In the Company of Strangeness: From Davao to Bucas Grande (Part 1)

Nonfiction by | May 14, 2017

A journey is only as good as the company you travel with.

I first knew about Bucas Grande some eight years ago, and thought it might just be the most beautiful place in the Philippines. Its images online showed inviting turquoise waters around deserted island hills teeming with foliage. I remember too, quite distinctly, a picture of a woman wearing a blue bikini swimming among yellow jellyfishes. It looked so fantastic—paradise with a twist!—and I yearned to be there. Someday.

However, with my miniscule social circle, I never found a friend who wanted to go there—or, to be exact, someone who’s willing to pay to go there—even as the place grew in popularity to the point that there are now various tour packages featuring it. So when an old acquaintance posted on Facebook that he’s organizing a trip to Bucas Grande, I asked to be in immediately, never mind that I didn’t know anybody else coming.

And that was how I found myself, after-midnight on September 24, in a Hi-Ace van speeding along thrillingly curving backroads, in the company of some sixteen boisterous boys and girls in their early twenties, Spotify-ing a party mix even as up front our driver defiantly competed with Air Supply hits on his stereo.

Why must there always be Air Supply? I don’t think I have ever been in any long drive where Russell Hitchcock did not cry out that there he is, the one that you love, asking for another day, or that he’s back on his feet and eager to be what you wanted.

I was still lost in this revelry when our van stopped for restroom break and to buy some supplies at Bibingka City, a diner-cum-pasalubong center at New Sibunga. It was nice, as these places go (well-lit, fully stocked, the attendants not looking vaguely pissed at the patrons), but what I found most striking about it was that they weren’t charging customers for using the restroom. This to me was astounding. As far as I can recall, highway restroom are never free to use—I believe the current rate is two to five pesos for doing #1 and ten pesos for #2—so not being charged to pee was to me a delightful novelty.

I was still relishing this peculiarity when something caught my attention to remind me that I am, after all, still on a Philippine highway. It was a sign displaying the unique typography and passive-aggressive attitude of our public establishments. It read: “A-10-TION: Bawal MagLebang dire Ihi Lang pwede. Multa P500. TNX By. MGmt.”

Eddie, our driver, is chatty. I was his first passenger, and between Bajada and Panabo, where we picked up the rest of the group, I learned about his family, his work, religious affiliation, what food he likes, and that he might be a magical character.

“Kada mag-adto ko’g Surigao, mag-ulan dyud,” he said.

“Basig nataymingan lang bay,” I answered.

“Dili. Mag-ulan dyun. Tan-awa karon.” And indeed it was raining that night, the hardest rain in fact in the last few weeks.

This was fine by me, the pushy attitude and the incessant talk. I’ve since realized that if you take an anthropological point of view, strangers could be as wonderful a company as books or an MP3 player. They tell you tales of woes and joys, and they give interesting if usually unsolicited advice. Plus, if you listen long enough, they often give small tokens of appreciation—the fruitseller would give you an extra piece, karenderyas would give you a larger serving, the taho vendor would put extra syrup.

Another thing I learned about Eddie, as I sat up front gripping my seatbelt, is that he’s the sort of driver for whom traffic lights, check point barricades, and speed limits aren’t so much as rules as they are minor inconveniences. He overspeeds, circumvents intersections, takes chancy lane changes. Notably though, he always slows down when he sees a cat crossing the road.

We reached Surigao around 5:30AM, stopping at an overpriced eatery for breakfast, and I had my first good look at my companions. They were young and loud, and seemed especially unexcited that an outsider has joined their group. We introduced ourselves briefly, which was the most interaction I would have with most of them for the rest of the trip. (My friend—he who organized the whole trip—backed out at the last minute.)

We stayed at a resort called Green Cove, a little place at the tail end of the island that still doesn’t have electricity. Our itinerary showed that we would be leaving for Sohoton Cove at 10:00 in the morning. And so with more than an hour to wait, I went down a path to the other side of the island to have a look around. Below, I found a young man cleaning fish that were to be our lunch later. How wonderful, I thought, how self-sufficient people are in the province!

