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No rice:

Evkim from the hinterlands

The English philosopher, Bertrand Russell, never visited a Philippine barangay, except in the form of disembodied epithets churning inside my head as I cycle my way through a string of rural communities stretching from the municipality of Tunga to Carigara. Carigara as a development is unhappily strewn along a beautiful part of the Leyte coastline, without any town planner or public official or collective will of the citizenry having gone to any trouble to make the town equal to the beauty of the sea. This sort of passive vandalism – vandalism by failure of public office; by absence of aesthetic intelligence; by emotional dereliction – means Carigara is not so much lived in as passively suffered by its citizenry. Perhaps a seaside town might not have been so blighted by neglect had the Philippine public school system’s curriculum included students’ exposure to models of aesthetic beauty. Maybe then people would have been enculturated to think twice – or just once! – about how a town’s coast (let’s call it its shoreline, its marina or even its beach) could be an expression of civic pride and a place of civic coexistence. True, there’s almost 100 feet of palm-lined promenade, so someone’s tried, but where the town square and a park should be, there’s just a tatty market and a row of wistful squats.  

But on the day of my bike ride I never made it as far as the coast. Instead, well before I got there, I had what Bertrand Russell would have termed a ‘collision’.

“A happy individual,” Russell writes, “feels he is part of the stream of life and not a hard, separate entity like a billiard ball.” Russell, I suppose, must have thought his thoughts with an absolute conviction, but that notwithstanding, suppose your “feeling” that you are in the stream of life masks the condition that you are, in fact, not? Suppose the stream you are metaphorically in needs to be forsaken for life to be lived as it is, and not as you imagine it to be?

And so, I squeezed the brakes of my bike and came to an abrupt stop on a yet-to-be paved track in a rural eastern Visayan barangay. The earth suddenly beneath my feet has a name. It’s called Barugo.

It’s then when life comes at me, in an acute and challenging form, when I pit myself as a ‘hard, separate entity’ against a village, and collide like a billiard ball. It’s the collision that punctures an intense, dense packed skein of life: the life lived by an agglomeration of villages in a manner almost wholly hidden from view, and which, now I’ve stopped my bike, is suddenly revealed. I realize I am no longer looking at what’s about me complacently, as if through a single and myopic lens, but kaleidoscopically, in its bewildering and myriad forms. Because for all the apparent banality of the landscape, with its familiar shades of green, its familiar languid carabao, its familiar indolent rice paddies and huge arcs of sky, a ‘collision’ with a rural Filipino family is just that: kaleidoscopic, and mesmerizingly so.

Moments after stopping, I’m off my bike, up a dirt path and transposed into a world saturated with difference and steeped in an emotional and psychological miasma so dense I realize how foolhardy it is to try to sum up the condition of a rural Filipino in a single, binding epithet. Yes, the family I’m with is an index of poverty. But let’s set aside all reductive indices, because there’s nothing singular at all here. Everything is piled up, in multiples.

I’ve never been a family doctor, but I feel, at that moment of induction into a marginal world as if I am thronged by patients, but patients in the old, original meaning of the word, as those to whom suffering happens and who are obliged to exist is a state of forbearance. Except, here is no illness. If any symptoms are to be diagnosed, they are psychic, and indicative of frustrated yearning, thwarted desire, hampered destiny, asphyxiated aspiration, unrealized purpose, and striving without the thing striven for coming into view.

I’m made to think, notwithstanding I’ve stood there for no more than 2 minutes, that hunger, to which the rural Filipino is habituated, mutates into a type of blessing. Here’s why. Because imagine such psychologically wrought states of being existing on a full stomach? Does the rural Filipino, anonymized in a barangay, now and then thinking that to step out of it into Saudi Arabia, or Qatar or Singapore is an easier step than trying to realize a future within existing horizons, manage to quieten his or her deepest and most insistent yearnings only because the metabolism is tamped down by a meagerness of diet?

And so comes a first ‘collision’. I adjust my mental balance, shoes off, standing on the home’s earthen floor. I notice what appears to be its defining feature: a feature that exerts a powerful presence because it’s actually an absence. There’s a kitchen, but the fire is not lit. No pots boiling. Around this central absence gather the shadows and shades – the unobtrusive yet extraordinary presence, there and at the same time withdrawn - of a Filipino family, whom I must itemize, one by one, to know what my collisions mean.

First, Marvis, a 15-year-old year girl with a beautiful, kept-out-of-the-sun paleness to her skin, who attends high school, but does so, her presence right there and then indicating, only sporadically, when there’s something to put in the pot for lunch. Not today, though. So, no school. Like a stick that gets progressively whittled away, so her future’s whittled by her every forced absence from school.

With her, her three younger brothers, all, as is the fashion, with hair highlighted in the saffron-orange dye so popular in the rural Philippines and which makes me want to put whatever stuff it is they soak into it under a microscope to assess its toxicity. But that’s a gripe for another time, an ache for another heart. The middle brother, Evkim, is the odd one out here. He dropped out of the elementary school which sits not 20 meters from his home, last year. And it was he who, when I pitched up on my bike believing myself, wrongly, to be a Russellian stream of life, was sat on the school wall, shoeless and shirtless. Which was as much as he could muster to give his day some sort of cohesion.  

