Reading, Writing, Walking
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
 
The Other Makati
The Other Makati
By Luke Ivan B. Moro


While I was enjoying my Sunday morning ritual -- a cup of rich instant (He!He!He) coffee paired with wheat bread spread with peanut butter and my favorite Sunday paper -- I heard the familiar voice of a former boarder, Robert, who is now married with two kids noisily calling our boarder, Roland – an avid sabungero, and inviting him to a tupada that is just 50 meters away from where we live. Robert, who has been goading me to bet, also extended his sinful invitation to me. By this time, my brother has switched the FM channel to a station that plays cheesy Filipino jukebox hits on Sundays (think Imelda Papin, Roel Cortez and all their ilk pining for lost love or unrequited love, sang in country sentimental sort of way). Out of curiosity and not really in the mood to listen for another minute of Isang Linggong Pagibig or Napakasakit, Kuya Eddie on the radio, I relented.

So, off we go. There we were, three thirtysomething pot-bellied engineers, walking in our rubber slippers and looking dowdy in our shorts and sando - our shabby appearance belying our educational background. While the two are engaged in an animated conversation (read: sentences replete and punctuated with your favorite Tagalog expletive), I was deep in thought. I was wondering what is in cockfighting that interests these two seemingly intelligent yuppies I have known for years who are strangely transformed into your typical Filipino bystander whenever conversations gears towards cockfighting.

When we arrived at the scene of the fight, the kristo was in the last seconds of collecting bets from close to 50 bettors, who, like us, are in varying degree of dowdiness and whose ages range from late teens to late tys. Not surprisingly, cockfighting has its own jargons and rules that can befuddle any curious tyro like me. And then the kristo released the two cocks at the center of the makeshift pit, which seems more like a sty than a pit, to start the sultada or match, like a referee releasing the basketball in a ceremonial toss to start a game. Two cocks, vigorously flapping their wings and flying in mid-air, their hackle springing up to intimidate the opponent, each cock armed with a sharp gaff – a three inch long and angled blade that closely resembles a scythe. It’s either kill or be killed. Brutal and bloody, the whole scene is reminiscent of Roman Empire era where gladiators fight each other to death. While the cocks are clawing and pecking and kicking in mid-air and fighting for dear life, cigarette-puffing men encircled the pit, jostling for a good position to get a better view of the fight, breaking into grunts or ear-splitting roars – hollering for his bet to claw, to hit the enemy with the gaff at the head, chest, eye, etc. It is as if man has been able to find a way to communicate with an animal. In less than 10 minutes – the normal duration of a fight – it was over. The mightier cock won while the losing cock twitched and twitched before finally succumbing to the wounds inflicted by the mightier cock. While I felt pity for the cocks and repulsion at the whole ghastly scene, the owner of the winning cock and the other winning sabungeros broke into another gleeful uproar. Disinterested and still unable to understand the ‘magic’ of sabong, I decided to go home and leave my two avid sabungero companions behind as I smelled another fight being cooked er, arranged.

Coming home and still plenty of time to kill, I decided to shower to check the thrift shops at Evangelista in Barangay Bangkal. With really nothing in mind to shop, I settled for an old book on nature and a Reader’s Digest compilation on travel essays. Done with my ‘shopping’, I continued with my stroll and decided to check the place. I can’t help but notice that Evangelista smacks of Banawe, the street in QC not the municipality in Ifugao. The strip, around 200 meters or more, is filled with auto shops either selling car parts or offering auto detailing services, on either side. Strangely, in the middle of this strip are thrift shops, which extends up to the side corners running either parallel or perpendicular to Evangelista. The thrift shops are a bargain hunter’s haven. The few shops that were open are cramped with stuffs like vinyl LPs and CDs/DVDs, old books, toys, bric-a-brac, bags, shoes, and even appliances and furniture – be it wood, metal, plastic or a combination of different materials. The wide array of selection is simply inviting and cheapskate that I am, I promised myself to go back and buy something more substantial, at an inexpensive price, of course.

Treading along, I found the barangay’s public market. Checking the place, I found the market and what it has to offer nondescript – not any different from other public markets that can be found in Makati. Feeling a bit tired and thirsty, I look around for a place to have a short snack. Sadly, I can’t find any promising eatery, that is, clean, good ambience and inexpensive.