I was marveling at the quaintness of this when he told me that he just bought the fish at the market and that he was cleaning them here only because they’ve ran out of clean water at the kitchen. And thus I had my first epiphany for the trip: even as I thought myself a more cultivated kind of tourist, I had in fact taken the patronizing attitude all tourists have towards the locales—romanticizing their “simple” way of life, exoticizing the commonplace.

After a twenty-minute ride across choppy waters, we reached a registration center where we wait to transfer to smaller outrigger boats. While waiting, the group took turns taking photos in front of a tarpaulin backdrop featuring the attractions of the place. I stop myself from pointing that the surrounding scenery, in fact, makes for a much better background; instead, I make my own folly by purchasing two simple wood-carved keychains at eighty pesos apiece.

Sohoton is a 60-hectare national park with interspersed and branching islets, which make the whole cove like a maze. It was named so because to enter it you have to pass through (so-ot in Cebuano) a narrow opening that’s accessible only during low tide. Most of the place remains wild. So if you get lost in it, get caught in the high tide, or if darkness reaches you there, there’s a good chance you will never be found, not to mention dying.

The thing though is that the part of it that’s open to the public is just a fraction—at a guess, less than ten hectares—and not particularly mystifying so that it loses pretty much all sense of adventure. As the trips are guided and tourists are required to wear helmets and lifejackets, the biggest risk you run, really, is dropping your phone on the water as you take a selfie.

Still, the place looked virginal: the water was vibrant green and as beautiful as it is in pictures, the rocky islands were brimming with vegetation, and there was not a single trace of litter. And so I hoped that once the boat’s motor is turned off, we’d find ourselves in a natural tranquil splendor. Instead, at the first stop, Hagukan Cave, I find a fiesta of about 50 people: children splashing around, fat aunts giving impotent warnings, men with puffed chests stealing glances at nubile teens, old people genially having fun.

And that, I hate to report, was pretty much the scenery for the rest of the day.

Mind, the trip has other, different attractions, including—and I say this in all seriousness—a diving platform. Really, that’s it: just a plank of wood set on a rock was worth a stop. So was a sixteen-meter long, two-foot tall “cave”. This, to me, seemed uniquely Filipino: thinking every minor feature is worth recognition; variety prized over quality, the numbers creating a false impression of value.

After Sohoton Cove, we went to Sohoton Gamay (which featured another diving platform, and, everyone was happy to note, was recently visited by Anne Curtis) and Lake Tiktikan (whose muddy bank, I’m sorry to say, smelled awfully like sewer). There were no swimming with stingless jellyfishes, no woman in blue bikini.

At breakfast the next day, someone mentioned that it was such a pity that they forgot to bring their portable KTV. I thanked God for small favors and decided then and there that I wouldn’t join the day’s island hopping activity. Later, when I asked how it went, the reply was, “Init kaayo! Pero nice ang Club Tara!”, and I thought I didn’t miss much.

To pass the time, I ambled around the island. I was told … (to be continued)


Gabriel is a graduate of UP Mindanao’s Creative Writing Program. He currently works as a web content writer. He actually went back to Bucas Grande recently, and had a much better experience. This time, he came with his family.

The Housewife

Nonfiction by | April 30, 2017

There were talks of a major promotion for one of the vice-presidents of Chinabank*. Throughout her 19 years of working there, she had slowly worked her way to the top; drawing approval and encouragement from almost every board member (there were nay-sayers, but that was par for the course). Magnetic trinkets were covering every available surface of our refrigerator door; tokens she had collected from her nearly-monthly travels all over the country on those kinds of business trips the company pays everything for. She was a powerful woman in her field, a mere 4 months away from becoming the company president, when, at the age of 48, my mother decided to retire.

