There is a fine line between healing and destruction, death and defiance, and life itself, whatever it’s polarity may be.
So it seems in Ricky’s house, and so it seems to Ricky, who has been on both ends. What he once thought as opposing forces were actually just steps away.
We are in in Buenavista, Guimaras. The outside of Ricky’s home is like a temple, a Chinese pagoda of igang and wood set in the middle of fruit-bearing trees and shrubs with roosters, goats and dogs roaming around, constantly gravitating to this center point. It is a home meant to be prayed in, or prayed to.
And if the house is meant to be prayed to, then Ricky is its high priest, a shaman who absorbs the restless energy of the outside world and holds it at bay in this sanctum.
He might scoff at this image had I told him. Ricky declares with vehemence that he has no taste for formal religion whatsoever because, as he professes, “everything is about the process.”
I’m with him there. I was raised in a family where beads were held every night, where there was a week out of the year where you weren’t allowed to profess joy, where you rose up at dawn to greet an immaculate statue and where your own major decisions had to be raised every time to the pulpit. Yet for all its rituals and back stories, I never really gravitated towards it. It lost me at the term “unquestioning.”
There is something about Ricky’s anthill of gray hair though, tied in a high bun, his laughing, constantly crinkly, eyes and his collection of tattoos that make it seem as if he were holding a secret the rest of the world doesn’t know or get.
Outside his gates, the neighbor’s videoke plays the first lines of “Like A Virgin” followed by a man who confesses he’s made it through the wilderness.
We are in a little bamboo cabana, what he calls the Open Close Restaurant, because when he’s in, he cooks for all types of audiences – foreigners, friends and transients like myself who pop in unexpectedly to disturb his weekend. When he’s out, well, only the Rastafarian flags that serve as curtains greet would-be guests.
For a self-declared free spirit, Ricky has rules when he’s in the kitchen. One, he never lets anybody in. Two, he never actually tastes any of the food until it’s served, relying only on three staples: “love, passion, and walang negative”. And three, he will cook only plant-based ingredients. Any form of meat or any utensils that have prepared meat are banned because “pag kumakain ka ng suffering, umiinit ang katawan mo.”
Any animal is always fully conscious of their demise, he says. Meat then might very well be where the world’s anger comes from. Even Ricky’s dogs and chickens are vegetarians like himself.
I chew on the oatmeal-patty burger fresh out of the kitchen and tell him I barely notice the difference.
“Dinagdagan ko kasi ng dasal para mas sumarap.”, he declares. My karma is good. At least for all my three-day stay.
I met Ricky on paper long before I ever met Ricky. His calling card was lying about in a posh hotel office. On it was a naked woman covering her private part with an over-sized cabbage. Ricky A. Vegetarian, it said. The 5-star hotel was an unlikely place for it. And yet something about the audacity of the illustration, the nonchalant manner with which it was said to be given, the way it stuck out of the stack, between a Korean journalist’s and a marketing associate’s, said that this man dictates his own normal.
The next time I would see him, it would be in an obsolete mall tucked before the port to Guimaras. He had been grocery shopping for what would be our meals for the next few days.
“Siguradohin mo walang malangsa sa plastic mo, ha.” warns our taxi driver.
Insulted, Ricky retorts, “Vegetarian po. Hindi ako kumakain ng isda.”
It is the last day of the Manggahan Festival. Stevedores and boatmen are busy setting up a stage by the port for a rock concert in Jordan, the arrival point of Guimaras.
At the park, booths out of amakan are covered in ripe mangoes, some dangling from the ceiling, others stuck to the wall, still others surrounding posts with bundles and boxes and rows of the fruit the festival is dedicating the week-long celebration to.
Guimaras Mangoes is a proper noun. Here, mangoes are never just mangoes. They’re Guimaras Mangoes, with a National Research and Development Center dedicated to finding out what made it so sweet in the first place. And because supply trumps demand, the proper noun is only P20 a kilo.