On the other side of the highway is Brgy. Pio del Pilar – the other half of the former Brgy Culi-culi, the other half being Bangkal. In the early 30s, Culi-culi - one of the four oldest barangays of Makati - gained an unsavory reputation as the red light district of then Municipality of Makati. Checking out the place at a leisurely pace, bystanders, mostly men either half naked or in sando and playful teen-agers and kids litter the streets while a party was going on on the street occupying one half of the two lane street. With a tent borrowed from the barangay, the party was protected from onlookers and other uninvited guests by a 2 meter wide white curtain made of sack wrapped around the tent’s perimeter and held in place by a wire that forms as the curtain’s frame. As I was nearing the tent, the loud and flat singing of a man singing Bikining Itim, a song about a man longing for his love, a bar girl, who went to Japan to work as a, uhm, bar girl with only a black bikini as his ‘souvenir’ greets me. Mildly bemused by this unabashed yet very Filipino way of celebration, I proceeded to check the public market in Pio del Pilar and, like in Bangkal, found the place nondescript, its offerings very ordinary, the people that inhabit the market no different from other markets – less noisy and less dirty perhaps but still very much like any other markets.

Yet in the central business district (CBD) of the city, the sight is worlds apart from what one sees in the other side of the track. Here, skyscrapers and stylish condominiums for the rich and trendy denizens abound. It is a picture of affluence and modernization where chic and urbane yuppies, executives, tourists and expatriates busily strut to and fro. Oddly, the malls have shops that are designed for customers with discriminating tastes yet they also have stalls for the C market. It’s like class and crass happily (?) coexisting. I am not sure now why it the CBD is called the heart of the city nor am I certain I agree with the term. Perhaps, the writer that coined the term attributes the fact that CBD is the city’s major source of income. But if the heart is the source of life and pumps blood to all parts of the body, what does it say to the heart if one sees thousands still wallowing in poverty. I fear that a foreign guest may not be able to give an accurate picture of the city and its people if they only see the cosmopolitan side of Makati –rich, trendy and modern city peopled by well-dressed and well-heeled yuppies.

I can’t help but feel a bit of sadness as I continued with my stroll. We are truly the brown Americans of Asia. Hardly a trace of our colonial past exists in the houses that I’ve seen. American influence in architecture, art, music and even food has completely overshadowed 300 years of Spanish rule. Sentimental and lyrical kundiman songs replaced by American top 40 hits and burger, fries and hotdogs and spaghetti replacing pancit, puto and other kakanin for merienda. We seem to have equated America to everything that is modern and good. The few remaining houses of Spanish influence I saw are either dilapidated or partially refurbished but, quite expectedly, with an American flavor. I won’t be surprised if in the next 10 years all remnants of the past have been completely obliterated by that time. Yap, the mad rush for progress and development is all over the city. Sadly, our definition of progress is erasing the past.

On the way home, I suddenly realized what I was missing. In all my walks around the fringes of the city, I saw not a soul overlooking at the window. Virtually all windows, mostly jalousie-type, were either closed, curtained or with iron grills. How sad! How tragic!
 
Stairway to Heaven


It was around four thirty in the afternoon and I was just about templed out.


Sitting in an ’83 Toyota Camry, watching the forest trees wiz by in a blur of dark green interspersed with glimpses of light, I mentally recalled my checklist of things done during our whirlwind visit to the Angkor of the ancient Khmer empire.

Watch the sun slowly inch its way above the Angkor Wat complex from the Central Sanctuary of Phnom Bakheng.... Check.

Ride a hot-air balloon to get an aerial shot of Angkor Wat emerging from the forest …… Check.

Pay homage to the Creator at the Gallery of a Thousand Buddhas...... Check.

Thump chest and hear the resonance in the Hall of EchoesCheck.

Strike a graceful pose in the Hall of Dancers at Preah Khan ….. Check.

Pass through the Gate of the Dead where a jumble of gods and demons stick out of the soil like victims of a horrific cosmic pile-up.…Check.

Visit Ta Prohm, home of the twisted and convoluted Tomb Raider tree… Check.


We had taken enough pictures to fill 2 memory chips, eavesdropped on numerous guided tours, and logged enough miles to get to Batangas City and back.

Miles and I had talked of going to Angkor Wat since we were newlyweds. The months leading to our trip were filled with late nights spent searching for the best accomodations (read: less than $10 a night); struggling with the language barrier to book budget airline tickets through a Bangkok travel agency; and scouring through the archives of Thorn Tree (Lonely Planet), Travelfish, The Daily Mail and NY Times to put together an eclectic itinerary. By the time we left Manila, I was running on adrenalin and ready to be impressed.

