Memories of Compound

By Estrella Taño Golingay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Addressing Racism: Steadfast Wherever My Feet Lead Me

By Midpantao Midrah G. Adil II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Pastil at Iba Pang Pagninilay

Ni Allan Ace Dignadice

Abril 20, 2019. Linggo ng Pagkabuhay. Nagising ang aking kaluluwa sa isang pamilyar at nakabubulabog na ingay. Malakas. Dumadagundong. Umuugong. Habang pinupuno ang hangin ng mga tunog na kinukudkod ang dingding ng aking mga tainga, siya ring pagpupumilit na imulat ang puyat kong mga mata. Masakit sa ulo. Nakakairita.

Masaligan ta . . . Aton nga konsehala . . . Aton nga dumdumon sa aton nga balota . . .

Matapos ang kulang-kulang tatlong araw ng pamamahinga, mistulang nagsibangon din muli mula sa kahimlayan ang mga bungangang de-gulong—nagsusumigawan, nagpapalakasan. Mga tinig ng mga kandidatong nais maalala sa darating na eleksiyon. Kani-kaniyang plataporma. Sari-sariling kanta.

Panahon ng Semana Santa nang guminhawang saglit ang musmos kong barangay. Dahil malayo sa sentro ng lungsod, tahimik at matiwasay kalimitan sa amin, tulad ng aking kinagisnan. Nitong Huwebes Santo hanggang Sabado de Gloria, muli kong naranasan ang kapayapaan.

Abril 17, 2019. Miyerkules Santo. Nakauwi ako sa amin. Habang sakay ng bus, hindi ko maiwasang mapaglapatan ng tingin ang sandamakmak at samot-saring mga poster ng mga kandidato. Mula sa mga umaasang maging senador, nais maibalik sa Kongreso, gustong masungkit ang lalawigan, maghari sa siyudad, at lahat na. Sa mga ngising aso at mababangong tagline, isang paalaala: panahon na naman pala ng eleksiyon.

* * *

Hindi na bago para sa pamilya namin ang eleksiyon. Dating kabesa ng barangay ang kapatid ni Lolo Intin na si Lolo Nanding kaya nakabuhol na rin siguro sa pamilya namin ang politika. Naaalala ko pa noong bata pa ako ang pakadto-pakari ng mga tao sa bahay namin. Ang iba ay mga kilala pang politiko noong mga panahong iyon.

Tuwing eleksiyon, maliban sa si Papang ay abala sa pagiging lider ng mga watcher, kami naman ng dalawa ko pang kapatid ay sumasama kay Mamang sa pagnenegosyo. Dahil ilang metro lang ang layo ng bahay namin sa mababang paaralan, sideline na ni Mamang ang magbenta ng mga dulce, softdrinks, sigarilyo, at kung ano-ano pa. Sayang din kasi ang kikitain, sabi niya.

Kaya nga siguro inaabangan naming magpipinsan ang panahon ng eleksiyon—hindi lamang dahil maraming pagkain kundi dahil na rin sa mga maiiwang poster ng mga kandidato.

Nag-uunahan kami noon sa mga streamers nina Manny Villar at Gibo Teodoro dahil sa ang lalaki at matitibay, tamang-tama para sa guryon na papaliparin namin sa wayang sa likod ng bahay ni Lolo Intin. Unahan din kami sa mga tarpaulin bilang dingding ng mga bahay-bahayan na binubuo namin.

Habang lumalaki, hindi ko maiwasang itanong kina Papang kung bakit pabago-bago ang mga grupo tuwing eleksiyon. Ang dating magkasama sa pagkagobernador at kongresista, sa sunod na eleksiyon ay magkalaban na. Ang mga konsehal ni Mayor, ngayon ay konsehal na ni Vice. Para sa isang batang tulad ko, magulo at mahirap intindihin ang ganitong mundo.

Lalo na sa eleksiyon sa barangay. Matapos ang ilang taon ng pamamalagi ng aming apelyido sa serbisyo, na sinundan pa ng mga pinsan kong magkasunod pang naging Sangguniang Kabataan chairman, nasasaktan ako na makitang ang dating mga kaalyado ng pamilya ay kumampi na sa kabilang partido, na ang mga tiyoy ko ay kalaban na sa eleksiyon. Kinalaunan, unti-unting nalimutan ang aming apelyido, kahit pa si Lolo Nanding na. Noong tumakbo siyang muli bilang kagawad, di siya pinalad.

*  *  *

Taong 2016 nang sumubok si Papang bilang kagawad. Labis ang pag-ayaw ko at ni Ate dahil na rin sa mga karanasan ng pamilya kahit wala pa man din sa puwesto si Papang—ang siraan, ang bilihan ng boto, ang gulo, at ang pagkasalimpapaw ng mga tao. Hindi ko makayanan ang ganoong mundo.

May kaklase din akong nakapagtanong kung kaano-ano ko daw ba ang Dignadice na tumatakbo. Hindi niya raw kasi mamukhaan dahil pinagguhit-guhitan ang mukha ng poster nito. Masakit, oo. Ayaw naman nating gawing katuwaan ang ating mga mahal sa buhay. Ayaw kong mapasabak sa mga gulo na hindi naman dapat, sa mga tsismis na di dapat marinig, di dapat patulan.

Kaya lubos kong ipinagpasalamat sa Maykapal nang matalo si Papang sa halalan. Kahit alam kong masakit din ito para sa kaniya, ipinaalala lang namin na kaya niya pa ring makatulong kahit wala sa posisyon, na hindi siya dapat magbago, na dapat patuloy lang sa serbisyo.

Ang lahat ng karanasang ito siguro ang nagbunsod sa hindi ko pagkagusto sa panahon ng eleksiyon, at lubusang naglaho ang pananampatalaya ko sa sistema ng demokrasya sa Pilipinas nang magtakip ang 2016 National Elections, nang tuluyang magpaalam ang Pilipinas kay Miriam Defensor Santiago—hindi na maibabalik, kailanman.

* * *

Disyembre 2018 nang muli akong makapanood ng telebisyon matapos ang halos limang buwan. Wala kasing TV ang boarding house na tinutuluyan ko sa General Santos City. Nagsabong ang aking mga kilay nang makapanood ako ng mga patalastas tungkol sa ilang mga pulitiko.

Kung nagawa namin sa Ilocos, kaya sa buong Pilipinas!

Napatanong ako kina Mamang kung nagsimula na ba ang campaign period at kung kailan na ang eleksiyon. Laking gulat ko nang malamang sa darating na Mayo pa pala ang halalan.

Lalo akong nairita dahil habang tumatagal ay dumarami ang patalastas na nagsasabing may ginawa si Kwan para sa pamilya ni Aling Bebang, na si Tarpulano ang nagpasa ng batas para makapag-aral si Junjun, na nakalabas na Siya sa bilangguan, na ang dating alalay ay tatakbo at ang dating tumatakbo ngayon ay alalay, at marami pang ibang paandar. Napapabuntong-hininga na lang ako sa mga ganitong eksena, na talamak at paulit-ulit na lamang na nangyayari sa buong bansa.

Marso 13, 2019 nang nagsimula ang lokal na campaign period. Muling napuno ang ere ng mga jingle ng mga kandidato. May mga himig kundiman, may K-pop ang banat, at may mga sabay sa uso. Napuno hindi lang ang mga radyo at TV kundi ang mga eskinita at kalsada ng mga mukha’t tinig ng mga taong nagbabalak makaupo sa puwesto.

Ang laki-laki, ang laki-laki ng layunin. Ating iboto sa konseho . . . number 15 sa balota ni’yo!

