Saturday, April 28, 2018


THE GIRL with her head on the woman’s lap may have been protesting. It was hard to tell since all I could see was the black hair cascading on the lap, and the woman nimbly threading her fingers in that black stream.

During an early morning ride on the MRT, two women and a girl boarded my train. The younger of the women had shaved both sides of her head, leaving only a centurion’s bronze brush in the center.

While the older woman picked lice from her head, the kid fought off drowsiness, her feeble protests sounding like a stream’s timid burble, punctuated now and then by the liquid pop of a tiny parasite disintegrating between the nails of those remorseless fingers.

The lice-seeking madonna and her child sped with us through Edsa and its monumental billboards peddling all kinds of religions, including body modification.

Hair remains a colony ruled by other people, other tyrants.

When my mother found out I had head lice one summer vacation, she stopped short of setting my hair on fire. A tomboy, I didn’t bother with combs, which would have been my mother’s first suspect if she had found one I actually used.

After I finally guessed I might have picked the lice from sleeping with the dogs and cats we adopted, my mother hauled me off to get the shortest possible haircut, her hairdresser stopping only while I still vaguely resembled a girl, not a hairless golf ball when it’s just sprung out from its package and has not rolled on any surface, gathering a stray tendril or two.

That one summertime invasion of head lice has changed my life forever. I decided hair is more trouble than it’s worth.

My yaya, who gave up her siesta so she could conduct search-and-destroy missions of the lice that had marched over with their nits (eggs) from my “aspin (asong Pinoy)” pillow friends, shushed my protests when I had to put my head on her lap by spinning the Horror Story.

She said disobedient girls who could not stay still paid for their lives when the lice took over and airlifted these girls to a fate too hair-raising to be mentioned. I dared her to name at least one unfortunate. She named three, who stole the boys who could have proposed and won her hand.

The thought of losing Yaya made the stubble on my head stand on end.

These days, I keep boring habits, including the use of a comb (one thing I don’t share with stray cats).

Yet, I have outgrown my usual boy’s cut. Strangers now approach me, offering comment or advice on how to deal with my hair, tangled, headstrong, ash-colored.

Like the girl on the train, I know by now hair is a mass noun: even if you tend the tresses on your private scalp, the people still own the whole crop.

( 0917 3226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s April 29, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, April 21, 2018


A DISH of salted fish.

My late father’s dining table was never without this. My yaya only changed the ginamos when its sauce was made even murkier by all the stuff we dipped into it.

I thought those dregs made the gunk taste even better; my younger sister would not look at it. It was fine that she turned up her nose at it; it left the ginamos for Papang and I.

We thought ginamos could make any dish taste better although we never said it aloud. It would have insulted Yaya, not just a very good cook but also a resourceful one, given the budget she had to stretch to keep the family fed.

Once we ran out of ginamos, and Papang sent out Yaya to buy some from a neighborhood store, without waiting for Sunday, market day. It wasn’t fully maus yet so the whole fish lay fully discernible on the dish, one beady eye watching me do my homework.

When the tip of a sheet ended up in the dish, I flicked my tongue at the grey goo seeping the paper. Papang was right; ginamos could make anything taste better.

My first visit to my father’s hometown in Camiguin made me appreciate the dish that had grown as familiar as the rings seared on the mahogany by the hot cups of coffee Yaya frequently left behind, half-finished, without their saucers.

During the summer holiday after my first grade, Papang miraculously allowed my sister and I to go with my cousins to Tupsan.

My uncle’s home faced the sea. Every morning, he and my aunt walked to church; my cousins and I crossed the street to the sea.

Having the sea as your nearest neighbor was, at the age of seven, paradise. The only thing missing was the lechon.

In Cebu, visits to the beach guaranteed a groaning table, presided by a whole lechon. Admittedly, before lunch was over, the entire pig was reduced to vaguely archaeological remains, finally into just a head minus ears and tongue, by the time we headed home.

