Two COVID-19 Essays

By Rezeile Eigo Brahim

Change of Plans, Change of Hearts

When the lockdown was announced, we had a plan: stock up on essentials, follow health protocols, try to not get sick. We bought vitamin supplements and altered our diets, getting as much fruit and vegetables to ensure that our immune system could fight the dreaded virus. We were prepared. Or so we thought.

Near the end of March 2020, just a couple of weeks after the early cancellation of classes, my husband complained of pain in his lower abdomen. I thought it was just indigestion, or maybe flatulence. I denied the thought of it being serious because I wanted to stick to our plan of staying away from the hospital. But his pain worsened. It became so unbearable for him that it left me no choice but to rush him to the emergency room.

I packed our bags and dropped off the kids at my in-laws. While my seven-year-old was happily playing and running around without the slightest care in the world, my youngest was bitterly sobbing in protest. I soothed him with hugs and kisses and promises. I told him it would be just a few days. But as it turned out, I was not able to see him and his brother for three weeks.

The hospital admission was admirably fast and smooth. I was able to quickly secure a room. My husband’s urologist and surgeon, whom we already contacted prior that day, came immediately and was very supportive. My husband needed an emergency surgery. However, there was a little complication. A possible COVID-19 patient was in the operating room, and it needed thorough disinfection before my husband could undergo his operation. So it was scheduled early the next day. Faced in a need of making a sudden decision and knowing the risk of COVID-19, our fear and panic escalated. Settling in our room that night, we talked and prayed together, for a while forgetting the serious rift we had previously, a dent in our relationship that we were still working hard to fix.

On the day of the operation, I remember holding my husband’s hand in a firm, reassuring grip before the orderlies wheeled him to the operating room. I stayed watching through the glass doors of the OR until they disappeared out of my sight. And then I was alone. Hospital COVID-19 protocol allowed only one visitor. I sat there outside the OR and waited the longest two hours and forty minutes of my life, the silence broken only by occasional echoes of disembodied footfalls somewhere in the halls. As the minutes continued to drag on with nobody else to talk to and with nothing else to do, I found myself holding on to my wedding ring, circling it around my finger. And in that moment I wanted nothing in the world but his safety. No matter how difficult the challenge we suffered that almost broke us apart, I knew that I still did not want to lose the man I had married.

The days in the hospital following his successful surgery were spent in both his recovery and in us contemplating the struggles and hard times we had gone and were going through. And somehow, in the midst of knowing the uncertainties ahead, coupled with the fear of a medical emergency, we reestablished a stronger bond and a restored marital mutual trust.

Although the hospital stay was only eight days, we had to be home-quarantined for two weeks as a precaution against possible COVID-19 transmission. Work leaves were filed, and the children stayed at the in-laws. This was the first time in eight years that we were spending some long alone time together. The quarantine protocols had given us the much-needed moment for our hearts to recuperate too. The fourteen days were spent in sleeping in, cuddles, and long talks over afternoon tea. We were able to rekindle intimacy without being intimate. Just like our dating days. It might not be COVID-19 that directly hit us, but our foiled lockdown plans, the emergency surgery, and being quarantined together reconnected us and brought us back closer than ever. We were in that battle together.

The Voice in the Window

I was having my tea on the porch and watching my two boys as they got their bicycles ready. It was a sunny afternoon about three months into the lockdown. Every day was a struggle to keep seven-year-old Wiki and four-year-old Mamon from being bored. And since I did not want them to have too much screen time, I made sure to keep them busy by inventing games, making arts and crafts, or simply playing along with whatever fantasy world they had in mind for the day.

The boys were happily racing on their bikes on our wide lawn when a sad, pleading voice came floating from our neighbor’s window. “Kuya Wiki . . . Kuya . . .”

It was Gab, the daughter of our neighbor. Their window opens directly to our lawn. Gab’s plump little face peered at the boys with longing.

“Kuya!” she called again.

The boys stopped in their tracks to look up, acknowledging Gab. She used to come to our house to play before the pandemic.

“Kuya, could you please come around to my house,” she said in perfectly articulated English. “Please, kuya. Let’s play. I’m stuck here forever.” It had always delighted me to hear the little girl speak like she’s best friends with Peppa, but now it just made me sad that her only company for the rest of the quarantine was the pink piglet on television.

Wiki answered a firm no, explaining about the virus. TV and the internet had made the kids well aware of what was happening around and why they were not allowed to go outside. Mamon even calls COVID-19 the “yayay ng Earth.” It is quite surprisingly impressive to know how little children are very perceptive and cognizant of their environment.

“I’m so lonely!” Gab whimpered. “I have no friends!” Louder now. Suddenly the jalousie closed with a loud clank. Then we heard banging of doors, shuffling of tiny feet, and then a loud rapping at the gate.

The boys looked at me. Although they had declined Gab, their eyes spoke what their hearts truly yearned for. As I watched the desperation formed on their little faces, I wanted very much to tell them to open the gate and let them play with Gab. I wanted to disregard all protocols and just let them enjoy like they had always done before the virus restricted everyone. But I heaved a sigh and shook my head, a gesture they clearly understood and, although grudgingly, followed. They unwillingly waved goodbye at Gab and ran inside.

“Sorry, Gab,” I said. “Kuya Wiki and Mamon can’t play with you.”

“Oh, okay,” Gab responded in a soft voice, defeated.

Her dad soon came to fetch her, carrying a stick. While the kids and I huddled in the bedroom, we could still hear Gab quietly crying as she was being led back to their home.

“Umiyak siya, Mama,” Wiki whispered. “Kawawa naman si Gab.” His words sent pangs of guilt and sadness in my heart. Was it too much? Did I overreact? I was torn between wanting them to value the importance of following laws and protocols and wanting them to value friendship. Patiently, I explained to them that Gab was still their friend, and after the pandemic, they would have their play dates again and ride their bikes together. They huddled closer to me, and I hugged them tighter, trying to suppress my tears. My heart broke for Gab, for my sons, and for all the children who were forced to endure isolation, feeling frustrated and in desperate want of company.


Pandemic Drives and the Kindling of a New Fascination

By Dalziel Chaz B. Oyao

There was fragile excitement in me the first time I was asked by my mother to pick up my sister from work. She was working in one of the malls here in General Santos City, and each day, she would talk about how bleak the situation had become. The corridors once trod by crowds of shoppers were empty, and the smallest sounds echoed in the unlit corners of the mall. “It’s like those zombie shooter games,” she would say. I would then try to picture them as much and see a grim image.

Although her daily narratives were vividly enthralling, I enjoyed my part of the routine even more. My job was mostly to take her to work and then pick her up when she needed to be home. Even though I didn’t particularly appreciate waking up so early, it was the feeling of seeing the city again that compensated for it. In the morning, the highways were so light and empty that I could speed as much as I wanted, and in the afternoon, the sunset was undisturbed and the soft glow of streetlights blended into twilight. In those times, the nakedness of the streets often felt satisfying. Even though it was still, when you saw it in the correct angle, it felt absolutely desolate.

As things got a little better and as the lockdown got more relaxed, I was able to go to more places with the family, although, of course, I had to maintain that routine of picking up my sister and always keeping safe in the process. There were more people to interact with then, so the anxiety would often balloon. Despite these fears, it felt relieving to watch the streets roar with activity again and the city beginning to fill with a little bit more light than it had in the past few months. The slow and somewhat unsteady or uncertain resurrection of the city felt relieving for the time being.

There were days when I refused to drive or even just go out of the house. These were times when I was either exhausted or perhaps too anxious to do anything for the day. But however spent I felt, I could not refuse a good look at the city. Frankly, it was best when I wasn’t the one driving. I got to look at the outside without having to think too much about crashing. I could lean on the glass to see and feel for myself how much the world had changed. With at least one go each week, there was unyielding joy in looking at the roads I’d seen the thousandth time. There was happiness in witnessing civic movement, no matter how relaxed or robust it was. There was an unexplainable delight in seeing the architecture of urban life lingering and rising where it could.

During these moments, I’d usually despise myself for being unable to explain this feeling, this enchantment of one’s hometown as elaborate as possible. But then I was sure other people would have their version of this fascination, and for some, it might even be more mesmerizing to them than it would ever be for me.

Recalling this, I still have that excitement, but it’s much firmer and intense now. It’s both funny and tragic how I’ve only been able to see and admire more of this city during its unfortunate downtime due to the pandemic. I’m not saying it needed this global crisis for me to admire this city. I know I would have found this place, my hometown, in all of its graces, growing stronger in me each year anyway. And although that routine is over as of the moment, I suppose it’s a good thing since I’m now able to go to many places now unrestrained by schedules. For the reader’s assurance, this freedom will not go to waste. More inspired than ever, I suppose I’ll write more about this city now, and this, to be honest, has to be the best way to begin.

Golden Fighting Cocks

By Romeo E. Tejada Jr.

My younger brother has an odd fascination with fighting cocks, and I don’t approve of it. Every morning, he sacrifices an hour to prepare their food and water, pet them, and comb their sparkling feathers with his bare fingers. He reminds me of our grandfather, a cockfighting enthusiast who sacrificed his meals and medicine and eventually had to be operated on for gastric ulcer. “My brother is treading the path of doom,” I often think.

I’ve been staying at our house with my mom and six siblings during this pandemic. Unlike the empty streets, our house is filled with commotion and brawling. Our house is just another cockfighting arena after all. My youngest sister would punch my youngest brother, showing maneuvers better than an MMA fighter, ending in either of them crying because of the fight or because of the punishment from our mom, while I record their sudden outburst. Oftentimes, my younger siblings would complain about their endless unintelligible modules, chores, and my mom. As a supportive brother, I tease them with their deadlines. “Halaaaa!” I would often say just to rattle their senses.

Inspired by my brother’s fighting cocks, my mom bought native hens, culled chicks, ducks, turkeys, and piglets and reared them. Under my younger brother’s tutelage, these animals grew in our rented lot that became a humble farm in the middle of our municipality. Slowly, I managed to accept that I’m the “dejado” (underdog); my younger brother won the derby.