But it’s Evkim who turns out to be the day’s good angel. If in a car, a thing hermetically sealed from the world it passes through, tinted windows absolving those in it from any sense of identification with what lies outside, one’s journey is predicated upon keeping life at bay. On a bike, one’s relation to the world is softer, more viscerally immediate, a thing of sudden and sometimes overwhelming correspondences.  And having my hands lightly perched on the brake levers becomes a way of anticipating a relational disposition to that world as if at any moment I might stop and have something to do with it.

And that’s how it is. As I approached the barangay, the brain heated up its relational dendrites: it knows it might have a socializing job to do. And as the child, by happenstance sitting pauper-like on the side of the road on the school wall came into view, the mind’s moral motors kicked into gear.

What happened, then, is the getting out of what I thought Russell’s stream to find the life more often evaded. I stop because my life intersects with a moral node: an interstice where one life has to do with another, on an ethical basis. On a basis that intuits and responds  to the vital striving of a child notwithstanding his indolence as he sits, merely metabolizing on the school wall.

When I stop, I resuscitate my Waray to ask why he’s not in school. Then, fated-ness kicks in. He might have run off. He might have disdained the intrusion. Instead, he agrees to come with me to the Principal. And that’s when all mayhem breaks loose. Suddenly, there are all the 120 children enrolled at the school and the 6 teachers gathered on the stoop of the 6th grade classroom to gawk – politely, respectfully, earnestly – at the spectacle of an Americano asking of the Philippine public school system – free, staffed by highly committed teachers, structured about well-built schools, and in rural areas like Barugo unimpacted by urban blight – why a child of school age is sat on the fence.

It’s worth it. All gathered there get to hear Evkim’s solemn answer to the question: Americano, teachers in a half circle and the children from Grades 1 to 6 listening to his two, profound and profoundly unsettling words. Words which cut through the humid air like a sharpened knife. Words which leave you stunned. Words which have the power of a philosopher, a seer, a prophet, or of an oracle spoken from the temple of Apollo at Omphalos.

‘No rice’, he says.

It’s true. Back at the house, the empty pot and the cold cinders.

Which explains why the other brothers attend school only half a day a time; half a bite each day at the cherry. After all, who can stay on task with the gastric juices of an empty stomach percolating in an acidic stew?

And then, arrayed before me still, as the lens of the kaleidoscope shifts again, the children’s father: spartan-like, slim, sinewy, with the honed physique of the habitual tree climber. Because that, indeed, is what he is: a harvester of tuba. It’s in relation to him that the collision becomes awkward in a palpable, tactile way. I’m the intruder, after all, he the alpha male. But his manner is disposed so as to suggest he’s withdrawn his presence to shield himself from humiliation, from shame. I think, because I could not help thinking it, of the Filipino male who wakes each day and engages in the seemingly Freudian ritual of gathering to him his cockerel strung to its peg – all strutting insouciance and raucous crowing – and which, surely, taps down into an unconscious need; that of the man striving to give expression to his testosteronal energy, when the cock fight becomes, as a fierce and fiercely beautiful fight to the death, an emblem of his repressed virility.

But at that moment, on a bare earth floor, with the rice pot cold, the father seems devoid, and the empty stomachs of his sons a type of accusation of failed provision; failed foresight; failed diligence. No one shakes hands in rural Philippines, but I feel impelled to try and stifle, by doing so, the passive casting of aspersions my presence there seems to create.

His wife? At the hospital in Carigara, sick, with the youngest child.

I did, then, the least foolish thing I could think of, ringing in my ears Nietzsche’s epithet that  Ein mal ist kein mal: to do something once is not enough. But I did it once anyway. I buy 20kg of rice (from the tub marked marasa!) and all the fried chicken from a roadside stall.

As the children eat, the smell of chicken rises like scent wafted from a priest’s censer and the kaleidoscope turns its fretted form once more. In the middle of aspirations, needs, compunctions, wants already spread before me with the variegation of a Jackson Pollock painting, the one other boy, a neighbor, whom I learn is 16, tells me that he’s ‘a gay’.

So abrupt is the announcement, the declaration, the insistence, that he seems to speak not from his sexual predilection but from the same condition of poverty that has ensnared the others, most especially Evkim, whose empty rice bowl finally got the better of his efforts to go to school. What I mean is, he doesn’t have much, materially. But at least he has something: his clear and shining sexual identity. He doesn’t have to go foraging for a sense of who he is; rather, his disposition lays down for him a direction marker, pointing to somewhere beyond the surrounding rice paddies and giving him a sense of propulsion toward it; a sense of decisive meaning while everything around him acts in dilution of it.

Yes, he seems to argue by his statement of his sexuality, a rice pot’s empty, but I have a nutrient force that defines my desiring and my desirability against the confounding bleakness of poverty.

I begin to lace my shoes, the collisions of the ‘cold, hard billiard ball’ yielded something soft, sad, and wistful. Yielding something, I mean, full of life.

And what then, of Russell’s notion of happiness? To take possession of it, I walk with Evkim to his school. We cross the road. We greet the Grade 4 teacher. She points to Evkim’s desk. His stool. His pen. His book. She shows me his name in the register, written there as if suggesting there’s a fate to avail of other than the one bestride a wall. And we all agree he’ll be back in school the next day.  

Can one be happy with an Evkim not in school? If yes, then happiness is not a thing worth pursuing. With an Evkim in school, we act in congruence with what Darwin and Nietzsche discerned to be qualities essential to life: that is, our striving for; our yearning.

Evkim’s a striver, too. He just needed someone to remind him of it. So he could begin over.