Friday, January 04, 2013

Nana Olang, Portrait of Old Sawata

How could I forget this old woman in the town of San Isidro, squatting in the doorway of an empty bodega whose wooden walls were darkening with age? I was on assignment for Newsbreak magazine sometime in 2007 when I realized I arrived in the village of Sawata-turned-San-Isidro-town too early for an interview. The town mayor just called me on the phone he would not be arriving in his office until past noontime that day, because he was still in some far flung fringes of the town doing something, a piece of news that practically sent me in a fit of panic and frustration. I was in a rush to get to the next towns of Asuncion and Kapalong to finish my assignments that day! Totally at a loss of what to do, I strayed towards an old bedraggled store, a few paces away from the townhall and noticed in a doorway of an empty bodega beside the store, an old woman squatting, as if lost to the world. For some reasons, I thought, the old woman could no longer talk to me. There was something about her that told me she was no longer there in that doorway; so, I befriended a middle-aged woman cooking bibingka by the roadside, eventually asking her the name of—and the permission to photograph—the old woman in the doorway. She said the name of the old woman was Nana Olang; and she can talk to answer my questions. I asked Nana Olang how it was when the village was still known as Sawata, how different or the same things were after the village was made into town? I never knew that a woman like Nana Olang, who was then 72 at that time, could supply me with interesting nuggets of information I couldn’t get anywhere else (even if I happened to interview some venerable town officials that day). She described Sawata in the 1970s as "muddy" and "full of horse and carabao dung," where people from the surrounding mountain barangays came down to trade. She said it was already a far cry from how it was at the time when we met, because then, people from the city were already coming up the mountain barangays to buy farm goods at bargain prices. Nana Olang said she was glad that Sawata was turned into a town. When I took Nana Olang’s portrait, I never intended to submit it for publication. Yet, seized by a moment’s madness, I decided to send it to the magazine at the last moment as a portrait of life in San Isidro. Just a few paces from where Nana Olang was, Nating Paras, 50, the middle-aged woman I first talked to, was cooking "bibingkang pinalutaw" (steamed rice cakes) right in front of a billiard hall near the roadside. She told me before she introduced me to Nana Olang she can't afford to buy a real bibingka-making "pugon" (oven), which cost at least P1,500.
I still remember these small town assignments I did for Newsbreak with a certain degree of fondness. First, they took me away from the daily round of press conferences that was becoming a regular fare for news reporters every day; to travel off the beaten track to the lives of ordinary people. Most of these people never knew, or even read, Newsbreak itself; and it was often so vexing and exasperating to talk to officials of those small towns and tell them I was writing a story for Newsbreak, almost spelling N-E-W-S-B-R-E-A-K in bold, capital letters, to make them recognize what it was, a magazine priding itself as a must-read for the country’s top policy makers, in Congress and in the Senate in those days—and yet, the people I interviewed never had an inkling of what it was. That day, when I strayed towards the bedraggled store, I did not have such pressures. I merely had the natural human feeling to talk to Nana Olang. I photographed her simply to remember her by. It never struck me at that time that such moments people normally regard as trivial could weigh so heavily, and with such meaning and significance, in the passage of time.

No comments: