By Johanna Michelle Lim
“Labindalawang kabayo,” my skylab driver assesses.
This was the value in livestock, the Tboli’s accepted currency, if he bought me as wife. I would be his sixth, the latest in a collection that he hopes will equal that of his father’s, who had thirty-nine.
As a joke, I demand the herd to be all white—pure, ethereal bodies that cross between dream and wake, the line of which dims with the fog surrounding Sbu, where a man could accumulate six life partners in the same time frame that I have accumulated none.
“Walang problema!” he replies, and proceeds to tally every white stallion we pass in the next days.
Mark nudges to a concrete house where several studs are grazing in overgrown grass. A sign. The more horses a man has in his front yard, the more wives.
“Pero sa linya ko, una ka na hindi tagadito,” he says in seriousness. A foreigner, and college graduate at that. More expensive than his other wives, whom he bought for only six horses, but well worth it.
Stumped, I ask him why.
“Kasi puwede mo ako dalhin sa labas.”
A week ago, I choose Mark from the mass of motorcycle drivers in Seloton’s market. He boasts he is the favorite among foreigners.
Mark talks about the “outside” as if it might as well have been an alternate universe, a glass house to be broken into, even while it is a mere ride away.
All of what I describe to him of my every-days in Cebu—the coffee shops, grocery shopping, yoga sessions—seem like a drunkard’s rant. And whatever details that support them—the traffic, the lack of time, of sleep—I find myself exaggerating, describing a world bolder, or more chaotic, than what it actually is.
In the end, he clarifies, did everyone look like the characters from On The Wings of Love like you described, or prettier?
For him, the outside meant he didn’t have the load of fifteen mouths to feed. No sacks of rice to portion. No wives to rotate his weekends around. No squabbles to moderate among his constituents in Sitio Laodanay, Bakdulong.
Like his fellow skylab drivers, Mark entertains the notion of a foreigner whisking him away to the better side.
Mark has hazel brown eyes speckled with gold, and framed with the blackest of lashes that stand out from his bearded face. Between us, he looks like the foreign one. A full Tboli.
I make the mistake of telling him how striking they are. Deep-set and defined. Enough to draw a woman’s envy. It was a flippant comment. An accidental flirtation.
“Alam n’yo ba ano’ng ibig sabihin ng skylab?” Mark asks with a voice that has teased and taunted since then.
“What?” I answer as we approach a waterfront bungalow in wooden stilts. The element in the lake, the same Dwata that shows herself in a weaver’s dream, has already taken me.
I cup a water lily in my palm, purposely detaching, half listening. But Mark insists on delivering the punchline.
“Skylab. Short for sakay na, lab.”
The motorcycle is Mark’s steed, and stage.
He sings every chance he gets, timing the highs and lows of his lines to match the Cotabato landscape. He sings to congratulate himself for conquering an incline in Traan Kini Springs. He sings when we pass through the rice fields of Hasiman, his baritone cutting through the strain of cicadas carried by wind.
“Iyan, Tboli ‘yan.” Mark points a man going out of a general merchandise store. And him, and him.
The full breeds, and half-breeds. The ones from datu ancestry, and the nouveau riche. He lets go of the accelerator in order to point out to them.
He corrects my pronunciation of his tribe’s name as if to not know is a rub on their status as minority. Tboli, he repeats, is said with a soft roll on the second syllable.
How powerful it would be, I prod, to have his voice as medium for a chant, an oral story of mountain and light. Sometimes I catch myself wanting Mark to fulfill the caricature of the Tboli in my mind. The one I came to South Cotabato for, to find whatever answer lies in their simplicity.
Is that what he is afraid of? His Tboli identity oversimplified, or used as entertainment? My inquiries to him come out as judgment. He lets it go by singing the first lines of Journey’s “Faithfully.”
We make a game out of spotting full-blooded Tboli, his guesses strategic, mine trivial, relying on the color of skin, the only common denominator I spot in all his targets.
“Iyan Ilonggo.” He points to a chink-eyed, fair man just off the sidewalk.
The Ilonggos are overtaking Sbu, he says with a grimace. The population is now seventy residents for every thirty immigrants. The rich Ilonggos open stores, and buy land in Poblacion. They bring with them skinny jeans, batchoy, and a dangerous dilution to a people that have too many issues with modernization as is. Adding a different culture, religion, and language to the mix seems like a step closer to extinction.
Mark shrugs it off though. They have also brought with them his prized videoke set. P5 a song. P5 for temporary release.
His magnum opus, “Kahit Isang Saglit,” becomes the soundtrack to tilapia and Tanduay meals. It will be his winning number in Tawag ng Tanghalan, the record of his escape, one that will take him out of this place if his wheels cannot.
Tagalog, a language we both do not own, is the language we slip into as common ground to each other’s novelty. It is new land. With it, we are both outsiders.
“Kahit sandali/Kahit isang saglit/Mayakap ka . . .” he sings at Aguilar’s, a restaurant specializing in—what else—tilapia, for what seemed like the twentieth time. The owner lets him be. He is good for business.
He takes my hand as he holds on to the last line. I don’t have the heart to tell him his masterpiece reminds me not of romance but of funerals.
What I want to tell Mark is that I understand his urgency, the need to be anywhere other than there. Away. Away from the pressures of carrying a whole people’s identity. It is this sentiment that landed me in Sbu in the first place.
There is a certain kind of tourist that comes to these parts. They thrive on the underdeveloped, hoping the place remains in a standstill like carefully preserved specimen.
This is the part of the narrative I guiltily leave out. Whereas Mark longs for escape, his cage is built by the economic enablement of tourists like myself who push him back, and make him stay.
Ancestry. Lineage. Obligation. Such impediments. He seems to hate it all.