Three years ago, on my first trip home from college, Isulan felt like home for the very first time. As soon as I stepped out of the van I took a picture of the Roundball, which was another first. The Roundball wasn’t a grand architectural feat—it’s just a rotonda—it was rugged and unkempt, yet its concrete base never seemed shaken. The statue of Sultan Kudarat stood on top, collecting dust from thousands of vehicles passing by each day, off to their own destinations. For something that stood there as long as I can remember, it’s anything but new. It reminded me that I was home. And I wanted to immortalize that moment. Perhaps it was that exact feeling of home, of warmth, that I wanted to carry with me wherever I went. Or maybe it was just an impulse.
After that spontaneous flick, I took a stroll on the empty highway—it was eight o’clock in the evening. The dust in the air stung my eyes and filled my lungs as I kept on looking and walking around streets and buildings that I would have overlooked if it had been any other moment than that. A couple of minutes later, I reached the old market, the palengke, and I noticed that a statue of a golden eagle has been erected in front of an old bakery, barbecue stalls with disco lights lined the pathway, street lights no longer flickering, tarpaulins and colorful banners of politicians flitted by the warm evening wind. The moon seemed to project a vague film on the concrete, the stars hummed, and street dogs sang. For a while, it looked like a Vincent van Gogh painting. Were all of these like this before?
I was taken back to reality when I checked my phone and saw four missed calls from Tatay. I realized then that I was truly back, but somehow I knew something was different. I felt like I needed to write about this moment, to translate my feelings on paper, to write a story. Such an impression made me reflect about the reality of the people selling barbecue every night, what their economic status was and how the political system affects their lives, their stories and motivations. How I could give them justice through my writing, one that could never be given by the faces on political campaign materials. I had never thought about these before. Perhaps nothing really changed in Isulan, I just didn’t care enough to look and see.
Still enamored by how mundane and peaceful everything felt, I thought to myself, “I am home.”
I told Tatay where I was.
Today, after being caged here for almost two years, I have yet to find another thing to try and write about. Isulan, a town of ninety-thousand in the province of Sultan Kudarat, has become sort of an enigma. I used to think that nobody cared about politics, about art, or the looming dread of capitalism. I was bored out of my mind. I wanted to prove to myself that there has to be more, here in my hometown. There were people I’ve met that made me reconsider my previous thoughts. One of them was a man I’ve only known for a month; he calls himself Mark, I call him Kuya. As I do every guy I think is older than me.
One day, I found myself in Kuya’s home. I accompanied my girlfriend to a business meeting there. He asked her to model for an “essential oils” promotional shoot. I made sure it was nothing shady, hence my unsolicited presence. The compound was big. Hundreds of plants organized in tight little spaces, some in pots, and others on the ground. “These plants weren’t here before the pandemic,” Kuya said. “Nanay really turned out to be a plantita.” I feigned a smile.
After the meeting, Kuya lit a cigarette and started to puff away; we were in a bahay kubo. Later I found out that Kuya’s father knew Tatay, and they were relatively close. It piqued my interest. I didn’t know if I was glad that Kuya and I had something in common, or annoyed because it really had nothing to do with me.
“Did you know I was in the PNP for five years?” Kuya said.
This fully-bearded man, riddled in tattoos, used to be a police officer? A promising one at that, too, as he later revealed. I asked why he broke away from the organization.
“I couldn’t see myself doing the same thing for ten, twenty more years,” Kuya answered. “I only wanted to prove myself to Tatay.”
He referred to his father as “Tatay,” as I did mine. And he was also the eldest son trying to prove himself to his father. I saw myself in him, and perhaps he saw himself in me. It felt easier to talk to him, to confess my deepest worries and curiosities. But I didn’t, I’ve only known him for a day. That afternoon, I knew I had to write about what happened. To immortalize the moment I met someone who I might, and could, have been.
The following day, I asked my girlfriend to come with me to Kuya’s house because I wanted to buy a plant. She was in disbelief because I had never been interested in plants. On the way there, I told her that it was for a school requirement about taking care of plants (it really wasn’t). I didn’t want her to think I wanted to visit Kuya for no reason, or anyone for that matter.
When we arrived, I saw Kuya smoking under the shade of a small coconut tree in the farthest corner of their garden; his little sanctuary. He seemed dazed by the lush greenery. Waking from his stupor, he grinned and waved at us. It was 11 a.m., just in time for lunch. I told Kuya why we were there.
“I’m sorry, Dave, I don’t think these are for sale,” he said. “Wait here, I’ll ask Nanay.”
