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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Friday, January 28, 2005

entry arrow7:33 PM | The Dying of Dumaguete

Dumaguete is dead. Save for Joey Ayala coming this February, there's nothing much to do or see here, except gossip, or sleep. Or watch Lovers in Paris.

The measure of a progressive city lies in the way people entertain themselves. Fun and entertainment, after all, are mirrors of the way we regard ourselves. They are the icing to our cake, the rewards to our hard work, the proverbial pat in the back.

That is why truly cosmopolitan cities meticulously cultivate a sense of culture, a sense of fun, because without that particular function, any city easily becomes an anonymous dot on the map of boredom -- a virtual cultural ghost town. Humdrum cities like Cleveland and Detroit, for example, took pains setting up world-class symphony orchestras to distinguish themselves from the industrial grime that had become their reputation. And New York -- that great town -- would not be the hub of the world without its restaurants, its theaters, its museums, its ballet, its dance and drama companies, its Shakespeare in Central Park. Even Cebu, of late, has been pushing its cultural possibilities.

The road to civilization is essentially a journey towards the institution of cultured pleasure.

Then again, this is Dumaguete, where progress is essentially a four-letter word, where there is a 2:00 a.m. statute of limitation on any idea of fun, where anyone can run for mayor on the platform of non-performance and flatlining of progress, and win hands down. Every night, at 10 o'clock, the sirens screech its appeal for curfew; it has gone beyond that, I think; it has become symbolic of cultural decay.

I used to have an idea of a Dumaguete beautifully combining a graceful old charm with contemporary sensibilities. Lately, there are gnawing doubts, the way one casts adverse suspicions over a dried-up old maid, an old fart, a dinosaur, a relic that the train has left behind.

Lately, there are only these: a crawl of traffic that defies logic and any semblance of order and safety, crumbling asphalt streets, and an invasion of grime and smudge that decorate haphazard buildings and that ambushes you for measly peso coins for "watching over" your parked motorcycle.

We used to talk about Dumaguete as being on the verge of a cultural renaissance, as being on the throes of becoming our own tropical version of the Riviera. There had been signs, and it had looked it. There were nights in the Boulevard when, upon the invitation of humidity and the moon over the harbor, we used to sit out of Nene's North Pole Emilia drinking iced tea, or outside Lighthouse next to a table of Bacolod brats who had boarded a Pajero for a three-hour trip just to bask in our atmosphere. (Both are gone now; Emilia is an empty shell.)

We had a litany of choices: On the far side, Happy Days (now CocoAmigos) beckoned with promises of unpretentious revelry, and we drank to that, toasting proprietress Tina and her 50s cafe-inspiration. Limelight (now Mamia's), somewhere in the middle, was a memorable flash-in-the-pan, when it had meant French dinners for Valentines Day (something the hoi polloi didn't quite know what to do with), occasional stand-up comedy by Manila clowns, or brushing elbows with movie stars with whom everybody pretends so hard not to notice. Everybody knew where to get their Thai food (Le Chalet, and the now defunct Sawasdee), their fillet mignon (Don Atilano), their spicy chicken wings (Giacomino's), their fish kebab (SACs).

The Thai food is gone, and so has the fish kebab and the spicy chicken wings. Limelight is a dark hole where once you could have drowned in the tempo of techno music flooding the place. Lighthouse, in the meantime, is an assembly of plywood and construction noise and will soon become a local incarnation of Shakey's -- an idea not so bad, but you are welcome to have that token cringe of knowing that the commercial has finally taken over what had been a very personal, intimate place. Nobody remembers Happy Days anymore, or any of the shadowy upstarts that followed it and disappeared without traces.

Last night, driving around the city with my friend Gideon, I couldn't help but long for that time when the streets were necessarily alive. Now, there were only potholes and unfinished cement roads to greet us, and an uncharmed silence.

We drove through the already dark streets, past 9 p.m., and the buildings were sad. They were empty, unrented, ridiculously gaudy, so much like a botched up facial plastic surgery. The Orient Garden building, which once thrived with so much life and good food, has imploded in its latest incarnation: a so-so boutique that also sells cellphone accessories. On the corner of Silliman Avenue is a nondescript shop that sells school supplies. What had once been an imposing corner place, the old Manila Bank, has been "spruced up" in horrific, geriatric beige -- perhaps a perfect metaphor for its new existence -- a Veteran's Bank. In the meantime, pawnshops and shoe stores (I mean, shoe stores?) have become a puzzling epidemic.

And worst of all, the cultural emptiness, the unmarked nights in our calendars. There are no more Shakespeare plays in Silliman's amphitheater, and when great shows do invade (like Mindanao State University's Sining Kambayoka a few months ago), there's only a handful of people in the audience, a yawning gap that saddens.

The persevering Manolet Teves tries his best. So do Bing Valbuena, Village Bookstore owner Danah Fortunato, artist Kitty Taniguchi, and writers Ernesto Yee and Bobby Villasis. The other day, artist and professional bum Razceljan Salvarita and erstwhile photographer Donnie Calsena were thinking of doing a poetry reading.

Most of the time, many of them are met with a strange indifference.

Where are the film festivals? I remember seeing Lino Brocka in person for the first time introducing Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang to a new generation of movie audiences in V-Cinema (now a parking lot). My former film professor, Jonah Lim (an acclaimed filmmaker in his own right), tries his best: he has been bringing in Eksperimento, the independent film and video festival, every August to Dumaguete. But we used to have a lot more of that: film festivals sponsored by the governments of Japan, France, Spain. And while the attendance to Eksperimento is still a bit wanting, it is miraculously growing year by year. But can anybody say, "Dumaguete International Film Festival," in the vein of Sundance or Cannes? (The veteran actress Evelyn Vargas-Knaebel -- who loves Dumaguete -- can, and has been egging some people to help her with that dream.)

Where are the art exhibits? The challenging new plays? The orchestral concerts? The chamber music presentations? Where are our writers?

What has Mayor Perdices done to make this truly a University Town? For that moniker to matter at all, one does not just take in statistics of student population numbers, or the number of schools and universities within a stone's throw of each other. One must up the intellectual quotient a bit.

But enough sourpussing, already. I guess it is just back to watching the new American Idol on TV. That's what we do in Dumaguete.

[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich