We Are Not in Paradise

By Hazel Aspera
Nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t think so. I do it anyway.

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any laughter was lost in the howl of the wind.

Editors and Contributors

EDITORS

Eric Gerard H. Nebran is an educator and illustrator from General Santos City. He is currently a PhD Comparative Literature student at the University of the Philippines–Diliman. His research interests include orality, history, and literary productions of his hometown.

Jude Ortega is the author of the short story collection Seekers of Spirits (University of the Philippines Press, 2018), the chapbook Katakot (Balangay Books, 2018) and the zines Mga Kuwentong Peysbuk and Faded Jeans and Old Shoes. He has been a fellow for fiction at four national and two regional writers workshops. In 2015, his stories received honorable mention at the inaugural F. Sionil José Young Writers Awards and at the Nick Joaquin Literary Awards. He divides his time between Senator Ninoy Aquino and Isulan, both in Sultan Kudarat.

CONTRIBUTORS

Jennie P. Arado is from Koronadal City, South Cotabato, and currently works for SunStar Davao as editor of the lifestyle section. She earned her BA in English (major in creative writing) from the University of the Philippines–Mindanao. Her story “Ang Dako nga Yahong sang Batchoy” won the South Cotabato Children’s Story Writing Contest in 2018.

Hazel-Gin Lorenzo Aspera is a registered nurse, artist, and writer. She spent her childhood in Cotabato City and is now based in Cagayan de Oro City. A fellow for literary essay at the 1st Cagayan de Oro Writers Workshop, some of her feature stories appear in the book Peace Journeys: A Collection of Peacebuilding Stories in Mindanao. Currently, she is Associate Director for Communications and Junior Fellow for Literary Essay of Nagkahiusang Magsusulat sa Cagayan de Oro (NAGMAC).

Allan Ace Dignadice is from Koronadal City, South Cotabato, and a BS Electronics Engineering student at Mindanao State University in General Santos City. He is a former editor in chief of the official school publication of Koronadal Comprehensive National High School. “Hawla,” his play that appears in this issue, is his fifth published work in Cotabato Literary Journal.

Gerald Galindez is a senior high school teacher at Notre Dame of Tacurong College in Tacurong City, Sultan Kudarat. His poem “San Gerardo and the Exocotidae” is the winner of the 2017 Cotabato Province Poetry Contest. He has released two poetry zines—I, Alone and Ginapasaya Mo Ako.

Rustom M. Gaton teaches at Montessori Learning Center in Isulan, Sultan Kudarat. He grew up in the municipality of Bagumbayan in the same province and earned his Bachelor of Secondary Education (major in English) degree at Sultan Kudarat State University.

Alvin Q. Larida is a teacher at Dole Philippines School in Polomolok, South Cotabato, where he teaches physics and chemistry for senior high school. He is a graduate of Notre Dame of Marbel University in Koronadal City, South Cotabato, and currently finishing his master’s degree at Mindanao State University in General Santos City.

Hannah Adtoon Leceña is a high school teacher and spoken word artist from Kiamba, Sarangani Province. She was a fellow for fiction at the 2018 Davao Writers Workshop and at the 3rd Bathalad–Sugbo Creative Writing Workshop (2019). She earned her Bachelor of Secondary Education (major in Filipino) degree at Mindanao State University in General Santos City.

Andrea D. Lim is from General Santos City and currently working as an editor for a publishing company in Cebu City while taking her master’s degree in literature at the University of San Carlos. She is also a former editor in chief of The Weekly Sillimanian, the official student publication of Silliman University in Dumaguete City, Negros Oriental.

Editors and Contributors

GUEST EDITOR

Hazel-Gin Lorenzo Aspera is a registered nurse, artist, and writer. She spent her childhood in Cotabato City and is now based in Cagayan de Oro City. A fellow for literary essay at the 1st Cagayan de Oro Writers Workshop, some of her feature stories appear in the book Peace Journeys: A Collection of Peacebuilding Stories in Mindanao. Currently, she is Associate Director for Communications and Junior Fellow for Literary Essay of Nagkahiusang Magsusulat sa Cagayan de Oro (NAGMAC). She has a forthcoming work at Mindanao Odysseys: An Anthology of Travel Essays.

REGULAR EDITORS

Eric Gerard H. Nebran is an educator and illustrator from General Santos City. He is currently a PhD Comparative Literature student at the University of the Philippines–Diliman. His research interests include orality, history, and literary productions of his hometown.

Jude Ortega is the author of the short story collection Seekers of Spirits (University of the Philippines Press, 2018) and has been a fellow for fiction at two regional and four national writers workshops. In 2015, his stories received honorable mention at the inaugural F. Sionil José Young Writers Awards and at the Nick Joaquin Literary Awards. He divides his time between Senator Ninoy Aquino and Isulan, both in Sultan Kudarat.

