Writing in Hindustan

tour bus

I was on a bus in India, staring back at a little girl with the blackest eyes.

Not black like death, but abyssal; pools of deep wonder staring back at me. Nothing else.  These black pools belonged to a small round face, which had a flat, round button for a nose, and a rose bud for a mouth. Black tendrils of corkscrew curls framed this orbital face. She looked no older than five. Her kurta, so tiny it looked like she had worn her doll’s dress, was red and faded as the earth.

Her curls bounced up and down and so did her tiny ball of a head as our bus—this rickety pile of metal and wood with a 3rd-hand engine and four wheels—bounced and rocked its way down a #####-mile highway of rocks and pebbles. Her eyes though, those abyssal black pools, remained as steady and fixed on me as a placid lake. A tiny thumb was lodged inside her tiny mouth, like it belonged there.

The bus screeched to a halt, throwing most of us forward. I squeezed my eyes shut for a few seconds and blinked them a few more times. I glanced outside the window, my gaze lost out into the dark nothingness of night. I tried to peer through the thick clouds of smog, the dark layers of night, for any mere indication of current location. My watch said 4:30 in the morning, which meant I had been riding through Hindustan for over five hours now.

An infant, the round-eyed little girl’s sibling, started to cry.

What am I doing here?

The question blared at me for the tenth time since I plopped on that torn seat. It was a literal question and less of an existential one, though I knew there would be no escaping the latter for long.

Our driver, this frail little man with three layers of clothes on, jumped out to inspect the engine, muttering words I’d never understand. The baby’s crying grew into full-on wailing. The person behind me was kicking my seat, restless. My temples began to throb.

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Here is a festival that, in the midst of all the eating, dancing and merrymaking, takes the celebration deep into the heart of its land and people; looking no further beyond its own landscape, its own culture and traditions — simply because there is no need to yearn nor venture beyond. 

 A festival that celebrates the joy of living — not in excess, but in sufficiency and simplicity; a life of contentment so rare, one that can only be cultivated from an awareness of nature’s bounty, its own finiteness, and a sense of connection to the earth.

An excerpt from the last documentary script I wrapped up (finally hallelujiah!). I don’t normally post my professional or income-generating material here but this is one that somehow felt quite personal and meaningful. Hold on, don’t they all? But yes, this last shoot I had for work was quite a refreshing and enlightening experience—perhaps because it was an in-your-face answer to my recent queries and dilemmas about sociocultural issues, particularly on the prevailing disregard for inherent potential and the existence of thriving systems—a norm in lesser developed societies such as ours.

Yes, this is still about Sorsogon.

And Kasanggayahan means life of prosperity, in the Bicol dialect.

Ode to the gentle sea-oaf

Original lyrics in Bikolano, as written by Carol Bello of Pinikpikan (now Kalayo):

dakula na isda

diin ka

gusto kitang mahiling

butanding, butanding

tahanan mo ang buong dagat

animo ika’y nakangiti


di makupad

dakula na isda


umaawit ang puso ko


makadaupang palad

mo ako

And my own meager translation in English:

O great fish

where are you

i seek you

butanding, butanding

the entire ocean is your home

there you are, smiling

gentle but not weak

oh great fish 

my soul sings

each time

you cross my path

So, more good stuff from Sorsogon, yes.

Butanding (Rhincodon typus) is the native name for the whale shark, which thrives in the waters of Donsol, Sorsogon.  The name, as affectionate and cajoling as it sounds, was born from a phrase of annoyance and exasperation. Buta, meaning blind in the native Bikol tongue, was the initial impression of local fisherfolk who would find their nets and fixtures ruined by the massive fish. To be specific, the expression would usually go like, “Butan-ding ini!”, which simply translates to, “This blind $%@! aargh!” And naturally, a massive fish (the largest recorded at 20 metres long) with a massive mouth (measuring up to 1.5 metres) with a seemingly destructive nature could only be perceived as deadly, carnivorous and as dangerous as JAWS. But, after more careful study by marine biologists and conservation groups, the verdict was that this giant sea-pest is in fact, a non-aggressive fish with a picky appetite only for microscopic sea organisms like krill and plankton. Like this guy:

Since then, efforts have been in progress to educate locals (and tourists) about the nature and proper treatment of this mild mannered oaf of a fish. It is, indeed, classified as fish and not a whale. With this, the quiet obscure town of Donsol turned into a tourist sensation overnight, offering seasonal whale shark tour events and packages and whatnot. The IUCN still includes it in its Red List of Threatened Species with a rating of Vulnerable.

