August 23, 2018

Tuba

Over gallons and gallons of tuba ---the quintessentially popular Filipino beverage made out of palm or coconut trees--- I once in a while congregate with some friends from the neighborhood. I am not really so inclined to wallow on the native wine but lately, I had the keenest desire to socialize with the people I know just across the street and thus, I had grown fonder and fonder of the bittersweet taste of tuba every time I went out and join the men from the neighborhood. I wasn't as outgoing as I am now before where I usually stay indoor even during the weekends, reading piles of magazines and newspapers with the television always blaring in the living room.

But once about six months ago, a familiar face from our vicinity invited me to a birthday celebration and there were just a lot of drinking that day and then I tasted tuba as the tip of my tongue felt the rich saccharine quality of the beverage that went with a touch of savory bitterness at the end. Not that it was the first time that I have tasted the native drink. When I was in college, I clearly remember one sojourn into the mountainside just outside the city limits and during a stopover to a very small but neat sari-sari store, we were offered to buy a gallon of fresh tuba just newly taken out of the palms of the coconut tree just standing by that store. One of my companions was very adventurous that day and so we sat down to finish about two gallons of tuba. The first time I tasted it, I thought it was so smooth to the taste and so cool as it enters the mouth. There was one problem for me though about the drink---the smell is a little bit overpowering especially when you already have more than what you should be drinking.

But now, I can easily ignore the stench. Perhaps, one can get used to it through some time and become oblivious to the smell completely. One of my friend from the neighborhood once declaimed that tuba is the grape wine of the Philippines, that by drinking it, we somehow recollect a part of the life of  Jesus Christ, where in the past He had often convened with His disciples through bottles and bottles of grape wine. I responded quite positively to this very keen observation from a friend and I said that maybe, if  Christ indeed were born in our country, He would have enjoyed the exotic taste of tuba.

Tuba is actually constituted by fermenting the sap extracted from the palm leaves of coconut trees. It is the beverage of choice among the people from the lowlands as well as the hinterlands---the farmers, the fishermen, the laborers and even the tricycle drivers. You could say it is the condiment that soothes the ailing bodice of the masses, the magical wine that inspires the laborer to labor for more and the rural lover to serenade more ardently and sing more ballads, with gusto, while the moon is so full at twilight time.

Through this magical wine, I have known many new friends that speak to me and relate to me like they have known me for a thousand years. We converse at times of some vacuous things in life, some foolishness of youth, about some fleeting things like love and lovers, even of such frivolous things as the number of stars in the sky, and we became gleeful somehow of these fleeting things and our laughters resonate through the windy atmosphere of our neighborhood. But sometime, we talk of the more salient part of life, like the families we are responsible for, the children we rear and educate as well as the harshness of the economy and the stinging effect of rising prices to our shallow pockets.

Lustre Street, if you could only observed more closely, is a cornucopia of everyday reality. Some part of the neighborhood consists of the better-positioned in life with their houses newly-painted while they parade their classy automobiles as they pass by us. In the larger portion of the community dwells the more humble inhabitants and even the poorer ones, as small wooden houses outnumber the large ones by a ratio of fifty to one. Most of my friends are carpenters and masons while others drive the pedicab and some sell fish in the market. And then there are some of them who take their daily bread by carrying sacks and sacks of copra over their very young bodies, day-in and day-out. I have learned that a laborer in the port area earns only about fifty pesos after carrying sacks and sacks of load for almost a day. I find these situation so sad and regrettable. I wonder if the fifty pesos would suffice to answer the cost of food on the table, the fare to workplaces and for the education of their children. I guess, not. I guess they could not do anything but accept the lack of so many things in life. And I guess, with tuba on hand, they often cure the tiredness of their swollen muscles and empty stomachs through gallons and gallons of it, as if the native drink is the narcotic that relieves all the pains of poverty.

And then there are those who just do not have any form of permanent livelihood, who merely stands by the street while waiting for some opportunity for work. They often ask if somebody needed to have the grasses cut in their lawns or if they needed repairs on their toilets. They are often still so young to carry copra at the port area or whose frailty in physique is not as virile fit for a port laborer.

Even those friends I have who are accomplished carpenters and masons, they often complain that many times, work is harder to find. A group of them---Nonoy, Dan and Erwin---had just finished six-month worth of construction work on a plea market but now, they have gone for almost two weeks without work, and of course without any income for their households. Nyor Tony and another Dan on the one hand are still waiting for a certain Peter to arrive from out-of-town in order for their work on a bungalow within the neighborhood to resume. They too had not worked for many weeks. Toti and Paco have been contracted for some painting jobs just once a week and so they still have a problem where to source their daily bread during the rest of the week. Dodong was luckier. He had found employment in a government project in Barangay Ayala and pay is more than average.

