Fear Takes a Back Seat

By Ma. Isabelle Alessandra M. Mirabueno

(This essay is a finalist in the 2nd Lagulad Prize.)

How far do the lives of Mindanaoan civilians lie outside of over-exaggerated social stereotypes? Growing up in General Santos City, I would travel beyond the city perimeters and witness how, in reality, this really depends on where people lie on the broad spectrum of economic status and security. In my case, there’s a fortunate scarcity of bullet shells and bomb explosions. Of course, the life of a resident in Mindanao isn’t complete without getting used to the rumors of bomb threats going around every few months and the red alerts here and there. How we are able to live with these so-called norms—a sad observation—speaks that we all have our own stories to tell, some more tragic or peculiar than others.

I still remember it, clear as day. It was a normal school day in the year 2015, the year when the move to formally approve and implement the draft of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) was under heavy political debate. I recall the confusion and curiosity when all of the ongoing classes were put on hold and the entire junior high school population was abruptly called for an assembly in the covered court. My schoolmates and I figured that it would be some kind of drill or important school announcement, but then the introductions commenced and we found out that we were all called out for an orientation and seminar of sorts to be conducted by several representatives of a pro-BBL organization.

I was an eighth grader, but I was already aware of how controversial and sensitive the issue was at the time. Due to this, I was impressed by the school administrators’ open-mindedness when they agreed to hold the event, especially since we were in a typical “conservative Catholic institution.” The speakers were really competent in what they were doing since they managed to sway and gain the approval of the majority of the students inside the court. They managed to explain and explore in simple terms the details of the then-proposal in a way that did not, by some miracle, drive us restless teenagers to boredom. It was a rare sight; the high school students were intently listening, and many were actually participating by asking questions, driven by their curiosity.

Wala naman akong nakikita na masamang madadala o resulta ng batas na ito. Bakit hindi pa ito ipinapatupad?” (I don’t see any disadvantages that may result from this law, so why is the government hesitating to approve and implement it?) was the innocent query of a tenth grader to the speaker. The speakers obviously failed to touch the area of possible disadvantages that the law would bring. I hid a smile because I knew it just wasn’t that simple. It would never be that simple. The entire beginning process would be far from the utopia that the speakers painted inside our heads. The speaker responded in a lengthy and passionate lecture that supported the student’s inquiry. It was all noteworthy, and the teachers were nodding in approval; however, I was taken aback by one line that stuck with me, one that until now would still occasionally reverberate inside my mind.

Kung hindi maipapatupad ang batas na ito, gusto ni’yo ba na magkagulo na rin dito sa Gensan? Lalo na ang BIFF, hindi yan sila papayag. Barilan, mga patayan. Isipin ni’yo na itong malaking covered court ninyo, maaaring mapuno ito ng mga biktima na nawalan ng bahay at pamilya galing sa pag-atake ng BIFF” (If the law is not approved, do you want Gensan to become a war zone? Especially the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, they will not respond well to rejection. Gunfights, bloodshed. Imagine this spacious covered court of yours being turned into a makeshift evacuation center for victims who lost their homes and families from BIFF attacks) was what the speaker said with finality. I remember the shift of my relaxed attention toward the spokesman into one of surprise and disbelief. Was that an indirect threat? I remember asking myself. Honestly, I might have been overreacting, but it definitely felt like one.

We walked back to our classrooms after the seminar, and I kept wondering how the speakers were able to get away with literally using fear and imageries of inevitable doom in their speech to further convince the students—students who were all minors and easily influenced no less. Not that it was anything new; we were all used to the possibilities of terrorist attacks that could happen any minute upon the slightest fluctuation on the quality of security. I took a look around my classmates, and I could see that I was not the only one who felt uneasy because of that statement. Even if you try looking at it in different angles, it just didn’t feel right. It wasn’t right.

The infamous generations-long conflict in Mindanao all affected us one way or another, and I consider myself one of the lucky ones. As I sat down back in my seat, I was left reflecting how, as a child several years before, every news story was like some sort of morbid fairy tale that happened outside of the safe, sheltered bubble that I lived in. Reality hit me at some point of course, and it was when a member of my family faced a risk due to his commitment to his occupation.

My father is a specialized surgeon, one of the few in his field in Mindanao. This is why while growing up, I was used to my father going out for emergency operations at even the most ungodly hours. However, one case stood out. It happened on an otherwise normal evening. My father drove us home earlier in the night than usual after a family gathering and, after a series of phone calls, proceeded to prepare to leave. I didn’t bother to ask at first because I thought it was just one of his late-night scheduled operations. It was almost midnight when my phone buzzed with a notification that lit up the screen. It was from a new text message. I got up groggily and wondered who in the world would send me a text that late in the night. I opened the text and found out that it was sent by an aunt. A few moments later my sleepy disposition slowly faded when the words slowly sank in: Please pray for the safety of your father. He was sent for an emergency operation in Cotabato City. He is accompanied by several armored vehicles with armed military escorts to ensure his safe journey.

It turned out that my father left in a hurry because a teenage child of a co-doctor who was residing in Cotabato took a bullet to the head. The situation was a matter of life and death; every minute and second wasted could possibly tip the scale, and the only doctor who specialized in that field was more than a hundred kilometers away. It did not help that during those years, it certainly wasn’t the most ideal time to travel by land all the way to Cotabato. The local news was abuzz with another wave of discord that was washing over Mindanao. It all seemed as though it belonged to a tragically intense scene in the movies or one of those dramatic medical documentaries. Only this time, it was not as exciting or thrilling as it would have been on the big screen.

What can I say? I was eleven, and my hyperactive imagination mixed in with my fear was already making up a thousand different scenarios a mile a minute, each one wilder and more outrageous than the previous. All of the years’ worth of news flashes and stories of bloody massacres that frequently occurred north of my city, unfortunate victims who were robbed and brutally dismembered, the terrorist groups who mercilessly unleashed gunfire that rained on and pierced the air—they were all running through my memory. What if his convoy gets ambushed? It’s the dead of night, it wouldn’t be difficult for them to erase all their traces and take cover. What if his escorts fail to protect him and he gets kidnapped? What if he gets caught in a crossfire in the middle of the procedure? What if terrorists suddenly attack the city? What if fate chooses this as the perfect moment for a bomb to go off the minute he sets foot in Cotabato?

Looking back, it all sounds like the ramblings of a person going through a severe case of paranoia, but it was at that brief period that reality finally sank in. Each story and news article was real; they all happened, and thousands of casualties, regardless of race or religion, had to suffer in all those decades, and it was very possible that my father could have been one of them if the circumstances aligned. I tried to push all those thoughts away along with my unease just so I could get all the few hours of sleep I had left before dawn, hoping that I’d wake up and welcome my father tired from his journey but otherwise safe and sound.

