In Search of Kin
“The one in blue striped shirts, Sir,” the girls nearest me chorused. I had barely entered the room of the Basco National Science High School when I spoke in a loud voice my search for a “Valiente.”
For some years now, I have been meeting online, through FaceBook, many Valientes. Nine out of ten, they are from Batanes. I have always thought of my family name as Bikol in origin, and rare in that region. In my past travels, I met some Valientes in Iloilo but I could count them in my hand. Not with the Batanes population. In Uyugan, I would discover a Valiente Street.
When at last my trip to that far-off island was finalized, I had only two things in my mind: climb those hills despite a right leg that refuses to follow the commands of my heart and to know more Valientes.
“Where?” I asked again. “Sir, he is there, right at the center.” I looked again and saw this young man, his shoulders hunched. I was soon looking down on this young man. “Were you listening,” I tried to sound gentle but to no avail. The huge city has made me a bit arrogant, too confident in a world where masculinity and timidity, I would discover, were charming commodities.
I pulled the plastic chair right in front of his and sat down, my hand on the writing pad of his desk. If he was planning to stand up and move away from my inquisition, there was no way for that to happen. There were two chairs to his left and two of his classmates to his right. Behind him were eager eyes and ears waiting for something to happen. He raised his head. He had my almond-shaped eyes, and with an arduous conceit, I immediately claimed in my head a similarity. I could be exaggerating or I must had been carried away by my own desire to claim kinship in this land I was yet to discover.
“What’s your name? I asked in Tagalog. “Paul po.” “Paul Valiente,” I added the family name as if afraid he would change his family name just to avoid the impending conquest. I could barely hear his voice. He must be the gentlest person I have ever encountered. Am I being ethnocentric? The sound of that word came with a thud. It was no more a word floating between my brows. It was turning into a heavy construct. The moment was being anthropologized and I despised it.
There was no need to attack my own bracketing. As I started talking and not asking, Paul was also responding. He is from Itbayat. Itbayat! I repeated the name of the place. He noticed the sincere surprise. Is it true this island has no beach? A cursory reading of the ethnographies of the place had already informed me about the singularity of the island. Paul affirmed what I said. Itbayat is an island without a beach. One has to navigate and catch the right wave so one could jump to the rocks serving as port. What if you miss it? Then you fall into the sea, Paul uttered those words as if it was the most natural thing on earth.
How many are you in the family? He has nine siblings, five of them in Basco.
What about your parents? What do they do? Paul’s father is a farmer and his mother is a licensed day-care teacher.
Do you still go back to Itbayat? Yes, Paul answered. I am, in fact, going there this weekend. I could see the sea and the ease with which Paul navigated the waves. What are you doing there? I wanted him to tell me he missed his parents and his other siblings. Or, that he longed to be in that windswept village of his. I was ready to hear him say, I will be on vacation. But Paul said, there are many things to do during harvest time. My father needed some help.
Paul said, we would be harvesting rootcrops. So, do you bring them to Basco? Paul said no. The harvest is for their own use, for the family. The small surplus they give away to neighbors. Paul did not notice my disbelief.
It is true what anthropologists say, people living in subsistence economy compose the affluent society. Itbayat is the northernmost island of the Philippines. Out there the weather is always rough. What happens, Paul, when storms hit your place? We evacuate and seek shelter somewhere. With families whose homes are small, they are helped by those who live in more stable structures.
Back in Basco, we were told that for the Ivatan, the native of Batanes, it is not proper to seek or ask for help. Your neighbors will always go out of their way to help you. Paul was affirming the stories.
There was a pause in our conversation. I kept looking at the dark, brown skin of Paul. I then asked him to stand up so we could have our photo taken. Paul stood up. He was one head taller than me. Before I left him to go back to my colleagues – all members of the Executive Council of Cinema under the National Commission for Culture and the Arts – I told Paul I wanted to give him something. I was holding in my hand a folded piece of paper tucked inside of which were two five-hundred peso bills. This is not a gift, Paul, I told this young man who this time had his head bowed down again. This is just to show how happy I am to have met you, a Valiente in Batanes.
Paul kept his head down. He did not touch the folded paper, which I pushed closer to his notebook. Then I left him.
Soon, our outreach was over. On our way out for the usual photo session, I looked for Paul again. He did not thank me. He did not mention the small gift. But, he stood closer to me, this time, less shy and with the faintest smile on his lips. Three tall, young girls called his name. I went to the girls and asked them if Paul was popular. They all said yes. I glanced back at Paul and asked him if he had a girlfriend already. Before he could answer, the tallest and the loveliest of the three girls responded: “Soon.” Then she smiled at me, then to Paul.
Thank you, Paul, was all I could say to the young man as we left the school. From afar, a tiny plane was gliding down to land in Basco. Was it coming from Itbayat? The blue sky was perfect for a flight to any island, any island at all; the hot afternoon assured a calm, quiet sea anywhere, even around the most isolated island of this sad nation.