Nonetheless, I can only imagine how overwhelming the experience of swimming close to this creature must be like. I missed a chance this last time I was in Sorsogon, as the roads to Donsol were simply un-passable and we had not the luxury of time. But, I do like to believe that there is a right time for everything and seriously hope to be ready when the time comes, if it comes. Various accounts of close encounters with the butanding have been honestly and seriously described as beyond overwhelming—to the point of existential and metaphysical. One of my superiors and mentors cites his experience of being underwater with the massive fish as the most humbling and overwhelming moment in his entire life (which has been a long and fruitful one), further describing that moment as immensely peaceful and calm, and if he were to die at that very moment he felt ready and knew he would happily.

The song above, by one of the more ingenious music bands in the Philippines, depicts this humbling feeling and existential experience. An excerpt from the artist’s description and story of the song:

“[…] A gentleness that goes beyond understanding seeps through every pore of my skin. Up the boat and I feel one with the wind. The sky so clear, I hear myself breathing. I can die at that moment and not know fear. One of nature, not apart or above. Natural high. Total meditative state. Each one content with life. Every time we perform this song, we relive the commune with the butanding.” 

And if that experience is not beautiful, I don’t know what is.

And, if you love scientific illustrations like I do, you can knock your socks off on this Tumblr blog. While I’m at it, here are all their whale shark illustrations. Enjoy.

Bicol: Riddle Me Food

An ama cantor, an ina cantora, nag aki princesa pula an bituka.

= Bunay.

The father is a singer, the mother is a singer, they had a daughter with red intestines. 

= (chicken) egg

Biclaton garu payong, tikomon garu dagom.

= Janit

Open and it’s an umbrella, closed and it’s a needle. 

= Gabi leaf

Manok ko sa kadlagan, namumula sa kaisugan. 

= Lada

My cock in the forest is red with anger. 

= Red hot chilli pepper

After spending some time in the province of Sorsogon, one of 6 in the Bicol Region in the Philippines, I’ve grown a fondness for the language. Particularly because of its complexity; the Bikolano dialect is broken down to 4 sub-dialects (Northern, Southern, Northern Catanduanes, Inagta-Rinconada). To digress, the Province of Sorsogon is home to 4 languages, distinguished either by one of the Bikol region languages (divided further into 2 subgroups) or Central Visayan.

(Edited, 22 Oct): What makes Sorsoganon language particularly complex is a matter of geography. Sorsogon, on the southermost tip of Luzon, is where the cultures of Bicol and Visayas intersect. The tongue is, indeed, Bikolano, but possesses the most Visayan words in all of the provinces outside the Visayan region next to Masbate.

And because Bikolanos (and Sorsoganons) proudly eat, think, talk, breathe food on clockwork, it is only apt that their riddles would be mostly about food.

Dear Düsseldorf

Chiara and Anna: travel buddies since 1992

Greetings from Düsseldorf. And 1992. And Mini Me.

“I never want to go back to Germany.”

Was what I had told my mother, arms crossed in defiance, stubbornly not budging. A large fuzzy beret and round oversized specs covered my face but failed to hide the angry steely gaze I was giving my mother. Tiny, barely 7 years and 4 feet tall, and sitting on top of a suitcase, not so different from a squirrel guarding a basket of nuts. Around this time my mother was livid and fuming, towering over me, and the next few hours of lectures and disciplinary action are now as hazy and grainy as the image above.