Until now I’m still grateful that he did. He was obviously exhausted and sleep-deprived, but he arrived safely back home around just a little after dawn. I remember laughing, partly due to relief. My father is never one to let fear take over situations; he actually enjoyed the whole affair, as could be seen in how he was radiating with the gleeful energy of a schoolboy who had defied his curfew and gone gallivanting around the city with his friends. As if he wasn’t a middle-aged man late in his forties who had just conducted an intricate operation across the island that took long enough to rob him of the slightest wink of sleep, he recounted the whole experience with enough excitement that he was able to muster. He described it as an “adventure.” He told me that he felt like he was in some action movie. I guess being surrounded by military escorts in the middle of an armed convoy en route to dangerous territory as if you’re in the middle of some top secret mission may have been as thrilling as it sounds.

Needless to say, the teenager survived. My father’s exposure to risk to his life and safety proved to be worth it in the end. This experience was one of the first few nicks that formed the major cracks on my naive perspective of a peaceful reality. That experience paved way for other small actions fueled by my defiance to terrorism-induced fears, a mind-set that I picked up from other residents of Gensan. Yes, from the outsider’s perspective, it might sound like the perfect reckless—not to mention stupid—way to get yourself killed in an “untimely” explosion or assault, but it’s either we let fear control us or we take risks to do what needs to be done.

Recently, after the events of the Marawi siege, Gensan received information that members of the same group who led the assault had managed to infiltrate the city, and news of an impending attack being planned behind the scenes was spread around in the form of text messages and formal announcements. The red alert meant that security would be rigid and would stay rigid for weeks on end, the military would roam around the city in their armed jeeps, and the city would be under a lockdown of sorts. Our classes were once again put to a stop in the middle of the afternoon, and we were all urged by the head of discipline to call our fetchers and head home immediately—no detours. We should all stay in our houses until the threat subsided.

We were told during the emergency announcement that we students were especially at risk if we continued to stay inside the school grounds since we were part of the large population under the well-known Catholic institution. This was also the same week when my research group stubbornly ventured to conduct our experiment in the laboratories at the main campus of the university, a location with higher chances of getting attacked. I can still recall the words of the college student who assisted us when I told her how I noticed that a lot of the students were risking their safety because they chose to stay to do their work in the university. She simply scoffed and told me, “Bahala sila diyan eh kung mag-atake sila. Wa mi labot. Tingnan natin” (We don’t care if they attack us. Let’s see how they’ll fare). It was a perfect example of dauntlessness that was simultaneously admirable and absurd and could have only been formed in an environment similar to that of Mindanao.

I did not encounter any tragic or heart-wrenching experience brought by the unceasing conflicts that would leave any reader emotional, but like I said, we were all affected in matters big or small, and through it all, I saw that more generations will continue to be affected if ever things fail to change. Maybe the stereotypes of an island plagued with violence and bloodshed aren’t completely exaggerated, or maybe they are for those who are privileged enough. I’m young, and I still lack adequate experience; I may talk brazenly in the face of danger, but eventually, I’ll realize that there are some things that are not worth risking my life for. This is my story, merely a novelette out of the countless who already have full-length volumes in their memories. However, after recounting my experiences, I realize that despite all the diversity, there is one thing you’d find common in most of us—fear does not and will not run our lives.


The War inside My Head

By Virgilio R. Nabua III

(This essay is a finalist in the 2nd Lagulad Prize.)

We forget most of the memories from our toddlerhood. It’s up to people who were there with us to share little pieces of our lives when we still sought our mother’s breast for us to sleep. Growing up, I heard a lot of stories from my relatives and neighbors about how mischievous I was—how I always cried when my mother wouldn’t let me eat fresh bananas, how one time I slipped on the floor and almost cracked my head open, and how I spent almost a week in the hospital, making my parents worry about the bill.

Of all the stories people told about me, the most significant one yet was this: when I was one year old and we were living in Kiamba, my mother, our old babysitter, and I hid in the basement of our old house because of the gunshots heard around our barangay. Later, I learned that our area was actually a route for rebels to move to some other camp.

I was eavesdropping on my mother and my old babysitter when they reminisced this shared haunting experience. Even after I heard about it, I never really spent exhaustive thoughts on it. But now, with the recent conflicts here in Mindanao, I remember the retelling of that specific but vague excerpt from my childhood, and I think about it a lot.

It was on the 23rd of May, summer of ’17, after my family had moved to Glan, when I woke up to my mom and our neighbors’ muffled gossip. As I adjusted to the noise, I heard them talk about the Marawi citizens and their encounter with terrorists.

Even though our house is on an elevated area, we still have no access to the internet. I still have to walk down to the foot of the hill to at least get a glimpse of what is truly happening outside Glan. Because I live in a generation where everyone is right and Facebook likes are the measurement of self-worth and value, every article I saw was blurry or straight up false statements, each article different from the others. Confused and disappointed, I went home still anxious. I waited for the daily evening news, and as expected, the headlines were almost about the war in Marawi.

I found out that the government forces clashed with the Maute and the Abu Sayyaf. With growing fear crawling through my veins, I tried to imagine the worst. But I couldn’t even begin to imagine the possibility of me being held captive. I couldn’t help to be scared, probably because I was still processing the fact that an actual war was happening in a nearby place, on the same land I was standing on.

The next morning, I received bad news: First, SarBay was canceled, and second, martial law was declared. Due to the recent encounter in Marawi, the Sarangani Bay Festival organizing committee decided that it was unsafe for people to travel to my hometown. Furthermore, adding to a list of negative consequences due to the war in Marawi, Duterte declared martial law all over Mindanao, which caused a lot of commotion in social media.

People brought back the Marcos regime and how it affected the country afterward. I made it my obligation to educate myself by searching archives and articles about Martial Law, back when Marcos was still the president. I remembered reading an article once about a human rights worker who was arrested in Davao and was sexually abused and now suffers post-traumatic stress syndrome and paranoia from her ordeal. With these threats possibly coming back to Mindanao, a lot of activists and human rights advocates were enraged by the decision of the present president.

Days after the war in Marawi started, things quickly shifted back to normal. People went back to their usual routines—elders buying vegetables in the market, teenagers posing at the beach thinking of how many likes they would get, old men gambling. It looked as though they had forgotten that there were people being killed in Marawi and there were people who were probably going to be killed and tortured because of the declaration of martial law.

