Heat Index

Nonfiction by | May 15, 2023

At thirty-two degrees temperature, an adolescent boy strips and plunges into the Sarangani Bay sans diving equipment as his partner reels in the day’s tuna catch—the fish’s yellow fins and iridescent scales glistening off of his eyes. At eighteen degrees ambient air temperature, office workers with faces as white as the porcelain tiles aimlessly encode paper ream-thick data as they gossip about the incompetent freshly recruited accountant. Their boss would shush them and everyone would go quiet except for the distant buzzing of someone’s printer and when he’s gone, the noise returns. At thirty-four degrees temperature, the Sama-bajau children patintero their way across the road to ask anyone for loose change. At the red light, drivers would slowly roll up their windows as the malong-clad children sneak up behind them.

Over the years, the world has seen a drastic change in climate, from frequent typhoons to rising sea levels. The environmentalists’ mascot is always the melting icebergs in the North Pole. In General Santos, it is the heat. The temperature of the outdoors. The mirage on the road. And the clear blue sky. When TV Patrol GenSan reports the weather forecast for the day, the heat is always in Celsius. Centigrade, as it was once called, is a unit of measure for temperature based on the freezing point of water (0 °C) and its boiling point (100 °C). But when we step outside with our skin-thin, single-layered, loose garments, the heat is inside our brains. A switch clicks and heat takes over. When road rage and car accidents happen, it is because of heat. When bottled water’s price spikes, it is because of heat. And when you start desiring an air-conditioned office job, that’s heat talking.

It was 2008 when we moved to Barangay Apopong in General Santos City. Our house was still unfurnished. Wood planks scattered around the area, hollow blocks stacked on top of each other in one corner of the yard, and sacks full of cement rested against the wall. Our mango plant was still a sapling back then and so the only shade we had was our equally unfinished porch. One morning, I woke up early in our one and only room. We didn’t have a proper kitchen yet, so we made do with four propped-up stones. Mama lit up the plastic and charcoal. Fire consumed the charcoal as I watched it dance against the cool breeze. The heat that day was gentle: it was like Mama’s touch as she pulled me away from the makeshift stove. From afar, I promise you could see the fire alive in my eyes. Perhaps, during that time, it was. And perhaps it still is. But I know something has changed. Fire learned to bite back. Seven in the morning and you’re already sweating from every pore of your body as you’re chasing the 7:30 a.m. check-in time of your office or your factory or, perhaps, your fast-food chain restaurant work, whichever you’re qualified to work for.

It was not only the heat that changed. The people and the whole of GenSan, too. The hustle and bustle of the crowd grew as new malls were constructed and businesses opened; the number of tricycles boomed, congesting the road even more. However, among the most noticeable changes was the increase of the Sama-bajau population. Most of them reside by the shore of Queen Tuna Park, which was once called Lion Beach, and some in other residential areas. The city once tried to rehabilitate the beach to attract more tourists, so they relocated the Sama-bajau somewhere else. But not long after, the Sama-bajau came back. As for the land the government gave to them, I didn’t know what happened, but Papa said they must have sold it.

I’ll tell you a secret: no one in GenSan really cared about the Sama-bajau people. No one really cared about the dark-skinned woman carrying a baby across the street or the children selling rugs and oranges by the drive-through of fast-food restaurants. If you’re new to GenSan, you’ll notice these kids in every corner of every crowded establishment: pharmacies, restaurants, 24/7 grocery stores, gas stations, and even churches. At first, you may sympathize with them for their worn-out clothes and doe-eyed faces and perhaps, a sob story, too, so you decide to give them loose change. You know, just so they would have something to eat that night. But not soon after, you’ll realize that they’re relentless. Now that they know you can provide an opportunity for them, an opportunity to be profited from, they will hog your attention and suddenly, you’ll notice how everyone turns their heads the other way as soon as these children come over, oftentimes while quickly handing them coins just so they could get away from them. Perhaps, if the fire is still dancing in your eyes, you will think to yourself, this is not right. The city government should fix this. Well, I’ll tell you. They can’t—or rather, they won’t. They couldn’t even bother to fix the potholes and the unfinished roads constructed in Barangay Malakas that’s been there for months. What makes you think they could provide solutions for the Sama-bajau, who have been in GenSan for years?

Once, when we were on Pioneer Avenue with my friends to eat pastil, a Sama-bajau kid approached me. I knew he was a Sama-bajau because not far from him was his mother, sitting by the steps of an ukay-ukay store with a baby cradled on her breast. This is one trait you learn after living here for so long: figuring out which one is a Sama-bajau and which one is not. I didn’t give him any change, so he ran to another person and begged for money. But when one of my friends gave a bill to one of them, I suddenly felt guilty. Should I have given them money? Perhaps, food can compensate for that, right? And then I remember all the times I’ve turned a blind eye to their solicitations. I surmise I couldn’t stay consistent, so changing now would only be performative and self-gratifying. So I pretended they never existed at all.

Perhaps this is our punishment: our apparent indifference and continuing inwardness invoke the wrath of some fire deity, and the only way to appease him is for the community to unify and develop a sense of belongingness. That won’t happen, though. I know. Because we don’t care about the Sama-bajau people. We treat them as a nuisance. It only takes one careless Sama-bajau kid crossing the street for the heat to take control of the driver’s brain—a loud and stretched out honk!—and he’ll start cursing the kid and his mother, then his father, then his ancestors, and lastly the whole ethnolinguistic group for simply existing and living in their own land.

The mango plant in our house is no longer a sapling; it has become a fruit-bearing tree that provides shade for us. However, I can’t help but think about all the people walking under the sun right now like a zombie whose life has evaporated out of their heads, enduring the pain of the searing heat, sweating profusely and cursing under their breath, “‘Tang-ina, inita ba!” Just like the Sama-bajau do.

________________________

Elio Balan is a 4th year BA English (Creative Writing) student of UP Mindanao. This essay won 1st prize in the Life UPdates literary contest organized by the Likhaan UP Institute of Creative Writing in April 2022. He likes to cosplay.

On Writing Mindanao Fictions

Nonfiction by , , | April 10, 2023

Elizabeth Joy Serrano-Quijano:

Born, raised, and educated in Mindanao, I do not think of Mindanao as stationary. In my stories, I see Mindanao as a concept, I write the stories of the people of Mindanao from my associations, dialogues, interviews, and life with them. Mindanao is so diverse; Davao del Sur cannot claim Mindanao or represent the whole of Mindanao, nor any city represent the totality of Mindanao. I write only a portion of Mindanao, which is why I am very conscious when I represent my cultural community, the Blaan. I specify that I am a Blaan from Davao del Sur to respect the diversity among the Blaans in other provinces such as South Cotabato, Sarangani, Davao Occidental, and General Santos City. Mindanao is multifaceted, dynamic, and very mobile—like a melting pot of the many cultures, including settlers. My mother’s parents were Ibalois from La Trinidad, Benguet who migrated to Davao del Sur in the 1950s. Thus, growing up with my diverse roots, I am aware of the picture of Mindanao in my mind. We (the indigenous people) share Mindanao with our Muslim brothers and sisters, as well as settlers from Luzon and Visayas.

