Wheel of Emotions

Nonfiction by | December 13, 2021

Anxiety

I am scared of the dark. I sleep with a nightlight on. Just to disinfect the city. That’s what the mayor said when she cancelled classes that day. It was the first time I saw Tarlac so empty. I don’t know what day it is anymore. I know the churning feeling in my gut hasn’t left since then. People have stopped saying “See you soon.” I feel like I’m losing my mind. Dinner looks good tonight. My mom tells me to stop bouncing my leg. I heave half of what I ate in the bathroom. Twenty-eight. That’s how many excruciating breaths I take before getting up in the morning. The clouds are so big. It covers everything in the shadows.

Loneliness

I break down crying. Like second nature, I grab my blanket and put it in my mouth. I bite down hard. It’s an effective way not to disturb my sleeping sister. She has her own problems. I don’t bother her with mine. My friends and I are on a Zoom call. We laugh and joke and smile. My eyes are burning from staring at the screen. We say our goodbyes. The four walls of my bedroom suddenly feel so much closer. Too close. I miss my friends. I miss people I shouldn’t miss. There it is again. My tears are leaving scorching trails on my cheeks. I type out a message to a friend. I don’t hit send. How many of my friends didn’t hit send? I go and take a shower. The cold water is welcome against my skin. A feeble substitute for human touch everyone is deprived of. I step out of the bathroom shaking.

Guilt

I deactivate my Twitter account. I hate myself for it. I have food on the table. A roof above my head. I am healthy. The people around me are all getting sick. No one in my immediate family of five has gotten sick. I am sick to my stomach. There is so much death. I am still alive. I know someone who knows someone who has died. I can’t even handle the news. It feels like a cycle. Every day is the same. Is this the beginning, the middle, or the end? Shame is such a heavy thing to bear. I am tired. Who am I to get tired?

Anger

I scroll through Facebook and see a familiar man throwing a party. No physical distancing. No masks. Isn’t this the same person who preached about safety protocols? The one who blames the rising numbers on the people’s “indiscipline”? Well, it’s easy to tell people to stay at home when your fridge is all stocked up. When you don’t have to depend on your day-to-day jobs. When your stomach isn’t growling from hunger. The resiliency spiel is getting old. The nurses are already tired. We take advantage of them. Why? I am in front of my laptop. The malls are open. Why? The rich are getting richer. The poor, poorer. Why? I am angry. Helplessness angers me. I am but one person. What can I do? I am no longer alone in demanding answers now. Not as helpless. But anger still burns in me red.

Hope

There it is. In the easy smiles of kids. In the voices of the youth. In the welcoming ways of a mother. In the selfless dedication of the farmer. In the rasp in the voice of a teacher discussing to their student. In the furious typing of an impassioned writer. In the ducked head of an artist dipping their brush in paint. In the eyes of the photographer who captures more than the obvious. In the outstretched hand of one to another. In the linked arms of the people. In their fists high up in the air. In the masses. There I find it.


Born in Davao yet currently living in Tarlac City, Paige Ingrid D. Alovera is taking up BA English (Creative Writing) at UP Mindanao. She loves reading, writing, and dogs.

Days of the Days

Nonfiction by | November 22, 2021

The Sudden Shift- End of the Victorious Days

It was March 15 of 2020, just after our preliminary examinations. I was exhausted after the mind-boggling exam I’d taken. After I left the room, my friends were celebrating as if it were New Year’s Eve. I thought it was because we had finished our exams. I had no idea that it was just posted on Facebook that there was a weeklong class suspension due to the “COVID-19” virus. As expected of students who treat class suspensions as blessings in disguise, we went out for lunch happily. I never knew that that break would feel like going on a full stop after a speed of 80kph—from a very fast-moving routine to a life of forgetting what day of the week it was.

The Joy of the Days

The weeklong suspension recharged me. So, I texted my friends and planned a meet-up lunch; we met at the same mall, SM, but nothing was ever the same. After the sudden shift, it felt like I arrived in a different world. I noticed that people were wearing facemasks and face shields. Everything seemed so foreign to me. We had ours too, but it felt new seeing people in those “suits.” We were asked to practice social distancing inside the restaurant and in the bookstore—our go-to stop every time we visited the mall. While browsing these newly-released books, my phone rang—it was an announcement that Tuguegarao City will be under Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ). I went back to my normal routine when I buy books: I proceeded to the counter and paid for it—I bought a Tagalog boys’ love novel entitled “Kadenang Bahaghari,” written by John Jack G. Wigley. As usual, we bid our goodbyes and went home. Little did I know, it was going to be the last human interaction that I will have for a long time.

The Long Days

It had been months and the name of the supposed weeklong lockdown had evolved—we were now under the Modified General Community Quarantine (MGCQ). Only one member of the family can go outside for essential transactions. Fortunately, cell phones, laptops, and online modes of communication were invented before the pandemic took place. My devices were my bridges to reach my friends and family. I spent the next few days communicating with them, scrolling on social media, and watching shows on Netflix. Sometimes I took my time while drinking a cup of iced coffee on our balcony and watching the sunset. Those days had been long and exhausting, it felt like I was sitting in my math class because of how the time slowed down—except that I was missing my friends and I was in my room, alone. The isolation and disconnection were different; from there, I knew that the joy of the days was over.

 

The Blank Days

A year has passed, and nothing has changed. This pandemic came to us like a thief –we were unguarded, and we did not know what it would bring. It stole the supposed milestones of my life, such as senior high school graduation and my time as a college freshman. My long days were filled with longing – both for the people that I love and for the life that I had. I never loved the idea of a traffic jam, but I started thinking about the last time that I felt a stranger’s sweat against my skin. The thief left me with nothing but an empty room where I can think of all my “could-have-beens.” Luckily, this room had windows that shed light—it reminded me that I was blessed enough that none of my family members caught the virus and we were able to sustain our daily living.

The Silent days

It has been a year and seven months of lockdown. I was awakened by the continuous ringing of my phone. I was still sleepy due to the medicines I took for my headache. It was my ate messaging me, informing us that our Aunt Norma died because of the virus and her family was under quarantine and isolation. I was in shock; a sudden ring consumed my ears—it was like I was swallowed by the silence. Aunt Norma and I were just talking through Facebook the other day, and now she was gone. Weeks had passed, and still, I couldn’t move on; it was my Psych check-up, and later, I was diagnosed with “Severe Depressive Disorder.” We were silent again. No one talked after we bought my medications. We went home, and I went straight up to my room to read the book I bought a year ago; it was “Kadenang Bahaghari.” Who would have thought that the joy of the days will turn into the long days filled with melancholy that would soon remind me of how my victorious times turned into the blank days, and were now the silent days?


Benjamin Ambros King G. Sumabat is a student writer currently studying Bachelor of Arts in English (Creative Writing) at the University of the Philippines Mindanao.

How He Responds (Part 2)

Nonfiction by | October 11, 2021

III. Ayaw paghilak kay makahilak pud ko.

After my mother left, I swore to make Papa happy. Maybe not as happy as he would have been when we were still complete. But proud and happy of the pieces of our family left with him. I promised myself I would never be the reason for his tears.

I knew Papa never loved the idea of me enrolling to a Special Program in my Junior High School. I was 13 years old that time and it was already three years since my mother left us and I thought making him proud with academic achievements was the best way for me to cope.  But Papa didn’t want me to pressure myself. He had always wanted me to enjoy my life without academic responsibilities or burden. He wanted me to have a “normal life.” And it took me a few years to realize that I, my family, was not meant to have one.

Although I knew him as a quiet man, Papa talked more over the years. Most often about my mother. Whether it was through text or over merienda in his payag whenever I visited him after school, I would shiver at how angry his voice sounded.

Unsa imong gusto, ipa-taurpalin ko nang dagway sa imohang mama kauban iyang lalake?

Do you want me to print a tarpaulin of your mother flexing her lover?

He told me this on one of the days I went straight to his payag after training for a writing competition. I was tired that day, both from my training and from dealing with this “not normal” but “not extraordinary” family. Hearing him say those words made me feel more drained. Even when those words were true, that my mother left us for another man, I never wanted to hear those things from Papa. I was convinced that she will always be my mother regardless of everything.

At that moment I tried to think of an appropriate response for what he said. Should I agree? Should I tell him not to talk about mother that way? So I just bowed my head until my eyes gave out. I cried in silence, as I had always done in the nights where I didn’t get to sleep next to Papa or next to my mother, or even next to both.   Crying in silence was not enough for all the things I felt at that time, so I sobbed without daring to look at him.

While I cried, I thought about my mother. Where was she now that her little girl is crying? Should I still call her “mama”? What should I refer to her then? It was funny how kirida and mistress became names for women who have affairs with married men. But how about a single word for widowed men who steal wives from their respective home? Was there any word that could describe how painful it is to the husbands and children to see their wives and mothers lighting up somebody else’s tahanan?

But then Papa did something unexpected, he hugged me. I stopped crying almost immediately out of shock. I could feel his dry and chapped skin against my arms, and I could smell the sweat on his faded blue loose t-shirt with little holes and ripped hem. He must have worked the whole day here in the store, I thought. And here I was adding more stress to his already tiring day.

“Anak,  sorry na. Ayaw pag hilak kay makahilak pud ko,” Papa said in a voice so soft I almost didn’t hear him. Papa was not a fan of hugs or physical affection, but this hug was not the biggest shock to me. It dawned on me that no matter how sad he was about losing my mother to another man, what pained him more was seeing me lose myself in all the stress and hurt I had been feeling.

So I hugged him back in silence. The most comforting silence we had ever shared.

 

There were those times in my life where I have wondered a lot about my father’s behavior. Is it true that he is psychologically incapacitate, like what the annulment papers say? He could have hurt my mother. He could have left us before my mother did. But why does he always remain calm even when it hurts? How does he manage to choose peace most especially when his whole family is hurting? Papa always knew better. He knew just how to respond to how I feel, to how my mother left, and to how he could keep this family “normal.”

I knew I had to stop taking note on how he handles every situation. It was time to show him the aftermath of his responses.

IV. Nakauli na ka?

“Papa, 3rd place ko!” I called him, crying. I won 3rd Place at a SciTech Writing competition when I was in Grade 10 and about to graduate from my Special Program.

He was silent at first and I didn’t really expect any reply. Letting him know that his little girl achieved something was surely enough for me to be proud of. I was still at school that time, fixing my things in our publication office. My fellow campus journalists who also won in their different categories invited me to celebrate with them in the sugbahan in Torres, just in front of our school.

“Congrats anak, proud kaayo ko sa imo,” he finally said. I heard his voice crack on the other line. He was crying.

I cried harder. My tears were not from my achievements, but it was from the tears I heard from him. No award could equal to the satisfaction I felt. It was as if I was a child again being given all the gifts she had asked from all her relatives on Christmas. I could not ask for more.