With this environment, I started being less scared, and I told myself that I would survive this. It didn’t really take long to persuade myself, because if I based what would happen the next day on how people behaved in Glan, it was going to be another normal day.

I was right. Even after martial law was imposed in Mindanao, it still felt like a normal day. We were back to school, and everything felt fine. There was a curfew for those who were below eighteen only, as if terrorists passed by older people and were only interested in children, or the government just wanted to offer the terrorists the decaying souls of middle-aged men drinking beer at night at neighborhood stores.

The curfew only lasted for two weeks, though. The cops in charge probably became tired of driving around town on the same empty streets: The baywalk, which was filled with singing, which almost sounded like shrieks for help, from a karaoke bar nearby. The town plaza, which has a monument of José Rizal, one hand on his chest, another on his side, holding a rolled piece of paper. The town market, abandoned at night with the exception of a homeless person who slept in the public market. The Christian church in front of our high school, its walls covered in moss due. Those were the places where the cops usually went, not finding any minors. Young people in Glan were smart. They drank beer in the cemetery to avoid being caught and sleeping in a cell.

There were also checkpoints. Sometimes, whenever the police officers felt good, they would check the cars passing by their posts. But sometimes they were lazy, and I would feel thankful to them because I would not be late in class and I would not miss dinner at home.

The nonchalance with the war in Marawi and the martial law was appalling. It seemed as though most of the people in Glan had forgotten that the conflict still existed and, because of that conflict, many people had ceased to exist. While we were living in peace, killings were happening outside Glan.

Many activists continued fighting for human rights and calling for Duterte to step down from his post. The topic of the war in Marawi eventually shifted to the issue of Duterte’s competence as a leader. The actual victims of the siege were being talked about less and less. People talked more and more about the war between the Duterte and Aquino administrations. Activists in Luzon went to rallies and waged a war against the people who supported the president, some of them saying, “I live in Mindanao, and even with martial law enforced, we still live peacefully.” It wasn’t just a war in Marawi anymore. It had become a war within the Philippines.

History has shown that Martial Law was ineffective and inhumane. Marcos claimed that its main purpose was to quell the rising wave of violence caused by rebellions, but thousands of Filipinos were murdered, tortured, and disappeared in the fourteen years that it was imposed. But just because it happened before doesn’t mean that it will happen now. I think martial law isn’t the answer, but I’m grateful that so far, there have been so much less tortures, murders, or sexual assaults recorded since Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao. The only thing that makes me melancholic is that even after the Marawi siege was over, people still engage in bitter arguments about what went wrong.

Even though I was not physically affected by the war, a different war started to shape inside my head: Should I feel grateful that I’m still alive? Should I feel sad that I am still alive while others are dying? Should I feel angry with the actions of the people around me, or should I mope because I know deep down inside me that I am one of those people? The war in my head was slowly reaching its reckoning, and when I was able to find the answers I was looking for, it enlightened me.

Looking back, the war in Marawi affected me in a lot of ways. Firstly, it affected and changed how I see other people, how they work when their lives are in danger. They repent, of course, but they still go back to the way they were when the danger subsides. It also changed how I see the world. Something sparked within me that made me want to scream out of frustration, out of anger, towards how people act without thinking critically.

The war in Marawi divided the country. The division made the war more tragic because it was a time to be united but politicians and their followers took advantage of the situation and make it about themselves.

The conflict has affected my own personal improvement and growth. It made me realize that I am not a bad person. I am empathetic, and I am human. It made me realize how fortunate I am to be alive and to be safe with my parents. At the same time, it made me realize that terrorism is real and it’s not just something people do at their leisure—it also shapes the values and the future of a country.

The conflict made me realize that I shouldn’t take my life for granted because anyone can be a victim of terrorism any day. It makes me sad because we are still not safe from terrorism and the government does nothing to prevent wars. It only limits the casualties. It made me think—to be informed and to cure my ignorance. It made a huge difference in my political beliefs, which I believe I can use when my voice is heard by a lot more people. Now my voice is much clearer.

The Ride Home

By Xaña Angel Eve Apolinar 

My friends and I are in General Santos City and heading to Maitum, our hometown in Sarangani Province. It is already the evening rush hour, and there is only one van left at the terminal.  This is the time of the day when passengers do everything it takes to score a seat, and drivers will do everything that it takes to cater the passengers.  We are those passengers.

The konduktor insists that all five of us will fit in a row that is supposed to be for three persons only.  Eager to go home, we accept the offer half-heartedly. Of course, we do not fit. I sit with my left leg on top of my right leg, trying to squeeze myself, the five of us trying to find a position that we can at least breathe properly. As if trying to make the situation better, the driver says that we will just have to pay P100 instead of the usual P110 fare for students. P10 less. Great.

We’re about to go when my friend Curt complained of hunger, so we buy peanuts and chicheria as pantawid gutom. We’re in the last row of the van, so the ride is bumpy for us. We’re the noisiest passengers, constantly laughing aloud and filling the air with our conversation. Even though I’m already tired, I join in. We reminisce our memories together in junior high school and talk about our future as college students, especially what courses we want to take. In between these moments, I close my eyes and try to sleep, always failing to do so because of the loud voices. And during these conversations, Curt always inserts how hungry he is.

Dili lagi, Curt,” Lester answers when Curt pleads to buy the burgers he has bought as pasalubong.Para ila Mamang lagi ni, ug kay Auntie Lalay.”

Barkada ta, pero unahun dapat ang pamilya,” Lester adds.

I laugh at the two and offer Curt a chocolate bar. This is a normal thing for all of us. Halfway through the two-hour ride, we fall asleep despite our positions, and somehow we do not mind that we have to stay this way—I drowsy, Curt hungry, Jennifer clingy, Chrisalyn sleepy, and Lester saving the burgers for his family, the five of us choosing to create new memories.

These are the moments that I am going to miss for sure. When we arrive in Maitum, we decide to eat dinner at a barbecue place. Jennifer and I go to the bathroom, and sitting on the toilet, I think of our friendship and the ride home that we’ve had.

To quote a Nick Jonas song, “space is just a word made up by someone who’s afraid to get close.” We are never afraid. We will never be. Ever.

Dr. Daydream or: How I Learned to Stop Living and Start Surviving

By John Dexter Canda

 I. Small Hours

Ting-a-ling, ting-a-ling, ting-a-ling.

My alarm clock hollered at me to wake up. My phone flickered. “Another day, rise up slug” flashed on its screen. I heaved a sigh as I staggered out of bed to prepare for the day.