Two days later and I felt like a day-old birthday balloon slowly losing air. Something was missing. Maybe it was over anticipation. The mythical image that I had sketched of Angkor in my sepia-colored dreams was such that the reality fell far short of my expectations. Silly me….I had not taken into consideration the busloads of retirees from Europe, Japan and America. It was Disneyland without the walking mascots. Everybody and his mother wanted a picture of the most prominent apsara (celestial nymph) and/or most impressive garouda (symbolic protector of the air and water). It was hard to find a spare moment to contemplate and absorb the majesty of the ancient, intricately carved temples when every 15 minutes, a new bus would disgorge another gaggle of noisy, camera toting tourists from hell. It was with a great sigh of relief that we escaped to the tranquil Angkor Café. There we reveled in melt-in-your-mouth Blue Pumpkin gelatos while browsing through the outstanding (and expensive) wood and stone masterpieces of the Artisans d’Angkor.

All in all, a wonderful experience but still, something was missing. I was still unfulfilled.

Our patient driver must have noted our slow, inevitable descent into catatonia.

“Last one, last one. Ta Keo. Not far. ” Music to my ears. I perked up and trawled through my dog-eared secondhand guide book for a description of the place.

“It is dripping with green and crowned with trees, but is still supreme over the forest. It..shows the development of a new spirit in the people, the growth of good taste.”

We rounded a bend and behold, there was Ta Keo, “The Mountain with Golden Peaks”. I was immediately struck by a sense of solitude. There were only one or two pairs of people slowly making their way down the steep stairs. We climbed (in my case, crawled) up at our own pace.

Ta Keo is one of the great temple-mountains at Angkor dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, the Destroyer of Evil. It is an earthly replica of Mount Meru, the sacred dwelling place of the gods. Built between the end of the 10th century and early 11th century, Ta Keo rises 72 feet to the sky. Composed of enormous interlocking blocks of greenish-grey sandstone, work on the majestic temple was abandoned just after the start of its ornamentation. Archeologists have not yet confirmed why it was uncompleted, although many point to the death of King Jayavarman V as the root cause. Had it been finished, it would have been one of the finest temples in Angkor, one of the first to have been built of sandstone. The sheer simplicity of the structures that remain leaves an indelible impression of stoic strength and power. Centuries have passed, kingdoms have risen and fallen and Ta Keo remains… a silent link between man and the heavens.

I grunted and groaned my way to the top. Ta Keo is a structured pyramid conforming to the usual rule of proportional reduction. As I got closer to the peak, the steps grew exceptionally narrow and muscle-punishingly steep. At one point, I was inching my way up on my hands and knees like a supplicant on pilgrimage. I reached the central tower, gingerly turned around and gasped. The sun was just beginning its descent into night - its brilliant red, orange and yellow hues setting the giant treetops before me afire.


I spent another 20 minutes in quiet contemplation, soaking up the grandeur of the panoramic view. I do not recall the exact thoughts running through my head during that time. I do know that I rediscovered my inner center there, listening to the distinctive song of the cicadas and reflecting on the faith which inspires ordinary people to create extraordinary pieces of work as an expression of their devotion to a higher being. The memory of my laborious ascent up this great, unfinished temple-mountain now serves to remind me that my life is a work in progress, constantly striving for self-knowledge and unity of being.






Tuesday, March 21, 2006
 
Confessions of a Reluctant Pilgrim
All my travels have reflected an inner itch to escape whatever present physical or mental confinements I am in. Always on the search for the literal and figurative "peak experiences" as the psychologist Abraham Maslow would put it, I lived for the next mountain adventure or the sea escape. Without them I felt like a fish stranded in land or a restless caged panther. Perhaps I wanted so much to be freed of my external surroundings in as much as I wanted to escape myself. Travelling gave me leeway to assume different personas. From the wild hippie chick, to the solitary philosopher to the playful adolescent. I could always justify that if most people had their religion, I had my itinerary for my morphine. Travel as my drug of choice for my next "high".

