The Philippines! Palawan, PART 2: Nay

palawan 4.21.11

The Penal farm was a big place and I didn’t know where to start looking for him. All I had to go by was his full name. I asked no less than 10 people around the farm, including employees and other prisoners.  I chanced upon a gated structure where prisoners were actually behind bars. Several prisoners were let out to talk to me but they were more interested in selling me trinkets, charms, and belts made of snake bones. One particularly pushy inmate kept telling me that his belt can cure back pain. With glaring eyes, like he’d just had way too much coffee, he seemed quite upset that I wasn’t interested in his merchandise. I couldn’t wait to leave.

I asked around a bit more but  failed to find my friend. Maybe he’d been released already.  I took out the prints, 5 in all, and studied them for a while. They were nice shots. I was sure he’d have been quite happy to get these photos. If ever he puts up a Facebook account, I’ve got him covered in the profile pic department.

I rested for a while under a tree wondering where I would ride to next. I studied my map and thought of riding as far as the available daylight permitted. And so I rode.

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And rode.

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And rode.

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I also thought a great deal.

Under the steady blast of sunshine and explosion of life around me, my thoughts venture to the dark corners of my mind, as if the glaring contrast between them can offer some kind of protection. With the intoxicating aroma of grass, forest, wild flowers and earth filling my lungs, my mind inexplicably go back to the sterile, dreary smell of hospitals, where my mother spent the last 2 months of her life.

I’m trying to understand why some people have to go through the unspeakable suffering of infirmity. I also try to come to terms with the experience of having been by both parents’ bedside and having seen them off when they left this world. I wonder whether parents, who by such time are usually already unconscious, have any need for such companionship.

Around the last week of my mother’s life, she wondered aloud whether she still had a chance of getting better.  She was only half her weight by that time, and was so weak, she could barely lift her hands. She trembled whenever she did. Looking away from me she said to herself, may pag-asa pa kaya ako?. The fear, despair and loneliness in her voice shattered my heart, the same way my heart broke every single day that I saw her health decline.

I remembered how she would merely stare at her favorite food and just manage a spoonful’s worth. I would take away her practically untouched meal  and sneak out of sight where I would stagger through waves of pain and sorrow before I return to her bedside and hope the swelling in my eyes have gone down enough to go unnoticed.

During the most recent times that I had seen her healthy, I was fond of asking her out to eat with my aunt and uncle who lived nearby. My brother and his wife would at times be around as well. I did not talk much at such meals, content at basking in her obvious joy and contentment at being surrounded by family over lunch or dinner. She would talk and laugh throughout, and I would feed off her happiness and would drive home with a smug smile on my face that I wore till I slept.

She was exceedingly proud of her children. I would often catch her over-zealously talking about our praises and achievements to customers in our small Sari sari store. One time, I overheard her telling a neighbor to let us know if ever they needed medical advice because her youngest son was a doctor. I reminded her afterwards that I was merely in ‘premed’ and was not a doctor yet. I was taking up Nursing then, and years later would eventually decide against continuing to Medicine. (‘Nay, Nursing pa lang pinag-aaralan ko, ‘wag nyo naman sabihin sa mga kapitbahay na doktor ako). She reacted by laughing with that hearty, infectious laugh that was distinctively hers.

Throughout the two months that she was sick, I wondered when I would hear that peculiar laugh again. It was frightening to allow in too much hope considering what she was up against. And I eventually paid the price for overindulging in optimism.

I had only a couple of hours of light left of riding and had to consider where I was going to spend the night. I check my map for the most likely place I’d find one. I check my watch, squeeze on the gas, and speed off west, where the sun was slowly heading.

At 70 kilometers per hour, tears run sideways.

(To be continued)

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The Philippines! Palawan, PART 1: The Prisoner by the Road

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Holy Thursday, 2011, on a motorbike. The road in front of me stretched into the horizon. The wind roared like steady thunder in my ears. The air was warm and thick. Like riding through soothing balm. I can’t get enough of the smell of the air. I keep breathing in lungfuls of the countryside potpourri, trying to make sense out of the pleasant commotion it stirred inside me. Strange and familiar at the same time, it reeked of the ancient and primeval. The mingling sense of recognition and novelty fought one another in a stalemate.  Like bumping into a long lost friend I’ve never met before. Like going back to memories that are not my own.