It was lunch when my mom decided to finally eat a family-reared chicken, a few months after the purchase. Adobo was on the menu, and fumes from the kitchen filled our house and tickled our noses. The kids showed a dichotomy of excitement and sadness while scribbling in their notebooks, waiting for the food. They had been living witnesses of the cute chick’s growth, and we were about to devour it. They didn’t say what they were feeling, but I knew.

Food was served finally, and I plundered the second biggest dollop of meat. I saw my younger siblings’ faces when we were eating; they were not feeling blue anymore. The tender meat, its sweet and salty ambrosial flavor complementing the rice, flared our simple lunch into an otherworldly feast. With enough livestock in our arsenal, such festivity was bound to happen frequently.

A few months later, the price of pork skyrocketed and we sold our pigs. Seeing both of them tied and weighed and hearing their reverberating squeaks in a hot noon was tormenting for us, but we had to survive. No strings attached. On that same month, the chickens and ducks started laying eggs. Instantly, I became the guardian of eggs because some of them would go missing.

While I was in bed, I heard a sudden movement outside and crunching dry leaves. I tiptoed toward the door. I grabbed the pair of scissors that was used to cut our ducks’ wings to minimize their mobility, and served as my knife. I tried hard to suppress my breathing, grabbed my phone, and tapped video recording while covering its flashlight with my sweating palm.

I slowly opened the door, fully exposed my phone, and raised my knife to scare the culprit. I ran toward the noise. I recorded everything, and I caught the ducks—breeding—in the middle of the night. Out of pure respect to privacy, I left the scene and returned to my bed. To this day, I haven’t found out who is stealing the eggs.

It’s ironic that I despised fighting cocks before and now protect their eggs. I’ve slowly learned to appreciate my brother’s talent in rearing animals, knowledge on vitamins and medicine for his fighting cocks, and dedication to feeding them on time with reminders from our mother. It became a source of income and food. I ate chicken meat; I retracted my words. Once he matures, he could become a cockfighting aficionado, a veterinarian, or whatever path he chooses. I, together with my family, will bet on our “llamado.”

Fleeing the Fly Zone

By Daniel E. Costas

The metro was a scene stripped of its usual glory of jeepneys and trucks choking the space-tight intersection even in the late hours of the deepest nights. For the first time, tar-tattooed tires had ditched the streets. No whiff of gas and engine smoke perfumed the air. A. Bonifacio’s bustle had slipped through a slumber, and the whistling of the wind—about the lamentation of roads over empty pavements—was the only sound there was.

I gazed upon this stillness the city had fallen into through a hazy window etched with spiderwebs on one side. The images I seized were all blurred, but everything was clear to me: the vibrations that kept the city alive had been vanquished from the sociability realm and the city’s tempo in allegro had faded to an adagio.

Though not one figure resembled me from the view my eyes were set on, uncannily, the projections still spoke to me.

I reckon it was the emotions that the ghosted reign outside and I shared. All sorts of loneliness must’ve sipped to me because just like the building and the streets, I was left behind all alone. But unlike them, I didn’t have the wind to tell my story to.

I was in an isolation of my own. Yes, the microbes asserted dominion over my body. It was not a long stretch of assumption to leap into when flu and shivers blanketed my nights. So when my family deliberated to spend the lockdown in Nueva Vizcaya, I held still in Quezon City. But I guess I hopped on to a false conclusion. A few days after my family left, the infections also followed suit, and I regained the manna that the influenza had siphoned from me.

Though it was a conscious decision to remain unmoved, I couldn’t stop tossing the coin even after the tail was revealed. The days of solitude that gleamed my mind and soul were the same days of solitude that gloomed my mind and soul. So what even kind of confliction did I delve into?

A butterfly-wallpapered room held me captive for what seemed like forever, yet it didn’t feel like an escape to a garden or a paradise. It felt like a dumpster with flies of anxiety lounging in the crevices of my brain.

On some days, these flies dispersed when I put on a show for the reflection staring back in the mirror or when I painted either of my canvases—my sketchpad or my face. But on most days, the flies would swarm back with shrilling doubts and regrets that berated my existence or with more questions that lambasted my thought process. Loudest of them all was the fly buzzing with a constant reminder of the shambles the timing of the chaos had caused.

Before the cage-up, the fulfillment of my summer fantasy was to baste my lips with the grease and juice of the famed Cebu lechon, to witness my friend toss her bouquet, and to search my soul in the city of pines. But just like the pines of Baguio, my plans were fogged by the pandemonium.

With my shredded-paper-thin plans, what was left were letters of a story my own wind had to pass on.

A. Bonifacio awakened with every dawn again. The air sniffed the aroma of pollution and coughed through it once more. Tar dripping from the buffet of wheels served on a concrete platter for the metro lathered the streets once again. But I was no longer there to stare down from the cobwebbed window.

Timing is a funny thing, but now I laugh with it after it laughed at me.

I fled the zone of flies—of anxieties domineering over me—and have returned to my hometown. These days, I still bask myself in the debris of the summer of apocalypse. Even though some flies still cling to me, it was rather peaceful for my head to know it’s now in a safer and happier place—metaphorically and literally.

The threat might loom for who knows till when. I’ll just put my plans on hold for now while I hold on to them and wait for life’s tempo to sync with mine.

Leping ni Ama

By DM Gasparillo Adil II

(This essay was a finalist for the 3rd Lagulad Prize.)

Seven bittersweet years has passed and I am still haunted by the memory of a dollhouse hanging from the ceiling of my father’s bedroom. I remember so much as though the memories have been kept permanently inside me. Shards and fractals of my past flash before me whenever I close my eyes. The only thing I can picture in the frame, however, is the panoramic view of this colorful wooden box, suspended like a coffer in mid-air. It amuses me how and why a thing so concrete could have such control over my subconscious. I want to run away from the memory of it, but I can’t.

I am speaking of a dollhouse. Not the usual one. I own no photograph of it, but if asked about its appearance, I’m pretty certain I could describe it well based on memory.

The dollhouse was rectangular, about the size of a grocery basket. Its roofing was made of two sections of blood-red fabric sloping in opposite directions and parted in the middle to form the ridge. The sides were generously swathed in red and yellow cloth, all the ends tacked tightly on the edges of the wooden frame to keep the cloth from hanging loose. And for embellishments, the dollhouse was surrounded by floral corded laces, and hanging on the sides were tricolored flaglets, tiny versions of something you’d normally see in a kalilang (wedding) and other Maguindanao cultural festivities.

The miniature house was no ordinary playhouse, my late mother claimed. It was the home of a friendly apparition, a spirit that had always been responsible for our family’s protection and had been living with us in our house in Tacurong City, Sultan Kudarat, for as long as she could remember. I was impartial to my mom’s stories, however. I found them absurd and baseless at times. I have to admit, believing in the supernatural was not my thing. I believed there was no dignity in doing so.

But how could I turn a deaf ear to a home nurtured by stories of the unseen? I’d often contemplate. I had to spare an ear and listen to a few tales despite my stubbornness to succumb to them.

The Maguindanao culture is steeped in folklore. Most of the stories woven by the elderly were passed by mouth, the reason why only a few scriptures about our tribe exist. One particular story that has struck me the most is the story of the leping, a spirit-twin bestowed on a few Maguindanao people. From what I’ve heard, a leping is a specter that takes the form of a water animal, oftentimes a snake or a crocodile. In rare cases, it appears in the form of a male or female human being. This knowledge is not new to me because my father’s leping, as described to me by my mom, is a tall and hulking man. He even has a name—Moharidan.

My mom mentioned that I myself was also gifted with a leping. I cannot remember the exact name she called her, but it sounded like Jessica or Janice, which was quite uncanny for me because it was too Western sounding. I felt hostile about the name.

Another thing about lepings, according to my mom, is that they are gender neutral. This allowed me to harbor a leping of the opposite sex. But despite her claims, I never felt my leping’s existence, to the point that I had to question myself whether my cold rejection had effaced the leping from supernatural existence. I honestly don’t know. In any case, I was too detached to care more.

But there were times when it made me ponder, moments that made me think, “Maybe it isn’t that awful to satisfy the idea? Is this my mom’s way of shooing away my femininity?”

I never officially came out to my parents, but a few traces of my homosexuality surfaced even back then. “Maybe Mom’s just unprepared for the kind of person that I’d grow up to be?”I would ask myself. As painful as it was, I had to dismiss the thought. One leping was enough for the family. My heart had no space for one.

My father and I had a huge age gap. When I was in my early teens, Dad was already in his late sixties. Oftentimes, I would be mistaken for his grandson, something that I found reprehensible. My older siblings were no longer connected with us. Most of them were already married and had families of their own. As the youngest, I was left to look after our dad.

My dad and I never really had a strong connection, mostly because of our generation differences. But despite our polarity, I stuck by his side and watched him age every day. Unlike me, Dad was a believer in the supernatural. I often recall those days when rituals were frequently performed in our house. Most of the ceremonies involved burning incense made from the sun-dried skin of marang or lanzones. It wasn’t the most perfumy scent you could imagine as a child. My nose has become so familiar with the stinging, pungent odor of these dried fruit peelings that if they are burned in front of me right now, I will be able to detect them.

In these rituals, food was abundant, as the elderly would normally prepare dulang (food in trays), which in our house usually consisted of black rice cake fashioned in the shape of a crocodile garnished with pieces of chicken. They said that the custom was meant to take captive of lepings and gain spiritual control over them. I shrugged at the idea, but I listened. After all, there’s no harm in lending an ear.

To complete the ritual sagrado (sacred ritual), my dad would then invite a group of panditas (Moro priests) to utter the invocations and raise the offerings to the spirits. We call the feast kanduli, a ceremonial celebration of prayers. This was a common event in our house, and I can no longer keep track of how many rituals I have attended.