According to the founders of the research center Mindanawon Initiatives for Cultural Dialogue, a Mindanawon consciousness “asserts and celebrates diverse identities and the integrity of creation,” and thus, is a partner of the indigenous peoples in creating a real picture of Mindanao. They are advocates who share the same passion in promoting and protecting our right to self-determination. Data from the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) in 2012 show that sixty per cent of the Filipino IPs live in Mindanao, a Mindanawon represents what other Filipinos should also stand for, that is, to protect the rights of Mindanaoans, the people who live in Mindanao. Since Mindanao has been portrayed negatively in the media, a Mindanawon knows better. More than an advocate or ally of Mindanaoans, Mindanawons are also fellow Filipinos who believe in the many potentials of Mindanao–culture, arts, tourism, history, people, etc.

On the Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) required by the NCIP, some of my fellow indigenous researchers and cultural workers believe that IPs going through the process of securing FPIC is plain irrational. The indigenous writers and researchers must not be treated like outsiders who need to go through the pains and filters of the backbreaking process of the NCIP for researchers and writers. As there are few IP researchers and writers, it would not hurt the Commission to give privileges to IP researchers especially in researching or writing for their own cultural communities. If the FPIC is a safeguard of the indigenous cultural communities, do we need to safeguard our ICCs from ourselves? Perhaps the solution to that is consultation and evaluation/review of the FPIC as a process. Funny that the Commission has given so much attention in red tagging the term “lumad” without even acting on the more pressing issues, including the FPIC, abuses and loopholes in the ownership of ancestral domains, killings of IP leaders, IP education, and promotion of the use of mother tongue. To add, Mother Tongue – Based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) is problematic because the IP learners do not have materials written in their mother tongue. In Matanao, Davao del Sur, the materials provided by the Department of Education are all in Sinugbuanong Binisaya. These issues are only few of the real concerns that we call on the NCIP and our Mindanawon allies to act and stand for what is best for Mindanao and its people.

There are promising stories of indigenous people that must be written and read. As a Blaan writer, I am humbled and overwhelmed by the support that I received when I started writing. Today, I give back to my cultural community by helping and empowering the IP youth through conducting workshops and sharing what I have. They say that writing is a privilege and a challenge, especially if you’re a woman and a mother, especially an indigenous woman. I use my little privileges to encourage my fellow indigenous people to stand firm and fight for our rights during this time of misrepresentation and disinformation. We need to represent Mindanao and its stories and faces.

Jade Mark Capiñanes:

Do I consider myself Mindanawon?

The short answer: yes, of course. I’ve lived in Mindanao all my life.

But it’s not that straightforward, is it? So, I also have a long answer.

Take my flash fiction collection How to Grieve. One may say the work isn’t Mindanawon because they don’t heavily feature people and events and things one often associates with Mindanao. Instead of, say, the life of the Lumad or life in Davao under Duterte—which Elizabeth Joy Serrano-Quijano and John Bengan, respectively, deftly depict and deconstruct in their works—my stories revolve around, among others, riding a taxi and counting hotdogs in your Jolly Spaghetti. There’s even only one mention of any geographical marker in the book—Davao City—and it’s in the final story at that. How is that Mindanawon?

There’s no doubt that Serrano-Quijano’s and Bengan’s work are admirable and important, but I’ve always felt there’s something restrictive, even oppressive, in the idea that as a Mindanawon writer I must only write about people and events and things one—usually one not living here—often associates with Mindanao. But I can’t write like Serrano-Quijano and Bengan. Why? Simply because I’m not them. What I’m trying to say is that living as a Blaan or living in constant fear of the Davao Death Squad are Mindanawon, but Mindanawons can also have emotional breakdowns in the taxi or in front of their spaghetti.

I’d also like to think that my being Mindanawon reveals itself not in the content but in the form of my writings. Isn’t the way a writer structures their stories a direct result or manifestation of the kind of language or reality they’re living in?

My mother has Mandaya and Kagan blood. My father’s Ilonggo. I can’t speak my mother’s language, and I learned my father’s only when I was a teenager. As a Catholic child raised in a Tausug community in Davao City, I expressed myself in Binisaya and Tausug. Today I still speak all the languages I mentioned, but I write and think mostly in English or Filipino or a peculiar mixture of both. And if you live in Mindanao, you’ll know this linguistic and cultural diversity and hybridity aren’t uncommon.

Thus, instead of thinking of Mindanawon identity as something pure or singular, I think of mine as something provisional and improvisational. When I was at a family reunion on my father’s side a few years ago, for example, my brain automatically went Hiligaynon mode. On the other hand, when I’m talking to my students, who are Gen Z and Davao “conyos,” I also catch myself speaking their language, which I can only describe as like honey flowing on sandpaper.

Similarly, when I wrote the stories in How to Grieve, my primary consideration was the form each story must take on: in what “language” can I best express the story? That’s why, if you read my book—please do—you’ll find a few traditionally constructed narratives, but you’ll also come across a how-to article, a list, a letter, a questionnaire, an advice column, a koan, a lyric, or an academic passage or a combination of both, etc.

This kind of fluidity—this sort of constant transformation or translation—is what defines my identity and what’s at the heart of my work. And this is what makes me Mindanawon.

John Bengan:

The stories in Armor are based on my own experiences of living in Davao City from the mid ’90s to the 2000s. I am also queer, and so many of the characters in the stories are queer, trying to navigate a specifically local queer experience or being a “bayot” in a place like Davao. A small-time drug dealer wants to compete in another Miss Gay pageant, even if he might get assassinated. A high school boy discovers mIRC and commits what these days is called “catfishing.” A young man in the university begins a relationship with someone he meets at the men’s dorm; meanwhile his father, who has been missing for years, may have been executed. While they have personal troubles, they also live in a strange environment: they find themselves in a supposedly peaceful place where violence occurs every day. I’m referring to the summary killings that happened in those two decades.

While writing, I was quite aware of the fact that I was setting the stories in Davao. The place in the stories is not exactly Davao City, of course, because it is fictive, imagined. But at the same time, the stories are informed by an insight into a real place. I was not born here; my family moved to Davao when I was very young.  In the first three stories in Armor—“Higher Orders,” “At the River,” “Slaughter Story”—I was trying to reconcile how I’m adapting to a new home with how I’m seeing the place from this position of having just arrived, the shock of encounter between a landscape and myself.

It took me seventeen years to write this book, and so when I was writing the rest of the stories, I already had an understanding of what it means to write about Mindanao. The histories of Mindanao, its growth, its continuing struggles, I would see, influence our literature. I’d become aware that these conflicts don’t happen in isolation; they are connected. History doesn’t really pass. It’s not really in the past. I had this in mind when I worked on the stories. For instance, I wrote a story about kids rapping about the killings as a solution to crime. This is actually true. I met these kids a few years ago while eating kebab somewhere downtown. I tried to consider what kind of behavior a character would have, what decisions they would make in particular scenarios if they were exposed to this reality.

Later, I was able to read stories by authors from Davao and other places in Mindanao. At the beginning, I didn’t really see a link with other writers. It was only later, when I got to read their work, that I recognized the resemblance; they turned their attention to how political volatility clashes with quotidian lives. I’m thinking of Macario D. Tiu’s young guerrillas in his book Sky Rose, Aida Rivera-Ford’s stories about settler girls and women, or stories like Anthony Tan’s “The Cargo,” which is about a man who sees that the cost of survival in their village is revenge. I’d like to imagine that my fiction responds to these works. I would agree if someone said that what I write is “Mindanao fiction.” The stories do reference a part of Davao’s history.

The time Armor covers was some time ago, but I feel that little has changed. Maybe there are signs of change, or “progress,” in the form of new buildings here, road constructions there—Davao was less dusty then, definitely less congested—but the killings never stopped. What happened in the last six years grabbed the nation’s attention and put Davao in everyone’s frequency for a different reason. What I saw then was that people here had been inured to the violence. We’ve now seen an entire country getting desensitized. There is outrage, but there’s plenty of condoning.

However, if there is a fiction about Mindanao that I want to write against, it’s the one about people here being blind followers. This book is my way of bearing witness to the things that have confounded, horrified, or saddened me about living here, but also the moments that made me cautiously hopeful, because when you read the stories, you’ll see that the characters have a lot of drive and attitude, even when they are facing great danger.

_____________________

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Under the auspices of the independent publisher Everything’s Fine, the Davao Writers Guild participated in the Mindanao Book Fair held in Abreeza Mall on March 17-19, 2023. On March 19, we held a panel entitled “Mindanao Fictions” featuring John Bengan (Armor, 2022, Ateneo de Manila University Press), Elizabeth Joy Serrano-Quijano (Dili Pwede Mogawas ug ubang mga Sugilanon, 2022, Ateneo de Davao University), and Jade Mark Capiñanes (How to Grieve, 2022, Everything’s Fine). Moderated by DWG President Jhoanna Lynn Cruz, the authors discussed how they engage with Mindanao as the site of their creativity and vision. Watch the video archive here: https://youtu.be/GGKRbg9tGeY

The Flight Attendant

Nonfiction by | January 30, 2023

There was only the dim ambient lighting from the standing lamp as I was staring at my reflection on the wall mirror. I adjusted the wet towel that clung to my lower body, and I felt droplets of water descending through my legs and to the floor. The sound of muffled torrential downpour escaping from behind the bathroom door was the only thing I could hear while Michiel was taking a shower.

Staring at myself, I didn’t realize how much my body had drastically changed. Gone were my spindly limbs, replaced with a bulk that showed strength. My chest had filled in, my stomach had some faint ridges, and most of all my buttocks seemed fuller. I remembered my older sister telling me when we were shopping at a mall that she would buy me denim jeans as my college graduation gift. But since, as she had said, I had a flat behind, any jeans I would wear would appear awkward. But now that years of exercise had chiseled my body, perhaps my sister would no longer have any difficulty finding me new clothing. And also, since I was working in a foreign country, perhaps I could afford to buy clothes that would suit me better.

Truthfully, it was a bit strange, thinking why I was here. I had only met Michiel in person four hours ago, after some conversation on Grindr. But then again, as my friends had told me before, gay men were more physical, more visual, more primal, than their straight counterparts. It was not uncommon for two gay men to have some physical pleasure on the first date.

The bathroom door opened. Michiel came out, a towel around his waist, another towel he used to dry his blond hair. “What are you staring at?”

“Just myself,” I replied.

He sauntered behind me, appearing on the mirror, then hugged me from behind. His arms were like flaps of an envelope, completely covering me. He had to lean lower to put his chin on the nook of my neck. On the mirror, it appeared like Goliath had captured David, his tall and lithe Dutch frame awkward on my shorter Filipino figure.

“You’re gorgeous,” Michiel whispered.

I blinked, taken aback. No one had said that to me before. And no less from an “afam,” as my Filipino friends would surely call him.

Before Singapore, I had gone out on dates with Filipino guys, but they had all been a disaster. A recurring pattern was my date would ask for money after the first date. One said he wanted to buy a gift for his sister, another one said he needed to buy underwear, and the last one had to borrow money to pay some of his college tuition. After realizing I was only a walking ATM for these men, I came to the conclusion that dating wasn’t for me. But moving to Singapore and realizing I wasn’t getting any younger, I decided to give it another try. While Michiel wasn’t the first afam I met, he certainly didn’t ask for money from me. Instead, we went Dutch when we paid our restaurant bill—fitting, because of Michiel’s nationality.

“Thank you,” I replied after a brief pause.

I could see Michiel noticing my reaction, that I wasn’t totally convinced with what he had said. His response was just to hug me tighter.

Growing up in the Philippines, I had always been the invisible guy, lost in the background, like I was hiding behind the curtains in the classroom. When I was in high school, my classmates were worried about their puppy romances or saving enough baon to buy gifts for their teenage lovers. Meanwhile, I was worried about my acne. It was a source of constant grief for me, and a money drain for my mom. She would spend thousands for my dermatology visits and for my medicinal facial creams. And when my acne subsided after I graduated from college and found work, I went to the gym. But still, I wasn’t handsome enough.

“You’re a hipon!” a female work colleague had told me one time as she was a bit tipsy during a Friday night party.

“Hipon, why?” I replied.

“Nice body, ugly face,” she said, laughing.

That stung. That label turned into a scar I especially noticed whenever I glanced at my face on any reflective surface, like I was sizing another person in a duel.

I slowly loosened myself from Michiel’s grasp. “I should get going. It’s already past midnight.”