I remembered my mother telling me back in high school that the early bird always caught the worm. I was still fixated on that setup: rising from bed hours before the crack of dawn, studying and reading amid pre-daybreak silence, doing chores while the streets were still asleep. Surprisingly, though I was not a morning person during my preteen years, this worked for me. The early hours of the morning were a good time to cram for an upcoming exam. With the dogs still dozing on cold cement and the neighbors’ karaoke machines chained to silence, I did not have to worry about loud distractions.

Eight years later, I still wake up at two or three in the morning.

Sipping on a cup of instant coffee, I fought my stupor in front of my laptop. Medical notes were scattered on the display: flashing images of tables, charts, and diseased body parts. My mind was blank and fatigued, but I kept reading, despite the words being a jumble. Unlike high school and college, medical school stuffed me with readings until my eyes went bloodshot. I winded up taking an expensive nap wherever possible. Time went by with the midnight sky turning amber, yet to me, it felt that time stood perfectly still—time that was static, time that was wasted.

I went to the kitchen to break my gaze off the laptop.

The mound of dirty dishes in the sink was, by now, a familiar sight, with ants crawling about the kitchen plates, still caked in solidifying grease from last night’s canned meal. The sight was disgusting. Anytime now a cockroach might appear and happily gorge on this grossness. The frying pan I used to cook adobo three days before was still on top of the stove.

If my mother were here to see this, she’d give me a good two-hour nag. I recalled the times back home when I got too lazy to wash the dishes. I would ask my younger sister to do this job for me. Obviously, she wouldn’t do it either because she was just as lazy as I was, which left the plates and pots to sit overnight in the sink. I would then wake up in the morning to find my mother washing the dishes herself with her usual angry stare, full of disappointment and frustration. “Quando ba gayot bo aprende, Dexter?” When would I ever learn, she would ask me. I would ignore her and went on in silence.

The bathroom in my late grandma’s house (where I had been living since college) was no good either: its doormat hardened with grime, several dead, shrunken insects lying on the floor, and chipped pieces of wood everywhere from the door infested with termites. If this room could talk, I was sure she would be gasping for help, asking me to clean her up.

But for the time being, I didn’t care to do that. I couldn’t do much and had no other option but to wait for the water. The sink, and the bathroom, and the rags, could wait. I could wait. I would wait.

I went back to my usual spot in the bed and continued reading. On the right side was my laptop and several books piled on top of each other, and I usually lay on prone position while I read, with my feet on the edge of the opposite side of the bed. My eyes scrolled through the words, and I found myself in a trance yet again. I loved these trances, especially long ones, where I winded up talking to myself and staring at the cobwebs on the ceiling. It was a thing I was good at, finding escape routes from reality: reflecting, daydreaming, fantasizing, and of course, complaining.

Mao ba jud ni para sa akoa? Kapoy na kaayo ba.

 Graduating na unta ko uy. Maayo pa tong mga intern kay hapit na sila mo-graduate.

 Dakoa lagi ang sweldo sa doktor uy. Sige lang sila og laag ba. Padayon lang ta ani.

 Kalami diri sa Japan! Limpyo dayon dili init. Nice kaayo ang cherry blossoms.

Of course, the last one was only a recurring delusion.

* * *

As the sun came to view on the eastern horizon, its beams caressed the dusty old windows of my bedroom, a sign for me to prepare myself for school. My usual routine would be to munch on something, iron my uniform, shower, brush my teeth, put my uniform on, check the sockets, go out, and lock the main door.

These were the humdrum tasks that started my day and were normally easy to perform.

I stepped over the mucky door rug to enter the bathroom. As soon as I was fully naked, I felt the cold morning breeze blow against my face from an open window. It was fresh and crisp. I sighed.

“I think this is a sign that it’s going to be a good day,” I uttered with optimism.

Grabbing the plastic tabo, I opened the faucet.

I squealed. There was no water running from it.

 “Hastang paita! Wala na puy tubig?”


II. Morning

It was back in 2004 when I first set foot in Zamboanga City to spend the holidays with my mother’s side of the family. I might have visited earlier. If I had, my memory fails me. It is a nice city, but for some reason—a good reason—I preferred General Santos, where I was born and raised. I had never imagined establishing myself in Zamboanga. The city was practically foreign to me, except for the fact that I knew how to communicate in Chavacano, thanks to my Zamboangueño parents.

But there I was ten years later: in the city again, this time alone and unprepared, with nothing but a big suitcase and my thick, heavy laptop. The word college still sounded too adult for my ingenuous mind, but there was no turning back.

* * *

I was heading for school. My eyes felt as though they were going to fall out, and they looked slightly bloodshot from lack of sleep or, perhaps, from my constant, intense rubbing. The scorching heat didn’t help either. Even though I was mostly under the shade of the tricycle’s roof, it wasn’t enough to cool me down. Under my white blazer, I felt awfully sticky and warm. At the side of the tricycle was a huge ten-wheeler truck, its tailpipe almost pointed straight at me and two other passengers. As soon as the traffic light turned green, the black smoke that pelted out was horrendously noxious.

I face this same situation every single day. Even now I am baffled as to how I have survived these conditions for almost five years. My four undergraduate years felt as though they all happened yesterday, and each day felt like a month, compressed. I was regularly disconcerted by the tropical traffic, expensive transportation fare, substandard infrastructure, and dwindling utilities. But maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just too much of a whiner. But one thing is for sure—it made me miss General Santos. Things were much simpler there.

By the time I arrived at the university’s front gate, I felt exhausted. I was drenched in sweat.

“Sudao man si Doc. Ya corre estaba ospital?” The guard asked, jokingly, if I had run from the hospital, since I was covered with sweat.

“Hindi, guard. Ta sinti lang yo caliente,” I replied as he checked my backpack, telling him I was just feeling really hot.

I rushed to our classroom, remembering that we were starting in a few minutes.

We sat down around a round table. There were ten of us: nine students and one doctor who was to facilitate our small-group discussion. I couldn’t help but daydream again, even though I was sitting right beside the doctor, who was listening to my classmate talk about the anatomy of the lungs and its clinical significance in near-drowning patients. I kept dreaming about things that were unlikely to happen in my life: winning the lottery, a Nobel Prize, a trip to Los Angeles, whatever. There were times I would become a little more practical with my fancies. I would imagine delectable food ready for me when I arrived home from school, fresh and clean clothes inside my storage box, water flowing freely from the tap, and the like. Sometimes I would cover a small grin with my face towel, and people wouldn’t notice. No one will.

My fantasies were my salvation in times of boredom and apathy. But for every deliverance, there was destitution. In my case it was loneliness, physical exhaustion, frigid disinterest, and the scarcity of the many different things that I longed for.