Lepings, said the elderly, must be sheltered in a small house. When I heard of this, I finally understood the presence of that ornament in my dad’s bedroom. My aunt calls it walay a binaning—“the yellow house.” I have to admit, I only saw it as a made-for-play dollhouse, maybe an old toy that my dad owned when he was younger. But I was wrong all along. Even so, I kept my principles unbent.

Unlike other kids, who’d normally cry in fear when told of ghost stories, I didn’t allow superstitions to get the best of me. My mindset was simple: to see is to believe. I held on to this notion to help sort out my thoughts. This liberated me from the overwhelming supernatural universe.

When my curiosity crept up to me one day, I gathered all the courage I could and climbed the cabinet beside the dollhouse. I leaned to get close to the dollhouse, hanging with one arm, my hand gripping the top of the cabinet like a chimpanzee napping on an iron tree, and my feet perched on the side of the cabinet. How pathetic of me to give in to the pressure.

I looked at the dollhouse, even touching it with my hand. I didn’t see anything remarkable there. It seemed to me to be nothing but a plain wooden box wrapped in decoration. What made it special to the other members of my family was a puzzle for me. So I tried to fill my curiosity further.

In the middle was a cloth that separated the house in two. One side was built as a replica of a dining area. Salad plates with traces of days-old food were the primary reason for my assumption. Beside the small porcelain plates was a tall shot glass like the ones used by my titos when drinking liquor. It served as the drinking glass of whoever or whatever was living inside the tiny house. In my memory, the glass was half-empty at the time.

“Where did all the water go?” I asked myself.

A side of me dwelled on the logic—it’s simple: the water dissipated or volatilized into the air because of the high room temperature. However, the other side of my brain couldn’t resist falling into the grotesque. My mind was filled with pictures of my dad’s leping chugging water from the single-ounce glass. Good Lord, I wasn’t prepared for that. Still, I remained firm no matter the dread. When I was done calming my senses, I continued raiding the spirit’s peaceful abode.

The other room, I supposed, was modeled like that of a bedroom. On top of a silken cushion were puffy pillows tucked neatly on the side. “Fancy,” I said. The extravagance of the exterior matched the vibe of the inside. It was an achievement unlocked. For a house made for an unseen force, it was well kept and appropriately designed.

* * *

Years passed, and still I had no close encounter with my dad’s leping, or any leping for that matter. But I sure heard a few stories from many people, mostly from relatives, and some from the clients of my dad, who was a lawyer.

We had a lot of people going in and out of the house. Some claimed to have met Moharidan and had personal encounters with him, while some, like me, just decided to turn a deaf ear on such ridiculous matters.

One story revolved around our dining customs. We ate at a long antique wooden table. And per my dad’s order, we must reserve a seat solely for his leping. The chair that we prepared was draped in purple inaul (Maguindanao handwoven textile). It also had a comfy golden pillow to sit on that served as a warning sign, suggesting that someone was eating on that particular chair and he must not be disturbed.

If you had never been to our home, or let’s say you were a newcomer, you’d probably raise your brow at us. “Who eats with spirits?” you might say. Madmen, I guess. I can’t imagine sharing this story with most of my high school classmates without them freaking out or thinking we are a family of lunatics. 

One of my high school classmates, Haron, whose dad was a close friend of my father’s, once joined a trip with my father to a cave in Cotabato City. Haron remembered the experience well and told me that my dad’s leping was a natural dweller of the cave. They offered Moharidan an abundant meal consisting of unseasoned fried fish and roasted meat, said to be the favorite of lepings.

It’s not just our family that has been involved in this supernatural experience. Our small community also has encounters with my dad’s leping. There has been a lot of cold sightings reported in our neighborhood. This entity has been seen circling our house as if he’s guarding something within. Maybe my mom was right? Is the apparition protecting something from within—our family?

Most people in San Pablo, our barangay, know each other, so whenever an event that’s worthy of attention takes place, it sparks up a round of gossip among the men and women. From the stories of those who have seen Moharidan, he is a spitting image of my dad, only taller and more brusko. This is the reason why a lot of people would engage in conversations with the leping not knowing it wasn’t my dad they were talking to. I can’t imagine the horror that these people felt when they discovered the truth.

In most of their narratives, they described Moharidan as timid and quiet, qualities that would certainly raise speculations if you knew my dad. They were the opposite of his true personality. We knew him as a blathering old man, someone who had enough bandwidth to narrate his entire biography. I witnessed him do it many times, and I cannot be wrong when I say that my dad had a memory similar to that of a high-end computer. He could blab about his experiences for hours on end.

My father’s clients had their own tales as well. My dad was a hospitable man, they told me.  He’d normally accommodate people in our house, conversing with them over tea or coffee and entertaining them with faded pictures of our ancestral tree. Some even slept at our place during long work travels. Ours was an open house. My dad’s friends were free to treat our home as their own. However, it wasn’t a pleasant experience for some. Several guests reported encounters of my dad meandering in the middle of the night. In the morning, when they would ask my dad about it, my dad would just deny the allegations and put the blame on his leping. He’d often joke about it, throw a little laugh and satisfy his ego. “Maybe he was only looking for something cold to drink, maybe a glass of orange juice or a bottle of soda to quench his thirst, and then got a little playful and performed a little spectacle for our cozy visitors. You know, for attention.”

In my father’s defense, he made it clear to our guests that Moharidan was exceedingly territorial. “He’s always like this,” my dad would say. “He’s only protecting us from danger.”

Our humble home had been a mystery to many. But my father chose to settle for the bright side. The leping was a gift to us—a vanguard. As long as we had the spirit, no trace of danger should ever set foot inside our house.

At some point, I had to give him the benefit of the doubt. Though our family had chosen to coexist with a supernatural entity, no occurrences of violent or detrimental events within our neighborhood had been recorded. That alone was enough to justify that Moharidan was a good spirit and not a vile, malevolent phantasm like in horror movies.

* * *

When my mom passed away, my father married again for the fourth time. In our religion, men are allowed to marry multiple women as long as they could sustain their needs. This is known as duwaya, practiced by the Muslim populace under the Sharia or Islamic Law.

My stepmom loved taking pictures of my father. One time, she accidentally took a photo of what we thought was him standing right outside their bedroom door. How could I ever forget that photo? It’s displayed right in the middle of our living room, adjacent to our twenty-five-inch Sharp TV set. The man in that portrait has the weirdest smile that I’ve ever seen in my entire life. It’s so agonizing to look at that I often avert my eyes whenever I come in contact with the portrait. The man in frame emits a bright aura as if a high-intensity flash was used by my stepmother. Our cheap Kodak camera couldn’t achieve that.

At first glance, you’d say that it’s my dad because the “person” in the picture has the same facial features as he had—a bald head, a large, well-chiseled nose, a set of pleading eyes, and a wrinkly smile revealing his not-so-young age. It was my aunt Ola who told us that what was captured in the frame was actually Moharidan. 

Aunt Ola has a firm knowledge of the supernatural and has performed quite a few traditional rituals in our home, mostly healing rituals for my dad. I remember a particular ritual she did on me. It had something to do with correcting what my family believed as my misplaced sexuality. My dad was bothered about me leaning more to my feminine side. Like my mom, he was scared that I’d grow up gay. His speculations were true. But I was against the ritual and had a few grumbles. How could a glass of water make me straight? Thinking of it more only disappointed me.

Whenever I look back at that moment, my objection toward these kinds of rituals strengthens. But I can’t blame my dad. The early 2000s was still a difficult time for gay people. I had no choice but to follow. It was between my pride and that bewitched glass of water. My fear gave the final answer.

When my aunt started reciting incantations, I felt a few chills. She was holding a glass of water while her stare pierced through it. By her mumbling, I was certain that she was talking to someone, something. She then forced me to drink the water until the last drop in exactly three full swallows. Which I only did because of my father.  Did it “cure” the “malady” that I was born with? I don’t think so. I’ve never believed it would, in the first place. All these rituals and counter-rituals were common in our house, but nobody could fully uncover the secrets lurking there.

* * *

When my dad died seven years ago, the miniature house was left in the good hands of my stepmother as she was the only living wife of my father. I thought my father’s death marked the end of all of the encounters, until one day, my stepmom called for another ritual to commemorate my dad’s passing.

Kulintangs were lined up in our living room that day. It was a sacrificial ritual for my dad’s leping. I knew it because we offered food, music, and prayers. As the musicians played the instruments, my stepmom exploded in a loud sob. She started dancing—and crying—and dancing. These two in no particular order. It was the moment I feared the most. I was glued in my chair, jaws wide open, perplexed because of disbelief. I had only seen such a scene in movies, but god, it seemed as though my stepmother was possessed! And I could not discern what was about to happen next.

She was already in her fifties when all of these took place, and seeing her run around our sala like a twenty-year-old ballerina, holding a malong (tubelike wraparound cloth) and a tondong (veil) in her arms, dancing lively while in deep pain, was a terrifying spectacle for me and the housemaids who also witnessed it.

“If lepings aren’t real, why is there so much emotion in this room today?” I asked myself. The emotions that enveloped the room seemed so real that I cannot say that it was only my stepmom’s act. I can still remember the sound of her cry until now. It was a cry for desperation, a series of deep, sharp sobs—the kind that gets your lungs pumping so fast and gasping for air.

Behind the joyous music echoing in the background, there were screams of pain and agony coming from her as though Moharidan was also mourning my father’s death. That was the first and last time that I allowed myself to believe in the supernatural. “Enough!” I pleaded in my mind.

Although I’ve been partly traumatized, I am thankful that I got to experience these events in my childhood. As I am now away from my stepfamily, I am certain that they’re still doing the usual—eating with the leping, leaving food and water for it to eat and drink, and diligently maintaining its peaceful abode hanging from the ceiling of the master’s bedroom.

Now that I’m staying in Davao, a bustling city more than a hundred kilometers away from the province of Sultan Kudarat, I still look back on memories of my hometown and contemplate on the stories that lived with it.

