicken eggs and quail eggs, boiled peanuts and boiled corn, native sweets.

While Cebu roadside vendors hawk the merchandise—one food rap has become a joke, a ditty and a movie (“Itlog, Manoy,Orange”)—the locals here say nothing. They simply hold out their wares or carry it around, not caring that others sell the same stuff.

Men outnumber the women selling food. Does this account for the silence?

At Quezon National Park, a route involving several steep inclines and sharp turns, members of the community work from sunup till sunset as traffic marshals. They wave green or red flags to signal a vehicle to proceed or halt. Some marshals hold out a hand or a cap, asking for a dole-out. Many are women and the elderly.

This gesture, done in complete silence, speaks volumes of,to me, the gender difference.

Outside an airbase in Lipa is Rose’s, an eatery that has grown from a roadside shack to a cafeteria whose reputation is sealed by only one dish. When we stopped for late lunch, the place was packed with silent men.

When my bowl of lomi was placed before me, I understood why. The lomi I had in Daet was, compared to this, a teacup of soup topped with crunchy vegetables. Food for a doll or a grasshopper.

The Lipa lomi was served in a much scratched, pot-bellied ceramic that held fat noodles, slices of kikiam, four whole quail eggs and a slice of liver as long as a rock star’s tongue. Every customer received a bowl of large red peppers, chopped onions and exactly three calamansi.

The calamansi was squeezed and mixed with toyo. It was not a “sawsawan (dip)” but a chaser. I placed a few drops so I could sip and swallow, sip and swallow the cornstarch-thickened sludge. At about the exact moment the deceptively pretty pepper seeds kicked in and made me sniffle, my tongue grappled with the viscous soup, thick with unmentionable imaginables.

Somehow, I mastered the rhythm (sniff-sip-swallow) and downed every bit of my lomi, as silent as the machos drawn by this P40 per bowl challenge.

Though I don’t see the end of the road yet, I’m liking the challenges.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 20, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column


IT’S a word she unconsciously, instinctively uses to get around.

“Bossing,” she addresses the man waiting first in the queue of tricycles. She hands over the fare, “Bossing, Bicutan.”

She’s back in this city. Nothing changes in its sprawl, disorder, cacophony.

She’s still a stranger. The moment she boarded a jeepney here, she realized that having a destination and knowing the fare did not equip outsiders for these streets.

In the cities she loves, she hoards discoveries and secrets in her feet.

This city has refused to lay bare its feral heart.

While scanning and memorizing the scenery, she picks up words. She repeats the words to herself, sharpening them into talismans. She arms herself with words, hoping to gain passage.

No one but the naive would think these streets respect a trifle like words.

“Bossing” becomes the first disappointment. She talked to a worker assembling hospital equipment. He was full of “When ‘Bossing’ returns…” and “When ‘Bossing’ lands this contract…”.

The same word falls from a corporate communication expert, deferring to her local and expatriate heads (“mga Bossing”), and from the gas station attendant who rushes forth to serve a jeepney “Bossing” who pulls in to fuel up.

Why not “Boss”? It’s shorter.

Too stiff is her guess. The English word is too foreign, too prissy, too bossy in a way Filipinos might exist with but will never invite to act as godparent to a christening.

“Boss” is not in street use because of the unbridgeable power distance. “Boss” might be mistaken for The Supreme One (a heresy: is he God?). Boss is The Man Who Hires and Fires. In a country where no employee seems to be ever contented, it’s the wrong title, conferring respect with a crown of thorns.

Now, “Bossing” is fine. This local version has the right blend of deference and intimacy: I know the boss and he knows me.

So when she lines up for an “ikot” jeepney that will take her from the MRT in Quezon Ave. to the state university, she blurts her first: “Bossing, UP.”

It’s not needed, she realizes too late. This is the queue after all for all “ikots”.

Yet when the driver does not look at her, she feels camouflaged, her disguise in place. Within the campus, the jeepney stops at designated places. No one says anything before disembarking.

It’s the same in the MRT, a flowchart of transit that works through signs, schedules, routes and routines. Nearly succeeding at doing away with words, there’s even a queue for people holding the exact fare. Just a destination, no more, no less, crosses the cut in the glass connecting cashier and traveler.

Confused by MRT exits, she asks directions from the guards. Their uniforms, though,scuttle “Bossing”. She falls back on convention: “Sir,” “Ma’am”.

