We Are Not in Paradise

By Hazel Aspera
Nonfiction

It’s always hard to tell the story of a journey. It’s not that I don’t know what to say, but I don’t know how to say it or where to start. After all, there are many ways in which a story can be told, and we both might have time to hear one of them. But I always feel that telling only one story does much injustice to the places I’ve been to.

Say, for instance, I wanted to tell you about the last time I traveled. I’d quickly recall my experience in the town of Glan in Sarangani Province to say this:

Somewhere on the southern edge of the Mindanao mainland, there is a road that leads to nowhere. That is, as a humble dirt road, it passes through the village of Batulaki, past coconut trees and through a stream, past the elementary school, shortly after which it transforms into a paved road, past houses and shops, and on until it ends abruptly onto soft, weathered coconut husks and sand. After that brief stretch of beach, there is only water as far as the eye can see.

At the dormitory, our all-women team of medical students joked that once we got there, we’d hire a boat to take us all the way to Indonesia, just so we could say that we had finally set foot on foreign land. When we jovially asked the fishermen about that, however, they said that the trip would be long and the weather and waves would not be on our side.

While this hypothetical trip to Indonesia was a running joke throughout our trip, I have no doubt that if someone had offered a ride, we would have emptied our pockets and hopped on the boat immediately just for the thrill of it.

We would ride that stretch of water that was grey near the shore, and onto that which was sea green, then onto the ultramarine waters near the horizon. But since nobody tempted us with a ride abroad, I will have to take my story back to the road that leads to nowhere, back to the shores of Mindanao.

Rising from either side of that road, just before it becomes beach, are mountains that reach the clouds. At least that is what it seemed like when we rode through the fog, up and down, left and right, through roads that were at once steep and winding.

An introduction like that, I hope, will impress upon your imagination the wild beauty of the place, and the enormity of the sea, the sky, and the mountains around us.

But even that is not enough. Because there is another way to begin this story:

The bamboo floors creaked with each step. Ma’am Sal and I had to watch our step, lest a foot shot through either a weak portion of the floor or one of the big gaps between the bamboo slats. The difference was that Ma’am Sal paced the room quicker and surer, while I fell behind trying to make sure I didn’t get injured. The inside of the house was dark, the noon light only barely seeping through the door and windows since the sun was directly overhead. I don’t remember seeing any lightbulbs, though it is possible that we came during a blackout. (You see, I am less attentive to my surroundings when I have work to do.)

As we approached the bedroom, the grandfather showed us the boy who, like him, was wearing a worn T-shirt and shorts. The upper left side of his face was almost completely caked in a dark, mottled-looking thing that appeared, to me, as a mass of gritty blood clots.

The grandfather asked if we wanted to clean his wound in the house or if we needed to go out. “It’s still bleeding,” he said in a hoarse and worried voice. Normally, I would insist that the patient stay where he was so that he wouldn’t need to exert any effort. But since I wasn’t able to determine the extent of the damage in this dim light, I told him to bring the boy out.

He carried the surprisingly calm three-year-old outside. In the light, the scab on his face looked unlike anything I had ever seen before. It had only been less than an hour, said his grandmother, since he jumped around the house, fell down, and hit his face hard against a wooden bench. Now I knew from anatomy class that face wounds tend to bleed a lot and infamously don’t clot very fast, especially not this much. What’s more, blood was still trickling sideways over the arch of his eyebrows, downward just beside his left eye and onto his cheek, implying that all that clotting wasn’t doing its job.

“By the way,” the grandfather said, “we put coffee all over the wound so it wouldn’t bleed out.”

Good Lord. Coffee. So this grainy, clot-like thing caked on his face was blood mixed with coffee. Nowhere close to the standard first aid for open wounds which was simply to clean the wound and apply pressure until the bleeding stopped.

Ma’am Sal said something as she pulled on the collar of her green and white barangay health worker uniform. I don’t remember what it was, but I do know it was filled with veiled disapproval.

I looked at the boy’s face again. I realized that we had no idea where, exactly, the wound was or how big it was. Still, there was enough bleeding that I told Ma’am Sal I thought we’d definitely need to send the boy to town to get the wound stitched up and maybe get a tetanus shot.

“We’ll have to clean the coffee off that wound first,” said Ma’am Sal. “Or else they’ll say back in town that us BHWs aren’t doing our jobs.”

* * *

In short, I could start this story writing like a tourist or writing like a health worker. But you see, “tourist destinations” bother me. While I have enjoyed my fair share of them for years since I started earning my own income, there was always something bothersome, something insincere, about them. I am wary of these things, sold like snake oil: white sand with clear waters and coral reefs, or mountain views, gardens, and fresh fruit, which may come with the most hospitable people you have ever known.

But after I enjoy a coffee in a French-inspired coffee shop (at least one exists in practically every tourist destination nowadays), I only need to walk a few paces past a narrow alleyway to find something that is in complete contrast to the paradise that is sold to us. Perhaps a family of four who spends just about as much for one day’s worth of food as I do on a single cappuccino. Or scruffy children who mistake us for foreigners. Everyone knows that foreigners always bring a lot of money.

This happened on a summer trip to Bohol, and our guide caught the children asking my boyfriend and me, in broken English, for money. “Don’t bother them,” she said, shooing them away. “Go back home to your mother, and don’t show yourselves to tourists.” I daresay this is a very Filipino way of solving the problem: hide it and forget about it. Kind of like how my parents used to avoid going to the doctor because they “might find out what’s wrong” with them. (You know, even if you don’t know there’s something wrong with you doesn’t mean it isn’t there. And the later you find out about it, the later you can fix it.)

On a larger scale, it means making the beaches, the resorts, the highways palatable for tourists by hiding poverty well in the back. But I know that just because they have been removed from my sight does not mean that they do not exist. It does not make whole the tatters on their shirts, nor does it put brand-new slippers on their bare feet, nor does it fill their empty stomachs.

It’s disconcerting, to say the least, to see abundance and poverty lying side by side like this. Which was why this trip to Sarangani was a little more special than the others. See, when I travel during the summer, it is typically to be a tourist first and only have glimpses of other stories behind the façade of paradise by accident. This time, my intentions were different: learn more about the community’s health situation through an immersion program for medical students organized by the Alliance for Improvement of Health Outcomes (AIHO), a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the Philippine public health system.

The more I saw, the more my perspective on travel changed. Is it right, after all, to separate the place from the people, to choose to see paradise and not the things which had to be pushed away to make it thus?

I don’t think so. I do it anyway.

I do it anyway. It makes me feel guilty that I can.

* * *

Ma’am Sal and I cleaned the coffee off the boy, slowly, for what seemed like hours. At first, we tried wiping it off with cotton balls soaked in alcohol, but the mixture of blood and coffee had dried on his face, making it difficult to wipe off without causing additional trauma to the wound, wherever it was. Then we tried warm water. The coffee dissolved better.

We began to make out the edges of the wound. It wasn’t as big as we had thought, spanning just a little more than halfway above the boy’s eyebrow. It was, however, deep enough that we knew that the boy definitely needed stitches, and probably a tetanus shot to boot.

“We can’t,” said the boy’s grandmother, who had been all nerves since she had run all the way to fetch us. “We don’t have any money.”

“You’ll need to find a way,” Ma’am Sal replied. “The boy needs to get to town as soon as we’re done cleaning the wound.”

The grandmother hesitated. Then she said that she’d try to borrow some from the neighbors.

I thought of how easy it was for me to get treatment of any sort back in the city, how I didn’t have to travel for an hour to get to the nearest clinic, nor did I have to deal with flooded pathways, unpaved roads, and extremely steep slopes to get there.

I wished I could help, but in the rush to collect whatever wound dressing supplies were available, I had left my bag and my wallet at the elementary school classroom that served as the barangay’s temporary health center.

The best thing I could do right now was wait. And pray that this family had generous neighbors.

* * *

One story later, we found ourselves at the parts of the southernmost mountains of Mindanao that ended abruptly in the water. We stepped off the white beach, climbing some of the looming grey rocks that seemed to fall in a static cascade from the mountain and then disappearing into the sea. Some of them were smooth, others were covered with moss, and yet some were rough, like thousands of daggers assaulting my bare feet.

Finally, we stood at what my companions and I called “the edge of the Philippines.” That wasn’t technically true, though. Somewhere just before Indonesia, Sarangani Island and Balut Island still stood as the last strongholds of Philippine land in the south. But calling it the “edge of the Mindanao mainland” didn’t have the same ring to it.

There, we were face-to-face with the raging sea, wind, and grey clouds brought by a low-pressure area that was approaching at the time. I thought that these mountains-that-reach-the-clouds must be the fort that guards Glan, perhaps even the rest of the island, from the fury of nature.

We soon realized, as the wind grew stronger and the tide rose higher, that we might have to spend the stormy night on these rocks if we stayed any longer. So after a few hasty photographs, we made our way back down. By the time we made it to the beach, the wind was literally pushing against my body so hard that each step took twice the effort, while the rain felt like cold stones slapping against my face.

