Friday, December 30, 2016

Dawn Mass

On the first day of the Misa de Gallo, I succeeded in dragging Nanay V. to hear the dawn mass at the Santa Ana church, which was quite far, but not too far from where we live in Makati. It was still dark when we arrived. The mass had not started yet but most of the seats in front, where I can get an almost magical view of the altar, were already occupied. Nanay dragged me to one of the last remaining seats at the back, where we managed to sneak our not so tiny bodies in a crowded pew. The church, old as it is, is rather small by modern standard, but look at its design and architecture! Think about how, at the height of the bombardment in Manila in the second world war, a mass of people had once flocked into this church to seek refuge. Outside, the statue of the Lady of the Abandoned beckoned.
How  I came to live here and knew about this church was a series of serendipitous encounters.  In 2011, I came upon a Palanca-winning essay about life in an old horserace track before the property owner finally caved in to the pressures of development. I set aside that essay for a while and moved on with my life until late this year, when I was called to work here.  Trying to figure out where and how I'd live, I traced the map with my fingers, ignoring Ja's voice behind me telling me I'd be living very near the old race track in Makati. Ja used to know the capital like the palm of his hand. Long after I arrived and already sleeping in my room, I can still hear Ja's voice faintly reverberating in my ears but I continued to ignore it. 
Until one day,  diligently thumbing through the stories in the Arts and Letters section, I was drawn to a particular story which had caught my eye.  It was a book of the author who wrote about the old race track! I started reading and came upon the old church on the Old Panaderos Street.
Days later, I came to meet an old timer who, as a young journalist, used to haunt the old race track for stories and who personally knew the writer of the old race track herself! 
We had dinner at the Makati Circuit, site of the old race track! Sometimes, when I think about these serendipitous encounters, I feel some magical forces working. I did not come here entirely on my own.  

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Dear Karl and Sean

I'm in the city of stone carabaos. I realized this as soon as I saw the beautiful creatures lining here in front of me, black as charcoal, not the muddy black of real carabaos we passed by the rice fields in Kialeg, but dark-night black, the whole clan of them, from baby carabaos to mother carabaos, artistically rendered, slim and shapely and in style in a garden fronting the bookstore, where I walked a good seven kilometers to find.  Walking for me here is an art of reclaiming the space I have lost, and the sight of stone carabaos reminds me of the flock I once had a glimpse of, as I was passing by Liguasan Marsh on my way home from a coverage. I saw a flock of 10 to 20 of them, all working carabaos and all of the same size, looking small against the expanse of the Marsh landscape.  It was the peak of the planting season and the scene was something that Ja would have described as a  David Lean's rendition of a landscape. I was in a bus.  I haven't seen a flock of carabaos that many occupying the same landscape before, that's why, it fascinated me.  
In the rice fields of Kialeg, only one or two carabaos can be seen at a given time, no matter how the town boasts of itself as the province's rice granary.  But we, too, do not live in Kialeg.  We are just passing by, no matter how much I call it my home.
As a journalist, the Marsh has fascinated me in both its scale and its vastness; and although it may not have known me, I feel the Marsh is part of me because it is part of the entire landscape I call my home. I will always be attuned to its ramblings. 
Here,  the stone carabaos stand un-moving for hours, even as the gardener turns on the sprinklers to water the rosemary, the tarragons and the grasses around their unfeeling hooves. I remember the herbs I planted at home and the angle of light by the window which always made me want to read. I think of the cats, and the space I left behind. I think of you.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Sunday while I’m trying to do some washing

I hear someone belting your Nonoy Zuniga songs in the neighborhood. In one of the houses, though I can’t tell which one, the man’s voice drifts, singing the lyrics in raw Tagalog. The voice is a mellifluous one, which, when scaling the high notes, tends to fade. I've become keenly aware of the ravages of time and broken dreams in the singer's voice.  This is my second Sunday here. I am inside a tall black gate that protected us from the neighborhood. To our right somewhere, as we come out the gate, lies the bank of the Pasig river.  I can see the grime-covered skinny feet of children playing outside the fence. I remember how, back home, we would look forward to our songs by now. Sean has outgrown us lately, so there's only the two of us to drop by the Booksale first to find some old copies of Harper's or The New Yorker. Then, we would take a seat at the nearest KFC, where you would take out the notes containing our song numbers, reviewing them one by one, while I read the magazines. Now, I'm here alone, watching the video of you singing Paul Anka’s Times of your Life on my phone. I see very clearly now how your shoulders sag, and how your chest heave deeply as you gulp for breath in between your song lines. I want to go home.