A part of me still does not believe in spirits, but whenever I try to run away, glimpses of my father’s leping drinking water in the shot glass inside the yellow dollhouse recur in my memory. I am trapped in this never-ending cycle, bugged by questions that are so complex the resolve for which I haven’t found yet.

Why do we eat with spirits? Is family not enough as company? Maybe back then my leping was also with my dad and his leping, eating together at our dinner table, in a simulacrum of what a happy home could have been if the world was more accepting. That might have been it.

River of Shame

By Wilfredo Pascual Jr.

“We don’t have to leave,” she said. “If your father stopped leaving at night, the monsters wouldn’t come anymore.” —Angelo Serrano, “It Comes At Night”

When I was thirteen, my mother took me to see Dr. Custodio, our family doctor in San Jose, Nueva Ecija, who took care of the Pascuals for three generations. He sat behind his desk at his home clinic. He knew our medical history, our public and private lives well enough. I heard him say something to my mother, something that I would hold on to for the rest of my life. It saved me: “Nasaktan siya. Kailangan ni’yo siyang dalhin sa espesyalista. Dalhin ni’yo na siya sa psychiatrist.”

I was so relieved I wanted to cry. Finally I was going to get help. Somebody was going to listen to me. I was going to get better. I hardly said anything during that consultation. I was so ashamed of myself, which was how I felt most of the time—even with all the medals and awards in grade school.

At home, my parents pinned all my medals to a pair of black vertical banners that hung on the wall, all first place medals and ribbons. I won my first essay writing contest at age eight. I was recognized in art and academic performance. I was best in roller skates, an outstanding pupil every year, the most active, most polite, most talented student. It’s easy to assume that I was goal-driven, even competitive. But I have no memory of it. I only remember having so much to give and how liberating that felt. I remember the storm inside me, this intense energy, a flooding. I had no name for it. It was marvelous, ferocious, joyous, and terrifying. I felt it every time I wrote, made art, performed, and read books. I didn’t care so much about winning. All I wanted was the freedom to live and express that energy.

I was six when I started drawing pictures of girl’s clothes, women’s faces and shoes. I would draw in the living room. One time I looked up and saw my father looking at me. I smiled. He didn’t smile. He didn’t say a word. He just looked at me. Slowly my smile disappeared, and I crumpled my drawing.

I have no memory of what my mother said to Dr. Custodio. We went home that evening not saying a word to each other. We went upstairs straight to our rooms. My door was next to theirs. I couldn’t sleep. Finally somebody was going to help me try to understand what was wrong with me. I was still awake when my mother knocked, and I opened the door. She spoke to me in a low voice. It was a scene straight from Kisapmata.

“Sabi ng Daddy mo, mula ngayon gigisingin kita ’pag hatinggabi. Pupunta ka sa banyo.”

“Pero sabi ni Dr. Custodio, dalhin ni’yo daw ako sa doktor.”

“Makinig ka sa Daddy mo.”

That was all she said, and she went back to her room.

I was crushed. I remember closing the door and hitting myself repeatedly. “Why don’t I just die?” I screamed. Nobody heard me. I had to make sure no sound came out.

For as long as I could remember, waking up to the world had always been preceded by the smell of ammonia. Bedwetting was almost a daily occurrence. It got to a point that I no longer got up. I just pulled down my wet underwear, shorts, and pajamas and moved to a drier spot. Sometimes more than once in one night.

My earliest memory of terror is the sound of my father arriving. In the seventies, he drove a Jeep Renegade—blood red with a white leather top, its hood and sides trimmed in gleaming chrome and black decal stripes. I have vague recollections of his off-road adventures—fleeting images of a cliff, a grassy hillside, wild rivers. Mostly I remember the sense of danger that builds by nightfall, brought about by the curfew enforced during Martial Law. In the middle of the night that silence would be shattered by my young father speeding through empty roads and streets on his way home. I knew he was drunk because he would stay inside the Jeep in the garage and step on the gas pedal and rev up the Jeep relentlessly, a monstrous loudness intent on waking up the entire neighborhood.

I would cover my ears with a pillow and pray to God to please make it stop. Sometimes he would come up to my room—bloodshot eyes and reeking of alcohol—and he would hold me and weep. “But I do love you,” he would say over and over. “I do.” Sometimes he would watch over me while I pretended to be asleep, and then leave quietly. The following morning it would be as if nothing happened. I still feared him, loathed him. He very rarely looked at me, and when he did, I could sense how repulsed he was.

Dinner was an ordeal. One time I started to say grace quietly. He stopped me as I was making the sign of the cross. “Don’t pray,” he said firmly. Another time he glared at me because something made me laugh. When he was around I always blamed myself for making my presence felt. Before leaving my room, I learned to make sure that the hallway was clear. On my way home from school, I would stop at the corner of our street to make sure that my father was not at the gate. If he was, I would turn and walk around the block to the corner on the other side of our street named after my great-grandfather.

My mother had it worse. He would hit her. One time my father pulled out his gun at my mother who was holding me. I was maybe five or six. Another time he took us to the traveling circus in town. My mother and I were riding the caterpillar when I heard the other passengers screaming. The ride wouldn’t stop. I saw my father on the undulating ramp beating up the operator. We would go round and round, and each turn I would see my father pummeling the operator’s face until somebody stopped the ride. One time he took us to the movies to see a comedy. He was drunk. We were seated at the balcony. He stood up in the dark, pulled out his gun, and pointed it at the moviegoers. “Walang tatawa!” he yelled at them. People left the theater quietly. The silencing was just as damaging as the verbal and emotional abuse I suffered.

My father was the mayor’s son. The family had been in power for more than half a century. It was only after he died, actually only a few years ago, that my mother openly acknowledged to me that my father was sick, that he was an alcoholic. “We should have taken him to the doctor,” she said. I didn’t say anything.

She was a cold mother. I never felt any affection from her growing up. I have no memory of my mother asking me how I was doing, or telling me that I did a good job. I have no memory of seeking comfort from her. She was just as oppressed and tired as I was. One time when my father was out my mother and I had a fight. I yelled at my mother across the dining table, “Hindi ako masaya sa bahay na ito!”

“Ako rin!” she yelled back.

“Bakit hindi ka tumakas?”

“Dahil sa inyo.”

She was helpless. She was just as scared as I was, a captive. Always have been. When she was in high school my father invited her to a party. He lied. With the help of his friends, my father took my mother to a hut fifty miles away from our hometown. The first time my mother told me this story was the night after we buried my father.

Shortly after my appointment with the doctor, my father hosted a river picnic and invited dozens of my relatives on both sides of the family. By then the river of my childhood had changed directions. Ferdinand Marcos had built Pantabangan Dam, so the river was much shallower than I remember. I crossed it easily and stood on the other side, the river and my family behind me. I was looking at the old riverbed under the blinding light, the rocks bright as bones when I heard shouting behind me.

“’Yong malaking bato ang kunin ni’yo!”

“Maliit ’yan!”

“Hawakan ni’yo! Aanurin ’yan!”

I heard laughter. Cheering. I didn’t turn around. I knew what was going on. My parents brought my bed mattress to the river. It smelled so bad they had to submerge it in the river to wash it. They held it down with rocks, and when that wasn’t enough, the men held on to it.

I couldn’t look. I was trembling in shame. I squatted and started to pick up rocks and stones. Later, I heard a voice behind me, a relative. I can’t remember who it was. I didn’t even look up when he asked what I was doing.

“Looking for frog’s eggs,” I said.

After a while I turned around, and whoever it was who spoke to me had left. It had gotten quiet on the other side of the river. They had placed enough rocks on the mattress to hold it and keep it from floating away. I watched my family across the river. They looked so happy. It was so beautiful it hurt. I gazed at the river, the second largest in the island, fourth in the entire country. From its headwaters in the mountains it traverses the central plains of Luzon for about 160 miles until it drains into the Manila Bay to where water meets water, the world.

I have survived abuse, bullying, homelessness, addiction, betrayal, physical assault, three nervous breakdowns (ages fourteen, nineteen, and thirty-two); and two suicide attempts (1985, 1987). I am seeing a doctor now, and I have been on medication for the past four years. I am also an essayist and married to a wonderful man. The thing that I am most proud of is being alive.

It took a long time, but when I heard Dr. Custodio tell my mother that I needed help, to me that meant help was out there. If my family couldn’t give it to me, I had to find it on my own. It was 1985, the height of the AIDS crisis. The acronym LGBT didn’t exist yet. And people were about to overthrow the Marcos dictatorship.

The Long Wait to Cure

By Lance Isidore Catedral

At 4 PM, when most government offices were about to close, when cars were trapped in Metro Manila traffic, when students and employees fought for space in the MRT, the queue of new patients outside the Medical Oncology Clinic was as long as when the day had begun. On my table was the pile of new charts still unopened—each cream-colored folder bearing the name of a human being waiting to be called in.

The waiting area smelled of clothes drenched in sweat, what with the tropical afternoon heat and humidity. These people came from all over the Philippines—a country of seven thousand islands, blessed with year-long sunshine and white sand beaches and broad smiles but plagued with poverty and corruption. They brought with them tumors of different sizes and shapes, of varying degrees of aggression, in various parts of their anatomy. Perhaps many of them wondered, during this long wait, if they would live long enough to their son’s graduation or if they could still blow next year’s birthday candle.

For the rich and powerful, who could afford air-conditioned lounges in the most exclusive of hospitals, this long waiting time would be a waste, but for many of them who could barely even afford a complete blood count, this was a step closer to cure—if it existed at all.

Somewhere in the thick crowd was a woman named Faith whose folder sat at the top of the pile. She was twenty-three years old. She came from a nearby province, an hour away from Manila. As I called her name through the microphone, my voice reverberated throughout the Cancer Institute. But there was no commotion, no indication that someone was approaching the consultation room. Just as I was about to call the next name on the pile, a man—the patient’s father—told me that she was too heavy to carry, that she was in the opposite end of the hall, and begged if I could go to her instead.

