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.