But what was I really trying to run away from? Now there is a realization that my pressing need to leave or go straight for the nearest exit door was my way of coping . I did not have a name for my clinical depression then. The vivid greens , the turquoise waters and the pink sunsets somehow relieved the persistent blackness hovering over me. I was a dried-out nautilus. A balloon waiting to breathed in to life. My desolateness and emptiness was filled in with the myriad of sensations of travel. Seeing, feeling and taking it all in what was outside was my relief. I lived vicariously through peoples' smiles;their songs, and their stories.

If things do have a way of catching up on us, then my two-day climb to Mount Pinatubo was my confrontaton with myself. The setting; a vast lahar wasteland in the province of Capas Tarlac. The presently standing five thousand foot volcano in Central Luzon is still nature's work in progress with its intermittent eruptions for more than 35,000 years. Its most recent in June1991 was recorded to be the 2nd world's largest eruption in the 20th century. Albeit considered by volcanologist a minor eruption compared to other more catalclysmic ones of its history , it's catastrophic magnitude can not be underestimated with all the 80,000 locals of surrounding provinces of Tarlac, Zambales and Pampanga displaced. 1/8 of this belonged the Aetas, an indigenous tribe living on the foot of the mountain. This also sealed the fate the US Military Base leaving their barracks and nuclear playground for good. With its desolate terrain, I knew right then that this was not going to be my usual pleasure trip.

It could have been the perfect backdrop for a sand dune fight scene in Star Wars ,with its endless stretch of lahar (volcanic debris composed of mostly Silica and other minerals lending its ashen gray color). This perhaps would be the closest experience I can get to walking in the moon. I was soon jolted out of my reveries of a "Sahara crossing" riding on a camel's back in this sand terrain with the screeching sound of our pick-up truck's wheels mired in heaps of lahar. We initially planned to cut the distance of our walk by driving through a third of the way. It took us a two hour delay to dig our tires out of their quicksand-stuck state.The original 3 hour trek turned into a six hour pre-holy week penance.

Surpisingly, one soon grows into the land's permeating silence like comfortable companions. Me and my fellow hikers lost in our own private ruminations, our walk surprisingly turned out to be an enforced meditation. Tuning us out in whatever chaotic selves we brought here to a state of "tabula rasa", a blank slate. Transporting us into the uninhabited planet in us. Or perhaps in our minds, we were cursing ourselves for going to this trip in the first place.

As I slung my backpack and prodded on a step at a time, I could not help but wonder how nature does not always show its nurturing and magnanimous face. This now barren land is covered by layers of sulfuric ash covering almost 4 million square kilomemters of once lush vegetation. The archetypal human drama of man's helplessness to nature's destruction. This was no walk in the park with its eerie gothic aura of twisted gray mounds of earth and huge boulders of dark basalt rocks strewn all over. A once raging river now is but a trace of a thin strip of water slithering through it.

Reaching the end of the trail and counting aside the blisters on my feet, beholding the lake sitting like an emerald eye on the volcano's crater was all worth it. Technically an acid lake, formed by rain water and volcanic gases (sulfur and carbon dioxide) released by small slits of vent underneath. With the sun's rays reflecting on its green glass surface, it was nature's cathedral window.In search for my next thrill, I found this grotto of stillness after what seemed to be an endless bleak terrain. One of the rare instances when one stops running to get a taste of peace and a glimpse of home.
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
 
The Road to Baclaran Church: Penance & Promise
THE ROAD TO BACLARAN CHURCH: PENANCE & PROMISE


The road to Baclaran Church is a road filled with penance and promise. Penance, for the devotees who walk the dusty, potholed, traffic-strewn road is long, and the trek ends at the church, where promises are said and petitions said to be granted.

I have been going with my mother to Baclaran Church every First Wednesday of the month for more than 8 years now. It is part of a promise I made to Our Lady of Perpetual Help for a petition granted. The Church, run by Redemptorist fathers houses the Shrine of the Byzantine-like icon of the Virgin Mary who is the object of profound devotion for Filipinos from all walks of life.

This particular first Wednesday in March is Ash Wednesday and nothing could have prepared us for the massive traffic jam, biting heat and humongous crowd that gathered on that mid-morning. It was impossible to park the car near the church as cars stood still from as far as EDSA and Roxas Boulevard. Thus my mother and I decided to walk the half-kilometer trek perhaps to feel the sacrifice more on this day that signalled the official start of Lent.