His payag was just a five-minute walk from school, so I started to walk home. When Papa asked if I had told my mother about my win, I mumbled a yes.

Ever since I was a child, and years later when I won in writing competitions or in other school events, my mother would just reply with a simple “Congrats.” Now that she knew how to use Messenger, she would send a large thumbs up emoticon. But Papa’s bragging of our, me and my brother’s, achievements would not end there. He would spend weeks telling his friends about how I placed 1st at writing competitions and how my brother had a published article at the University of Mindanao. He never seemed to have few words when he talked about us—his family.

When Papa noticed I was not talking on the other line, he asked me what he always asked before he would end a phone call or a text conversation: Nakauli naka? Are you home?

Home. I lived in different houses because of my parents’ separation. I was already used to not going home to the same house I had slept a night before. Back then, Papa would ask me to stay with him in Catitipan, then I would come home to my brother in Ubalde the following day, but most of the time I stayed with my late grandparents. Regardless of that setup, I always knew that I was welcome in his place.

Papa was never perfect. He had his lapses and limitations. He had his share of bad times and breakdowns. But he always knew what to do. He always knew how to respond.

So when he asked that question whether I arrived home or not, I found myself just a couple of steps away from his little sari-sari store. When he saw me by the small bamboo fence, he rushed to me immediately and we shared a hug. He didn’t even wait for my response, but I was always glad for his.

“Yes, Pa. Nakauli nako.” I’m home. Pa.


Reggie Faye is from Los Amigos, Tugbok, Davao City. She is a freshman from University of the Philippines – Mindanao, under the degree program Bachelor of Arts in English (Creative Writing). She graduated from Davao City National High School, where she took up the Special Program in Journalism during her Junior High School and the Humanities and Social Sciences (HUMSS) strand in her Senior High School.

How He Responds (Part 1)

Nonfiction by | October 4, 2021

My father doesn’t talk much. And when he does, he only replies. I gather those replies growing up, thinking this was how he shows me he cares for me—a sort of reciprocity for the things I say to him.

I. I-text ko kung nakauli naka.

Ever since I was 10, I didn’t live with Papa and Mama anymore. He had to move out after their separation where he lived at Catitipan, and I stayed with my late grandparents at Lanang. And though I lived far away from him, I was always comforted with the thought that every time I told him I was leaving, he would reply with this gentle reminder: let me know when you’re home.

His hidden payag and sari-sari store has been Papa’s source of income for more than a decade now. At an early age, I learned the names of the popular network providers, Smart, TalkNText, Globe, TM, and Sun, before I even memorized the multiplication table. In honor of his two children, he named the store after my older brother and I: Leboi and Pipai’s Store. His store has been a tambayan to some and a home for the many, especially among those who work in call centers and stores along Torres and V. Mapa.

 

On the day of his 46th birthday, when I was on my way to a small room my brother and I shared at Garcia Heights, the rain started pouring. The noise of the raindrops on the trapal roof of tricycles made me think of how heavy rains scared me when I was young. Not because of the deafening thunder but my father’s voice.  What scared me the most is how he would respond to what those rainy days brought – flood. When the water would begin to gather outside our store, he would curse merciless private vehicles who would pass on the road in front of us causing flood water to splash towards our direction. I was too scared of his loud voice to realize that after he had cursed the cars, he would always ask me if my brother and I were safe.

Papa would scratch the back of his head while looking at the lower surface of the tindahan turning into soft mud from hard soil. He would start ranting about how he was going to clean his store the following day: picking up pieces of trash buried in mud, washing the mud stains off of the wooden chair, enduring the muddy floor that buried his feet in every step. As a child, I had to listen to all of those, not knowing how to help him with anything. Up to this moment, I am still clueless on how I should have responded: both to how the flood thrashes our store and to how Papa felt helpless in fixing the store—the home he built for us.

 

Growing up, while I watched Papa absorbed all the dust, street noises, heat of the sun, and other people’s criticisms while he was starting to build his sari-sari store, I also watched Mama build her whole career. Back then, she worked as a General Secretary of a famous insurance company. I remember entering her office, feeling like it was a mall during Christmas season: everything was white, sparkling, and jolly. My voice would echo from calling my brother across the table. Their pantry never ran out of food – jelly ace, Oishi Prawn Crackers, Moby, viands, and a lot more; their chairs have wheels, they have unlimited hand sanitizer with the dispenser against the wall that appeared to be so high for a 7-year-old.

While my father had to scrape mud from the old wood which he would use to build the little payag, my mother never had to scrub the floors of their office since it was mopped by a janitor every day.  These are the places where they spend 8-10 hours of their lives, working. And us? We waited for them to come home.

I never saw any one of them less just because of what they do. I love them both equally, but I feared Papa more. He is silent most of the time, not because he wants to remain that way, but because he was used to not having anyone to talk to. Papa grew up with his grandparents where the household considers talking about what they feel as a crime. Nonetheless, he made sure that my brother and I were always heard. And I was always thankful for that.

 

II. Naa man lagi mo diri?

Ever since my mother left us for another man, the man he met in her clean and white office, Papa always asked us why we were there in the payag with him, and not with Mama.

After he found out about my mother’s infidelity, he chose to stay in the payag with my brother and me. Coming from a broken family, he did not want us to experience what he had gone through. When my mother left us, I was just nine and my brother was 11. Old enough to come home from school by ourselves, but young enough to decide where to celebrate the holidays.

While we still stayed together in the payag, Mama would intentionally go out of the room and sit under the coconut tree outside the house. She would be found giggling at her phone with the man on the other line. I knew my mother was already too deeply in love with that man to make her remember that this little family existed. Her little family existed.

Afraid that he might not take it and might end up hurting her, Papa left. The memory of him packing his clothes while Wency Cornejo’s Hanggang played in the background is still clear to me. It was the last time I have seen them together in the same room.


Reggie Faye is from Los Amigos, Tugbok, Davao City. She is a freshman from University of the Philippines – Mindanao, under the degree program Bachelor of Arts in English (Creative Writing). She graduated from Davao City National High School, where she took up the Special Program in Journalism during her Junior High School and the Humanities and Social Sciences (HUMSS) strand in her Senior High School.

The Weight of Departure

Nonfiction by | August 23, 2021

Kumupas na ang kulay ng buhay”

–Radioactive Sago Project

 

I get off the taxi and arrive at Ecoland Terminal. It’s my last morning in Davao this year. When I reach the gate, I open my bag for inspection and fumble around with the zippers and locks of my luggage. They are heavy with books, clothes, and all kinds of knick-knacks. The weight has always made me feel at ease, and it still does. It’s a tangible reminder for me that I already have everything I need – the bags could be filled with nothing but boulders, and I would still feel safe. I could sigh in relief while the rest of the world passed me by, or while other travelers already got past inspection while I was still hoisting the worn straps onto my shoulders, now weakened but used to the strain.

It’s a cold December. The sky is a blank white, like a floodlight behind thin muslin cloth. On the ground, people go about their business as usual: vendors ply travelers going to and fro with their goods, and buses line up with signs, waiting to depart. But it’s not as crowded as I expected. There are people, yes, but only about as many as during a regular workday or weekend. Aren’t terminals supposed to be filled with people eager to go home by this time?

Regardless, I’m thankful I missed the holiday rush. The whole ordeal is an eight-hour land trip. Depending on the bus, I would stop several times before reaching Agora Terminal. If I travel early enough in the morning, I find myself hopping on a shuttle to Bulua by half-past two in the afternoon. If I’m lucky, I might find a Super Five or a Rural Tours bus with a “non-stop” sign on the windshield and get there by that time.

Buses don’t often have that – conductors have to make their money, after all – so it really comes down to timing to figure out how soon I would reach my destination. The bulk of the trip to Iligan will be spent making stops throughout Bukidnon – namely, Valencia City, Malaybalay, and Manolo Fortich – before getting off at Bulua Terminal in Cagayan de Oro. By seven in the evening, the bus would make a quick stop at Tambo for disembarking passengers before finally ending the day at Westbound Terminal. (An irony, calling it Westbound despite the road to Cagayan being eastward.)

This was how I made the trip to and from my home city for a long time since my college days. Other than a few times when I had to go home by plane for the holidays, this is how I still travel.

 

 

Admittedly, I hate travelling. Though seeing new things and meeting new people is critical for anyone looking for an interesting story to tell, this isn’t the case with me.

I find it troublesome having to pack up, leave, and spend time idling in odd places for minutes at a time. Between the various checkpoints and the crowded terminals, much of the eight-hour ride is spent warming the bus seat, watching the same landscape shift from the perilous cliffs and slopes accessible by steep, meandering roads to the silent busyness of Valencia’s sleepy urban center. A few years ago, the trips took longer because the roads were still under repair, with a long line of trucks, buses, and vans forming at junctures that only let one lane pass at a time.

This, if I remember correctly, was when everything outside the safety of the windowpane would be obscured in a dense fog. A small miracle, then, that drivers were even able to make out anything, let alone keep their foot on the pedals for several kilometers at a time without crashing onto a vehicle or the various concrete barriers laid out on the side of the road.

That said, I would still see the crumpled frame of a truck slumped on the side of the highway like fresh roadkill now and then. From the backseat, I would hear other passengers remarking on how dangerous driving at night can be, given how the late hours can prompt some to step on the gas a little too hard out of sleepiness or foolhardiness. This is especially true in the case of drivers along these routes – coffee can only do so much for those long hours on the road, and that very exhaustion can sometimes lead to tragic accidents.

By no means do I consider myself a homebody with a crippling fear of leaving the safety of my room. I enjoy a night out every now and then, sometimes one too many, and I do welcome a land trip traversing the curving road networks of Mindanao just to see the sheer drops and rocky white waters that roll under bridges, as well as the expanse of lush green broken up now and then by sparse buildings, houses, and pylons. There is all this, and much more the outside world can offer, even for weary eyes.

If anything, my main gripe with traveling comes with the inconvenience of it. Whether it’s having to remember every last detail of an itinerary I didn’t ask for, checking every item off a list, or stopping every now and then for a dozen pictures, there is always something about the whole affair that irks me to no end.

And there are other things too, like the fear of forgetting to bring some crucial document or item, that drive me up a wall.

Another thing I have against it is how concerned I can be with getting to my destination. Once I set my sights on going anywhere, everything else falls away, especially the reason why I’m even headed there in the first place. I become more irritable, straying farther from usual disposition that values slowing down to take the world in.

All that would matter is getting there, and that I need to do so as quickly as possible before anything else happened. It’s as if I have a fear of traveling by night, something I really find no problems with, but avoid it like a plague for a reason I can’t put to words, and so I would go.

