“Labindalawang kabayo.” my Skylab driver assesses.
This was the value in livestock, the T’boli’s accepted currency, if he bought me as wife. I would be his sixth; the latest in a collection he hopes will equal that of his father’s, who had 39.
As a joke, I demand the herd to be all white. Pure, ethereal bodies that cross between dream and wake, the line of which dims with the fog surrounding S’bu where a man could accumulate six life partners in the same time frame that I have accumulated none.
“Walang problema!” he replies, and proceeds to tally every white stallion we pass in the next days.
Mark nudges to a concrete house where several studs are grazing in overgrown grass. A sign. The more horses a man has in his front yard, the more wives.
“Pero sa linya ko, una ka na hindi taga-dito.” he says in seriousness, a foreigner, and College graduate at that. More expensive than his other wives whom he bought for only six, but well worth it.
Stumped, I ask him why.
“Kasi pwede mo ako dalhin sa labas.”
A week ago, I choose Mark from the mass of motorcycle drivers in Seloton’s market. He boasts he is the favorite among foreigners.
Mark talks about the “outside” as if it might as well have been an alternate universe, a glass house to be broken into, even while it is a mere ride away.
All of what I describe to him of my everydays in Cebu – the coffee shops, grocery shopping, yoga sessions- seem like a drunkard’s dream. And whatever details that support them – the traffic, the lack of time, of sleep – I find myself exaggerating, describing a world more bold, or more chaotic, than it was.
In the end, he clarifies, did everyone look like the characters from On The Wings of Love like you described, or prettier?
For him, the outside meant he didn’t have the load of fifteen mouths to feed. No sacks of rice to portion. No wives to rotate his weekends around. No squabbles to moderate among his constituents in Sitio Laodanay, Bakdulong.
Like fellow Skylab drivers, he entertains the notion of a foreigner whisking him away to the better side. There, the T’boli would return to their lost practice of men staying at home, while the women work, uncomplaining in the role the gods hand them.
Mark has hazel brown eyes speckled with gold, and framed with the blackest of lashes that stand out from his bearded face. Between us, he looks like the the foreign one. A full T’boli.
I make the mistake of telling him how striking they are. Deep-set and defined. Enough to draw a woman’s envy. It was a flippant comment. An accidental flirtation.
“Alam nyo ba anong ibig sabihin ng Skylab?” Mark asks with a voice that has teased and taunted since then.
“What?” I answer as we approach a waterfront bungalow in wooden stilts. The element in the lake, the same Dwata that shows herself in a weaver’s dream has already taken me.
I cup a water lily in my palm, purposely detaching, half listening. But Mark insists on delivering the punchline.
“Skylab. Short for Sakay na, Lab.”
A splash, as if from someone falling, wakes me up. Last night, an Argentinian and some fishermen stage an all-night drinking session on my doorstep. They were still there when I go out at dawn.
Life starts early in S’bu. Spotlights from fish plots turn off at the first sign of daylight. Boat motors purr from around the bend.
On one side of the water is a mosque that stands between the shrubbery and the small-stilted houses so close to water, its residents use the patio to cast and collect nets.
On the other side is a chapel, its wooden exterior taken by an overgrowth of gotu kola. The day before, a bell rang from across the lake, signaling the Angelus.
There is a solemnity in how this world works. I sit in my veranda, looking at the outlines of mountains that surround S’bu, the very ones Mark mentions protects them from insurgents.
The lake has a manifold of purposes: ice box, bathtub, washing machine, fish bowl, dream catcher. The water that connects all of these, all of them, cannot be owned. But there’s no stopping those in its peripheries from setting fences to make the lake part of their frontage. They cage S’bu’s biggest export, the cultured tilapia, a timorous creature that appears only on my plate. And it was when picking on their bones cooked in vinegar, paksiw style, when Mark finds me.
He assesses the scene, amber bottles, murky broth, a centimeter left of Tanduay on the table, and raises a brow in question.
“Naubusan ba ng tubig yung ilog kagabi?”
The motorcycle is Mark’s steed, and stage.
He sings every chance he gets, timing the highs and lows of his lines to match the Cotabato landscape. He sings to congratulate himself for conquering an incline in T’daan Kini Springs. He sings when we pass through the rice fields of Hasiman, his baritone cutting through the strain of cicadas carried by wind.
“Iyan, T’boli yan.” Mark points out in between to a man going out of a general merchandise store. And him, and him.
The full breeds, and half-breeds. The B’laan, and Igorot. The ones from datu ancestry, and the nouveau riche. He lets go of the accelerator in order to point out to them.
He corrects my pronunciation of his tribe’s name as if to not know is a rub on their status as minority. T’boli, he repeats, is said with a soft roll on the second syllable. When on the first, it refers to their language, a language he refuses to sing in.
How powerful it would be, I prod, to have his voice as medium for a chant, an oral story of mountain and light. Sometimes I catch myself wanting Mark to fulfill the caricature of the T’boli in my mind. The one I came to South Cotabato for, to find whatever answer lies in their simplicity.
Is that what he is afraid of? His T’boli identity oversimplified, or used as entertainment? My inquiries to him come out as judgment. He lets it go by singing the first lines of Journey’s Faithfully.
We make a game out of spotting full-blooded T’bolis, his guesses strategic, mine trivial, relying on the color of skin, the only common denominator I spot in all his targets.
“Iyan Ilonggo.” he points to a chinky-eyed, fair man just off the sidewalk.