My classmate droned on about the human lung, and I went on pretending to listen. I was able to read my notes and pick up some information here and there despite my distracting daydreams.

After class, I was the last person in the room, waiting for my laptop to shut down. As I exited the room, I noticed the doctor who facilitated our discussion looking at me.

“Are you OK? OK lang tu?” the doctor asked.


III. Afternoon

As I walked to the nearby public hospital for our bedside rounds, memories of my dad resurfaced. The sweltering heat of the sun reminded me of that one September afternoon, when he and my mom were waiting outside of the school gate to fetch me. After settling down at the back of our orange pickup multicab, I found soon that, to my surprise, we had gone to a fitness gym. I wasn’t expecting this, and I wasn’t very much happy with my parents’ decision either. I was soaked with sweat and felt hot and damp from playing patintero. I sat down with my juvenile disgust plastered all over on my face.

One of the gym instructors gave me a banana cue, which I irritably accepted. As I ate, I saw my mom doing some aerobics and my dad riding the stationary bike.

Moments later, my dad collapsed.

My mom yelled, and everyone scrambled to help. I stood there in sheer terror. It was almost as if I was in a movie reaching its climax.

“Gawas ta, gang. Ayaw og kabalaka. OK ra na imong papa,” a lady told me as she escorted me outside. Everything was going to be OK, she said. My father was going to be OK.

The guys at the gym carried my unconscious dad inside the car. Although he was out cold, my dad was snoring out loud. It was disturbing.

A few minutes later, he woke up.

“Donde ya yo?” He asked where he was.

“Ya desma tu, Dad. Paandada ya kita na ospita,” my mom replied, informing him that he had fainted and that we were on our way to the hospital.

My dad laughed. I saw amazement on his face, his eyes glistening in hues of brownish burnt umber, the sunlight illuminating part of his forehead. He then sat with us as if nothing happened, occasionally touching the bleeding knee that had hit the bike’s pedal.

At the hospital, things happened quickly. He was fully conscious and alert. My mom was beside him. He smiled at me, and I smiled back.

“Bolbe ya tu, John, ha. Come mucho. Bisya con el dituyo mga hermana.” He told me to go home, eat, and look after my sisters.

And I did.

He died three days later.

I never heard his voice again.

* * *

I was in the surgical ward with my classmates waiting for our doctor-teacher. During our bedside rounds, we would interview one or two patients, sometimes more. We freshmen had to establish rapport, take a patient history, and do a quick yet thorough physical examination.

Our module for that week was on drowning and burns. We were assigned to a patient in the Burn Unit recovering from an electrical injury. My classmates and I divided the tasks: some were to obtain the history, others were to observe, and I was to perform the physical exam.

I felt anxious. It was my first time to perform an exam on a real patient, and I was thus mostly clueless. But as they say in medical school: it’s better to fail while you’re still a student than to fall flat as a doctor on duty.

The surgical ward, or Ward Four, as they called it, was just as humid as the other wards in the hospital. The heat was oppressive, and the hallways were filled with patients who I knew were mostly consumed by debt and poverty. Some were lucky enough to have hospital beds, and yet others lay on top of tattered mats. The conditions were agonizing to look at, but these people had no choice but to bear the unbearable. It was a matter of life and death.

The cancers of society always wreak pain upon the deprived and marginalized the most.

In the Burn Unit, the patient lay flat on a hospital bed. He was attentive to a classmate asking him questions about the events that led him to his current condition.

“Ta precura kami cuhi pescao na rio, despues ya puede iyo agara konel alambre,” he narrated.

He paused for a moment.

He continued: “Tiene pala akel kuryente, ya desma iyo y ya cay na rio. Nuay mas ya yo sinti cosa ya pasa despues ya susede kel.” He told us that he and his friends were catching fish when he accidentally grabbed a live wire, knocking him out to the flowing river.

It dawned on me that the patient was doing something illegal—electrofishing.

“Nuay yo trabaho, sir,” he said to my classmate, meaning he had no work.

“Maskin cosa lang yo ta ase. Carpintero y pescador, maskin cosa para tiene lang kami comida na mesa,” the patient merrily added, saying he did freelance work such as carpentry and fishing to put food on the table. His live-in partner nodded in agreement.

But I saw the sadness in his sunken eyes—full of hurt and deprivation, trampled harshly by life and extreme poverty.

The exchange fueled something within me. The feeling was inexpressible, however.

Half of his left palm was full of blisters. We could clearly see the agony on his face when he tried to clench his hand. After my classmate was done, I was to start the physical examination.

I was sweating profusely, so I put my face towel on my right shoulder for convenience. A stethoscope was also coiled around my neck.

We were taught to examine a patient from head to toe. I started checking his vital signs, and everything came out normal. When I palpated his neck, I felt swollen lymph nodes, tender and smooth to touch. This usually indicates an infection. I proceeded to check his lungs.

At the back of my mind, I was panicking. I had never auscultated anyone before, let alone a real patient in a hospital. My classmates, some of whom were nurses, looked at me. I felt the weight of their judgment on me as I pressed the diaphragm of the stethoscope against the patient’s skin.

“Nabasa man nako ni sa internet or didto sa Bates ba, kanang paunsa mogamit og steth sa pasyente. Lagota, limtanon kaayo ko!” I whispered to myself, mad at my own forgetfulness.

But I did it anyway, because I couldn’t escape. Like this injured man, there were things that you must do because you needed to.

The beauty in medicine is that you get to test your senses. Healthcare providers witness all sorts of bizarre, biological spectacles ranging from bloody wounds to tumors. The body is a complex structure, sophisticated in its detail but abounds in simple processes. In detail we try to grasp at its splendor but also the horrors that come along with it once it reaches its mortal threshold.

I heard wheezes and crackles on both lung fields. I gave a classmate a half-hearted smile.

Out of the blue, the patient turned and spoke to me.

“Ya gumita yo agua y sangre despues yo yan lumos na rio. Ara bien duele gayot dumiyo pecho si ta tose, tiene sangre si ta escupi yo.” He had vomited bloody water after nearly drowning in the river. He had also been painfully coughing up blood.

I glanced at him. He might have breathed in water and developed aspiration pneumonia or, perhaps, it had aggravated an already existing pneumonia. Later, our facilitating doctor would confirm this diagnosis.

I wrapped up my examination and waved goodbye to the patient and his partner, thanking them for their time.

The experience made me feel invigorated for a moment or two. But I also felt a tinge of sadness in that bottle of content. Somehow, I could not forget the patient’s eyes. I had always been  a believer of the cliché that the eyes were the windows to the soul. You could tell a lot about a person from their eyes alone. Clean and bright eyes indicated a healthy body which, in turn, housed a vigorous spirit. The hollowed ones were usually of the tired and sick.