Friday, November 04, 2016

This one, I’d surely miss

Cordoned off the seats reserved for government officials and priests, we were huddled in a small corner near the speakers, I, trying my best to stretch the limited capacity of my camera to capture the scene unfolding before me. When I told them I’ve been scolded by the PSG for going over the line to get a closer picture of the marble tablet etched with the names of those who died, Boyax only smirked, rolled his eyes; while Keith looked up at the starless night. Their gestures told me they have totally resigned themselves to faith, they have stopped trying another trick, what can you expect?  As we crouched over, reviewing our shots, Boyax had helped me find the good ones that would do and the bad ones that had to be discarded. Kill your babies, as Ja used to say. 
Then, I began telling myself, this one, I’d surely miss.
My good old days pretending to be a photographer would soon be over. But in the past months—or a year or two that I’ve been doing it—had been a fruitful one. It was an apprenticeship of sort. I had had a lot of lessons on the job. Unlike sitting on the bench, scrawling notes, I loved being with the cameras, to be at the forefront of things as they happened, to frame events through the lens I was holding. I got shouted at, and shoved away,  at times, but it was part of the game. I loved to be among this ragged, throbbing crowd with all the equipment they carried and adored.
Once, at the height of the campaign, failing to get myself in the middle of the action, I had shouted my questions from under the tripod (it was that crowded), still aiming through with my camera. The would-be President had to look up and down the jungle of bodies, limbs and equipment to answer my questions.
I often heard of the arrogance of some photographers against some newcomers.  But this crowd of photographers (where I felt I belonged) had readily welcomed me, allowed a small inch of space for me to stand, or crouch, in this too crammed world of photojournalism.
Then, I stopped bringing my camera. It proved too bulky, I’m afraid, in situations which demanded from me agility and lightness; situations that demanded most of the strength left in my weakening body. Covering the president has always been an exhausting job that requires us to stand for very long hours, skip meals, write stories on the phone, as fast as we can.
Soon, I may no longer be doing this anymore. I will always look back to my days among the photographers as one of the most memorable days of being a journalist. It allowed me new perspectives of telling stories; opened my eyes to a different medium, a medium that is more physical and more demanding of strength and alertness than the one I’ve been used to. 

It allowed me to be myself, to go against rules and conventions, to try new angles, new worldviews, and even get dirty, doing it.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016


I looked up to see the leaves of the durian tree days after we brought Pa home.  We were still in a state of shock.
It was the year of the severe drought and a clump of durian fruits have been growing abundantly above us. But the heat was so intense that in the afternoon, we can hear the fruits falling on the ground. We were worried that the tree won’t survive. We painstakingly watered it, just as we nursed a tiny ginger plant struggling to survive in a pot just a couple of steps nearby.  But sometimes, love can kill. I discovered one morning the abnormal wetness of the soil in the ginger pot, and discovered my sisters Eve and Ione, and even Titing, the house help, lavishing it with water. 
“You’re killing it,” I said, seeing consternation on their faces. “Water it only once a day.  Too much love can suffocate.”
To my surprise, they listened. The plant only got just enough water that it needed; and soon enough, it was growing well. Rona, the wife of Eve’s driver who came by for a visit had collected the fallen durian fruits, because they were so small and beautiful, and would look good on a Christmas tree.
But Christmas was still so far away. It was still after Easter, which like in the previous year, we spent inside a hospital. As soon as we arrived home, we made Pa lie on a bed we put right in the sala. We brought a pile of pillows to prop him up but we could never make him rest because he always wanted to move. It was as if there was no position comfortable enough for him. His daughters, whom he resented for being girls, had a hard time coping.  He made us wish we had a brother. From the sheer physical strain of lifting him and helping him to bed, an act that had to be repeated over and over again until our own bodies threatened to collapse, we began to wish we were men.
Stepping out of the house, I found myself under the shade of the durian tree. I looked up to see the leaves, and saw the blue sky instead.

