Sunday, June 22, 2008

A speck in the eye

Author's Note: I have written this piece more than a year ago, after our trip to Legaspi. When I shut down this blog almost two months ago, this post was also deleted. So I am reposting this for the leisure reading of the reader, if interest snares him.

After two years, I finally wrote a new work in Filipino. (For the past two years I have tried, and is still trying, my hands on a foreign language to at least broaden my horizon and literary experience. As of yet, none have been published in that medium and genre, but Nikko and, if I am not mistaken, Ma’am Beni have already seen some of them). What drove me to write this piece (I mean, that new Filipino work, not this essay – though both the former and the latter have the same inspiration) was the trip that I took with my friends to Legaspi last Saturday.

For almost a year now, I have been working as an invigilator (read: proctor) for IELTS (that’s the International English Language Testing System) exams in Naga and Legaspi aside from my day job as a slave – er, paralegal, I mean. I get enough for a day’s invigilation to augment my daily expenses and sometimes my fees in law school. Thus, when I received a call from IDP Australia (yes, a little bit of plugging would do a little bit to help my part-time employer), that I would be invigilating in Legaspi, I grabbed the opportunity.

Thus, last Saturday I woke up at an ungodly hour of three in the morning to prepare to go to work. Legaspi is two hours away from Naga where I go to school, and Naga is about twenty minutes from our hometown. So I really had to wake up early to be able to get to the testing center before seven in the morning, the call time for the invigilators.

Thus, the morning after our hellish Negotiable Instruments exam, I peeled my still groggy self from bed, took a bloody cold bath to wake me up and ate two slices of toast with peanut butter and drank coffee. At four in the morning, I was already on a jeepney to Naga.

When I got to the rendezvous, one of my friends was already there. Ida was eating pan de sal and drinking soda and was wearing the shirt I was also wearing (a special issue IDP shirt). She thanked me that I gave her a ring after I woke up as she was able to prepare and sneak out of their house (ergo, her father, owner of one of the largest feed mills in the province, does not know that his daughter went to Legaspi). When I looked for an open lavatory, I saw Bing and Elmer waiting at the nearby Jollibee store (closed obviously, otherwise we would have met there): one who will also invigilate but was not wearing her IDP shirt, and the other sending us off.

At about thirty minutes past five, I called Kris, our friend who was supposed to be bringing his car for our trip, but he did not answer. After nine attempts, I was finally able to get him to answer. It turned out that he had a few drinks (well, a bucket, I guess) the night before during their Commerce night (he is an undergrad professor of the university and had taken negotiable instruments law ahead of us) and was not able to wake up early. He told me that he would just prepare for a while and will be arriving in a few minutes.

The sun was already peeking from the horizon when Harlene, who was also coming for the trip, sent me a message telling me that she was already waiting at their subdivision gate with May, another of our friend who would also be joining us. After a few minutes, Kris arrived.

We boarded the car and said goodbye to Elmer - he still had to finish his last day of practicum at the PLEB (People's Law Enforcement Board). On the way to the subdivision to fetch Har and May, I called up Flaj, who was also coming. She told me that she was already on her way out of the subdivision (a different one from Har’s).

We were able to fetch Har and May, who were also wearing their IDP shirt, and then Flaj, who was also wearing hers. Now, that’s seven of us in the car (Ida, Bing, Kris, Har, May, Flaj and I); one not yet wearing her shirt. If you are wondering, we were on board a car, not a van. So the adventure began.

What was supposed to be a two-hour ride became an hour and twenty minutes. With Kris’s experience (probably from drag racing), the places from point A to point B literally became a blur to us. Good thing speeding tickets are a foreign concept here in the province. Good thing that the girls were very close to god.

We were able to get to the testing center, a seminar hall in Pepperland Hotel (yes, another plug) in no time. No glitches before the exam happened except the usual registration problems when bitches and assholes try to talk their way in the testing center. Some would raise their voices to us as if we were poor slaves at their beckon; not knowing that we are actually law students earning our keeps to send ourselves to school and keep ends meet (All of us pay our tuition fees although our parents can still afford to send us to school).

I was manning the entrance and some of the examinees were really quite rude; getting pissed because I kept checking their IDs whenever they go out and come in again. There was even this man who rudely asked me: “Where did we buy the bottles of water?” I would have told him: “Sorry, sir. We did not buy bottles of water.” Instead, I pointed him to the buffet bar and told him politely: “You can buy a bottle of water there, Sir.” I rest my case.

No, they were not all nurses. Some of them were teachers, some engineers, and some were even butchers. Yes, you read right, butchers. Of course, they need to speak and understand English before they can butcher pigs, cows and other cattle in New Zealand. After all, baboy and baka are not animals in New Zealand, pigs and cows are.

Having had not enough sleep (one actually was not able to sleep the night before having drank beer and mocha madness at the same time), we were fighting dozing off during the exam. What kept us alert were some of the examinees who were doing a little bit of racket during the exam: one who kept looking past his shoulders and another who seemed to be not writing at all during the listening exam; another who asked whether he should skip a line to start a new paragraph, to whom I said: it’s your prerogative sir; then another who wrote her name in script after hearing clearly that names should be written in bold letters; there was also this one who underlined all his name, when instructed to underline only the family name; another who actually asked me if articles are included in the word count for the writing exam. With all these idiosyncrasies, I wondered whether they actually knew that they were just wasting ten thousand bucks on this exam.