The patient’s eyes were nothing but bleakness, with a little glimmer—sporadic sparkles of hope and content. Like those of my father’s when we were in that car on the way to the hospital.

Deep breaths. I liked sighing.

This profession was both a blessing and a curse, but I thought that I wouldn’t have it any other way.


IV. Night

The sky had started to get dark. Against the midnight blue canvas that was the sky, stars were scattered around like glitter, with the moon glowing not far afield.

The past days, I had often walked home, mainly because I was impatient and could not stand waiting in line for a jeepney and partly because I liked walking while listening to music. Tricycles were too costly for my taste: the trip was forty pesos, sometimes fifty or sixty depending on the driver, even up to a hundred when it was raining. It’s as if in this city, the road lengthened when it rained, and even more distance was added when it rained at night. For commuters like me, this was a nightmare come true.

With all the pollution looming, walking home was draining. Even my shoes of five years were starting to show signs of wear.

I continued to walk anyway.

At home, I sat on the edge of the bed in front of the fan. I always tried to rest for several minutes before continuing with the night. I didn’t always have the luxury of slacking off after a long, tiring day, a hard day’s night.

I called my mother, as I did every evening.

“Quetal?” she asked how I was doing.

“Amo lang syempre. Kansaw,” I replied, saying that everything was still the usual and I was tired.

“Porque man?” she asked me why.

“Nuevo lang yo ya liga casa. Ya kamina lang yo. Ya checkya yo si tiene ya agua, nuay pa man. Hindi pa yo puede kusina,” I told her, tiredly. I had walked home and when I checked the faucets, there was still no water, making me unable to cook dinner.

“Aguanta lang anay, anak. Nuay kita cosa puede ase kay ansina ya man gayot el sistema alyis,” she responded, telling me that I must endure because we couldn’t do much to relieve the circumstances.

It was not the response I was hoping to hear. My fatigue was starting to reach its limits.

“Ansina ya lang gayot kita pirmi. Aguanta ki aguanta, pirmi ya lang. Singko año ya tamen para aguanta. Bien kansaw ya yo,” I retorted. I was tired of being tired, of tolerating this kind of setup, of enduring for five years. It was exhausting.

I had been living in my late maternal grandmother’s house since I started college in 2014. The house was divided into two: my aunt and her husband lived downstairs, and I, on the second floor. Technically, it didn’t make me all alone. But we were mostly living on separate terms, like two very close houses in a small neighborhood. Hence, I still felt alone, most of the time. In 2015, my grandmother moved in with my uncle, whose home was quite far from the center of the city. She couldn’t tend to herself anymore after slipping in the bathroom and fracturing her hip.

Living alone was fun for the first couple of months, but it started to wear out when everything became routine.

“Si ansina lang man, para ya lang ka entra escuela. Total, ya acaba ya man ka estudya, bira ya lang ka aki na Gensan. Busca ya lang ka trabaho,” she replied. If that was the case, she said, I should just stop going to medical school. Besides, I finished college already, so I could go back to Gensan and find work there. I sensed her irritation.

“Sunod si alyi yo trabaha, de pobresa ya lang tamen kita. Hindi. Aqui ya lang yo na Zamboanga, necessita yo keda doktor para puede tamen kita resulya buenamente. Hindi tamen yo puede para lang entra escuela kasi ya dale ya komigo scholarship,” I answered. I told her that if I worked Gensan, nothing good would happen. I must stay in Zamboanga and become a doctor. It was the only way the family could breathe again. I added that I already had a scholarship that could sustain my studies.

“Hindi yo kun ikaw ta intende, kung cosa ba gayot ka quiere,” she said. She didn’t understand what I really wanted.

“Nosabe tamen yo. Hindi tamen yo ta intende, basta kansaw ya iyo,” I countered. I didn’t understand either, and I was tired.

“Sige ya. Kome ya ka alyi.” She ended the call, telling me to eat.

Sometimes I wondered why my parents kept telling me I should eat. My father’s last words echoed in my head. At times, it’s as if his words played on loop in my mind.

It was odd. I didn’t think I was that emaciated.

It was thirty minutes past eight, and it was starting to get too late for dinner. My stomach grumbled. If it could talk, it would have badmouthed me already.

I decided to use my drinking water to cook rice. I had only about two liters left in the container, so I carefully measured the amount to cook rice. I’d rather starve than be thirsty.

“Kinahanglan na jud nako mag-grocery,” I told myself, upon seeing the refrigerator nearly empty. It only contained bottles of pineapple jam that my paternal grandmother had given me on a visit to Gensan about a year ago.

“Dal-a ni o. Para di ka magutman didto sa Zamboanga. Pangpalaman lang sa tinapay,” she told me as she handed me the jam jars.

I missed home. I missed Gensan. I missed my paternal grandparents. My grandpa and I used to talk for hours when I’d visit him. I’d frequently tell him how awful Zamboanga City had become, and how I managed to survive day by day in solitude.

“Sabe bo, John, bien bale gayot el Zamboanga antes. Bien limpyo,” he’d say over and over. Zamboanga City was really nice and clean back then.

“Sige lang, John. Aguanta lang. Poco año lang ese. Mira bo, sabe ka kusi, laba, limpya, man budget el de ikaw sen. Maga bata ara, ni uno nosabe ese ase,” he added with delight. I should keep on doing what I was doing. Endure. Time flew fast anyway. He was proud that I knew how to do chores and budget money, better than most young people nowadays.

I always felt good talking to him. It’s as if I was talking to an eighty-year-old version of my father, with his sailor’s mouth, which most of the time I found humorous.

“Antos lang ginagmay, John. Ayuda kun el de tuyu nana, tiene pa tu hermana ta entra escuela. Sige lang. Corre lang,” my grandmother would repeat in a mix of Cebuano and Chavacano what grandfather had said. I should persevere because my mother needed all the help that she could get, and my younger sister was still studying. Corre means “to run.”

It was nine in the evening when I ate my dinner. I had canned sardines with the hot, steamy rice. I usually added in tomatoes, especially green ones, because the crunch and tartness balanced the saltiness of the fish. I frequently ate canned fish because it was convenient and cheap.

* * *

I often think about the special situation I am in at the end of each day. There are days when I stare at myself in the mirror, and the tears would just flow. I sometimes think I’m losing it—my sanity, the precious sanity that keeps me together. And yet again, I’m here, still taking in the mundane circumstances that make up most of my life. Sometimes I wonder if I’m ill or if maybe I’m just lonely and need of a talk. But loneliness is an illness too, no?