Faith lay on a narrow metallic stretcher, listening to music with her earphones, a distraction from reality. Her left forearm was amputated when a tumor appeared in her wrist two years ago. The tumor was cancer—mesenchymal chondrosarcoma, the biopsy had read. She said yes, without hesitation, to amputation. She had just graduated with a computer science degree and landed a stable IT job. No cancer was going to hold her back.

Months after surgery, she felt a lump in her lower spine. It grew larger by the day, a threatening mass that would usher another chapter of her life. This time, she needed chemotherapy. She went to a private hospital where she finished four cycles of chemotherapy. It only made her a little better; the mass had not disappeared completely but was at least as big as a basketball. Her treatment—which included expensive chemotherapy medications, admission to a private room every three weeks, and expensive laboratory and imaging tests—caused a financial strain on her family. Her father was a traffic enforcer, her mother a housewife. In the Philippines, people pay for their treatment out of their pockets. PhilHealth, the government-run health insurance provider, only paid for her treatment partially. With no other options left, her family opted to bring her to a public hospital like ours.

I met her with the assurance that I would do everything I could to help her. As a practicing medical oncologist in the country’s largest public hospital, this meant me giving the best concoction of chemotherapy medications available, but this also meant I would take on the role of a social worker. What difference would an ambitious, evidence-based treatment strategy mean to her if she wouldn’t be able to get the medications she actually needed?

Cancer takes a toll, even in middle-class families. Some sell their small pieces of land, or have their kids stop schooling to save on tuition, or work additional jobs, to pay for treatment. Even curable cancers become death sentences for those who do not have the financial means.

For the next weeks, her parents and brothers would fall in line in offices of government officials who gave checks worth a few thousand pesos—not much compared to the overall cost of her treatment but, when put together, amounted to a substantial amount, sufficient to tide her for at least three cycles of chemotherapy.

“Do you want to go through with this?” I asked Faith when she got confined. Her mass had grown in size during the waiting period, and it looked like she had a massive backpack in her sacrum.

“Yes, of course,” she said. She asked if she would ever get better—the perpetual question, the answer to which was never a simple yes or no. If only life were simpler.

“Let’s hope so,” I said. “This is your best fighting chance.”

Faith’s first cycle did not go without any complications; she suffered severe neutropenia and did not feel well for many days. I discharged her after a few more days, only to have her readmitted for the next cycle.

When I go home after tiring days in the hospital, I often dream of the time when cancer will become as easily treatable as a simple skin infection and we don’t have to worry about the cost of treatment. It is a dream that pushes me, and the strong and optimistic army of physicians in the country, to do what we can, given our limited resources.

But my patients’ hope springs eternal—not just Faith’s but of most of the names in the chart pile. At the end of the day, no charts remain on my table, only unopened gifts—warm meals, fresh fruits picked from the backyard, pieces of candies, and slices of pies, whatever these patients could muster, their gratitude overflowing despite their poverty. If only to offer them, the underprivileged, a chance at a cure, all my exhaustion will have been worth it.

An Ama Reverie

By An-Nurhaiyden Mangelen

After staying for twenty-one days at Davao Doctor’s Hospital, it was time for Ama’s life support to be unplugged. It was a family decision, which was decided upon after Ama’s doctor told the whole family that, at that point, he had no chance of recovery. After all, in those twenty-one days, he never even opened his eyes. That time, the stroke proved fatal. Most members of the family also thought that if they were in his shoes, they would have preferred dying in his home back at Dalican in Datu Odin Sinsuat, Maguindanao, than in a hospital far away from his birthplace. By removing and unplugging every machine hooked up to his body, they spared him of further suffering. They thought it better to let him rest in his home.

In those twenty-one days at the ICU, my grandfather died three times. During those three times, the life support had been able to revive him, giving us enough time to bring him home. He was brain-dead, but his heart kept on pumping, his lungs begging for air from the dull, rusted green oxygen tank beside his bed. “Sundalo talaga siya,” some relatives concluded. “Lumalaban pa rin.”

I only saw him once in those twenty-one days. I also never cried, or even felt the urge to cry. I was still ten then. And it has been nine years since his death.

That lone time I saw him, I thought he looked cool, like the cyborg from Teen Titans, with plenty of wires connected to his fingers, elbows, nose, and mouth. He also had a translucent plastic tube inserted down his throat through what I assume was a long and wide cut covered only by plasters. My mother said that it was helping get air into his lungs, but back then, I did not know how a person could ever need such a painfully large tube inserted down his throat. As a kid who drowned himself in cartoons and toys, I never really felt the gravity of the situation. Looking back at it now, as a kid I would’ve never been able to fathom the pain he had to endure when the doctors intubated and took care of him. All the injections, the bedsore he had gotten from not being able to move around, or even the sensation of not being able to function and be the master of his body the way he wanted to—everything that he suffered through seemed too alien a thought for me back then.

If only I could somehow talk to him now, I would ask him how the experience was, like at what point did he lose consciousness of his surroundings, or was he able to have visions of heaven and hell, like how some people claim to have a glimpse as their light dies out? I think it would be such a killer bonding moment. After all, I never bonded with my grandfather that much. If only that were to happen, I would’ve been able to ask him, before he drew his final breath, how it felt to have a grandchild like me.

Looking back, I wanted to slap my younger self across the face for not realizing that after his first death, after the life support revived him, my grandfather might not even remember anyone, anything, or even his self anymore. He might not remember the face of his children, his wife, how he lived his life. He was brain-dead after all.

At that moment, when my mother sat there crying outside the ICU, I remember feeling sad. Sad, but not devastated. I even had fun during our stay at the hospital. All I looked forward to during those days were going to the cafeteria at three in the afternoon to eat spaghetti and binignit, as well as buying compact disks and watching anime on my portable DVD player. I used to buy those counterfeit CDs at a bazaar fronting Davao Doctors Hospital. Never did the gravity of my remaining living grandfather’s death affected me or the fun I had in our stay there. At those moments, I cared more about my food and the lives of illustrated characters than the life of my grandfather. Call it a child’s ignorance, but how I wish I had realized earlier that I ought to be standing there outside the ICU waiting for the grand cosmic miracle of him waking up, winning the battle that he was fighting.

I was very close, yet so emotionally far.

On our way home to Dalican, I remember nine cars in the convoy: the ambulance, our car, the other cars owned by our relatives. We arrived there at around five in the afternoon. Along the way, we had to constantly keep an eye on Ama’s oxygen tank because three hours into the travel, it came awfully close to being empty. Dalican was still two and a half hours away; everyone was on guard. This forced us to drive so fast that the cars seemed to fly. The ambulance ran at 140 to160 kilometers per hour. The convoy of cars followed behind. Mama never stopped crying for the rest of the trip. In desperation, we played verses in the Quran on repeat in our car, as if that would give my Ama some air he so desperately needed to breathe.

I also clearly remember enjoying the ride, which was the fastest one I had ever been in my whole life. Before that afternoon, I just finished watching an anime about drifting and driving in the uphill roads of Tokyo, Japan. This is just like Initial D, I thought. I felt the thrill, the speed, the exhilaration of experiencing what it was like to be in the anime I had watched. It felt like we were in a race. As I try to remember, I want to scream at my ten-year-old me for failing to realize that we were in a real race, not against other cars but against time, that we were skating on thin ice. I even remember loving the moments the car zoomed past strangers on motorcycles, vehicles, and pedestrians.

While inside the car, I never thought of what might happen in Dalican. I never even thought about what would come next if ever Ama gave up while we were still on the road, or if the tank ran out of oxygen. I never thought of losing someone important, or maybe at that moment, he wasn’t important to me. Looking back, maybe I just lacked the compassion for my grandfather, or maybe at some point, I never even cared; after all, like I mentioned earlier, Ama and I had never spent quality time together.

As a kid, I loathed his prickly mustache that stabbed me every time he kissed my forehead. I despised the times when he would ask for kisses. I hated the way he smelled; he smelled like a glass of warm milk, and I hated the smell of milk. Every time I asked him for five pesos to buy a sachet of Milo, he would intentionally give me four pesos and demanded a kiss on my forehead before he handed the last peso. “Kagyabu nengka bulingit’n,” he would usually tease, telling me to stop eating Milo with my fingers because I looked gross every time I did so. I also hated Ama’s big round eyes, which he used to scare children as a way of having fun. I cannot count the times I stopped playing and cried because of those eyes. Those eyes, they gave the scariest glares. But despite hating his mustache and his eyes, I liked his round belly. Every time he asked for a hug, I imagined that that was the sensation of hugging Barney the purple dinosaur.

That round belly of his got severely small in those twenty-one days.

Reflecting on it now, I wish he had gotten better. That way, his belly could’ve grown bigger again and I would’ve been able to hug him for much longer. That way we could’ve spent more time together. I could’ve spent afternoons with him just sitting, sipping coffee, listening to stories only he could tell. I could’ve spent more time with the only grandfather I had.

In the small amount of time that the people were preparing his corpse for the burial, I felt like I did not belong in the room, that I shouldn’t be there, that that space was exclusive for those who loved Ama truly. Back then, the past me loved him because he was the only one whom I could ask Milo money from, but further than that, I was not sure. If only I had known how to handle things more professionally at that early an age, my last moments with him would not have been as useless. Looking back, I didn’t deserve to be present in his burial. No dead man deserves somebody who takes him for granted in his own burial.

The day of his death in Dalican, the house bustled with stories about Ama and his bravery as a soldier, the way he treated relatives from the uplands of Maguindanao whenever they visited, along with other tales of his generosity. I remember an aunt telling stories of how he helped her and her family find lodging when they went to Mecca for pilgrimage. Another relative told stories of how Ama always had a jar of native coffee from Cotabato City at the ready whenever a relative came to borrow money, then offer him a cup alongside the money he lent, as well as stories of how he used to never ask for the money back, because of his faith in the innate good nature of his relatives. This only amplified my thoughts of not deserving to be in his burial. After all, all the stories I could tell of my moments with Ama were all filled of me being annoyed at his milk-like scent and his mustache.