Wary, mostly of the potential risk of coconuts falling on us from overhead, we sought shelter at the home of a shrimp farmer until the wind subsided.

“It’s a good thing we didn’t go to Indonesia on a boat,” someone quipped.

Any laughter was lost in the howl of the wind.

To Pull a Hook

By Kurt Joshua O. Comendador

(This essay is the winner of the 1st Lagulad Prize.)

Ako na pud kuya bi,” my younger brother Sean said while trying to take the fishing rod from me.

Paghulat gud,” I told him, moving the rod out of his reach. “Nagahulat na ang talakitok sa akoa o.”

Ganina pa man ka.

Lima na lang ka labay,” I promised him. I whipped the line out into the sea, away from the shore.

* * *

My fancy for fishing started with envy. I was hooked into it after seeing an episode of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer on television. The titular character and his rowdy gang of country boys had run away from their homes and were fishing in the Mississippi River to feed themselves, competing who had the biggest catch in the process. I watched with envy as they roasted the fish over open fire and devoured them when they were cooked.

I was seven years old back then at my grandparents’ farm somewhere deep in Polomolok, South Cotabato. There was nothing much to do except for the daily trips to the river that my grandfather and I had to take to tend the cows. People in Polomolok mostly farmed for a living. On special occasions, a cow, maybe a goat, and a couple of chickens would be butchered for a feast, but the daily diet consisted of vegetables, which was virtually everywhere, and fish—fish from the market and fish from the river. My grandparents were able to buy fish from the market, but I wanted to try eating fish that I myself had caught.

Fishing was originally developed to find food in the wild for survival. As time progressed, fishing evolved to include the activity as a pastime. Recreational fishing is a luxury for those who have pockets full of money with time on their hands to cast carbon-fiber retractable fishing rods with high-end reel and a line of nylon connected to a floater or a sinker with a plethora of colorful artificial baits, one for each type of fish. While this is so, the tackle, or the entire fishing equipment, used in Polomolok only consists of a good-length bagakay (a kind of thin bamboo) for a rod, a coil of thin, transparent nylon, and a single hook. Baits can be found wherever there is moist and healthy soil.

Tay, bakal na bala sang bunit,” I requested my grandfather one day.

Sa sunod ah,” he answered.

The dialogue continued for days.

Same plea, same answer—always sa sunod, sa sunod, sa sunod.

One morning, I woke up only to see the sun high above the coconut trees behind our house, too late to join Tatay down the river, as he should have been already back by this hour, but not too late for morning cartoons—time to watch Tom Sawyer and his friends again. As the house lacked walls, I immediately saw Nanay at the sink, busy with the dishes. I asked her where Tatay was.

Nagkadto sa Proper,” she replied through the clinks and clanks of plates.

Somehow, someway, I thought that the time had finally come.

I took a late breakfast of rice and inun-unan, fish cooked in vinegar. Midway through my meal, the sound of Tatay’s motorcycle engine came sputtering toward the house. The loud barks of our dogs welcomed him. He appeared at the doorway moments later with a plastic bag in his hand.

Ano na, Tay?” I asked while trying to peer through the white, plastic bag he was carrying.

Mga gipangbakal ko sa Proper ah,” he replied.

He unloaded the things on the table: a pack of dried fish, three cans of sardines, two packs of instant noodles, and a bundle of sweet bananas. That was all. Disappointed, I resumed eating my meal, thinking that perhaps I would receive it sa sunod. Then a small plastic pouch landed on the table just in front of my plate. Without uttering anything, Tatay immediately went into his room, the only room separated by walls in the house. In the pouch was a coil of new fishing line and a set of fishing hooks. His room might have been surrounded by walls, but his heart wasn’t. I was glad.

I went out on my first fishing trip with Tito, Tatay’s nephew, three days after Tatay bought the materials. We couldn’t find a good pole, so we only took a fishing line coiled around a tin can. We started toward the river after breakfast, at about eight in the morning. It was about thirty minutes’ walk from the house, past the purok center, through a cornfield, and finally, down a hill. The sound of the deep, masculine gush of the river was a welcoming sound to hear after the hike under the summer sun. I couldn’t wait to wade in the water to get across to familiar grounds where Tatay’s cattle were grazing.

I thought it took forever for Tito to get across. Together, we went further down the riverbank where we thought the water was deep and there would be plenty of fish. We sat on a grassy patch and prepared our fishing line. I watched Tito, also a first timer, took out an earthworm and skewered it with the hook. I shuddered as I watched the hook emerge on the other end of its body—I still do whenever I remember that moment.

Whenever there was a slightest movement on the nylon, we would immediately pull out the line, hoping that a fish was hanging at the end of the line. It was maddening. The fish didn’t seem to be biting. Every time we pulled it out, the worm would emerge in one piece. I felt pity for the worm. I felt stupid sending it again and again into the water.

An old man happened to pass by. He was barefoot and wearing shabby short pants and a dirty old jacket over a ragged shirt. His skin was dark with shades of crimson, like fine-aged leather. “Gaano kamo da?” he asked.

Gapamunit, Kol,” Tito answered.

Ahay!” blurted out the old man. “Indi kamo makadakop da. Didto kamo sa hinay ang dalihig sang tubig ho.” He pointed downstream, at a spot where the river curved. He looked terrible in his shabby clothes, but it seemed that we were more pitiful than he was. He had the wisdom we didn’t have. He had the experience we couldn’t hold a candle to. To him, we were the worms that needed help.

We followed the advice of the old man. We waited and waited. Every time we noticed movement in the line, we pulled it out. This time, we were at least getting some results—the worm would come out nibbled. We had to replace the bitten worm every time. On one try, half of the worm’s body went missing. It was funny how fishing in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was easy as could be: The characters only had to sit on the edge of the water with a fishing pole, and all of a sudden, they already had something scaly for lunch. Huckleberry Finn even survived living by himself in the forest by eating fish he caught from the river. Not only is truth stranger than fiction; truth is harder than fiction, too.

If Tom Sawyer had his Mississippi River, we had our Silway River. It had brown, muddy water, and at its deepest part, it only reached the hips of adults. Silway River is the river that runs from Polomolok to General Santos City. In Google Maps, it looks like a giant snake slithering through the two places before finally joining Sarangani Bay at Barangay Labangal in the city. There were plenty of ways on how fishing was done in the river. The most common was by using a fishing pole. Another common way was pangurinti, done by stunning the fish with electric rods connected to a car battery. Another one was pang-atas. I only saw this once on our way home, but from what I remember, the men isolated a part of the river with a long tarpaulin, and as the spot ran out of water, they used a net to catch the fish that were trapped and swimming downstream.

Hala! Ari na, kuy!

Tito’s voice distracted me from watching the cliff on the other side of the river. I turned and saw him with his arm raised, struggling to pull the line out of the water. Something had taken the bait! We had caught something! Could it be a tilapia? Could it be a catfish or even an eel? I didn’t have a clear view of it when he lifted it out of the water. Black and white, black and white. It was all that I could see. The fish was spinning with the line? Was it a fish? It had limbs. A turtle? We caught a turtle? A snake-necked turtle!

Tito immediately went into action: He took the snake turtle and laid it on its soft, leathery carapace. We had to remove the hook that had pierced through its cheek without getting bitten. Every time Tito’s finger went near its pointed snout, the turtle snapped violently and without hesitation. Back then, we knew—I knew—that there was only one way to remove the hook out of the turtle’s mouth. But I wanted to try all other possible ways first.

Butunga na lang nang hook, Tito,” I said.

Di pwede kay masangit iya punta,” my uncle said.

I knew it was impossible. The hook had a barb, and pulling the hook would embed the barb deeper into the flesh.

Utda ang punta eh,” I said.

Tito fell silent. He didn’t tell me that what I had suggested was almost impossible to do, too.

So he had to do the inevitable: using the jagged edge of the lid of the can where we were keeping our worms, he tore the turtle’s cheek, and then he removed the hook with his hand.

I could not imagine how it must’ve felt for the turtle. The pain must’ve been unbearable—to have someone slice your cheek, going from side to side, until the soft, delicate flesh tore open and the hook could be removed. I thought that the turtle must be envious of us humans: there were no hooks to catch us.

If the turtle could talk, I’d also like to ask it why it bit something that wasn’t meant for him.

We continued fishing until the afternoon and we ran out of bait worms. The turtle was the only catch we had for the whole day. On our way back to the house, some of my Tito’s friends saw the turtle inside our net bag. “Mas namit pa na sa manok ba,” they said. “Amon na lang na bi.”

We declined. It was our sole prize, and we were determined to take it home.

Ay abaw!” exclaimed Nanay when she saw the turtle in the net bag.

Kanami sang dakop niyo ba!” said Tatay with a laugh.

We put the turtle into our empty concrete fish pond where guppies, mollies, and carps used to swim.

Sometimes, I would bring over other kids in the neighborhood to show them the turtle. “Baw, dako dako ba,” gushed one. That might’ve been the first time they saw a turtle snake as big as an adult’s hand. “Gin-ano niyo na pagdakop?” one of them asked.

Ginbunit eh,” I said.