CONTRIBUTORS

Allan Ace Dignadice is from Koronadal City, South Cotabato, and a BS Electronics Engineering student at Mindanao State University in General Santos City. He is a former editor in chief of Ang Tagatala, the official school publication of Koronadal Comprehensive National High School.

Michael B. Egasan is from Koronadal City, South Cotabato, and currently works in the United Arab Emirates. He earned his BS Commerce (major in Management Accounting) degree at Notre Dame of Marbel University in Koronadal City.

Mariz J. Leona is from Lambayong, Sultan Kudarat, and an AB English student at Mindanao State University in General Santos City. She was the winner of the 2017 Sultan Kudarat Essay Contest and a finalist in the 2018 Get Lit! contest for young-adult short stories.

Riccah Jedaina Moranos Ondoy was born in Kiamba, Sarangani Prrovince, and is currently a Humanities and Social Sciences student at the senior high school department of Notre Dame of Dadiangas University in General Santos City.

Of Trees and Paper

by Hazel-Gin Lorenzo Aspera (Nonfiction)

Every time we went to the department store in the South Seas Complex, I asked Mama for a Barbie. And each time, her answer was always the same: “Next time. Wala pa tayong pera.” Part of me would want to whine out loud: “But that’s what you said the last time!”

But by the time I was six, I instinctively held my complaints in. I figure that’s what happens when you’re the eldest. When my little sister Kim snatched the toy I was playing with, Mama would say, “Pagpasensyahan mo na kasi bata pa siya.” Even though I was, in fact, also bata pa. Or when my brother Sha hit me and I hit back, she would be, “Ikaw na lang mag-intindi kasi ikaw man ang mas matanda.” Even when he was less than a year younger than I was.

So I learned, early on, to pasensya and to intindi, to avoid conflict at any cost. And also not to tell anyone exactly how I felt because I would only be told to pasensya and to intindi some more. And that got tiring at some point, especially to a six-year-old.

Most of my childhood angst was therefore directed to a diary. I got it for my birthday, a beautiful notebook with flower-patterned, rainbow-colored, sweet-smelling pages. To the side, clasping the thick, padded covers together, was a tiny little lock made of fake gold, with a matching key and a whisper of a promise that it would keep all my secrets safe. I called her Jo.

Today was amazing! I wrote one day. Aika and I made clay out of flour and oil. We used a clay recipe from a book she had. We had a good time. She made play food and I made animals. When we were done, Tita Detdet said Aika’s lolo took the clay, mixed it with egg and made a pancake.

I carefully copied the recipe for the clay (not the pancake) at the bottom of the page. On another page, I pressed down my pen so firmly that the resulting indents on the next page were readable in the right lighting. The boys stink. I hate it when they tease me about Jan. I don’t have a crush on him. I don’t have a crush on ANYONE. Which was a lie, of course. I actually had a crush on Chris O’Donnell as D’Artagnan from Disney’s take on the Three Musketeers. But that didn’t prove my point, so Jo didn’t need to know that.

 

My longing was finally satisfied when Ate Joy taught me how to make paper dolls. This happened during one summer, when I was about eight years old, back when we were still living in Cotabato City. We had moved from my grandfather’s big, old house in Bagua into a small, two-bedroom residence—a long sikad ride from Sinsuat Avenue, past Peñafrancia Village and San Pablo Village, then through a sandbar of sorts between two vast rice fields, to San Antonio Village near Tarbeng Creek. Of course, back then we didn’t know it was called Tarbeng Creek. We just called it the ilog.

Just at the back of the new house was a sarisa tree that shot up beyond the roof of the house. Ate Joy called it sarisa, at least. Mama called it mansanitas, although she seldom ever talked about the tree so I ended up calling it sarisa instead. Some of the branches were low enough that I could pluck the delicate white flowers.

They were perfect for laying on top of the cakes that my siblings and I formed from stuffing plastic toy pots full of gravel and water. We’d turn the pots over on a plastic plate and ease out the moist gravel until we had a grey “chocolate cake.”  The flowers were the cake decorations, of course. Because in real cakes, my favorite bit was always the brightly colored fondant flowers. I would always lay three flowers on each cake, because in real cakes I only ever got one if both Sha and Kim already had theirs. Astra, back then, was just a baby. She couldn’t have icing flowers just yet.

I didn’t decorate all my cakes with sarisa flowers. Even back then I knew that the more flowers the sarisa tree bore, the more of those tiny, green spheres would appear. These would slowly swell up to the size of Mama’s pearl earrings and turn bright red, which was how you could tell that they were ready to eat.