My destination is the Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm in Palawan to make good on a promise.

The previous year while riding south on the roads of Palawan, soaking in the scenery and the local wildlife (The occasional monitor lizard or bayawak crossing  the road, a flattened snake roadkill  in the shape of an ‘S’, a couple of squirrels darting into hiding, big birds gliding high up in the air), I saw a guy standing by the road with a juvenile python hanging over his neck. I drive past him, but after a couple of blocks I made a u-turn to take a closer look at his pet. The sun was mercilessly beating down on me anyway and he was standing under the welcoming shade of a giant Acacia tree.

He seemed delighted to have someone to talk to and was quite eager to tell me about his pet. It was only half its size when he found it and he fed and grew it to its present size. Nope, it doesn’t bite. It sheds it’s skin after a while, etc.  He said that he was one of the many prisoners in the farm who were free to roam about and attend to farming and other kinds of agricultural work. He was in charge of taking care of itik (wild ducks). I didn’t have to say much to him. He carried the conversion all by himself and talked and talked like it was his first time to do so in ages, while the python over his shoulders watched us with its sleepy indifferent eyes. He said he ended up in prison for hacking a trespasser to death in Quezon Province. That it was deadly boring in the farm and that he longed to be free to go home someday.

I asked him if I could take a photo of his pet python and he was quite delighted to see the resulting image in my digicam’s display. He requested me to take a photo of him together with the python and I haven’t seen anybody as happy as he was upon seeing a few simple instant photographs. He wondered aloud if I could send him prints, and I said sure.  Perhaps in gratitude for breaking the dreadful monotony of his days, he offered to catch me a ‘sqealer’ when I came back. I asked, what’s a squealer? He replied that they were quick-footed, reddish mice with long puffy tails. (Oh. Squirrels.)

Before leaving , I gave him some cash for graciously photographing me with his python. He lit up and flashed an all-teeth, ear-to-ear smile. He said he was going to use it to buy the nicest pair of footwear there is: Islander brand flip-flops. 

A year later, I’m back on the same road carrying photo prints of my homicidal friend with his cold-blooded pal.

(To be continued)

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The Philippines! Mt. Batulao part 3: the Squeeze

The original plan was that we would spend the afternoon at the peak and my companions would descend back before dark and leave me to camp alone overnight. But because of our little side-trip to the old lady’s house earlier, there was only half an hour’s worth of daylight left by the time we arrived.

After pitching my small tent, we stared at it for a long time. Though no one made any comments on the subject, we all knew there was no way on earth we were going to fit in there. By tacit agreement, we did not bother to find out and just went wandering around the vicinity, checking what stuff was available in the store nearby (liquor, soda, noodles, junk-food ..) and lounged around checking the surrounding scenery.

Our campsite was right beside a hill. I climbed it and sat on a rock at the summit transfixed at the western horizon where the sun was putting on a show. The sky was so red, it had made the whole landscape blush. Nothing was spared from its cosmic paintbrush.  Clouds, whole fields, whole mountainsides, tents, people, a dog, a cat, a goat and a couple of chickens– .. everything turned into a surreal purple-red in absolute chromatic unison. It was only around a 10 minute show. And as with all things of sublime beauty and wonder, it was terribly fleeting and you can’t take it home with you to keep. I stayed for a few more minutes and just stared at my shoes before finally descending down the hill while the trail was still visible.

We had dinner in the nearby store where there was some cover from the cold wind steadily coming in from the east. We were joined by other hikers and a cat. It kept getting colder and there was no longer ignoring the inevitable. How were we going to fit in our tent without oozing into each other and merge at the molecular level?

After several experiments in different positions in my tiny blue tent, we finally give up and just hope for the fatigue to do its job and knock us out in whatever position we were in. We chat and chuckle ourselves to sleep, and in that steady descent into the carefree, indifference of slumber, I thank God for tweaking our itinerary and foiling our plans for this trip. In travel, as in life in general, I’d hands down prefer His plans over mine any day.

