Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Tsa Elim

I am seething with an ancient anger, an anger which had a beginning but had no end. It started at Tsa Elim, one of the old, decrepit commercial buildings that made up a whole bloc of establishments owned by Chinese merchants in front of an ancient university in downtown Cebu. The building housed on its third floor a student dormitory called exactly by that name. The building, itself, was rundown: paint flaking off its dirty walls; dark, musty corners smelling of cockroaches and disinfectant; rusty frame of windows squeaky with age and neglect. It had a landlady that reminded me of Nikolaevna Tereshvoka (whoever she was!) because she had pointy nose; thin, pouty lips; dry unkempt hair; and beneath the soot and grime of her unwashed face, a hint of fairness and unusual beauty. Her real name was Madam. She had a way of transforming the soft vowels into hard. Ilibin, she would say, when I asked her what time the canteen would open. Her green printed dress looked like it had never been washed for years; the brown stains and ugly blotches cluttering its faded green print design. But never mind. My anger had nothing to do with her. She was only doing her job collecting the P1,600 rent for a bed space every month from us. At first, I was accommodated in the third room of Phase One, the long row of rooms connected by the long corridor in the first wing of the building. Our windows looked out to Phase Two, which had windows and rooms exactly like our own. We slept on double-deck beds, two double-decks to a room good for four students. Each room had a built-in bathroom that never worked. Every night, a janitor ensures that the electric pump carries the water from a faucet on the groundfloor to a huge open tub where the students took their water for washing. It had hints of cockroach wastes settling at the bottom. The Janitor, wearing old tattered shirt and a pair of porontong, saw to it that the electric pump continued to groan the whole night because the maddening sound brought along with it the assurance that there would be enough water for bathing before classes started in the morning. Curious horde of students arrived from different parts of the Visayas and Mindanao, each horde looking like they came from different versions of Mars. The skinny freshmen from San Carlos city would pass me by the corridor, refusing to speak or to make eye contacts; the affable guy from Iligan named Jojo Palangan; the sweet mestizas from Cagayan de Oro, but looking back now, my fondest memories always went to a group of Maranaos and Tausugs in one room, their bright Maranao carpets prominently displayed, their dark tapestries hung on the wall. They knew loyalty and friendship. They would always fight and die for you once they consider you their friend, a trait I could only fully appreciate now. The year was the tail end of the 80s. Jane, a classmate who would later become a policewoman, had trained in Karate on the third floor of the adjacent building. Feeling like a cold war detective in a spy thriller that caught the imagination of some people in this period, I would clandestinely meet a group of political science students in another building called Raja Humabon a good one block away and we would secretly take the elevator to the seventh floor to lay out the campaign strategy for the next day’s student body election. Jane was crazy about Karate and Bruce Lee and Cindy Lauper and joining the movies. I had signed a waiver never to join a protest action while on campus. It was the beginning, not the end of my suffering; the Alpha and the Omega of my crucifixion; a struggle that could last a lifetime. My story started at Tsa Elim. It was quite a long story. I don’t know how to begin.

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