He nodded as he told me he would get me a glass of water. Putting on my clothes, I was looking at Michiel. He was a good-looking man, although when I told him that he was handsome during our date, he had seemed surprised. Aside from his noticeable height, he had a kindness to his baby-blue eyes that would match his smile. He also smelled like fresh sunflowers whenever I caught a whiff of him. He told me he didn’t wear any perfume, but it could be his aftershave. Later he mentioned that he was in his mid-forties, while I was only in my late twenties, so I could easily find a younger replacement for him.  I shook my head in disagreement. He also asked why I had decided to meet him that night, and I only replied: “Because you felt right.” Besides from the personable photos he sent me, our conversation was so much different from the dates I had had in my hometown. He was the quintessential older gentleman. It felt like I was treated as a person, an equal—so unlike the police interrogations I had experienced with the guys in Davao, where my date would ask about my height, weight, age, employment, my crushes and exes, and even the size of my manhood.

“It’s too bad you’re flying tomorrow. Where is your next flight?” I asked while drinking the glass of water.

Michiel replied he was going to Bangkok, then would stay there for a few days, then fly to South Korea, then back to Singapore, then fly back to Amsterdam. As a flight attendant for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, he was everywhere. I, on the other hand, was grounded with my desk job in Singapore.

“You must have met a lot of guys through your job.”

He pondered for a bit, his eyes squinting, then faintly shook his head. “Not really.”

Fully dressed, I walked to the front door and put on my shoes. He followed me, towering over me like my office building when I arrived at work. “Will I see you when I get back to Singapore?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, smiling. I had to tiptoe to plant a kiss on his lips. “I’ll be right here.”

He opened the door as he smiled back. He gave me one more hug and kiss before I headed to the elevators then exited the hotel. I took one more glance behind me, then started to walk to the subway metro, passing by the flickering neon lights in Geylang. It was surprisingly chilly. I could hear the bustle of tourists. I took out my phone and briefly read my text conversation with Michiel.

Have a safe trip to Bangkok, I texted him.

After a few minutes, my phone vibrated. Michiel had replied to me: I will see you again. I’ll be staying in the same hotel when I arrive back.

A small smile was on my face. I really wasn’t in my hometown anymore, I thought, as I kept at my pace.

 

**

Glyd Jun Arañes works as professional linguist for a language technology company in Helsinki, Finland. He briefly worked at a big tech company in Singapore before migrating to Europe. He was a fellow at the 2010 ADDU Writers Workshop and the 2011 Davao Writers Workshop.

Hide Me till I’m Ready to Come Out

Nonfiction by | January 16, 2023

I was reluctantly headed towards the gate of my condo with the intent of going to a nearby supermarket under the heat of the blazing four o’clock sun. I decided on wearing a bright teal colored hoodie that day, paired with my baggy pajama pants, and my go-to sneakers that apparently hadn’t been cleaned from my last escapade. “No one will probably call you out for your footwear anyway,” my nonchalant inner voice advised.

The request was definitely sudden but wasn’t that unexpected seeing as my mom’s belly had been looking more and more like a watermelon each passing day. Anyone could tell that she was about to give birth this month or even the next and that obviously meant it was time for the only other person at home to step up and become the other adult in the house. This was my moment. My time for maturity had come.

“Feels like the sky’s glaring on me today,” a random thought came as grey clouds were suddenly starting to form from above.

I had prepared for every eventuality that I might come across for this sudden mission. I had my pink sling bag stuffed with everything, literally everything from my QR card, credit card, vaccination card, ID card—you get the picture. 

Shopping for groceries may be a normal thing for anyone at the age of eighteen, or even younger, but for a sheltered only child for most of my life, it honestly felt like entering society with a “stare at me” sign taped on my forehead, specifically printed in bold and all caps. If you couldn’t tell that this long ranting monologue was proof of my nervousness, then the sweat dripping down my forehead was definitely a sign. Or it could just be the sun.

Getting out of my thoughts, I made my way through the narrow sidewalk while putting on a pair of knockoff AirPods, now listening to a random song I clicked from my BTS playlist. In times like this, a good jamming session from your favorite band is best for calming nerves. I didn’t get to finish the song, though, since it didn’t actually take a full minute for me to reach my dreaded destination, unfortunately. 

With only being a few inches away from the entrance, I could actually feel my anxiety steadily surfacing on my prepared and calm exterior from moments ago. Between me and the entrance, there were merely two steps of stairs that I had to cross. Easy, right? “More like crossing the Korean DMZ” is what actually came to mind.

I took the leap in, but now came the harder part: shopping to get out.

I wanted to end this trip as fast as possible. I quickly navigated my way through the path of consumers that made this very small grocery store even smaller. I only had a few things on the list that my mom gave me to shop for: a few canned goods, alcohol (the safe kind), hand soap, laundry detergent, food, a broom, a rag, and a few other things. Basically, if you need it at your home, that’s what I’m buying.

After a few minutes of roaming around the store, squeezing my way through people in crowded aisles including their unattended shopping carts that frustratingly blocked the wider paths, I still managed to find most of the things on my list. I suddenly missed my life before I took a step out of my home, the safety of being indoors, relying on foodpanda whenever we got lazy to cook at home, not being surrounded by people who were most likely judging your pajama-like outfit. Deciding to stop the rambling, I just carried on living in reality rather than wishing to be in the fantasy. By then I was almost done with my list.

I only had two items left, the broom and the rag. I struggled the most to find these since despite being in a store that made you feel claustrophobic, I found out there were actually a lot of areas where needed items could be hidden. The meek extrovert in me needed to come out by now, it was getting late and I couldn’t handle the place anymore, so I mustered up the courage and just asked a nearby saleslady at the aisle where on earth the broom and the rag were.

Coincidentally, both were literally at the aisle behind the one I was in. That lady must be laughing deep down at the situation I was in. She was just focused on her job, though, minding her own business after the help.

Now back to my situation, the items were placed at the very back of the store and you’d have to worm your way in just to get them, and I did just that. I won’t lie to you and say that it was a pleasant experience, especially since I had to put myself in and out of there twice to get both separately. Gotta admit I might have silently yelled my profanities at the time, low-key regretting all the take out I had while being a subterranean and lacking the communication skills to ask help from that saleslady earlier. Couldn’t do much about it now, the only thing left was to finally pay and leave the store. I made my way through the counter.

“Your credit card isn’t working, ma’am,” the cashier in front of me mentioned out of the blue.

I had no cash except for twenty pesos in my wallet that could only cough up flies, my mom wasn’t with me to help with the situation, she didn’t reply to my texts either, there were several people behind me waiting for their turn while I was holding the line up front—you couldn’t see it, but I was definitely panicking. I instantly wanted to go back to that broom aisle and hide, just like I always had at home. Well, I wasn’t at home, I was here in trouble, in the real world.

I was now headed towards the gate of my condo, bag of groceries in hand, and it was extremely heavy. I finally made it back to our unit, and my mom welcomed me for a successful trip. She asked me how it went and I really told her everything that happened, the claustrophobic atmosphere, asking for help, even the credit card problem. She asked me what you’re probably wondering.

