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

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Fifty shades

MY salt-and-pepper hair has given me perks, such as solicitous offers of precious MRT seats during rush hour and advice on hair coloring from a stranger during a jeepney ride. Recently, I added another one on my list.

One hectic Friday in a mall, I got a priority number for a bank transaction before popping in the next-door pharmacy to purchase my 75-year-old mother’s medicine.

There were about 40 other persons before it would be my turn in the bank. I was two numbers away from being served in the pharmacy.

Yet, according to the principles that skewer situations when one is in a hurry, the “express” senior citizen’s lane took an eternity to add more grey strands in my head. When I popped back to the bank, my turn had come and gone.

Cutting or jumping the line or queue is among the worst of uncivilized behavior. A band of yuppies was unable to budge their way into our queue for boarding a plane until someone in their party—with the shortest skirt drawn across a human posterior—smiled her way in front of a man in front. No way to win against two apes.

But in a mall on a Friday, with bags in tow and hours logged behind queues, I was beyond the threshold of forbearance. I explained my situation to the bank security.

The officer said he would ordinarily advise a person with a lapsed number to get in line again. Lowering his voice, he tipped me to tell the teller that I had gone to the toilet.

I told him the numbers being served were already a dozen or so past my number. Who would believe the toilet alibi?

The officer glanced at my head and said, still sotto voce: prepare your senior citizen’s identification card, in case.

I didn’t resort to ID abuse but still got helped by another officer, 10 minutes before bank closing. The windfall on a busy Friday night in a mall was, I suspect, boosted by a head full of greying tresses.

Yet, being elderly is far from being a walk in the park these days. You see stoicism but also exasperation as they wait interminably in pharmacies for their prescriptions to be filled.

Stools ease the waiting except that, for persons with mobility problems, sitting without a backrest and getting up without aid are Herculean tasks that may just end in a slipping accident and a trip on the last boat down the River Styx.

Senior citizen lanes are supposed to prioritize the elderly. The backlog can be due to many factors: prescriptions that are often more than a page; doctors’ penmanship to decipher; forms to fill; and the elderly’s need for slow and clear explanations.

So why is there usually only a single clerk manning this lane? Once, attempting to switch from a slow-moving senior citizens’ counter to the fast-moving and multiple regular counters, I was told I could not bridge the divide. Stick with slow. Slow is good. The elderly cannot possibly be in a hurry to go anywhere except to the terminal with no return ticket.

Thus, the donation of rocking chairs by the Silya Foundation and the Ayala Center Cebu to public places is timely.

It reminds us that we take for granted those we should spend more time and effort “to thank… the elderly because they shaped us to who we are… (and) to inspire the youth to care for the elderly,” said Tito Lorete Alcala, founder of Silya Foundation, during the Sept. 19 turnover of the rocking chairs in Cebu, reported Janelle Paula Blaire Arcayos, University of San Jose-Recoletos Mass Com intern in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 20 issue.

Alcala said the donation won’t only consist of rocking chairs. Benches and other seats are welcome. What about treadmills and ballrooms?

Let’s not stereotype the elderly. To quote E. L. James, whom my mother still yearns to read, there are fifty shades of grey. At least.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s September 21, 2014 issue of “Matamata,” the Sunday editorial-page column

Mirror, mirror

AT a certain point, do all daughters come to resemble their mothers?

Across the dining table, my 75-year-old mother watched me fold a plastic bag left by the boys. I did not know she was watching me until she said: I am like you, unable to resist keeping a plastic bag others would have discarded.

How many times have I watched my mother, across the same table, put her maintenance medicine inside reused plastic bags from the pharmacy?

During the day, the dining table witnesses our different routines: I, to write; she, to prepare her medication. When I look up from what I’m reading or writing, my mother is still at it, folding, unfolding and folding the tiny bags holding multicolored pills.

Is it the bags that make me dizzy? My mother doesn’t label the bags, which come from the same pharmacy but contain different sets of pills for different intervals. After watching too often a shower of pills spill from the pocket of her trousers, I gave her a pillbox.

I’ve never seen again the pillbox. But the mini plastic bags never stop rustling when my mother and I sit across each other during the day.

Now something more than the pill bags holds my attention: quote I am like you unquote. Shouldn’t my mother say: you are so like me? Daughters take after their mothers, don’t they?

When my teachers and classmates met my mother for the first time, they looked at me as if to reproach me for defying type. Was I proof that aliens could have abducted my mother’s real daughter and put me in her place? I think even the aliens would agree without batting a lidless cyclopean eye.