Many of the most notable stories about Ama were the ones told by my mother of her times with him when she was still a little girl, as well as that one about my parents’ wedding. According to her, Ama had always been her companion since she was a little kid. Ama’s wife never really treated my mother with compassion. As a child, my mother was a hardheaded, strong boy in the body of a girl. She often disobeyed my grandmother and played with other boys her age. She would play swords, jolen, and hulog-piso with them and other games boys typically played. For my grandmother, this was unacceptable and unbecoming of a little girl, so she tried her hardest to keep my mother inside the house. She taught her how to knit and sew to take her time off playing. She taught her how to cook to keep my mother in the kitchen. My mother never enjoyed these, and neither did Ama. He resisted for and with my mother. He would take her to Cotabato City (which was a two-hour travel from Dalican back then) just to let her escape the housework. My mother bonded with Ama the most out of six other siblings because of that. That’s the reason why it broke my mother gravely when he died. Then I learned how Ama played a gargantuan role in my parents’ wedding in 1998.

My grandmother was headstrong in disagreeing with the wedding. She was not in favor of my father because of his low financial capability. What Ama did was that he faked being sick, demanded to be checked at Davao Doctors Hospital, and forced his wife to come with him, just to give my parents ample time to marry. The wedding was kept secret from my grandmother. Of course, after she later discovered what went down, she fumed and disowned my mother.

During my parents’ wedding, my mother walked down the aisle alone, without her parents to walk her toward the man she wanted to marry. She was accompanied by her eldest sibling, and he took the place of Ama in the wali, a tradition among Muslims where the father entrusts her daughter to the groom and goes into an agreement between two noble men. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, accompanying my mother down the aisle as well as entrusting his only daughter to the man she loved, but he understood his role and made a once-in-a-lifetime sacrifice to make my mother’s dream a reality. Until now, my parents’ wedding invitation, which Ama hid from my grandmother, is still in his most treasured attaché case, untouched and collecting dust. That was the only tangible thing he held or saw that had a direct relation to the wedding.

When my mother told me this story, I realized the immense impact Ama had in my parents’ lives. I also realized that what he did was one of the reasons why I came to be. If my father and mother had not married, I wouldn’t have been born.

In the future, it would have been nice if he would be able to come to my wedding. Sadly, my own ignorance took that opportunity away from me.

After hearing that story, the ten-year-old me slightly longed for a much deeper interaction with my deceased grandfather. It had left a hole in me, small at first, but gaping at present: a type of jealousy that could never be filled. The end of that story took a part of me that I know I could never regain. A part forever lost with his passing, irretrievable, unobtainable.

His first stroke happened back in 2007. We brought him to Notre Dame Hospital in Cotabato City, and we stayed there for fifteen days. Luckily, he wasn’t incapacitated by the sickness, but his memory was impaired. Since then, he became extremely forgetful: we needed to introduce ourselves to him repeatedly whenever we met. The only ones he could remember were his children and his wife. Around that time, he also lost track of his bowel movement. He could not feel the urge to go to the bathroom anymore. When he stood up or walked around, pee dripped from his shorts, and he constantly pooped in his pants. Sometimes his poop would be dragged on the floor by his own feet, which infuriated my grandmother. From then on, she started hitting Ama on the legs or buttocks with broomsticks and other long hard objects. He never retaliated. At times, Ama just grabbed the broomstick and held it right there in midair. He would look my grandmother in the eyes till she let go. Most of the time, tears just fell from his eyes.

I can never imagine how my grandmother felt like, seeing those eyes and those tears that just fell from them. I wonder if she ever felt pity after all those moments she inflicted pain upon Ama. I wondered if he ever felt like speaking up, retaliating, or was it that he was already numb of the searing pain of being hit in the legs and buttocks and the only thing that made him cry every time was seeing the woman he married, the first woman he could remember, hit him over and over?

Reflecting upon it, that type of treatment was unbecoming of a woman who had stayed in a marriage for over half of her life. But at the end of the day, it was she who took care of him through thick and thin, in sickness and in health, despite the tedious job of cleaning after his mess, and she continued doing so until his last days. She was there with us at the hospital, at the burial, at the grieving period. I am sure that inside of her, there was also a gaping hole that came with his passing. I now wonder about the way she showed her love for Ama. How did their wedding go? Was it consensual or arranged? How about the courting? Was there even any courting? I never heard of the story, nor could I find someone willing to tell me. I couldn’t ask my grandmother, for she didn’t want to talk about it. Every time a conversation had closely veered towards that subject, she would skillfully divert it into another topic without fail, like how a relative was doing in school or anything other than their marriage. In rare moments where the conversation had nowhere to go, she would tell us that she was not comfortable talking about it and that she would slap our mouths shut if we continued pressing. We would then laugh, and then she would laugh. It would be clear to us that they were jokes, but still, nobody dared to try because everyone was scared, especially if she were to become mad.

I know that only Ama could tell that story.

The devastating part is that at this point, I could only speculate.

In 2011, hypertension and stroke got the better of him yet again, which led us to Davao Doctor’s Hospital. He finally took his rest on April 23 at Dalican.

I vaguely remember that during his burial, a small part of the younger me tried to assess the impact of his life on mine, his relevance, and the emotional connection I’ve had with him, and I remember failing.

I remember faking tears.

It was hard to try and develop fake sympathy. I really tried, but at the end of the day, I could only muster as much.

In the seven-day grieving period, hundreds of people came to his house at Dalican to pay their respects; the stories I heard about him that day, like the one on my parents’ wedding, as well as tales of his unselfishness, made me see him in a better light. I also realized that it wasn’t that we lacked the bonding moments necessary for me to feel attached to him; it was just that I tried my hardest to reject those opportunities instead of grabbing them. I rejected the moments when I should’ve just given him the kisses he repeatedly asked for. I frowned at his prickly mustache and glaring eyes; I failed to see that those were the only prickly mustache and glaring eyes I would experience from a grandfather ever. I took the only grandfather I had for granted. Now I’ve forever lost the chance to feel an extraordinary kind of love from a grandfather in the form of giving four pesos, of asking for hugs and kisses, of being stabbed by ridiculously pointy mustache.

It’s funny how you can learn to love somebody just by the memories that you both could’ve shared, not with the underwhelming memories that existed between the both of you.

Could he ever forgive me for not valuing his presence? Could he still love me despite my reluctance towards spending time with him? Could he still remember me? Could he dare say that after everything, he still sees me as a grandson?

All of these questions inside my head will forever remain questions, for the one who could answer them is gone. But sometimes, there are moments when the questions you are dying to ask do not need answers. There are moments when not knowing the answer is beneficial, because it reminds you of your mistakes so that you could never make the same mistake twice.

Sometimes, on starless nights, I would raise my cigarette toward the sky out of loneliness to show him that I smoke. Even just in my imagination, I would like to be reprimanded by him just to try to remember how he spoke, how he got angry, how he used to tell other people stories about his high school and college years, his friends, his family, his role as the eldest among them siblings, during which I would sit somewhere and eavesdrop. If I had only known better, I could’ve been the one asking him those questions.

Nine years has passed, but I still couldn’t make myself go to Davao Doctors Hospital alone. I am afraid of seeing the all-too-familiar staircase just a few meters from the entrance to the ICU, the watchers’ area that I guess still weirdly smelled like a nail salon. I could still vividly remember the corridors that led to the cafeteria, or the elevators I couldn’t dare ride alone back then, even in broad daylight. The place where I used to buy DVDs is now replaced by a KFC stall. I cannot dare go up and pass by the room we occupied in those twenty-one days—Room 512. I am scared of that place, not because of rumored ghosts that walk by the corridors at night or the souls that ride the elevators with you when you are alone. I am scared of the memory that that place makes me remember every time, with no fail.

I am afraid of seeing my past self in the form of another kid, running around the halls, the elevators, walking around the reception area toward the exit, toward the DVD stalls while a grandparent of his fights for his life in the ICU. I am scared of passing by the ICU area and seeing the staircase where my mother and her siblings used to sit while waiting for updates. I am scared to see the space where I took off my shoes and wore a green lab gown that one time I entered the ICU. I am scared to see myself riding one of their elevators as I remember how I had fun in those twenty-one days. I am scared of the apathetic, ignorant ghost of a ten-year-old kid, and it kills me that until now, I cannot make myself go to that hospital to make peace with my regrets.

Passing by the cafeteria and ordering my usual 3 PM binignit and spaghetti still scares me. I am scared of the emergency room, the reception area, the entrance, the exit. I am afraid of remembering the routes I took as I walked around the vicinity. I know that eventually I need to face these fears, my ignorance, my apathetic view at that time. I know that someday, I need to muster the courage to be able to look at that child, running, walking, having fun, while his grandfather relied on machines to keep himself alive. It will be the first part to my catharsis. To remember is to kill myself and suffer the pain that I should’ve felt. To remember is to suffer under the “what-ifs.” To feel the pain is to think “I should’ve known better.”

Now my family visits his grave once a month. Since I started going to school at UP Mindanao, I can only visit him during my school breaks. I usually bring nothing with me, except a bottle of water if ever I get thirsty, and a sachet of Off lotion to keep mosquitos away. Now that he is gone, I cannot bring him any gifts.

For now, this will have to do.

Memories of Compound

By Estrella Taño Golingay

Compound was a popular name given to Surallah by its residents in its early days. The place was probably called such because it was the location of the motor pool for a government agency that functioned as authority in land appropriation and mapping in these areas. I grew up with that name, until such time that it became Libertad, the official name for the Poblacion. In those times, Compound was just a part of Banga, by then already a thriving town where people gathered during fiesta and school activities or watched a movie and purchased family stuff in its market.