We found ourselves getting off at the corner where the newly refurbished Greek-inspired façade of the Casino Filipino at the Heritage Hotel was unveiled recently as the streamer announced, another proud paean to the local authorities and the country’s leading gambling agency, the irony of which never fails to amuse me, of how even in this modern age, gambling and a church are always found close by. However, the casino looked empty as the entrance was bare save for a lone security guard. As we passed its parking lot there were no cars to be found. No gamblers today, I thought. Not on Ash Wednesday, when fasting and abstinence are the norm to us Catholics. But then again it is only 10:00 a.m.

Jeepneys and buses faced off a few meters ahead, tricycles backed up, barkers and drivers shouting in an attempt to unsnarl the mess. This was no ordinary Wednesday, I thought and our penance was just about to begin.

We were swallowed by the crowd on foot and slowly trudged along the dirty side street. It was free of moving traffic now as the jam had produced a wide stretch of car-less pedestrian space before it. We inched and snaked our way through the crowd, mindful of the vendors that had set up by the road as we headed towards Redemptorist Road.

My mother stopped to buy colorful handwoven fans to cover and cool us from the heat. A blind musician crooned love songs on a small karaoke and we stopped to drop a few coins in his tin cup. Up ahead various vendors traded their wares while grown men act as lookouts for cops who raid these “illegal” vendors. It is difficult not to think of the irony of life on this road, how devotees or so-called penitents walk through this way, thinking of how they can reach the church, where they lift their prayers and petitions to be answered, walking with this single thought in mind while the citizens of the streets eke out their day’s wages through any method possible. Watch-your-car-boys, jeepney barkers, children offering to carry packages and bags, name it they are all over.

As we see the vendors smiling and chatting, their small children laughing and playing, my mother comes up with her oft-repeated line, “Look at how they are, so poor yet so happy. Makes you realize how lucky you are.” I remind myself to be happy at being lucky but I still can’t erase the thoughts from my mind.

We turn left to a narrower road to avoid the intense heat of the sun. Bad decision. Unusually the crowd is even more dense in this side street. Our “suki” or usual vendor of dried fish smiles at us. Manang, as we call her, is a heavy set, old woman, with dark complexion, small twinkling eyes squatted infront of “bilaos” (round native flat woven baskets) of dried “tuyo” and “tinapa” (salted and smoked herring) and “daing na bangus” (smoked milkfish). The special of the day is her “tinapang tilapia” (smoked St. Peter’s fish) and we buy half a kilo of this. She gives us the usual “dagdag” (or extra) with her trademark wink to her staff, careful that the other buyers do not hear of our largesse. Manang knows that Lent is a time for brisk business, with the start of abstinence and not eating meat on Fridays happening on this day, Ash Wednesday.

We walk further down this small road and notice that the layout is different from last month’s. The plant and flower vendors are now on both sides of the street so the walkways are narrower. It does not help that the ambulant vendors selling everything from fancy jewelry to fruits to manicure implements to bags, peanuts, shirts, pots and pans set themselves in the center, acting as divider for those going to and from the road to the church. I feel a bump from behind and in turn nudge my mother, who is walking in front of me. There is a trigger effect as she hits the elderly woman before her. Stares ensue and my mother shouts to the crowd to watch it. This doesn’t surprise me as my mother, who at 67 is all of 24 years, is used to crowds. I fondly call her the original “Batang Quiapo” (kid from Quiapo) as she was used to walking fast through crowds with my late maternal grandmother, the original Marian devotee who would take her along to Quiapo church as a toddler with my aunt.

Tense grumbling is heard as people walk counterflow with bags of clothing, food and flowers hanging from their raised hands. Somebody remarks that this is the worst of times, that the crowd rushing forth to the Church coincides with those coming out from the Mass. In my 8 years I have never seen a crowd this thick here at Baclaran. Not even on the side streets. From atop a platform an elderly man asks that everyone be careful, and not to push. lest this become another “Wowowee” stampede situation. Nervous laughter ensues and I think of how the Filipino can think of comedy, that of the dark kind, in a situation like this. Just as the situation becomes so tight and packed, my mother pauses in front of a vendor selling houseclothes or dusters. She wants to buy a few for my aunt in Toronto, who is looking for a particular batik design. I shake my head and ask her why she has to buy at this particular time, but more so why my svelte, elderly aunt would want a sleeveless, flimsy piece of dress to wear in snowy, frigid Toronto? Its because they don’t sell them there, my mom explains. I just tell her to pay for it quick as I get the looks from those behind me who want to get past us.

