Remembering Tacloban is not really pleasant thing to me: I accompanied the Dork, who had to cover his face and body with an old blanket all the way from Cebu, because he had the chicken pox all over his body. He couldn’t bear the treatment at the boarding house, perhaps, he felt a little betrayed and aghast at all his friends avoiding him; so, he decided to go home to Tacloban. But running a high fever and with such a bad headache, he decided he might find it hard to take the trip alone so he asked me to go with him. Yes, I was the last remaining friend of the Dork at his moment of distress. One of the most valuable lessons I learned from my student activist years, still very recent at this time on my first trip to Tacloban, was never to leave a friend in distress; though, I wrongly applied it on the Dork. He appeared grateful at that time, of course! Who would not be? He should have thanked the students’ movement, instead! We traveled all the way from Cebu to Tacloban, the Dork, wearing a jacket; and eventually wrapping his head and face with a blanket, while strangers on the boat, and at the bus line, stared at him, turning away in disgust when they caught a glimpse of all the blisters on his face. Yet, we managed to find our way and reached the gate in Tacloban.
A seasoned writer usually knew she had to stop writing exactly at the point where she was supposed to stop. I did not have this wisdom at that time. I should have left the Dork at his doorstep, hurried back to Cebu as fast as I can, and went on with my life as usual.
But I did not. The Dork made a speech about gratitude, respect, and such abstract and motherhood things, persuaded me to stay when what I really wanted was to run away. I was too boneless to say no, however.
The moment they opened the gate, and took both of us inside, everything went wrong. Very wrong, indeed!
I was walking with Tu Nguyen Ngoc along San Pedro street last Friday when I told her we were about to pass by a good bookshop I have not visited for a long time. She said she wanted to go. So, walking past the security guards who poked into our bags as if we were hiding something, we entered one of the shops of Lachmi, a (pseudo)mall along San Pedro, and entered the lone bookshop whose titles on the shelves engrossed us as soon as we arrived: the first books that caught my eyes were on climate change and changes in the weather, before I strayed again and caught a glimpse of Sidonie Gabrielle Colette’s “Gigi,” a translation from French, of course. Tu and I were so absorbed with the books before us when suddenly, we felt one or two teenagers arriving, scattering some of the books in the bin. Then, just as suddenly, the whole place was already swarmed by noisy teenagers looking for something. Do you have a title by Shin-Shinwa, what’s his name, Shinwa Abebie? One of them asked the bookstore owner. “Chinua Achebe?” I asked, looking up from Donald Hall’s “Eagle Pond,” “Yes, yes, that’s it,” the girl said, turning to me, “Have you seen it, Ma’m?” “'The Man of the People,’ Mam?” “How about the book by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ma’m?” Another one asked, so, I replied, “I saw the Scarlet Letter, somewhere over there,” pointing to the shelves where a mix of classics, contemporary and even business and economics titles were displayed. “But I’m looking for "The House of Seven Gables, Ma’m.” “I haven’t seen the House of Seven Gables, so far,” I said. “What is it about, Ma’m?” she asked, as another one said, “I’m looking for ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame,’ Ma’m, have you seen it?” “The novel by Victor Hugo?” I asked, wondering about whose translation, and if high school students were already made to tell the difference of one translation from another. “Yes, yes! By Victor Hugo, how come you knew, Ma’m?” “Are you a teacher, Ma’m?” “How come you knew all these things?” I was taken aback.
But before this, I still have some unpleasant things to do: Enter the university gate and find the way to the Library. Face up to what I failed to do 17 years ago. Chat. Go down to the ground floor, finding the way to the bookstore. Ask whatever questions needed asking. What are the latest books they have? Go back and find the way to the CR. It wouldn't be too far. Find out whatever it is you need to find out. Swallow the bitter pill. It couldn't kill. You simply needed to swallow something to cure the pain or the itchiness or the scalp problems. It won't last a minute, anyway, and it wouldn't be that bad. After that, the pain will be gone. It would work out fine, you'd be better for it, I promise. So, take it, take it, you, reluctant self! You'd be okay!
It's now the start of another semester but I can't yet return to ruminate about life in the university because I am simply assailed by quite a number of writing assignments and other things I need to do before the end of the year. After November came with the news of typhoon Yolanda, life simply moved on very fast I really had some trouble catching up. A day or two after Yolanda (international codename Haiyan), German journalist Martina Merten, who used to be my Health Journalism teacher at ADMU, emailed, asking for some news about the typhoon's impact in the Visayas because she said, they were only getting almost the "same kind of stories" in Germany. I wonder what she meant by the "same kind of stories" they were getting, and I never had the chance to ask her where in Germany was she reporting from. I merely provided her links to some coverage by journalists who actually covered the disaster because I was only here in Davao, and it took a long while before the stories from the typhoon's survivors came flowing in.
