FIELDNOTES: Postcards and Stories from the Edge

MOST of these stories come from my endless bus rides and plane rides as I navigate the short and, sometimes, long distance between parts of Bikol and Manila, or further up North and down South. The characters are mostly Bikolanos and the perspective, my perspective, I like to assume is cosmopolitan, or, otherwise, I am not ranting, complaining about many of these sad, happy, bitter developments about our culture and about the territories in our land. The Stories and Images are numbered to better classify and remember them: 1. When do I know I am already in Bikol or Naga? When passengers start conversing in Tagalog/Pilipino. This is one of the most mystifying signs of supposed progress that the language favored by many of us in Naga in particular – although I noticed this also in Albay – has become the Tagalog Manileño strand. Sales ladies in drug stores speak Tagalog and, if you take it by the preferred language, almost all of the doctors in Naga are Manileños! The hilarious thing is the same passengers from Naga or Albay often talk in Bikol when they reach the stopover in Tiaong. Perhaps, it is sleepiness or the desire to claim identities now that they are in Tagalog country? 2. Still on the bus: If you have travelled by way of the Skybus Z – the name not revelatory at all of its real nature because it does not fly and, God forbid if it does – the travel is graced by a stewardess. For the uninitiated and also the smart-alecky, the stewardess is a ridiculous presence in a bus. I do not share that sentiment. Not everyone who travels by bus from Manila to Bicol and back is aware of how long the bus ride will be, whether the bus will stop anywhere, and what that contraption a few levels down the floor is (it is a toilet). In these days of the Internet, it is always nice and charming that someone tells you there is WiFi on board and not just some snooty passengers with bad manners. It is also benevolent that someone informs you the WiFi is not working. In Japan where system is always good, buses have taped instructions and information. They do not assume all passengers know what is entailed in that bus ride; regular information are given as to when the bus is leaving and whether it is leaving at all. Woe to the one who presumes drivers are conscious of their oath to take care of their passengers. When you are standing, be ready to fall or lurch; Naga bus leaves whenever its driver wishes. 3. Remember that classic speech of the great Jesuit historian, Horacio de la Costa, SJ, titled “The Jewels of the Pauper”? There are lines there, which go: “But as poor as we are, we yet have something. This pauper among the nations of the earth hides two jewels in her rags. One of them is our music. We are sundered one from another by eighty-seven dialects; we are one people when we sing.” Of course, it is essentializing that we are united by music for that is highly debatable. But that is not the point of this essay. Music pervades our land everywhere. In our subdivision, the videoke has become a curse inflicted by those living in informal settlement to those living in, well, legal and formal setting. You know the system: you rent the videoke machine today because the event (birthday party, wedding etc.) and you start playing it. There are rules, I was informed. In Makati areas, there is a particular level of sound allowed; in Naga that rule, I like to assume, is ignored. Till 3 or 4 in the morning, it blar es songs about unrequited love and illegal trysting and blind fate. It stops briefly but at 5 in the early morning, believe me, it resumes again, the songs about how women are the seducers and how men are the heartbreakers. What is it about music that it has taken the need to forage for food? Back on the bus again: after cursory showing of pirated movies, the TV is dimmed. We all expect to sleep but the driver switches and on goes his own kind of music. Then the music of Engelbert Humperdinck and Victor Wood soar to grim eternity. If the gods are not smiling at you, at midnight, you are treated to “Gangnam Style” and “Baby Shark.” 4. In the NAIA Terminal 4: The boarding for Cebu Pacific Flight DG6111 has been announced. I slowly move to where the line was forming for Gate 1, which is not a gate but a doorway. Everybody, of course, rushes. This is curious because you rush only if the plane waill leave you, which in this case, is rare; you run only if you are anxious you will lose your seat, which, in this case, is unthinkable. I found myself almost at the end of the line. The line is unmoving. No one tells us the reason. We would soon find out: the passengers are being ferried by bus to the plane. After a few minutes, I sensed someone was looking at me intently from behind. I was about to look back but the person – a woman in a black dress with holes to show the youth of her two shoulders had already nudged me. She asked: are you lining up for the CebuPac flight to Naga? I replied: No. She stopped. And as for being “bound for Naga” or anywhere, the sound system sometime had this voice saying “Bound to Naga” or Bound to Cebu. I wanted to tell the voice or the person behind the voice, the reason why we travel because we are never bound or tied to a place. Who cares about grammar? 5. Who cares about manners? We are back on the bus again. On Facebook was posted this comments about a man propping up his feet where the headrest of another passenger began. Do not do that. I know of a similar incident where a woman responded to that uncouth ways by putting nail polish on the massive toenails of that ill-mannered man. Listen to my irritant and tell me if you share my feelings. Spaces are, in a sense, paid in bus. I am always bothered when the person in front of me puts his hands way across his shoulders so that I am left contemplating his hands unless I looked a the dark landscape outside the window. Again, you might wake up with your nails glistening in the drama of a burgundy nail polish. 6. What is it about Balikbayan? I was in a bus where the woman up at Row 1 was talking to someone at Row 7. The woman at the front row was asking the Woman at Row 7 where she came from. The Woman at Row 7 said “Manila.” The woman at the front row added how she had not seen her for a long time.” “Just from Manila,” the Woman at Row 7 answered. The Woman at front row was asking for the right feed but she was not getting it, so she volunteered what she had been wanting to say: “I just came from San Francisco.” It did not stop there. She talked about the year she had been away and how she missed being back. By that time, people were looking at the Woman from San Francisco; some were happy for her, some were irritated, and some just wished she had come from San Francisco del Monte in QC. I just wished she shut up. 7. And now to postcards. Do people still send postcards? Postcards used to tell people – your kin and friends –where you are. Still in NAIA Terminal 4, I found myself staring at postcards. There was a series of views with a pristine Boracay. That is the problem of postcards usually, in that the sceneries are old or coming from old prints. I remembered how Mayon was always depicted with dancers in a graceful pose, with the volcano at the background. That postcard is a lie. I twirled the stand where the postcards were displayed and came upon Mayon. The volcano was still there and the Cagsawa ruins were, ironically, intact. There was an added figure: a badly sculpted Sacred Heart, the rays of divine light from his hand hard and ill-conceived, a figure of stasis covering the iconic Cagsawa belfry. This time, the postcard is not a lie. The postcard is kitsch, in glorious bad taste.