When the exam was already nearing its end, I was approached by the exam administrator and told me that I need to talk to one of the examinees who brought two different IDs. When told that he should photocopy his passport and bring it back during his speaking exam, he started scolding me in Filipino (they are required to speak English at all times during the exam like us). When he was already raising his voice, I politely snapped at him (well, in a rather restraint manner anyway): “Sir, if you do not bring a photocopy of your passport. Your exam will not be processed.” Case closed.

By the end of the exam, we were already very exhausted and sleepy to eat our fettucine properly. But for some apparent reason, we still managed to finish eating. We were given our wages and we boarded the car. This was already past noon, dear reader, and the car was a microwave oven.

We decided to pass by the Cagsawa ruins, which, rumors had it, were ruined again and was actually buried beneath the mudslides during the playtime of Supertyphoon Reming. Rumors had it that instead of the usual three levels of the bell tower, only the top was left, all else were buried deep. We were already preparing for the worst since we actually passed the town where the Cagsawa ruins were when we were speeding to get to the testing center that morning. There were these houses where only the roof can be seen, foundations were the only ones left standing. When we passed by a river by the highway, the banks were already extended to the edge of the highway. The winds and rushing water have cleaved the original bank and widened the river bed to thrice its size, eating away the houses between the highway and the river. As we passed the highway that morning, we saw a fence left standing from the typhoon, behind it a twenty-foot fall to the leveled river bed.

Thus we had to brace ourselves for the worst. After all, the tragedy happened in our very own backyard, to our fellow Bicolanos.

A little bit of footnote: a few years ago, when I visited Cagsawa, we passed by rice fields and houses before we got to the historic ruins. There, houses lined the narrow road, and one can glimpse rice fields teeming with green stalks as far as the eye can see. When we got to the junction going to the ruins, we could already see people working their asses off. Quarrying.

Yes, quarrying. There was black volcanic sand all over the place - covering every skeleton of trees, houses, and some walls. Kris tried maneuvering the car to the Cagsawa ruins, but about twenty meters from the junction, a small river was rushing through the sand. The car, with its clearance low, would not be able to make it. Kris parked the car beside a house filled with the volcanic sand – yes, filled with volcanic sand, from floor to ceiling, too dense they were not falling off the open windows. Thus we took the long walk to the ruins, under the scorching afternoon sun.

The sand was thrice our height, or perhaps more. They were literally walls lining the narrow road. For the first thirty meters there were just sand and leave-less trees; and then a small creek, brown with mud; and then a meter or two of patched sand; then a slightly bigger river. We where crossing the bamboo bridge, when I stopped and looked around. Behind me was the majestic Mayon, still very majestic still very perfect. In front of me were the houses beside the widened river. Black sand was all over the place. No houses remained, no blade of grass was left standing. Desolate. Simply desolate.

By the curve approaching the ruins, I could see the old asphalt road clearly; no sand was covering it unlike the path I passed. By the curve, near the stall selling mythic figurines made from the volcanic sand, I could already see the bell tower peeking from the trees. It was not buried beneath the mudslide/sand-slide as some people told me in earnest and dismay. We reached the gate of the ruins, and I saw that the bell tower still stood on its ruined glory. Seeing that a ten-peso entrance fee was required, Kris and I waited for the girls before coming in.

We were hesitant to shell out the meager ten pesos, and had our pictures taken outside the gate of the ruins. But Bing volunteered to pay the seventy pesos so we could get in. Nice penny-pinching people that we were, we grabbed the generosity. To us, the legal maxim No person shall be compelled to accept the generosity of another do not hold sway.

As we were walking, looking for a shade, there was this one boy who was following me. At first I thought he was egging me to buy pictures from him (the kids by the ruins sell pictures of the volcano (erupting, spewing clouds, drooling red hot lava) the mudslide, piles of houses, and the pristine, cloudless picturesque view of the volcano). But when I listened, I realized he was actually reciting (not reading from anything) non-stop the history of the ruins – when eight nuns were buried during the eruption in the 18th century, when the biggest eruption happened and the number of casualties, and why the Cagsawa ruins became such. It was simply amazing.

When we got behind the bell tower, we could clearly see Mayon in its glory; tufts of clouds playing by its mouth. And by its foot, no rice fields again. Black sand all over again. Not even the mud bridges that border each rice field can be seen.

I remember that, when I was a child, I sent a friend a postcard of the Mayon. It showed a clear day, sunny and golden. There were farmers in the background stooping low to plant the palay. There were trees that could be seen by the edge where the rice fields end and the volcano begins. The sky was blue, and everything else was bright. This was not what we saw.

Everything was gray. The clouds playing with Mayon’s lips were silvery gray. The sky itself was gray. Mayon itself was gray with just a little trace of moss-like greens. Everything was gray beneath the scorching sun. That postcard would be priceless.

And, a few meters away, two big bamboo crosses, already brown from time, stood. The history boy pointed at it and told us they mark as reminder for the still unrecovered bodies. There may be a few still unceremoniously buried there by the typhoon – or perhaps hundreds more. But we can only guess and dread.

We had our pictures taken by the bell tower, tired but still smiling, hiding the specks of black sand caught in our eyes.

Cagsawa Ruins
10 March 2007

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