- My first experience of Taunggyi is vertigo. The capital of Myanmar’s Shan State literally sits on top of the mountain, so I was dizzy during my first few days in Saint Aloysius Gonzaga Institute of Higher Studies. The altitude perhaps, the thinness of the air, or the coldness (over ten degrees less than what I’m used to).
- But perhaps it was also the sheer reality of the volunteer experience dawning on me. I always knew that I was not travelling to Myanmar to go on a vacation, but knowing is always different from understanding, from realizing.
- En route to Myanmar we had stopped by Bangkok, where for three days we went to see gloriously gilded buildings in between good food and sleep in a slightly high-end hotel – luxury proved to be very bad prelude to volunteer work. While also comfortable and far from bad, our rooms in SAG could not help but look humble compared to Astera Sathorn. It was the vertigo of fall, really, expectations finally meeting – and hitting – reality.
- But I had no intention of becoming a tragic character. I was here to be a volunteer, and I had to tell myself failure and disappointment will be the most familiar things in this wonderfully foreign land.
- Part of the way I coped with the disappointment was by telling myself Ateneo de Davao sent me here, all expenses paid, not only as a volunteer but as part of the pioneering deployment of the Cardoner Volunteer Program. This program was designed for the school’s alumni and faculty, so while its explicit aim is to contribute to the formation of its graduates and teachers, it also inevitably showcases the best Ateneo has to offer.
- On our welcoming ceremony, I was the first of the volunteers to enter the media room, where all the Integrated Program students were waiting. The students gave a frenzied cheer. I thought it was such a warm welcome, until teacher Yiyi San, the school’s academic administrator, told me I resembled the vocalist of a famous Burmese rock band.
- Teaching is such a fulfilling thing. The look in students’ eyes when they look at an incomprehensible poem, then you help them understand it – you can see that sight regardless of your student’s nationality.
- I had a horrible five year teaching career in the Philippines, and doing it here in Taunggyi only made it clearer that it’s not the teaching itself that was dreadful, but the putting up with fellow teachers. Fellow teachers in SAG have been lovely so far.
- Burmese food has a wild and very diverse spectrum of tastes, with many ingredients I haven’t even heard of. Eating has been all about discoveries for the first few months.
- Best Burmese food so far: Tohpu Nway (sticky Shan rice noodles in a thick pudding of chickpea flour, seasoned with sesame seeds and sweet syrup), Ohn no Khao Swe (noodles in thick coconut curry soup, garnished with bean fritters), and Monke Pyar Lue (rice cake with jiggery, coated in toasted rice flour, somewhere between Filipino espasol and Turkish delight). The secret to growing to love a place is to seek the familiar, but also the endemic.
- The Burmese have a very potent – but underrated – sense of humour. The language barrier is not soundproof of laughter, even kids who struggle with English throw jokes at you.
- The soil in Shan state is just so eye-catchingly red. Rich in minerals (Myanmar is one of the world’s most mineral-rich countries), fertile for agriculture, but also a faint reminder of how much bloodshed this country has only until recently seen.
- It became immediately clear to me that I had come to Myanmar at a very exciting and turbulent time – the very young and still quite delicate democracy has nevertheless already had profound, perhaps permanent, effects on society. The kids are very tech-savy and are always online, and they’re already grumbling about authoritarian relics of the past, even if this past was only just six years ago.
- That irritation is justified though: Burma is booming, but it would have the momentum to rival developed countries if the remaining problems of military times were to be addressed. The kids complain, for example, that Taunggyi’s libraries could be better.
- I cannot help but envy the Philippines I left behind – I also left my country at a very interesting time. One of my dreams, that a Mindanawon be elected President, finally happened, and it’s Rodrigo Duterte of all people! Federalism, the death penalty, streamlining of government processes – things I’ve only dreamed would happen are fast becoming realities. To hit home to what I missed, passport expirations will soon be for 10 years, just after I had mine renewed for five.