Contrary to popular belief, my mother did not retire because she was tired of 9 to 5 office hours. She was not a white person who, in the face of a midlife crisis, suddenly drops their job and feels the need to compensate all those years of overwork with vacations and cars not suited to their tastes anymore. Being born in a middle-class Filipino family with the mindset that hard work = money, she was determined to stay in that bank until her youngest child, a 9-year-old, had graduated from college. She also did not retire because of the new regulation the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) had set out that would put the bank in trouble. If anyone could fight and grit their teeth through that trial, it would have been my mother. Besides, that job was her life. When I was younger there were times when the bank took precedence over my childhood. A board meeting over my third-grade recognition ceremony, an overtime shift on my birthday. The abandonment (in the loosest sense of the word) was the very foundation of my preteen angst. But I’ve grown out of that, and this is not about me. It is impossible to believe that my mother would have given up on the employees she treated like family (who referred to her as Mama Bear, she would tell me on nights the withdrawal feels the strongest, her eyes wistful).
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God is a Woman

Nonfiction by | April 23, 2017

When I was 8, a boy named Carl decided to make my life a daily hell by teasing me, snickering whenever I spoke up in class, and giving me a gentle shove every time he passed me in the corridor. One time his shove made me trip on my own shoes and I stumbled through the hallway. When I told my teacher about his constant harassment, she smiled and gave me a light pat on the shoulder, saying “He probably just likes you!” After the incident, I never again told an adult about something a boy did to me.

When I was 12, I was squished to the corner of the jeepney because the guy sitting next to me has his legs spread all over the seat. All the other passengers, who were all women, looked at him but no one even bothered to tell him. He was taking up too much space. Men take up too much space that we often forget that we also have our own. I even saw the lady across me carefully adjust the corner of her jacket since it was taking up more room than needed. We are raised like that: we are raised to sit with closed legs, to not talk or laugh too loudly, to take up as little space in the world as possible. Continue reading God is a Woman

The Pilot’s Vantage Point

Nonfiction by | April 2, 2017

“I know a planet where there is a certain red-faced gentleman. He has never smelled a flower. He has never looked at a star. He has never loved any one. He has never done anything in his life but add up figures. And all day, he says over and over, just like you: ‘I am busy with matters of consequence!’ And that makes him swell up with pride. But he is not a man – he is a mushroom!”

~ The Little Prince

When temperature went down during that ber-month, I was in the living room scrolling through my FB while the TV showed some teleserye I was not interested in. A lot of posts were on fright nights. There were people posting Halloween costumes, make up tutorials for Halloween. Team Kramer was in all black. That was cute.

Scroll down more.

There was a photo of Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau dressed as the Pilot and his son, the Little Prince. Fallen leaves were on the ground. Behind them, the leaves of the trees were yellow with hints of orange.

How fitting. The foliage almost imitating the sunset.

That was all it took and a distant memory replayed.

Hands were passing around glues and scissors. Scented papers of various colors and cut out pictures were scattered on the floor where eleven students were sitting and chatting. The troublesome flower accessories and yarns were lost in the mess.
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Of Memories and Letters

Nonfiction by | March 26, 2017

I live to write letters. I have lived because of letters.

When a parent decides to leave, there is infinity of questions. Inside my head was an avalanche of questions. When I was five, the black jar, a familiar fixture in our living room, accidentally got broken, spilling over my brokenness in scraps of paper scribbled with love letters to a father who decided to leave. This memory regurgitates in conversations with my mother and in spite of the heartbreaking back story, she uses this story to lovingly prod that writing is just as important as breathing. I must live.

I wrote letters to express my love for family and friends because certain moments merit not only non-verbal expression, they deserve to be documented, reconstructed and reread in my small universe. Writing is my human attempt to immortalize fleeting moments of happiness.

My passion to write and my stubborn impulse to document my thoughts are evidenced in various notebooks I have collected over the years. I write notes to my past, present, and future self. When I accidentally come across these old letters, I often find myself smiling, as if reading a letter from another who writes with raw and shameless honesty. It is overwhelming at times. I find that the letters to my younger self are most difficult to write, as she has been through a labyrinth of thorns – she deserves a good one.

I have written countless letters to my mother, many of these I have given to her, the others I kept somewhere. There is infinity of words but there are number of people who deserve my letters – just as the ink from my pen bleeds when I write my letters, my heart bleeds as well. There are infinite words but finite number of years. Words must be written. Pain, the breaking, must be transformed in written form.