The Ilonggos are overtaking S’bu, he says with a grimace. The population is now 70 residents for every 30 immigrants. The rich Ilonggos open stores, and buy land in the poblacion. They bring with them skinny jeans, batchoy, and a dangerous dilution to a people that have too many issues with modernization as is. Adding a different culture, religion, and language to the mix seems like a step closer to extinction.
Mark shrugs it off though. They have also brought with them his prized videoke set. P5.00 a song. P5.00 for temporary release.
His magnus opus, Kahit Isang Saglit, becomes the soundtrack to tilapia and Tanduay meals. It will be his winning number in Tawag ng Tanghalan, the record of his escape, one that will take him out of this place if his wheels cannot.
Tagalog, a language we both do not own, is the language we slip into as common ground to each other’s novelty. It is new land. With it, we are both outsiders.
“Kahit sandali/Kahit isang saglit/Mayakap ka…” He sings at Aguilar’s, a restaurant specializing in, what else, tilapia, for what seemed like the 20th time. The owner lets him be. He is good for business.
He takes my hand as he holds on to the last line. I don’t have the heart to tell him his masterpiece reminds me, not of romance, but funerals.
What I want to tell Mark was I understood his urgency, that need to be anywhere other than just there. Just away. Away from the pressures of carrying a whole people’s identity. It was this sentiment that landed me in S’bu in the first place.
There is a certain kind of tourist that comes to these parts. They thrive in the underdeveloped, hoping the place remains in a standstill like carefully-preserved specimen.
This is the part of the narrative I guiltily leave out. Whereas Mark longs for escape, his cage is built by the economic enablement of tourists like myself who push him back, and make him stay.
Ancestry. Lineage. Obligation. Such baggage. He seemed to hate it all.
Empathy for Mark, and all young T’bolis, who long for lace instead of T’nalak, fries instead of fak – native frog – is temporarily forgotten as I set foot at the School of Living Tradition.
The gono bong in the school, a two-sloped house on stilts made of cogon and kawayan, is a bed and breakfast on one side, and weaving center on the other. It is ode and lament to the dying, to a culture that has come to rely on strangers to appreciate their existence. They resign to the over commercialization of their kind, to national artists that dance in ferry boats to survive.
Mark drops me off, refusing to come in, insisting to wait across the road, where the karaoke was.
The school is run by Ate Maria, a cultural worker that parallels preservation as a defense of the ancient from the transient.
There is a discussion about cultural sensitivity on the top floor. Students dressed in malong and T’nalak find their place in the tier. The younger ones in front, and the College students, the five of them who attend anyway, at the back. They hide behind the wooden beams, heads drooped, waiting for the inevitable sermon about their sneakers and jeans.
Ate Maria shows a film on S’bu’s treasures – the brassmakers and wood carvers, musicians, and singers. And almost immediately after, plunges on the perils of forgetting.
There is nothing new in this discourse. Everyone in the room has heard it before. But there is a stress in her demeanor. The more educated the young seem to be, the more detached they also become to their lumad origins.
She is convinced the screech of the tahao bird, the dreams of the weavers, the poetry of the lamingon will only return if its people also return to where they are rooted.
“You need to go back, kids.” she lashes. “You need to look back.”
The enemy is right across the street. Mark’s amplified rendition of Marco Sison’s My Love will See you Through cuts through her lecture. It serves as timely case to everything she takes active resistance to.
Taking opportunity of the distraction, the students go down one by one to the ground flour, exiting in the quietest way.
The restaurant across the school insists on throwing me a send-out. The cook nets five tilapia from the artificial pond. He cooks it in all the ways he knows how: grilled, fried, sweet and sour, paksiw and in clear soup, tola. He gives his customers free beers to take part.
I am too conscious to invite Ate Maria, to let her participate in the very thing she stands against. I ask the landlord instead if I can invite Mark and his family.
“Ah, the festival winner. Good voice.” he tells me, then adds as afterthought “But he has forgotten how to be a T’boli.”
Mark comes alone. The beer and gin elevate his woes, turning them to desperate pleas.
Please, take him away. His first wife cheats. His second too, with her uncle. His third, with his first cousin. The fourth is tucked away in Klubi. And the fifth is heartless. Doesn’t cook or clean; lets him do all the chores after a backbreaking day.
Please sponsor my kid, Angelo. Or take me. Save me. Save my family.
In the crumbling duality of Cebu and S’bu, I realize he could very well be me, and I him. I am stuck by the randomness of our fates.
The room darkens, one of the many brownouts of the day. The lake below deepens in its signature purple haze.
In the distance, a rooster crows, setting off a sequence of other crows. And it is here, away for a time, that something tells me that while I want to save him, save all the displaced, I cannot.
An askal sleeps on the foot of my bed in the communal room that could accommodate twelve. The sloped window allows a view of the highway where a bygone tune, and the work chatter of women, drift in.
I like this sense of community, could picture the gono bong in mountain tops where T’boli elders sleep together; husbands, wives, and children, with no need for borders. Bonol – small fish from streams – and banalon – gabi cooked in leaves – are passed from hand to hand.
This is not idyllic to the modern sensibility, of course. The deity of progress, Tomorrow , offers a more promising prospect : that in its landscape, anyone can find a niche of his own, a place where individuality isn’t bound by culture, or condition.
My phone lights up to reveal an unanswered greeting. Hyu h’lafus. Good morning.
I’ve ignored many Hyu h’lafuses since then.
Each time, I summon the higher beings, Dwata if need be, to ask the people in the world of water and glass to stay, to stay.