- Taunggyi has a unique superstition: people are not advised to travel up and down the city in groups of nine. If they do, accidents might happen to them. This is attributed to the guardian spirits (Nats) of the city, who have a monopoly of the number nine. If a group must travel with nine people, the group must bring a rock, which will count as a tenth person. As a visitor, I ought to follow the laws of this land, even those of its unspeakable forces
- Myanmar has so much unshared wonders: a temple with mysterious black fish in its lake that emerge from nowhere, a whole tribe – the Pa’O – which claims descent from a dragon, cloth woven from thread made of lotus sap in Inle, Every village in Inle not only floating in the middle of the lake but also having their own specialized craft, a forest of pagodas in Shwe Inn Thein dating back to the Ashoka Empire, households with Buddha statues that have been in the family for over two centuries, a vibrant array of intricate hand woven fabrics, each tribe with a different pattern, worn as longyi.
- Bamar, Kachin, Shan, Pa’O, In, Kayan, Kayin, Chin, Akhar, not to mention Chinese and Indian – I have never seen so many ethnicities in one classroom. And they’re all understanding – fascinated even – with each other’s culture. For all Myanmar’s decades of ethnic strife, the young people let one hope for a more harmonious future.
- Like Davao, Taunggyi is very multilingual. And as the only person who has ever specialized in Davao Filipino (yang nagahalo-halo gud ang Tagalog at Bisaya), I’m trying to plant the seeds of language contact appreciation here. So far the kids are amused. All according to plan. And Buwan ng Wika is coming in the Philippines!
- I am disoriented by how the Jesuits in Taunggyi live. Father Paul the school’s director washes the dishes and does his own laundry. Father Titus plays soccer with the Jesuit candidates and irons his own clothes. Forget Padre Damaso’s Ecclesiastic Dignity outraged over getting the chicken’s neck, the priests here would even let you eat ahead of you.
- But then again, Father Joel Tabora was also like that before we left Davao, so maybe it’s a Jesuit thing.
- Jesuit institutions are wonderfully fascinated with other faiths. While Ateneo de Davao is the only Catholic school in the world with an Islamic Studies Center, the school motto of SAG is ‘Śīla, Samādhi, Paññā,’ ‘Virtue, Mindfulness, and Wisdom,’ the three categories of the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism.
- The kids here have had to put up with very difficult education conditions. They are not used to asking questions (much less questioning their teachers), and learning is all about memorizing. Application is a strange and sometimes scary experience for them. But they’re enjoying it.
- They’re hungry for extracurriculars! Ever since the 8888 Uprising student activity has been all but banned in Myanmar, so now that the most famous player of the Uprising is running the country, the kids are doing everything they couldn’t a few years back. The universities are slow to pick up on this, but SAG is actively allowing them to do it. This means the kids are learning to love SAG more than the universities they go to.
- But they’re even hungrier for learning, palpably more than Filipinos. I give comments to essays in front of the whole class, and where Filipino students would be too shy or scared to be discussed, the students here jostle to be the one who gets to be critiqued next. They’re hungry even for criticism.
- All the things I was good at but time in the Philippines made me feel were useless are now proving to be helpful, even appreciated here: literature, parliamentary procedure, constitution drafting – and to think just a year ago a program head in PWC dismissed ‘creative writing’ as just about writing business letters.
- Sleep during my first month in Taunggyi has been marked by nightmares. A year’s worth of nightmares in just a month. Nothing supernatural, but dreams of rejections: Father Paul saying I’m useless; teacher Yiyi saying I’m useless, the old hags in PWC coming to Taunggyi to declare how useless I am, my Ateneo and Silliman professors telling Father Paul I’m useless. I have never been more appreciated than I have been here, and my subconscious cannot help but forewarn me about how inevitable rejection and being taken for granted can seem like. One goal I ought to set while I am here is to get used to being valued.
- It is very easy to miss home, and one of the things one misses most is the food. Thank goodness I had been compiling my family recipes – to entertain the people here we cook Filipino dishes, and I have many old recipes to dabble with.
- Another advantage of being sent out on a mission far from home: you get the freedom to try things your family would not let you, like cooking.