“How did it end?” she asked.

“I tried it again,” I replied.

That answer somehow became a very important lesson. One will never be completely prepared for what life throws at you. The nervousness and anxiousness one has is a normal feeling, and trying over and over again is what matters. We shouldn’t stop ourselves from facing reality or society just because we aren’t ready. Rather, we try to emerge and face our insecurities. And that’s when we know we are truly ready—when we come out.


Fionin Maer Tagimacruz is currently taking up BS in Psychology and has always had a soft spot for all things fiction. She takes inspiration for her literary pieces from everything around her since her youth, spending hours indoors reading fantasy novels and watching sitcoms.

 

Through a Spyglass Darkly

Nonfiction by | September 26, 2022

My father is a seafarer. For the most part of my childhood, I’ve only been able to see him once or twice a year, and only briefly. When I was told about his new job, the younger me had imagined that Daddy was going to be a pirate who will be setting off on a voyage to find treasure for me, thanks to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and my overactive imagination. Having an OFW parent is never easy on a child nor the seafaring father. The first time he had to leave, I was crying oceans almost every night for weeks. “What if he gets eaten by an enormous sea monster?” I frequently thought to myself. I couldn’t imagine how hard it was for him too, having to celebrate his children’s birthdays in the middle of the ocean, having to send a birthday message in a bottle, and having to look at his children grow up through a spyglass.

Now that I’m older, I realize that there are bigger monsters to worry about. Before I took the UPCAT in 2019, he told me that UP is just another school, perhaps in an effort to alleviate the pressure I was under. I replied that no, it isn’t – to which he replied “Yes it is, useless people nga karamihan sila.” I immediately knew what he meant. He has always been antagonistic towards UP students, as he had repeatedly said how some students are “baliw,” on a couple different occasions. In the irony of it all, several months later, his own daughter would pass the UPCAT and be one of those “baliw” and “useless” students.

I couldn’t blame him for not knowing who his daughter is. How does one get to know a person when both are oceans away from each other? The high tides and trade winds won’t allow it. One time, he sent me a message asking why it seems as if I’m drifting away, why we weren’t as close as we were before. The easy way out was to put all the blame on the distance and the tides pushing and pulling, hence slowly separating us, but I know all too well that distance and ocean tides weren’t the ones to blame. I could have said, “Because you support Duterte and defend his misogyny,” or “Because you share posts on Facebook spreading misinformation about the OVP,” or “Because you think student activism is crazy and useless when your own daughter is a student activist, but of course you don’t know that,” but I couldn’t. All I could manage to say was how college life in UP had kept me too busy.

This year, my brother and I flew to Baguio City, our hometown, to spend time with Daddy as it was time for his ship to dock. I call Baguio my hometown not only because it’s where I was born, but also because I take pride in being Kankanaey Igorot. We usually only get a month with him at most, but this time he was here for a generous two months before he boarded a ship again and began another journey at sea.

“Biglang nag-blackout, tapos dumami bigla boto ni Leni,” my father declared at the dinner table, referring to the 2016 elections in which Leni Robredo won the seat for the vice presidency. It was only a couple of weeks away before the May 9 elections, and political family discussions during dinner were, well, inevitable. Leni is running again, this time for the presidency, and my grandmother was a Kakampink, just like the rest of the family except for Daddy. Every evening, as the whole family gathered for dinner, Lola would bring up Leni, to which my father would never fail to refute: “‘Di ‘yan mananalo.” I kept quiet. I’ve never been a fan of confrontation. I don’t want to rock the boat; I just want to enjoy my bowl of sinigang.

Days before the Leni-Kiko grand rally in Baguio City, Daddy saw the materials I had laid out on the floor to make a placard. I didn’t tell him ahead of time that I was going. The night before the rally, he went into my room and said, “Bukas na yung rally, ‘di ba? Ba’t ‘di mo pa ginagawa ang placard mo?” I was caught off guard. Why was he encouraging the behavior he once said was useless? The following day, he offered to drive me and my brother to the venue. He also came back to pick us up after the event. We didn’t talk much about it, just a few questions on how it went and how we were.

Three days later, it was our flight back to Davao City – where my mother, younger brother, and I moved fifteen years ago when my parents separated – and Daddy was also going back to work and boarding a ship again soon. As I was packing my bags the evening before the flight, he saw the pink placard I had used for the rally, folded and slightly crumpled on the floor. “Hindi mo iyan iuuwi? Sayang, pwede mo ‘yan ipa-frame, remembrance,” he told me. I was stunned. It could have been a sarcastic remark, but I know that my father is a good man and he wouldn’t mock me like that. I didn’t know how to respond, so I just let out a little laugh.

I did bring the placard home to Davao, but not so I could frame it as a remembrance like he said. It might just be a piece of paper, but I choose to see it as the treasure Daddy had voyaged for many years ago across the ocean to find and bring to me. He needed to set sail all those years ago and he knew the younger me wouldn’t have fully understood why he had to do what he did. Even if he might not fully understand who I am and why I do what I do, it is more than enough for me that he sees me. Maybe he actually knows me, maybe he still doesn’t and just chooses to support me in whatever I do, who knows? The coast is far from clear, but he tries.

“Sa radikal na pagmamahal,” one side of my placard read. On the other side, I wrote “Pag- asa ay iiral.” With the loss of Leni and Kiko, and the seeming triumph of misinformation and historical revisionism, many of us don’t understand what went wrong. But I still continue to believe that the fight for the Filipino people to be seen and heard is far from over. These are difficult times for the Philippines, but we will keep trying.

***

Vida Sachi Daliling studies communication and media arts at the University of the Philippines Mindanao.

A Dam in Calinan

Nonfiction by | August 29, 2022

We stood at the foot of a tree-studded hill in Calinan. Mia, my classmate, seemed just as eager as I was to climb it, as we looked at the steep path we were about to take. I took the lead, with each mindful step at every convenient tree root that stuck out like nature’s staircase. It was clear that there was a trodden path ahead, as the rest of the hill was filled with cogon grass and trees too close to each other to walk through. About a third of the climb, sweat started to soak my neck and back. The Saturday afternoon sun wasn’t the one to blame, as the path was mostly shaded by mahogany trees that lined the hill. I remembered Troy, my classmate, saying that he used to climb this same hill every week for his taekwondo training. Despite being half my size, Mia managed to keep up with me and after a hundred sweaty steps and dirt-covered limbs, we reached the top. It was anticlimactic. I thought I would hear Howard Shore’s “Concerning Hobbits” at the supposedly majestic sight, but the feeling was mundane, at best. At least I got to feel what it must be like to train as a taekwondo athlete.