Losing one’s sense of self is a tricky concept to grasp, but it hasn’t stopped many people I know from turning into drones concerned only with one thing, whether it’s completing a certain task or to simply survive for the next day. Everything else becomes secondary, as if that one thing has consumed them, leaving little time to think of anything else.

The saying “It’s not about the destination, but the journey,” gets tossed around often, but I think the people who say that sometimes miss a crucial detail about travel: it’s that the circumstances affect not just the journey, but one’s outlook on it. When the journey doesn’t allow for a moment to stop and stare, everything else on the roadside becomes a blur, a haze of people and places moving at their own time, as if they were in a world of their own.

The act of going from one place to another, then, becomes a limbo of sorts. I’m not quite out of the world, but I’m not quite in it, either. Everything passes me by and goes on without me.

Nobody even notices me being there, or that I was ever gone: for the stranger on the ground, I’m just another bobbing head on the window of a vehicle barreling down a road to who-knows-where.

When I look at it differently, it can even feel like seeing what the world would be when I bite the dust. Life is a journey too, after all, one that comes to its eventual end – some bittersweet, most mediocre – but too often, many would care too much about getting to the signposts placed arbitrarily along the way.

 

 

In a way, I suppose I should consider myself lucky I even get to places in an air-conditioned bus. Many travelers like myself opt instead for the non-air conditioned buses and jeepneys, many of which are smaller in comparison. They are much older models in without the sleekness and flash of the new ones (that come complete with their own entertainment system!), less suited for comfort, and lean more towards simply being an economical means for getting from point A to point B. They are also more packed with passengers and/or cargo – usually both – which undoubtedly makes for a rather cramped experience; for some, a claustrophobic one.

I do find something enthralling about them, though. Their worn-down appearance is a testament to how they have withstood the test of time. Rust may form on their surface and gather on their axles, their windows may be gone, and they have more than likely broken down more than once, but these antiquated machines still carry their load, still carry on longer than they should.

They have their flaws, yes – their engines are not always regularly cleaned and tuned, and can be huge culprits for smoke-belching on the road – but the lack of maintenance is often the downside of either poverty or greed by the bus line, and often hardly anything the drivers and dispatchers should be blamed for.

But more important to keep in mind is the sometimes rather unforgiving terrain that these vehicles traverse. In many areas, investing in a motorcycle is the way to go since carrying people and goods from place to place becomes more difficult when you consider that these roads are not only unpaved but also sometimes impossible to traverse come rainfall.

Dirt roads turn into inaccessible muddy swaths cutting through what remains of the country’s once heavy forest cover, and in many areas, are flooded completely due to the lack of roots or trees holding the topsoil in place. Consider in this case the skylab, a motorcycle modified by attaching wooden seats or platforms to either side, which has become a critical means of transportation in far-flung areas.

Perhaps I haven’t been on the road long enough to tell – after all, aside from bus rides and the occasional plane from Davao International to Laguindingan Airport and vice versa, I don’t get around much. My disdain for travel is an opinion I’ve long held, and I take measures to not have to go places when I can.

But the more I think about this, the more I come to the realization that the root of my disdain for travel is simply that I fear departure, if not the unfamiliar. The act of traveling itself cannot be possible without leaving something behind, and with only so much that I can carry with me anywhere I need to go, there is always the chance that I would forget to bring something really important, and be caught unprepared.

One might even say that the baggage I lug around isn’t just literal, but also figurative. I keep in mind every mistake I’ve made, every time I forgot to bring a water bottle or an extra change of clothes, and even every instance when I said or did something uncalled for that turned interaction into an awkward mess. One could only conclude that eventually, that baggage will be too heavy for me to move, and that has been the case many times in my life – even now.

 

 

What happens when the journey stops only for me to forget the things that really mattered? If I don’t have what it takes to get through a situation despite the weight of the world – my world – on my shoulders, would all my efforts have been for nothing? What would happen instead if I let go of that said weight, and simply let the worst come to me without anticipating it at every turn? And if it happened that I took the wrong one, would I buckle under pressure, or calmly look at my options before making a decision?

I never gave myself the chance to ask these questions. Looking back, I never even knew what my raison d’etre was for going back to Iligan – I could have simply stayed the whole time, even when my mother said otherwise.

The moment I first stepped foot in Davao was for college. I knew then that I wanted to be here, not just for the duration of my studies, but throughout whatever career path I chose. Davao is where I could be truly myself, unrestrained by expectations and insecurities that would otherwise hound me back home. Most, if not all of the connections I had painstakingly built over the years, are here. Finally, it’s here that I really felt that I could make something of myself, where there is a place for people like me whose particular skill set isn’t likely to amount for much anywhere else.

And not much awaits me in Iligan – aside from the construction of some new buildings here and there, that city remains essentially the same when I first left it. The atmosphere is as dreary as ever, even with the influx of refugees from Marawi making the place much more crowded. Everything is more rushed and pragmatic in that city of failing waters. Throughout my time there, I didn’t feel as much of an appreciation for the arts, and certainly not much for writing.

Even on sunny days, there is a sense of bleakness to it, from the buildings to the people who walk its streets, to the buildings, the jeepneys and brand-new cars that pepper its highways. It feels stifling, in a way, how passersby walk briskly. Iliganons, when walking, always seem like they’re one or two steps short of breaking into a sprint. Everywhere I turn, there feels like a hushed talk of going someplace else, of being more successful or finding work, a career, or a business in some distant city, perhaps in Cagayan or in the wistful mentions of far-off Manila.

Perhaps I say this because I am full of misgivings about my own home city – after all, it is not uncommon for those writing about their own places to initially hate them, and later come to terms with it in terms of nostalgia. But it has been years now, since I first tried to put my feelings about the city into writing. As of my last visit, it has stayed the same. Davao, by contrast, seems much better for me. So why do I bother?

The short answer is that I don’t know. The span of two decades simply isn’t enough for me to find out, given how nearly all of my trips started during my college years up until now. There wasn’t anything to think about: I went home because I was told to, and I still go home for this reason. I hate it, to some degree, but not enough to actively avoid doing so come December.

After all, I end up justifying to myself, the rest of the month is family time. Try as I might with my wanting for solitude, I still have my obligations. To set foot in that city after spending most of the year in Davao is in a way of saying, I am still here, still alive. Work has taken the better of me, and I bear the mental scars of life and living. This never needed saying. Mere presence was enough. Whether it was acknowledged was another story.

 

 

 

I feel that the answer is something more than just having no good reason to stay away for good.

I will start with this: I admit that there is a sort of banality to every return trip. When you dread the prospect of travel, you look forward to the end of it. The moment you arrive home and get to shut your eyes after a long day sitting on a bus is a rare joy, almost a feeling of reprieve. But when I consider Davao to be my home away from home, every trip becomes a return trip. Each time, traveling becomes a chore as the whole affair becomes wrapped in a veil of the mundane. Repetition is the death of novelty.

But even repetition can turn something into a part of involuntary memory, the same way constant practice at touch-typing lets you put more words onto a blank page faster. Before, I faced travel with fear and dread. These days, I only treat it the same way as cooking rice, or ironing my shirt for the next day at work.

All right, I would say to myself, and start packing whenever December started rolling around. Take out the duffel bag and the old maleta. Start stuffing them with clothes, books, and your favorite knick-knacks. Remember the Tupperware containers, the little padlocks. Pack just enough for the trip, for the few weeks you will spend your time in that cramped house. Remember to wake up just in time to catch the bus – race against the sun to get home before nightfall. Rinse. Repeat.

The novelty may have worn off, but so has the fear of getting lost, and, perhaps, even the dread. What is there to do? Let the mind do its work: at any time during the day, I could walk around Iligan with a crude sense of nostalgia. Visit the decrepit, dusty second floor of the public library, or wander along the public market to take in the view of the now-closed Berds Cinema. Stare at the horses bound to their kalesas, toasting in the midday heat, waiting patiently on the sidewalk for passengers. Remember the internet shops I used to spend time with friends in – and where are they now?

Amidst the sweltering heat, the city still breathes, its air of pragmatism embedded and enduring like the constant smell of cold steel that somehow permeates its every corner.

I did mention that there is nothing much that awaits me in that city, and my view on it hasn’t changed. This still stands true. What has changed, at least for me, is how time and distance allows me to take even my own views into perspective. A breather, if one might call it. These days, I am able to ask myself questions such as: why exactly did I hate being in Iligan? What was it about the city that frustrated me so much to want to stay away from it?

Among others, too, were the questions of why I badly wanted to run away from itin the first place. For all these reasons, for all these claims of mine, I still don’t hate it enough to truly stay away from it. I remain transfixed by the city, its awkward melding of old and new that I see in every street corner.

 

 

Ultimately, the most definitive answer I can give is that Iligan – my Iligan, at least – is an urban maze of memories, where the old and the new squeeze themselves alongside one another. The city tries to present itself as something new and emerging, and yet all along its boundaries are countless reminders of what it kept trying to be: boarded-up shopping centers, the closed down power plant, streets littered with potholes and graffiti.

From the busyness of the main highways, you can turn a corner and find yourself in a quiet nook, and spot the odd building that somehow stays open despite being lost to time. You can even hail a jeep to Pala-o, Suarez, or Bara-as, and find yourself lost in completely different worlds, but there will always be the route that will get you home. Perhaps this is how old memories persist, jostling for whatever spaces they can find while new ones hog the spotlight of one’s attention.

The orange streetlights bathe these ancient structures in striking, lovely shadows, putting them in a more romantic light compared to the blinding harshness of the day. And in this light, too, the crevices and hidden corners seem almost inviting despite the unnerving silhouettes and stray dogs.

Take a right turn here and a left turn there, and you will find these crevices and corners, seemingly forgotten enclaves that sit just out of sight. Here, there are homes new and old that bear silent witness to the world going by. Everything changes and stays the same in these pockets, in a manner of speaking.

Here, residents come and go, new houses cement themselves into being, and children acquaint themselves with the world. They learn the intricacies of borrowing a bike, the near-death experience of scraping a knee on the pavement, and the first taste of Armageddon from an angry parent with a belt or a rubber tsinelas.

Everything begins in these corners, from the first wish to see a bigger world to the first dance with failure and the thrill of the first lie. Here starts the first late-night over homework, the first victory, or the first impulse of creativity, but also the first heartbreak, the first taste of defeat, and the first brush with inadequacy. Absences linger. Broken promises compound in these quiet corners.

When left unchecked, negative emotions cement themselves into memories, paint themselves onto walls, and etch themselves deeply into the mind. They meld to form mindsets, colors of the world, contrasts of light and darkness varying from eye to eye, and mind to mind.

Some can see with clarity just fine, while others need assistance. Sometimes, they get it early enough, while others get it only when the world to them has already become a hopeless blur of multicolored hues, and clear lines and boundaries only make themselves known when viewed too closely.