Beyond the MRT, it’s a “Bossing” world. She has heard “Mamâ” used in place of “po”: “Mamâ,para (Sir, stop)”.

Yet, she finds this manner of address awkward. Is she entrusting her destination to a man whom she calls, by a slip or an incident with inflection, “mother”? She has yet to meet a woman driving public utility vehicles. Would it be easier to trust a woman?

For now, she contends with “mga Bossing”. She thinks it’s an incantation. Once, expecting a UV Express to take her from Taguig to Bicutan, she sees, instead of the cement and glass high-rise blocking out the sky, a wide expanse of blue unfurling over a desolate shore.

The shock of being let down by a “Bossing” has not yet worn off when she finds another “Bossing” in a barangay outpost. He explains where she can find a tricycle behind the public market. Two more “Bossings” later, she pushes open the gate of her quarters.

Most people do it with maps; some with GPS. In her journal, she counts eight “mga Bossing” to round off her journey that day: eight is a pretzel, a figure with no beginning and no end but which a “Bossing” can unwind.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 13, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, May 05, 2012

A landmark moves

ON its last day, I visited the Cebuano Studies Center.

Towards noon of May 4, a crowd filed out of the Theodore Buttenbruch Hall of the University of San Carlos (USC), where media associations and their partners just organized a forum on decriminalizing libel, a day after World Press Freedom Day.

I joined my fellow teacher at the University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu, lawyer Ian Manticajon, under the trees to munch on the snacks prepared by the organizers.

While chatting, we saw Lauren Ligaton hobbling along.

Lauren is a member of the editorial team that is putting together the 55 volumes that comprise the Cebu Provincial History. Targeted for launching this August, the town histories will become part of history, a precedent in recording local history and tapping writers of varying persuasions—academic, literary, journalistic, political, all impassioned—to make public high school students interested in our “continuing past,” from the period before colonization by Spain to contemporary times.

As writers, Ian and I worked with Lauren on this project. Initially, research and writing was targeted to be completed in a year. The production of manuscripts dragged for years, involving developments as cataclysmic as the ones that shook towns and rewrote community destinies.

I got to know Lauren well because for years, I saw him first to be assured that, despite my writer’s block and history-sized hang-ups, my editors were sparing my neck so I could stop the endless rewriting and move on to the next bloody chapter.

Ian and I were thus shocked to see Lauren, eternally upbeat, using a crutch and hobbling with a bandaged foot. The second shock was when Lauren invited us to visit the Cebuano Studies Center on its last day in its location in the bowels of the university.

In college, when my UP Cebu Mass Communication professors introduced me to research, I paid my first visit to the Cebuano Studies Center.

If students and faculty form the bloodlines of a university, the library is its central nervous system. The USC is blessed to have more than one library, even several excellent ones.

My attachment, though, is to the Cebuano Studies Center. As an undergraduate researcher, I realized that the Cebuano Studies Center wasn’t just the only definitive source of references about Cebu in USC but in the whole province, perhaps in the whole country.

While researching for the Cebu Provincial History project, I confirmed that this library was as good a place to start to know Cebu. It gathered in one place a motley crowd of writers and readers—both the scholarly and the amateur—made curious by Cebu.

Even journalism—preoccupied by the current and the transitory—achieved a permanency, even a telling poignancy, because the library preserved enough colonial and prewar samples to show how journalism, when it began in Cebu, was a far cry from the journalism we know today.

In helping us remember who we were, the Cebuano Studies Center upholds not just access of information but makes possible remembrance and reflection.

While the main library floors above attracted always a crowd, including those who love their sleep more passionately than books, the Cebuano Studies Center seemed to attract the same type: readers. In this august company, I indulged a clandestine passion: people-watching.

On lucky days, Dr. Resil Mojares, professor emeritus, would be writing or reading in his niche, a few feet away from where I was reading his book or essay. If I wanted help with Cebuano literature, Dr. Linda Alburo was always gracious to pause in her encoding and advise.

Of course, during the historical delays of my history-writing, while waiting for my editors in the cold and silent library, it wasn’t difficult to imagine how, during World War II, the Imperial Army tortured guerillas and prisoners of war within these very walls.

The same thick walls of the library have, over the years, absorbed impassively the riotous passions of men and women. I hope to be given the chance again to read to oblivion when the Cebuano Studies Center resurfaces, wherever and whenever it gets resurrected.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 6, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column