But I still remember. The feeling of dread, counting days and marking calendars, sending postcards to everyone back home including my dogs and the personnel at my favourite grocery. It is true: I was miserable in Germany. As far as childhood memories go, I can’t remember another time when I ever did count days until the moment of departure. And all the years since that (Asian) summer, the main association I carried with me about the place called Germany was a bad childhood memory. Until recently.

Anna, dear cousin and first-ever travel buddy, sent me the above photo via iMessage last night. She remembers a whole lot more than I do about our time in Europe. She was 11.

The truth is, it wasn’t all that horrible. It was here I first learned the joy of Haribo and how much fun it was to be a kid on Easter Sunday—all the free chocolate rabbits and liquor-filled chocolate eggs. This was the first time I was allowed to drink cola (as it had lemon, woohoohoo) and explore the ‘woods’ (otherwise the backyard) to search for squirrels. It was here I first nearly lost myself in awe and ecstasy when Mom took us to the Natural History Museum, as well as the time we tagged along on her dinner meeting at the Günnewig Rheinturm on the Rhine Tower, 240 metres above the ground (“Wow! are we also going to meet The Jetsons?”). This was also where and when I had my first encounter with primetime girly shows and TV porn—I just didn’t know it yet (“Wait, why do the girls dance and then take off their shirt?”). So much for parental guidance and adult supervision, yes. Overall, it was fun and we enjoyed being kids.

So, why the bad memories and negative association?

First of all, nothing horrible ever actually happened. No real mishaps or accidents—except for some encounters with bald Neo-Nazis and when a younger kid threw a fossil rock at me whilst cave-exploring and the same kid knocked me over on a heater, but otherwise everything was dandy. My mom’s primary purpose was to attend a conference for disability organisations and chaperone a band of 12 musical artists in wheelchairs called, The Rondalla in Wheels, for a concert. From the moment we arrived until our departure, we were attended to, entertained, and cared for by generous hosts. We lived with a family, which had opened their home to us for an entire month. To suddenly live in a house full of strangers, in a country so cold my fingernails would turn blue and where the people sounded funny and I understood not a single word, to move according to different sets of rules from so many different people, to grow familiar to intimate spaces yet ever-so aware of never owning, never belonging—the feeling of impermanence constantly hovering like a nimbus cloud. The sheer pleasure of newness and discovery—tickling the senses with every unfamiliar sight, smell, taste, sound—for an extended duration which only had a vague expiration and an even vaguer future (we were to continue to other parts of Europe, all just as foreign and unfamiliar) fused with a lingering feeling of homesickness and a sense of adaptation which only introduced the concept of detachment, of immersion without sinking and drowning in attachment—and the pain of loss and displacement.

At seven years old, in a freezing land where everything seemed so exciting yet so pale and unfamiliar, I discovered another place—one which existed outside my comfort zone.

Twenty years hence, I finally understand the incomprehensible emotions of disorientation, displacement and disillusion, and the spawning of a coping mechanism so reliable even in my adulthood. And twenty years hence, I say: *Thank you, Germany. For being the first to show me what was outside the comfort zone, for spawning an insatiable addiction which seems to have no cure except for discomfort and constant motion. *Thank you, Germany, for scaring me shitless and shaking the brat out of me and forcing me to learn to adapt to strangeness and that, if all else fails, there is always a chocolate rabbit. Or another squirrel outside the window.

And, twenty years hence, I need not take back the things I felt about you except for the part about never seeing you again—but I cross my fingers and toes because I fear to jinx and because the thought that my not-so-distant-future rests in your horizon is just still rather surreal. Though I reckon, if perhaps you had just introduced me to your beer that first time around, we might’ve actually gotten along. But that is another thing to anticipate, right?

*My early attempts to say it in your mother tongue didn’t quite make it further than ‘Dunkin’, sorry.


Dear Manila

The air is cool and calm.

The only sound that breaks the stillness is the one of sleep.