In my case, the blurred vision became both reality and metaphor. I did not know where the fine lines lay, and this proved to be my undoing in my formative years.

I learned how embarrassment tasted like. I became acquainted with the first insult hurled my way without my knowing, and the distances that ill-spoken words can reach. While I learned their power, I couldn’t use it correctly. I didn’t know when to hold my tongue, nor did I know which words cooled tempers. One wrong utterance spurred another, spiraling into a chain reaction that left me unable to reach out to anyone until it was too late.

Of course, this rings with normalcy when you’re young and stupid, but when strung together long enough, there comes a point where it starts to weigh down heavily, making it difficult to lug around on a daily basis without buckling and breaking down into angry tears. All this, and more, simply because I didn’t know.

The city became a picture of my failings: how I failed the world, and how the world failed me. Each embarrassment, each action and lack of it, and each word left said and unsaid – each a grain of sand that would become the whole of that weight.

This, I think, is what I keep tucked back in the far reaches of my mind, lurking in crevices, corners, and far reaches left undisturbed. They are the clutter, the knick-knacks I can’t get rid of no matter how hard I try to clean house. At the bottom of my luggage, or in the tiny corners, they squeeze in and settle quietly in place: not exactly invisible, but often overlooked.

More visible instead are the polished, more contemporary and recent facades, which are more embellishments than the actual memory of the struggle for each high point in my life. They seem glorious, perhaps – but also vainglorious, and ultimately hollow, serving as mere purposeless constructs to look back on with fondness.

Combined, this is what weighed me down to an extreme, so much that I wanted it off my shoulders as I could. When the opportunity to study at a distant place came around, how could I have refused to leave it all behind? With that I went, wishing to never look back.

The weight, however, never left me. Instead of being on my shoulders, it followed me like a ball and chain. Thinking that I had successfully run away from it turned out to be a mistake: everywhere I went, and no matter who I talked to, it rattled on.

I hated leaving Davao and coming back to Iligan exactly because of it: I carried that weight everywhere I went. I strained to keep myself afloat, to try to make a name for myself. In the new city, I had a rather clean slate. To leave Davao would be to put that weight back on again. If I ever came back, the memories would crush me.

Small wonder, then, that they never did. It was only until I started paying attention to it that the weight started shifting. By the time I graduated college, it was still heavy, but now bearable.

The weight only started getting lighter once I came to terms with it roughly two years after graduating college. The responsibilities of adulthood have since taken center stage, and I found myself fully immersed in the struggle for survival, first as a content writer, and later as a call center agent.

It was adulthood, I found, that made me realize that other people were more or less in the same boat as I was. People find themselves tossed into the world grasping at straws, trying desperately to stay afloat, or just trying to find the right route home.

My weight was lighter compared to the people I met: a good number of them were lugging worlds on their shoulders, and yet they were able to go about their daily business light as a feather. My former bosses and co-workers carried all their failings, misgivings, and regrets in stride, and though I didn’t always see them eye to eye, it was something I admired – even envied – about them.

For instance, my first boss was diagnosed with tumors in his urinary tract by the same time the higher-ups planned to cut our 13th-month pay. In my second job, it was common for employees to be single, working mothers with mouths to feed, or young, estranged fathers come to terms with the gravity of their actions. And yet they marched on, and still do.

It turned out, too, that there were other ways to lighten the load on myself. I could stop worrying about never bringing the right thing by leaving room only for the things I truly needed in my journey.

 

 

This, I think, is my raison d’etre: I agree to go home to leave the heaviness behind, one grain at a time. Yes, there is the departure, but there is also the return, and I return each time not as an exorcist seeking to silence internal demons, but as a pilgrim looking to reconcile with myself.

These days, I hop buses from Davao to Iligan, now able to appreciate the ride. True, it’s still a pain to carry the weight around, but I learned not to mind it. Most of the knick-knacks I still keep in my maleta and duffel bag, though now I keep them for sentiment rather than out of bitterness and an inability to reconcile my misgivings.

After all, I already have everything else I might need. I carry it no matter where I go: stories of past failures to learn from and let me deal with similar situations.  Guidelines from awkward silences, memories of points high and low to serve as signposts of where to go, what to avoid, and what not to say.

No matter how well-prepared I try to be, part of the journey is the inconvenience, the possibility of the sudden turn, and the sheer surprise of it all. I could suppose treating the missing document or water bottle as an extra feature or something to laugh about when everything is said and done.

The wrong turn can even be a pleasant surprise: catching the bus late might allow for a view of a brilliant sunset or a strange cloud formation. No two, after all, are ever the same.

The same could even be said for each time I travel. The motions are similar, but there is always something different about every trip: the passengers, the seats, or perhaps the bad movies. Novelty can spring from anywhere, even from the dullness of the familiar.

Perhaps, too, from those hidden corners of memory, I can pluck out a souvenir. Just for keeps.

 

 

 

***

John Oliver Ladaga hails from Iligan but is currently based in Davao City.

 

The Choice of the World

Nonfiction by | August 2, 2021

On March 11, 2020, on the same day that the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, Charlie, an obstetric emergency nurse, was on duty at the emergency room to prepare his side of the hospital for the inevitable surge of COVID-19 cases. Jane, a recently resigned intensive care nurse, was struggling to pack her entire life into her luggage for her supposed deployment to Europe before the nationwide lockdown. Peter, another critical care nurse already thousands of miles away in the United Kingdom, was doing simulation after simulation in the Critical Care Unit, trying to perfect procedures despite being bogged down by the weight of his personal protective equipment.

I, on the other hand, was on one of the last few planes travelling to Davao City before lockdowns were imposed across the country. I had just finished taking an English proficiency exam in Makati, the first of the many steps I’ve laid out for myself in my application to become a nurse abroad. Just a few months before, I had resigned from my office job to return to my roots and finally make use of my Nursing license.

Like my classmates in college who were in various stages of their application to go abroad, I was excited about working in another country that assured better working conditions for nurses. In 2020, after years floundering in a lousy job market, nurses were once again in demand worldwide, and my classmates and I finally have our pick of hospitals to work for. Suddenly, there were new clinical settings to see, new patients to meet, and the rest of the world to practice in if we so choose. The world was an open door.

I came home to Davao with a cold, fatigue, a low-grade fever, and a nagging feeling that I have picked up the virus in Manila. I tried to convince myself that I just had the allergies, that my apartment in Davao was gathering dust, and that was what brought up my reaction. I checked with my sister who was with me in Manila but was staying at another apartment in Davao. She said she was also experiencing the same symptoms. I convinced her to get ourselves checked, just in case we had the virus and were unwittingly spreading it around.

When we arrived at the hospital, we were immediately classified as Persons Under Investigation since we had relevant travel history and respiratory symptoms. The hospital that we initially went to didn’t have the capacity to test for the novel coronavirus, so we were transported to a public hospital for further evaluation.

There were 20 other people waiting to be evaluated when we got to another hospital’s Isolation Center for testing. Our vital signs were taken twice, and we were interviewed three times. Each interviewer repeatedly prodded us for the places we’ve visited while in Manila. It took six more hours until we were told that we didn’t need to get tested because we didn’t meet the criteria for testing. We were scared to go back home without a definitive diagnosis for what we were feeling, but we understood. Back then, when supplies were scarce and not much was still known about the virus, it was part of the protocol to only test those with significant travel abroad or those with close contact with people who have gone overseas. We were released from the Isolation Center as Persons Under Monitoring. They told us to go home, quarantine for 14 more days, and contact them if our symptoms worsened over the next two weeks.

That day was the last time I saw the world as it was in the old normal. My symptoms cleared after a week, but by then, Davao City had already imposed strict measures to keep people at home and away from the virus.


When the pandemic started in Davao, Charlie, an obstetric emergency nurse in the only public hospital in the city, spent many weeks redesigning the floor plan of the Obstetrics Ward. He and the other nurses in his team needed to separate the expectant mothers they classified as “clean” from those they suspect to be carriers of the virus.

During those early days of the pandemic, there haven’t been many patients in their area. Many pregnant mothers, even those from communities that usually availed the hospital’s services, sought to give birth in other hospitals or birthing homes just to avoid the only hospital in the city that catered to COVID-19 cases. Now, three months after the lockdown, women whose pregnancies and deliveries were at risk came in steady numbers to seek admission to Charlie’s side of the hospital again.

Charlie was often tasked to man the frontline of the Emergency Department and decide how incoming pregnant patients were supposed to be prioritized. One day, during his shift, a patient in labor came to the hospital with her sister. Upon seeing the patient, Charlie immediately knew that something wasn’t right. The patient’s breathing was too labored. Even without her contractions, the patient remained hunched over in her wheelchair, visibly gasping through her face mask. Her entire torso moved with every breath, and she was drenched in sweat.

Charlie guided the patient and her sister towards their desk to begin his assessment. He looked at the other nurse who was with him at triage to see if the other nurse also saw how much difficulty the patient had while breathing. Even with their faces covered in surgical masks and face shields, when Charlie caught the other nurse’s eye, he knew that they both shared the same suspicion about the patient’s condition.

“Are you having trouble breathing?” He asked the patient. “Is it because of the mask?”

The patient shook her head no, but she pulled down her mask in order to breathe better.

“Ma’am, please just keep your mask on,” Charlie said, taking a step back. The patient didn’t seem to hear him.

“Ma’am, put it back.” The patient wordlessly put her mask back on and continued breathing deeply and rapidly.

Charlie proceeded to take her vital signs and time her contractions. For the patient’s history, he turned to the sister for answers. “Where are you both from, ma’am?”

The sister mentioned their barangay’s name. Charlie noted mentally that their barangay has recently been declared as a hotspot for COVID-19.

“Has she been like this for long?” He asked.

“She’s been like that for a week, I think,” the sister replied.

“Why did you just bring her here now?” He said.

The patient hesitated. “We were afraid, sir.”

“Afraid of what?”

“The quarantine.”

This has been the third time in a month that Charlie heard the same answer from different patients. Still, he couldn’t understand the fear. Local government guidelines had been so clear about isolating the sick and asking the government’s help if strict home isolation wasn’t possible. Why didn’t patients ask for help sooner?

Charlie called the Obstetrics Ward and confirmed there that the patient is a highly suspected COVID-19 case. Arrangements were made for the patient’s transfer, but there weren’t any orderlies available to take her to the ward. The Obstetrics Ward was located just a few buildings away from the Emergency Department. Before the pandemic, patients were just wheelchaired away from the triage to different wards in the hospital. These days, however, containment was necessary, especially with suspected cases. They needed an ambulance just to take the patient to another building.

Charlie checked again to see if an orderly was already available to take his patient to the ward, but he was told that all of them were already called off to other cases. He was worried. Without an orderly, he knew that he would have to take the patient to the ward himself. The patient cannot stay in triage any longer, or else she’ll put the other nurses and patients in the area at risk.