Ti, ano ginapakaon niyo sina hay?

Ambot ay. Kung ano ang ihaboy da eh.” Banana peels, rice, pieces of leftover fish, fruits, anything, I explained.

In an article published in the Philippine Star in 2013, it was revealed that the Chinese softshell turtle is threatening the freshwater fish population in Central Luzon. Fishpond owners and operators grew weary of the invasive species since they prey on local fish species, especially milkfish and tilapia fingerlings. Farmers are complaining of receiving bites from snake turtle hiding beneath the mud of their rice paddies. However, I rarely heard of them as a problem before in Polomolok. In fact, people would be happy if they managed to catch one of them.

In a segment of Born to Be Wild aired in 2017, I learned that Pampanga has the biggest population of Chinese softshell turtle with a market for its meat: people are really buying live snake turtles for food!

I didn’t know why, but the turtle died after about a week of captivity. I still try to figure out what happened, but as a kid, I thought that maybe we should have let Tito’s friends slaughter it. At least, it would not have died for nothing. It died alone, away from its habitat, away from its home, its carcass buried on the soil where coconuts grew.

Days after, we went on another fishing trip. This time, Tatay went with us. We woke up early in the morning and hastily ate our hanggop, or cooked rice poured with hot water and flavored with salt.

Dal-a tong silupin,” Tatay said, pointing to the plastic bag containing hooks and lines.

Wala man ta stick,” I said.

Pati lang bala.

The three of us began hiking at about six in the morning. The morning air felt as though they were seeping through my arms and into my back, causing me to shiver from time to time. Tatay seemed amused. We were cold, while he was warm in his jacket.

We followed the usual path to his parcel of land beside the river. He then made Tito and me wait in a hut surrounded by foxtails, brushwood, and all kinds of balubagon. He returned after an hour. “Dal-a ning paya oh, kag kadto kamo to sa may puno sang ipil-ipil,” he told us. “Kalot kamo to kag kwa kamo ulod kay may kadtoan lang ko anay. Kita lang ta sa may pispan sa likod sang bayog,” he said.

Tito and I took a coconut shell lying on the ground and went to the ipil-ipil tree, while Tatay went about his business. The worms under the tree were larger than the worms I had seen before, about the size of my fingers back then. I couldn’t help but wonder back then if what had made them grow so big. I managed to catch a few of them. The way the worms moved about in my hands tickled, so I dumped them into the shell as soon as I caught them.

We made our way through the thick wild grass to the fish pond behind the clumps of bamboo called bayog, just in time to see Tatay walking toward us, carrying three stalks of bagakay, a thinner family of those big, towering, and heavy ones. One of them was fifteen feet long, much longer than the others.

Almost every body of water has its distinct smell, and this wasn’t any different. The pond smelled of putrid mud and algae, but there were tilapias and paitan, or small freshwater fish with bitter flesh. The word rotten may be associated with death. It is synonymous with decay, the slow and gradual decline of life. But to us, this smell was only superficial. Life thrived in the waters: fishes and snails, tangkong and takway, and whatnot. Each contributed to the system we were living off. It was rotten, putrid, pungent, and acrid, but the pond, entirely by its presence, told a whole new different story, brought a whole new meaning. I wonder if it’s the same with us.

When we started fishing, I understood why Tatay took a longer pole. Tito and I, with our shorter poles, had to stand close to the putrescent waters of the pond, our feet tangled in takway and tangkong, while Tatay sat on the grassy slope away from the water. I envied him, looking so relaxed and carefree. I wished I also had a longer pole.

We didn’t catch any despite fishing the entire afternoon. I nearly had one. Through the clear waters, we saw the fishes nibble at the worm. When I saw a tilapia took a huge bite of the bait, I instantly yanked it out of the water. I saw a small fish hanging at the end of the line. But just when I thought I finally had my first catch, it fell back into the water!

A few days before leaving for General Santos City to start the school year, I went to the river with Tatay to see the extent of the flood that the previous day’s rain had brought. I saw a number of local kids walking and kicking about in the brown, muddy puddles that were formed when the water rose above the riverbank. We approached them, walking through the ankle-deep puddles.

The biggest kid of the group was carrying a big can of powdered milk. Not concerned with our presence, they continued kicking the water around. To my surprise, a fish jumped out of the water! A kid then shoved the fish out of the water to the taller grass, the few which were not submerged in floodwater.

Gaano kamo da?” asked Tatay.

Nagapanakop isda, Kol,” said the kid carrying the can.

Bi, palantaw sang dakop niyo bi.”

The kid showed us the can. They had managed to catch four tilapias, wiggling inside the cramped space.

Ay bi, panghatag man para may sud-anon kami,” Tatay joked.

Indi pwede, Kol, kay sud-anon man namon ni,” the kid said.

The huddle broke up, and they resumed kicking in the puddles again. Envious of their catch, I went to a large puddle nearby and started kicking around the water.

Ara! Ara! Dakpa niyo! Dakpa!” a kid shouted.

I turned around and saw the kid pointing at something on the grass. I followed the kids as they rushed toward their friend. There, on the ground, on its back, was a snake turtle, slightly smaller than the one we had caught earlier in the summer.

Tatay, the other kids, and I gathered around the turtle. The big kid slipped through, sat down, and picked it up. The turtle immediately retracted his long snake-like neck. He gave the can of fish to one of his companions.

Bantay ha,” tatay warned them. “Makagat kamo sina.”

Tagai bala ko sang stick,” said the kid.

One of his companions gave him a bamboo twig. The kid proceeded to aggravate the turtle, poking its snout with the twig. The turtle in turn snapped at the object. The huge kid continued teasing the turtle. Once, it firmly bit the twig, and he pulled it away, causing the turtle’s neck to extend.

Pabay-i niyo na lang na,” I said.

I don’t know if they heard me or they just chose to ignore me. Not contented, the kid once again pulled the turtle’s head and twisted it. I saw the life fade away from the eyes of the turtle.

I felt someone tap my head. It was Tatay. “Dali na, kuy,” he said. “Puli na ta.”

I still wanted to kick around the puddles, hoping I could still catch some fish. I followed him as he made his way toward the riverbank. I turned my head around in time to see the kid throw the turtle to the flooded river.

It was already dark when we reached the gate of Tatay’s farm. Two neighboring teens passed us by as they ran toward their homes. They were shirtless, dripping wet, illuminated by a motorcycle’s headlight. I saw that they were carrying fish impaled on a thick strand of nylon. It was the last time I saw someone carrying fish from the river.

I’ve never spent a whole summer in Polomolok after that, but over the years, on some weekends, we would visit the farm, and if time permitted, we’d go on a trip down the river. I was told that the poles were given to relatives living near the river, and in one of those trips, I saw that the poles were still around, stuck on the roof of their hut. I couldn’t help but wonder how many fish they had caught using those.

The envy? I no longer felt it. It was gone. Like the pond we used to fish years ago.

* * *

Naay nipaak!” I said while the waves of the sea gently crashed on my thighs. “Naay nipaak!” I could see the tip of our cheap carbon-fiber fishing rod bend against the weight of the fish.

Sige, sige,” my brother said. “Biraha lang pirmi.”

I spun the reel handle as fast as possible while constantly pulling on the rod. When I finally pulled it out of the water, a talakitok was hanging at the end of the line.

Paunsa ni tanggalon ang taga, Sean?” I asked my brother. The hook was completely stuck in the talakitok’s cheek.

Ambot. Wala ko kabalo.”

I began to twist the hook in all directions, but still it wouldn’t come off. It reminded me of the turtle my tito and I caught years ago. It kept me from trying hard enough. “Unsaon nato ni? Buy-an na lang nato ni?

Ayaw na oy. Nagadugo na man gani na iyang aping oh.”

It was either this fish or the memory of the turtle. One had to go.

I let my brother take a try at removing the hook. “Di man nako kaya, kuya,” he said after a while. “Ikaw na lang. Imoha bitaw nang dakop.”

So it was decided. The thought of the turtle had to go. I forcefully pushed the hook, which removed it from the talakitok’s cheek.

“Sorry, fish,” my brother said jokingly as I pulled the hook out of the fish’s mouth, “but a man’s gotta eat.”

I wrapped the fish at the bottom of my shirt and took it to our cottage, where the rest of my family were. There was no reason to show them my catch. Perhaps I just wanted them to envy me. As I grew up and came to know the world a little bit better, I understood that we were not any different from the snake turtle: we were also prone to bite things that weren’t for us.

We ate the talakitok for dinner, wasting none of it. We didn’t make the same mistake as before: to waste a creature’s life for nothing. After twelve years, the purpose of the turtle’s death was finally realized, and its thought lived on.

Two Travel Essays

By Apolinario B. Villalobos
Essay

 (Published in Beyond the Horizons, the author’s collection of poems and essays)

The Petrified Woman of Capiz

From history books, I came to know of mummies in Egypt. Then I learned of the mummies of Kabayan, even saw them at close range during one of my trips to Benguet. All of them were cured with specially prepared concoctions to enable them to withstand the decaying process of nature. But not the one I saw in Casanayan, a barrio in Pilar, Capiz.