The way I see it

The previous year, when Pa’s symptoms had petered down a bit and then, were gone for a while, I used to go home almost every week to see how he and Ma were coping. 
Pa would be too surly, and would harangue me with insults that reminded me of an unhappy childhood. Instead of being shaken, I’d take the chance to roam around the neighborhood with my camera, scouting for good pictures. It was the year of the drought, the strongest El Nino to have hit this part of Asia, and I would reach as far as the neighboring sitio of New Dumanjug and further up to the next barangay of Upper B’la to take photos of the grasses that had browned and turned to powder under the coconut trees.
One day, I came back after sundown to show him some of the photos. As I was doing it, I was bracing for what kind of insults and hurting words he would again hurl at me.
“Unsa na (What are those)?” he asked about one of my shots. “Lubi (Coconuts),” I said. “Nganong nagtuwad (Why are they upside down)?” he asked. “Because that’s the way I see them,” I said.
Then, as we scanned my other shots, he also saw another picture of coconuts against the blue sky. “Why are you shooting them?” he asked in Bisaya. “Because they’re beautiful,” I said. 
For him, who spent his whole life as a coconut farmer, the sight of coconuts must be as common as the calluses in his hands.
But at that moment, staring at my shots, he did not say anything.
His silence punctuated everything.

Home with the Cats

I’m the only one who comes home now; which is quite ironic, because I’m also the one who will soon be going away. But perhaps, I am not going away at all, because I will be carrying this place with me where ever I go; and in that case, I would always be here even if I would be in strange cities like Manila.
I often arrive here towards sunset, with not enough time to catch the last rays of the sun after I make a roll call of all the cats. These days, I often find most of them missing but when they’re here, the cats, starting from the dear yellow-spotted black matriarch named Oreo—looking gaunt now because of poverty and neglect—would all come gingerly or with great hunger to greet me at the gate. Then, we would talk about the old times, when they were fat and there were plenty of food around, and we are not yet leading such diasporic existence as we are doing now. Our stories are full of longing. Sometimes, I would arrive when it’s already dark, and I would open Titing’s knot at the gate, which is very hard to untangle, and they’ll rush towards me, no longer in attack positions as if I were a stranger, but with great hunger for food and human company.  
Once, I’m inside, I’d put the keys into the doorknob and when the door opened, I’d grope my way upstairs as I enter the darkest room of the house, where I’d turn the main switch to turn on the light.  All the while, I would talk to the cats, silently wishing that I could spend the whole time here with them, so that they will no longer starve; except that, I’d be thinking in retrospect, if I’d do that, I’d be out of my wits thinking where to get the money to buy our food? So, I console myself with thoughts about my work, although my work increasingly scares me these days. 
I dream of the day when I can finally be free to read my books and write my stories.
I’d spend the rest of the night with the cats, sometimes, reading aloud some of stories from my old New Yorker magazine before the rapt inattention of my captured audience. In most times, I’d skip dinner. To tame down the pain caused by my stomach ulcer, I would bring along biscuits or oatmeal, because the point is, there are only two people who can make me cook dinner and I have left them in the city. (I’m referring to my boys, who are not with me.)
So, spending my time alone with the cats, I’d long for the taste real food, just like what I used to have when Mother used to be here. Mother, however, had ceased to be Mother; we were supposed to switch roles now, except that, I’m not really as financially stable as a daughter, which means, I might not make a good mother to her. A good mother should have milk for her children, a steady flow of cash to bring food on the table, has a busy kitchen, with reliable househelp buzzing about. A good mother would not have anxieties about money, she is already well-provided for, and cash always flows towards her direction. So, aside from being able to take care of her ageing Mother and sending her sons to very good, highly-reputable schools, a good mother always has enough food for her cats.