Charlie told his partner to prepare the patient for transport while he went to prepare himself. According to protocol, all personnel handling suspected COVID-19 cases are required to wear Level 4 personal protective equipment. In Charlie’s hospital, this meant wearing coveralls, a respirator, and two sets of gloves and boots. Donning the equipment took some time, and he needed to do it quickly.

He washed his hands and wore his gloves. As he got into his coveralls, he silently tried to convince himself that despite her high-risk residence and her presenting symptoms, the patient he’s about to share the cramped space of the ambulance with is not infected with the virus.

He hoped his partner already explained to both the patient and her companion that she needed to be isolated during her labor and delivery, so only the patient will be taken to the ward. The companion will have to wait elsewhere. This was always a difficult conversation, especially with worried watchers, and right now, worried as he was himself, Charlie was not in the mood to provide a long explanation. Talking takes so much effort when you have so many things covering your face. It also requires so much breathing. As much as he was protected by two layers of masks in his level 4 PPE, he didn’t want to risk it. He didn’t want to breathe any harder and any more than he needs to, especially around the patient.

Once dressed, Charlie approached his partner and had his PPE checked. His partner gave him a thumbs up and told him the ambulance was already waiting for them outside the Emergency Department. He took his patient’s chart, secured the patient in her wheelchair, and wheeled the patient away after she said goodbye to her sister.

At the hospital’s driveway, the ambulance driver, who was wearing the same stuffy PPE as Charlie, waved at him and opened the ambulance door. Charlie secured the chair and took the patient’s hand to assist her in standing up.

“Are you ready, ma’am?” He asked. The patient nodded.

Charlie helped her enter the ambulance and had her seated. The short effort of transferring seats was already enough to tire the patient. As Charlie sat across from her, the patient pulled down her mask again to catch her breath. Charlie told her to put her mask back on, but the patient held her hand up as if to say wait. The patient continued to gasp masklessly for air before she steadied her breathing and pulled her mask back up to her nose.

From outside the ambulance, the driver yelled through his masks to ask Charlie if they were ready to go. Charlie gave a thumbs up. The driver nodded and slammed the ambulance door shut. Charlie held his breath.


The last time I saw Charlie was in a review class for IELTS, an English proficiency test, only a month before the pandemic had taken root in the Philippines. I was seated in front of the class when I thought I heard a familiar voice reciting during our speaking drills. When I turned, I saw him and waved. He waved back. We were both disappointed to see each other.

Nurses are notorious for keeping their plans to go abroad a secret, and Charlie and I were no exception. Most of us fear that telling anyone will jinx our plans, so we often keep things to ourselves until we are already out of the country. When Charlie and I saw each other in class, we no longer needed to tell each other anything about our future plans. I immediately knew that he was going abroad, just as he knew that I was planning the same thing.

Charlie and I had been lifelong classmates, and I was surprised that that persisted even in an IELTS review class. We’ve been classmates through elementary and high school in Cotabato City, and even through college to study Nursing in Davao, a big city four hours away from home. We passed the boards at the same time and took our oath as nurses at the same time. When the time came to pick a job after college, we both opted for careers outside of the hospital too—he with a national organization for first responders, me with a research post at a local hospital.

When Charlie and I took up Nursing, the local and global demand for nurses had been on a downturn. Even during enrollment, we were discouraged from enrolling in Nursing by the very staff that processed our papers. There were already too many nurses and not enough jobs, they said. Would we like to be part of the dismal job market? Of course, we didn’t, but young as we were, we couldn’t imagine ourselves working anywhere else but the hospital. Most of us, at least for my classmates and I, wanted to be doctors. And if we couldn’t be doctors, we wanted to be the next best thing, medically speaking.

By the time classes started, our freshmen batch of Nursing undergrads only made up three classes when there used to be twenty. After our first year, those three classes were whittled down to just one. We made up for the lack in numbers with a dedication to the course. Our class was smart and inquisitive and well-rounded. Our eagerness to learn about how diseases worked and how specific treatments managed medical conditions bordered on obsessive. We enjoyed learning about the science of Nursing as much as we enjoyed its softer skills, like talking to patients and carrying out nursing procedures. When we took the boards, we had a 100% passing rate and two topnotchers. We were good at what we did. But even then, even with the stellar grades and heavy extra-curricular involvements, the job market waiting for us when we graduated had not been good to us.

Job opportunities in the country were scarce. And with so many unemployed nurses trying to compete for jobs, hospitals, both private and public, had the choice to scrimp on salaries and offers for tenured positions. The requirements just to be employed were steep, and the pay was and is offensively low. Some applicants were required to pay for the training they should have freely received as new hires, if they were lucky enough to be chosen for hiring. Some nurses aren’t even hired as actual employees, but just as volunteers. As volunteers, they are only paid with meals during their shifts. If they were lucky enough to be actually employed, they only received somewhere between PHP4,000 to PHP12,000 a month, a gross undercompensation, considering that nurses work more than 8 hours a day.

It wasn’t that we weren’t prepared for what we had faced after graduating. Our teachers in Nursing school were never remiss in telling us that our situation wasn’t forever, that many nurses abroad will soon retire, and soon too, we will have our turn. As we took our oath as new nurses, the Board of Nursing representatives leading the occasion were also quick to remind us that we were “the best for the Filipinos and the choice of the world,” and it was only a matter of time before we had our choice of hospitals to work for again.

They were right, of course, but Charlie and I didn’t see that yet. Back then, what we saw was how we needed to justify what our parents spent for sending us to a good and expensive college. We needed to build our own lives in a city too far away from home. We cannot afford to take volunteer nursing positions in hospitals, which were all that were available to us back then. We needed to earn a living, not a mere volunteer allowance.

And that was what we did for the next couple of years while most of our peers worked for monthly stipends or simple meal allocations for their 12 hours a day service. It was easy to say that we made the right choice when we had steady paychecks.

But soon enough, dissatisfaction with our jobs and ourselves started to set in. There was always a nagging insecurity hanging over our heads, telling us that we didn’t actually know much about what we did, and that we will never be as good as we can be for the positions that we held because we knew that we were wired and trained for something else. And we were missing that training. We missed the hospital and the patients, the hard science behind diseases, our cure in conversation.

Charlie realized early that he needed to go back to his roots no matter the cost, but I took my time. He first became a medical emergency responder before applying for a post at the hospital where he is working now, while I spent three more years cowering behind a desk. I was so afraid of leaving stable office work for the uncertainty of possible unemployment that it took me a long time before I made up my mind about going back to the hospital. When I quit my job, I had to ensure that I have my affairs in order to secure a better future for myself as a healthcare professional. This meant immediately taking the IELTS and other certifying exams that will prove my competence to practice Nursing in a foreign country before actually looking for a Nursing post in the city.

Taking the IELTS or any other similar English proficiency test is considered the first step in any application to work abroad as a nurse. For many nurses in the Philippines, the English proficiency test presents the largest hurdle one has to overcome before going abroad. Anxious to prove they’ve been educated in English for all of their academic life, most nurses expect to fail their first exam. With fees amounting from PHP10,000 to PHP25,000, it’s not exactly a cheap exam to fail.

When Charlie and I met again for the first time in years in that IELTS review class, we were both set to take the English proficiency test on different days in March. I was the only one who was able to take the exam.


It is obvious to say that plans were derailed in 2020. Every life was put in limbo during the lockdown, but more so for nurses in the Philippines who have already paid their dues in the country and were looking forward to their employment abroad.

On April 2, 2020, two weeks after lockdowns were imposed, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, under orders from the country’s Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases, imposed a travel ban on all Filipino healthcare workers unfortunate enough to still be in the country. To no one’s surprise, after years of denying nurses just compensation and job security, the country was now facing a shortage of healthcare workers in the midst of a global pandemic. It didn’t help either that applications of nurses for work in the United States and the United Kingdom were being fast-tracked to meet those country’s demands for more healthcare professionals.

Citing the need to prioritize human resource allocation in the Philippine healthcare system over the healthcare professional’s “right to travel,” the government has indefinitely suspended international deployments to prevent Filipino nurses from securing employment in another country. Filipino nurses were urged to take the travel ban as an opportunity to “exercise their patriotism,” an appeal that didn’t sit well with nurses who have already done their service for a country that did not appreciate them. There were calls for immediate hiring of nurses in COVID-19 referral facilities, but they either paid too little compared to the risks nurses undertake, or offered no job security since their contracts were only good for three months.

The government also failed to consider—or has deliberately ignored—the great personal expense nurses have already spent to process their applications to work abroad. Aside from English proficiency tests, nurses are also required to take other exams to prove and certify their competence to practice internationally. None of these tests were cheap. All of them came with a two-year validity. There were also numerous other documents needed for visa issuance, such as health assessments and overseas employment certificates, that had much shorter validity.

The most affected by the travel ban were those who were only waiting for their plane tickets for deployment and those already nearing their certification’s expiration dates. With the travel ban holding them up in the country, nurses with expiring requirements were forced to shell out more money and retake tests and assessments.

Because of numerous petitions to lift the deployment ban of healthcare workers, the government decided to allow the temporary deployment of nurses with perfected contracts dated on or before March 8, 2020. With the temporary lifting of the ban for a select few, a number of nurses should have been able to leave as early as June. However, due to delays in the issuances of overseas employment certificates, the formal deployment of nurses has been further delayed to August. By then, several nurses have already been severely affected by the delays in deployment.

This was the case for Jane, another former classmate from Nursing school. Jane was one of the few lucky ones in our batch who was able to secure employment as a volunteer nurse in a public hospital right after the Nursing boards. She began working as an auxiliary nurse in various areas of the hospital and was only paid PHP4,000 a month for her services. It took three years before she secured tenure as Nurse I, and even then, she had to talk to friends in higher places just to get her name on the top of the list for regularization. As a regular employee, Jane was permanently posted at the hospital’s ICU complex, where she developed her expertise in intensive care for three more years.

Jane started to pursue her application to work in the United Kingdom after two years of experience in the ICU. She had to take the Occupational English Test twice and go on numerous trips to Manila and Cebu for interviews and requirements before scoring a contract with a hospital in Central London on February 2020. Jane immediately resigned from work after that because she wanted to give herself a month of rest before processing her papers for deployment. Her rest was interrupted by news of a worsening public health crisis in Manila due to COVID-19. Jane hoped to catch various immigration offices to process her visa requirements before stricter measures were put in place. She immediately packed her bags for deployment and went to Manila. She got to Manila just in time to see everything close down for the community quarantine.