When I learned to climb the sarisa tree, I’d pick as many of these sweet treats as possible on my way up. I would then perch on our corrugated metal roof and admire the view as I popped the pearl-sized fruit into my mouth, one by one. They were tiny bursts of sweetness, with a faint, fruity aroma in the background. I didn’t quite enjoy the mealy texture caused by the hundreds of miniscule seeds inside, however. The only reason I ate so many of them despite this, I think, was boredom.

Whenever Mama saw me climbing the tree, she’d yell at me from the big screen window of the kitchen: “Mahulog ka, ha?

I was always tempted to yell back, “Oo, Ma, mahulog ako!” In jest, of course. But I knew that Mama had a tendency towards anxiety. She had already lost my older brother to heart disease and then had almost lost Kim to hydrocephalus, so she practically panicked every time I did something remotely risky. And during these bouts of worry, we weren’t allowed to play outside. So I simply shouted, “Hindi lagi.

Looking back, my parents probably saw me as the risk-taker. The impulsive, adventurous child who would do things on a whim. But compared to other kids, I was actually very careful. When I was climbing the tree, for instance, I knew exactly which branches were the most stable. I’d place a foot carefully on the low end of the branch, the thickest part closest to the tree, and apply a bit of pressure on it. If it didn’t wobble, I’d put my weight on it and look for another foothold. If a branch seemed even a little bit unstable, I’d look for another one.

Weeks passed. I never did fall from the tree, and I figured that was good enough. Even if Mama was constantly peering at me, worriedly, from the kitchen window. But one day, Papa came home from one of his long trips to see me sitting on the roof, contentedly chomping on sarisa. When I woke up the next morning, the lowermost branches of the tree had been sawed off.

It felt like betrayal. For once in a long time, I protested.

Bakit niyo pinutol ang puno, Pa?” I wasn’t being rude. We were just never taught to use po, opo, ate or kuya, nor did we ever do mano po, unless we were talking to other people.

Baka kasi mahulog ka.”

Nag-iingat naman ako!”

Eh, paano kung mahulog ka?”

Hindi lagi ako mahulog!”

Eh, you should act your age,” he said.

This made me angry and, at the same time, confused. How, exactly, was an eight-year-old supposed to act, after all? My classmates often told me that they climbed far taller trees than I did. They swam in rivers and rolled around in grass, mud, and who-knows-what during the summers.

Nevertheless, I decided to drop it. I knew that no amount of protest could make the tree’s branches grow back again. When Papa left again, I attempted to climb it, but, not having a foothold, I scraped my knee on the rough bark and decided that it was too risky.

I have not climbed a tree since then.

 

It was because I wasn’t allowed to climb trees anymore that I took to visiting some of our neighbors during my free time. A lot of the time, it was the Bartolomes, who lived just in front of the old Bautista couple’s sari-sari store, where we’d ask to lista Hot and Spicy Tuna or Pancit Canton when we ran out of food. I think that was how we first met them. I don’t quite remember. Anyway, the Bartolomes were a big family, almost all of them girls, some of whom I can only barely tell apart even to this day.

Ate Joy was the youngest, which, I thought, was pretty amazing because she was so old. She already went to the National High School and knew practically everything an eight-year-old wanted to know.

She said sarisa in English was cherry. I told her that cherries in cans and on top of black forest cakes neither looked nor tasted like sarisa. See, they didn’t have the tiny seeds that made them feel mushy in my mouth. She replied that it probably had something to do with the canning process. Maybe boiling the cherries dissolved all the seeds. She also said that if you wanted to eat a fresh cherry, you had to pluck a sarisa off a tree and put it in your mouth without washing it.

She told me about how the kids who went to the Private All-Girls High School were all maarte. And since Mama had mentioned that that was probably where I was going after grade school, she cautioned me not to be like them.

Later, when she found out that I didn’t know about sex, she said that if you did it with a man, his sperm would live in your body forever and you could get pregnant multiple times. I think she genuinely believed that, maybe, her mama and her papa had sex only once. And that explained why there were so many of them, even if her mama and papa fought sometimes.

I would later find that all of these were, in fact, not true. She probably did tell me stuff that were true, but I don’t remember. Things that you can laugh about, after all, are the most memorable.

But the important thing was that she taught me how to make paper dolls.

 

I used to buy paper dolls from the store across the street from school. I wasn’t actually allowed to cross that street, but it was the only way I could get dolls, yoyos and Ghost Fighter cards. Mama used to tell me stories about kids who got run over by cars in that very street.

Mas maliit ang gasto ng driver kung mamatay ka kaysa kung ma-hospital ka,” she said. “Kaya minsan tinutuluyan na lang nila.”