We rested just right on the path we took and had a chat. She opened up to me and wondered if she was worthy as a scholar of UP. I mean, how am I supposed to answer? I was at the edge during that semester and years later I would shift from my computer course to creative writing. I was just as, if not more, anxious as she was. All I told her was that everyone has their own insecurities, and how we adapt to them is how we succeed. Or at least that’s what I thought I said. I was a naive 19-year-old back then.

But the hill wasn’t why we were here.

One requirement for Comm 3, Effective Speech Communication, was to interview a community. The pairwork task was mostly focused on the techniques, methods, and ethics of interviewing. Simple enough. The harder part, however, was selecting what community I should go to. The only places that I was familiar with in Davao were the Roxas Avenue-Mintal jeepney travel route and their adjacent landmarks like Gaisano Mall and Ateneo de Davao University. So communities within the city were a no-go. I thought about going back to my hometown, Banaybanay in Davao Oriental for it, but I didn’t want to think about the fuss of bringing a girl back home. Mia was probably thinking the same thing as well. The only idea that we agreed upon, after much deliberation, is to visit a nameless dam in Calinan. The climb up the hill was just an excursion after a long ride from Calinan market.

Yes, it doesn’t have a name. Even Google couldn’t provide an answer. We agreed on it because it was the only place we were both familiar with in Davao. We had both been to a half-built resort owned by Troy’s uncle right next to the dam. We could’ve just been casual about it and interviewed anyone in the Mintal market, but we were UP students chasing excellence even if it meant a dangerous journey to the Calinan outskirts. Damn, we were really trying hard.

We took the same steps in our descent and walked towards the dam, as dry and rusty as we had seen before. On the reservoir side was a knee-deep stream and the downstream hardly had any water in it. What it had, however, were large rocks and patches of cogon grass, as if the last time it had water flowing was a decade ago. The concrete parts of the dam itself were covered in green and yellow slimy moss. The metal gears, screws, and platings were caked in orange rust. There were no maintenance buildings, no workers in the vicinity, and no cable lines for power. Just an antiquated, derelict structure.

So imagine my surprise when I found out that it was still working.

The fact came from the villagers near the dam, who seemed watchful of the two young visitors. It was as if they hadn’t seen another soul in years. We ignored them for a while but appreciated that we didn’t have to search hard for anyone for the interview. After about an hour of chatting, it was about three in the afternoon so we hopped through the large rocks on the downstream side towards the village when we saw one of the women standing beside the dam as if she were waiting for us. When she thought we could hear her, she said, “Why did you climb that hill? It’s extremely dangerous up there!”

My nonchalant heart suddenly jumped. The woman’s words sounded more concerning when a few of her fellow villagers walking by suddenly turned to us as if their everyday activities shifted into our supposed trespass.

“Why is it dangerous?” Mia asked.

“There are tulisan up there!” the woman answered.

Bandits? I felt a sudden and more sinister atmosphere in the area. Up there on the hill, it was a deafening silence, and we didn’t feel any souls hiding, waiting to pounce on us and have their way.

We were led to a sort of a wooden shed in which the woman, accompanied by her husband and some of her neighbors, told us that the hill and the nearby dam are witnesses to robbery, rape, and murder. The woman, as she relayed her story to us, spoke in hushed tones as if talking about it loudly would attract the malicious entities that lurk in the place. She mentioned a couple who were attacked when they were taking a bath at the reservoir. Then she answered no further questions about the matter, emphasizing that we should avoid that place from now on.

Duterte would win the elections as president the following year. When the rumors of him running for the presidency ran rife, the posts, images, or testaments on social media of how peaceful Davao City is also increased. Oppressive policing aside, the city was indeed relatively peaceful. But with their focus on urban security, it seemed they had forgotten that the dam, the village, and the hill were still part of their jurisdiction. So it seemed that the wicked lurked in the outskirts, away from the public.

As soon as I returned to my boarding house, I went online to search for any reported crimes in Calinan. The villagers in the nearby dam treated the atrocities as frequent occurrences so surely the authorities or the local news have information about it, right? The internet said no. But, I couldn’t blame the lack of coverage. Most of the news on TV is focused on the National Capital Region so local reports are mainly available only in the local news, amidst the titillating and sensationalized gossip about Filipino celebrities.

What made me more uncomfortable about all of this is that even though it was clear that the villagers were fearful about what was happening near them, they just agreed to avoid being involved when it happens. As the woman spoke of the couple, I imagined that if one of them had screamed, the villagers could’ve heard them. Perhaps they thought that apprehending the criminals at the scene would have consequences they were not willing to face, so they simply chose to be deaf to what happened. They had no reason to kid us. The woman stood there waiting when we were hopping on the large rocks as if we were her children caught lollygagging in the middle of the night.

But am I being a hypocrite? Because after the trip, I wished that we could’ve just settled for points of interest within the Mintal neighborhood of UP and be done with it. Screw grades and all that. I admit that Davao would’ve felt safer for me if I didn’t know what was happening near the dam. Bliss in ignorance was something I couldn’t deny. I would’ve just been fine with nothing but fascination that the dam was still working. I felt this not because I don’t feel pity, but because like those villagers, I was just as powerless. How could a listless, uninspired 19-year-old college student be able to do anything about that situation? How could I have made things better in that place when even the local police didn’t seem to help? And what about the local government?

I don’t see myself returning to that dam anytime in the foreseeable future. I can’t see myself willfully continuing to ignore what was happening on that hill. My conscience would be banging my head until it couldn’t be ignored anymore. But, years later, I still think about the dam, and how on earth it is still working. I think about the villagers, who kindly offered to take us home as one of them owned a jeepney that delivers the village’s vegetable produce to the Mintal market.


Carl Undag proudly lives in a small town in Banaybanay, Davao Oriental. He is currently completing his BA English course in UP Mindanao to fulfill his dream of writing a novel.

Editor’s Note: The research project referred to in the essay was conducted in 2015. We assure the public that UP Mindanao has since created a Research Ethics Committee and is currently implementing a standard protocol on all research on human subjects conducted by its community. 

Daddy Would Forget

Nonfiction by | August 22, 2022

1. 

July 15, 2021, 7:58 pm

Daddy still remembers me.

My grandfather has seen lots of things in his time. His children growing up. Their belongings being loaded onto a truck because they couldn’t pay the rent. Plaza Miranda right before it was bombed. Sometimes I think Daddy has seen too much.

In 2018, he was a victim of a motorcycle hit-and-run and had to get stitches. In 2019, he was rushed to the ICU for septic pneumonia where he was also diagnosed with dementia. These things seemed to happen more and more frequently.

I prayed then. I asked that Daddy live long enough to see my cousin finish med school and become a doctor. That’s all I asked. And He knows I don’t ask for much. I don’t ask; I don’t dream. No, that was my cousin. That was Ate Hannah.

