27 May 2011

If One Didn't Stop at Apples

Twenty-five years is how long it took me to finally show up at something that happens five minutes from where my family lives — indeed, from the Quezon City district where I have lived all my life. And it happens every year. The La Loma Lechon Festival: a day for celebrating the loveliness of suckling pig — stuffed, roasted, costumed, paraded (in floats, too!), and eaten — symptomatic of the Filipino appetite for fiestas, loud ceremonies, and sustenance that can be delicious just as decidedly as it can be dreadful.

If not for lechon, La Loma would have been known for cemeteries and columbaria, which is just as well. At a ridge in this district that overlooks Manila was where José Torres Bugallón, fighting valiantly in the Philippine-American war, had died, along with many other Filipino soldiers. Let’s not forget, too, the innumerable roosters sacrificed all the time in the name of sport at the La Loma Cockpit, past which — as one heads toward Santa Cruz — stands the Chinese General Hospital. That this building has not only survived, but grown steadily since over a hundred years ago despite being surrounded by the La Loma Catholic Cemetery, the Manila North Cemetery, the Manila Chinese Cemetery, and the Manila North Green Park is truly worthy of note, one which I lamentably hadn’t taken until just now.

But back to suckling pigs: who knew how charming they can be if one didn’t stop at apples! After a day of putting on my Journalist Hat, pretending to know about photography, and falling in love with saucy, meaty, thick-skinned, and publicly idolized beings that cannot possibly break my heart — at least not until cholesterol fills my arteries to bursting — I have “photo-bloggers” (and friends, certainly) Nykko Santos, L.A. de los Reyes, Lizza Capucion, and Sidney Snoeck to thank. If they never forced me to go out and move my bottom I would’ve closed myself off for a little longer. Even from a place so close to home.

22 May 2011

Dennis the Tricycle Driver

There is a man named Dennis who, for a living, drives a red tricycle in the island of Guimaras, located in the bigger island of Visayas. I met him when I rather clumsily disembarked at Jordan Wharf. There, a crowd of barking drivers — of tricycles and “multi-cabs” (public utility jeeps, really, each of which can fit a maximum of fourteen people) — cordially harassed us pump boat passengers; they roared in Ilonggo, announcing ridiculous rates, and pointed their greasy index fingers at their luxury tin vehicles. They must have seen us as prospects right from the start of our eleven-peso ride, which, if you board at any of the ports on the southeastern edge of Iloilo City, takes ten to fifteen minutes, depending on the weather. Most things depend on the weather, it seems like.

The day was hot and humid and the sparkling waters were almost blinding. I was thus disposed to not have much patience for swindlers. Dennis, who must be in his early thirties, stood out because he had dutifully directed me to the tourism information desk where two young ladies both wearing yellow Survivor t-shirts and denim jeans made sure all visitors were given a warm welcome, and that no one overpriced fares. They had a price list. “You’re going to Enrico Beach, right?” one of them said. She was scanning the pages of her notebook. “Let’s see. If you take a multi-cab, a one-way trip should cost you no more than four hundred pesos.”

Needing less space, I opted instead for the tricycle and hired Dennis: five hundred pesos for five hours, to the beach and back, covering a total of not more than sixty kilometers, but with likely side tours, too, to any one of Guimaras’ caves, or any one of Guimaras’ waterfalls, or any one spot where one could take pictures and notes and admire the unspoiled economy of one of smallest islands in Western Visayas.

I first heard about Guimaras in 2006 when the Manila newspapers reported the worst oil spill in Philippine history. To me, the story had the impact of a footnote — evidence of my urban snobbishness. But the mess of that has since been cleaned up; its last ugly ripple has ebbed. Now, when the island province is brought up in conversation, the beaches are praised as being better than that of Boracay. The sand and soil have been ascribed adjectives in superlative form, such as “purest” and “most fertile,” respectively. The sweet mangoes are raved about, too, with Bill Clinton and the present Pope alleged to be two of its most famous eaters. “Plant a mango tree and send your child to college,” so went the motto of former Guimaras Governor Emily Relucio-Lopez (at least that's what she had been quoted as saying), and I wonder if there’s any other place in the world where tuition is appraised in the currency of tropical fruits – and beachfront hospitality, in US dollars.

