Penman No. 310: Tacloban’s Worthier Wonders

Merlie

Penman for Monday, July 9, 2018

 

ONE OF the pleasures of our recent visit to Tacloban was meeting up with two friends—the cultural scholar and UP Tacloban Humanities Division head Joycie Dorado Alegre, and the poet and Professor Emeritus Merlie M. Alunan. Beng and I made sure to spend an extra day in Leyte to see the UP Health Sciences campus in Palo, the fabulous Palo Cathedral, and other landmarks close to Tacloban. We’d already visited the Sto. Niño (ie, the Marcos) Shrine and the next-door Public Library—both of them in a rather sorry state, as I reported last week. But going around town with longtime locals like Joycie and Merlie revealed worthier wonders.

We made sure to visit other tourist staples such as the Macarthur Landing Memorial Park in Palo—an impressive work by the late sculptor Anastacio Caedo, better known for his plaster busts of a pensive Jose Rizal, one of which I keep in my home office as a kind of conscience. (Though no blushing fan of the famously vainglorious general, I’d been intrigued enough by MacArthur’s Philippine connections to visit his museum and tomb in Norfolk, Virginia.) I tried hard to recreate the tableau of ships massing on Leyte Gulf, only to have my musings spoiled by a tourist and his girlfriend wading into the pool in mock fatigues and rubber boots, posing with fake firearms.

But this was tragedy on a diminutive note compared to what no one visiting Tacloban can escape—the howling hell that was supertyphoon Yolanda and the many thousands of deaths it left in its wake. As we passed one traffic island after another—with the grass almost strangely manicured and impeccably garbage-free—Joycie or Merlie would tell us, “Those islands became mass graves. There are people buried there.”

A more formal and movingly expressive memorial to the lost lay farther on in Tanauan, in artist Kublai Millan’s sculpture built on yet another mass grave. Everywhere we drove on that coastal plain, the surging sea had swept people and whole families away, and while the city seemed to have regained its equanimity and was bravely soldiering on five years after, there was a hole in its heart still aching to be filled.

Merlie herself had gone through a recent personal tragedy, with the sudden passing of her beloved son Ebeb. Even as Yolanda had spared her, living as she did on higher ground, she couldn’t have foreseen this dark turn down the road. (She had lost her father and five other family members in the Ormoc City flood of 1991.) She was still clearly grieving, but had gone out of her way to entertain us, and perhaps thereby also entertain herself.

Nothing can ever compensate for the loss of family, but Merlie was threading a way forward, in that way uniquely accessible to artists. Every true work of art is an affirmation of life, and in Merlie’s case, she has art aplenty to affirm life with. To begin with, there’s nothing literally closer to life than food, and for almost two decades now, Merlie and her enterprising children have built up one of Tacloban’s best-loved restaurant chains, headlined by the now-iconic Ayo Café along Ninoy Aquino Avenue.

Ayo (the name derives from the Visayan term for “good”) serves food as familiar as Spanish sardines, lumpia, roast chicken, and burgers at prices that won’t make you weep, but with a twist—the twist being that it’s cooked and presented just scrumptiously right, with the choicest ingredients, in servings large enough for take-home leftovers. I’d heard about Ayo before from friends who’d been there (Merlie proudly keeps a guest book signed by writers and artists), and while I may have initially accepted her invitation out of friendship, I’ll be seeking it out on my own on my next Tacloban sortie (and I insisted on paying for our merienda to emphasize my patronage).

The Ayo interlude also allowed us to discover another of Merlie’s less-known talents as a visual artist who paints and also does plant sculptures. I asked her to pose for a picture beside one of her works, and learned that this was something she had been doing since her years in Dumaguete, perhaps again as a refuge or respite of sorts from the travails of daily life.

Of course it’s her poetry that Merlie Alunan is best appreciated for (one of her poems, “Young Man in a Jeepney,” has been a perennial on my syllabus), and her sixth poetry collection, Running with Ghosts (Ateneo de Naga University Press, 2017) is understandably heavy with waterborne death. But as she points out at the close of her title poem, life will go on, in all its bewildering indifference:

Grass sow their seeds over the turned earth,

The graves are greening in the seasonal rain.

Everyday we run with ghosts by our side.

God is silent. as ever blameless and inscrutable.