And in 2021 she finally got her dream. The first doctor in the family. And the way Daddy smiled when it sunk in will always be how I remember him.

I have to check my UP results.

8:12 pm

I didn’t get in. 

I’ll appeal. Everything’s going to be fine. I told myself this. Then:

My mother’s going to be upset. Then:

Mama Ving must be so proud of her daughter, Ate Hannah.

July 18, 12:38 am

I was helping Daddy to bed.

“Anong pangalan mo?” he asked me.

“Bea po.”

“Ilan kayo magkakapatid?”

 “Dalawa po.”

 “Sino ‘yong isa?”

“Si Carlos po.”

“Ahh! Si Caloy!” No one has called my brother that nickname since he was small.

“Tumakbo na ba si Robredo?” he asked suddenly.

“‘Hindi pa po natin alam.”

“Dapat manalo ‘yon… kasi… babae… taga-Bicol…” My grandmother was from Bicol. “Saka Katoliko, katulad ko… naniniwala sa Diyos… hindi tulad ni Duterte… ‘di ‘yon naniniwala sa Diyos.” How could a man who has been put through so much still have this much faith? “Mananalo ‘yon… kasi… natalo niya na si Marcos noon eh.” I thought he was confusing timelines again for a moment then I realized he was referring to the vice-presidential race in 2016. 

It must be nice, I thought, to have so much faith in something.

11:45 am

 Daddy asked again, “Anong kurso mo?”

Literature po.”

“Saan ka mag-aaral?”

La Salle po.”

 “Eh ‘di ba sa Ateneo ka may scholarship?”

“Opo.”

It was quiet for a while.

“Mahal ang tuition sa La Salle, ‘di ba?”

“Hanapan po namin ng paraan.”

As soon as I let go of those words I wanted to take them back. This man has heard them enough. We’ll find a way. Probably mostly from himself. For his family. For us. Too much. Too much.

It’s fine, I sighed, he probably doesn’t remember.

2.

 July 18, 10:31 pm

I was holding Daddy’s hand. He wore a bracelet that had his name and my aunt Mama Lou’s number in case he wanders again. This same hand handed my mother a hammer at the noise barrage in 1978 when supporters of Ninoy Aquino flooded Metro Manila’s streets in an act of defiance against Marcos. I wonder if he remembers that. He looked down at the bracelet.

“Sinong nagpagawa nito?”

Mama Lou was also in the room. She answered, “Nanay niya, si Memen.”

Earlier this year, January 31, Daddy wandered out of the house in Manila before dawn without a face mask on and wearing just a sando and boxer shorts. Barangay tanods found him and asked for his name and address but he couldn’t answer. All he said was that he fell asleep at his daughter’s house looking after Bea and Caloy and wanted to go back home to his wife Nora.

His heart and mind were in Davao. The bracelet was meant to bring him back.

 

3.

July 21, 9:17 pm

He asked, “Kailan ang kaarawan ko?”

“Sa Biyernes.” Daddy would turn ninety on July 23. We would attend mass at Quiapo Church. My grandmother would always attend mass there. She would fall on her knees and move closer and closer towards the altar. Closer and closer.

“Naku! Bawal ang karne!”

“Daddy, hindi naman Lent ngayon.”

 

4.

 July 23, 8:07 pm

Mass ended at 8:00 pm.

“Saan si Nora? Nakasimba ba siya? Hindi nagpaalam?” Daddy looked hurt.

“Nasa Davao siya.” Mama Lou answered.

Technically this wasn’t a lie. My grandmother was buried in Davao.

“Paano siya nasa Davao, eh katabi ko lang siya kagabi?”

Too close, Mommy. Too close.

 

5.

July 26, 1:09 pm

A commercial came on.

“Tatakbo pala si Villar?” I started. The conversation rolled on. Daddy was quiet.

To test his memory, Mama Ving asked, “Gusto mo si Marcos, Daddy?”

“Hindi.” He didn’t hesitate.

This man would forget us, himself, time, and that it had taken his wife. But he had Plaza Miranda branded onto the insides of his eyelids. The clang of Nanay’s hammer against the metal pole still echoes in his ears.

____________________

Bea Gatmaytan lives in Davao City. She is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in English (Creative Writing) at the University of the Philippines Mindanao.

All Roads Lead Home (Part 1)

Nonfiction by | July 4, 2022

Three years ago, on my first trip home from college, Isulan felt like home for the very first time. As soon as I stepped out of the van I took a picture of the Roundball, which was another first. The Roundball wasn’t a grand architectural feat—it’s just a rotonda—it was rugged and unkempt, yet its concrete base never seemed shaken. The statue of Sultan Kudarat stood on top, collecting dust from thousands of vehicles passing by each day, off to their own destinations. For something that stood there as long as I can remember, it’s anything but new. It reminded me that I was home. And I wanted to immortalize that moment. Perhaps it was that exact feeling of home, of warmth, that I wanted to carry with me wherever I went. Or maybe it was just an impulse.

After that spontaneous flick, I took a stroll on the empty highway—it was eight o’clock in the evening. The dust in the air stung my eyes and filled my lungs as I kept on looking and walking around streets and buildings that I would have overlooked if it had been any other moment than that. A couple of minutes later, I reached the old market, the palengke, and I noticed that a statue of a golden eagle has been erected in front of an old bakery, barbecue stalls with disco lights lined the pathway, street lights no longer flickering, tarpaulins and colorful banners of politicians flitted by the warm evening wind. The moon seemed to project a vague film on the concrete, the stars hummed, and street dogs sang. For a while, it looked like a Vincent van Gogh painting. Were all of these like this before?

I was taken back to reality when I checked my phone and saw four missed calls from Tatay. I realized then that I was truly back, but somehow I knew something was different. I felt like I needed to write about this moment, to translate my feelings on paper, to write a story. Such an impression made me reflect about the reality of the people selling barbecue every night, what their economic status was and how the political system affects their lives, their stories and motivations. How I could give them justice through my writing, one that could never be given by the faces on political campaign materials. I had never thought about these before. Perhaps nothing really changed in Isulan, I just didn’t care enough to look and see.

Still enamored by how mundane and peaceful everything felt, I thought to myself, “I am home.”

I told Tatay where I was.

 

Today, after being caged here for almost two years, I have yet to find another thing to try and write about. Isulan, a town of ninety-thousand in the province of Sultan Kudarat, has become sort of an enigma. I used to think that nobody cared about politics, about art, or the looming dread of capitalism. I was bored out of my mind. I wanted to prove to myself that there has to be more, here in my hometown. There were people I’ve met that made me reconsider my previous thoughts. One of them was a man I’ve only known for a month; he calls himself Mark, I call him Kuya. As I do every guy I think is older than me.