I don’t have them so I will have to go away for a while. 

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Waiting for the President

One hour. Two hours. Three. Four hours. I was under the GI-covered court since one o'clock, when the sun was at its zenith. He was supposed to arrive at two. He arrived at 6 pm, when the sun was already down. When reporters started arriving, they asked, how long have you been here? An hour or two ago, I said.  When you're alone to an event like this, you don't want to be late, to be accosted by the Presidential Security Group and be told, "Sorry, Ma'm, you can't enter now," and there would be no one to back you up. So, you come early. When I arrived, it was very hot, I remembered what Alan told me, "Be sure to bring along a bottle of water, it would be very hot there, and the store is so far away." I did not remember until I was thirsty. The whole week, I've been thinking, my job increasingly feels like a one-sided love affair; I love my lover but my lover doesn't love me back. I was broke. When I told Ruth all my capacity to love has already been drained, and there's nothing left to it now, not even crumbs; she said, maybe, you're just tired. I said, I've been tired before but this has nothing to do with that kind of tiredness. This one has the finality to it. It's like what you feel when you want to leave your husband and you're already set in doing it. Have you ever felt that way? I asked and added, as an afterthought, "But maybe, you've never felt that way to your husband, at all; maybe, you love your husband." 
Her reaction was violent. Her brows suddenly knotted, the color of her face suddenly changed. "Dili oy, dili! Dili!" she protested vehemently.
We were both surprised; and we both laughed.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

How I discover Brenda Tharp

Sometime in 2011, when I finally finished my part of what soon will become the book, "Bittersweet Stories of Farm Workers in the Philippines," I was so happy to have written a 36-page manuscript and had enjoyed every bit of it that I entered the bookstore so intent on celebrating.  As usual, I went directly to the rummage bin, where all the books were haphazardly strewn, without any attempt at organization. I did not bother casting a look at the well-ordered display shelf, because I have stuck to the belief that the real treasure are found in the rummage bin and not on the shelf.  True enough, the book, "Creative Nature and Outdoor Photography," immediately caught my eye. When I opened it, I discovered that its author is doing in photography what I was trying to do in my writing. I immediately knew it was a book for me.
All the previous photography books I read had in them what I called a male energy.  Everything was straitjacketed, including your vision, in a way that often constricted me. Aside from touching on the basics of composition and some principles of design, this book allows the beginning photographer to explore.

Sunday, August 07, 2016


I'm lost again and torn in all directions. Three very strong forces are pulling me and tearing me apart.  First is UpperBla, where I am locked in a violent battle against swell-headed monsters and well-entrenched chauvinist pigs that dominate the countryside; another force, a gargantuan edifice that might gobble up my last remaining precious time for pleasurable reading; and the force of love, which requires me to stay put and stay where I am.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Summary of Meetings

Girlish sightings of a young man on horseback by the river, his lean body bent over the horse's mane, as the beast trod water, its hooves splashing, the sun casting shadows on the rider's face.
On the day I realized I was no longer a girl, you were dropping by the house for one stupid reason or another and we spent some time staring at each other.
That Christmas Eve I saw you with long firearms swung around your shoulders, and Pa, in his usual bad temper, berating you, I huddled in a corner, frozen; but you did not turn to fight.
Then, three long decades of not knowing where you were; wondering whether you were dead or alive, and not finding anyone to ask.
When suddenly, one day, someone told me you were around, I fumbled for something in my pocket.  I thought getting a glimpse of your face was an extreme act of courage, a sufficient gratification by itself; and so, I forced a man to drive right to your doorstep just to get a glimpse of you. I was not prepared for what was to follow and that was how I lost you.

