Saturday, October 26, 2013

How to peel a pomelo*

AFTER watching my tentative cut into a pomelo, the uncle took away the knife before I could mangle our dessert.

Slice off the head (knife thuds). Then the “puwet (bottom)”. (Thud.)

I was going to ask how he can tell one from the other since the pomelo looks just like a lumpy ball to me.

His knife was already moving so I just answered my own question. (The “puwet” is bigger than the head. Look again at that pomelo.)

The uncle made downward slashes around the thick yellowing rind. The ring of equidistant gashes transformed the fruit into the kind of bangle that expands and contracts because of the elastic holding it together. Then I realized:

The quickest and neatest way to peel a pomelo is to husk it like a coconut.

I grew around coconuts. An image flashed of how one gripped and pulled away sections of the husk until the inner fruit was glimpsed. When the uncle turned over the peeled pomelo, I only had to pull off the spongy membrane around the sections encasing the translucent pink flesh.

The pomelos that ended on my plate were always ready to eat. I grew up in the city. The uncle was born in the countryside. Seventy years later, he also ends up in the city. The countryside he carries with him everywhere.

Whenever the uncle stops me from proceeding on an impractical route—like hacking at a pomelo in my impatience for something sweet—I wonder which makes all the difference: the sum of years one has lived or the years that mark character.

I would never dream of asking the uncle. “Kalokohan (foolishness)” is his way of dismissing anything that does not improve a bit how things are done, like politics and religion.

A few nights ago, we listened to a TV report about the Bohol mayor who turned away aid for his earthquake-hit constituents. The donors he accused of not using proper channels for their assistance then explained how they would be violating rules if their aid were to be coursed through politicians.

The following night, it was the same mayor and the same aid officials. But from talking about food packs, they now pursued “politics” and “development”. I waited if the earthquake-hit residents would appear and speak out about the aid no one was giving them, but the newscast ended with the anchors chatting about a 60-year-old man’s love for his 16-year-old sweetheart that quite a number of people were set on forbidding.

The night after, the mayor returned. The aid officials were replaced by other officials. The mayor was still resisting for reasons I lost interest in following. But he seemed to enjoy his sudden ill-fame, this irascible white-haired autocrat, perhaps the only thing in the town left unshaken by the earthquake.

In Bicol, the uncle’s hometown, the pomelo is called “lucban”. Cebuanos call it “boongon.” The version in Carcar is “takoy.” It is pale like a pearl, unlike the salmon-pinkness of the variety in Davao.

The uncle recommends dipping pomelo in salt and pepper. I find myself using salt only when the pomelo disappoints.

How can one tell if a pomelo is sweet or dry or, worst, bitter? All pomelos look alike, I complained to the uncle. The rind is the problem. It is too thick and hides the real state of the fruit beneath. If one knew how to read pomelos by their exterior, it would save one from making a bad buy.

You cannot do anything with a pomelo’s rind but remove it, said the uncle, his voice implying that he thought it was foolish to expect more from things created to be contrary, like pomelos and politicos.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Oct. 27, 2013 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Reading crowds

WHAT is Eid’l Adha? I made a note to Google this last Tuesday, a task that got lost after an 8 a.m. chat with my younger son abruptly ended with much shouting and barking in the background.

Minutes later, my older son called about the earthquake.

Thus began a chain that strings these past days into accounts and images that burn memory. Oct. 15, 2013 marked us.

Then I remembered the task left undone. I Googled Eid’l Adha.

It is one of the two major feasts of Islam. On the Feast of Sacrifice, Muslims honor the obedience of Ibrahim (or Abraham, according to the Christian and Jewish traditions) to God by sacrificing his own son. As he was about to kill Ishmael (Ismail or Ismael), an angel appeared and gave him a ram to take his son’s place.

This year, the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos recommended that Eid’l Adha be observed on Oct. 15.

This choice made all the difference for residents in Visayas, specially Bohol and Cebu. Following the TV reports and footages of schools, churches, markets and other buildings leveled to the ground during the earthquake and aftershocks, I find it impossible to be unemotional.

If it had been a regular Tuesday, more people would have died or been injured. What prevented more tragedies was a little-understood feast observed by believers of a much misunderstood religion.

Also known as Eid al-Adha or Eid-ul-Adha, the feast gathers families and communities in “qurbani,” the sacrificing of livestock to symbolize the ram that Ibrahim offered in place of his son. Some families eat a third of the sacrificed “udhiya,” share a third with friends, and donate the rest to the poor. Others give money to enable the poor to have a meat-based meal.

