Thursday, September 18, 2008


I am in the front seat, beside the driver of a passenger jeep. To my left sits the driver's friend holding fliers of luxury condominiums. He eats peanuts from a tiny paper bag while admiring his acne scars in the side view mirror.

Pare, don't you know that peanut is food for the brain?” he bellows in Tagalog to the driver. Without looking at him, the driver replies, “But you don't have a brain!”

The jeep turns right and a famous beer factory comes in full view. Cases of beer are being loaded into huge trucks parked within its premises. Acne Scar guy, again, shouts to the driver:
“Pare, look at those trucks! They're brimming with beer! Anak ng puta (Son of a whore), I'd love to have just one of those!”
“Oh, you're such a bore when you're drunk. You're always catatonic,” the driver says, making his best impression of Acne Scar guy's catatonic state. “I'm better than you when I'm drunk. I'm always happy.” Me too, I think. I mean, come on, what the heck is alcohol for if not to bring happiness to humankind? The gods created it to palliate the sufferings of the people.

I need a drink right away, I say to myself. It is obvious that Acne Scar guy also needs one. When the jeep speeds past a chain of shanties, vulcanizing shops, beauty parlors, and gas stations, he looks around and faces the driver again.
Pare, there are always drinking sprees on this street, no?”
“We'll have ours, too, when Oktoberfest arrives. We will go to Ever,” the driver says.
“But that's not where they celebrate Oktoberfest!”
“Oh yes, stupid! It's celebrated everywhere, as long as you have beer.”

We stop at an intersection. Further ahead, the road rises up into a wide fly-over. Three girls wearing shorts approach the driver and thrust the sampaguita (fragrant Philippine flower) garlands they are selling. One of them, the eldest, who must be around fourteen years old, is wearing eyeliner and eyeshadow. The two younger girls, who are unbelievably pretty, resemble each other; sisters, no doubt. The girl with make-up smiles and holds out her empty hand without saying anything. The driver hands her some coins, payment for the garlands he has taken the other day.

“Buy this one too,” she demands.
“I've got no more dough,” the driver replies.
“You don't have to pay today. You can pay tomorrow, same arrangement.”
“No,” he is stern. He notices the youngest of the girls, who coyly holds up her flowers to him. “This girl's beautiful. Come here, pretty little thing!”
The girl approaches and automatically hands him a garland. The driver takes it and pays for it.
“Oh but take mine, too,” the girl with make-up says.
“No, I can only buy one today,” with that, the driver steps on the gas and the vehicle speeds up. I notice that the two pretty girls are barefoot as they walk away.
Pare, those girls' mom must be very gorgeous, no?” I am relieved that Acne Scar guy hints at a desire for the mother, not for the kids.

The jeep traverses the flyover. Traffic is getting heavier. Acne Scar guy suddenly croaks out a line from some cheesy song. His voice is hoarse but loud and clear.
“You have a good singing voice, so full and rich,” the driver comments.
“Oh yes, pare! Wait till you hear me belt out 'Skylight Pigeon,'” and he shouts the first few bars of the song, as if sarcasm were a compliment. A minuscule piece of chewed peanut darts out of his mouth and lands on my right arm. I discreetly wipe it on my pants so as not to embarrass the singer. He notices it anyway. And he is not embarrassed.

I get off under a steel overpass painted in searing pink. The jeep zooms away, billows of smoke trailing behind it. I head toward the sidewalk, ruminating over the romance of public transportation in this country.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

i died

In a dream, I stand at the end of a long hall whose sides are lined with huge glass windows that let in the early afternoon sun. There are two rows of sewing machines. Humped over them are workers busily running cloths under their crude machines' rhythmically stabbing needles. I am wearing a dark suit without a tie and I watch them with apathy.

I see three bullets suddenly zoom from nowhere and hit me. I feel the bullets rend my clothes and lodge themselves into my flesh. They are neither hot nor painful, just icy. The speed with which this happens is almost cinematic. Like worms seeking comfort from some imagined persecution, the three bullets slowly inch their slimy bodies into my muscles. I feel every tissue tear and every ligament snap loose.

I fall on the concrete floor face first, dead. I know I am dead because my heart has stopped beating and my body has turned limp. I can feel my blood freeze inside my veins. I lay there for a while until my left forefinger starts twitching. A woman notices me, approaches me, and feels my pulse. “He's still breathing,” she shouts. There is a flurry of rustling skirts and slippers scraping against the polished floor as the workers rise from their boring task to attend to me. The scene slowly fades into darkness.

I limp out of the heavy sliding door of my deceased grandmother's ancient, crumbling house. I am supported on either side by two friends whose faces I don't recognize. They are in a mad rush to get me to the hospital. They are bawling commands left and right, urging everyone to make haste but I don't see anyone except the three of us.

I remain calm and disinterested, still not feeling the pain of the bullet wounds. We reach the garage and one of them opens the gate, which creaks at it swings. A 1940s cab pulls up. One of them says something about the car being too small for us. They bawl orders again but I don't understand them. We nevertheless get inside the car and cramp ourselves at the backseat like Jews on their way to a concentration camp. I feel tired. Just tired.