Outside is a blanket of darkness. The skies have that hazy shade, a mix of night and dawn–somewhere between yesterday and tomorrow. I spy a glimpse of the moon’s better half from its hiding. 

A faint lace of steam tickles the air from my coffee cup, seductively slow, briefly pausing to tease. The warm aroma is playfully enticing and comforting. 

I should be writing a script on Leyte for a travel show.

Leyte – that Visayan province blessed with the most breathtaking, jaw-dropping, cliché adjective-inducing vistas of nature and, at the same time, cursed with being the eye of every storm and typhoon’s wrath. Where kilometers and hours of rice paddies, pineapple plantations, mountains, and coconut trees feel like infinity–and a comatose nature-lover’s wet dream. The place where food is wrapped in banana leaves or in a coconut shell and best enjoyed with your hands; where everything is like a walk-in-the-park away, or for some, a leisure bike ride. Longer than that would still bring tears of joy to the regular trekker. The place where the language sounds like melodic cajoling and terms of endearment, even when they’re cussing and bickering. The place where, just like nearly every other province in the Philippines, each town has a party to celebrate anything and everything–from the sun to the harvest moon to the swarming bees–and sum up all those into one giant fiesta where people paint their bodies and dance on the streets—all day long. 

Leyte – where I discovered my roots and my family’s buried stories, where complete strangers recognised my name and my mother’s and her mother’s and others in a family tree that has long been chopped down and forgotten. In Leyte, there is a city named Ormoc and somewhere in this city are hectares and hectares of land and forests that, according to locals, belongs to my family (or once did). The mayor of this city, upon meeting me, asked me about the mystery behind this. I simply said, with a shrug, that I was just as mystified. It is, after all, my first time to set foot on this island. 

And as we (the crew and I) return to the car to take the long drive to the next city, several kilometres of farmlands framed by coconut trees whip past me. Every nanosecond glimpse of lush vegetation equates to a question mark. Could that be the one, could that be ours? My gaze is met by a man standing on the side of the road, waiting to cross and for our car to fly past, one hand on a rope tied to a massive gray carabao. And in that split second I see my grandfather’s face staring back at me, his soft eyes wide and round against the sunlight, his palm wiping the beads of sweat from his forehead. His shoulders are broad and square and he stands straight and tall, the horned beast at his side looking meek and small.  

And I still remember his stories. Of a farm, far away from my home, with fields where I could run till exhaustion and trees I could climb and hide from my mother. Where I could finally learn to ride a bike, or a horse, or–on a good day–a carabao. This was that wonderful place I would try to depict in classroom drawings—green grassy plains guarded by two majestic mountains, a yellow smiling sun rising (or setting) in between. This was where he was for the rest of the year, until December when he would travel all the way to Manila on a boat, to remind me to leave a cup of steaming hot chocolate and ripe mangoes for Santa Claus on Christmas eve (coincidentally his favourite) and wake me up at the break of dawn to have a look at what the white bearded, fat bellied old man left for me under the tree (and the empty mug of hot chocolate on the table). Then one day, several months away from Christmas, he appeared on our doorstep with a mountain of bags and suitcases and boxes at his feet. One hand clutched a cage at his side, the nose of a furry brown guinea pig peeking between the metal grills. This was his last present to me from Ormoc. He never left our home, and Manila, since that day—until his death a decade later. 

And that’s just about the most I know of this place that my family once called home. Memories that aren’t even my own, fragments of images pieced from my grandfather’s wistful musings in moments of bittersweet nostalgia. So, I reckon, I did speak the truth when I answered the city mayor. Surreal –would be the word to start describing the wave of emotions and thoughts washing over me as I stood in the middle of a night market, a slice of roast pork proudly being handed to me, encircled by a large group of eager and friendly folk from the city tourism office, a large camera watching every second. And surreal would describe the answer to the words, “Welcome Home.” 