Often, the people I know in the neighborhood paints the whole picture of hardship and constant struggle by the Filipino people at present where even those who are willing to work upon harsh conditions still could not find work. Even for carpenters and masons, the opportunity to find the means of livelihood is still very difficult, like threading the very small eye of a needle. Where in the world our country had gone too? To the dogs? There is a sort of panic in my mind thinking how many of our fellow countrymen have long endured the harshness of poverty and lack of opportunity. If only our senators and congressmen, jueteng lords, tycoons, hardware owners, the cabinet members, the President herself, the big business people, the bankers, the mayors and the governors, the political strategists, the U.S. envoys, the ambassadors, the mall owners, the manufacturers and the lot could even just for one day see for themselves first hand, upon close inspection and somehow experience the difficulties many of our countrymen suffers everyday, every time the sun rises from the east and settles in the west, then perhaps they would stop all their follies, all their bickering like who has the bigger pork barrel and who has lesser. If they could only fully comprehend the extent of our people's suffering, then maybe they'd all become less greedy and not full of self-interest as they are right now, as suddenly they would be patriotic and altruistic enough to help alleviate the plight of the poor amongst us, not next year or next month, but now, this moment, ahora mismo!

And so with my carpenter friends who sometimes have work and most of the time logging around and walking about because work is not at hand, I just said to them once that I wish there would be more buildings to be constructed, more houses to be built, more roads to be paved, more walls to be painted, more sand and gravel to be melded and more cement to be poured. By then, they can have work almost all the time.

August 15, 2018

Technicolor Winged Horse

Once I had asked my grandfather about my grandmother's weakness and general immobility. He told me that it was indeed because of a disease that afflicted her and that she would not be able to speak so well anymore. What I really wanted to asked him was why she would scream at times into the midnight that everyone in the house would be awaken. What kind of disease would let one scream into the night was the thing I wanted to inquire upon. But as a toddler, I bet there are things that we do not even know how to ask, when vocabulary would not be enough to elucidate our inquiry. Everytime she was attacked by such "disease", Uncle Mameng and the servants would come and help my grandfather calmed her down, to reassure her that everything was all right. She was always murmuring about some person she was afraid of; a one she calls "the jinn".

"There are no jinns. You are just imagining" my grandpa always assured her while she would lay there wide-eyed and trembling. From the looked on her eyes, pity was the natural thing I could feel for her. She was like a child afraid of something.

"I have checked the whole house and there was no Jinn around" my uncle would add to further reassure her.

At times the attacked on her nocturnal sleep would be so serious enough that in the stillness of the dawn, we would packed the necessities and head for the hospital, staying there for nearly a week every time.

At such a young age, my grandmother's predicament affected me so much that I had always hoped then that I was already grown up and be able to help her, wishing earnestly to appease her. Those dreams of flying had made me somehow distant from her, a little bit wary of her and somewhat disturbed that the winged old woman in my dreams somehow looked like her. And yet, I felt so much for her. Besides those were merely dreams.

Once I decided to investigate the cause or causes of the "weakness" of my grandmother. I was relatively confident that I would find some answers however tender my mind at that time. It was in the apartment's bathroom with its yellow darkened light and perpetual wet floor that she had pointed to be the place where she had seen the "jinn". The bathroom had malfunctioning equipment that always had that pungent smell typical of aging lavatories, full of slime and fungi stuck to walls and corners giving it a dark green shadow all over, from the floor to the ceiling. What augments the general dimness was the decision of the household to put a bulb of the weakest power that even at daytime, I would always feel like it was already midnight whenever I enter it. There was desperation written all over it that anyone who went into the toilet would realize immediately that it was a place where the smell would remain even if best efforts to clean it up would be undertaken.

As I relieved myself, I tried to stay longer when the apartment was quiet and everyone was either asleep in the afternoon or were out for work. I examined the ceilings for some clue and stared at the walls for holes and cavities to where the jinn might be hiding. When I convinced myself at that time that there would be no such signs of the unknown being, I stepped back and headed for the door. As I turned my head, suddenly I saw in the corner of my left eye a huge shadow of a man that goes from the floor towards the ceiling, the shape of its head folding into the surface of the ceiling. The hairs at the back of my head stood up and I felt my skin trembled. Despite such apparent terror however, I gathered all of my strength to focus my stare into the wall but the shadow was not there anymore. I went quickly outside and found the afternoon very still as usual.

