Saturday, September 27, 2014

Veronica & Betty, Rusty & Rusly

“AKLANON or Akeanon” is the mother tongue spoken in the province of Aklan in the island of Panay. According to the 2013 edition of “Ethnologue,” Aklanon’s unique feature among the country’s mother tongues is the close-mid back unrounded vowel. This is the phoneme, “ea,” found in Akeanon.

On dry script, these details about Aklanon’s mother tongue may interest only linguists. Travelling from Caticlan ports to reach Boracay, arguably Aklan’s most famous destination, I catch snippets of Akeanon, drifting like strands of seaweed in the fast-moving polyglot currents.

On the strength of a wide and interminable stretch of shore covered in sand so fine and unvaryingly cool despite global warming, Boracay draws sun worshippers from all points of the globe. I would be tempted to say that the universal language here is English, legal tender in restobars and sandbar.

Except that, after watching Filipino artists survive and thrive here, I think Boracay’s mother tongue consists of the digits from 0 to 9, including the decimal point. Years ago, while I was tangled in language bottlenecks while haggling in Bangkok and Chiangmai, Nattaya, my Thai colleague, pointed out that communicating was faster using the calculator.

In Boracay, calculators abound but other means can serve as well. While watching Rusty paint designs on a bar of resin he converted into a customized keychain, I observed the transactions between Rusty’s fellow artist from Maasin and a swarthy foreigner.

The latter wanted to get two customized bracelets for less than P35 each. That much I got despite his guttural, inchoate English. Rusty’s colleague scratched out prices on a pad of paper until the tourist walked away, his disappointment needing no translation.

My niece Joanna, visiting from Sydney, discovered haggling in Boracay. When we walked away with my pouch of keychains, she asked if Rusty gave me a good deal. I said I could drive a hard bargain for factory, mass-produced items. It didn’t seem right to lump Rusty with an assemblyline worker from China or our export processing zones.

For every keychain, Rusty, who hails from Manila but has a baby son waiting in Mindoro, gets P1 from the P25 a customer pays to Rusly of Alabang, the investor. He earns P2,000 a month, with free board and lodging for him and his wife. He works daily, with no holidays, on a five-hour shift, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

How can you tell the operators from artists? In Boracay’s White Beach, the merchandise is thicker than the seashells: selfie sticks, sea air-proof cellphone pouches, a husband daycare center (you just pay for his drinks while you shop).

In all that exchange of currency, talent still catches attention: boys who will make quickie sand sculptures for trysting couples (take a picture only after the artists abandon the sculpture or pay a fee for a selfie), fire dancers, and kitsch crafters like Rusty.

The son of a Manila portrait artist, Rusty can draw a landscape on a piece of vinyl no bigger than a name tag. Many seasoned writers are cowed by a blank screen; Rusty takes about 7.5 minutes to swirl his multi-colored pens and create a personality around a name. When I tell him that he has the Filipino’s penchant for horror vacui, he smiles and goes on designing. Typical tourist babble.

For two evenings in a row, we schedule dinner around the performances of the fire dancers. Two catch my sister’s attention. She calls them Betty and Veronica, after the Archie comic book characters. Dark-haired Veronica astounds with his feats of strength and agility, flinging around the flaming balls while keeping a heavily mascaraed mask of inscrutability.

It is blonde Betty, though, that commands the strip of beach. He transforms a nightly routine into a character or a tale with only a look under his eyes, a graceful swishing of a muscled torso. It’s theater; it’s camp, specially when they spring open a “tip box” at the end of all that drama and fire.

In Boracay, you have to hear better and scratch deeper, to find what’s innate and genuine underneath the sand and kitsch.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 28, 2014 issue of the “Matamata,” a Sunday editorial-page column

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