What took place in Bohol was far different. Three days after the Oct. 15 earthquake, it was apparent that a lack of system and resources hobbles the rescue and succor urgently needed by Boholanos.

The extensive damage to roads and bridges and the remoteness of villages frustrate rescue teams and volunteers bringing aid. But also rearing its ugly head is the politics and corruption that many victims and local officials blame as being responsible for the rationing and siphoning of necessities needed by survivors.

Compare the footages of Boholanos scrambling over a few bags of provision or reduced to eating rice and “kamay (brown sugar)” with the documentation of the mass of people choking Metro Manila during the Oct. 14 medical and charity mission sponsored by the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC).

Conducted in five sites, the “evangelical mission” snarled traffic from morning till evening, as well as caused the whole-day suspension of classes and afternoon work in the courts. Some businesses even closed.

For its critics, the INC event was slammed as a “show of force” to demonstrate the sect’s clout with politicians, a charge that INC officials denied.

While commuters and motorists ranted on social media and TV, the footages of people at the INC mission sites told a different story.

Several fainted and were carried away on stretchers. To enjoy free dental and medical services, people “lined up” although, viewed from above, there were no queues, just a sea of heads. Many in the crowd were women, children and the elderly of Manila and nearby provinces.

Cameras caught the triumph and jubilation of people walking away with “relief packs” and “goodwill bags”. In a metropolis swarming with wealth, progress and power, the expression created by an armful of grains and canned goods is a rebuke.

“Can the Subaltern Speak?” asks Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in an essay. She says that even if subaltern individuals attempt to speak “outside the lines” laid down by institutions, we cannot hear them because we do not recognize their language.

“The struggle to ‘speak for oneself’ cannot be separated from a history of being spoken for, from the struggle to speak and be heard,” adds Ella Shohat.

Yet, in every evacuation center, community devastated by war and calamity, even mighty metropolises, the crowds gather: do we need an interpreter to hear them?

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Oct. 20, 2013 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Monday, October 14, 2013

Inches of rain

Listen, my friend, for I am about to tell a story to chill the blood. Three of us were in a well-lighted room, waiting for our companions when the rain crashed down around us.

Instantly, our moods changed. The day had begun sunny. A light breeze toying with the trees put one in a contemplative mood. The campus was quiet. Term was ending and most were already done with final exams.

The professor had prepared vegetarian noodles for evening snacks. That night’s presentation of final papers would be the last hurdle before we, too, closed the sem.

The deafening arrival of rain seemed like someone had crashed into the pantry. It wasn’t just my imagination because after a few minutes, rivulets were coursing down the walls. Pools grew around our feet. With or without an invitation, the rain was going to sit in our class.

The professor, who lived for four years in England, commented that was what she missed in the land of “filthy” weather, the full orchestra accompanying a tropical storm.

We listened to the cymbals, snare drums, bass drums, tambourines, maracas and gongs rocking above our heads, battering the windows and dripping rivers into what I considered until then the best-appointed room in this state-funded college.

Following the professor’s remark that English squalls could be tamed with a stout umbrella and a stiff upper lip, I sincerely wished that the storms passing through this country preferred castanets rather than the full ensemble of percussion instruments.

According to the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA), some 19 tropical cyclones or storms enter the Philippine Area of Responsibility in a year. About six to nine make landfall.

There is an online petition to rename typhoons after those plundering the country. I can understand the need not to forget. But in light of the destruction storms leave behind, I am all for christening these God-made storms after diffident, inoffensive personalities.

Like a band that took delight in assaulting the audience with their forsaken singing, the rain played its racket for 5 then 10 minutes. After 15 minutes of undiminished downpour, the three of us whipped out our mobile phones, a dead giveaway of nervousness.

Two of my classmates texted they were at a transport hub. That’s less than five minutes away had amphibian jeepneys been invented. Since it had been raining for more than half an hour and it was also the first shift of the evening rush hours, the bidding wars for taxis must already be underway.

People queue up for taxis, even during rush hour. But when the first raindrop plops wetly on the asphalt, civilization is thrown out of the window. The denomination of bills waved in front of taxi drivers is set by one’s degree of desperation to get out before the floodwaters rise and push up the bids for taxi rides.

I noticed then the basic phone models of my companions. Both lost their smartphones to pickpockets who operate whatever the weather but thrive best in crowds made panicky by rainfall. Reaching for his iPhone to tweet an update to his TV network, the classmate only found the smear of gel left by the thief in his empty skinny jeans pocket.

A few weeks after she returned to the country, the professor’s open tote eased her iPhone to a keen-eyed jeepney pickpocket. Now, she flicks on and off her basic phone’s torchlight to replace her once obsessing over the content streamed in by her late lamented smartphone.