I just hope nobody farts.

How to get there: http://www.pinoymountaineer.com/2007/08/mt-batulao-811.html

Morning has broken

Morning has broken

fields

The smell of the air here makes you close your eyes

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Near the old man’s house

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Just one of the many peaks

The Batangas Sky

The Batangas Sky

Oh, give me a home...

Oh, give me a home…

Evening falls

Evening falls

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The Philippines! Mt. Batulao part 2: The House by the Stream and the Saddest Dog I’ve Ever Seen

We had originally planned to hike Mt. Tagapo in Talim island but just the previous day, had changed our minds and decided to do Mt. Batulao instead.

About a quarter of the way to one of Mt Batulao’s campsites, in one of several stops where fresh coconuts were sold, we met an old lady who invited us to their, as she enthusiastically put it, “house by the stream”. When it comes to side-trips, I invariably do not need much convincing. We went and happily disregarded our original itinerary. We were welcomed by an excited white mutt and the somewhat reserved old husband of our new friend.

We walked towards a swimming hole 5 minutes away and I took a dip in the ice-cold water while my friends took in the surrounding woods and scenery and chatted with our young guide who was the old couple’s niece (or was he their grandchild?)

For lunch we laid out banana leaves on the grass in front of their house and dumped the rice and gatang manok (chicken cooked in coconut milk) we bought from a sari sari store earlier over it and ate with our hands while listening to the old man’s small transistor radio playing oldies music from an AM station. We kept a close watch over their white dog who kept licking his snout, eyes wide and alert in giddy anticipation for our left overs.

I had brought a flask of brandy with me and the mention of this seemed to breath life and enthusiasm into the old man of around 80 or so years. We passed a glass around and tried to make my 8 ounces of liquor last as long as possible by pouring just enough to wet our throats with each shot. We chased our brandy with fresh coconut water. Now that we had a lot of.

The old man told us he grew up in batangas and one night a long, long time ago, they were having a drinking session with his friends and a dayo (guest). And for some reason he and his friends were suddenly seized with curiosity on what a couple of hundred feet of rolling down a steep cliff would do to a person. And so they proceeded to carry their drunk and semi-conscious guest over a nice cliff nearby and tossed him to his bumpy, bouncy death. The only problem was although their ‘friend’ was practically naked once he made his 2,212th  and last somersault, he actually survived to tell the tale (Old man: ay nung hinagis namin e naka long sleeves, bihis na bihis. Pag dating nya sa baba,  hubo’t hubad na). Wanted and hunted by the Philippine Constabulary (PC) as the police were called in the olden days, he was convinced by the mayor to just leave town and return once the heat died down. It took decades before he was able to return. I asked him why they did that to the poor fellow, and he replied, Wala, trip lang (We were just fooling around), flashing a shy, near-toothless smile.

One of my companions suddenly felt hungry and thought of requesting our hosts to dig up some Camoteng Kahoy (Cassava), so off they went and returned with 2 uprooted camote trees with their big, bulby roots, still holding on to clumps of earth.

We took turns pounding on the boiled harvest which they mixed with sugar and coconut meat on a really big wooden mortar and pestle until it became Nilupak (gummy, pasty Cassava cake). We helped ourselves to heaping plates of the gummy goo before leaving for the campsite.

Our shadows already grew long over the grasses and the warm melancholy smell of the waning afternoon and impending dusk cast a gloomy spell on my heart and exposed me to wave upon wave of memories of childhood sadness and grief over another day hopelessly giving in to the night. I had always wished there were more hours in a day to play and explore as a kid. I hoped for the same miraculous extension now.

I looked over my shoulder and bade a reluctant farewell to the house by the stream with the white dog (his head questioningly tilted to one side and sadness and devastation writ all over his eyes to see us go), and the animated, old lady, and the old man who tried to kill a guy and now had just 3 teeth left and liked to chase brandy with buko juice while listening to Nat King Cole sing There Goes My Heart on AM radio.

(To be continued)

Listen to There Goes My Heart by Nat King Cole 


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The Philippines! Mt. Batulao part 1: Spider, Ma’am!