- I smuggled three of my plants from the Philippines. They have struggled for the first month but are now beginning to thrive. Two of them, which look like weeds, the kids unwittingly uprooted when they were helping clean the lawns. I had to dig through heaps of uprooted weeds and rotten leaves, and against all odds I found them. Now they’ve just produced seedlings. The only sure way of losing something, I realized, is if you don’t try your hardest to recover it.
- Having a long distance relationship is difficult, especially if it is for an extended period of time. The constant fear of her cheating is there, but what’s really scary is if both of you grow to learn to live lives without each other.
- But I am not going to live a life here. SAG and Taunggyi feel very comfortable and welcoming, and it’s not difficult to feel at home. But early on I realized that I am here as a visitor, and this land may know the language of my footsteps (in the first month not yet even that!), but it shall never know the intimacy of my roots. I am here to contribute to the growth of the place and the people here, but my contribution is all the living I will be doing. I will never – and ought to never – be more than that.
- Which is to say, there’s no reason for the pretty Ilongga I left in the Philippines to be worried
- On the motorboat crossing Inle Lake I wonder why I am here in Myanmar. My hometown of Kidapawan, where for almost a hundred years my family has lived, is probably as much in need as this SAG (perhaps more), and yet I am here in a faraway land, where even the way the fishermen row their boats is foreign. And I thought of how my projects for Kidapawan – an anthology of essays, a history book, literary projects – are all stalled because the people in Kidapawan are not cooperating. I have tried to help my hometown, but it’s refusing to help itself. I go where I am needed, but also where I am wanted.
- And then I remembered when I first went back to Kidapawan after five years of being away – the sheer devastation I felt when I realized the place I called home really was no longer home, the unutterable sadness at seeing all the familiar things now become strange and foreign, refusing to be familiar again exactly because they had been once familiar. That had been an unresolved issue, a fundamental question to which I could not find an answer: where do I belong now?
- But at that moment, in the middle of Inle Lake surrounded by the Shan Hills, thousands of miles from Lake Venado and Mt Apo, I understood.
- ‘The changes do not change the portrait of the past that never leaves,’ writes the Kidapawan poet Rita Gadi, ‘any more than how the map remains the sanctuary within my soul, indelibly charting every journey I have made, beyond, and back.’ I am not in Kidapawan, and perhaps I shall never be back in Kidapawan again, but right now, this boat is Kidapawan, and every bit of ground I will stand on is Kidapawan, because that is what it means to have a town in your blood and bones – that wherever you are, you will continue living its life. I never left Kidapawan, because I am
- All these thoughts came with the noise of the motorboat’s gas engine. Matsuo Basho was right – noise is silence, and (when the gas engine stopped for a bit) silence can be as palpable as noise.
- I clearly need to find more Burmese writers to quote. I’ve read seven so far but all of them are fictionists. I need to read more Burmese poetry.
- It would be no exaggeration to say that my room has become Philippine territory. When I am inside it to sleep, work, or write, I often forget I’m in another country. It is full of things I brought from Davao, and it’s as if I unpacked home from my bags when I opened my large bag with the Duterte sticker. Some of the plants I brought even come from Kidapawan. But for the sometimes freezing cold unheard of in the Philippines (a welcome strangeness!) the room is my sanctuary of familiarity.
- Outside the room’s door, I have a foot mat spelling out the word ‘Welcome.’ It faces the room exit-wise rather than entry-wise – a constant reminder that I am the one being welcomed into a foreign country every time I step out of my little pocket of home.
- And it is a constant reminder that every time I step out, there could be a new insight waiting for me, if only I’m willing enough to brave the new, unfamiliar world outside.
The President of the Society of Ateneo Literature and English Majors (SALEM), student literary org of the Ateneo de Davao University, has a colourful history.
The club was revived from a defunct course club in 2010, and has since become one of Mindanao’s most prominent student literary organizations. Since re-founding, it has had five presidents.