I don’t know.

When I checked the faucets after episodes of waiting, water finally came out. I quickly washed the reeking dishes as I filled up the drum in the bathroom. I thought that it wasn’t news that I felt spent. I would never leave the dishes unwashed again. Cleaning them took more work when they’d been out this long.

As I was lying in bed, finished with a day and a night’s work, I let out a huge sigh. I stared at the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. I had put up those stars three years ago, excited for the ceiling to glow like a galaxy. Until they started falling one by one. A quote from The Little Prince crossed my mind: “No one is ever satisfied where he is . . . Only the children know what they are looking for.”

I grabbed my phone and set my alarm to 3 AM. I changed the tone to “ding-dong” and swiped off the notifications.

I turned off the lights and closed my eyes. Tomorrow was another day.

After some time, I woke up from the sound of overflowing water, coming from the bathroom.

“God, I am old,” I muttered.

The Old Office on the Side of the Road

By Jennie P. Arado 

Nay, ano ’yang adopted?” I asked my mother.

Noong unang panahon, naga-drive kami ng tatay ni’yo.” she answered. “May narinig kaming nagaiyak sa gilid ng kalsada, sa may basurahan. Nagtigil kami, bumaba, at gitingnan ang basurahan. May nakita kaming baby, madumi. Kinarga namin, pinaliguan, at dinala sa simbahan.” The words came out of her mouth as if they were straight from a bedtime story, my eyes ogling in curiosity for what might have happened to the poor kid.

My mother ended her story with the details about her and my father taking the clothed and cleaned baby to the church and baptizing her with my name. She smiled as she finished her story.

I was four or five years old then and often spent most of the remaining hours of the day in my mother’s office, just a few meters from my day care center. That particular afternoon of storytelling, I was sitting on a monobloc chair too big for my size. When my mother reached the end of her story, she paused for a little while as if hinting she was done with her story. Her officemates looked at me as if waiting for a specific reaction I should be doing by now. They had weird smiles on their faces. And that’s when it dawned on me what my mother was implying.

I slid down the plastic chair like melted sugar oozing down the floor as syrup. I threw a racket flailing my arms on the side while my legs kicked as hard as I could. “Hindi ako adopted! Hindi ako adopted!

That was probably my first memory of a tantrum I have ever made. My eyes were brimming with tears as I looked up and saw the satisfied smiles of my mother’s co-workers. Some of them laughed. My mother scooped me up and carried me in her arms as everyone else went back to work.

The National Irrigation Administration office along General Santos Drive in Koronadal City, South Cotabato, became a second home growing up. This is where my parents first met and became a couple before my father, a civil engineer, decided to resign and work abroad. I spent most of my afternoons after class in my mother’s office playing Solitaire in the vacant computer, coloring the rainbow she would draw to keep me busy, or showing her officemates my high quiz scores.

From Tony Ko Day Care Center, which is just a few meters and on the opposite side of the road from NIA, I would trot outside the school grounds with my teacher and a few of my classmates who lived across the street. Teacher Mary Ann would hold us by the hand as she checked the highway, left and then right. Confirming that it was already clear for us to cross, she would shout “Dagan!” and our little feet would go scampering away from her toward the other side of the street.

Once safe, we would look back to her and wave goodbye as she went on her way. I would also wave goodbye to my classmates and march to my mother’s office.

My mother always reminded me to stay far away from the road, even from the shoulder, as there might be trucks losing their balance or their brakes, and it would be difficult to avoid a little kid who stayed too close to the road. She was very specific, but I did get her point and never stayed too close.

There was a particular lunch break my mother took me downtown. I was in my white dress with huge colorful pineapple detail prints. We were on the side of the road opposite her office waiting for the vehicles to clear so we could cross. My mind, already used to the “Dagan!” shout as a signal to run, grew more and more impatient as my mother waited. I managed to break free from her hands that held my wrist tight and ran for the street as I would normally do after Teacher Mary Ann yelled “Dagan!

Everything happened so fast. An incoming jeepney swerved away from my direction and awkwardly winded up on the shoulder of the opposite side of the road. No one was hurt, but some drivers on the road threw hateful remarks at my mother.

Kapti na bala mayad imo bata. Di pagbuy-i!

They wanted my mother to hold me tighter and to not let me go. They didn’t know that she did and I was the one who wriggled my wrist away from her grasp.

As they shouted at her, I froze in the middle of the road, more terrified of what my mother would do to me than the supposed danger my carelessness had brought. She was embarrassed of the scene and the danger her child had caused. With crouched shoulders, she quickly escorted me toward the safe side of the road. She didn’t forget my subtle punishment, though, that came in the form of a deep pinch on my side. I thought maybe I did deserve it for embarrassing her.

Back in her office, she told a few co-workers about what I had done. She also told our family until this story became a family legend that would never be forgotten until we reached adulthood. I don’t remember if she ever told Teacher Mary Ann about it, but the stories to her officemates and family didn’t fail to mention that it was with the practice with Teacher Mary Ann that I learned to run fast through a highway.

I grew up calling my mother Inay, exactly how she and her siblings used to call their own mother. My maternal grandmother grew up in Laguna, while my maternal grandfather in Batangas, both of them Tagalog and chose to be called Inay and Tatay by their own children.

Being raised in a municipality, which later on became a city, that is mostly inhabited by Ilonggo people, hearing a little girl call her mother Inay is very unusual. Kids my age called their mothers Mama or Mamang or Nanay. I called my grandmother Nanay.

It became a prank I put my classmates under all the time.

Jen, malakat nanay mo sa PTA meeting bwas?”

Ha? Wala na man ko nanay. Patay na man nanay ko.

Hala, di ka mag-amo sina. Kalain na.

For little kids like us, it was a morbid and an unacceptable statement. But I was not lying. My grandmother, whom everyone in the family called Nanay, died even before I was born. My mother is Inay, not Nanay.

I didn’t want to traumatize my classmate with me casually talking about someone’s death though, so I had to briefly explain that Nanay was for grandmother. She became at peace with it. And I thought that was one life I saved from trauma.

The case was different in my mother’s office, however. When I started going to school at Tony Ko Day Care Center nearby, I also became the resident kid in the office. When they first heard I was calling my mother Inay, they started calling her Inay and not anymore the usual Mareng Lydia, Mads, or Lyd that they were so used to calling her. Inay became her office name.  At first, it was done to spite me—to make it seem like they were stealing my mother away from me.

