spreading the sky

Monday, November 06, 2006

Dumaguete, One More Time

It was the last few days of summer, and the Dumaguete Writers Workshop was coming to a close. As I sat on my favorite bench along the Boulevard, I gazed upon the Dumaguete seascape for one last time and searched for the words I might use to describe it. After all our discussions on the use of metaphor, description, and symbolism, the prospect of describing the sea suddenly struck me as a difficult task. I fumbled around with numerous adjectives, but felt that none of them were the least bit suitable. At the back of my mind, I could hear Mom Edith’s voice commanding me to use only the perfect adjective, the most inevitable word. Adjectives like “beautiful” and “nice” were definitely out of the question, since they were too general and simply unexciting. The word “glorious,” however, would come off as too strong and would not fit the temperament of the sea on that calm summer day. If I settled for words such as these, I could already imagine how Mom Edith would tap emphatically on the manuscript with her black pen. “This is where it falls flat on its face,” she would say.

I found it difficult to look for the inevitable word to describe the sea, because I wanted to invest that word with my Dumaguete experience. The problem was that the three weeks I spent in the workshop were filled with so much meaning, that distilling my entire stay into as single word seemed impossible. Many writers had already written about Dumaguete: the blue sea that spilled into the blue sky, the Boulevard aglow with warm yellow lights, the acacia trees that rustled in the languid summer breeze, and of course, that inexplicable magic of Ed and Edith Tiempo. But whether they were able to do justice to their Dumaguete experience is something only they would know. For my part, I wanted to capture that moment when the hand of the master guided my unsure hand in penning first a word, then a sentence, then a paragraph, then an entire story. The challenge of capturing all of that in writing—to be perfectly frank—made me shake with fear.

For all young writers who have passed though the National Writers Workshop, Dumaguete was not just the semi-gothic architecture of Silliman University. It was not just the old Spanish mansions that stood proud as they faced the sea. It was not just the series of benches and lampposts that run the entire length of the seaside Boulevard. Dumaguete was more than just a place on the map, but a place where cherished memories were created. For me, Dumaguete was like a memorabilia, a tiny reminder of things forever loved.

I would always remember my room in the Hotel El Oriente. According to Bobby Villasis—a panelist of ours who works for the Negros Occidental Tourism office—our hotel was the oldest hotel in Dumaguete, and one which had not experienced a renovation since the day it was built. It was a twisted maze of 1950’s art deco, 1970’s disco, and 1990’s modernist architecture, as proof of the many decades it has been in existence. As I walked through the dreary corridors of the hotel, I noticed frayed wires sticking out from the ceiling, and was quickly reminded of all the news reports on TV about entire squatter communities burning down due to faulty electrical wiring. My bed was a World War Two hospital bed, which dipped in the middle due broken springs and a worn out mattress. Upon seeing it, I tried to imagine how many acts of love-making a typical bed would have to endure in order to reach such a sorry state. But in spite of the run-down nature of the El Oriente, I had learned to love the hotel for its strange yet unmistakable charm. On mornings when the summer sun was blazing bright outside our room, we would draw the thin yellow curtains and the entire room would take on the sweet yellow color of lemon-squares. I would then be transported to my childhood, when I used to gorge on lemon-squares until my mouth was sticky with the lemon syrup, and every thing I drank tasted of lemons.

Breakfast would be served in the hotel dining area at seven o’clock, since our workshop sessions started promptly at nine. On days when we would get up late due to several rounds of Red Horse from the previous night, we would quickly wash our faces, brush our teeth, skip breakfast and take a trike to the CAP building where the workshop sessions were held. The trikes in Dumaguete were much bigger than the ones in Manila, since they could fit four people, five including one more passenger who sat behind the driver.

The walk from El Oriente to the CAP building was a short two-block walk, which became familiar to all of us from the many times we passed down that road. First we would pass a small chapel on our right, which would be closed on weekdays and only opened during Saturday and Sunday evenings. The chapel looked forbidding, with all the ivy creeping over its adobe façade, and its wooden doors bolted shut using heavy chains. Every time I passed that chapel, I would always wonder whether the chains were used to prevent people from getting in, or to prevent something from getting out.

After the chapel, we would see a modest-looking laundry service named Mister Labada. There were other laundry services on the same stretch of road, but we chose Mister Labada to be the official laundry service of the 45th Dumaguete National Writers Workshop. The reason for this was because Mister Labada, despite its humble appearance, was actually a member of the International Fabric Care Institute, as declared by the sign that hung proudly over the store’s entrance. Generally, our experience with the laundry store was more than satisfactory, since our clothes were washed and pressed at the reasonable price of twenty-five pesos a kilo. The only instance when Mister Labada became the source of some inconvenience for us was when one of my female co-fellows discovered that upon retrieving her laundry, the padding of her bra was missing. I immediately accompanied her to Mister Labada to inquire about the missing pad, but the lady in charge said that they had not seen it. After that incident though, nothing ever went missing again, not even the tiniest stud on most ornate pair of jeans. The missing bra pad, however, was never seen nor heard from again.