Over the years, certain expectations of the student occupying the post have become conventions, many of them solidifying as responsibilities and qualifications. As the second to hold the office, I think I can say that the SALEM President is expected to:
- Begin his/her term by helping out with the Ateneo de Davao Summer Writers Workshop
- Be one of the leading – if not the leading student literary writer in Ateneo
- Be published, at least once, at least on the local level (meaning at least the Davao Writer’s Guild’s Dagmay), with a literary work, preferably before taking office
- Be a voracious reader, who can namedrop at least three Filipino writers he/she has read, and talk about at least three literary theories in informal conversation (the numbers are arbitrary but you get the point)
- Be well versed in Ateneo de Davao’s own literary tradition
- Be an intellectual with a chagrin for any proud display of ignorance, but must never be a grammar prescriptivist
- Actively, audaciously, and prolifically conceptualize and initiate activities that will lead to the growth and development of the school’s aspiring writers – ‘Keep the AdDU Writers awake,’ as the battle cry from Ricky de Ungria puts it
- Connect Ateneo students to the greater literary community in Davao, in the Philippines, and if possible in the world
- Have the wide network of literary contacts necessary for the above two
- Inform, involve, and exploit SALEM’s large and moneyed pool of alumni about in and for club activities
- Regularly represent SALEM and AdDU in all literary gatherings and events in Davao
- Help outside parties who want to bring literary events to AdDU
- Bring outside parties into AdDU to have literary events
- Actively cooperate with other club presidents in Ateneo (SALEM pioneered collaboration between clubs)
- Be inclusive and accessible to students, specially members, and be contagiously passionate about literature
- Nurture and take special care of the new members,making them feel the love of the club through the President
- Groom, as early as possible, the next President who meets, or who has the potential to meet, the above qualifications.
The row of Kidapawan Pine Trees is my hometown’s most iconic feature. Its distinct soft and round canopies are what come to mind to anyone who has been to Kidapawan.
What few people realize is that the trees are intimately tied up with Kidapawan history. They are the most visible and most lasting legacy of Alfonso Angeles Sr, Kidapawan’s first elected Mayor and one of its founding figures.
A school teacher by profession, Angeles, an Ilonggo, was first appointed Mayor of the post war commonwealth government of the then municipality of Kidapawan, the last to be appointed so, before succeeding in remaining in office after being elected in 1948. After stepping down in 1955 He would also go on to win again as mayor in 1964, last serving in 1967. He would also be elected board member, then vice governor of North Cotabato in the 1970s.
It was at some point in his long and intermittent time at the helm of Kidapawan when he had the pine trees planted. They have been there since.
What his motivations were other than mere beautification could be easy surmised: just after the declaration of the third republic, the country was still feeling very much American, and one hallmark of American public planning is the centrality of trees. Angeles might have envisioned an urbane, western-style town when he was Mayor, and the pine trees (an uncommon variety of tree in this part of the world) might have been part of that vision. In any case, well maintained the trees certainly have that effect, and it is a relic of Kidapawan’s American past.
Along the row you can also find monuments to the city’s history, or at least you would have in the past. One particularly interesting statue, that of a policeman holding a child, used to stand at the juncture between the Main road and Jose Abad Santos Street, has been there since I was a kid but has since been removed. Ateneo de Davao’s fifth SALEM President, Ericka Gadat, tells me it was a monument to her grandfather, a policeman who had attempted to save a young girl injured in an accident and who screamed at the people around the scene in anger at their indifference. It is a fascinating story that obviously needs to be researched further.
And it is of this which the pine trees are most emblematic: the very personal, unspoken histories of the Kidapawanons who live Kidapawan’s life. In her poem ‘Mid Year Notes,’ poet Rita Gadi (whose parents Emma and Gil, both Kidapawan mayors themselves, were contemporaries of Alfonso Angeles Sr) writes about rootedness with them: ‘and the pine trees still line the center of the main street, as memory continues describing the confirmation of my thoughts.’ As the very visible and distinct icon of Kidapawan, the pine trees also serve as a signpost of nostalgia for the Kidapawanon, the immutable landmark and ‘portrait of a past that never leaves, never will.’
But as embodiments of historicity and rootedness, the pine trees also suffer the threats those two important but abstract things face in this city that never remembers. Luis Malaluan planned to have the trees cut and replaced with Indian Trees when he was mayor. Fortunately, his vice mayor at the time was Angeles’ son, Alfonso Angeles Jr, who strongly opposed the move to save his father’s legacy.