I met Jane right after taking the test of competence for nursing work in the United Kingdom in September 2020. By then, she had already been stranded in Manila for seven months. I sent her a message right after my exam to ask if she was still in the country. A month before my test, she told me that since her perfected contract and other requirements were already prepared, she was only waiting for her plane ticket to London. I was surprised when she replied that she was still in Taguig. I asked her if she wanted to go out for lunch, and she immediately agreed.

Back in Nursing school, I was often paired with Jane to perform clinical procedures or to write case studies. She was one of the best in class. She was well-versed in a variety of conditions and was always cool under pressure. It made perfect sense that she ended up working in the ICU. When I met Jane, she was skinnier than I remember. I asked her if the community quarantine had treated her well, she said that it didn’t, but she managed.

“What are you still doing here?” I asked her after some small talk. “I thought you would be in London by now.”

“Ha!” she laughed. “I don’t know about my deployment anymore!”

It turns out that coming to Manila right as offices started to close down for the lockdown was the least of Jane’s problems. Getting stranded in Manila meant she needed to find a place to stay aside from the pricey AirBnB she booked for herself seven months prior. She initially asked a few relatives in Manila if she could stay with them. Driven by the initial panic around people who flew in from different places, her relatives declined to accommodate her during the quarantine. Thankfully, Jane befriended another nurse from her agency that allowed her to stay at a shared apartment.

“Everything in Manila is so difficult,” she said. “And expensive, too! I’ve already burned through my savings during the lockdown.”

“How do you get by now?” I asked her, knowing that processing requirements for deployment didn’t come cheap.

“My parents,” she laughed. “I hadn’t asked them for a dime when I was employed, but now I have no choice. Kapalan na lang ang mukha.”

I asked if she got any updates from her agency about her deployment. She told me that she was supposed to be deployed in early September. However, since her certificate of sponsorship already expired while waiting for the travel ban to be formally lifted, she wasn’t able to file for her visa in time for deployment. Nurses hoping to migrate and work in the United Kingdom are required to present a sponsorship certificate that proves their employer’s intent to hire them. Without a sponsorship certificate, a nurse cannot be issued a working visa.

Jane shared that her supposed cohort of nurses from the Philippines has already left for London in August. She and the nurse that she was living with had to remain in the country to renew their sponsorship certificates and secure their visas. Her certificate has since then been filed, and her visa has long been processed. The only thing she was still waiting for now was her plane ticket for London, but even with only that missing, she still ran into some problems.

“My employer told me that their next deployment will probably be in November. Probably!” she exclaimed incredulously. “I cannot wait any longer for ‘probably.’ My OET and visa will already expire by October!”

“What’s an OET?” I asked.

“It’s a new English proficiency test from Australia,” she explained. “It’s a lot easier than the IELTS because you just use the usual hospital language, but it’s a lot more expensive.”

I asked if she would take the OET again. She said she didn’t want to anymore, but she would have to. She might still find a loophole or an alternative for the English proficiency test, but she lamented that she could not find a loophole for an expired visa. Visas for the United Kingdom are only good for 90 days. With her visa issued in August, it was also set to expire by October. She would have to file for a re-issuance when her agency and her employer finally decide to deploy her. When that was, she still wasn’t sure yet.

I told her the waiting time for her deployment was getting ridiculous. “Maybe it’s time to look for another employer?”

“I already signed my contract,” she said. “If I go against it, I’ll be penalized with the cost of the sponsorship.”

I asked her how much the penalty will be, and she told me it was more than a quarter of a million pesos. “I wouldn’t pay that much, even if I had the money,” she said. “I can’t even work part-time because of the contract. You know it’s my first time to have a seven-month gap in my resume? I worked immediately after college just to not have that gap, but now here I am.”

“Well, don’t you want to wait it out at home?” I asked. “At least the wait won’t be that bad if you’re spending it with family.”

“I can’t go home,” she said. “My lola is living with us at our house. I can’t risk getting her sick.”

“Maybe you have other relatives that could take you in?”

“They can’t. They’re all so old,” she said. “Sayang nga, I would have wanted to spend my birthday at home, but I don’t think I can.” When we met for lunch, Jane’s birthday was only a month away, and she had to spend it at an apartment full of strangers who have now become her friends.

“I don’t know what to do anymore,” she said. “I’m already so depressed, so I try not to think about it. Right now, I just try to accept whatever happens.”

I smiled at her. I didn’t know Jane as one to wallow in her own misery. “Well, think about it this way,” I told her. “Maybe you lucked out that you missed the first wave of cases that hit London.”

“Maybe,” she gruntled. “I still wish the travel ban didn’t delay me as much as it did.”

“Maybe it was saving you for an easier job,” I said.

“I doubt it,” she shrugged. “Anyway, how about you? Have you checked your test results yet? They usually have it posted already by this time,” she said.

I told her I was nervous to check my rating because I wasn’t confident with some of my answers. Five years of working outside the hospital have weakened my instinct in answering clinical questions. She assured me that she was confident I had passed, even without the relevant clinical practice.

With her encouragement, I opened my account with the test provider and looked for my result. Right next to my name, in bold, capital letters, was the word “passed.” The ticking clock on my test’s validity officially began.


The Philippines is the only country that expects and encourages its nurses to leave. Both public and private hospitals in the Philippines operate under the assumption that its nurses will soon leave their company and the country, and they use that assumption to keep their nurses—world-class nurses, by any standard—overworked and underpaid. Everyone accepts the dismal working conditions that nurses experience in the country as the dues they have to pay for a better life overseas, as if being forced by economic conditions to move away from friends and family is what constitutes a better life.

In the Philippines, nurses aren’t valued for the service they provide to the sick or the immense support they give to the nation’s imperfect healthcare system. We are valued only as exports, and as such, our welfare as healthcare workers is decidedly the concern of another country and certainly not that of our own.

The Filipino nurse is the choice of the world, but our own country refuses to choose us, to address our pleas for better wages, to meet our need for job security, to give us the respect and dignity that our profession rightly deserves. This country chooses to send us away, forces our hand to brave new and strange lands just to be able to provide a better living for ourselves and for our families. And that is what we have been conditioned to do—to leave, to spend thousands of our hard-earned money to process applications to go abroad, even when we do not know what is waiting for us in another country.


The coronavirus first reached London on the first week of March. Peter, a critical care nurse stationed in a city north of the British capital, was immediately prompted by his supervisors that they only had two weeks before COVID-19 patients also began knocking at their door. Peter was another classmate from Nursing school. He was, and still is, one half of the power couple of our class in college. He arrived in Britain in 2016 with his then-girlfriend and now-fiancé, Sarah. Before the pandemic, both Peter and Sarah’s applications to migrate to the United Kingdom only took six months from start to finish.

When the pandemic finally hit the United Kingdom, Peter was already inundated with information regarding the novel coronavirus and the procedures he needed to perform in order to prevent its transmission. Their hospital unit has disseminated internal guidelines and conducted hospital-wide training ever since they learned about the unexpected rise of coronavirus cases in Italy in February.

Still, however, the panic was setting in among his teammates at the Critical Care Unit. Most of them didn’t feel safe, even with numerous supplies of personal protective equipment. Peter told me that it was one of the good things about the culture in British hospitals. Nurses were always free to speak their minds and not just do as they’re told. As a result, the hospital presented them with more drills to simulate various COVID-19 cases that they may encounter in the days to come. Peter and his teammates prepared the Critical Care Unit as best as they could. Patients who were well enough to be discharged from intensive care were sent to other wards. Trays of life-saving supplies were prepared and stocked in each room. Donning and doffing of PPEs were studied and practiced to the point of mastery.

Their first COVID-19 patient came to the hospital on March 17, 2020, just as predicted. It was a Polish patient who recently arrived from London and was suffering from difficulty of breathing. Within 24 hours after the first patient’s arrival, half of Peter’s 25-bed Critical Care Unit had already been filled with other COVID-19 patients. Peter barely remembered the first few days of their city’s first surge of cases. The influx of patients had been a blur. He only remembered feeling that there were already too many cases all at once.

At the start of COVID-19’s first wave, people who came to the hospital usually had it worse than healthcare professionals wanted them to be. It is understandable because at the onset of any infectious outbreak, people often do not yet know what to look out for. This was especially the case for COVID-19 because its initial symptoms looked too much like those of the flu. As a result, COVID-19 patients only come to the hospital when they are already in a dire situation and would need critical care to address their worsening state.

Peter could no longer recognize the Critical Care Unit two weeks after they admitted their first COVID-19 patient. Every day, when he came to the hospital, he was greeted with chaos. “Para kang nakatira sa ibang bahay,” he said, describing how he felt every time he started his shift. He knew he was still in the same environment, but everything also felt so different. Every patient he handled were intubated and on dialysis. The bed capacity in the CCU increased from 25 to 40. The number of patients Peter had to take care of and oversee also rose from 1 to 5. There were new nurses on the CCU floor, too. Experienced nurses from other wards and retired intensive care nurses had to be called in just to meet the CCU’sneed for more nurses.

Even with three years of experience in critical care, Peter felt that he was at a loss for what to do. He wasn’t sure that the procedures he was doing to patients were helping them in any way, but he knew he had to push through. “I don’t think I was ever prepared to handle this pandemic,” he told me. “But I had to step up.”

During those days at the height of the first wave, Peter felt like he always on his own. Every other critical nurse who used to assist him with procedures were all suddenly so busy with their own patients. He had non-ICU-trained nurses to assist him, but he also still had to oversee them and their work. With so many patients in the unit, Peter was under a lot of pressure to work fast to make sure all patients under his care got their needs met. They had to be fed and changed and medicated, their blood transfusions and dialysis closely monitored, their intubations assessed, their life support equipment properly attached. There was always so much to do and not enough time to do them in.

One night, Peter was assigned to work a long shift in the CCU. Halfway through his shift, he noticed that his charge nurse hadn’t taken his mandatory 30-minute break yet. He told the charge nurse to take the break before the doctors finished their handover because the charge nurse will be a lot busier once the handover was done. The charge nurse expressed hesitation over taking the break, because he was worried about the patients on his side of the unit. Peter assured him that he and his partner, Anna, another Filipino nurse, will be on top of things. The charge nurse agreed to take the break and left Peter and Anna to look over the patients.

Not even five minutes after Peter and Anna were left alone that Anna called Peter to ask him to take a look at her patient on the other side of the unit. Peter immediately went to the patient’s room, and found a man in his 50s hooked to a mechanical ventilator through an endotracheal tube.

“What happened?” Peter asked.

“I think his tube is dislodged,” Anna told Peter, looking nervously at the patient.

“What do you mean, ‘the tube’s dislodged’?”

“I think the tube is dislodged.”

“How do you know?”

Anna didn’t have time to answer because the patient suddenly gasped for air, which immediately confirmed to both Peter and Anna that the mechanical ventilator was no longer helping the patient breathe. The patient continued to struggle with his breathing, his restlessness indicating that not enough air was flowing into his lungs.

