Saturday, December 26, 2015


IN December, we always have First of May.

I only recently learned the name of the family making the ice cream that has been a part of the feast my mother-in-law prepares for the holiday.

J, my nephew, was born a day after the changing of the year. For the past 23 years, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day and J’s birthday roll into a cornucopia of flavors. Only the homemade ice cream stands the test of time.

“Lechoneros” come and go. The holidays are tough also on them. The yearlong demand for what is arguably Cebu’s king of feasts tests the ability to not just come up with the crispiest skin and the most flavorful ribs but also best business practices like honesty, consistency and dependability.

As Cebuanos who know their pig, my mother- and sister-in-law have gone through a lot of entrepreneurs, from Talisay to Carcar, in the search for the lechon that’s fit to grace the table for the holidays.

Over the years, lechon came served with a side dish: tidbits about the shifting fortunes of those behind the turning of the spit. We intimately know who subcontracted the roasting without heeding the consequences, who ran away with a younger lover who ran away with the lechon profits.

In contrast with the lechonero discarded like last year’s calendar, the ice cream maker stays. In mango, chocolate and vanilla, the ice cream, which comes in a tall metal drum as high as a grown man’s hips, was like having perpetual summer in December: the children would play, stop, fill up with ice cream, play again.

My childhood was summoned by the melting of my nephew’s birthday ice cream on my tongue. Our elders called it by different names: “dirty ice cream” if it was sold on the streets from a cart-pushing, bell-ringing vendor, “sorbetes” if it was made painstakingly by family helpers.

In keeping with its names were the images: the sweat that poured from the men whipping up the ice cream, the salt sprinkled on the blocks of dry ice surrounding the inner vat of ice cream in the “garapiƱera,” the old-fashioned ice cream-maker wrapped in jute sack, the nut-brown hands of the ice cream vendor whom we tried to catch peeing on the road to confirm if he truly deserved the “dirty” tag.

The legends persisted even when the homemade buko ice cream was replaced by other sweets at my aunt’s feasts, when our elders passed away and with them, a way of cooking, bonding, and living.

I rediscovered the sorbetes at my in-law’s feast. In its company, the husband and older son behave as only children can on an endless summer afternoon.

Even though the children are no longer children, the ice cream remains a holiday tradition.

Decades older and several health emergencies later, I watch myself around ice cream, savored best as a childhood memory rather than an indulgence requiring atonement.

But Christmas is Christmas. Last Friday, I asked for and got a bowl heaping with scoops of mellow yellow and a chocolate-flecked ivory. The latter is cookies and cream, a new flavor.

To my surprise, I learn that behind the First of May ice cream is a young couple continuing their parents’ trade. They also limit themselves to orders they can meet. During holidays, that means catering only to the regulars and turning away would-be clients.

That’s a recipe for less profits but better memories. Some traditions are worth keeping.

( 09173226131)

*First published in the December 27, 2015 issue of Sun.Star Cebu’s Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Messenger of memories

THE LAST time I saw him, his sarcasm bristled as the hair that would not stay down. Thirty years or so later, the hair is sparse and sprinkled with grey.

Yet, it was a glimpse of that hair that made me spot him in the swirling holiday crowd.

In the college paper a lifetime ago, he edited and I contributed. When I wasn’t keeping my distance from that black humor of his, as anachronistic as slacks pockets turned inside out in his tucked-in, buttoned-down presence, I listened to his stories.

Last Friday, fittingly the last working day of the year, Jose Sevilla Ho brought a harvest of stories from Washington, D.C. where he lives with wife Marie Frail and their 12-year-old daughter Nadia.

Of the tales that night, two I keep, captured on ink and paper.

Kiddie Lim sent “Mornings in Jenin” by Susan Abulhawa. Published by Bloomsbury, Abulhawa penned the story of a family dispersed as refugees by the conflict in Palestine. The novelist was born to refugees and seemed to have made her escape when she migrated to America and carved a career in medical science.

In 2001, Abulhawa founded the children’s organization Playgrounds for Palestine, which fights for a right we, who live in less fraught climes, take for granted: the right to play for the children of Palestine.

Kiddie introduced me to Asian civilization and Renato Constantino’s critical revisiting of Philippine history. After I finished her courses, she asked me to tutor her precocious daughter Agape who watched us like a hawk as we took Kiddie’s migraine-inducing essay exams.

I confess: I plotted to take my revenge on the brat. I ended up reading Kiddie’s books, some of which Agape was finished with. Agape is a lawyer now for the United Nations and her mother still sends me stories.

“Hope you’ll enjoy these shared memories” is Kiddie’s note handwritten on the cover page of “Mornings in Jenin”. Like Kiddie, I write on books: my name, notes when I found the title, who I was with when I chanced on the find, when and where I finished the book, how often I’ve revisited the tale, dedications to the one I pass on a title to.