One day, I found myself in Kuya’s home. I accompanied my girlfriend to a business meeting there. He asked her to model for an “essential oils” promotional shoot. I made sure it was nothing shady, hence my unsolicited presence. The compound was big. Hundreds of plants organized in tight little spaces, some in pots, and others on the ground. “These plants weren’t here before the pandemic,” Kuya said. “Nanay really turned out to be a plantita.” I feigned a smile.

After the meeting, Kuya lit a cigarette and started to puff away; we were in a bahay kubo. Later I found out that Kuya’s father knew Tatay, and they were relatively close. It piqued my interest. I didn’t know if I was glad that Kuya and I had something in common, or annoyed because it really had nothing to do with me.

“Did you know I was in the PNP for five years?” Kuya said.

This fully-bearded man, riddled in tattoos, used to be a police officer? A promising one at that, too, as he later revealed. I asked why he broke away from the organization.

“I couldn’t see myself doing the same thing for ten, twenty more years,” Kuya answered. “I only wanted to prove myself to Tatay.”

He referred to his father as “Tatay,” as I did mine. And he was also the eldest son trying to prove himself to his father. I saw myself in him, and perhaps he saw himself in me. It felt easier to talk to him, to confess my deepest worries and curiosities. But I didn’t, I’ve only known him for a day. That afternoon, I knew I had to write about what happened. To immortalize the moment I met someone who I might, and could, have been.

The following day, I asked my girlfriend to come with me to Kuya’s house because I wanted to buy a plant. She was in disbelief because I had never been interested in plants. On the way there, I told her that it was for a school requirement about taking care of plants (it really wasn’t). I didn’t want her to think I wanted to visit Kuya for no reason, or anyone for that matter.

When we arrived, I saw Kuya smoking under the shade of a small coconut tree in the farthest corner of their garden; his little sanctuary. He seemed dazed by the lush greenery. Waking from his stupor, he grinned and waved at us. It was 11 a.m., just in time for lunch. I told Kuya why we were there.

“I’m sorry, Dave, I don’t think these are for sale,” he said. “Wait here, I’ll ask Nanay.”

I wanted to buy a pretty plant that was easy to take care of; low maintenance and beautiful to look at. Since we arrived, my girlfriend had already been scouting every inch of the garden, leaving no flowerpot unchecked. When Kuya came back, a woman who looked a little over sixty wearing a blouse as colorful as the garden, trailed beside him.

“This is the one I was talking about, ‘Nay,” Kuya said to his mother. “‘Tong bata ni Madriaga haw?”

“Oh you look like your father, ga,” auntie said. “So, how is he?”

“Police gihapon ah,” I answered. “He’s still on duty.”

“Oh, now I remember, you were that kid who ran back and forth and played all day in the barracks, like a kiti-kiti,” Auntie wiped a drop of sweat from her forehead with her blouse. “Ti, ano aton?”

I told her that I wanted to buy a plant for a school requirement. I nudged my girlfriend to point out which one she chose for me, as well as the one she wanted.

Aring duha ho?” Auntie pointed to the monstera and Pink Princess. “These are tiny.”

“It’s okay, auntie,” I said. “I only need it for school anyway.”

Auntie picked up the two pots of plants and put them in a plastic cellophane.

“How much for these po?” I asked.

Inyo na na ga,” Auntie said. “Give my regards to your father.”

I turned to Kuya. He nodded in approval. “Thank you po.” I said.

As we were about to go home, Kuya asked us if we already had lunch. That was the invitation I hoped for. “Not yet, Kuya.” I answered.

The inside of the house was spotless. It had a slightly modern look with all the right angles and monotonous colorway, perfect complement to the rustic atmosphere of the garden. Medals and photos were hung on every side of the wall. I didn’t recognize Kuya in the photos; he was clean shaven and youthful, there was a spark in his eyes. Now, Kuya wore sunglasses wherever he went, even when we were having lunch.

Auntie served fried fish and homemade longganisa along with a huge bowl of steaming white rice. Kuya didn’t wait for us to scoop the rice first; he broke the awkward ritual of making visitors begrudgingly scoop rice first—I think I prefer it this way now.

“How do you like Isulan, Kuya?” My girlfriend asked.

“It’s all right. Peaceful,” he said. “Closer to family. It’s been two months since I came back.”

I thought he lived here his whole life.

“What did you do before then?” I took a bite of the longganisa.

“A lot of things, Dave. But I guess I’d call myself a businessman. See this?” Kuya took out shards of wood from his sling bag. “Do you know what this is?”

I had no idea.

“This is agarwood,” he said. “I used to sell this for a living.”

Aquilaria malaccensis. He handed me one of the wooden shards. It felt and looked normal, until I smelled it. It was unlike anything I smelled before. My girlfriend later told me that it was illegal to possess agarwood, much more sell it. Kuya said that a kilo could go up to a hundred thousand pesos, and the cost came from how scarce it was. Since Kuya immersed himself in this line of work, it took him two years to locate agarwood from all over the country. He also sold all sorts of illegal items—mostly nature-related— in the black market.

I knew then that he was a criminal. I started to feel uneasy, but he piqued my interest yet again. Kuya gave me one of the shards. “That’s worth five thousand pesos,” Kuya said. “Keep it.” I hesitated. Partly because of how expensive it was, but mostly because I didn’t want to feel indebted to him. I didn’t have a choice, he was basically shoving it inside my pocket.

At that time I didn’t know why I kept it, I wasn’t used to receiving gifts from strangers. But looking back, I might have kept it as a reminder of the troubles Kuya went through, and the sacrifices he had to make to find something valuable. Not just during his days as an illegal trader, but his time as a police officer; what made him change? If I were in his situation, would I have done what he did?  As it turns out, agarwood is the byproduct of the tree’s defense mechanism after enduring years of damage. It is said that the most damaged trees produce high quality agarwood.

We thanked Auntie for the meal and the plants before we went home. I nodded at Kuya and smiled before saying goodbye. I knew that wouldn’t be the last time Kuya and I would meet. On our way home, I realized that I haven’t paid a single penny for the things we were given. This was quite unusual since we were at the peak of the pandemic.

 

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the people of Isulan panicked. Borders were closed, quarantine passes were issued, vehicle sterilization drive-throughs were in every street, and nobody ever went outside without a facemask on. People started to hoard groceries; some people I knew bought five months worth. Others even stockpiled on liquor, the higher the alcohol content the better. It was said that drinking liquor could kill the coronavirus. Most people didn’t think twice about these kinds of information even when they only stumbled upon it on social media. Everyone was desperate when it came to battling the virus. (To be continued)


David Madriaga is a writer from Isulan, Sultan Kudarat. He is a graduating student of the University of the Philippines Mindanao’s BA English – Creative Writing Program.