I remember seeing the road through the cab's windshield. The sun, somewhat milder now, lightly bathes the asphalted road with yellow light. It jars my vision.

And then I wake up.


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

let's beat street kids to death, they're not human!

I was reading John Bayley to while away the time as I queued for my ticket at the train station. He was talking about his boredom as a bourgeois kid in a golf course somewhere in Littlestone, England in the 1930s. His hobby was to collect used golf balls and bury them in the sand like crocodile's eggs.

This childhood nostalgia was cut short when I heard a commotion. A few paces from where I was standing, a security guard lifted a long cane and brandished it in the air. A boy, a street kid, wearing a soiled, oversize blue shirt and a pair of blackened shorts, cowered on the ground beside him, refusing to stand up. I thought the guard merely wanted to scare him off the train station's premises because beggars weren't allowed there, but he grabbed his scrawny arm to make him stand and whacked him hard on the butt. The child pretended it didn't hurt. Not a sound came from him but the impact sent him sprawling on the floor. He covered his behind with his grimy hands.

The guard forcefully dragged him away and sent the cane whirring down again. I'm not sure which body part it hit because I turned away and looked at the violent scene again just in time to see the boy grimace in pain. Still, not a sound came from him. His face was again stern and resolute, the grimace having faded as soon as it appeared. The people who were impatiently queuing for their train tickets craned their necks to get a better look. Some women gasped. But most of them surveyed the incident with curiosity, if not with indifference.

The guard dragged the boy toward the stairs, beat him some more, this time more vigorously, and hurled him down the steps. The boy, of course, did not fall as he got hold of the railing and clung there like a cat under attack. The guard turned away and walked proudly back to the station. I heard some unintelligible cuss words from the boy and then something flew and hit the guard's nape. From afar, it just looked like an empty plastic bottle of water or something lighter. Infuriated, the guard turned and ran toward the stairs again, his stick and his truncheon ready to attack.

They exchanged curses and threats. He, no doubt, hit him again with his two weapons because I saw both his cane and his club rising and falling from behind the low concrete walls of the stairwell.

Having beaten down his enemy, the guard hurriedly went back to his post. He had the air of a soldier who had just done something patriotic for his country. Apparently, the boy wasn't ready to surrender. He ran up the stairs again and shouted in Tagalog: “You son of a whore! You can only do such things because you're a guard! You wait and see!” And he let loose more Tagalog expletives.

I got my ticket and walked with big strides toward the turnstiles. I had seen and heard more than I should. I stowed Bayley's book inside my bag, suddenly losing interest in reading about the travails of rich, English school boys.

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Monday, September 08, 2008


I only felt solemn awe when we finally reached the summit of Mount Pinatubo. The sun had already sunk but its last rays were still emanating an eerie glow from behind the mountains, extremely faint but sufficient enough. It gave the whole place a misty but ghastly appearance, like a lurid dream you wouldn’t want to wake up from. The lake that had been formed inside the crater during its last eruption was hemmed in by rock mountains all around, creating a deep, irregularly shaped basin of still, pinkish gray waters. After drinking in the scene while the cold mountain air lashed at my cheeks, I hurriedly put out my camera and whored in front of it with Noelle, Eric, Glenna, and Allan before darkness finally sucked in the whole scenery into its underbelly.

I wasn’t so keen on joining them in this trip because I had just had my dental implant screwed into my skull. I was afraid that I might get so tired walking it would bleed, or worse, come off. However, after consulting with my implant dentist, I finally said yes at the last minute, causing Glenna to conclude that, in any trip, I always say I wouldn’t go but I push through on the eleventh hour. I’m glad I did. I have never camped yards away from the crater of an active volcano before. This was the first time.

It felt like we were hobbits on our way to Mordor to cast the ring into its fiery bowels. Around us was a vast expanse of rock and sand. Dust rose in billowing volumes. The sides of the mountain range seemed like they had been cleanly sliced off by some enormous knife, revealing the powdery filling within. In between these mountain ranges, we trekked through a wide desert-like path that, only a few years ago, was raging with lahar from the summit. I wondered if lahar could really be so powerful as to have this singular effect on something as huge as a mountain. I kept imagining chocolate encrusted marshmallows that had been cut in half, only, in this case, the chocolate was green and the marshmallow light gray.

Boulders as big as houses were strewn all around. A stream, which widened into a sprightly river and narrowed into a trickling brook at some parts, flowed along with us. A natural guide toward the crater, I suppose. Just follow the bouncing, gushing waters and you’ll get to the top. At some parts of the stream, we could see greenish brown deposits that were remnants of its volcanic origin, no doubt. It was a constant reminder that we were on our way to a volcano, not just any other mountain.