Before I knew it, everyone else in the office did. Even the tall, intimidating boss—who I remember was in a red polo shirt neatly tucked in khaki pants and had hair combed back and whom I remember as Sir Alcantara—would sometimes kid around with his subordinates and call my mother Inay as well. Whenever we called her from home, we would no longer mention her name. We would just ask if Inay was around. And everyone would know who we were referring to.

It became something beyond the control of a four- or five-year-old kid especially that I preferred to be quiet in the corner near my mother’s desk and would love to have nothing to do with the adults. Whenever they came squatting in front of me so that they could be on the same level as my eyes and talk to me, I would look away. Sometimes I would hide behind my mother. Once, a kind lady gave me food, maybe a bread, placing it on my hands. Perhaps threatened by the personal space intimacy with me that she was able to conquer, I flung the bread away, and it landed grimly on the vinyl-tiled floor. My shyness was disguised as disrespect and rudeness.

She let out a fake laugh and assured my mother that it was okay, that perhaps I was not in the mood. Inay looked sternly at me before she picked up the bread from the floor.

I was sorry and was as shocked as they were for how I behaved. But I didn’t know how to apologize and instead stood my ground and pretended I was actually being rude or not in the mood. But adults could have extensive understanding and patience over little kids.  So despite my extreme shyness bordering to rudeness, they still talked to me. They still gave me occasional treats until I felt more and more at ease. I was still on my most comfortable reading or coloring pictures in the corner alone, but I became less hostile to everyone.

I remember my mother was friends with people in her office named Roming Depita, who was a funny old man with no teeth; Ronnie Pendon, who was thin but friendly; Grating, whose Hiligaynon accent stood out the most among all the other Ilonggo people in the room; Grace Billones, who my mother said was the kindest and who later on migrated to America; Ester, who married Joel from the Engineering Department; pretty Hilda, who moved to Switzerland with her family; and Jo, who once washed my butt while my mother was away and I had to poo.

They all worked in that shabby, old office from 8 AM to 5 PM—the latter always signaled by a loud pounding of a rusty cylindrical metal. The sound could surprisingly be heard in the second or third building from the guardhouse. Everyone would go home by 5 PM. There was rarely an overtime.

The office was later on renovated again and again.  But I remember my mother’s department’s wooden door leading to a vinyl-tiled room with spacious tables, each with their respective full names taped on the table’s front, easy for the visitors to see.

Immediately after entering, there was a divan with red foam on the ride side of the room. Originally, it was placed there for visitors to sit on while waiting for their turn for a government transaction. But it became a comfortable bed for me. I slept after lunch and be woken up by my mother when almost all the lights in the office had been turned off. “Maglakad na ako. Dito ka lang?” she would ask softly so as not to startle me.

Her face would be close to mine, so the words were whispers, but I would notice the dim room and ceiling at the background.  Everyone had left. She would have her shoulder bag on one shoulder and my kindergarten bag on the other. I would jump to my feet, afraid to be left alone. On days when my father was home for vacation from his contract works abroad, he would fetch us from NIA with our 1994 white Nissan Pathfinder.  When I was lucky, our pickup would go to the city’s poblacion to buy groceries from the supermarket instead of going straight home. He would honk or wave a goodbye to a thin security guard I remember to have a huge mole on the temple. The security guard would wave back, remembering my father from several years back.

On some occasions of me sitting alone on the backseat with my father on the driver’s seat and my mother on the passenger seat, I imagined the story of how they saw a crying baby on the side of the street and decided to pick her up and adopt her. I tried to think which intersection in the city they could have seen the child, if the story was indeed true. I pictured black garbage bags carelessly dumped outside an almost full circular trash can, perhaps with the fading names of the politicians who “donated” the trash cans painted just close to the brim. Sometimes I also imagine my parents washing the dirty baby carefully with their hands. I asked questions to myself including the whereabouts of the priest or the real parents. In the silence of my father behind the wheel or despite my mother telling him a story of what happened to the office earlier, I tried to argue with the bits and pieces of information I remember from past stories.

Sabi nila sa Pingoy [Hospital] daw ako pinanganak.”

Sabi nila kumain daw si Inay ng madami no’ng anniversary nila ni Tatay, kaya kinabukasan naglaki tiyan niya, sinugod sa ospital, at pinanganak na ako.”

Their wedding anniversary comes a day before my birthday, and my elder sister used this information to trick me into a child-friendly story of how my mother conceived me.

Weighing these past stories that I heard before, it became harder to believe that I was adopted. I could not be adopted. That would be weird. I was a middle child and the third daughter. Who would think of adopting a daughter when they already had two? Who would think of adopting after having conceived two children successfully?

Future rides from my mother’s office to the supermarket, then, became more and more different. I no longer thought about the bulging black garbage bags or how filthy the poor baby was. Time and time of thinking about it, I came to my own childish conclusions that it was just a joke meant to entertain my mother’s officemates. Anyway, adults were always amused and pleased with an irritated child that they had teased.

The National Irrigation Administration in Koronadal City is still along General Santos Drive, but a lot has changed. The first building nearest to the guardhouse was taken down a few years ago. The space was allotted for the new NIA office building.

The third building from the guardhouse where my mother’s office was, had already been renovated countless times. The divan with the red pillows on it was no longer there. The wooden tables did not anymore have the names of the employees glued on the front.

Many of the familiar faces who laughed with the adopted joke had already retired, including the office chief Alcantara in bright red polo. There were new younger faces in the office when I last visited a few years after college graduation.

The cylindrical metal was entirely eaten up to destruction by its own rust and was no longer pounded by the security guard with a mole on the temple. He was still the guard together with two others on duty on some other shifts. Instead, from a traditional bundy clock there was a polite biometrics that says thank you after every thumbmark reading.

The first time I came back to the office as a young girl, I was probably in high school—still a little shy, but I no longer hid behind my mother.

Abaw, Inay, amo na ni si Jennie nga ginadala-dala mo sadto diri sa office?” Nong Ronnie, who was just a few years younger than my mother, was surprised to see how I have grown.

I smiled politely to Nong Ronnie before my mother and I proceeded to her office at the far end of the room. She let me use her computer for a few minutes before a young woman, perhaps a fresh graduate, knocked on the open door.

Inay, may kape ka dira? Mangayo kami bi. Mug na lang dayon.” She took what she needed from my mother’s wooden cabinet and did not forget her “Salamat, Nay” and a promise that she would wash the mug and return it immediately. She disappeared with the extreme rising and falling Hiligaynon accents of the voices heard outside my mother’s office.

We Are Not in Paradise

By Hazel Aspera

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

 (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.



By Angelo Serrano

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.