Saturday, February 24, 2018


FLUX one expects in journeys. Moving from place to place, we seek what is pleasurable and shun the distressing.

In human terms, life is fleeting when we are happy; agony slows it to a crawl.

What would be the standpoint of a meteor (“bulalakaw”)?

Traveling at 72 kilometers per second, a shooting star may perhaps regard flux not as discrete turning points but, literally, as one unimpeded flow, “flux” being derived from “fluere,” which, in Latin, means “to flow”.

For three days and two nights, our family travelled from Cavite to Cebu, taking four crossings on the Road Roll-on/Roll-off (RoRo) Terminal System (RRTS): from the Port of Batangas to Calapan City, Oriental Mindoro; Bulalacao, Oriental Mindoro-Caticlan, Aklan; Iloilo City-Dumangas, Bacolod; and San Carlos City, Negros Occidental-Toledo City, Eastern Cebu.

Also known as the Philippine Nautical Highway System, the RoRo implies, by the sound of the contraction, a continuous streaming through a network of highways and ferries connecting our many islands.

Not quite. Although Google and Waze yielded ferry schedules and destinations, the reality on the ground was seldom in sync with virtuality. Heading for the Port of Roxas, we discovered that driving at night through the eight towns or so lying between Calapan and Roxas demanded also dodging motorists and bicyclists perversely driving without lights in the dark.

Our nerves were not at their best when we reached Roxas. The port was a scene cut-and-pasted from rush-hour Edsa: a stagnant stream of vehicles, flashing red lights and spewing a fog of carbon monoxide.

No one knew if trips were leaving for Aklan that night. No one knew how to get in those outbound ferries.

Sleeping in the car, waiting, like everyone, for a ferry or answers to emerge from the dark, I remembered how purgatory is also depicted as waiting.

Hungry but too scared of the public toilets to eat or drink; sleepy but too anxious to close one’s eyes. Waiting can be a foretaste of purgatory.

More than 48 hours and two islands later, our family drove under the canopy of towering pine trees thriving in the Municipality of Don Salvador Benedicto in the Negros Ecotourism Highway.

Stretching for nearly two kilometers, the grove is man-made and maintained by the community.

Travellers relish ephemerally the pine-scented chill. Dwellers from Barangay Igmayaan to the Poblacion drink deep and long, though, from the perpetually renewing cornucopia yielded by their foresight and patience to plant and nurture trees.

The RoRo experience is harsh on the seat and travel expectations. For those who want to live, just once, as a “bulalakaw,” go RoRo.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s February 25, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Tuesday, February 20, 2018


I THOUGHT I knew sleepy towns until I reached Calapan City in Mindoro Oriental.

Usually there’s not much to separate “sleepy” from “sleeping” as the degree of inactivity is hardly discernible.

After leaving the Batangas Port, our group docked at Calapan City. At dusk, the lights of a sprawling mall twinkled in the rearview mirror of the vehicle as we left the city behind in a bid to catch a 9 p.m. roll on-roll off (roro) crossing from the port of Roxas to Panay Island.

Though I assume life would be settling down with evening fall, I didn’t expect the passing towns to be in thrall of the dark like the fairytale kingdom that lies under a sleeping spell.

At some point, I noticed in the nearly deserted town centers we passed that only two types of establishments had their lights blazing on: police stations and funeral parlors.

The latter riveted my attention as, aside from the business name, this information was also displayed: the name of the licensed embalmer and the fact that the establishment operated on a 24-hour basis.

Death, of course, calls at a time that’s only convenient to itself, never to the visited.

But in a town of a couple of hundreds of families, what were the chances that there was a showdown of embalmers; hence, necessitating the advertisement of so-and-so?

And this emphasis on “licensed” embalmers: did it mean that there were unlicensed ones? Why would one bring the dead to an artisan operating without a license and, one presumes, the expertise to preserve a vessel of corruption into a simulacrum of incorruptibility?

Such thoughts made rather morbid companions for a journey that was initially uneventful. The highway was wide and almost deserted at just past 7 p.m. Even when the road turned all twisty like chicken entrails, luminous arrows and signs cautioning about “accident-prone areas” guided our negotiations around the hairpin curves.

And then from out of the dark loomed the first motorist, driving without lights. The husband let out a mouthful after swerving just in time. A few hundred meters later, another averted tragedy, a couple and a child motoring complacently in absolute darkness.

In the end, the inscrutable dark became like a gleeful foe, throwing in our path motorists and bicyclists with this aversion to lights and baffling apathy to personal safety.

Suddenly the pre-eminence of the embalming profession made sense. Even the shuttered roadside houses were witnesses in denial: no, we did not see what happened.