Casanayan is two hours away from Roxas City, the capital of Capiz Province. I hied off there one day after overhearing at the city’s public market about a preserved body of a woman in the said barrio. I hired a car and a driver. Thelma, the great-granddaughter, was very hospitable. She even offered me something to eat before we proceeded to the “chapel,” a few steps from the house. It was a box-type concrete structure with a glass-covered chamber inside where stood the dried-up remains of Maria Basanes.

Thelma prayed. I prayed too. Then she lit a candle. I noticed thick candle drippings on one of the railings.

Thelma told me that people would pray in front of the encased remains of her great-grandmother to ask her soul’s intercession for favors. In doing this, a candle is lighted and a donation is left afterwards. The proceeds are used in buying the candles and whatever maintenance the “chapel” may need. I was so engrossed with Thelma’s narrative that I did not notice it was almost noontime. I asked Thelma if the body could be taken out of the cubicle so that I could take photographs of it. I thought of asking for help from the driver, who had opted to keep watch of the car. Thelma told me, however, that the body was not that heavy and she could carry it herself.

Indeed, the body weighed less than ten kilograms. Thelma and I positioned it facing the door, and she obliged to pose beside the body, holding a candle with one hand and holding an image of the Virgin Mary with the other hand.

After the photo session, I closely examined the remains and could hardly believe that the skin had remained preserved after such a long time. There was not any sign of ant bite, as should be the case. The hair was still intact, although stringy. All of these despite the fact that her body was not embalmed when Maria died on March 12, 1929. Thelma told me that her grandmother was buried immediately when she died, as was the practice that time.

Thelma also told me that her grandmother had been very religious and had devoted most of her time in prayers and helping others. She was looked up to as someone whom neighbors would approach in times of needs. It was because of these that they believed that finding Maria’s body well preserved after so many years was a miracle.

Word about the “miracle” spread fast. In no time at all, opportunistic and superstitious fishermen in the community took turns in desecrating the grave and stealing strips of skin from the dead woman’s forehead. The family was aghast to find this out, and in order to protect the body from further mutilation, they transferred it to their house and later on built a “chapel” for it.

All Souls’ Day, Thelma said, would find their yard teeming with people. They come either to pray or just see for themselves the much-talked-about “mummy.” The family would welcome them as long as they behaved accordingly. On my way back to Roxas City, I asked the driver why he did not join us. He told me that he was not used to looking at the remains of the dead. I said it was just the remains of a woman who died years ago. He did not seem to hear me. He was driving at top speed, obviously to get out of the barrio as fast as he could. It was to my advantage as I got to the airport just in time for my flight back to Manila.

 

Spelunking, Anyone?

The name of the sport sounds strange as a French dish. In fact, many local adventurers may not even have heard of the term, although it simply means “cave exploration.”

Unlike any other sports, spelunking is relatively inexpensive. All you squander is time, effort, and courage.

I have been exploring caves since I was in high school. We used to hike to the hinterlands in the barrios in our town searching for waterfalls. Most of the time, we would find caves behind waterfalls or sometimes at the foot of hills, reeking with guano. When we were lucky, we would chance upon real fascinating ones—small openings leading to cathedral-like chambers illuminated by sunrays coming from cracks and holes.

After a long respite from cave explorations, my interest was revived when I discovered this small cave in a remote barrio in . . .

There’s also this cave in Calbayog with neck-deep water that I explored with a guide whom I found out later to be an ex-convict. I was able to convince him that going inside would not do us harm since the water was clear. The instant camaraderie must have established confidence prompting him to confess he was once a thrill killer and a highway robber in his hometown. But it was his first time to get inside a cave.

Unknown to many, Aklan is not only popular for its Ati-Atihan Festival. It’s also a province of caves. One time, a friend and I were brought by our hosts to a town near Kalibo whose hills are pockmarked with caves. The cave system, which covers a wide area, is called Tigayon. In some of its chambers, Tigayon challenges the spelunker with its deep pools.

In Capiz, there’s a cave whose bowels spew cool spring water. Located at Dumalag, it is not too far from the capital town of Roxas. Inside, there’s a waist-deep pool and stalactites near the exit.

The cave in Dauis, Bohol, is an intriguing one. It is called Hinagdanan because, to get inside, you have to climb down a ladder through a small opening. This underground cave is illuminated by a big hole above the crystal-clear pool. It has just one chamber, and when your eyes become used to the dark, you’ll find that it is not eerie at all inside. Initially, the setting will make you imagine dancing fairies and elves.

The Callao Cave of Tuguegarao is so enormous that spelunkers who have been there use it as a gauge in sizing up other caves. It has a chapel in which Mass is held during the fiesta in honor of the town’s patron saint. It is on top of a limestone hill and could be reached after negotiating several hundred steps leading to the entrance.

In Basey, Samar, a town accessible from Tacloban by jeepney, is one of the most beautiful caves in the country. The locals call it Sohoton. It has a fantastic setting of lush vegetation teeming with birdlife. Multi-chambered, it is full of sparkling stalactites and stalagmites. On holy days, the old folk would venture inside to look for amulets.

Not to be outdone is Albay’s Hoyop-Hoyopan Cave. It has four entrances and four chambers interconnected by slippery trails. The cave was used as a sanctuary of the locals during the Second World War. It also became a venue of “benefit dances” during the early days of Martial Law when curfew was strictly observed.

Agusan del Norte has its Diwata Caves, so called because it is believed to be inhabited by fairies. As the chambers could be reached by the seawater during high tide, I presumed that the splashing water inside the caverns could have produced the frightening sounds that the locals associated with supernatural beings.

For a really thrilling cave exploration, I tried the Bathala Caves of Marinduque on a Holy Week. Bathala has several chambers, one of which is Python—my favorite. At the entrance are real pythons, coiled and unmindful of our intrusion. It is said that they are harmless, but woe to those who would hurt them. I was told that a drunk penitent who killed one python just for fun fell dead on his way back to the barrio. It was a heart attack. I do not know if his heart faltered due to remorse or he simply got the curse of the pythons.

There are caves near Manila that are just waiting to be explored. All that one has to do is take a jeepney to a barrio and presto, you have a cave gaping at you!

We did just that one leisurely weekend. There were twenty-three of us in the group, four of whom were girls. We went out of dusty Manila to explore a cave in Wawa, Montalban.

We were told that the cave was once used by retreating Japanese soldiers during the later part of the Second World War. To get there, we had to go up a hill. We were hoping at least to find some samurais and Japanese caps. But it was the stench of the guano that greeted us. As we stepped inside, we found our shoes submerged in bat waste about eight inches deep. Overhead, the disturbed bats screeched at us. Amid the dim, we made our way gingerly. A slip would mean a disastrous fall on the thick layer of guano.

Crawling through a three-foot tunnel that led to another chamber, some of us got scraped by stalactites. We were aiming for the “window” through which we could have a fantastic view of the river below.

After a dizzying stay of about an hour inside the cave, plus bruises on our knees and back and some badly smelling behind, we went down the mountain through a drenching rain. But we were all satisfied and were looking forward to more adventurous spelunking somewhere else, especially the mummy caves of the mountain provinces.

Cave exploration could be dangerous to the careless. The sport, therefore, teaches you to be careful. It develops your instincts and senses. Although the claustrophobic feeling inside caves tends to make you helplessly alone, it affords you the chance to exercise patience and determination.

Because of the challenges which the sport poses, I don’t think I’ll ever stop exploring caves. It is a good alternative to mountain climbing on rainy days. If it has a good therapeutic effect on me, why can’t it be for you? Caves, anyone?

Treasures for a Lifetime

By Niccah T. Carillo

(This essay is a finalist in the 1st Lagulad Prize.)

The darkness starts eating the whole place. It’s a sign that I should be at home. But unlike a normal teen, it’s a good thing for me. It’s my rest day from work, so I better savor moments when I’m still free, embrace the day like it’s the real freedom from struggles and problems, enjoy it as if there’ll be no more upcoming stressful days, and make the most out of its last, peaceful hours.

I am sitting on a bench here at the city plaza, silently observing people go by. It’s just another passing day for a teen to witness. There are kids eating ice cream, couples holding hands while walking, families sitting on other benches while eating street food, vendors encouraging people to buy, athletes stretching, boys skating, and girls talking about random topics.

If only I was luckier not to have the problem that my family is facing right now, maybe I can do the same stuff.

As I look at these people, I can’t help myself from reminiscing.

Far from where I am at now, the place where I was born seemed left out by progress, but I grew up a cheerful kid. I experienced some enjoyable “larong pinoy.” There are some memories I treasure dearly: playing as a mother at a young age because of “bahay-bahayan,” kissing solid ground and tasting rough sands because of “tumbang preso,” and arguing with playmates after losing in a game of “chinese garter.” I’ve been hurt because of playing tug-of-war. I’ve been cheated in a game of rock-paper-scissors. I’ve been scolded because of hitting a playmate while playing “shatong.” I cried over a candy stolen by another kid. I stumbled in “luksong-baka,” scarred my knees playing “patintero,” and got wounded because of playing hide-and-seek under the crescent moon’s light. How can I simply forget these childhood memories? Whether they gave me a smile or a frown, they’re all worth keeping.