Throughout the turbulent years—while I navigated adolescence and my mother, middle age—we found a common point by disagreeing about most things. My mother, a KBL loyalist, considered my revulsion for Marcos and embrace for causes as some kind of bug I picked up from the state university. She taught me birth control; I suspected she was prepping me for vassalage and the petty bourgeois institutions of monogamy and perpetuation of the race. She discovered religion when I thought disbelief had the answers for everything, including alien abduction.

Age catches up with all of us. I became a wife and then a mother. I converted to conservatism. My mother stopped perming and dyeing her hair; she became a grandmother and revels in the pure high only grandchildren can give.

We still disagree on a few things: Aquino and “Daang Matuwid,” her diet, and plastic bags. Or we did.

When she moved in with us some weeks ago, I found myself watching her across the glass-topped table where we have our meals. Am I becoming my mother’s daughter? It turned out she was watching me, too. Quote I am like you unquote.

All my life, I’ve had more men friends than women. Men come with a list of simple instructions once you get sex out of the way. Women are much harder to crack. And they keep their claws sharpened.

So I don’t know when I started to like hanging out with my mother. Was it when I heard her ask my sons if I knew how to switch on the stove (shared anxiety: my mother cannot boil an egg)? Or as we negotiated if she could add one more scoop of ice cream?

Or while holding on to the back of her neck as one of her doctors recently drove in a harsh truth, I remembered how my mother held me on her lap so the dentist could pull out a milk tooth and then announce, “You can now open your eyes… yes, both of you.”

Quote I am like you unquote.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s September 14, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Common bad

JOY. That’s the element jumping out of a photograph Alex “Chief” Badayos of Sun.Star Cebu took of couples sharing a truck ride during a free mass wedding of 173 couples in Naga City.

Though they are sitting on plastic chairs arranged on a flatbed truck, with only a handhold to keep their balance, the faces are all alit.

Hand-waves and laughter on their way to saying “I do”: it’s an infectious snapshot that captures not just levity but also a dignity and self-worth not usually associated with the common perception of “masses”.

Frequently, any reference made of large numbers of people or the majority of the population is equated with a lowering of expectations and standards. It’s as if there’s a social formula that transmutes the common into the lowest and poorest of terms.

Not so with the Naga City Government, which organized a mass wedding during its 7th Charter Day, reported Justin K. Vestil in Sun.Star Cebu last Sept. 4.

In its four years of sponsoring the event, the local government enabled 759 couples to have a wedding even the moneyed can only dream of. The city government took care of the required documents, such as the birth certificate, certificate of no marriage (Cenomar) to prove that one is single and unimpeded from marrying, and marriage certificate.

The government even included free marriage counseling, wedding cakes and food for the couples and their families. As the photographs taken by Sun.Star Cebu’s chief photographer show of that day, it was a picture-perfect moment for 173 couples, many of whom avoided tying the knot for years due to lack of resources.

The tone shifts when one applies “mass” to the transit system in the country. The general disarray is dramatized by the almost daily enumeration of woes from Metro Manila commuters riding the Metro Rail Transit (MRT) trains.

Yet, when news media and the online community monitor and debate over the recent MRT rides of Transportation Secretary Joseph Abaya and Sen. Grace Poe, it’s a validation that, despite the country’s record for senseless deaths and waste of resources caused by transport “glitches,” prominence and politics count more than the masses’ routinary brushes with inconvenience, injury, and death.

Abaya drew criticism for riding the MRT with a retinue, including someone who held an umbrella to keep rain or flying objects from spoiling the official’s “gusot mayaman” barong. In a plain white T-shirt and with her hair drawn back like a schoolgirl’s, Poe lined up during rush hour. Unlike Abaya, she squeezed in with a crowd that wasn’t exclusively elderly, disabled or pregnant.

Yet these personages are hardly the authorities to review MRT services. At best, they were slumming to attest to good faith in the MRT’s publicworthiness. At worst, they put up with an instance of public inconvenience for private good.

Thus, it’s good to note that World Bank officials asked proponents of Cebu’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system to take note of its social impact to ensure better chances that the project will be accepted and sustained.

According to Linette Ramos Cantalejo’s Sept. 3 report in Sun.Star Cebu, the social acceptance of the BRT hinges on minimizing its negative impact on the trees and heritage sites situated along its route, as well as on the public utility drivers, residents and others whose livelihood and property may be adversely affected by the BRT.

“Common good” is a concept so much taken for granted, no one remembers when “common bad” became accepted as its substitute.

It took a photo of newlywed bliss to emphasize how uncommon is a sighting of “masa” satisfaction as a common disposition these days.

( 09173226131/

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 7, 2014 issue of the “Matamata,” Sunday editorial-page column