Just as there are infinite characters and words, humans have finite number of days. The freedom to write must not be wasted – the other one, the intended receiver has to know. My mother once told me that she loves my letters but could not find the words to respond. I told her that my letters demand no answers and require no affirmation.
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History Matters

Nonfiction by | March 19, 2017

In August 2016, I finally submitted the approved manuscript of my PhD thesis. In the weeks after my final defense, I took a deep breath of relief, knowing that at last I can finally return to a normal life. Now I am able to sleep at normal hours, watch my favorite HGTV or do whatever fancies me without the guilty feeling of an impending deadline dominating my every waking moment.

To take advantage of this new status, I decided to resume reading fiction and picked up George Orwell’s 1984. Some people, who have been in similar circumstances, would understand the need for some time away from any scholarly undertaking.

I have been acquainted with Orwell’s writing, but it was a mistake on my part to plunge into his landmark novel at this time. Just a few pages into it, any conception of light reading flew out of the window. This book was dark, to say the least. It is a tragic illustration of what can transpire if we do not guard our democratic freedom to speak and think.

The novel is set in 1984, in the state of Oceania, one of the three super-states fighting for global dominance while engaged in harsh, domestic suppression. Where individual thought is forbidden and only Big Brother, the totalitarian leader, is allowed to reason and make decisions. The story revolves around Winston Smith, an employee of the Ministry of Truth, which operates in keeping with its motto that “Ignorance is Strength.” His job is to search old newspapers and other records for facts, then delete or “unfact” those that are politically inconvenient in the eyes of Big Brother. Winston is well-skilled at “doublethink,” which he defines as being “conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies…consciously to induce unconsciousness.” Completing the political realities of this society are the Thought Police – secret police that monitor and punish any “thoughtcrime” rejected by the Party. The citizens of Oceania know they are being watched, but no longer know how to care. Except for Winston, who starts to question these actions and writes down unauthorized information in a diary.

Thinking about the recent celebration of EDSA, it was not much of a leap to imagine a similar situation of “doublethink” working in some version of Oceania’s Ministry of Truth, gliding through the fake news that circulate through social media in our time.
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The Feast at Barangay Bagontapay

Nonfiction by | January 29, 2017

The news that someone had gotten into a motorcycle accident at Bagontapay Crossing, two kilometers away from our house, reached our neighborhood a few minutes after it happened. It was just after the second power outage that day. I was sitting in our terrace when Ante Doday, who lives across our house, walked toward our rusty pink gate and casually informed me about the accident. She is a wellspring of information in our area, spending most of her day sitting on a wooden bench attached to her small sari-sari store and talking to customers who dish out the stories.

Bagontapay Crossing, where the “roundball” or traffic circle is located, became an accident prone area after its construction. According to my father, who had worked in the road construction, the original road junction – three triangle islands – was safer because of its limited size and intricate course that slowed down the vehicles. It’s interesting how we, taga-Bagontapay and other nearby places, call the roundabout, “roundball.” I guess it is because of the circular concrete wall that looks like a big wishing well in the middle of the intersection. This also reminds me of how we call the sickle, “cycle,” because, again, maybe of the rotating movements of the hand when cutting long grass.

After hearing the news, I remained still in my seat, just waiting for my parents to come home from work. Because it happens all the time, news of the accident didn’t bother me. Unless, of course, I know the person involved or it happens in a very strange way like that time a husband was caught by his wife early in the morning in another woman’s house at the market. I was more worried about how I would spend the remaining one month of my long school break before I go back to Davao City for enrolment. In fact, I couldn’t wait to be a second year college student.
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Davao Writers Workshop 2016: Learning Once More

Nonfiction by | January 22, 2017

November 30, 2016 was a holiday commemorating Andres Bonifacio’s heroism as usual, but for me, it seemed as if I went to my first day of class in a bigger classroom. That was the day I took off my hat as a teacher and put on the uniform of a student again for five humbling days.

The Davao Writers Workshop (DWW) 2016 served as my fast-paced, short course in Creative Writing. Everything happened in a snap from the time I submitted my manuscript with high hopes (as if I were submitting my school requirements) until the time I received the acceptance e-mail. Reading “Congratulations” really took me to Cloud Nine, as if I had won a prize. In fact, they said I had won a “fellowship.” At that point I wasn’t quite sure what it meant, but I told myself, This is it! I am ready to learn again.