Like birds, do readers of the same persuasion read alike?

Ho is another scribbler of books. On the cover page of “Roses from San Gabriel,” he writes a dedication, “To… a fellow traveller on old literary roads”.

Ho wrote “Roses from San Gabriel,” a tale of two motherless brothers raised by a servant woman. When he reaches across the table, I accept the books.

How can something existing only in the imagination have such heft? “Three years before their mother Rosanna died, she found someone who loved her more than their father,” opens Ho’s tale.

It occurs to me that he has carried these books from one terminal to another, a reconnection not just of points in an itinerary but also a recoupling of time, faces, memories.

Nearly at the same time, we blurt out how we stubbornly stick with paper books.

I smile broadly. On an e-book copy, I wouldn’t have seen again Kiddie’s opulent cursive or Ho’s spikey text. In the age of email and status updates, it’s not just penmanships that are sidelined.

Ho observes that paper books have no rival in allowing the reader to easily go back to a passage, a scene. I smile across this fellow traveller, content to watch the past take shape and pulse before us.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s December 20, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, December 12, 2015


CHRISTMAS parties are here. For two days in a hotel, our group of academics was cooped in a training to generate research proposals.

Since clear glass panels separated our venue from the hotel lobby, I noticed how, throughout the day, different groups approached the elevators to reach the upper function rooms. The groups had one thing in common: every member was dressed to party.

If it’s harder to find a free cab these days, it may be because people are on their way to parties. The yearend bash held at the office, where in- and out-trays were cleared hastily for lunch buffet, seems to be out.

Gauging from the heavy traffic in and out of the hotel elevators, many company parties to celebrate the closing of the year are held in hotels. What seems even more popular is for these parties to have themes.

When our group moved to the veranda for our get-together, our next-(function) room neighbors followed an “Arabian Nights” theme. We felt a bit like kids gawking through the glass at the sight of women poured into diaphanous harem pants and tiny bits of cloth glittering with tinsel.

The choreographers guiding the different groups rehearsing their party presentations may have been more inspired by Disney and Hollywood in recreating Arabia. Not in sight were traditional wear like the “abaya” (long black robe), worn with a “hijab” (scarf covering part of the head and the back of the neck) or “niqab” (head covering that leaves only a slit for the eyes).

Mingling with the Filipinas were foreign males in Western clothing. The theme should have been “Harem Nights”. The following day, the lobby was full of folks in safari clothing. I placed my bet on “Out of Africa,” with “Jurassic Park” and “The English Patient” following closely. I felt as if I had wandered into the sets where many movies were being filmed all at once.

A communal people, we enjoy Christmas parties. Other cultures may see a company party as an indulgence that can be dispensed with. One expat was invited to a Christmas get-together by his Filipino counterparts. The invitation shocked the visiting executive, who knew of the mother company’s directive to do away with yearend parties as an austerity measure.

In another export zone locator, employees were expressly prohibited to post any selfie or photo taken during the office party because the main headquarters and the rest of the global operations, except apparently in the Philippines, were cutting down on costs.

After Yolanda’s devastation, employees of a multinational company were split between those who wanted to divert the party budget to relief distribution for typhoon survivors, and those who felt the traditional get-together was a well-deserved reward for the whole team. In compromise, the Yolanda aid was sent to Leyte and the staff shared supper with a karaoke showdown after.

It briefly crossed our minds to don flimsy fantasies for next year’s get-together. But after we remembered our manners and stopped staring at our Arabian neighbors, our group settled down to dinner and then competed fiercely in the parlor games to win polvoron and other sweets that were certainly going to add to our waistlines and cholesterol levels.

Before the year ends, I wish you, dear reader, may share a meal with those you’ve shared the journey this year.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s December 13, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Confessions of a medical tourist

A MAMMOGRAM can be a girl’s best friend.

Ever since I discovered a lump in a breast four years ago, I’ve always treated myself at the end of the year.

While reading reports of horrendous traffic during the weekend opening of the newest mall, I planned the trips I would be taking to visit—who else?—the doctors, medical technicians, clinic receptionists and health maintenance organization (HMO) coordinators that have been part of my Christmas ritual.

I don’t care a hoot about the unpronounceable foreign brands invading Cebu. But I will juggle my schedule, don sneakers for the inevitable walkathon, and read the medical journals, bulletin board notices and conference posters that make the waiting time sprinkling these medical marathons slightly less freaky than a Stephen King novel.

For no matter how skewered a doctor’s sense of time is, how well-aimed a receptionist’s sarcasm, or how stomach-churning the photos of sliced suppurating organs decorating medical journals, knowledge is always better than ignorance.

Certainly, don’t expect bliss.