My memories of Compound consisted of a clutter of huge farm machinery and equipment scattered all over the vacant area where the gym, municipal hall, and barangay buildings for health center and other social services now stand. It was covered with tall tigbao weed, cogon, and plants that creeped up the canopies of the giant graders, backhoes, harvesters, glides for children, and other steel structures. In the afternoons, after school dismissal, some of us living along the highway in the Allah Valley area would drop our cellophane or buri bags and climb the tall slides and other structures left to the elements. Somehow, our frolic helped preserve the equipment, with our nimble hands and legs getting rid of the unwanted weeds and polishing off the dust. A large warehouse contained the more gigantic equipment at the back of the property of the Habaluyas family, a block away from the highway. Later, scrap business surfaced as businessmen grabbed the opportunity, and soon those scrawny structures were gone.

At the middle of that wide junkyard were footways made by elementary pupils from the adjacent Libertad Central School in their effort to make shortcuts so as not to be late or caught while cutting classes. I was one of them, having started my elementary education in the same school. It was a massive two-story wooden building in U shape, housing the six classrooms and offices. The most remembered part of my elementary was the feeding program—the convenience food or Nutribun, the porridge, and sometimes the non-fat dried milk that we loved to pour into a cone-shaped piece of paper from which we could sip the milk as we walked home.

A community clinic and hospital was said to have existed on our lot along the highway at the Allah Valley area in the ’50s. When we came, some debris of the old structure were still visible, and remnants of medical essentials like tubes and small bottles with white tablets were scattered all over the place, stretching several lots behind. The abandoned place gave out an uncanny ambiance, and as pioneers claimed, that spot had become a haven of creepy sounds and sights, and true, I became an unwilling witness to a few eerie experiences.

Our old house was located a block away from the Alah Valley school, the first high school put up in the early ’60s, which my elder siblings attended and where an elder sister later taught. The school activities became the town entertainment since there were nothing else aside from the annual town fiestas. Hordes of people would flock at the low fence even for the simplest Philippine Military Training drills in the afternoons. It later expanded to college department since the faculty were from the University of the Philippines and proven to be experts in the field. I remember them when walking by the main cobbled road. We would literally drop whatever we were doing to watch them walking closely by, trying to name them and what they taught. For us kids and adults, they looked like gods and goddesses from the sky, with their tall height, fair skin, pretty faces, smart getup, and beautiful shoes. They were everyone’s idea of celebrities, and they inspired the parents to send their children to school. Add to that their Tagalog tongue that we could only hear on radio drama. Later, with winds of progress, a sectarian school, Notre Dame, was founded by the Passionist congregation in 1967 led by Fr. Paschal Smith, CP, who was also the first parish priest. It has been managed by St. Paul Sisters of Chartres. Rooting for sectarian system and exposure, the clientele, including myself, flocked to its door.

The first municipal office was a building at the right side of the Catholic church just before the hardware store. It was a bungalow-type structure raised some four feet high up so that the ground floor served as store room of boxes and pieces of wood and logs. All the main offices were there, including the post office, where we went for the mails. Along that street, opposite the massive house of the Habaluyas family, where Holy Child school now stands, was the largest store in town owned by the Tan family before they transferred to their present location. It was a huge wooden building with four steps up and around, the source of all that the community seemed to need, including rice, dried fish, over-the-counter medicine, nails, needles, large bread, and even dresses. Our Store—managed by the late Mr. Tan himself, or Intsik, as we fondly called him—was our little market because it seemed to have everything that we needed.

The original parish church was a smaller one on the same lot provided by the government but was later extended when the adjacent lot was bought through the effort of Fr. Hilarion Walters. I remember Fr. Smith, the first parish priest, a saintly, chubby, and jolly old man. He was so close to us children that he’d lift us and sometimes hoist the boys on his shoulders while trying to speak to us in Hiligaynon. Wherever he went, he was followed by kids. But before the building of the Catholic church, we would troop to the first Baptist church located in front of the health center when we were kids to watch biblical films on weekends and savor some candies given out.

Before it became Maharlika Highway, the main road was actually just a rough road, and my older siblings and other students who went to high school in Notre Dame of Banga either hiked or rode a cart pulled by a carabao passing it. I remember that our area was a hilly terrain. That was all leveled to the ground when construction equipment came to build better roads as the place was getting developed. By then, the first mode of transportation was the remnant of the U.S. open weapon carrier types: the open gray-colored four-wheeled vehicles and the covered one that rumbled along the rough road. When riding them, you had to be tough too, for it could toss you around when it swayed sideways and forward for every bump on the gravel road. Later, big buses of the Cotabato Bus company plied the highway from Dadiangas (now General Santos City) to Cotabato City and on to Davao City, which took a day and a half to travel.

Since there was no electricity, there were no television sets and other gadgets, and the only form of entertainment available was soap operas on the radio. The most popular drama series was Duelo sa Sapang Bato aired by DZXL every 6:30 PM. Since only my uncle Teoy had a radio set in the family, their yard would be full of friends and relatives every night without fail. Occasionally, a free movie would be shown in the plaza, sponsored by the soft drinks and soap companies as a form of advertisement. The type of films shown in the plaza was usually the Western cowboy movies of old. On this much-awaited nocturnal gatherings, the whole population of Compound would be at the plaza, leaving their houses with no one behind, to gather for the English movie, after which the walk back home would be abuzz with retelling of highlights that sometimes led to arguments on some misinterpretations. The following day, the movie would still be the topic among groups of people and children in the school until another event came to replace it. Another entertainment was the annual circus that offered a variety of shows, including drama, apart from the gymnastics, Ferris wheel, and the main attraction, which was the flying trapeze. It didn’t take long for the players to be the celebrity idols of the residents. In addition, people read novels and short stories found in Liwayway and Hiligaynon magazines and in the comics, such as Aliwan, Hiwaga, Tagalog Klasiks, and Pilipino Komiks, featuring the best artists and authors like Mars Ravelo.

Marketing in the early ’60s was something to relish especially if you had a little left to spend from the annual harvest of rice. A kilogram of palay was pegged by traders at 10 centavos, but the exchange rate was 3 Philippine pesos per 1 U.S. dollar, which made our currency very strong then. Early on, my mother had a small store on the ground floor of our house, so I was able to remember prices of commodities, such as soft drinks for only 15 centavos per bottle, rice for 20 to 30 centavos per ganta, and candies for 1 centavo each. In the market, fish could be bought from 50 to 80 centavos per kilogram and a meter of cloth from 50 centavos to 1.50 pesos depending on the kind. The first market area was composed of makeshift stalls on the same current spot. Later, when the market was modernized, it was transferred to the area where Libertad National High School now stands. It was an old rice field tilled by residents but was acquired by the government. My mother owned a stall in that market selling grocery items, and it was there where I was exposed to business.

In the early ’60s, with the progressive leadership of the first mayor, Jose T. Sison, Surallah was opened to the outside world with the opening of the first and only airport in the province and nearby places. The airstrip is a stone’s throw away from the market and still operates for smaller aircrafts nowadays, and its operation and location have spawned controversies. Having that airport in its early operations was a different experience for us kids, as it enabled us to have glimpses of very important personalities and events that the airplanes brought. We became accidental part of the welcoming party to big people like Pres. Diosdado Macapagal or the movie stars Nida Blanca and Nestor de Villa, Liberty Ilagan, and others as we breached security and scrambled to reach for their hands for a touch or a handshake, which they gladly obliged. We relished telling others how beautiful and fragrant they were as we sniffed the air for a whiff of perfume they were wearing. It was easier for our leaders to regale us, the residents, with visitors during the inaugural fiestas with faces we only saw on Liwayway and Hiligaynon. For us, they were all “artistas” and they were an excellent complement to our local beauty queens coming from the Camachos of early ’60s, the Sisons, the Galangs, and other early queens we saw only during the parade and the coronation night during the anniversary fiestas.

The culture of beauty pageant was through popularity contest, requiring the highest monetary values for the queen and lesser for members of the royal court. The fiesta would usually end with a bang with the parade of winners, followed by the coronation night wherein celebrity guests were invited and important political figures crowned the queen and her court. They would then deliver their long speeches, making us yawn to our hearts’ content. But before that, the VIP couples, composed of the mayor and the councilors and their spouses and guests, were given the chance to dance the night away, giving the townspeople the thrill of the evening. Those evening revelries opened for us the Pandora’s box of fun and excitement while watching the public ballroom dance as the couples whirled their evening gowns to the beat of tango, cha-cha, and waltz for the adult and twist, limbo rock, and more for the younger ones. Those were the nights the people never missed so they could assert who the best dancer was or who wore the best gown as they reminisced the experience in their dining tables or with neighbors and friends at the corner store and marketplace. For days, the townspeople had the coronation night as their staple food. Who would have thought that in this southern part of Mindanao lay a young town where people of different regional background co-existed peacefully and so cosmopolitan in their outlook in life, warding off the so-called internal threats of extremists that had plagued other parts of the island.

The early days of Compound resonated with the more popular family names in the recesses of my mind, such as Sison, Habaluyas, Eleazar, Molina, Haguisan, Bendita, Camacho, Galang; the teachers Eslaban, Sagra, Sustento, Sta. Maria, Dogoldogol, Aguil, Dolar, Bayoguing, Pangilinan, and Dr. Velasquez; and the foreign religious Fr. Paschal, Fr. Raymond Pulvino, and Fr. Hilarion, among many others.

Living in Compound then was like living in a paradise, deserving a tribute all its own.

Addressing Racism: Steadfast Wherever My Feet Lead Me

By Midpantao Midrah G. Adil II

(This essay is the winner of the 2nd Lagulad Prize.)

In search of great treasure, one must first learn to defy the limits. This is the particular teaching that my parents left me before they went to the afterlife.

Having been left as an orphan at an early age, I never really had the wits to decipher what was their truest intent. The only thing they left me was a piece of vague philosophy that even a fifteen-year-old boy would never understand. So, it was then when I decided that it was about time to start my very own crusade—to look for life’s greatest treasure.