I went to the garden in the front yard where I usually enjoyed my solitariness when the sun was readying to fall towards sunset and played in the gardens, picking some leaves and mangling some stems. My cousins would be asleep in that hour of the afternoon while I did not developed such habit, allowing me so much time alone to play with whatever my mind could think of. As I put some stones into holes that I have previously dug in the ground, I pondered upon the shadow in the toilet. Was it the shadow of the "jinn"? It was a huge being I thought and the image of the shadow was vivid enough that I was able to surmise that it wore a g-string garment on its body and had a strip of clothe wrapped around its head while its hair was shoulder length, like an ancient warrior. He must have held spears and knives but such things did not appear to me.

I kept on digging holes and putting stones and coins into them and then covering back the holes, ironing out the surface to look as if the soil were never disturbed. Such was the kind of solitary games I played. I have reckoned then so early in my life, when I dug up the stones and coins the day after, that plants and trees could grow from the ground and flowers multiply too; but stones and money would not.

I had perhaps had a very strong desire to tell my grandfather about the shadow but somehow I did not had enough inclination to put them into words while my grandmother kept wailing in the middle of the night every now and then. Then after a while, her predicament eased towards serenity that she just stared and sat in her rocking chair until she died in the hospital one day while I was looking after her. My Aunt Julpa cried first and asked me what have I done that she died. Of course, I did not know what to say but her asking was etched so much into my mind that every now and then I would ask myself if indeed I had done something to hasten her death. But as I child that I was then, the disturbance of Aunt Julpa's inquiry just faded into memory till now that I earnestly attempt to recollect those events so far into my childhood.

There were a lot of card games played while the family was mourning the death of Hadja Dayhana and the smell of brewed coffee permeated as the men would take turns in making the coffin. They were in jest as they kept on putting one up against each other about who is the better carpenter. My father attempted to drive a nail into its rightful place but the rest laughed that Salip Hussin could never become a sharp carpenter. This had somehow eased my apprehensions about Aunt Julpa the day before. Every one was in a light mood that everything must have been all right and done with. Dying in the latest of ages seemed to be most acceptable to all. But when my grandmother was finally rested to the ground, as the men held her body so gently and tucked her into the crevices of the ground, almost everyone was teary eyed and Aunt Julpa was even talking to my dead grandmother while we throw soil to cover the grave, about why she had to leave, about her being not able to come and visit her frequently. How could she talked to a dead person I thought? Would her cries and words be heard and not flow into the rural wind of Taluksangay? This had somehow recuperated the apprehensions I had about her.

There must something in my grandmother that gives spark and liveliness to the house that after she died, there was a gradual silencing of the household and everyone was more incline to frown, more inclined to be introspective that conversations became lesser and us children played lesser games, as if a great lonely shadow was cast over the household. If anybody missed her among the members of the house--including the servants--no one could tell, the least myself. It was the newfound serenity of the surroundings that everyday I had wished that all those who played card games in the mourning of my grandmother would come and played those card games again and again, to make the noise stifle the sadness of the gardens and of the front yards, to fill the air with coffee smell again and of rice cakes. But this was never so. And so in the afternoons, I kept playing in the garden, careful that the traces of stems mangled and flower picked would not be apparent enough less my Aunt Nene would call upon to inquire upon the suspects and then the guilty malefactor, which would be either one of my cousins or me. I went about to pretend that I was like the older men who did the coffin thinking that I might become a good carpenter, unlike my father. It was in sunny days that I loved to play alone in the yards when the air was a little yellowish and everything seemed to glow, like the image of those pictures not developed properly and everything in the picture would be bright yellow. I smelled the air and they were thick that almost I could see the wind swooping by, and caressing my hair so gently. I smelled such air so smoothly they seemed to be delicious, like chicken or chiffon cake thickly covered with butter. In one of those sunny afternoons, I had looked towards the sky and observed the sun. I tried to examine if the sun had come nearer towards the ground that everything looked brighter. And my mind got stoned when suddenly the clouds move so agile that a hole in the sky formed, like a gate opening. And then I saw a very colorful image coming into the center of the hole. What a beautiful kite it was I said that it had the bluest of blue and the greenest of all green. It was a horse with the head of a woman with its hand waving at me. A kite would not do such things I told myself. And the gate in the sky closed and the technicolor horse disappeared.

I wanted to ask my grandfather if kites could stare back and waved at us while in the sky but somehow, I did not ask anymore. It happened in those very early years where my vocabulary was not yet efficient to elucidate every thought I had then.

Tuba