I wanted to buy a pretty plant that was easy to take care of; low maintenance and beautiful to look at. Since we arrived, my girlfriend had already been scouting every inch of the garden, leaving no flowerpot unchecked. When Kuya came back, a woman who looked a little over sixty wearing a blouse as colorful as the garden, trailed beside him.
“This is the one I was talking about, ‘Nay,” Kuya said to his mother. “‘Tong bata ni Madriaga haw?”
“Oh you look like your father, ga,” auntie said. “So, how is he?”
“Police gihapon ah,” I answered. “He’s still on duty.”
“Oh, now I remember, you were that kid who ran back and forth and played all day in the barracks, like a kiti-kiti,” Auntie wiped a drop of sweat from her forehead with her blouse. “Ti, ano aton?”
I told her that I wanted to buy a plant for a school requirement. I nudged my girlfriend to point out which one she chose for me, as well as the one she wanted.
“Aring duha ho?” Auntie pointed to the monstera and Pink Princess. “These are tiny.”
“It’s okay, auntie,” I said. “I only need it for school anyway.”
Auntie picked up the two pots of plants and put them in a plastic cellophane.
“How much for these po?” I asked.
“Inyo na na ga,” Auntie said. “Give my regards to your father.”
I turned to Kuya. He nodded in approval. “Thank you po.” I said.
As we were about to go home, Kuya asked us if we already had lunch. That was the invitation I hoped for. “Not yet, Kuya.” I answered.
The inside of the house was spotless. It had a slightly modern look with all the right angles and monotonous colorway, perfect complement to the rustic atmosphere of the garden. Medals and photos were hung on every side of the wall. I didn’t recognize Kuya in the photos; he was clean shaven and youthful, there was a spark in his eyes. Now, Kuya wore sunglasses wherever he went, even when we were having lunch.
Auntie served fried fish and homemade longganisa along with a huge bowl of steaming white rice. Kuya didn’t wait for us to scoop the rice first; he broke the awkward ritual of making visitors begrudgingly scoop rice first—I think I prefer it this way now.
“How do you like Isulan, Kuya?” My girlfriend asked.
“It’s all right. Peaceful,” he said. “Closer to family. It’s been two months since I came back.”
I thought he lived here his whole life.
“What did you do before then?” I took a bite of the longganisa.
“A lot of things, Dave. But I guess I’d call myself a businessman. See this?” Kuya took out shards of wood from his sling bag. “Do you know what this is?”
I had no idea.
“This is agarwood,” he said. “I used to sell this for a living.”
Aquilaria malaccensis. He handed me one of the wooden shards. It felt and looked normal, until I smelled it. It was unlike anything I smelled before. My girlfriend later told me that it was illegal to possess agarwood, much more sell it. Kuya said that a kilo could go up to a hundred thousand pesos, and the cost came from how scarce it was. Since Kuya immersed himself in this line of work, it took him two years to locate agarwood from all over the country. He also sold all sorts of illegal items—mostly nature-related— in the black market.
I knew then that he was a criminal. I started to feel uneasy, but he piqued my interest yet again. Kuya gave me one of the shards. “That’s worth five thousand pesos,” Kuya said. “Keep it.” I hesitated. Partly because of how expensive it was, but mostly because I didn’t want to feel indebted to him. I didn’t have a choice, he was basically shoving it inside my pocket.
At that time I didn’t know why I kept it, I wasn’t used to receiving gifts from strangers. But looking back, I might have kept it as a reminder of the troubles Kuya went through, and the sacrifices he had to make to find something valuable. Not just during his days as an illegal trader, but his time as a police officer; what made him change? If I were in his situation, would I have done what he did? As it turns out, agarwood is the byproduct of the tree’s defense mechanism after enduring years of damage. It is said that the most damaged trees produce high quality agarwood.
We thanked Auntie for the meal and the plants before we went home. I nodded at Kuya and smiled before saying goodbye. I knew that wouldn’t be the last time Kuya and I would meet. On our way home, I realized that I haven’t paid a single penny for the things we were given. This was quite unusual since we were at the peak of the pandemic.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the people of Isulan panicked. Borders were closed, quarantine passes were issued, vehicle sterilization drive-throughs were in every street, and nobody ever went outside without a facemask on. People started to hoard groceries; some people I knew bought five months worth. Others even stockpiled on liquor, the higher the alcohol content the better. It was said that drinking liquor could kill the coronavirus. Most people didn’t think twice about these kinds of information even when they only stumbled upon it on social media. Everyone was desperate when it came to battling the virus. (To be continued)
David Madriaga is a writer from Isulan, Sultan Kudarat. He is a graduating student of the University of the Philippines Mindanao’s BA English – Creative Writing Program.