“What did you do?” Peter asked, immediately taking out his stethoscope. He tried to auscultate the patient’s chest for breath sounds, but he could barely hear any.

“Nothing,” Anna replied, moving closer towards the patient to recheck for chest movement. “I think he just moved, and that dislodged the tube.”

Peter rushed to press the emergency buzzer near the patient’s bed to alert nearby doctors that the patient was in an emergency. He also sent a message to the charge nurse to tell him that the patient’s endotracheal tube was dislodged. He was worried. With the handover still going on, he wasn’t sure if any doctor will reach them in time. He pressed the emergency buzzer a second time.

“What do we do?” Peter asked Anna, their eyes both glued to the patient’s monitor as his oxygen saturation level plummeted from 90 to 80 to 70. His blood pressure was also falling. The patient was heading for respiratory arrest in front of their very eyes.

“I don’t know.”

Peter knew that to save the patient’s life, they would have to immediately disconnect the patient’s tube from his mechanical ventilator and provide the patient with supplemental oxygen through manual ventilation. Years of training have also taught both of them that chest compressions will also have to be done continuously to prevent arrest. However, both nurses knew that they were not allowed to do those procedures on COVID-19 patients.

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation, disconnecting the endotracheal tube from the mechanical ventilator, and manual ventilation were all aerosol-generating procedures. Performing them would generate a high concentration of infectious respiratory aerosols into the air, putting them at a greater risk of exposure and infection.

The patient continued to desaturate as both Peter and Anna tried to defy their own instincts. As critical care nurses, responding to impending respiratory arrest was second nature to them. They were compelled to do the life-saving procedures as they should, but they also knew that doing so will put them at unnecessary risk. Help was coming soon, they knew. But they also knew that help couldn’t come fast enough.

The patient was already limp and unconscious. His oxygen saturation level has dropped to 30. The machines hooked to him can no longer read his blood pressure. The patient’s monitor was a flurry of noise and flashing signals to warn both nurses of the patient’s worsening condition as he desaturated even further. 20, 10, and all of a sudden, flatline.

The high-pitched monotonous alert of the flatline seemed to move both Peter and Anna into action. “Bahala na!” Anna exclaimed, and she and Peter immediately got to work. Anna put down the bed rails, laid the patient flat, and began doing the chest compressions.

Peter rushed to disconnect the ventilator from the patient’s tube and immediately hooked the tube to a bag valve mask. Once he had the mask in place, Peter pressed the bag and checked for a chest rise to ensure he was ventilating properly. Once he saw the patient’s chest rise, Peter turned his head to one side to avoid close and direct contact with the patient’s face. Anna, still doing the compressions, did the same thing.

The team responding to Peter and Anna’s emergency buzzer came a few minutes after they started resuscitation. They told the responding doctor that the patient’s tube was dislodged, and that the patient already went into respiratory arrest. The doctor told Peter to stop the manual ventilation as he went towards the patient’s head to assess the intubation. Peter immediately prepared the materials needed for reintubation, while Anna continuously performed chest compressions. The doctor began to reinsert the patient’s endotracheal tube, a process that took the doctor two attempts to finally perfect. He secured the tube and ordered to recheck its placement through a chest x-ray.

Peter was worried they would both be reprimanded for initiating the resuscitation, but to his surprise, after reintubating the patient, the doctor talked to both of them to tell them that they did not need to worry about breaking protocol. “At the end of the day,” he told told them, “You still saved a life,” he told them.
¬
Peter was relieved, but his relief was short-lived. Wins in the Critical Care Unit during the pandemic were rare and few in between. The revived patient’s lucky outcome was also not an often-repeated success.

In the days that followed, Peter was plagued with patient death after patient death. He remembers spending an hour trying and failing to resuscitate a 29-year-old patient during one shift, so he went ahead and performed post-mortem care on the patient. In the United Kingdom, this meant cleaning the patient, removing all their intubations and insertions, cleaning up their bedside, and finally wrapping them intricately in a white shroud. Just as Peter finished taking care of a dead body, the patient on the next bed also coded.

“I have just finished doing the post-mortem, and the next thing I know, I was already on the next bed, trying to revive another patient,” he shared. “And that patient also died.”

He told me how the coronavirus was almost an amazing pathogen in its unpredictability in wreaking havoc in the body. They couldn’t predict the patients’ conditions. He has seen first hand how quickly it kills patients, even those who are seemingly well. “You see them well and alive before you take your day off, but when you return two days later, they’re already dead.”

I asked him how he dealt with his dying patients, knowing that they’re dying away from their loved ones. “It must be hard,” I told him. “to be an entire family’s stand-in.”

He said that it was. Every time a patient nears expiration, Peter tries to be there for them to hold their hand as they pass away. “It’s cruel for the British to leave a person to die alone,” he explained. “So, we try to be there for them. There are times when families ask to see their sick loved ones over FaceTime, so we’re there for them too, to hold up the gadgets so the patients can hear them.”

Peter shared that he was also the one to call families when their loved ones have already died. The doctors usually call the family first to tell them about the patient’s condition and how there was no longer any way that the patient will survive the disease. When the patient finally dies, Peter is the one who gives a family the bad news. “I try to break it to them gently, but it’s hard in English. Their language isn’t as emotional as ours. It’s hard to soften the blow in a different language.”

“How do you deal with this?” I asked him. “It all seems so heavy.”

“It’s exhausting!” he exasperated. He admitted that he was usually burned out after only two weeks at a full-packed CCU. “It’s difficult because you’re also just stuck at home after your shift. There’s no escape. You just go home to rest, and then you come back to face it all again. It’s the same thing every day.”

Peter used to travel with his fiancé to different countries every few months to escape their hectic lives in the hospital. But now, with lockdowns in place, there was nowhere to go except to work. His only means of truly escaping the pressure of being a critical care nurse was also taken from him by the pandemic.

Nurses aren’t usually taught about how to survive a pandemic. Pandemics are so self-contained in the pages of medical history, its end through vaccinations so definite, that even when we were studying previous infectious diseases, we were only taught about their signs and symptoms, their diagnostic procedures, their course of treatment, their prognosis, their prevention, and the many different ways that we could help save a patient’s life.

But we were not taught about the toll pandemics take on the healthcare professional. We were not told about the relentlessness of their loss. We were not informed about the hands we had to hold just so patients will not be alone during their last moments, not told about the number of bodies we had to clean and zip up in white shrouds or black bags. We were not taught that we would be putting the lives of even the ones we loved on the line.

Peter told me about his experiences as a critical care nurse during a call over Facebook Messenger. At the time, he was on the last few days of his home quarantine and already bored out of his mind. He had to take a leave of absence from work when one of his housemates caught COVID-19. Sarah, his fiancé, was not spared by the disease.

I kept asking Peter if it was alright that I called him, because I told him I didn’t want to disturb their rest. He assured me it was alright. He didn’t have any major symptoms, so he wasn’t sure that he even caught the virus in the first place. Sarah, on the other hand, was still on the mend. A few days ago, she was suffering from severe coughing and colds. She also lost her sense of taste, a problem that has persisted for weeks, even when her respiratory symptoms have finally cleared.

I asked Peter how many days off they had left before they had to get back to the hospital. While he was off, his other teammates shared to him that they already saw an increase in new cases, their first warning of the upcoming swell of the second wave.

“In two days,” he said.

“Already?” I asked, surprised that he had to go back to work immediately after fighting COVID-19, even at home. “That’s too soon.”

“Yep,” he agreed. “All too soon.”


Seven months after the pandemic began in the country, I found myself following a crowd of passengers from Manila inside the Davao International Airport, on our way to get tested for the coronavirus. After passing the test of competency in Makati, I went back home to Davao and prepared myself for the swab test and my upcoming two-week home quarantine.

I had only been in Manila for less than three days, and I had only seen one person while I was there. Despite my precautions, I was still worried that I had inadvertently inhaled the virus while I was out on the streets or inside the airplane.

Davao’s local government unit provided free swab testing for all air passengers arriving at the airport, so I took it as an opportunity to finally get tested and finally feel what it was like to get a nasal swab. For the record, it was not nearly as uncomfortable as it looked. In fact, it felt mildly satisfying. I was surprised to learn, however, that a throat swab was also done for RT-PCR testing. That one was worse than the nasal swab.

After the swab testing, we were ferried by a contracted jeepney to the Tent City just outside of the airport. We were given food before we registered our names at the Nurses’ Station manning the quarantine facility. Afterwards, we were showed our assigned tents where we would stay until our swab test results were released.

The Tent City was made up of sixteen or so big tents, and inside each big tent were ten cubicles that could accommodate two passengers. Each cubicle was only separated by a thick plastic that served as the accommodation’s sole partition. I wasn’t able to see the person on the other side of the partition, but we shared a small toilet behind our cubicle. Every other cubicle was also provided with their own toilet.

The accommodations in the Tent City weren’t that bad. A small cot is provided for you, along with a blanket, a sheet, and a pillow. Meals were also given three times a day. The entire tent was also airconditioned, and several exhaust fans were installed around the tent to make sure that air was circulating freely.

I expected to wait for my swab test results for only 12 hours because that was the experience of other passengers on previous flights. I ended up waiting for more than 24 hours. To say that I had a restless night at the Tent City was an understatement. I was anxious about the person I was sharing the cubicle with, because I didn’t know where she was from. I was also anxious about the other people with me in the tent, because it was so easy to imagine their exhaled pathogens moving around the tent and finding their way to me. I slept with an N95 mask on. My face was creased and bruised by the time I took it off in the morning.

Finishing my last exams for my application to be a nurse abroad also brought with it some anxiety. With them done, I no longer had any other excuse to put off the next step of my plan of coming back to Nursing. That next step was to finally look for a job as a nurse at a local hospital, something that I have not done since I graduated from college.

I began thinking of my time in the Tent City and told myself I couldn’t possibly last 13 more days in the facility, which was a must for nurses who were exposed to COVID-19 patients. I already knew quarantine was part of the nurse’s new normal, but being in a quarantine facility myself made the experience all the more real.

Twenty-five hours after my flight landed in Davao City, the doors of my quarantine tent finally opened, and a nurse with loudspeakers called for us to get ready for discharge. I was ecstatic. I immediately packed my bags and went outside my cubicle. A line has already formed towards the tent doors.

We were marshalled towards the Nurses’ Station assigned for patient discharge. Our names were called one by one, and we were given certificates that proved we tested negative for the coronavirus. I was happy to learn that my paranoia about inhaling the virus on the plane, even through my N95 mask, was unfounded.

They gave us instructions about how to conduct the home quarantine and told us to give our Barangay Health Workers a copy of our negative swab test results and our contact numbers for easy monitoring. They also gave us a symptom monitoring sheet that the barangay will certify by the end of our home quarantine.