Many moons have ascended, and I am now changed. I have come of age. I’ve witnessed and experienced myself “grow up.” After those childish acts, I became a teen. I can remember myself cutting classes, engaging in fights, and climbing the school’s walls (the so-called “third gate”) with other girls. Walls are easy compared to trees—I once fell and got a sprain because of climbing fruit trees with my classmate. I’ve also been chased by our school’s security guards for sneaking out. (I just wanted to buy snacks!) I was once marked absent because I was in the library taking a nap instead of attending classes. I got told to gather garbage because I was late for the flag ceremony. I got spanked by my older sister for swimming at the dam. (Obviously dangerous!) And the most unforgettable “teenage” memory? I used to be teased by my friends because of a crush on one of my classmates. I was also courted and had my own share of heartaches.

Thousands of babies are born every day with their futures unpredicted and unknown. Some wind up with rich families and are fed with golden spoons while some with the middle-class or poor families. Although mine is poor, I consider it the coolest. We have lots of debts, but we’re also full of care and love.  But it’s true that happy times start to fade when greater challenges occur. My family experiences a regular crisis, financially speaking. I spend holidays far from home because I choose to continue my studies as a working student. I used to cry under the fireworks hoping that my family are by my side during those merry times. I clean dirty kitchens and comfort rooms, but I still remain optimistic as the day ends, knowing that my hardship will bear fruit. I have been nagged and scolded by former employers, but I’m still full of hope, knowing that fortitude is the key to graduating and getting a stable and decent job.

At times, I would be envious of some teens who can buy stuff without shedding tears and sweat. I had also wished to have the same elegant and magical debut celebration as experienced by other girls turning eighteen. I also prayed to have the same time and life like other teens who can spend quality time with their parents and siblings. But wishful thinking aside, I’m still standing firm and aiming for a brighter future. I set those wishes aside because I know God has planned something greater for me.

With the setting of the sun, some lose hope. But as long as the sun rises in the east, I will remain resilient. I will still face the hard life full of determination and courage. Like a soldier of valor, I will patiently wait for another day when new hopes are visible. It’s telling me that I did a great job, that I can and I will. Like a newfound friend to encourage me to rise above the strong current, the strong waves of troubled waters, with the knowledge that one day, it will be calm.

From a beautiful and healthy child, I grew up into a whining grade school kid and became a fragile, naive teen. I’ve really changed a lot. With each birthday, I simply don’t have another digit added to my age. I also have spiritual and mental growth. Molded and shaped by my environment, I am happy for what and who I am now. I’ve been through many ups and downs, and I’ve frowned and cried many times, but I am still aiming for more treasures. Hopefully it’s a crown.

Soon I’ll reach the summit of success and I’ll be humbly victorious. In time, I’ll become a wise and mature young adult. I will be a good and strong parent and, eventually, be one of the respected oldies. I will grow as old as I can be.

A genuine smile forms on my lips. Again, I look at the people in the plaza. I am happy for them and for myself too. I am alone physically, but I am not without friends. I’ve found new ones even though from afar. How I wish I could do the same things without hindrances. But just like what they say, “Great things come to those who wait.” I pick my things, and I’m good to go. I have gathered enough treasures for this day. Some reminisced memories, life’s lessons, and self-motivational thoughts. Treasures for myself, treasures for a lifetime.

 

Ukay-ukay

By Angelo Serrano
Essay

I was not spending more than P300 for a single pair of pants, so the obvious solution was to get one, and maybe a couple more, from ukay-ukay.

Now let’s be honest. You probably won’t find any Supreme or Gucci brands there, but if you’re just looking for something to wear casually, ukay-ukay will definitely not disappoint. It all comes down to luck really.

Now I haven’t traveled much in my short life, so I don’t know how it is for other places, but in Polomolok, my hometown, ukay-ukay covers one whole street every Sunday. The stalls have jackets, shirts, underwear, jewelry of doubtful quality, watches, bags, and, as the signs often point out, they are all bag-o bukas or newly opened.

When I went there, a large makeshift tent was draped over the entire street to keep the sun from giving everyone skin cancer. As a downside, the tent created a gargantuan oven, slowly cooking everyone within and drawing out the aromatic scent of sweat. One opening of the oven sold Vanss caps, G-Stock watches, and Roots (I haven’t heard of them either) bags. The other end sold Adidas shoes with Nike logos and cheap rings and necklaces that had marijuana logos on them.

A single long trail was flanked by piles upon piles of clothes on both sides. A mountain of shirts here, a small hill of blouses there, and a valley of seksi shorts every few feet. Above these fascinating landforms were their prices, usually in bright colors. Almost always below a hundred.

Finally, I reached a whole section dedicated to pants.

Ali na!” shouted a man. “Pantalon! Bag-o abri!”

His pile had a 75 sign hanging above it, which was definitely a good deal for a good pair of pants. I dug and rummaged through the pants, along with several other people, first looking if the color was nice, then if the material was comfortable, then if the size fits me by using the neck trick. In case you didn’t know, if you can wrap the width of the waist of your pants around your neck, then the pants will fit. The process made sorting through the pants easy for me, but I didn’t find one that I wanted to buy.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a dark-blue pant leg. I reached for it, and it felt soft, fine, and new. I pulled on it to release it from its burial ground of unwanted jeans, and held it up in all its glory. It wasn’t worn-out. Not faded, nor tattered. Just my type. I did the neck trick, and it was only slightly larger than my size, which was fine because I am quite the eater. For P75, it was perfect. I knew at that moment that it was what I needed.

I have no idea why, but I reburied the perfect pair under a mountain of jeans. I took a mental note of every aspect of it, down to the square that was on its button. I guess, in my mind, I was thinking, “I’d find a better, cheaper pair.”

I left it there—alone and awaiting my return.

I wandered around a bit. A few more sales chants boomed from the mouths of sellers from their stalls.

Bagong abre! Pantalon! Maong! Slacks! Singkwenta na lang!”

I looked around in the pile. Nothing of interest.

“Oh! Pantalon pantalon pantalon! Palit na mo!”

I found one that would’ve been perfect but was simply too big for me.

Bag-o ni abri, ma’am, sir! Palit na mo!”

This pile had a pair that was just the right style. If only it wasn’t too small.

Honestly, a good portion of my time was spent wondering whether or not the pants were for men or women. Luckily, my brain eventually said “Does it really matter? As long as it fits, and looks good on you, right?” and saved me a few minutes.

Pantalon! Slacks! Singkwenta na lang, one hundred tulo!” shouted a lady.

Now, three for P100 was definitely a good deal, so I dug my way through this mountain along with several others, pulling at legs buried under other pants and trying them on my neck. I found three that fit well and were of notable quality, but they didn’t even come close to the first one I had fallen in love with. So I left them there and went back to buy the perfect pair.

I shouldn’t have left.

For a solid thirty minutes, I scavenged for the perfect pair. I pushed all the other pants away, causing the pile to constantly shift, as if it was dunes in a desert. I denied to myself the crushing reality that the perfect pair had been bought by someone else.

Eventually, I grew angry with myself for not buying it the moment I found it. I even started to whisper prayers as I looked for it in the pile.

I was sad. I couldn’t imagine not having it. I couldn’t accept the thought that someone else was bringing it home, that someone else was putting it on. If only I had not been so greedy. If only I had been satisfied with what I had been given. If only I had not gone looking at other pants that obviously were subpar compared to the perfect pair.

If only I had not let her go.

 

A Walk on the Ramp

By Mark Vincent M. Lao
Essay

The lights came flashing. It was my cue to walk on the ramp. I dared to join the beauty pageant because I had won two titles before. I believed that I had gone through so many challenges in my path and my experiences were enough for me to take home another title. But I was wrong.

The first time I joined was due to the exasperation of my ninth-grade classmate who was the president of our class that time. I was walking in the corridor and then up the stairs without any confidence. I went straight to our room. And there she was, her right hand placed on her worried face, which lightened up when she saw me. “Lao, ikaw na lang bi!” These were the words I remember all too well. “Ha?” I answered. “Sa ano?” She told me about the pageant and laid out the possibilities for me if I won. Only the positive ones. “Sige a,” I said. The answer was responsible for my fate in the next couple of years.

I won my first time. The pageant helped me gain confidence to stand and face people.

My second time was with the Special Program for the Employment of Students (SPES), but it didn’t happen right away. SPES is conducted every summer, and a part of the program is a province-wide beauty pageant. I first joined the program in 2015, and I had a chance that year to represent Tacurong, my home city, in the pageant. But I let the chance pass, thinking that things that come along always come along. The next year, I wanted to join the pageant more than anything, but I wasn’t the only one who wanted it. The opportunity was given to someone else. I didn’t let it pass; it passed me. It was only in 2017 when my dream became a reality. I was chosen. It must be the right time because my experience was fantastic. Everything went well, and I won the title—my second.