The first time I took a break from wading and splashing around in Tupsan, I looked for the lechon I thought would be on a table in a cottage. I looked up and down the coast but could see no cottage, no table, and therefore, no lechon.

I went back to the sea, mystified. What is a beach outing without lechon?

The first afternoon of low tide answered me. The neighborhood, including our family, turned up for panginhas. We dug for shellfish; the adults flushed out sea cucumber and sea urchin. I filled my pail with pretty shells and stones.

When my aunts cooked and served the shellfish for dinner, I subdued my hunger, remembering the useless bits I brought to the table.

In Camiguin, where the sea is more than a playground, I learned that just a pinch of saltiness, like ginamos, can go a long way.

( 0917 3226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s April 22, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Monday, April 16, 2018


THE SEA was so familiar a presence in my childhood, we expressed our intent to go to the beach with the same verb referring to the daily baths we children endured with a dyed-to-the-bone stoicism.

Yet, even before the grown-ups announced a trip to Compostela, Talisay or Marigondon, a frisson of expectation shot through all the children at once as soon as we saw the feeding arsenal come out of storage: battle-scarred pots and pans, rainbow plastic containers with their owners’ names marked to guide returning which to whom after the outing, and the insulated chests for cooling the drinks.

The chosen Sunday never dawned soon enough. It was an undertaking to load everything and everyone and finally set forth.

On the way to the beach, which took about an hour in pre-traffic Cebu, one squeezed in beside the favorite cousins, the proven daredevils.

On the trip home, when children exhausted from swimming all day fell asleep even before the vehicles peeled away from parking, grown-ups anchored them to laps, bossoms, and chests as they were always carried out, limp and oblivious, for the dreaded final rinsing, paradisiacal tumbling into bed, or disastrous last-minute making of Monday’s class assignment.

In those days when “warm” did not refer to an ecological meltdown but the vinegary smell wafted from the heads of your band stayed too long under the sun, it was possible to enjoy the sea without caring about the color of the sand, the SPF level of the sunblock, the framing of selfies, or the waxing of bikini lines.

And “coliform” would have sounded like a Tupperware knock-off, the “stateside” stamp of holiday housekeeping.

Not selfishness but esprit de corps dictated that we children played to the hilt our role in the clan outing. If the women cooked and bossed around everyone and the men obeyed so they would later be left to drink in peace, a break from the everyday henpecking, it was left to us children to do our duty and enjoy the sea.

True, we peed in the waters. You could not interrupt your screaming because the cousin playing the shark or leviathan rising from the deeps had to go to the toilet to “jingle”.

In Tupsan and Mambajao, my paternal roots in the island of Camiguin, the neighborhood children stripped off everything before they swam.

I kept on my panties until I lost them after I jumped from a coconut trunk hovering narcissistically over its reflection on the waters.

My yell must have snapped off the old garter my yaya was forever replacing. In the days before modesty, political correctness, and world-class tourism, I thought that was my stake as a child: to keep the sea well-salted for the generations yet to come.

( 0917 3226131)

*First published in SunStarCebu’s April 15, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column

Sunday, April 08, 2018


BORACAY, BC (before the closure).

In September of 2014, I may have been the most dressed person ever to stride on the powdery fine sandbar of the country’s most famous and now, most contested tourist spot.

In my pants, T-shirt, sneakers, socks, and cap, I accompanied my sister and nieces, visiting from Sydney.

Even now, I don’t think of Boracay as several beaches. It is an item to cross out in a bucket list, a spectacle, a market. It is what happens when you put side-by-side a pretty shore and a strip of land embellished with all the contraptions and establishments answering the human craving for the exotic and the familiar.

Boracay is what happens when tourism meets its targets spot on, and the whole world checks out the fabled sand and takes a selfie against the advertised sunset.