It is a triumph he has won for all of Kidapawan, but one which the Kidapawanon must continue to fight.
I am both sentimental and gluttonous, and the sentimental urge to align parallels often plays a role in my choice of food. In the almost two months I’ve been here in the capital city of Myanmar’s Shan State, I’ve done a lot of eating, and because I’m living for an extended period of time in a foreign land, I cannot help but like stuff that establishes nostalgia and order.
Here’s the stuff I’ve eaten and loved so far:
Tohpu Nway: sticky noodles in a thick soup (pudding really) of boiled chickpea flour, topped with some chilies, sesame seeds, peanuts, coriander, and sweet syrup. This is a uniquely Shan delicacy, found only in Shan State (one way of dispelling homesickness is enjoying the best foreign thing in your new land). I’ve wanted to try this even before I arrived, and when I did I could only tremble in delight. Rich but light and tasty, this stuff is by far my favourite dish here.
Ohn no khao swe: noodles in a broth of coconut or evaporated milk and curry, topped with fresh onions, fritters, and coriander. This is another noodle I’ve wanted to try before arriving here, this has been rather touted as the Burmese laksa.
But Ohn no khao swe only resembles the Malay noodle dish in appearance, in taste it is an entirely different species of noodles altogether. It is lighter, with no meat, and there is a strong presence of onions. But I like it for its resemblance with tohpu nway and with laksa
Monke Pyar Lue: Literally translating to ‘ash sweet snack,’ this sweet is made from jaggery and glutinous rice, coated with toasted rice flour. It is somewhere between turkish delight and Kidapawan’s espasol, and that’s why I love it.
Tofu: all kinds of them! Shan state has probably the most diverse variety of tofu in the world. There’s soybean, but there’s also chickpea, zadaw be (yellow split peas), rice, and peanut. Peanut is by far my favourite. Tofu always has such an auspicious feel, and the variety here makes you think luck too can come in many delightful forms!
Nga Chate: no sentimentality here, this stuff is just gastronomic genius. black sticky rice with sugar, served with rich coconut milk. It is binignit without the pretentious camote and banana and langka and sago, coconut rice pudding with the simplicity of champorado.
Indian sweets: no sentimentality here either. The white cube like ones are like wonderfully overgrown pastillas. They’re great with:
Milked Tea: Of course I love the tea here. So strong you can feel the tea sediments in your tongue as you sip, Indian style milk tea in Taunggyi is served either with evaporated or condensed milk. I am so happy to be living in tea country.
Fritters: all kinds of them! Vegetables, tofu, beans, different kinds of flour, gourds, even rice – oily oily goodness!
There are so much more great stuff I’ve tried in the short time I have been here: balachong, lahpet, the green tea, nan gyi thoke, mohinga. I could list them all and the list would go on and on!
(CD Borden and I are compiling his absurd poems and I’m translating them to English! Here’s another crazy piece)
Translated by Karlo Antonio Galay David
Doc, help me, I told Doctor Wakwak, I’m being chased by my shadow!
The doctor looked around, aren’t you the one who’s doing the chasing?
No! I’m not lying, I told him, I swear, even if all the people who read this poem die.
He gave me a prescription, then he whispered to me in secret: dude, I’m not really a doctor.
I know, I answered, I’m the doctor and you’re the patient.
But he changed his mind: Dude I’m a doctor after all!
Of course you are, I said, Who said you weren’t?
Him! Doktor Wakwak answered, pointing at the hospital
Hey I have nothing to do with that! shouted the hospital, I’m just a hospital!
We were so shocked
the hospital was not wearing any pants.
ni CD Borden
Dok, tabangi ko, akong giingnan si Doktor Wakwak, Gigukod kos akong anino!
Naglingo-lingo ang mananambal, Di kaha ikay nanggukod?
Dili! Wala ko mamakak, miiingon ko, Mamatay pa gani tanang mobasa ani nga balak.
Gihatagan ko niyag resita ug gihunghongag sekreto: Dili bitaw ko doktor, bay.
Kahibaw ko, ako siyang giingnan, Ako ang doktor, ikaw ang pasyente.
