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Exoticizing Bikol: Gainza According to a Traveler

Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone -Oscar Wilde

The charm of Gainza, a town in Camarines Sur, is how, it has retained its social distance despite its being near Naga City. The town is just some 6.5 kilometers from the city.Drive for about 15 minutes from the city and the landscape suddenly changes.

And yet it is this charm and unusual combination of accessibility and inaccessibility that are missing in Drew Arellano’s recent travel. Known as “Biyahe ni Drew,” the program takes the media celebrity to places where the unusual and the relatively unknown are discovered. Last week, it was Gainza.

It was a brief travelogue without context.

If one is not Bikolano or Nagueño, or if one is not curious about the towns around the city, one gets this feeling the town of Gainza is found in one of most isolated spots in Luzon. And that in this village, one can learn about many things that are not in other places.

In the show, Drew Arellano goes to the ricefield and exhibits a palpable naivete (I do not wish to call it ignorance) with his talk about rice and the traditional processes involved in its harvest. It was painful watching him being told something that has become, even for the most complacent city boys or girls, common knowledge already.

Indeed, the press releases announcing the short documentary gives away this exoticizing tendency of the Manila-based or any city-bred journalist (not all) who descend upon a town or a village and put on this annoying and cloying interest in the mundane.

In an article written by one Patricia Isabella Romarate for GMA Entertainment, it says: “Philippine literature is rich, diverse, and filled with moral lessons. And fortunately, we are blessed to bask in the glory of the literary pieces that stood the test of time. In the recent episode of Biyahe ni Drew, an antiquated style of poetry called tigsik was revisited.” Immediately in those two sentences, we confront two cruel contradictions not appraised properly by the writer: that there are pieces that stand the test of time and that the same pieces are “antiquated.” Check that modifier: it means “old-fashioned” and “outdated.”

There you go. The fact that Tigsik has stood the test of time counters any notion that it is outdated. Aida Cirujales, a colleague in this paper, is the living proof of the function of that Bikol literary form. Go around Bikol schools and you will people able to go into a “tirigsikan.” It is not a rarity. It is not dying. It is alive.

The fault of the article and the documentary goes on: “Tigsik is a form of literature that is native in the Bicol region. Similar to the haiku of Japan, it is composed of three phases but it does not follow the 5-7-5 pattern.” How did they arrive at that comparison? Is it because of the three lines composed by the poet? Why call them “phases,” when the word “phase” refers to a stage or period in a sequence or series of events? Did the writer mean “parts” or “lines” or “stanza?”

A haiku is an altogether different cultural artefact. A haiku employs images through languages allowed in the said form. It asks for a different way of reading. It is therefore different from tigsik. For a short documentary to mistake that form for another is a sign of a recklessness, and lack of research.

The handle for tigsik is to define it as a kind of verbal joust.

What is a travelogue without food culture in it? Pinangat therefore is featured in the “biyahe” of Arellano. This dish is found all over Bikol. The foodie’s duty is to be able to single out what makes the Gainza pinangat special? How is it different from the one across the river, in the town of Camaligan? What is that special ingredient? Is it some fresh-water shrimp?

You see, romanticizing and exoticizing cultures can be saved, ironically, by invoking the romance and the exotic, the same bane to the boon of travels.

Again, the same writer, Romarate speaks how Arellano was invited to one of the oldest houses in Gainza: In their [meaning the people of Gainza] culture, it is customary to always accept the invitation of the host. But of course! Everywhere this is a trait. Not just of the people of Gainza but also the people of, let’s say, Zanzibar. Talking about Zanzibar, the travel of Drew Arellano to Gainza reminds of what Henry David Thoreau once said that It is not worthwhile to go around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.

For Thoreau, the statement meant that when one travels one finds that he need not really go that far to find something wonderful or to feel a change in his person. In the case of a man rediscovering Gainza, there is really no need to visit this town to learn about rice threshing, or farming.

My regrets about Arellano’s trip to Gainza are many. Did he ever ask himself, “Why, for all the ease that Gainza can connect to the big city, has it remained in that unique isolation?”

Was Arellano not curious about the curious case of the “Tolong Hinulid?” Did he not see that it was not “Catholic” at all? Who were the people living around Cagbunga? What happened in the 1950s between the people of Cagbunga and the Philippine Constabulary? What was the role of the Three Dead Christ in the messianic or nativistic movement some years ago, and even presently?

Questions about places are really more interesting than the easy harmony of answers and the usual stock images of hospitality, simplicity of living and the purity of poverty. Good documentaries leave us with good questions. But more than this, it is the responsibility of a major network to appraise its own approach to this exciting form called documentary. It has ceased to merely document social phenomena and has become a trenchant critic of the total social facts, a journalistic form unafraid to question social structures and the aberrations of cultures as sources of violence.

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