As sweat trickles down in clumps on my back I pray to Our Lady to help us get out of this swell. My mother again converses with another lady to stop pushing and I feel the heat and perspiration of bodies packed side by side, front and back against my skin. I hope I don’t pass out here but I realize that if I do I will not even fall and remain standing. Walking slowly inch by inch, seconds seem like hours as the road is even thicker at the corner where it turns right to Redemptorist Road.

Just as all hell seemed to be trapped in that one road, the elderly man on the platform shouts to us that we can go up the stairs on the right and make a short cut through the Berma Shopping Mall. The ladies in front follow suit and through the shoving we float our way up to the stairs. The cool air from the mall blows the sweat from us but provides only temporary relief as we follow the crowd out to the entrance which leads to Redemptorist Road. Back to the heat, cars lined up bumper-to-bumper with nary a space left in sight to maneuver. The crowd spills onto the spaces between cars like ants down a hill. We head on to walk by the vendors’ stalls that do a thriving trade selling clothes, shoes, bags, belts, underwear, curtains, what-have-yous. The heat is unbearable and I wish we had brought umbrellas. Closer to the gates of the church compound are the stalls selling religious icons, statues, novenas, rosaries and candles alongside older women selling herbs, pills, potions and roots for abortion purposes from makeshift stands. Another irony in Baclaran.

The normal ten-minute walk has stretched to a twenty-minute sojourn. Walking past the gates my mother decides to buy flower garlands from a little girl. Always buy from the little children she says, keeps them off the streets. Another rule which again makes me wonder if I should be happy to be lucky.

From the church, devotees walk out with smiles and black ash crosses on their foreheads. Speakers blare away loudly the novena as people are packed shoulder-to-shoulder 5-feet wide outside the church doors. The site of the church reminds me that redemption is near. However its another ordeal to get inside. We sneak our way slowly inside sideways through rows of devotees clutching at novenas reciting out loud. We only manage to stand a few feet from the confessional box which is full and crowded outside with would-be penitents all lined up.

I make sure that from where I stand I see Our Lady’s icon, the image that for the past 90 years has served as promise for people to lift up their hopes, dreams, prayers and wishes to. As I open my old, dog-eared novena I can’t help but marvel at the faith of these people, faith so thick you can cut it with a knife. Faith or devotion to the promise of an answered petition, whichever it is, to me, is the reason that they are drawn to coming to Baclaran on a Wednesday and not only on a Wednesday. As I finish reading my novena and my thanksgiving prayers and proceed to leave the Church, I recall the trek we went through and how it was for me. That the promise of an answered petition is the value of the penance paid for it.
Monday, March 13, 2006
 
What Makes a Great Fish Story
In the early 1900’s, Conchita Hidalgo Sandoval spent her honeymoon in Palawan. During that time, trips to this part of the Philippines weren’t all that exotic and exciting. She recalls that “relieving” herself involved walking to an outhouse along a “pantalan”, passed the shoreline, and out into Coron Bay. The very sound of her steps would excite the fish for what was to follow, for each “dump” resulted in much commotion down below!

This, I consider, has the makings of a good fish story. It has humor, and it has wit. I am especially amused since it wasn’t like my grandmother to say such a story at all. See, she was an extremely proper lady, polite and dignified in every way. This leads me to believe that either the story was said in great jest, or “relieving oneself in Coron Bay” ranks as one of the most unforgettable, or better said “forgettable” experiences of her life.

It seems that most of the people I meet in Coron have a great story to tell; one of adventure, of fear, and of face-to-face encounters with particularly nasty creatures of the sea such as manta rays and sharks. My relative George Paterno claims that there were many crocodiles around his property in Tulawa three to four decades ago, and that his family had to hire Muslim crocodile hunters to reduce their numbers.

And then there are the “kadudadudang kwento” of a large catch that can leave you wondering. Robie Sandoval told me about the largest lapu-lapu ever caught in the Calamianes was supposedly caught off Calauit. It was so large that they needed a 6x6 truck to haul it away, and even then the “buntot” or tail was still sticking out!

For me, a great story cannot be based on legend or “sabi-sabi”. It has to be real. Ali, the town photographer has a captivating picture of two Dugongs, a mother and a calf. He is proud to say that he took this photograph within Coron Bay, not far from the port. No “myths” here because a picture says a thousand words. Some consider Palawan to be the last wild frontier and so I seek engagement with the animals it has to offer. My dream is to someday encounter what I call “the great three”: the “dugong” (sea cow), the “pawikan” (sea turtle), and the “buaya” (sea-faring crocodile), all of which are on the endangered species list of the Philippines yet still thriving in Palawan.