I did not want to leave. I wanted to stay behind, tell the team to go on ahead and leave without me, return to Manila and explain to our executive producers that I didn’t reach the plane, that I would write the script faster and better from where I was—on a bamboo cottage floating on the calm waters of Lake Danao, nibbling on fresh fern we call pa-ko, or that piece of heaven wrapped in banana leaves, made of finely ground sticky rice and cacao called mo-ron. (Both have the emphasis on the second syllable)

Tell them that I am in a better place. That I am, finally, home.  

But that did not happen. I write this, in the first hours of the day, in the same city I’ve called home since I was born. And I write this, instead of the long required script about a place I fell in love with and didn’t want to leave behind. Not because I had nothing to say or no idea where to start. I write this because, for the life of me, I wonder why I have no fucking clue why I keep coming home to you. I write this because the questions keep getting louder and have flooded my mind to confused distraction. 

The roar of a jeepney angrily breaks the silence. As if on cue, a cock crows and the sound pierces the air. Somewhere on the other side of my apartment walls, a metal pan falls on the floor, the loud clang resonates and permeates through the thick concrete. A few seconds later, the pained shriek of an infant, followed by the angry yells exchanged by adults. A dog barks in alarm, heralding a chorus of barking and howls echoing throughout the streets until godknowswhere. 

Hello, today. Hello, Manila.

Actually, the question is not why do I come home to you. The question is, why do I stay?

From navigating your streets, regardless of distance, to boarding or alighting the railway system is a constant process of negotiation and a daily battle for many. I need not elaborate on the details of dodging both vehicular and human traffic and the uniformed officer waiting at the corner whom we prefer to call bayawak (crocs), or how we look away when we pass an outstretched hand or the murky waters of a certain river and beach our great-grandparents once waded in.  

You are, my dear city–in every meaning of the word–difficult. A friend described, in one of our never-ending discussions about the pains of this place, that the only way to survive and somehow appreciate Manila is to grab it by the horns—and just ride it. 

And perhaps, somewhere amidst the clouds of smog and homicidal traffic and desensitized poverty, if one manages to slice through the tension, one gets a glimpse of your heart and soul, beating ever so strongly. You are struggling, you are fighting, and maybe you’ve grown exhausted, butI know, I really do—you are ALIVE. 

And this is why your people stay. This is why we stay. This is why, even as I tread seamlessly through the ascetic streets of a foreign city—one that smells ever so seductively of success and stability and the MONEY you can never seem to give me no matter how hard I try—I miss you. That while I murmur in relief and pleasure that I am far, far away from the chaos and dangers of your streets, which I could never march on with the same liberation as a woman as I do in this first world city; a sudden montage of brightly-coloured jeepneys, the kaleidoscopic flurry of blinking parols (Christmas lanterns), and that fat wide-eyed smiling orange-striped bee waving a fried chicken drumstick flashes through my mind. There is a strong pang in my chest; how the fuck can I not miss you. When I hop on a bus that I know would be arriving at this precise minute, or when I sit back comfortably on the leather seats of a pandan-fragrant taxi, why do I suddenly have this yearning to hear at any given moment, the words “Kailangan bang i-memorize yaaaaaan?”  blaring through the radio speakers? And during those rare occurrences that public transportation might suffer technical malfunction and delay some ten-twenty minutes, I look at this sea of non-smiling faces suddenly wrinkled with expression, that of anger and impatience, pounding on their touchscreens—and my eyes lock with another whose expression  mirrors mine: amusement. We both know it. We come from the same place: yours. We both laugh. 

Manila, the drumming of your pulse beats loud and strong and reaches until the opposite side of the world. We hear your call, from the deepest corners or highest peak we might be standing on. And we always come home to you, one way or another and for various reasons. You are difficult, you are dangerous, you are exhausting. But you are different—no way on earth is there a city exactly like you. You have character (too much sometimes), you are witty and clever, and your craze is addictive. You are fun and exciting and mysterious rolled into one evening. You keep me on the edge of my seat, especially when you are quiet, and for that I am never bored. And each day, you remind me why loneliness does not exist and give me the answers to the question “Why?” without me asking. 

So you see, Manila, how could I not love you?