A village called B'la

People in the village are dying faster than I can talk to them. He told me his mother came from Bohol but he did not know where she met his father. When he began his story, he was living alone with his mother, because his wife was in Kuwait, and his sons and daughter preferred to go home to their grandmother on their mother’s side rather than to him. I asked, so, who cooks dinner? He said it was his mother. Do you eat together? He said they eat together sometimes, but at other times, they don’t.  I had wanted to see his mother, just to say, hi, if she can still remember the girl in the past, but even before her son could finish his story, she got sick, and while I was away, she died. I suspect that this village was a young village and the people who are dying now, were never really born here. They arrived here at the prime of their lives, settled here, raised a family, and now, they’re dying. I can’t remember where in the Visayas his father came from but he said they were among the earliest people to have settled here in this village when the whole area was still a forest. His father was already gone when he was telling the story.  Although the village is a farming village, theirs were not really a farming people in the real sense of the word, they owned a school supply store, at least; where we used to buy bond paper when we ran short in school. 
While we were talking, another woman about as old as his mother, and who owned the village's longest running rice mill, had lain in a coma and was being taken cared of by their eldest daughter.  She was asleep when she got a stroke, and according to the account of the househelp, her husband had first felt her hand stroking him but he just brushed it aside, until the morning, when he discovered what was wrong.  
Later, I happened to talk with the man, who used to ply the jeepneys that used to bring people and goods to town. He remembered the girl who used to take his jeepney back in highschool. He told me he was born in Iligan before settling here but his father came from Dumaguete City. He and his sibling recently found out that their father had left a beachfront property in Dumaguete City, which they wanted to sell. But someone, a relative or something, was occupying it, so, they were having such a hard time selling it. The man was a good man, they all are, in this village. But unlike my father, he was not a farming man. He'd rather own a store,  a truck, a jeepney, or any vehicle and ply it. Much later, I met another man about his age. He was born in Quiamba, Sultan Kudarat before he settled here, but his mother came from Minglanilla, Cebu and his father from Butuan. He said he had never been in Minglanilla all his life and he was already 73 years old. The man was well-read [[well, he knew the historical role of the Philippine Daily Inquirer and the people power at Edsa and unlike most people in this village, he hated Martial Law!]] When he arrived in this village, there were still so many timber trees around.  There were Apitong, Guijo, Lauaan, Tugas, and others. "Was it the logging that wiped them out?" I asked. "No," he said. "People even burn them, when they get in the way of  corn growing!"  Even if Pa had farmed all his life and must have developed some affinity with the soil, I don't really have some romantic notion about his worldviews. I remember the indigenous varieties of mangoes, guava, pomelos, macopa naturally growing in our backyard, which he cut down to give way to the mahogany trees and the gmelinas. He preferred cash crops to fruits.
I saw where your Ma and Pa were buried as we passed by your area. I remember the last time we talked and felt the full impact of the drought.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

In a Distance

Towards sunset, I took a motorcycle and climbed all the way to New Dumanjug (as if it were really that far to climb) to look at the changes in the color of the grasses as the dry condition felt all over Davao del Sur in January this year developed into a dry spell that threatened to further develop into drought. What made New Dumanjug very far for me to reach was not really its physical distance but my lack of courage to go there alone and take pictures all on my own. I gulped down my fear as I disembarked, introduced myself to a woman grazing her cow in the fast wilting grasses, and had a good time watching the children play in a distance.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Dear Solitude

