A conversation with a reader of my blog

I smiled when I saw my favorite table unoccupied. I placed a copy of Inquirer, a book by David Sedaris, a mangled paperback Crime and Punishment I started to reread two days ago, and a hardbound, original edition of Portnoy’s Complaint on that table and ordered a tumbler of cappuccino. I was 10 minutes early.

I sat there oblivious of the Saturday crowd at Starbucks in Shangri-la, unmindful of the noise and the cheerless chatter of people about their busy work week, concerns, and relationships.

Eavesdropping has lost its appeal on me a long time ago. Whatever transpires in conversations gleaned from overhearing them is dubitable, questionable, if not outright lies. So I shut my ears and went on reading features on the paper of the previous day instead.

Starbucks

Except for some occasional standard spiel, more like a refined scream, belted by a female barista at Starbucks for calling customers’ names, the noise inside the coffee shop was tediously repetitious whose monotonic quality was only shattered by loud laughter made by some people who got lost in the hilarity of their talks or the comedy of seeing other people forcing themselves inside a packed cafe on a supposedly fine Saturday evening drinking a dumb-looking transparent tumbler of iced robusta topped with an equally stupid-looking strawberry syrup.

I forgot how it happened but he came in rushing, placed the two books which I recognized as mine on the table and excused himself. He approached the counter to order something then returned with an unblushingly decadent cinnamon roll. I don’t know how he recognized me, probably because he saw his books stacked on top of the wooden round table.

A month ago, we exchanged books without having to see each other. I was doing a part-time job then so I left them with the condominium guard at the lobby. He also left his two books with the guard which I found inside a paper bag of a popular local clothing brand. Mine were carelessly presented with a note written on a tissue paper inserted between the pages apologizing for something I already forgot what. The contrast of our books was glaring. His were well taken care and looked almost brand new. Mine looked like they’ve been through a lot.

I do not usually lend my books because I am obsessed with annotations; whatever comes in my mind while reading (the more wicked, insensible, profane, self-deprecating or selfish they are, the better) I write them on the margins.  My books are my diaries. But it was already too late. I already made a promise to this reader the titles. After all, the probability of our paths crossing again in the future is miniscule, I reasoned. Furthermore, whatever he gathered from my random thoughts would be knotty at best and nonsensical at worst.  So I went on and lent them.

It was a fatal mistake.

We started awkward and talked about things he already knew about me. I asked him questions often asked in the first day of class. I was speaking in a clumsy Tagalog when he reminded me that we are both Ilonggos. He asked a lot of questions, as if he was trying to establish something. But generally our topic circled on writing and the books we read. For an accountant, I was surprised to know he reads canonical texts usually read in a Literature class. I didn’t get his reason for this but I sensed his disdain for whatever popish. I was amused at how he corrected himself and verbalized his contempt on his overuse of the adverbs ‘actually’ and ‘basically’ whenever he begins his sentence, as if the ghost of his college grammar teacher was seated beside him that time, hounding him.

Aren’t you scared?

Of what?

Of exposing so much of yourself in your writings?

Sometimes. There is nothing I have to hide. I am writing for myself.

I looked at my books that stayed with him for a month. I was horrified and almost fell from my seat. They were wrapped in transparent plastic cover. It was the last thing I would do to my books. The last time I remember covering my books was when I was in my elementary; that made sense because we were using government issued books for public schools which means that we have to return them by the end of the year as they will be used by incoming students the following year.

But my books since I entered college until this time are never covered. They all maintain a rugged look caused by being subject to relentless wear and tear aggravated by my sweaty palms, not to mention them being used beyond their intended function: as pillows, sun and rain covers, pot holders, notepads, fans, and my favorite — to shoo dumb people away by feigning I am deeply caught with what I am reading.

I sincerely appreciated his extra effort to cover them. It was thoughtful of him. I sounded robotic when I thanked him every time my eyes landed on the neatly covered books.

And once again, the lingering contrast. His books I kept for a month direly needed attention for they exhibited signs of misuse, warped pages, and a small tear in the blurb of Portnoy’s Complaint. I cannot impose my values on other people and their possessions. I apologized for their near-sorry state but if there was anything I could assure him, I valued his books and enjoyed reading each page. We buy books to read and to let them become a part of us, figuratively and literally.

He is a perceptive man who silently makes commentaries on the events occurring before him. And it was a fatal mistake to lend him my books with all the annotations because it meant exposing myself to a stranger I’ve never met before and whose only image I have of him is through the books he reads.