Yellow shirts are festooned all over the festival grounds. Picnic tables are out, with celebrants eating mango pizza, grilled mangoes and something called Española Soup No. 5.
There must’ve been an agreed-upon ruckus contest because every general merchandise store seemed to have brought out their feet-high sound systems and are playing it at maximum volume, never mind if the next-door neighbor is playing his just as loud.
No surprise that Ricky lives away from all these. Reminds him too much perhaps of Manila and the life he left behind as a tabloid photographer, chasing celebrities and politicians for a good angle.
Now, he chases animals off his veranda. The city to him is constantly volatile. Even when it sleeps, he says, the underlying waves of sounds and movements are a set of highs and lows. They are crude, never subtle. And that’s how he describes his life as well. It went “from crude to subtle.”
Ricky, a freelance photographer for Iloilo’s Provincial Capitol, is based in the city, still a growing metro of around 2 Million, and yet he can’t quite stay there for very long.
Extremity, to him, are danger zones. His tattoos, a skull, Death, on his right, and a woman, Mother Nature, on his left, reminds him of this everyday. He has to be constantly in the middle within the bounds of a line he seemed to have created.
In his house are framed posters of the same balance he seeks. Outside the room I am staying in are framed photos of a thunderbolt, Intensity, and a ripple of water on the other side, Tranquility.
Putting my story alongside Ricky’s is a decision born from apprehension. Consider the harsh cut in perspective, the realization that it has to be. The fiction that I’ve made of him seems to be more magnanimous than mine. Perhaps it is used to hide mine, and why I’ve come to Guimaras in the first place.
I show Ricky my own tattoos, the ones that slowly appear without my permission or control. They’re sketched in white like maps that dictate their own geography. Some days, I find that they’ve made a small island on my wrists and hands. Some days, they become an overnight pangaea.
It is my body’s way of fighting against itself in a war whose casualties lay frozen in a state of shock, white faces constantly staring back.
The medical world has a word for this. Vitiligo. When I say it, I stammer like there’s a foreign shard on my tongue.
There is something to be said about deformities though and its relationship with its bearer. Most of the time, the bearer learns to love the deformity, is both fascinated and terrified by how it progresses. It’s like a separate life. Within is an overbearing temptation to use it as a crutch. I tell friends I stress myself out, am too busy to let these tattoos heal itself. I convince myself even that it becomes a distinct eccentricity like Woolf who insisted on writing standing up.
And so while my doctors, bless their hearts, have vented out warning after warning that any remote chance of a cure will involve two physical epiphanies: purging out the stress and switching to a plant-based diet, I’ve never given serious thought to both, that is to say, I’ve gone in and out of being vegetarian.
“Nag-he-herbal ka ba?”, Ricky cuts my thoughts as we walk around a white beach in Nueva Valencia. Bodies are slathered in the rubbery smell of sunblock. Rastafarians are selling rows of necklaces made of bone and wood. I‘ve stayed away from the beach these past couple of months. Perhaps it is the constant reminder of untarnished health. I didn’t want to see it. These days, I am more like the Trappist monks in Jordan where we just came from, covered in brown garbs from head to toe, sweating in their leather boots.
“Nag-he-herbal ka ba? Walang judgment sa tanong na yan, ha.” he tells me.
Ricky’s question leads to many roads, but I chose to go to the safe one. I feign ignorance and tell him alternative medicine, homeopathy to be exact, was my medication of choice.
To cure what, I don’t exactly know. Once, in a coastal town in Cebu, a crystal healer came up to me and diagnosed, almost immediately after meeting, that I lack a certain spirituality. Perhaps that is what I have come here for, to find a drug to alleviate the deficiency.
“Nanggaling na ako dyan.” Ricky tells me while he picks on the flesh of lanzones.
The air is arid against the mid-morning sun. Everything is filtered in white light, saturated colors like a television that’s about to flicker off. We catch a commercial boat docking on the shore and in its wake, the course to Magic Island.