Bringing along my backpack, I went to our “classroom,” The Big House: A Heritage Home in Juna Subdivision. When I finally met my “classmates” for that workshop, I realized they were fourteen diverse people coming from different parts of Mindanao.  Most of them were college students and two fellow teachers, Deejay Maravilla from Dapitan and Jet Paclar from Cagayan de Oro. Just like me, they also set aside their red pens and they were eager to learn from the pros. Despite our diversity of culture, age, and gender, it did not hinder me from relating to them and building rapport especially with my roommates, Krizza Udal and Emmylou Layog who were both senior college students. We were the only females in the group. It reminded me that learning and teaching is indeed a cycle–I may be a teacher by profession but during the workshop, we were all students.

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Caught in the Middle

Nonfiction by | January 15, 2017

Whenever we talk about Marcos in the family, I do not hear stories of disgust or condemnation especially from my mother and father. Because of this, I grew up neither hating nor loving Ferdinand Marcos.

My father had a firsthand experience of the war in Mindanao during Martial Law in the late 70s and early 80s. His family was one of the bakwit, evacuees who transferred from one place to another to avoid armed conflict. Their community in Kiamba, Sarangani Province (back then Sarangani had not yet been declared a separate province of South Cotabato) became one of the war zones in the SOCSKSARGEN region. Thousands of families were displaced and many young Muslims joined the fighting. Because he could not anymore tolerate the injustices they had experienced in the hands of the Ilaga, the Christian paramilitary group tasked to purge Mindanao of Muslims, my father enlisted in the Black Shirt movement. By joining the Muslim militia, he helped avenge his fellow Moro brothers and sisters who had been killed by the Ilaga and the military.

As my father shared this war story, I was waiting for him to blame Pres. Marcos for it. But he put more emphasis on the effects of intense militarization and the chaos it brought to their lives. I wondered what their leaders had indoctrinated in them that their view of the war seemed only on the surface.

This sentiment is similar to what I heard when we interviewed Moros who had been victims of Martial Law. The Transitional Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) assigned our group to make a documentary film on Moro issues. We visited various places in Mindanao to interview Moros and Lumad who experienced marginalization through land dispossession, historical injustices, and human rights violations. In one of our interviews, we visited Malisbong in Palimbang, Sultan Kudarat, which was one of the greatly affected places during Martial Law, and talked to the survivors of what is known as the Malisbong massacre.

As the survivors recalled, soldiers and officers of the 15th and 19th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine military carried out search-and-destroy missions around the coastal villages in Palimbang. The thundering sound and explosion of bombs and cannons overwhelmed the community, destroying public and private properties.
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On Meranaw, Mindanawon Writing

Nonfiction by | December 25, 2016

Bismillah. Assalaamu ‘alaykum.

My name is Diandra-Ditma Macarambon. I am a Mindanawon. I write. Or, at least, I try to. And, that makes me a Mindanawon writer. But, really, what is the Mindanawon writer? Or who is the Mindanawon writer?

I was raised in the Islamic City of Marawi; I spent most of my adult years there as well. Marawi is a place distinct from any other place. It’s very different from its nearest neighbor, Iligan City. I remember my father saying that, from any other city in the Philippines, when one reaches Marawi, it is as though one has reached a different country or even a different planet, he joked. Now that I’m older and “wiser”, I know that he was right. Marawi is a special place and it has definitely shaped me into the person that I am today.

Marawi, obviously, is part of Muslim Mindanao (or the part of Mindanao whose population is generally Muslim) and this fact has really influenced me in so many ways. Of course, we all know that one embodies the culture in which s/he is raised. I am no different. I am not just a Mindanawon, I am not just a Muslim Filipino, I am a Meranaw. And, my being a Meranaw differentiates me from others. Not in a special or superior way, no, but in terms of traditions and practices. I belong to a family that sticks to and honors the traditional ways of the Meranaw. In everything that I do, I am this way. And, of course, even in writing, I am a Meranaw.

Now, being a Meranaw writer and accepting that I, we, as Meranaws, are different from others, does that mean that I write differently, too? Are my works limited to the Meranaw experience? But, then, a question comes to mind, is the Meranaw experience really that unique? Say, compared to the Mindanawon experience as a whole?
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