You had to view it from a certain angle to see it under the blazing sun.  But once you do, spider webs stand out against the sky as if lit from within. I carefully tug on a strand upwards with open palms to feel how taut and durable it was. If it was flimsy and easily gave, the spider that spun it was small. The tougher they were, the bigger the spider. The air smelled of baked earth, grass, wild blossoms and cow dung. I had never been to a rice field before but many years later the aroma of rice fields under the noon-day sun would send me years back in time precisely to this moment.  My legs bled from kalmot pusa– A creeping plant whose thorns looked like cat-claws that came off its stem and caught on your skin in neat straight lines. I am 8 years old. What a great day to be hunting for spiders.

I was in the company of, to my knowledge at the time, the best at this peculiar skill–Putol, Makenbord (Mockingbird? He was Caucasian) and Eddie-boy… They were informal settlers from a squatter colony called Fatima in our village.

I had a bike imported and given to me by an uncle who was in the US Navy and was based in Japan. This bike had foot-brakes. You applied the brakes by pedaling backwards–a novelty that elicited oohs and ahs from my spider-hunting friends. In exchange for riding around several blocks on my bike, they would teach me the fine art of tracking spiders. I get to keep the ones I was able to catch myself. The rest were bartered for more time on my bike. I sat on the gutter wondering how my newly caught spiders would fare in battle while waiting for my bike to re-appear on either end of the street. On not a few occasions I also wondered if I would actually see my brand new bike again. The prospect of my bike getting stolen frightened me so much it took all of my will power not to barf and make a fool of myself in front of my friends. It also didn’t help that I had only met my ‘friends’ about a couple of hours ago. A few more hours later, with the last of the daylight reluctantly draining from the sky, my bike is returned to me. I had felt so sick with worry, I had no more energy left to feel any relief. I glanced at my 2 matchboxes full of mean and exotic-looking spiders for consolation all the way home. If my parents had even the slightest idea how far away I had wandered from the house and who I’d been with, they’d have blown enough capillaries to earn them a trip to the nearest emergency room. Instead they just said something about how a kid can smell so awful, where on earth have I been (I said at the neighbors a block away. Nanay: Maraming tinik sa bahay nila? Puro sugat binti mo o!), that I smelled like I just swam in a sewer (Saang imburnal ka galing??), and orders me to hit the shower.

A few months later, I’d exceed the skill of my friends and would later on catch hundreds upon hundreds of spiders over the course of my grade school years, selling off my surplus to awestruck and gullible elementary students where I went to school.  My spiders cost from 5 pesos up to a cool 50 pesos and they came with free lessons on the concept of debt, amortization and interest rates.

Spiders would fight to death on a tingting—the woody spine of a coconut leaf. A kid would slide out the drawer of his matchbox and tap their thumbs from under to coax the sleeping gladiator out and onto the tingting. Another kid would likewise draw out his bet and the short battle would ensue. The air would be filled with wonder, anticipation and electricity. There would usually be quite a number of kids huddled around cheering, shouting, egging, in a wild orgy of primal lust for blood and death.. Some were silent in seeming suspended animation, rapt in awe. Incidentally this was also a venue to enrich your vocabulary with the coolest swear words and obscenities to have ever come out in the national language, with all kids well-represented from all grade-levels yelling, gago! tarantado! pak yu!,  putang ina mo ka!, puking ina mo ka!, akamputa! (Grades1 to 6). Puta ina!, puki ina! Tantado! (Kindergarten and Prep) with testosterone-charged gusto and abandon that would’ve put the most foul-mouthed black rapper-slash-gangster on crack to shame.

Advanced Biology and Language Lessons

Advanced Biology and Language Lessons

The peaceful and leisurely hike to the camping site in one of the peaks of Mt Batulao in Batangas decades later found me smiling to myself while watching these childhood memories like a movie in my head. Hikes were usually an activity that did not involve much talk even if you had company so usually your thoughts flew off where it pleased. I try to figure out why my mind chose this particular part of my past and I reckoned it was the faint glimpse of a strand of spider web I had seen from afar a few hours ago.

(To be continued)