It took me a walk in the corridor and three summers to be a candidate in the annual beauty pageant of my school. A screening was held for interested high school students, and I didn’t pass up the opportunity or let it pass me. Not anymore. Others knew my burning passion and love for the ramp so well that no one went against me. I was chosen as the representative of the high school department, and I had to compete with college students. It was on cloud nine.

The practice for the production number was done in a hurry. We started just three or four days before the pageant. It was quite a challenge for me. But it was nothing compared to what I might win and gain. Every time I walk on the ramp, my dreams come true, even just for a minute. While hearing a lot of cheers and screams, my dreams come true.

I thought my experiences were enough for me to take home my third title. I was wrong. I was proclaimed first runner-up. My family, my friends, and the people who had been there for me from the start witnessed it. They were all surprised and wanted me to go back to the line at the back when I was called, saying I deserved to win.

But I was able to do what others could not in front of a crowd. I did the best I could. I won against myself. I won the hearts of people who believed in me. I did not lose. I might not have taken home a title, but I won. I won my third walk on the ramp.

The Confrontation

By Andrea D. Lim
Essay

I am enrolled in one of the private schools in General Santos City, a Protestant Chinese school in Barangay City Heights where more drivers and less parents send their children to school and pick them up when classes end. I contest to this generalization although I know it is true.

That is why I was not surprised with that frantic look my classmates and I shared when Ma’am Villa, our guidance counselor who I consider as my only true friend back in high school, announced to the graduating class a while ago that there will be a Father-Child Night next Saturday. We have dads who work seven days a week; even those who acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being still spend Sundays for money-making. If God can be placed in a lower rank He does not deserve in schedules and priority lists, how much more a daughter like me who is not able to inherit both Math and business skills of my father, an industrial engineer and a businessman?

Ma’am Villa gave us copies of the letter of invitation we have to hand to our dads ourselves. There’s no harm in trying, I assured myself. The next morning, I placed the letter beside the Bible Papa always reads every morning—the book he also used to propose to Mama—with a cup of coffee or tea at his side. I also told Mama nonchalantly that the event’s main objective is for our fathers to have an intimate moment before we graduate, knowing that momentous encounters with them seldom happen.

Mama knows how to listen to what my silence cannot help but say. I heard her reading the letter to my father thru the phone while I was studying in my room. She would make sure she called his office every afternoon so that Papa will remember the upcoming school event.

Final exams and requirements for graduating students made time seem quicker to pass by, and the next thing we know, it was already Saturday. I still have not heard from Papa if he can make it to the event or not. I am already fifteen, I reminded myself while preparing for the event. You should know by now that pain chooses no age. Get used to it.

And I was not alone in the struggle of begging for our father’s time. I forgot to observe the look of our teachers’ faces—the ones who helped in conceptualizing and organizing this event with objectives they feel strongly about—but not the statistics of attendees, specifically the fathers. Out of sixty-four dads who were expected to come to the school’s audiovisual room, only twenty-one came. Half of them were also late. Those students who have their fathers with them were sitting on the front chairs. The rest of the “fatherless” bunch like me were at the back.

It was not a pity party for us, though. We were not sure if numbness is also a feeling, but we were pretty sure Mano Po movies depicting the “Filipino-Chinese children’s plights” are overrated. We just mocked the whole event as too sentimental or imagined ourselves as parents of our future children. Will we also decide that our homes and businesses be established in one building? Will we impose Ephesians 6:1–3 all the time and not bother ourselves with Ephesians 6:4? Will we be able to identify more with the nature of a system where wealth comes from than our future children’s identities?

Papa came roughly ten minutes before the event ended. He was only able to attend the last part of the program titled as “The Confrontation.” An ample amount of time was allotted for the student and his or her father to find a spot anywhere around the campus where a deep talk can happen.

“I know the perfect spot where we can talk,” Papa whispered to me.

He chose a bench under the tallest tree in school: a pine tree that’s higher than the campus buildings painted in white. I called that tree as the heart of the campus on one of my diary entries last year.

“I’m sorry…”

These are the only words he said. I always view Papa as a man of few words that have always been not enough. I never thought it only takes two words for a warrior to remove an armor and look at crumbled walls as beautiful ruins.

He started to cry. That was the first time I saw him cry like a fifteen-year-old boy. I did too. There are still no words, even if the thing that has to happen is already happening.

After the closing prayer, we immediately went to the car and headed home. I sat in the backseat; front seats are for mothers who endure seeing their children receive tough love from their fathers. All I can do is watch him drive. Growing up, I was never sure if I own a forgiving heart. All I know is I carry a heavy one. But at that moment, I was certain I do, because all I can give to Papa is unconditional love all along.

Water and Glass

By Johanna Michelle Lim
Essay

Labindalawang kabayo,” my skylab driver assesses.

This was the value in livestock, the Tboli’s accepted currency, if he bought me as wife. I would be his sixth, the latest in a collection that he hopes will equal that of his father’s, who had thirty-nine.

As a joke, I demand the herd to be all white—pure, ethereal bodies that cross between dream and wake, the line of which dims with the fog surrounding Sbu, where a man could accumulate six life partners in the same time frame that I have accumulated none.

Walang problema!” he replies, and proceeds to tally every white stallion we pass in the next days.

Mark nudges to a concrete house where several studs are grazing in overgrown grass. A sign. The more horses a man has in his front yard, the more wives.

Pero sa linya ko, una ka na hindi tagadito,” he says in seriousness. A foreigner, and college graduate at that. More expensive than his other wives, whom he bought for only six horses, but well worth it.

Stumped, I ask him why.

Kasi puwede mo ako dalhin sa labas.”

*

A week ago, I choose Mark from the mass of motorcycle drivers in Seloton’s market. He boasts he is the favorite among foreigners.

Mark talks about the “outside” as if it might as well have been an alternate universe, a glass house to be broken into, even while it is a mere ride away.

All of what I describe to him of my every-days in Cebu—the coffee shops, grocery shopping, yoga sessions—seem like a drunkard’s rant. And whatever details that support them—the traffic, the lack of time, of sleep—I find myself exaggerating, describing a world bolder, or more chaotic, than what it actually is.

In the end, he clarifies, did everyone look like the characters from On The Wings of Love like you described, or prettier?

For him, the outside meant he didn’t have the load of fifteen mouths to feed. No sacks of rice to portion. No wives to rotate his weekends around. No squabbles to moderate among his constituents in Sitio Laodanay, Bakdulong.

Like his fellow skylab drivers, Mark entertains the notion of a foreigner whisking him away to the better side.

*

Mark has hazel brown eyes speckled with gold, and framed with the blackest of lashes that stand out from his bearded face. Between us, he looks like the foreign one. A full Tboli.

I make the mistake of telling him how striking they are. Deep-set and defined. Enough to draw a woman’s envy. It was a flippant comment. An accidental flirtation.

“Alam n’yo ba ano’ng ibig sabihin ng skylab?” Mark asks with a voice that has teased and taunted since then.

What?I answer as we approach a waterfront bungalow in wooden stilts. The element in the lake, the same Dwata that shows herself in a weaver’s dream, has already taken me.

I cup a water lily in my palm, purposely detaching, half listening. But Mark insists on delivering the punchline.

Skylab. Short for sakay na, lab.”

*

The motorcycle is Mark’s steed, and stage.

He sings every chance he gets, timing the highs and lows of his lines to match the Cotabato landscape. He sings to congratulate himself for conquering an incline in Traan Kini Springs. He sings when we pass through the rice fields of Hasiman, his baritone cutting through the strain of cicadas carried by wind.

Iyan, Tboli ‘yan.” Mark points a man going out of a general merchandise store. And him, and him.

The full breeds, and half-breeds. The ones from datu ancestry, and the nouveau riche. He lets go of the accelerator in order to point out to them.

He corrects my pronunciation of his tribe’s name as if to not know is a rub on their status as minority. Tboli, he repeats, is said with a soft roll on the second syllable.

How powerful it would be, I prod, to have his voice as medium for a chant, an oral story of mountain and light. Sometimes I catch myself wanting Mark to fulfill the caricature of the Tboli in my mind. The one I came to South Cotabato for, to find whatever answer lies in their simplicity.

Is that what he is afraid of? His Tboli identity oversimplified, or used as entertainment? My inquiries to him come out as judgment. He lets it go by singing the first lines of Journey’s “Faithfully.”

*

We make a game out of spotting full-blooded Tboli, his guesses strategic, mine trivial, relying on the color of skin, the only common denominator I spot in all his targets.

Iyan Ilonggo.” He points to a chink-eyed, fair man just off the sidewalk.

The Ilonggos are overtaking Sbu, he says with a grimace. The population is now seventy residents for every thirty immigrants. The rich Ilonggos open stores, and buy land in Poblacion. They bring with them skinny jeans, batchoy, and a dangerous dilution to a people that have too many issues with modernization as is. Adding a different culture, religion, and language to the mix seems like a step closer to extinction.

Mark shrugs it off though. They have also brought with them his prized videoke set. P5 a song. P5 for temporary release.

