I know you’re angry, Tumi.
Thinking that taking a shower is too much of a bother, I went out this morning at eight to look for breakfast in the same shirt and jeans I wore last night when I got lost in the middle of rain in District 3. But after realizing that I didn’t have the appetite, perhaps having a glass of iced coffee will kick my ass. It didn’t. I spent the next two hours reading the news and taking these pretentious pictures.
Good morning, Saigon.
Lunch was my next goal.
While jogging on a narrow road between rice paddies in Nghi Loc District, roughly 10 kilometers away from Vinh City, I noticed the simultaneous existence of traditional and modern ways of harvesting rice that are almost indifferent to each other’s presence. To my right was a giant harvesting machine operated by one man that cut the stems and separated the grains from the stalks in no time. To my left were two women, perhaps mother and daughter working on their narrow piece of land, cutting the stalks of their rice plants using sickles, a low-tech device that is proudly depicted along with a hammer (albeit both in golden hue) on flags that hung on every street in this Vietnamese countryside. This permutation of the communist party emblem alternated with the national flag, both utilizing the same intense red fabric that maintains its fastness despite the killer summer sun.
Yesterday, while in the middle of lunch, I heard a very loud pealing of bells. There was a commotion outside, and everyone in the village seemed to have congregated in front of the church carrying their rakes and metal dustpans. The people were scurrying to put their rice back into their sacks because of an impending heavy rain. Low-lying cumulonimbus clouds lent the sky a foreboding feel, signaling the start of the monsoon, finally concluding this dry spell which according to the villagers began sometime in February. The initial droplets of rain were very big, but the droplets of sweat falling from my forehead were much bigger as I saw myself joining the chorus of village people raking in the sufficiently dried rice grains.
We gathered the grains in mounds then scooped them as quickly as we could into the waiting sacks held by two people each, then those with substantial musculature (I stand out in the village because of my height and sheer mass; Vietnamese men on average are short and lean) carried them outside the door of the church away from the reach of destructive rain water that would render their much cared for rice unfit for human consumption.
This supposed display of altruism is a performance one would not find out of place in rural Philippines. Neighbors will help each other whether they liked it or not because they will have no one to run to but each other in events of not infrequent calamities that strike the countryside, away from the center where governments have much bigger influence on the conduct of people’s lives.
Except for occasional billboard announcements on controlling the size of family and extolling the virtues of having two children, the government is nearly invisible here. Of course one sees the national flag and the communist party’s, but like in other Third World countries, there is a certain proportionality to the reach of the government and the distance of the place from the economic and political centers of a country. Hanoi is 300 kilometers away; Ho Chi Minh City is roughly four times as far.
A farmer here is subject to the contingencies of the weather and relationships he has built with people around. One cannot have existentialist contemplations here (these thoughts require a degree of disinterest in the lives of others and demand putting the self in the center of one’s universe). One can’t be poor, with wife and children, and detached from everyone here all at the same time. Having nosey neighbors is a fact one has to contend with if he wants to continue existing.
And so we gathered all the sacks of rice, each color-coded so everyone knows which sack belongs to whom. It took the entire village less than 30 minutes to finish the task, each smiling contentedly, happy he’s served his neighbors.
I was happy knowing I could go back to having my lunch.
Three months back, before a friend of mine left for China, the two of us had a light talk like we always had been doing after we finished a day’s worth of work. We were walking on the cobblestones of Ateneo talking about the sorry state of the country and how the May-9 election would impact the lives of Filipinos, the poor most especially. Our sector [we’re both teaching in that university] doesn’t stand much to gain nor lose from the result of the election, I thought.
We both agreed that the vision of a Philippines under Duterte was bleak. That time, however, Grace Poe was still leading the surveys rather comfortably, and the odds of Duterte’s win weren’t that great. It was obvious there wasn’t much choice from among the five vying for the position. If I could vote, I would have voted for Mar Roxas. But I was a nonparticipant in this democratic process. And I defended so vehemently my choice of not participating. I found the whole process unnecessary and ineffectual. One vote fewer would not rock the boat.
Seeing and reading about Duterte on TV and on online news these days, I felt for the first time regret for not having cast my vote. Duterte is often seen and heard foaming with vice in the mouth. Although he hasn’t yet been sworn in, he’s already begun sowing a culture of anger.
He’s presently enjoying a high level of popularity because after many years of hypocrisy, seeing a president-elect cuss, drop putang ina instinctively, catcall a TV reporter without showing remorse is a novel experience for most of us. Most take it as a sign of sincerity and truthfulness to oneself, Duterte the polar opposite of politicians we’ve come to detest for their duplicity and avarice.
But one accepted fact of our time is that novelties tend to lose their newness rather quickly. It’s a wonder now how Duterte has continued to remain popular. Although the consuming public is beginning to show sign of fatigue seeing his face, his unrelenting braggadocio, and unapologetic tirade against anyone he feels like shaming only to declare the next day he was just kidding. Kidding my ass!
He’s a dangerous man on the cusp of sitting in the most powerful position in this land. My friend was right. There’s no virtue in nonparticipation.
It has become a routine for me now to borrow an old bike from an old woman living nearby and go around the neighborhood at 4:30 when the sun is not anymore as strong and the humidity already abated if only a little. Of course, I also take with me her conical hat because even though it’s already late in the afternoon, the sun can still do a lot of damage. I also have to don my wayfarers and apply a thick layer of sunblock lotion (of late I’ve been a little concerned about skin aging).
Going by bike makes me notice the vivid images of people and the landscape they invade. Although I think taking pictures along the way makes me miss some details, at some point I have to sacrifice a few moments if only to make permanent the fleetingness of moving images.
There is so much beauty in the transitoriness and the now-ness of these images, but this beauty hinges upon the fact that it is ephemeral. A camera, in our all too human desire to capture this transience, can only arrest a moment, which is a mere simulation of what the eyes see; this seeing in itself is a version of that beauty.
Funny how everything appears to be of the moment, now. And this attempt on permanence render the subject unbeautiful, almost grotesque.
A landscape like above is beautiful at the instance of being seen. The mediation made by the camera phone transforms it into a commonplace photograph unable to evoke anything but boredom.
Notice how the self impinges itself into any captured photo wherever and whenever there’s an opportunity.
When can this self be truly obliterated?