The way was fairly flat. We only climbed when we were quite near the crater; the path was a narrow strip of water-soaked boulders flanked by lush foliage. As Noelle said, it was a hike with “no assaults” at all. Despite Eric’s advice not to drink water during the climb (I forgot why exactly), I still gulped from my metal flask. I couldn’t help it. It energized me. Water was to me what lembas was to hobbits. Sorry for the constant allusion to Tolkien’s epic but that’s what I was reading at that time. Yeah, I know, it’s too late to jump into the Hobbit trilogy bandwagon.

There were still Aeta communities somewhere in the mountains for we bumped into some of them on the way. They had surveyed us with either boredom or curiosity. Here go the stupid tourists again with their cameras, they must’ve thought. There was a cave from whose aperture peered a family of Aetas. I’m not sure if they actually lived there or were just taking a respite from the beatings of the horrid sun. Allan later said that our guide pointed to a human skull half-covered by sand and said that it was an Aeta who had perished in lahar. The Aetas are short, dark-skinned indigenous people with strong white teeth and huge Afros. They were mountain dwellers and hunters until Mount Pinatubo erupted in the nineties, unleashing tons of lahar that ravaged mountains, houses, cattle, and people. They were said to have evacuated to some site which was under the care of the government. But like everything that is government-run, this settlement didn’t have anything that could sustain them so they had no choice but to go back to the mountain and start anew atop the bones of their kinsmen.

We paid for a military escort in full battle gear, something that was compulsory for all trekkers. This was obviously just a money-making scheme, according to our guide who was a native of the place. The military saw something they could possibly milk for some cash that’s why they demanded that they become part of it. I couldn’t understand what the heck they attempted to protect us from, not unless skeletons of wild animals that had resurrected from their sandy graves regularly prowled this area. Anyway, this gives you a rough idea what type of government we have in this part of the world. When the escort started getting friendly with us, chatting us up beside our tent and accepting offers of refreshments, I got really uneasy. I don’t trust men in uniform. That’s something you’ll learn if you live long enough in this country. Noelle, an erstwhile activist who had battled against riot police in many anti-government rallies, later commented that the soldier and his armalite also made her uncomfortable.

But that didn’t spoil the fun of course. Eventually, the guy went off to a tent which his ilk pitched, leaving us in peace as we serenely listened to soothing guitar music from Noelle’s ipod plugged to a tiny speaker. Tone it down, Glenna said, we might disturb the tent beside us. We did and the music became even more enchanting, a soft undercurrent eddying in and out of our hushed conversation. The air was chilly and the stars burned vigorously. Other groups had already set up camp near us. The darkness was just broken by flashlights and battery powered lamps glowing from within the tents. Eric, as usual, was in charge of cooking our food. With a black, tie-dyed sarong (a large rectangular piece of cloth) draped around me, I silently enjoyed the place. I never said this to any of my companions at that time lest I sound like some new age mystic, but I really felt at peace with myself and with nature at that moment. And to think that we were on the edge of a crater that could erupt any minute.

The next morning dawned hesitatingly. Sunlight brushed against the mountain tops at first and slowly crept down to the lake. Despite that, the water didn’t shimmer. It still appeared misty to me like watercolor washes in an impressionist painting. We went down the lake to wash our feet. The water was still icy. There were tiny bubbles in some parts which suggested that there were creatures in its depths, or vents, or, damn, was it starting to boil? For something that’s boiling, this was pretty cold. The other campers soon went down by the bank too. One foreigner took his shirt off and plunged into the lake. I wanted to do that but the water was so damn cold. And besides, we had been warned not to stay in the water for more than twenty minutes, otherwise its sulfur content or whatever substance it has, will burn our skin. Although at that time, I sort of didn’t care anymore what the elements could do to my skin. The dust and the sand had already wreaked enough havoc on our pores as our sturdy four-wheeler braved the roughness of the terrain during the first half of our trip the day before. It’s free face powder, Glenna commented.

The truck crossed shallow rivers and trenches, and braved sharp rocks, leaving a trail of disturbed lahar deposits swirling in its wake. The ride was an adventure in itself. There were times when I felt that the vehicle would topple over and send us rolling on the sand. But it never did. The tires were huge and strong, the driver experienced and determined. For a time, the drive seemed endless. We could see nothing but grayness and some greenery up on the cliffs. After about two hours (believe me, it felt more than that) we finally stopped at the foot a moss covered boulder where we met our other companions, the other group that was set to conquer the volcano’s summit, too. They were pretty organized. They formed a circle for a short briefing, to which I listened, and followed it by a prayer, about which I didn’t give a hoot.

They were fairly slow because it was a large group and some of them couldn’t walk fast so we decided to overtake them and walk ahead, thereby making us the very first group to reach the summit that day. It was exhilarating to arrive there without seeing tents that could mar the view. All I felt was awe. Solemn awe. Standing face to face with an enormous opening into the depths of the earth is not something I get to do every day, much less admire something that has caused so much anguish, pain, death, and suffering to hundreds of people. As the horizon slowly dimmed, the crater took on a somber, misty appearance, showing its most ghastly face at the last dying rays of the sun.

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