His magnum opus, “Kahit Isang Saglit,” becomes the soundtrack to tilapia and Tanduay meals. It will be his winning number in Tawag ng Tanghalan, the record of his escape, one that will take him out of this place if his wheels cannot.

Tagalog, a language we both do not own, is the language we slip into as common ground to each other’s novelty. It is new land. With it, we are both outsiders.

“Kahit sandali/Kahit isang saglit/Mayakap ka . . .” he sings at Aguilar’s, a restaurant specializing in—what else—tilapia, for what seemed like the twentieth time. The owner lets him be. He is good for business.

He takes my hand as he holds on to the last line. I don’t have the heart to tell him his masterpiece reminds me not of romance but of funerals.

*

What I want to tell Mark is that I understand his urgency, the need to be anywhere other than there. Away. Away from the pressures of carrying a whole people’s identity. It is this sentiment that landed me in Sbu in the first place.

There is a certain kind of tourist that comes to these parts. They thrive on the underdeveloped, hoping the place remains in a standstill like carefully preserved specimen.

This is the part of the narrative I guiltily leave out. Whereas Mark longs for escape, his cage is built by the economic enablement of tourists like myself who push him back, and make him stay.

Ancestry. Lineage. Obligation. Such impediments. He seems to hate it all.

The Border Express

By Mikhael M. Labrador
Essay

The train parked at the Aranyaphratet station looked more like a novelty. I was curious to see how it would run. The exterior was dignified, the paint on it polished, but it was one of those old trains, quite unlike the ones I had been on before. I must say that, aside from practical considerations, this was the reason why I wanted to go on it. With my girlfriend, Rose, I had just visited Vietnam and Cambodia and was bound for Thailand to complete the last leg of our itinerary. To save $10 or about P500 each on fare money, we decided to take the train from the border town of Aranyaprathet to the country’s capital of Bangkok. I had learned about it beforehand as part of my research for our trip. I was glad to know that Rose was up for it as well, perhaps more so than myself. She too romanticized the notion of a long, albeit arduous, travel by train.

A handful of people were already in line when we arrived, but the ticket booth was still closed. Before falling in line ourselves, we decided to have a quick lunch outside the station, at what would be the Thai equivalent of the Filipino karinderya. The food was more than enough to make us hopeful for the rest of our trip. When we returned inside the terminal, the line had grown by just about a few more people, us included. Locals made up most of it. Some of them were monks in their traditional orange garb. There were a few other tourists, and a hardy looking bunch we made. I wondered if we shared the same reasons for being there.

The low number of people made boarding smooth, and we got settled in no time. Not long after, I felt the engine come alive, and without a whistle, a bell, or some sort of signal that I had expected, the train chugged away slow and sturdy. “Larga na ta,” I told Rose. “Unsa na oras?” she asked. I checked the time and answered her. We were reasonably within schedule. “Piktyuri ko bi,” I sheepishly requested. Rose took a picture of me holding up my ticket, and upon reviewing what she had taken, she quipped, “Daw missing person ka.” We both laughed at my picture and took a few more before surrendering our attentions to the view outside our window.

The train had not gotten far yet, and I was just starting my slow drift into reflection and daydream as I looked outside. I watched as the sights unravelled before me. Green fields that stretched out for kilometers in every direction accounted for most of it. It was rice country. Much of my childhood was set in a similar backdrop, so the landscape and the frames of life in it felt familiar but beautiful all the same. Here and there, Buddhist temples, rural Thai architecture, and local presence served as quaint reminders to me of where I was. All of which happily broke my nostalgic state. Taking a break from her own private thoughts, Rose roused me for a conversation. “Ma-remind ko sa katong ‘Town of Cats’ ni Murakami,” she said. No doubt because of the train part in that story. The one that we were on rumbled from the rushing wind, but Rose’s enthusiasm pierced through as we talked about the story and other things for a while. Soon, our topic drifted to our current endeavor. Kiddingly I told her, “Kabayo na lang kuwang, kumpleto na ta para sa biyahe nga ni. Nag-plane na ta, bus, motor, barko, bike, ug train na pud ron.” She told me how excited she’d been about this part of our journey. Our window gazing resumed. We were sitting in front of each other, looking out from opposite directions. On my side, Cambodia gradually became farther, while on hers, Bangkok drew closer.

Every now and then the train would stop at minor stations along the way. For the first few, it seemed like no one hopped off, or at least nobody from our section. The train was well on its way. The engine, I imagined, was hot and its gears were nimble in their movements. We picked up speed as we moved further into the interior of the country, and the distance between the terminals became farther, or so it felt. Up to that point, we had not shared our seats with anyone, and there were plenty of vacant ones left. Eventually, the train filled up with people. I looked out for the food vendors I had read about and seen in videos during my research for our trip. No luck just yet. I wasn’t hungry anyway. During one of the stops—and I can’t, for the life of me, remember which one as there were so many—a man came over to where I was and proceeded to put his belongings in the overhead compartment above us. I scooted inside my seat to make room for him. Just then, he handed me his water bottle and what I could only describe as a towel rolled into a log. I was not familiar with the general etiquette of train riding, so this act caught me by surprise. I received his things, still somewhat bashful towards what was happening, but the man had a cordial way about him that made it easy for me to oblige. He had a fixed smile on his face that I was quick to return.

I looked over at Rose, and she too was smiling, amused by what was happening. The man asked for his things back from me. He placed the towel last along with his luggage and kept his water bottle in hand. As expected, he sat beside me. He held his thumb up at my direction and said, “OK!” He made the same gesture to Rose, and we both nodded back at him. Like any agreeable tourist, I welcomed any chance for interaction with the locals, so I decided to start a conversation with my new seatmate. Bangkok was still hours away after all, and it would help to pass the time. But it did not take long before I learned that his English vocabulary was limited to “OK” and “Where you from?” I could not hold it against him, being aware of my own shortcoming for not knowing his language. I told him that we were from the Philippines, to which he replied, “Ohhh, Philippines!” The conversation that would follow seemed hopeless. In my head I wished for him to utter “Manny Pacquiao,” like they did in Cambodia when I told them where we were from. That would have bought us a good few more seconds. Unfortunately, this never happened, and if he had dropped the whole thing right then, I would not have objected. But he was friendly to a fault. He had an earnest look on his face as he somewhat expected for the conversation to continue. The discussion became a rough version of sign language. Lucky for me, my landlord of eight years is legally deaf, and I had practice with this sort of exchange. It was all small talk and formalities, but each sentence was hard-fought. Rose also held her own, and I was convinced that she was enjoying herself. Clearly she too had had some practice. She certainly made good use of our makeshift interactions with the other locals over our past few weeks abroad.

There was a brief intermission that followed our initial chitchat. Sometime within the pause, my seatmate stood up, reached for his belongings, and took out what I had perceived earlier to be a rolled-up towel. He hung it up on his sleeves and looked like someone who was about to take a bath. Looking at my direction, he pointed his finger to his chest and uttered, “Islam.” The inside of the train being noisy, and my attention not yet complete, I responded by stating my name. I thought he had introduced himself at last, so I proceeded by doing the same thing. He swayed his head in disagreement and reiterated himself: “Islam.” I did not bother to respond any further realizing the blunder of my first one. Instead, I put on an awkward smile to affirm my understanding. He went to the back of our car and stopped at one of the few empty seats left. He covered its surface with his sheets and knelt down on it. It was a time of the day for him to pray. I caught Rose chuckling away at my mistake. “Religion na diay imong pangalan,” she teased me. I stated my excuse, laughing at my own slip. “Grabe, may religion siya nga iyaha ba!” Rose egged on. I waited for the man to come back and to try and correct myself. But by the time he did, I saw no point to it anymore and just made room for him just as I had done previously. When he was getting ready to sit back down, he told me for the last time and for safe measure: “Islam.” I nodded back at him as Rose kept a cheeky grin.

I called my seatmate’s attention to ask him about his tattoos, which he had a few of spread throughout his arms and some on his face and neck. They looked rustic and were not immediately noticeable. We dove right back into the same way that we had been carrying out our previous conversations. In his efforts to explain, he fixed his hands together like someone holding a hammer and chisel. I knew that in the context of our conversation, he was referring to the manner in which his tattoos were made—the old way—a painful process that was proven by his facial expression as he described it to me. He also tried to explain the meaning of each one, but I was not sure if I had translated it correctly in my head. I understood enough that they were all imposed on him by ritual. He looked proud of his markings, and he showed them off like they were trophies or medals. At one point, he directed my focus to a specific location below his pelvic regions. Next, he put two fingers together to mimic the needles that were used, went back to a hammer-and-chisel motion, and put on what was the grimmest face I’d seen him make. Apparently, and perhaps the information could have been spared from me, he also had a tattoo somewhere in the genital area. Needless to say, that was one mark he didn’t bother to show, but it made for an entertaining topic nonetheless.

A couple of times or more, I snuck out to the back and had a cigarette or two. I peeked, with half of my body hanging from the side of the train, to catch a windy glimpse of the places we passed by. In one case, I just stood there looking at the draw bars that linked our section to the next one, and I watched as the clamps pushed and pulled on each other, locked in their hypnotic dance.