It was in Boracay where I saw the first selfie stick, as demonstrated by a peddler and his smart phone. During one afternoon stroll, I was mistaken for three Asian nationalities, none of which was Filipino. And the persons guessing were fellow Filipinos.

While a street artist embellished keychains with the names of all the relatives and friends back home—not once repeating a design—I listened to his stories of travelling from Bohol with his wife—offering massage nearby—to find their fortune in Boracay.

Hours later, when I tried to find him to order more keychains, I could not find the young couple from Bohol. Or maybe I just couldn’t remember their faces in the waves of people endlessly breaking up on the strip and drifting away like sea foam.

I had looked at their eyes as I listened to their stories. Initially as a journalist checking out non-verbal cues to gauge the real value of what was verbally offered. Then, without my knowing, as someone who also had been young and followed impetuously where dreams beckoned.

In Boracay, I forgot. That is not due to the place. It is easy to forget as a tourist. The beaches I remember are the ones I went to as a child, a lover, a mother.

In the southeastern coast of Cebu, a colleague and I documented fishermen installing artificial reefs (ARs) made of bamboo. The village had finally decided they would not fish in the waters for years to allow marine life to recover.

When D. and I came out in frumpy one-piece bathing suits, the fishermen looked away. They said their wives would give them hell if they transported in their banca women undressed like prostitutes.

So, in our report, there are photos of D. and I beaming with the village men after we made the “wet launch” of the the villagers’ marine sanctuary.

The lousiest of swimmers, I am clinging to a bamboo outrigger, struggling to stay afloat while fully dressed in jeans and T-shirt.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s April 8, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Of heads and the headless

TO go back to Paete entailed taking up the gauntlet of Black Friday traffic.

In the previous Sunday’s homily, the priest chided us, singling out the parents for no longer preserving the tradition of bringing families to church on Black Friday, the day on which the Christ was crucified.

This young man, whose hair was precisely trimmed and whose shoes gleamed down to its fashionably narrow tip, pointed at the palm fronds held aloft by the parishioners.

Betrayal, he said, was signified by the palm fronds waved by those who welcomed the Christ entering Jerusalem, the very same people who bayed for Pontius Pilate to crucify the Christ instead of the revolutionary Barabbas during the Passover.

Almost a week later, we waited for traffic to inch forward in streets jammed by families seeking the “bulalo” and nippy breeze of Tagaytay, the manmade pools of Laguna, or the falls of Pagsanjan.

It was nearing 3 p.m., which my Yaya said was the time of the Crucifixion. Growing up with her, my sister and I were forbidden from playing, even singing, from sunrise on Holy Wednesday until sunrise on Easter Sunday, when He rose from the dead.

If we misbehaved and cut ourselves during those days, a headless priest would emerge from our wounds, which would take longer to heal, Yaya said.

Stronger than the images intoned by that young priest, whom I met after mass hurrying away in tight blue jeans and a red slim shirt, were Yaya’s stories of penance and punishment at the mercy of priests without heads.

We left Paete a few minutes before the procession was about to start. The carrozas, sprouting flowers and plants composed like verses around heirloom statues, were nearly as wide as the narrow snaking streets.

One of the few open shops displayed how the woodcarving industry of Paete survives in the age of cheap imports: keychains, back-scratchers, tiny statues with giant penises or dirigible breasts, climbing Santa Clauses and simpering cherubs made in the “taka (papier-mache)” tradition.

At the back of the showroom was a dusty bust of the Christ crowned with thorns. Perhaps the block of wood or its rarity accounted for a steep price and its unsold state.

It would never accent a corner. At the back of the mind would be unceasing worry someone might slip and impale himself on the spikes.

I don’t remember the expression of the bust, which drew me back, reluctantly. Most of the thorns turned inwards. A head carved from wood simulated impalement; a wooden head did not bleed.

But what about the hands of the artist that carved those snaking, twisting coils? What had those hands looked like after carving that head and its crown of thorns?

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s April 1, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”