The Ride Home

By Xaña Angel Eve Apolinar 
Nonfiction

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.

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We Are Not in Paradise

By Hazel Aspera
Nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t think so. I do it anyway.

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any laughter was lost in the howl of the wind.

To the Mouse I Shall Be Dissecting this Afternoon

by Lance Isidore G. Catedral (Nonfiction)

(This piece was first published in Bottledbrain.com, the author’s blog.)

Hey.

We’ve known each other for more than a week now, 11 days to be exact, and I know this because you’re special.

I remember visiting you on that lazy Saturday morning and you looked at me with your red, searching eyes, as if to say, I’m pregnant. You weren’t mistaken.

I don’t know if you were excited as I was—or I was excited as you were—but knowing that you were conceiving half-day old kids thrilled me to pieces. I told my friends all about it, and they were wishing you all the best.

From then on, I kept coming back to you, talking to you, handling you by the tail to see if everything was alright. Thankfully, you seemed to be in perfect health.

But right now, I, who glaringly and openly professed to be your friend, will do to you the two most despicable things one could ever do to a friend—one, I’m going to kill you, and two, I’m going to kill your babies.

I’m not even going to ask for your forgiveness, but all I ask for is that you hear me out one more time because what I will say is true.

Your death will not be humiliating as the deaths of those who ate Racumin for breakfast and drooled moments later. It will not be useless as the deaths of those who craved for cheese and stumbled upon a painful trap. It will not be cruel as the deaths of those who happened to see a cat and got teethed by it.

Instead, yours will be glorious, filled with celebration and dignity and honor because, yes, people will learn from it.

I will never forget you.

Better This Way

by Spencer Pahang (Nonfiction)

I woke up in bed, breaking out in a cold sweat. My muscles ached from being tense throughout the night. For a thankful, short-lived moment, my heart pounded steadily, and my head started to clear things out. A sudden realization shook my body out of its happiness.

That day was what I dreaded most: first day of junior high school.

They’ll probably think I’m odd, I thought.

No, they won’t. I won’t let them, I countered.

These thoughts fought each other like Spartans and Persians, both powerful and parallel. This debate went on and on until I got to the bathroom. It didn’t stop at the dining table. Like a shadow, it followed me until I got dressed. I put on my white polo shirt and paired it with a black loose pants and a blue rubber shoes. Before facing the outside world, I looked in the mirror and stared at my own reflection.

You look so weird, I thought.

No, you look alright, I countered.

As I entered the school’s gate, I felt a little steady. My confidence slowly regained. The campus was quiet and had a relaxing atmosphere. I could feel the peacefulness and calmness of the school premises. The silence made me feel better, so much better.

Suddenly, I heard the yells of the students from the quadrangle. I observed them and saw similarities. Most of the boys were wearing low-riding jeans paired with black shiny sneakers and “I’m cool” quoted caps. The girls didn’t fell short as well. Most of them were wearing skinny jeans showing their curves and cropped t-shirts showing their belly-buttons.

I will not fit here, I thought.

No, you’ll be fine, I countered.

In class, my classmates stared at me and questioned my gender because of the manner of my speech and action. I heard one student whispered to his friends that I must be gay. Others commented on my awkward walk and other things included in the list of my imperfections. I just stayed silent, trying to act normal while I felt dizzy inside. My hands started to sweat from nervousness, and my eyes struggled to keep their tears in. On the first day of my junior high, I already felt rejected, unaccepted, and unacknowledged because I was different.

Luckily, the class was done. I ran out of the class, struggling to keep myself calm. I accepted that connecting with my classmates would be difficult: we had contrary thoughts. What I found funny, they frowned upon. While I was quiet, they were expressive. What I found in myself as normal, they saw as weird. What I loved, they despised. Change gave me a sense of inability to be in control. I therefore made myself capable of preventing my emotions from showing. When I was pressured, I would break down and would show my true self. This intimidated me and made me feel uncomfortable. I distanced myself from others.

This is what happens when you are socially awkward: you eat your lunch at the classroom alone and you sit next to the classroom window.

Months had passed. While I was eating the snacks I bought at the nearest canteen in our school, I came up with some theories: Am I friendless because of my solitary nature? Do less people gravitate towards me because I look gay and sometimes seem monotonous or lifeless? Should I abandon this charade—forget who I really am and replace it with identities my classmates have?

In class, I spoke spontaneously to a girl I had met. In the end, we walked out giggling and smiling. Sometimes opening yourself up can do wonders.

I waved her goodbye as their car left the parking lot. I sat on the chairs behind me and smiled, thinking how happy I was to talk to someone. As I walked outside to get home, the students in my back were all screaming, murmuring, and whispering to each other. But the noises no longer bothered me. I had grown used to them, and now if ever there was silence, it would worry me.

It is better this way.

As the tricycle wobbled down the uneven road, I made an oath to myself: I will not degrade myself for being different from other boys. That shouldn’t determine the way I act or feel. It shouldn’t be the reason why my voice trembles as I speak to a stranger or my hands sweat as I pass by a bully in the corridors. What I think about myself is what ultimately defines me. I should celebrate my difference as this can be my strength. Life is too short for insecurities to hurt.