My girlfriend stayed in her seat and had succumbed to napping. It was late afternoon when she woke up, just in time for us to buy snacks from the food vendors that had already been making their rounds by then. We bought a light starchy snack that helped to elevate our moods. The lady that was sitting across from us offered us some of her food, which we timidly declined. However, to return the courtesy, we gave her and my seatmate some dried lotus seeds that we had brought with us from Cambodia. It was eventually passed around to the other commuters within close proximity. It was great how food spoke for us in our attempts at being friendly. It added to the peacefulness in the late afternoon ambience.

Everybody inside the train had assumed a more relaxed state. The images outside looked more delicate. Large water birds glided in the cooler breeze, and the colour of everything softened under the semi-shade. I shifted my focus to the opposite side of where we were, and I noticed a beautiful sunset had taken shape. I called for Rose to take a look, but she had already been doing so. She pulled out her camera and hurriedly took some pictures hoping not to miss the opportunity. I also took a few myself. However, upon examining the pictures we had taken, it was made clear to us how much they failed to capture what was before our eyes. We stowed back the camera and instead just enjoyed the scenery. “Nindot no? Murag best sunset ko ni so far,” Rose gushed. There was no need for me to add to her already apt description, so I remained silent. People’s attentions gravitated toward the spectacle, locals and us foreigners alike. Little children pointed to it with glee, which only made the draw even more irresistible. It was a welcomed while before the lovely ball of orange in the sky disappeared into the horizon. After which, the train lights came on, and it was finally evening. The hour indicated that we were way past our halfway mark, and our journey continued with no delays.

The stops that followed took on a different vibe, and the distance between each one became shorter once again. The stations looked more up to date and busier. The closer we got to the city, the more the English translations became present at every sign. The exchange of passengers also became more hectic. People left, and even more boarded to take their place. We hit our first highway after hours of nothing but farmlands. Not very far in the distance lay the illuminated facade of a metropolis. I checked the time again as Rose showed me our Google map location on her phone. My seatmate, figuring out what we were doing, held his hand up, pinching together his thumb and pinkie finger. I knew he meant to say that we were close. I imitated his actions to let him know that I understood. It did not take long before the view from outside our window had drastically changed as we passed by sections of the city, one neighborhood after another.

Some houses were so close to the railway that I caught faint smells of incense and overheard muffled conversations in Thai. We often had to stop to make way for traffic on the road and for other trains that were either going in our direction or against. “Mura pud og Pilipinas,” Rose mutters. I agreed, but as we observed further, the differences were far too many and far too distinct that our first impressions were quickly overridden. We were both in agreement when it came to this and with our wide-eyed demeanor for simply being there. Rose’s face lit up as we reviewed our plans for the coming week. In that moment, we became oblivious to our tiredness. All we knew was that we had practically arrived in Bangkok, and our legs, numb as they were from hours of sitting, were ready to wander.

The sign said hua lamphong station, and a dark, abysmal tunnel was our entrance to it. We passed by a glass elevator that gave us a good idea of just how far down it went. The last few nudges toward our final stop were slow. My excitement verged on impatience, enough for me to stick my head out of the window to try and investigate the delay. Rose urged me to settle down and to get our bags. I stood up to take our luggage down from the overhead compartment. My seatmate already carried his own on his lap, as was the case with everyone else around us. The train went inside and down the tunnel only to emerge back up and out of the other end. We had stopped for good, and everybody hopped off. There was a long walk between us and the exit. Rose and I followed the crowd of people that headed for it. The inside of the terminal was grand. There were old and modern models of trains that juxtaposed each other as they parked in their individual lanes. I figured that my seatmate went ahead until we saw him waiting for us by the gates. He kindly gave us directions to the taxi pickup area, but we had plans to take the metro bus instead. We made our way out together and said our goodbyes before we parted ways.

Outside Hua Lamphong, the evening made for a quieter scene. But in the morning, and I was sure of this, people would come once more as they always had, and the train would run again; whether heading back or moving forward is all up to perspective. The old train, the one I made out to be a heap, would always be loyal to its tracks for however long it could be made to endure. As we moved on into the city and toward the bright lights where other unknown things awaited us, I thought how good a metaphor that was for all of our boneheaded adventures.

Riding a Tricycle

By Noel Pingoy
Essay

Ten years ago

Sometimes the very things that we loathe strengthen the life in us. As with most of my patients, loss, crisis, and even conflict goad the will to live in ways that are previously deemed unthinkable. People who used to think they aren’t good enough may even astonish themselves with random acts of benevolence and audacity. When it happens, people grow bigger than the impediments that box them, surprisingly too large enough to liberate them from issues that constantly nag and haunt, and consequently live beyond these limitations.

I learned a lot of lessons when I decided to become a commuter six months ago as part of austere lifestyle changes that I believed would define a simple life. In May I gave up my cable TV subscription. A few weeks later I had my DSL disconnected after reaching the minimum period of subscription. Would I say that my life had been more difficult, less exciting, even boring? Au contraire il est difficile de concevoir quelque chose de plus satisfaisant. Instead of spending countless hours in front of the idiot box munching insalubrious junk that augments avoirdupois as much as it encourages ennui, I buried myself in pages of printed wisdom, sweated a little of the excess pounds in the gym, or simply allowed my OC self more hours of sleep and rest that I initially thought were outrageous. I also brushed up on my French, which I had forgotten while attempting to build up the fortitude to remember that the u in gozaimasu and desu is usually not voiced (rather unsuccessfully but I ain’t giving up anyway). The amount that I used to spend for cable TV and internet surfing are instead diverted to the funds of the family council, thus giving some measure to the things that could be easily given up in favor of certain meaningful pursuits that shape and strengthen relationships.

But nothing has taught me more about the wholeness of life than taking the public transport daily to and from work. I am probably the only doctor in General Santos City who is fully dependent on tricycles and habal-habal (motorcycles that ply certain routes in the city, often using the back roads to elude the LTO cops) as I move from one hospital to another. When my driver left without notice at the start of the year, I relied on my brother who lives just a few meters away for my daily rounds until he had to beg off to attend to more pressing concerns. However things are perceived now, I will always remember with deep appreciation and fondness the times together. Since I don’t drive a car, I planned of getting a motorcycle myself to which most of the family and friends disapproved considering the incidence of accidents involving two-wheels in the city. Too unsafe, some said.

It was difficult at first, but in time I discovered what matters and the value of a spartan life. In due time the daily tricycle rides to work became my prayer-in-motion, even a sanctuary from everything that is not genuine in me and in the culture that I grew up to. Where was it written that doctors should drive the latest car models? That doctors who take public transport are kawawa or katawa-tawa? But some people I know believe that to be so. Sitting in a cramped sidecar, stooping so low that I fear my chin would brush my knees anytime the tricycle navigates a hump, I was simply Noel, neither the hematologist nor the medical oncologist, far from the image I have learned to imagine about myself. Inside that vehicle, I often start my day taking my masks off and let go of my self-expectations (even self-importance). Some people I know have dismissed this as something that I don’t have another choice anyway, and it’s true initially. But later I realized that however one goes to work does not really matter at all. I grew up in a society where image and extensions of it in the form of material possessions are valued highly. Sometimes over relationships. People struggle for self-sufficiency, abundance, or mastery and, in holding close these qualities, become blinkered to deeper human truths like humility, respect, and compassion, even contemptuous of anything in themselves and in other people.

This capacity to suffer and accept weakness is a virtue that I have long struggled to overcome. Acknowledging my vulnerability allowed me to connect to other people who too embrace their own vulnerabilities. When I stop pretending to be strong and independent, I draw out the instinctive kindness in other people. By showing this soft side, people tend to be more helpful, more generous, and even more appreciative of what they have. Simple endorphin rush! They feel good about themselves in a noble, unselfish way just being able to hold on a door for someone to pass through it. I live in a village that’s a bit far from the city, so I try to avoid staying out late. Looking back at those six months, I realized how dear friends are, colleagues who are otherwise tired from their busy practice but take the extra pains to bring me home and see me step into the gate safely. In medicine, it is often taught that part of being a professional is to allow for some space, even distance, to be objective. I learned from my colleagues one truth: to truly serve others, one must do it not only with the hands and eyes but with the heart and soul as well.

There is more to learn from life’s precarious edges than being in the safe comfortable middle. Taking the public transport for the past six months has definitely shuffled my belief systems like a deck of cards. While others might see this as something sad or pathetic, there is much wisdom about a card that had been at the bottom of the deck for most of my conscious adult life suddenly turning up the top card, the one that really mattered at the end of the day. My patients with cancer, and now the tricycle and habal-habal drivers, have enriched my life with their example: that no matter how carefully they sort their cards and repeatedly shift through their hands in the presence of death or material inadequacies, the top card is rarely possession or superiority or control. Some people call it respect or goodwill. Doctors who honor the Hippocratic Oath call it harmlessness. Others view theirs as integrity. I call mine love.