Four years ago, I discovered the lump, with well-defined borders like a chico seed, while waiting for New Year to roll in. I didn’t realize it then but that breast self-exam (BSE) in the shower was another reason to keep Dumaguete in my list of favorites.

Feeling around or looking at one’s breasts in the mirror helps in the early detection of any change in the breasts or underarm area, which alerts one to possible breast cancer. Early detection increases the chances of survival.

My hands were slippery with soap and water, which made it easier to detect and probe the lump. Still I had to take several cold showers before I could talk to the husband and sons about the lump.

However, it took watching actor Javier Bardem perform self-surgery in the dramatization of Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men” to move me from my BSE moment to keeping an appointment with a specialist in obstetrics and gynecology.

The online references on BSE never mention the denial and prevarication that swamps one after discovery of that wee lump. On the last day in Dumaguete, while waiting for the bus, I watched Bardem play Anton Chigurh. The maniacal murderer operates on his leg after it’s blasted by a shotgun and then sews up the wound.

I realized I could never be that crazy and looked for a doctor as soon as I returned to Cebu.

Compared to the surprises hidden in magazines lying in wait in doctors’ clinics, mindless movie mayhem has a certain Disneyesque mystique. I’ve sat with women whose major complaint against mammograms is the waiting required in a room with extremely cold air-conditioning.

Cold is an issue. I wish technicians had warmer hands when they’re positioning my breast for a shot with low-dose X-rays. Or that a Pap smear didn’t feel like an entire movie crew, with all the hardware, is filming a Star Wars prequel to the prequel inside my cervix.

Yet, aside from wanting to live, I keep my December dates because my doctor taught me a simple trick for remembering (“time your yearly screening with something that always happens, like Christmas”). Because everyone, from the lab technician to the doctor’s receptionist, checks the database and reminds me of the year I missed.

Because, better than diamonds, a mammogram, Pap smear and other screenings are really a woman’s best friends.

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s December 6, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Bookavores, unite!

BEFORE E. could leave the country, she had three matters to settle: the cat that adopted her, her books and bookshelves, which she couldn’t lug back to Melbourne.

With prescient feline wisdom, the cat spared E. by disappearing a few weeks before her departure. It knew what E. did not: that, after finding a dirty ball that pussyfooted into a coffee shop and bringing this home, all clotted fur and lice, E. would never be able to leave it.

With the novels, E. was less sentimental, leaving several boxes to me, a stranger whose Sun.Star Cebu musings about reading had become part of her Sunday ritual.

Then there were just the bookshelves.

These were beautiful, solid wood mellowed with the patina of age and frequent contact with paper. I yearned for, even dreamt about them. But unless I could convince my boys to sleep on the shelves or move up on the roof, our home could not accommodate another bookshelf.

Less prescient than E.’s cat, I was slower in drawing up a conclusion from the incident of the unrequited shelves: life is short; books, unending; and shelves, finite. Conclusion: share books.

Last Nov. 27 was an opportunity to renew these articles of faith. Since 2008, the country observes November as National Reading Month. Its culmination is on Nov. 27, “Araw ng Pag(b)asa (National Reading Day)”.

Nov. 27 is also the birth anniversary of Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. The play of meanings in “pag(b)asa,” interchanging “reading” with “hope,” was an advocacy of the late senator, in whose honor were dedicated last Friday’s storytelling sessions in public elementary and high schools.

Reading a story to a child can translate into sharing novels with young adults. Familiar with the ways my students read, write and express, I tried to match titles and authors with last Friday’s classes.

I’m happy to report that the appeal of a free book still cuts across generations. For these Cebu-based millennials—only two of us in one class use a basic phone and that’s only because my student said, sheepishly, that she recently lost her smartphone—the paper book is more than a thing inspiring wonder and delight.

Unlike an e-book, a traditional book stuck together with glue, words and imagination can be turned over and sniffed. J., a bookseller, once said that buying books, a luxury in this country, constrains us to stick to favorite authors. A gift of books frees one to take risks and discover new voices.

Paper books are also better for testing your BQ (bookavore quotient): do you leaf or flip through the pages before choosing what to read? Leafing helps one search for the first paragraph (or page) that decides the leap into the tale.

Flipping is for quickly checking if the previous owner left any trace. (E. and I clip book reviews and insert it in novels. After reading, we review the reviewer. Judging by the squealing, a student or two share the same quirk.)

Any separation anxiety over breaking up a book series or works by the same author collected over the years can be assuaged by donating to public libraries. As the librarian of a public school attested, fiction is rarely a priority for scarce funds. Yet, students look for fiction to make book reports.

And for pleasure, I should think. All bookavores live by this article of faith.

( / 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s December 1, 2015 issue of the “Matamata,” an editorial-page column that usually appears on Sunday