Funny how I read this article exactly at the moment when I’ve been puzzling over my inability to write for days, even if I never used to believe in “writer’s block” as far as journalism writing is concerned.  Long ago, my editor and I had agreed, as a matter of principle, that we, journalists could not afford a block, an ailment commonly afflicting creative writers; because for us, it’s either we have the story or we do not have it, and that it’s only the absence or incompleteness of facts that could prevent us from writing it.  That’s what I used to think before but life is not really that simple. Something has been preventing me from writing these days and I realized it’s not just the absence of facts. I could not bring myself to write because a huge part of me was on strike; and I call this part of me, my writing djinn. It was on strike because I failed to listen to its demand for a long, long time; and for such a long time, I have deprived it of its most basic need: the full and blossoming reading life and delightful solitude. I’ve been jumping from one place to another, soaking myself with the problems of the world, that the djinn is going mad at not being able to read at least four or five books continuously for hours, in total uninterrupted silence. For the djinn, I must say, is an artist, with a well-developed inner life and a will of its own. The djinn it is who fuels my writing. The sooner I recognize this, the better for both of us. I could no longer bring myself to write even if the materials I was supposed to write were already right before me.  The djinn had the anger of Ceres, the anger that prevented the grass from growing, the anger that killed all creativity, it was the anger that practically stopped all life on earth.  Ceres is the harvest goddess whose daughter Proserpine was abducted by Pluto. Her anger had caused the plants to wilt. The anger came that part of me that had supplied the spirit that fueled my journalism throughout these years. I have neglected that part of me. And now, it is demanding attention.  It is demanding solitude. It is going on strike.  It is my only lifeforce, the springboard from which all my writings come from. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Out of Order

What's happening to you? Don't know how to start a story? Don't know how to begin? Don't know because you no longer care what you are writing? Staring at the computer screen like this, remembering the interview and the expectations that went along with it; what's happening to you? All you're thinking of right now is the taste of peppermint in your lips mingled with the taste of kalamansi and that honey taken from a tree 30 feet above sea level. Or, that secret guyabano recipe you are making in the kitchen to fool Ja and Sean to submission. Or, the cat meowmeowing at your feet. Or, that guy whose hands, already calloused by time, you still wanted to touch.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Old passion re-asserting itself

When I was six, Ma came home with an exciting news about an artist/teacher, a dignified and illustrious Mr. I forgot-his-name, accepting six or seven year-old children to train under him at home. The students--whom Ma imagined could be all boys--would stay with the Master on weekdays and may go home on weekends, an arrangement similar to a boarding school for young artists.  Even in a remote place like B'la, it promised something special; it even sounded different: a training in Art. I felt loved, happy.  Even at that point, I thought, Ma must have felt something about me, must have thought I had some of what people called "potential."  I was filled with excitement. Day after day I waited for it to happen: to learn Art, to watch the Maestro render reality on paper. But the month ended without a word from Ma. I waited and waited until the waiting became so unbearable.  When I finally asked her about it,  she told me she decided against it because she was worried about me. For her, it was unimaginable: a six-year-old girl living with boys under the tutelage of a man.   That officially ended my career in Art and Ma quickly forgot all about it.  I didn't. 
Well, maybe, I forgot all about it while I was growing up but that's what I remember now.  I remember how I was quickly forgotten, my dreams set aside. 
Ma taught us to put ourselves last always.  All the drawings that mattered in school were those being done by boys.  The bold strokes, the tri-dimensional realistic renditions, the portraits that copied reality even if they were only done with a ballpoint pen. Girl drawings were merely beautiful, trivial. Together, we--girls--thrived in the shadows, learning from each other and enjoying every moment of it; and that's how we persisted. It's only now, when old passions try to re-assert themselves, overwhelming us in their intensity, that we come to realize we could have been bolder.  
Then, we want to start all over again.

Lost in Kialeg

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

What I look forward to

This year, there will be more roads to take, miles to run, stories to write, accounts to hear, things to make, places to go, images to collect, recipes to try, food to taste, books to read, cats to coddle, rivers to follow, mirrors to find in nature and in man-made structures and landscapes.

What do I want?

He is such a delightful friend and he said to me just a few minutes ago, "So what do you want now? It seems you've lost all zest for life, you're no longer happy with what you're doing, you don't want to write anymore, you don't want to talk about writing, you don't want to cover stories, what do you want to do? Maybe, it's high time to look around for things that make you happy. Otherwise, you'll have such a big problem there. What would anyone do to someone who could no longer be happy? I sat staring at my computer screen. No, I said. I want to plant timber trees and read Annie Proulx while watching them grow. That's all I want to do.

Monday, January 04, 2016