Again I reasoned, I have nothing to hide. Here’s a reader who knows me more than the people I physically encounter everyday. Nothing is wrong with writing about the life I live if it means being understood and along the way understanding myself by looking at myself being reflected in somebody else’s eyes.

He reads my posts regularly. This for me, is more than enough a reason to continue writing.

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Iloilo ang banwa ko

I first heard my mother singing this song to my little sister as a lullaby. For me then, it sounded so sad, so melancholic. She sang it as if she’s been far away from home for so long a time that only being physically present in the place could her longing be quenched. And indeed she was.

Iloilo ang Banwa ko ginahingadlan
Matam-is nga pulong ang akon gin mat-an
Dili ko ikaw bulagan banwa kong nahamut-an
Ikaw ang gintuna-an sang kalipayan

Chorus:
Ilonggo ako nga tunay nga nagapuyo sa higad sang baybay
Manami magkiay-kiay sa tagipusuon bug-os nga kalipay

The other person I heard singing this song was a Japanese student from Tokyo University. She was taking up Philippine Studies with concentration on Hiligaynon and the culture of Iloilo. I was surprised because she could memorize the lyrics and sang it with almost perfect accent. Even though my parents were both in Iloilo, and I spent four years as a student and a year as an instructor in the University of the Philippines Visayas in Miagao, my accent when I speak the local language is still heavily Cebuano. In some times, some Ilonggo even mistook me as Tagalog.

I must say Iloilo charmed me. I learned to love its hot and humid atmosphere and even basked under its unforgiving sun. I love its rocky shores and how the breeze blowing from its seas burned me and bestowed on me my brown skin.

Belfry of Jaro Cathedral

Man is wired by evolution to seek for the place where he was born. It’s like an instinct such that of green sea turtles: they always go back to the exact spot where they were hatched and in that same spot lay their eggs that will continue the whole cycle. The same is true for me or for anyone who traces his root in that small patch of land in the heart of the Philippines. Iloilo has this charm that only the experience of being in the place can explain. It has this warmth that a bowl of hot La Paz batchoy can give meaning to. It has this grandeur that the churches of Molo, Miagao, San Jose, or Jaro Cathedral can expound on. It has this life and love that only an Ilonggo can let you feel.

Jeepneys along Calle Real

A walk along Calle Real will bring you back to the late Spanish era when sugar barons built impressive houses matched with intricate facades and imposing columns. These proud structures are remnants of once ruling borguoisie and the booming sugar industry that ended as soon as the second world war was concluded.

Skyline of Iloilo City

Museo Iloilo that houses artifacts and contemporary arts by Ilonggo artists

Iloilo City is not a big city in terms of land area, roughly 70 square kilometers, but it’s an urban jungle of its own that will give a newcomer a harrowing experience of its circuitous and narrow roads. Friends of mine who have been to Iloilo City told me that the city has come to a dead-end as far as growth is concerned because it simply cannot expand. And I concede. Iloilo City is one of those few Philippine cities that have maintained its unique charm. Not that is has economically stagnated, it has remained loyal to its identity. It’s a hybrid city of urban growth, cultural dynamism, and rather conservative atmosphere. This narrow strip of land boasts seven big universities that rival other good universities in the country. Its people are one of the most literate and educated in the nation.

Iloilo shaped me as individual. It was in one of its sleepy towns, in Miagao, where a big chunk of my intellectual growth took place. It has made me aware that a big world out there is awaiting for a young man like me; nevertheless, it also made me realize that the bigger challenge to conquer is how to allow dreamers like me, young students, make their own yearnings possible.

And, true to its epithet as the “City of Love” (which I used to think as very funny if not downright pathetic), it’s also where I found the love of my life.

Language has its limitation. And it has reached its limit when it attempted to describe with words this city. As for me, a man who dreams to be a citizen of the world, I may have reached countries that once I was only able to picture out in my mind, and cities I thought I could only visit in my imagination, I still would want go back to that small city in one of the islands in the Pacific and hear a Latin mass in one of its churches, eat a bowl of batchoy in Tienda Lapaz, buy 12 pieces of the most delicious bibingka in the world for 20 pesos (0.50 USD) in Tanza, or just watch a Jaro-CPU-Ungka jeep pass by.

I have not anymore heard my mother sing that song for quite a long time. After all her children, five of us, left for Iloilo to get our college degrees, and our youngest sister whom we plan to have her high school also in Iloilo, she stopped singing the song. But like any Ilonggo, I know that she also one would want to go back to that beautiful city one day.

And maybe by that time Iloilo and banwa ko will not anymore be as melancholic as I remember her singing it.

Photos courtesy of Bernardo Arellano III, a former schoolmate in UP Visayas.