With the few trips I have taken to Palawan, I have collected my share of fish stories. Some have the elements that I have previously mentioned. And some, well they stand out because they are about fishermen. I admire those who live and die by the graces of the sea; their realities at times are stories in themselves. What ever they may be, they are all gems in my treasure chest of personal experiences. These are my stories.

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In 1995, I bore witness to a simple yet amazing event. George Paterno took us to the island of Culion, 16 kilometers from the port of Coron. We spent the day touring the island, glancing at the old leper colony hospital, taking in the wonderful views from the Fortress (which is actually an Old Franciscan church) atop the hill.

On our way back to the boat, I saw two little boys fishing along the “pantalan”. All they had were nylon strings wrapped around bottles. Busy filling an old “broas” container, the boys seemed to be having a lot of fun. Not that it was a game because it wasn’t; their catch was their family’s dinner. They would drop their line, each with 2 to 3 hooks tied at the line’s end, wait no more than ten seconds, and then quickly pull the line up. Luckily the catch was good, very good! Their success rate was 1 in every 3 tries. It wasn’t like they were catching 2 lb. lapu-lapu. The fish were small, about 6 inches long and an inch in diameter, but there was as much fish as they would care to catch.

After further inspection, I realized that they didn’t have any bait! Wow, how can this be true? I stood beside the boys and asked them. “Paano kayo nakakahuli na walang pain?” They replied “sa dami ng isda, meron at meron kaming nahuhuli!” I was flabbergasted! “Wala na silang problema sa pagkain” I uttered! And with that comment I succeeded in showing off even more of my city ignorance. It turns out that the problem has never been the fish, but rather the rice and other crops. In Culion, prices are expensive since some staples are imported from Mindoro or Batangas. Yes, there is abundance and bounty from the sea, but that isn’t everything.

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Coron Island is clearly the diamond amongst the many attractions of Northern Palawan. It is an impressive silhouette as viewed from the port, a large rock with 7 hidden lakes, two of which I have seen. This massive island with its limestone cliffs and turquoise green waterways is pristine, and undeveloped. Sadly, its beaches lay in a battered state. Even the indigenous tribes the Tagbanuas were unable to protect its beaches from dynamite and cyanide fishing. So, when my wife Joyce and I visited in February 1998, its snorkeling sites were barren, like ghost towns under the sea, full of chattered coral, whitened as if covered by sand, with little life. Disappointed, we looked towards the SeaDive so that we may accompany divers out to sea and bring us to better snorkeling sites.

Our contingent had no less than 3 chefs, my cousin Rene, his friend Holger, and Joyce. And since their worst nightmare was to go hungry while at sea, they accompanied the boatman early at 6am as he visited the market. They offered to beef up the boat’s planned meal for lunch. And so it turned out to be the best meal, maybe ever.

As we got to the second dive site, the dive group stayed underwater for less than an hour while some of us non-divers enjoyed a swim. This allowed Romeo (the boat’s Mr. Do-it-all) to cook the live shrimps, the “sitaw”, and the “gata” from the market. He then proceeded to cook his version of chili crab. Together with some adobo from our lodge, rice, and MBKS (which stands for mangga, bagoong, kamatis and sibuyas), we were ready for liftoff! Back onto the large bangka, the divers were satisfied with the wreck they had just explored, and proceeded to gorge themselves in this great feast. It is possible that the meal took longer than the dive itself as we took our time relishing every “sipit”. All the crab shells and other organics were thrown back into the sea. The fish had never been happier.

My American friends would always laugh at my e-mails when I tell them about these snorkeling episodes. They say it is a big irony that I profess my love and respect for marine life just to turn around and eat them for dinner!

The third stop for the day was the East Tanggat wreck. This is a special site because the sunken Japanese gunboat lies with its tip only 4 to 5m deep. And so, I snorkeled and joined the divers as far as my breath could hold. After having seen a school of napoleon wrasse, and a large cuttlefish at the wreck, I then proceeded to snorkel towards the shores of Tanggat Island; that was until I saw a long silvery body, with shinny jaws to boot. It took a while for me to realize, stupid me, that I was headed towards a barracuda. I distinctly remember its eyes, which I could only describe as cold-blooded! They say the ones that are alone are the deadliest, perhaps protecting offspring nearby. And so I changed direction and swam as far away as possible. I proceeded towards the bangka, got onto the boat, and looked for Joyce. I screamed “barracuda in the water!” She then turned around, asked “where” and proceeded to jump in the water to look for it! Go figure.