After the instructions, we were free to go. I grabbed my bags and waited for a ride. While waiting for a taxi, I looked at the nurses manning the isolation facility. I observed them moving in their stuffy Level 4 PPE and saw them performing their duties behind a clear pane of glass. I began to doubt.

 


 

Gracielle Deanne Tubera is a nurse and a writer from Davao City.

This essay first appeared in Agwat-Hilom, an anthology of pandemic-related works published by the National Committee on Literary Arts (NCLA).

The Roundball

Nonfiction by | July 19, 2021

About three years ago, on my first trip home from Davao City where I was studying, Isulan actually felt like home for the first time. Funnily enough, I took a picture of the Roundball as soon as I stepped out of the van, and that was also another first. The Roundball wasn’t a grand architectural feat or anything like that at allit’s just a roundaboutit looked rugged and unkempt. For something that has stood there for as long as I can remember, it’s anything but new. It did, however, remind me that I was home. Something inside me wanted to immortalize that moment. Perhaps it was the feeling of home, of warmth, that I wanted to carry back to college. Or maybe it was just an impulse.

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 were 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. Were all of these like this before? I didn’t know and I didn’t care. It was all too surreal.

Today, after being caged here for more than a year, it’s safe to say that I have again forgotten what that feeling is like, and my indifference has long been revived. Isulan, a town of ninety-thousand in the province of Sultan Kudarat, has become synonymous with indifference. It’s in the streets, the dusty wind, the people. Nobody cared about politics, nobody cared about the literary works that won a Palanca, and it seemed like nobody cared about the pandemic. A quick motorcycle ride to Kalawag 2 St. and dozens of people walking around with no face mask on is a recurring sight. All these people exuded an air of arrogance, and some just downright neglect. It’s impossible to know what these people cared about. Other than themselves, it’s already a stretch to assume that they cared about anything else. This would have been a good time for the presence of a police officer, but they didn’t care enough either about the people in the narrow streets; they only seemed to care about those on the highways, in the middle of the bustling economic center, those in the sentro.

There used to be only one milk tea shop in all of Isulan, and that was in the sentro. Now, there are more than a dozen in every street and corner. I always wondered if business owners in Isulan were just envious of other people’s businesses, or if they never had an original business idea all their lives. Lechon manok stalls too; every time I turn my head, I find one. God, nobody cared about originality in this place. And don’t get me started on banana cue vendors. Everything here seems the same, everyone just copies everyone else. The clothes they wear, the things they post all adhere to what is uso, or what’s trendingwhich milk tea shop has the most “aesthetic” interior design, making it the most uso at the moment. It makes me sick.

Early morning is probably my favorite time of the day, at least before classes started. I would usually ride my bike by then, which seemed to clear my head. Exercise did help my mental health to stabilize, but what I actually sought for was the sunrise. The sun always looked different whenever the landscape changed. My favorite route is on Kudanding—the farmland on the outskirts of Isulan. I remember the first time I dared to even ride there. The cemented road was narrow, various bushes and flowers paved the side, a bit farther ahead on the horizon rice paddy fields stretched for over a kilometer. Then I slowed down my pace, something inside me said to wait patiently for the sun to show its new story of light and brightness and hope. Faint yellow-orange strings of light broke through, slowly turning into a thick blanket smothering the field in its amber radiance, the morning dew crystallized into exquisite gems, and the mist retreated as it gave reverence to the almighty sun. I watched for a bit longer, still trying to balance myself on the bike. And then it was over. I made a U-turn and pedalled as fast as I can. I had to return home; the sun can burn if I basked in it for too long.

I know, however, that the sun would turn gray in my eyes eventually. So I try to restrict my bike rides there. Time is a thief, and the more time I spend enjoying something, the sooner I become indifferent. I barely know what I like anymore, and I feel lost. I feel lost in a place where I have lived my whole life, and yet that moment of just looking at the sunrise on a bike ride has made my indifference lift, even for just a moment. Maybe one of these days, the Roundball might make me feel something again, but I wouldn’t count on it.

_________________

David Madriaga is taking up BA English-Creative Writing in the University of the Philippines Mindanao.

Photo Credit: https://www.soxph.com/2017/08/hamungaya-festival.html

Reasons To Stay

Nonfiction by | July 19, 2021

  1. In Dapitan, underneath Rizal’s tarnished skin is history being rewritten.

 

  1. The only thing I learned in school is that Dapitan City is just a place where Jose Rizal was exiled. Everything was centered around him: the city’s history, its progress, historical sites. But the weird thing is, when I was growing up there, no one ever mentioned his name at all.

 

  1. Well, that’s aside from the school named after him, where my grandfather used to teach law subjects. And the huge shrine by the shore, where his silhouette would loom as the sun goes down, reminding the city of his presence. But other than that, it’s as if he never even existed.

 

  1. It is a family tradition of ours to be “exiled” in Dapitan; each grandchild of Papa and Mama would spend an entire summer with them, away from the rest of the world. It is my turn now, and I was half-excited, half-dreading to stay there without my phone, my parents, and my cousins.

 

  1. It is a twelve-hour ride to the city, from Davao, by land. I slept throughout the entire trip, hogging the backseat all to myself while my uncle and aunt argued about where we would stop to eat merienda.

 

  1. I remember the different routes we have taken on the way to Dapitan, back when I was still in grade school. One time we stayed in Cagayan de Oro since it was getting dark, and my dad was too sleepy to keep driving. Another time we rode a ferry from Dumaguete, and that took roughly two hours, but I felt like vomiting the entire time. There was also a time where we rode a plane from Manila, but we landed in Dipolog because Dapitan doesn’t have an airport. Each visit to the place is different, but all seemingly familiar.

 

  1. Sunlight spills through the jalousies, and the roosters outside start to trumpet, as if to say welcome home. I slither to the side of my bed, eyes still crusty from last night’s twelve-hour drive, and my feet feel the dusty, creaking wooden floor, in search of my slippers.

 

The first thing I smell is the sweet scent of marang. The second, Mama’s warm, bitter cocoa sikwate. I drag my feet downstairs and see my 70-year-old grandmother, who looks just like my mom, but with short hair and a shorter fuse. “No good morning, Rapachung?” She says.

“Good morning, Mama,” I say sheepishly. I give her a peck on her wrinkled cheeks. “Where’s Papa?”

 

“He’s in Potol, playing tennis.” The usual morning routine. We share the same time zone, but my bedtime is my grandfather’s call time in Potol, where he plays tennis with the rest of the retired court judges. See you in court is a joke as old as they are.

 

  1. My mother and her siblings grew up here, in this two-storey house that they say is haunted, with a garden so huge they called it the “hundred acre woods,” and when we were little we would go Easter egg hunting there with all my cousins.

 

Now that it’s just the three of us in the house, the garden really does feel like a hundred acres.

 

  1. Potol is just a bike ride away. On sunny afternoons, the entire street is teeming with food vendors, henna tattoos, and DIY braces––Libre Taod, as the sign says. Free installation. Their only tennis court is filled with children bouncing back and forth.

 

Today is a good morning, indeed. Peace and quiet, save for the sound of tennis shoes kissing the concrete, and racquets lobbing the tiny neon ball.

 

I wave at Papa, and he waves his racquet and smiles. All gums and no teeth.

 

  1. In Dapitan, we have about a million relatives in our clan. This person is a relative of that person who is a distant cousin of the other person. Everyone in the clan calls each other geng, the same way Davaoeños call each other bai.

 

Well, everyone except for Papa, because we always call him “Justice.”

 

“Geng, asa ta mangaon?” or “Musta naman ka, ‘geng?” Everything starts or ends with geng. I’ve always wondered where the name came from, so one day I asked my aunt. She said it began with Palangga, which means ‘beloved’ in Binisaya, then it was shortened to langga, then shortened further to gang, until it finally ended up as geng. The term of endearment for literally everyone–an all-encompassing, all-purpose name that is commonly used in our family reunions and gatherings, where there are so many people it is impossible to remember each of their names. The next thing I knew, I was calling everyone Geng as well.

 

  1. I squeeze my way through the Plaza. People are leaving the halls of St. James the Greater, waving croton leaves, locally known as parpagayo, to the sound of drums and trumpets and church bells. They look like pompoms, only green and red, and veiny.

 

I still wonder if people really kissed the statue on the altar after the mass had ended, because the mere thought of it is gross.

 

Viva Señor Santiago! Someone shouts.

Viva! We yell back.

 

“Sleep early, Rapachung,” Mama says, unfolding her hand fan on one hand and patting her forehead with a hanky on the other. “You were sleeping again at Mass.”

 

In my defense, I had no idea we would go to Mass every single morning. Every single morning for an entire week, then the week after that, then the week after that. It is an absolute nightmare—no wonder they call this an exile.

 

  1. One thing I missed in this place: the public beach. No, not Dakak’s expensive, imported white sands, but the only one in the city that is open to the public. The first beach I went to that had black sand. No one really knows the name of the beach, but my relatives call the place “Boulevard.” Its origins were probably buried deep in the sand, but when people from the city say “Maligo ta sa Boulevard,” this is where they would go.

 

On my bike, I watch people melt under the heat of April, with cold beer and sunblock, their feet buried in the soft, black sand as I ride the stretch of the shoreline.

 

  1. Another thing I have missed in this place: Tita Marooch and her chicken lollipops. She is my mom’s distant cousin, but in Dapitan she is her bestest friend. Basically she cooks chicken wings shaped into lollipops, crispy with a little spicy kick. For me it was “the best in the whole entire world,” as I said when I was six. A decade later, my slogan still stands.

 

“Rapachung! You just biked going here? That’s quite far!” Tita Marooch is holding a glass tray of freshly cooked chicken. No time for talking, I gobble up the entire tray.

 

  1. When she was young, my mom had the nickname Peruka, which means “doll-eyed” in Subanen. Nanay gave her that name, and it stuck to her as she grew older. When she visits Dapitan, people call her Peruka the same way people call me Rapachung. The name feels warm, like the feeling of holding a steamy hot cup of Mama’s sikwate with both hands.

 

Nanay is Mama’s sibling. In Dapitan, they call her by her Subanen name, which means “Princess.” And when we visited their house in Piñan, I asked if I had a Subanen name, too.

 

She places a hand on my shoulder. “Miyaka,” she says. “Little one.”

 

  1. In a few hours my uncle and aunt would stop by our house and pick me up and send me back to Davao. I squeeze the memories into a duffel bag.
  2. I watch the wipers move back and forth, sweeping the tears pelting the windshield. I watch the city behind me getting smaller and smaller until it is nothing but a memory.

Raphael Luis J. Salise is taking up creative writing in UP Mindanao. He has been a fellow to the Davao Writers Workshop.