Apan nausab ang iyang hunahuna: Doktor bitaw ko, bay!
Doktor bitaw, misulti ko, Kinsay nag-ingon nga dili?
Siya, mitubag si Doktor Wakwak samtang gitudlo ang ospital.
Wa koy labot ana, uy!, misiyagit ang ospital, Ospital ra intawon ko.
Hala! Nakuyawan ming duha . . .
Ang ospital walay gisul-ob nga sapot.
My girlfriend writes about me
(written in half an afternoon for a spoken word event in our university. I don’t often write spoken word poems, but I thought it was the perfect time to write about my writer, who always complains about how I never write about him.)
He’s an hour and a half away from me.
I’m not saying that he lives an hour and a half away from me,
No it’s not like he’s from Mintal and I’m from Panacan,
and that the only thing keeping us from being happy
is heavy traffic and drivers who insist that 25 people can fit in a jeep made for 20.
No, you see, distance and kilometers aren’t the only things separating us,
it’s not like our problem can be solved with a short ride on a Yellow Bus.
No, no, he’s an hour and a half away from me in a sense that
when I say ‘Good evening, baby’, he replies with a ‘Good afternoon, love.’
You must understand, that while I listen to the nightly songs of the crickets
he’s wrapped in bundles of cloth because temperatures reach a single digit
and that while he’s having dinner, I’m already getting ready to sleep
and that while he’s still sleeping, I’m already on my way to Ateneo on the jeep.
Because he’s an hour and a half away from me, breathing
in air that’s so cold and foreign to me, seeing
sights I only ever see in television or magazines, laughing
at jokes that weren’t of my construction, speaking
with people who can make him smile personally, learning
to live a life without me by his side.
It’s been two months since he last held my hands or
pushed away from my face these stubborn hair strands or
got tipsy from sharing a few mugs of butter beers or
whispered in my ear ‘Don’t worry, it’s only just a few years.’
And in that two months, he, the light of my life, was a a dimly-lit laptop screen
with PLDT always being a troll by making pixels out of his skin.
Although I could see him staring straight at me, especially when the internet’s strong
I had this weird feeling in my stomach that love shouldn’t work this way.
That this was absolutely wrong.
And when we Skype, it’s not that romantic when the first thing I hear is:
‘Hello? Hello? I can’t see you. Can you see me? Can you hear me, hello?’
But my laptop screen of a lover was our only connection,
so I stayed put and kept it to myself because I didn’t want to mention how
despite the wifi’s strength, I had my moments of weakness.
But you see, despite not getting the chance to hold him for a few years
or to not have him there when I failed Algebra, and had to shed some tears,
I knew this hour and a half between us would be worth it in the long run
as long as, in the far future, he’ll be beside me everyday to watch the rising of the sun.
Because distance, time, days, they’re all just numbers.
And he is a being of flesh and blood that cannot be scaled down to calculations
or expectations. He is him. And he has his life.
And I am me, and I have my own life.
But when you know you’ve met the cliched ‘The One’
The slow merge begins,and out emerged the sacrifices, the waiting, the hoping.
The pain, the momentary regrets, the blaming, the hour and a half.
And though the years may come and go, and life does its thing,
He can be rest assured that I will always belong to him.
In the now. In the yesterdays. In the future. In the international date line.
Even in the hour and a half.
Even in non-existent time.
There is tenderness to learn in these mountains:
from bushes planted wild
on the Shan hills; harnessed decay
in jars of shrimp, or grassy mustard leaf;
Dearness dressed from mud
as julienned Watercorn or threaded
Inle lotus, graped
into Ayethayar wine, or kilned
in Pa’o villages as water pots
from soil of reddest blood –
Trimmed, trained, or trellised,
but only in the shape of this land’s
untamed kindness, harnessing
the vigour of bamboo shooting skywards
to strum the songs of waterfalls yet to flow,
echoing the healing hush of streams
on this ever wounded earth.
That pain can be taught as wondrous thunder
to little children, metaphored
from the tenor of gunshots
in their war-torn villages,
That their precious breaths
can be wrapped at ease
in the most delicate wild-leaf
– Taunggyi, Shan State, Myanmar