Penman No. 309: A Breakthrough in Tacloban

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Penman for Monday, July 2, 2018

 

 

LATE JUNE is graduation season under the new academic calendar of the University of the Philippines, and since the UP System is made up of eight constituent universities spread out over 17 campuses, that’s a lot of graduations to attend for officials like me. Since the President can’t possibly be at all the ceremonies—which are sometimes scheduled on the same day, or just a day apart—we VPs decide early on where we want to go to represent the System administration.

Diliman is a given, being basically home. I also attend the rites of UP Manila, partly because I’m fascinated by the number and variety of degrees we hand out under the health sciences (culminating this year in the combined MD/PhD—a physician who’s also a researcher, the very top of the heap). But also, UP Manila—harking back to an earlier tradition—still requires its graduates to wear togas instead of the now-ubiquitous sablay or sash, which means I get to drag my US-university toga, or what I call my clown costume, out of the mothballs.

Last year I chose to go to UP Baguio, only to realize, the night before the ceremony, that not only was I on the roster of visitors, but was also the commencement speaker—a little detail that no one had remembered to tell me. A faster commencement speech was never written. (I’ll admit it—I was thrilled to get the job done.)

This June, I selected UP Tacloban—not yet a constituent university but a college under the supervision of UP Visayas. I picked Tacloban because I hadn’t been there for at least 15 years since the early 2000s, and I wanted to see how the campus and the city had recovered from Yolanda’s devastation. I imagined that It was still scarred by the catastrophe five years after; instead, as soon as we landed, I was impressed by how quickly the place had gotten back on its feet, abuzz with tricycles and new construction.

With a morning to spare, I walked about town with Beng (who had come along at her own expense to see old friends) and toured the still-sequestered Sto. Niño Shrine (always more a shrine to the Marcoses), badly ravaged by the storm and by neglect. An even sorrier sight was the adjacent People’s Center and Public Library, which had been converted to a Japanese surplus store. I don’t bemoan the humbling of excess, but as Beng reminded me, “This was the people’s money.”

One happy discovery I did not expect was Tacloban as a food paradise. Wherever we went and at whatever price point—the surf and turf combo and the grilled marlin at the hotel, the fish tinola, the grilled scallops, and bulalo at the Acacia restaurant, more tinola and nilagang carabeef at the unli-rice Pinutos at the mall, and the lemongrass roasted chicken at the now-iconic Ayo restaurant—the food was fresh and flavorful, the beef amazingly tender and the tinola divinely laced with lemongrass and ginger.

All that fortified us for the graduation, which was fairly small as UP graduations go, with just about 200 graduates, two of them finishing magna cum laude, from such fields as Accountancy, Management, Communication Arts, Biology, Computer Science, and Political Science. Tacloban Dean Dr. Dodong Sabalo, a management expert, introduced me to the commencement speaker, Ms. Debbie D. Namalata, San Miguel Brewery’s National Sales Manager and Vice President for Sales, and a UPV alumna, who gave a stirring talk about how her family overcame poverty to achieve professional success against all odds. It was a theme echoed by the valedictorian, Kim Decolongon Limosnero, whose mother had sold chicharon to put him and his siblings through school.

You’d think that I would get bored going to these graduations and witnessing the endless parade of young people coming up the stage in their Sunday best with their parents in tow, but I honestly never do, especially when I listen to such stories as Debbie’s and Kim’s, and see fathers wearing denims and sneakers not because they want to look hip but because it’s the best outfit they can afford. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Kim addressed his widowed mother—who had never finished college—as “my summa cum laude,” and I recalled my own parents who had similarly labored mightily to send all five of us to school.

And as I sat onstage, I received the saddest message on my phone, about another UP student named Jemima Faye Dangase, who was supposed to graduate cum laude in Agribusiness Economics from UP Mindanao. The daughter of very poor parents—her diabetic father was a municipal utility worker and her mother was unemployed—Jemima was clearly her family’s hope. She submitted all her requirements for graduation, went home, then crumbled in pain—pain she had borne quietly for months without complaint, apparently so as not to trouble her already beleaguered parents. She was brought to the hospital, where doctors discovered her organs ravished by cancer; and there she died.

I know it borders on melodrama, but this is, truly, the story of Philippine education and why it’s so crucial to social transformation. For every Jemima who stumbles on the very last steps, there must be a Kim who breaks through. This is why going to such places as Tacloban revives my faith in the Filipino future, despite the dark travails of the present, in this moral equivalent of a Yolanda, which—reposing our faith in a God wiser than all despots—we will survive.