So I was cautious. I looked left, right, and left again, just like the koala with the ranger hat said in that book about safety. I never got hit and I never told Mama, lest she make one of my classmates’ yayas watch over me like a hawk. In the meantime, she was watching over Kim like a hawk. The doctors had put a plastic tube in Kim’s head, which drained fluid from her brain to her stomach. Sometimes, though, it needed a bit of help to move along, so Mama had to press at a small soft spot on her head just above a little pump. With Mama anxiously watching her for even the first sign of seizures, I often managed to slip out and get whatever toys I wanted.

Even though the paper dolls I often bought were pretty, I didn’t play with them a lot. I’d dress them up in my favorite outfit, and then get tired of them because their clothing always came loose, being helped up only with flimsy little paper straps. Those folds of those paper straps would also get worn down and torn out the more my dolls changed clothing.

On the hot afternoon that Ate Joy taught me to make dolls, she also showed me a neat little trick that solved this problem by making backs for the dresses. She’d fold the paper in half, drawing the shoulder part of the dress right at the crease. She would then cut the dress out, making sure to leave enough room at the top so that the dress would just hang on the doll’s shoulders. As you might imagine, the doll’s head wouldn’t quite fit through the small neck hole at the top. So she’d cut a slit at the back so the dolls’ head entered the dress sideways through the slit, and then she could flip the head ninety degrees, easing it into the neck hole.

This made sure that my sisters and I could now make paper dolls for our bahay-bahayan games without worrying that they’d get disrobed in the middle of a party.

My two main dolls were redhead twins Caroline and Carolyn. A couple of years earlier, my best friend Aika had introduced me to the Sweet Valley Kids Super Snoopers book series. I was hooked. Now I got a book for birthdays and holidays, or every time my parents brought us to the local bookshop. Sha and I had realized that they were much more generous in bookshops than in toy stores. Now, I had an entire row on the shelf full of Sweet Valley Kids above Sha’s Goosebumps collection. It was because of these books that I was now obsessed with twins.

I made regular clothes, just like the ones we wore. But I also copied clothes off the New Book of Knowledge on fashion costumes through history. And so our dolls had an entire range of clothes, from medieval Maid Marian costume to rococo ones with puffed skirts to elegant flapper chic.

To me, they unlocked a whole world of play. Had I gotten a Barbie, I would have needed to buy more and more of those separately sold dresses every time I wanted her to play a different role. After all, there was Princess Barbie and Fairy Barbie. Indian Barbie and Filipino Barbie. Doctor Barbie and Flight Stewardess Barbie. With paper, I could make as many dolls and clothes as I wanted.

 

I still visited the doll section of South Seas well until I was in high school. To my parents’ relief, however, I never asked for a Barbie again. I was there for research.

Later, I took to making new doll clothes from the back pages of Papa’s old reports. I had learned from an episode of Captain Planet that people cut down trees, just like the one in my backyard, to make paper. Do your part to save the planet, they said, and write on both sides of the paper.

It pained me to think that, somewhere in the world, forests were being cut by the hundreds so I could have books and writing pads and paper dolls. I remembered the sarisa tree in our backyard, now bare of all the branches within my reach. It would be a shame, I thought, if other children like me would not have trees to climb. Besides, it was the responsible thing to do.

 

I remembered all this a decade later, when an Aunt tagged my parents in a Facebook meme. Kids these days, it said, did not know how to have fun. They were always indoors, practically motionless with new technology. They didn’t know how to transform sticks and strings and empty cans into toys. They didn’t know how to swim in rivers and climb trees.

Oo,” they agreed. “They don’t know what it’s like anymore.”

Of course, this perplexed me.

But that’s how you raised us, I protested, internally. I climbed a tree. And then, it was cut down. Because you feared that I would fall.

The child in me was like that tree, growing wild and unpredictable in the fertile soil of our home. But also wild and unpredictable were the unruly out-of-school children of the squatters living outside the gates of my grandparents’ home. Wild and unpredictable was the boy who went missing near the ilog, the one whose lifeless body was found days later downstream.

Anong klaseng mga magulang ‘yun,” I heard Mama tut-tut when she saw the news on TV. “Pinabayaan lang ang anak nila.

After all, she and Papa were careful to make sure their children didn’t meet such a fate. The world was such a capricious, dangerous place that simply keeping four unruly children alive required effort that strained their time, money, and, possibly, their sanity. That they knew very well because of the brother that I never knew, lost by no fault of their own.

Because of that, we were trimmed and refined, sometimes beyond recognition. We were taught that our negative emotions were to be suppressed, until they were locked within the pages of our childhood diaries. We were taught to avoid risk, no matter how small.

We were made from trees into paper. Because paper was predictable. It was practical. It was useful. It was kept indoors, away from the unforgiving elements. It was also assuring, the product of centuries of discovery, of experimentation, of technology.

So are we the product of the hopes—and of the fears—of all the generations before us. Maybe one day we’ll feel safe enough to teach the next generation how to become trees again.