We arrived at the port of Roxas without accident. At midnight, a three-motorbike smash-up was reported, word-by-mouth.

One dead. And plenty of embalmers to choose from in a place deserted by common sense.

( 0917 3226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s February 18, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

New “bakwits”

“RUN for your life” spun off to a different direction this week. A double whammy last Thursday—another MRT breakdown and the sidelining of Quezon City jeepneys by an LTO crackdown—left many commuters stranded again at rush hours.

Joining the march of commuters, I realized once more how urban living hones certain survival skills. To carry out the necessary—go to work, catch class, go home—the new bakwits have to “walk for life” to go on.

“Bakwits” is a Bisaya neologism for “evacuees”. Refugees are usually associated with the mass movement to escape war zones or avoid bearing the brunt of natural disasters.

Commuters are the new “bakwits”. Many of us carry our worlds on our backs. Even presuming we could rely on mass transit, we leave our residence with what is only necessary and assemble everything else along the way: meals, assignments, even faces (many women apply make-up in the MRT or bus under the sometimes watchful, often indifferent panopticon of strangers’ eyes).

Urban transportation grows apace with urban spaces. What happens when mass transit doesn’t?

It gluts digital space, as many fellow commuters let off angst by posting images of last Thursday’s bakwits, stranded by the MRT unloading some 800 passengers due to a breakdown of electrical sub-components, most likely cannibalized from out-of-running trains (from about 20 trains carrying an over-the-maximum daily capacity of 500,000 commuters to only five trains last Thursday).

Creating more commuter paralysis, the Land Transportation Office (LTO) conducted a blitzkrieg operation in the middle of Thursday. The “Tanggal Bulok Tanggal Usok” campaign looks good on paper because it protects commuters by ensuring only roadworthy public utility jeepneys (PUJs) ply the routes and don’t endanger commuters.

In practice, the absence of jeepney queues only means another headache: no jeepneys because the drivers are choosing to stay home or parking to wait for the inspections to end and the chances of incurring fines go away.

In the end, we help jeepney drivers skirt the law by holding onto a seatbelt that doesn’t really fasten and secure front-seat riders or keep our eyes peeled for lurking enforcers who may stop a PUJ to inspect it has the regulated fire extinguisher.

The public’s sympathy is for the “bulok” of society, trying, like the rest of us, to go through their day despite the pesky interference of the state.

When the wrong trains run (the TRAIN law that has made all basic good prices shoot up, from rice to LPG) or don’t run (“heartbreaker” topnotcher MRT with its record-breaking number of breakdowns and separations), it’s time to the new “bakwits” to “walk for life”.

( 0917 3226131)

• First published in SunStar Cebu’s February 11, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”


WHAT torment pierces more than betrayal?

Last Friday, when a major mall in the north began its weekend sale, snarling the usual Friday traffic along Edsa into a monstrous Quezon City pretzel, I headed for the Manila Metro Rail Transit System or the MRT 3, the cheapest and fastest public transport for the southbound trip.

Later, inside the train, with my left arm pinned behind by the press of bodies, my right arm trying to keep a trembling grip on a handhold I was sharing with two other commuters, and my back pulled backwards by a heavy knapsack and commuters hellbent on getting out of the train and battling an opposing flow of commuters as single-mindedly fighting to get in, I remembered, of all persons, Rousseau.

Just the day before this earthly taste of purgatory or inferno—any distinction, if at all, was indistinct then in the MRT chaos—my class was discussing Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “The Social Contract”.

“Every act of sovereignty… every authentic act of the general will, binds or favours equally all the citizens; so that the sovereign knows only the body of the nation, and distinguishes none of those that compose it.”

The act of surrendering one’s rights, including liberty, to the sovereign power is not a “real renunciation,” argued this thinker of the Enlightenment. There is instead an “advantageous exchange of an uncertain and precarious mode of existence for a better and more assured one”.

Dear Rousseau (I said in my head during the 20 minutes it took before the train doors could close after the passengers inside won the battle to keep people outside from pushing in and turning our existence into the world’s most compact sardine can): I’m a fan from the future. Does a disaster like the MRT 3 rescind the social contract? Love, Breathless in QC.

In 2000, when the MRT 3 began full operations, it originally served 450,000 commuters. In 2013, 650,000 rode the same system intended to decongest Edsa and give the people a faster, cheaper mode of travel.

According to the news, the MRT manager “offered to resign” after a Senate scolding; spare parts to fix the sidelined trains were “expected anytime in February (2018, I hope);” and about 30 Japanese experts will conduct a “system audit” to find out what ails the MRT.

Meanwhile, last Friday, only seven trains served a conservative estimate of half a million passengers commuting regularly via the MRT 3.