Over a hundred people hid under this Saddam truck at the height of Supertyphoon Pablo (international codename Bopha) in this hinterland sitio Calinogan, barangay Casosoon in Monkayo town of Compostela Valley after the typhoon made its landfall in Baganga, Davao Oriental. I did not believe it at first: over a hundred people squeezed themselves together under this truck? I asked again after they told me. “Yes,” said one or two women, while the men nodded. “There were whole families there, children, women, everyone! We can’t find any stronger structure around, the wind was very strong, threatening to blow away our houses. Some of us who were near the cliff, squeezed our bodies against the cliff wall so that we won’t get blown by the wind,” said the villagers who have lived in the area for so long but had never experienced being buffeted by a typhoon.
Pablo came upon this elevated sitio (how many thousand feet?) overlooking Nabunturan. The Dibabawuns live here for centuries. At five to six in the morning of December 4, 2012, they said, it was so dark (or white?), they could not see anything, they can only feel the very strong wind. I listened to their heart-breaking story of the storm: the houses that were blown away, the desperate search for food and water, the hand to mouth existence while they waited for their livelihood to recover.
When I saw the devastation of Tacloban in the aftermath of Supertyphoon Yolanda (international codename Haiyan), I remember this community and their Saddam truck. How long can our people recover now that we are being buffeted by typhoons and other disasters, year after year?
When I told them at the breakfast table the sad news that Doris Lessing has passed away, Sean suddenly looked up, asked me what it was that she wrote that he was familiar with? I started. “You? Familiar with Doris Lessing?” He said, yes, nodding his head. “She is very familiar, what was it that she wrote?”
So, I thought: What was it that she wrote that a 12-year-old must have heard? She wrote The Golden Notebook, which I did not finish reading, so, it wasn't very likely that a 12-year-old could be familiar with it; or Martha Quest, which I kept hidden among my books at home; or, was it, The Grass is Singing? But it was a woman's story, how could a boy be familiar with it? Or was it Under my Skin? which was an autobiography? Or, some of the African Stories? No, I never shared anything about Africa with him, I could not understand Africa so well; besides, there were a lot of strange names that he might have found funny when the stories were quite serious. “The Grass is Singing?” I asked. “No,” he said, “Something you kept talking about. Something you never could stop talking.” Aaaaaaah, I said, finally remembering. “Briefing for a Descent into Hell!”
Years ago, in the course of researching the town of Magsaysay for a Canadian-funded book project focused on Mindanao's five poorest towns, I came upon the story of Kialeg. He was a B'laan warrior-hero whose legendary exploits his people remembered well. I reveled at this discovery because I knew the old name of Magsaysay used to be Kialeg; and despite the government's attempt to replace the town's name with that of a Philippine president who died in a plane crash, people never stopped calling the place Kialeg. I thought that in a place like Magsaysay, the government may have imposed another history upon the people, but in the people's heart, Kialeg lives.
I could no longer remember whether I heard about what Kialeg did for his people that his name continued to stick. But a river running its course somewhere in town was also named after him. In fact, some town officials who never knew anything about Kialeg, the B'laan hero, thought that the old town was named after a river. But I had a discovery when I visited Pa's farm in Upper B'la last Sunday: The creek, we previously thought as dead because it was often dry most months of the year; the creek that cuts across Pa's piece of land, is actually Kialeg on his way downtown!
Nice meeting you, warrior hero!
Sometime in 1992, when I made a total mess of myself, I half-expected, even fervently wished, my family would bail me out from a monster called Fax Elorde. Of course, you could never expect such a thing so, I suffered the agony in silence. Mirisi. I did not say that to myself, though. I was still too young to understand I was in a real big trouble for life. I put up a brave face, invented stories, pretended everything was all right although Fax Elorde was a total asshole, so stuffy, so full of himself, so full of hot air. It’s only much, much later when his son would describe him as “just a practical guy, totally devoid of talent” that I enjoyed a hearty laugh; but at that time, I particularly wished I had a rich Uncle to kick him out the door, turn him upside down, cover his whole body with catshit, tell him to go to hell and get lost forever. I toiled from eight o’clock until midnight and walked the deserted street home, tense, anxious, worried and always went to bed totally exhausted.
I have told myself I should clean up my room now that the semester is over. But first, I have this resolution to make: I promise to read the newspaper editorial every day, all the columns and the day’s banner headline, no matter what. Though, I don’t know how to do this without glancing at the growing book pile on the floor, on the top shelves, on the table. I really have to clear everything up. I made this promise the other day, but two days later, I already broke it. I was yanked out of my workplace and my daily routine by an emergency in my hometown—my mother in the hospital, whose daughter would not miss a column of a newspaper when a mother is sick?
Pa asked, "Why do you nurse such stupid dream of following a river? Of tracing where it came from, and then, following its path as it snakes around mountains, through ridges and ravines and meanders when it reaches the plains before it joins another river it meets along the way and form a bigger, stronger, and perhaps, noisier river, crisscrossing wide flat lands, sometimes, losing direction, forgetting its journey as it spreads itself too thin in some landscape and then, gathering momentum as it reaches some purposeful ravines that rushes onward towards the sea? Following rivers!" Pa exclaimed, "Isn't that a useless enterprise?"