Down the road from Mister Labada would be the notorious El Amigo. It was an open-air bar where crazy artists would stay up drinking until the first light of day. It was there that total strangers became best of friends, bitter enemies became inseparable lovers, and amateur writers from Manila were initiated into the rites of drunken artistry. At the helm of all of this were the resident workshop drunks, Alfred A. Yuson, and Cesar Ruiz Aquino. The usual fare would be cheap bottles of Red Horse, plus a pulutan of sisig or some other greasy dish that oozed with oil and cholesterol. Sometimes, Bobby Villasis would join in, but instead of Red Horse, he would prefer the simple yet potent mix of Tanduay-Tubig. By around four in the morning, El Amigo would be the site of drunken bodies sprawled on the table, or worse, on the floor. There were many times when we had to literally drag a drunken co-fellow back to El Oriente, after a particularly vigorous round of drinking.

At the corner of El Amigo, we would then turn right and enter the CAP Building. There, my works would be praised one day, maligned the next, only to be praised again eventually. As our panelists debated over misplaced commas, wrong epigraphs, and faulty titles, we had an endless supply of biscuits and cookies to sustain us through the sessions. On lucky days, an anonymous donor would be generous enough to supply us with suman, or pancit, just to break the monopoly of Hansel Mocha Sandwich. The suman was a big hit, since it had some hint of chocolate in it, instead of just being pure rice. For our drinks, we could help ourselves with the water dispenser outside the room. But since I was stricken by a terrible cold at that time, I would always opt for orange juice instead of water. The orange juice, however, was care of myself. To stave the sniffles, I bought a big pack of Ponkana and brought it to all our workshop sessions from day one up to the end. If that pack of orange juice had been a rational creature, it would have very well counted as an additional fellow to the Dumaguete Workshop. But I was not the only one to benefit from the presence of powdered orange juice, since the other fellows started to develop colds as well and badly needed extra doses of Vitamin C. Mom Edith even asked if she could have some for herself, and of course, how could I refuse. I noticed, however, that her glass was much larger than everyone else’s. It was not the squat little cups that the fellows and other panelists were given, but a tall and elegant-looking glass fit for dining sets photographed in magazines. I officially dubbed it “The National Artist Glass.”

It was there in the room overlooking the sea that the workshop truly wove its magic. The Dumaguete Writers Workshop has been around for 45 years, and it was no exaggeration to claim that the greats of Philippine Literature were born in Dumaguete. Under the critical eye and caring hand of the Tiempos, young writers such as myself gained their first boost of confidence. For an amateur writer, it would mean a lot for an Edith L. Tiempo to say that she actually believed in you. In her mountain-top home, Mom Edith had a coffee table that displayed all the books of her former students: Susan S. Lara, Marjorie M. Evasco, Alfred A. Yuson, DM Reyes, Cesar Ruiz Aquino, Gemino H. Abad, and practically every name that figured prominently in Philippine Literature. I was flipping through the pages of some of the books, when Mom Edith suddenly tapped on me on the shoulder and uttered the words which I will never forget: “If God is willing Ino, I will live to see the day when your book will be on this table.”

It was because of that one instant, that I found it difficult to find the inevitable word to describe my Dumaguete experience. The closest metaphor that I could think of (and metaphors do not count as an inevitable adjectives) was that Dumaguete was my personal growing-up story, not just as a young writer, but as a person. The three-week workshop was the site of many firsts for me: my first time to roll on the street out of drunkenness, my first time to dance half naked in the rain, my first time to go sunbathing on a main thoroughfare, my first time to sustain a British accent for an entire night, my first time to ride a boat with a dying person, my first time to go from heartbroken to heartbreaker in a matter of days, and my first time to realize that I could really and truly be a writer. The Dumaguete workshop was that beautiful moment when I took my first unsure steps out of the nest, and suddenly discovered the unexpected weightlessness of the soul’s flight. I was flying then, and have been flying since.

So what is the inevitable word? I do not know. Maybe it is not for me to know that word yet. Maybe I need a little more maturity to be able to capture the Dumaguete experience into writing. Or maybe there really is no inevitable word, and the only inevitable reaction is silence. What I do know is that I will keep searching for that inevitable word, whatever it may be. I am certain of this; because I am certain that I will keep returning to my Dumaguete experience every time I sit down to write a story: I will see the glowing Boulevard lights, I will hear the rustling of acacia leaves, and I will taste the sea in the very air. There will always be a chance to find that inevitable word, because there will always be a return to Dumaguete, one more time, and one more time, and one more time after that.


Dedicated to the fellows of the 45th Dumaguete National Writers Workshop

1 Comments:

At 4:10 AM, Blogger Darwin said...

I do remember the International Fabricare Institute. Ha ha ha ha.

 

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