For all his wordiness, Rousseau refused to say anything more in last Friday's babel. A spark of enlightenment came, though.

“It’s not so bad,” a grandmother shouted while we were buffeted like driftwood by the mad surge of bodies. “When you have to put your bag on top of your head…”

( 0917 3226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s February 4, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata"

Mirror of water

WALKING across the campus after lunch, I looked down and saw a man breaking rocks beside a pool of water. The pool was shaped like a pointing finger that extended from where the sidewalk dropped off to bare slope and ended somewhere among the liana-covered trees and undergrowth.

I was warm from the walk and my heavy backpack. The sight of the gurgling water bade me to stop. I wondered how far the water had journeyed. I thought the man’s task of breaking pieces of rock to fit like a puzzle into the nearly finished dike was more useful than reading books and writing a paper.

I watched the water try to break out of its containment and fail. I walked on to class.

When the professor dismissed us, it was early evening. In the gloaming, the towering trees fanned a lacy silhouette against the sky. Who has time to gaze and wonder?

Couples and joggers passed me. No one tilted a head. Only if a billboard or a road threatens the trees do we appreciate what we have, what has been there ever since.

In this world, loss seduces more than beauty.

The path took me again past the unfinished pool of water. Lit by a sliver of moonlight, water wasn’t water anymore but a mirror, still, cold, and charmless. I stopped again, gravitated by a desire to peer into the mirror of water and smile at the other person reflected on the other side.

Then the street lights came on, a sequence of jaundiced orbs strung on the path I suddenly remembered as taking. Why had I stopped? When I looked back at the pool of water, the mirror had dimmed as if displeased. Whatever pulled me to its darkness withdrew its interest.

Walking in the near dark, at my age, is like discovering my feet. I take small, almost tentative steps. It is not the surety of an accident but the uncertainty of what’s in front that steers me.

A friend champions mindful walking. At our age, she said, we must focus. Younger people make way for me. They see someone slower, less agile, more brittle.

I put one foot before the other and move the other one like so. I slow down because I am thinking of the problem the professor gave our class: how do you make the inanimate speak?

The puzzle is not as hard as the first assignment: step inside the minds of mating horses. Since the first and last horse I rode tried to throw me off, I have not sat astride a horse again, let alone join in its coupling.

I walk slowly in the dark, smelling the sweaty horses, while the young people make way for an old person, slower, blind, more brittle.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s January 28, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”


THE CHURCH triumphant.

The phrase above would not be out of place in the sea of believers gathered at the Basilica Minore del Sto. NiƱo, specially during the feast of the Holy Child.

The waving of devotees’ hands raised during the gozos of the novena, the dancing of the “sinulog” by candle vendors for patrons’ petitions, the waves of red- and green-suited images of the Infant Jesus carried by devotees during processions—these images coalesce behind another expression: the spectacle of faith.

One memory stands out. While awaiting my turn in a queue before the replica encased in a glass receptacle at the Basilica, I paused when I saw that part of the marble floor was depressed where countless devotees had paused before paying the traditional “halok (kiss)” of the image.

Was it a flaw in the construction? Or a sign of the foreign faith that conquered our shores and has lost little of its power in the vicissitudes of the centuries?

In Shusaku Endo’s novel, “Silence,” the indelible image is repeated with a difference: “(the) ‘fumie’ rubbed flat and shining by the hundreds of feet that ached with pain… while they trampled on someone whom their hearts loved.”

Endo’s novel is set during the “Christian century” of Japanese history. In 1579, some 150,000 Christians bore witness to the Jesuits’ vision of a Christian nation in the north of Asia.

Yet “Japan can be a land of schizophrenic change,” observed William Johnston, translator of “Silence”. By 1597, the winds of change withdrew the favor of the Shogun, who heeded the intrigues sown by the English and the Dutch against the Portuguese Jesuits.

In 1614, the edict came to “crush” and expunge this foreign faith. Christians were hunted and tortured to apostasize.

One practice was to hang upside down a Christian in a pit where he was buried up to his knees in feces and other filth. Cuts made behind the ears ensured that the blood would drip, keeping the person alive until ready to give the sign for apostasy.

For these crypto-Christians, abandoning the faith required trampling on the face of Santa Maria or Christ placed on a “fumie (wooden plaque)”. Despite this simple act of renunciation, many secret Christians chose to agonize and die than betray the faith.

The book’s title alludes to the torment that haunts all hell on earth, from the killing fields of ethnic cleansing to the secret torture of sexual abuse: why is God silent in the face of suffering?

The “terrible doubt” rising from the “silence of God” assails the Jesuit missionary, Sebastian Rodrigues.

More terrible than doubt is our inability to hear the silence in the spectacle that has become our faith.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s January 21, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”