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It was 3:30 in the morning and it was pitch dark. I accompanied Albert and his companion as they set out to sea.

We went through muddy sand and mildly cold waters to get to his boat. Once in the bangka, I noticed that the clouds were absent. I could see the stars clearly and wished I were an astronomer, or even just an amateur hobbyist, so I could appreciate the cornucopia of stars. My eyes soon adjusted and the vista became surreal. Collectively, it was a blanket of shimmering lights. The thin mist of light turned out to be three dimensional, of enormous depth, moving and swaying as the bangka started to gain speed. I felt such an indescribable peace that I wanted to write a book right there and then!

Forty-five minutes into the grave silence, they stopped the bangka. We had reached our destination. They helped each other cast the net, starting with a rock on one end and a make shift piece of styrofoam on the other. Slowly the kilometer long net was laid.

I tried asking them some questions, but I noticed they preferred silence. Not because it was too early, but that they had done this so many times before that the excitement was no longer there. I, on the other hand, was ecstatic! I couldn’t wait to pull up the net and see our salty harvest. They planned to leave the net for approximately an hour, reeling it in just as the sun was rising. While waiting I offered them some doughnuts and they gladly accepted.

The hour had passed and they cued me to position. I stood uncomfortably hanging from the right “katig”. My left hand was precariously holding to a bamboo pole. Albert would rhythmically pull the net, a full arms length at a time, while his companion would pluck the fish from the net and into a basket. With the sun rising, I had just enough light to capture the struggle in their forearms, the intense concentration on their faces, all of the movement. This reality was unmatched; and photographing it, a privilege!

They both continued laboring to lift the heavy net. All of a sudden they stopped. There was a sound. It was the sound of a large fish hitting the side of the boat. Perhaps it was a barracuda or a shark, the one that got away. But even though,the basket still had an assortment of fish “dalagang bukid”, parrotfish, puffer fish, etc.; all were of value, and none tossed back into the ocean. I counted seven one-and-a-half foot long baby sharks, pure white in color, probably the right size needed for the continued success of the shark population.

They say all in all it was an average night, no more than 40 kilos, but nothing like they were used to a decade ago. I had the chance to ask them why they continue this way of life; they say it is all they know. They might not like it, but till such time as they can buy their own bangka, “konteng tiis, baka naman swertehin”. Both owners of the boat and the net greeted us anxiously at the shore. This catch would have to be divided up by all of them.

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I was walking through a densely populated community on stilts, atop Coron bay. Luck had it that towards its end was a buying station for fish, owned and managed by a woman named Mrs. Carpio. The stereotype was true; she was large, loud and very bossy, ordering her “tigs” to weigh more than ten cylindrical bins on a large, industrial weighing scale. These contained tulingan, maya-maya, and other unidentified fish.

I could tell that she wanted me to take her picture and so I did. She told me that it was a good time to take photos as the boats were coming back from the “lawa” or ocean. There was a bangka twenty feet from the buying station, slowly pushed forward by a man at the rear using a long bamboo stick. The man standing in front was smiling from ear to ear. It turns out he got lucky, his overnight venture out into the deep sea has yielded two large “pagi” or rays. Not just any stingrays, but Manta rays. And even though it is illegal to catch such fish, they weren’t about to let their prized possession go.

This was a great photo opportunity and so I nodded and showed him my camera. He agreed to carry it and painstakingly tried to. It took him more than 2 failed attempts. On the third, he lifted the manta ray with outstretched arms all of two seconds. I clicked. And as I was checking my camera (I was knee deep in the water at the time), I suddenly saw red streaks go passed me. It was the manta ray’s blood mixing with the seawater. He had cut up one of the manta rays right there and then. It was fast. It was brutal! At this instant, it hit me that my perspective was different from that of the fisherman, or of Mrs. Carpio for that matter. To me, the “pagi” was a thing of beauty reflecting everything majestic about marine life. Something that should be nurtured, taken cared of, saved. And for them, the “pagi” was the catch fishermen dream of, the “swerte” that drives them forward passed the rigors and drudgery of daily life.



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