As a natural-born Maguindanaoan, I was raised to love my tribe’s culture. My father instilled many great things in my young naive mind, including the exquisite wonders of our family tradition. He was indeed a great fine man, and just like any father, he was my biggest support system.

I could still recall my ten-year-old self indulging in the euphony of authentic kulintang music while engaging my eyes in a colorful show of Muslim ritual dances and feasting over lavish food during certain occasions such as kalilang, or traditional wedding ceremony, within the family. Truly, everything was a remarkable experience. On the other hand, the abundance of elaborate tapestry draped all across the house was a sign that our kin had an affinity for big celebrations. It was part of our culture.

As a child, I was also a big dreamer. Taking myself to greater heights was something that ignited the fighter in me. My burning passion for self-expression taught me to become vocal about the things that concerned me one way or another.

I dreamed of becoming a writer. However, some of my aspirations were too much for me to handle; also, most turned out to be impractical in the eyes of my family. All I had was a heavy amount of disapproval from my kin. They wanted me to embrace the family tradition—to become a lawyer, not “a lousy journalist,” as they called it. But deep within my heart, I knew I needed not follow them. It was clear to me that my heart longed for something extraordinary.

At a very young age, I have always been committed to the urge of looking for life’s truest meaning. My feet have dragged me from various places throughout the island to find meaning in my existence.

Mindanao has been my home for the past twenty years. I was born and raised in the province of Sultan Kudarat. Although most of my ancestors were from Datu Paglas, Maguindanao, my father decided to settle in Tacurong to give me a good urban life. As a lawyer, a city was the best place for him to earn a living. In the city, I was enlightened about many things in life. And almost nothing was sugarcoated.

The struggle began when my parents sent me to a private Catholic school. Living in an island where Muslims are commonly stereotyped as terrorists, suicide bombers, and enemies of the state, it was very hard for a kid like me to fit in. There’s a stigma with being a Muslim. Many non-Muslims fear that my families might be affiliated with terrorist groups. In effect, I often became the target of bullies.

My heartbreaking experiences from my critics made me resilient. In fact, I never hated my bullies. If anything, I became quite grateful because, for what they did, I grew up as a strong man. It’s not that I tolerate these kinds of acts, and I know I must not. It’s just that, without them dragging me down, I would have never risen and become the person that I am now. For me, they made me who I am.

Way back in my childhood days, I was labeled with far too many harsh words: terorista, moros, damak na Muslim, and many more. I was considered inferior because I was a Muslim. The proud race that I had grown up in became my greatest downfall. Without noticing it, I became ashamed of my ethnicity and felt that I had to blend in. Many of my relatives may be outraged why I did this, but it’s human nature. I needed to be liked.

It is quite unfathomable how some people could develop a bad sense of racism against the culture I have. Suffice it to say that I cannot point my fingers directly at these people. This exact feeling makes me remember something that occurred two years ago.

In 2017, parts of Marawi City were bombed into rubble by the local ISIS terrorists, the Maute group. This marked the dawn of Mindanao’s desolate fate. I never personally witnessed the tragedy; however, as a student journalist, I remember my eyes being tightly glued to the late evening news. That was an imperative trait—a social responsibility, at the least—for a scribe.

The bullet-drilled infrastructure along with the ghosted streets of Marawi was a clear implication that everything was out of control. It felt real. The fear crippled me knowing that it might also happen in my town if not controlled by the authority.

The televised view of the cold frigid bodies of the casualties being pulled away from the bombarded buildings broke my heart. The tragedy made it to the headlines of all media networks that day. With peace becoming a scarce commodity in the market, hope was held hostage by fear.

I asked God that time that if he was watching, why was he letting those things happen? If life mattered to him, why was he allowing those poor innocent lives to be taken away? If it was wrong to kill, why was he letting the evils of mankind slaughter the entire city? I myself could not find the right words to answer my questions. I had too much doubt in my mind.

As an eighteen-year-old during that time, I already had some maturity to weigh the rationality of things. The Maute group was fighting for the empowerment of their clan. They might have sparked a wrong kind of fight, but it shook me to a realization. If there had been peace, harmony, and equality within the island, no one would have ever craved for destruction. No one would have plotted for supremacy. However, they did. That’s the saddest conclusion that I could arrive upon. Is this a war of races, and whoever is non-Muslim gets beheaded? This was the thought in my mind.

The Maute group was fighting for dominance of Islam in Marawi. It was a crusade—the evil form, to think of it. Race and religion were dividing the island into non-substantial factions. It was the embodiment of the bullying I had received when I was still in elementary school. But now, it was us who had become the bullies. I know people will counter-argue that the Maute group was not true Muslims because Islam is a religion of peace, but I am talking about the times when all they ever wanted was to eradicate the non-members of their faction. This is the brutal truth.

It was later this year when the Bangsamoro Organic Law was finally pitched in Congress. Because it was offering to be a substantial answer to the conflicts arising within the island, I became quite ecstatic to hear the news that the government was finally taking a stand on the empowerment of my people—not only the Moro but the tri-people in general. It painted a warm smile in my face after seeing how people of different races came together in the fight to address the problems of Mindanao.

For the past decades, Mindanao has been a place of bloodbath. With the uprisings and revolts that have taken place, one might begin to ask, Is God still here? I don’t know. Lives have been lost, and souls have been wasted. This isn’t the Mindanao I had in mind as a child. No one ever understood the severity of the situation. However, I’ve never lost hope.

I have been to various provinces within the island. I have been to Sultan Kudarat, Cotabato, South Cotabato, the Davao provinces, Bukidnon, Sarangani, Maguindanao, and more to learn the substantial differences between the peoples of Mindanao. Not every expedition was entirely fruitful, but I consider everything as a stepping-stone, to say the least.

Is Mindanao really at war? Everywhere I go, I hear stories of conflicts and despair. Deprivation of rights to land ownership as well as struggles to find adequate support from the government has awakened me to fight alongside with the victims. As a student journalist, these have been my inspiration for my craft.

With my fellow campus journalists in Cotabato, I ventured to Barangay Kisante in Makilala to conduct an extension activity in a young Lumad boarding school in 2018.  There, one thing caught my attention—a group of young people walking in the vicinity with schoolbags on. It was definitely a heartwarming sight.

It was pleasing to see that despite the poverty and lack of resources, the children were still sent by their parents to school for them to have access to education. This might be the kind of improvement that their ancestors might have dreamed from the beginning.

With boarding schools like the one we visited, the young Lumads of Cotabato are given education about their socio-economic, political, and cultural rights. They are able to gain empowerment and protect their ancestral domains and exercise their rights to self-determination.

The stories that I heard from the children broke my heart a thousand fold. Most of them lacked decent clothes to wear and notebooks to write on. The stories made me realize that my responsibilities crossed beyond the boundaries of conventional writing. I must help change the world one story at a time.

My family, being inhabitants of Maguindanao, took me around to witness the growing poverty in various Moro communities. I was exposed to the kind of life that many of our people have. Pagalungan, a small municipality at the heart of Maguindanao, is one of them. I am not from the place, but my father was. Despite the small amount of time I’ve been there, I was able to tell that most houses in the area lacked potable water sources and access to modern facilities. As how I witnessed politics in Muslim areas, there might also be bloodbaths. Unfortunately, that is how life is there.

In search of more stories to tell, I never stopped exploring. My curiosity brought me to a trip in Arakan, Cotabato. About 88 kilometers away from Kabacan, where I was staying at the time, is the hidden gem that is Bani Falls, also called Matigol Falls by local trekkers. Sitio Inamong, Barangay Datu Ladayon, where the waterfall is located, is a small village that is home to the indigenous peoples Manobo and Tahurog.

I was quite astonished how these people had managed to live atop the mountain and display vibrant smiles on their faces. Life there was decent and, well, peaceful. Because they were way too far to be reached by amenities and government services, they found ways to improvise things. They made me realize that happiness doesn’t always have to come with a price.

The people there are one of the most welcoming peoples I have met in my entire existence. They accompanied me and my friends throughout our trip. They shared with me the gifts of Mother Nature. Indeed, the memories we had in that journey have been truly worth remembering.

From the young Lumads in Makilala, Cotabato, to the Moro in Pagalungan, Maguindanao, and even the indigenous tribes in the rocky mountains of Arakan, Cotabato, my pen has painted stories that are truly close to my heart. Mindanao is my home, and the people here are my soul.

For the past five years, I have dedicated my life to the journey of finding the said treasure. I have been to various islands within the country looking for meaning and trying to defy whatever limits life has imposed on me.

From Pampanga to the highlands of Baguio City and the busy streets of Metro Manila, I have explored places in search of stories. Every time I travel, I meet new people, blending with their culture and eventually becoming one of them. Learning about people’s traditions and embracing their culture is my biggest contribution in addressing racism and breaking the stigma. If I have learned anything, it is that no race or ethnicity is above any other.

Despite the various places I have been, Mindanao is the only place for me that feels like home. There is truly a fine line that separates this great island from the entire Philippine archipelago. Mindanao is filled with gems and treasures. It offers a rarity that is beyond the imperial. The part of the culture that I left home still echoes back to my heart. Mindanao is the haven of the brightest treasures in the country. What are its treasures? Its diverse people.

In my search for the greatest treasure, I have learned to defy the limits. I learned to set aside my selfish desires and individuality. These stories made me into someone who is well aware of his identity. As I embraced far-flung cultures even though they aren’t close to mine, I became complete.

My parents have taught me that the beauty of life only reveals itself the very moment you allow yourself to discover its greatest secrets. The instant you break free from the stigma is when you learn to find meaning in your life. You see that the world is truly full of hidden treasures.

Being different is not a liability. It’s a gift. We should celebrate our uniqueness. Our diversity. Our roots. Our race. The sun will shine one day with the peace I’m fervently praying for already in our hands. If there is one thing that I have learned throughout my journey, it is that the Philippines has a lot to offer. And I can’t wait to board another plane to my next destination.