Ilang linggo ring naging maingay ang bawat siyudad at lalawigan. Kahit saan puro tugtugan. Animo’y naging diskuhan ang mga lansangan. Aakalain mong may piyesta sa magkabilang dulo ng siyudad. Halos lahat din ng mga taong kilala ko pareho ang reklamo: Maingay. Magulo.

Hindi mo rin maipagkakaila ang mga hinaing ng mga tao sa social media tungkol sa pambubulabog at pinsalang naidadala ng mga bungangang de gulong. Hanggang sa biglang natapos ang mga bulahaw na ito. Biglang nanahimik.

Abril 19, 2019. Biyernes Santo. Nagising ako. Alas-otso. Tahimik ang paligid. Tamang-tama ang timpla ng araw para makapagnilay-nilay.

Nag-agahan kami ng tuyo at langkang ginataan. Bawal daw kasi ang karne, natatawang rason ni Mamang. Sa hapag hindi naiwasang magkumustahan sa eskuwela, sa trabaho ni Ate. Nang mabaling naman sa politika, naitanong sa akin ni Papang kung sino raw ba ang iboboto kong mayor.

* * *

Labis akong nanghinayang nang hindi ako nakaboto sa Barangay Elections noong nakaraang taon. Pakiramdam ko kasi hindi ko naipakita ang aking pagka-Pilipino. Sa tingin ko, parang hindi ako Pilipino.

Agosto 27, 2018. Araw ng mga Bayani. Dahil itinapat sa Lunes ang holiday, hindi muna ako bumalik sa General Santos at sinadyang magparehistro. Mayroon kasing satellite registration sa bawat barangay ang COMELEC sa Araw ng mga Bayani.

Magkahalong kaba at pagkasabik ang aking nadama dahil sa wakas ay matutupad na ang matagal ko nang ninanais simula nang tumuntong ako ng labinwalong taong gulang.

Pumila ako sa barangay hall ng mga alas-diyes ng umaga, at sa awa ng Diyos, natapos ako bago magtanghali. Halos lahat ng nakasabayan ko sa pagpaparehistro ay mga kaedad ko rin na sabik nang makaboto.

Naisip ko, Araw ng mga Bayani? 

Natawa ako.

* * *

Abril 25, 2019. Huwebes. Habang papauwi kami ni Ate sa aming tinutuluyan, bigla niyang nasambit, “Wala akong ganang bumoto ngayong eleksiyon.”

Daglian din akong sumang-ayon sa kaniya. Ganitong ganito ang nararamdaman ko simula nang makita ko ang listahan ng mga kandidato. Sa animnapu’t dalawang tatakbong senador, mabibilang lang sa kamay ang kilala ko. Ang iba, batikang trapo. May mga iilan na papasa na. At ang iba, bakit pa?


Nawala ang kasabikan kong bumoto sa darating na halalan. Para bang walang karapat-dapat na maluklok sa posisyon. Kung meron man, iilan lang.

Ang eleksiyon ngayon ay parang pagkain lang sa Mindanao State University, ang paaralan ko. Pastil, pastil, pastil. Dahil wala nang pagpipilian. Hindi dahil masarap o kapana-panabik kundi dahil ito ang mura. Dahil ito lang ang kaya.

Kaya hindi ko inaasahang aabot din pala sa punto na ang pipiliin mo na lang sa halalan ay ang masama kaysa sa mas masama. Nawala na ang pagiging karapat-dapat at pinalitan na lang ng mga pastil.

* * *

Abril 20, 2019. Linggo ng Pagkabuhay. Nagising ang aking kaluluwa sa isang pamilyar at nakabubulabog na ingay.

Malapit na pala ang eleksiyon. Masisira na naman ang mga pamilya. Magbabangayan ang magkakaibigan. Mapupuno ang Twitter at Facebook ng iba’t ibang patutsada. Magaganap na naman ang isa sa kinasasabikang tagpo sa Pilipinas, kasunod ng Miss Universe.

Maingay na ang kalsada. Dapat bumangon na. Natanong ko ang aking sarili: Babangon na nga ba?

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.