These coping mechanisms, like posing in one’s most disheveled flood-soaked self for the souvenir shot to cap the semester, cannot make the rain go away (or the flashfloods or water-borne disease or mean streets with their volcanic surplus of road rage and predators).

But if such a reflex delays the inevitable descent into the road to hell, lined with a couple of inches of rainfall, I’m for it.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Oct. 13, 2013 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Monday, October 07, 2013

Graveyard of books

I CAN tell the history of downtown Cebu by the bookstores that have come and gone.

In the 1970s, my mother bought my first Nancy Drew mystery novels and a few classics from Paul’s Bookstore. This was located near Junquera St., a short walk from the original branch of a well-known funeral parlor.

My memory of this brightly it bookstore is suffused with the cloying odor of rotting wreaths and the steaming smell of horse manure scraped on the streets by passing vehicles. In those days, horse-drawn “tartanilya” clip-clopped past the funeral parlor, the biggest of its kind in the city.

Paul’s Bookstore closed without my knowing. It left me with a lifelong habit of taking a deep breath when I step inside a bookstore or open a book for the first time. Anticipating escape is, first, an olfactory reflex with me.

My father passed on to me nearly all his books. In a rare mood, he brought my sister and I to Alemar’s Bookstore at the corner of P. del Rosario and Junquera Sts. In the 1980s, this high-ceilinged store was full of fiction. Limited to buy only one title at every visit, my sister and I became specialists at browsing.

In the mid-1980s, I noticed when Alemar’s fortunes dwindled as its fiction was replaced by textbooks, probably more dependable in sales, and later by knickknacks until it finally closed.

In the 1990s, my college allowance and earnings from the odd magazine article only entitled me to “free browsing” of the covers of the imported titles carried by the Oriental Book Store, across Alemar’s, and the Filipiniana coffeetable books at Bookmark, along OsmeƱa Blvd.

Before and ebooks, books for sale were wrapped tightly, perhaps to keep away deranged browsers who obsessed over the first and last pages but never bought a copy. Now that mall-based booksellers have relaxed browsing rules, some book-borne forms of insanity may also be on the wane.

Oriental and Bookmark were good for fantasizing or playing hide-and-seek (a newsroom colleague often hid a coveted literary title behind academic tomes in the Oriental bookshelves). Bargain bin aficionados had only one temple to burn their precious pesos: the old Music House in Colon St.

It was originally housed beside a creek that stank but never quite drove away the seekers. Perhaps once upon a time, the LPs and 45 rpms did outnumber the books and magazines. When I knew it in the 1980s, the browsers outnumbered the old books, old records, old clothes, old furniture, and old thingamajigs. It’s a wonder we didn’t fall through the old wooden floor and poisoned ourselves in the polluted creek.

After a fire, the store resurfaced nearby under a different name I’ve never been able to remember. Heavy wooden furniture dominated the space, and the mini-towers of bestsellers were faded echoes of those days when a Dumaguete poetess took a six-hour land-trip to the old Music House and went home with bragging rights at finding not one but two novels of South American magic realism for less than P50.

Last summer, the outlet-that-used-to-be-the-Music-House had a “closing-out sale” streamer. I don’t know which was sadder, the passage of another bookstore into memory or the cabinets and tables that blocked the storefront.

Yet real mourning I reserved for the Old San Francisco Bookstore, which gave a new spin to P. del Rosario as a pick-up street in the decade beginning 2000. Across the strip where pimps and their girls hailed cars, the store stocked on literature that would have felt at home in libraries. Despite that earnest air, it had a lot in common with the crazy shabbiness of the old Music House: namely, that every kind of reader could find a book or books in the pile.

When I learned that the Junquera branch of La Belle Aurore Bookshop was closing this October, I wondered again why so many bookstores sink downtown.

Facebook (FB) and the rest of the social network keep an online community of readers plugged to the traffic of traditional books in La Belle Aurore, Hungry Bookaholics,, and other sellers. I found a P50 copy of Kate Atkinson’s “Emotionally Weird” by scrutinizing an FB photo of bargain books, where it was nearly obscured by several titles of “Advent and Christmas”.

Yet trawling the Net for titles is not the same as walking in a book shop, taking a deep breath before diving into depths you hope will not have a bottom. If the abominable fate of downtown booksellers does not improve, such an exploration will become, for Netizens, simply one for the books.

( 09173226131)

* First published in the Oct. 6, 2013 issue of Sun.Star Cebu's Sunday editorial-page column, "Matamata"