“You’re heading the wrong direction,” Dennis told me coolly. He was sporting a childish moustache and the great laughable Asian goatee. “Alubihod is where the tourists go. I’m happy to take you to Enrico, but I haven’t even been there since high school.”

Three years ago, during which time Dennis was working in a bakeshop in Libis, Quezon City, his father died. So he left Manila and went back home. After the funeral, Dennis’ wife insisted that he stay on the island, or at least in Iloilo City. He did. He effectively put Manila behind by buying the tricycle, which he now rides to go wherever in Guimaras he wishes to go, be it to a passenger’s destination, an odd boredom-conceived adventure, or his house in the municipality of Buenavista.

At the start of our Guimaras tour, Dennis filled his vehicle up with four 1.5-liter Coke bottles of reddish unleaded gas; then he drove me to Daliran Cave. We descended a long autumnal staircase before landing on what looked like a set location for the next Indiana Jones movie, if there is going to be a next Indiana Jones movie. I hasten to add, however, that it was King Kong whom I half-expected to emerge furiously from the deep black shadows of the cave.

This piece would not have been about Dennis, but I lacked the material to talk at length about the pump boat captain, whose name is Ariel. He had enough quips, mind you, but the best thing I could remember from my sea-breeze conversation with him was that he had worked for Quezon City’s First District Representative Bingbong Crisologo. Ariel had helped build the congressman’s house. Unfortunately, I found it impossible to put a fashionable "The Talk of the Town" sort of spin on Ariel’s cement-slapping endeavors from the yesteryears.

01 May 2011


"Everyone uses it," she said. "Everyone, all over the world."
And was that it really, what Essie gave out just then in her mercurial frenzied whisper? Lie, illusion, deception, she said — was that it truly, the universal language we all speak?
From Dictation, a quartet by Cynthia Ozick.
  • After my immersive, romance-tempering experience of reading The Folding Star, I thought I'd follow it up with something less draining and slightly more idle, like, say, a collection of short stories. Just then I'd purchased a copy of Cynthia Ozick's Dictation, which, as it turns out, is every bit as brilliant as I'd expected my first Ozick would be, yet certainly not any lighter or more idle than the Hollinghurst novel.
  • I say that because a week after deciding I wanted to write exactly like Alan Hollinghurst, I changed my mind and decided to want to write like Ozick instead. Not that either task is easy. But probably the best advice that I ever was given is this: don't be afraid of imitation.
  • And who would not want to imitate the way Ozick writes? Her stories remind me of Alice Munro's. (Hey, both writers even have the same sagacious white hair!) You cannot read them in a way that's disaffected or merely transitory. The title story is awesome, of course, and, reading it, I experienced what any fan-boy would — to be that close to, or intimate with, the genius of Henry James and Joseph Conrad — but the story I liked best is "At Fumicaro": a love story. It is a modest love story, so modest there's nothing extraordinary in it, but Ozick captures perfectly, I believe, the dynamic of any (blasphemously) interracial relationship, as well as the social and intellectual imbalances that often enough happen to contextualize that relationship. "There were scores of poor young women all over Italy — perhaps in Fumicaro itself — in her position," reads an unforgettable passage. "He could not marry them all. Her tragedy was a commonplace. She was a noisy aria in an eternal opera. It did not matter. This girl was the one that he had been led to."
  • There are certain writers reading whom a wannabe like me finds his mojo. In my case, I've found that Edith Wharton, Evelyn Waugh, and Hemingway, among a few others, are the ones who jolt me into the urgency of "write like that if you're going to write at all". Not even coming close to any of them is not important — at least not yet. The point is to understand why it's them who jolt me and not others. The point is to identify, when one goes into studying the craft of storytelling, which writers one wants to study. Having finished Dictation in a matter of two sittings, I am left with no room to doubt that Cynthia Ozick is the newest addition to my list.