This is me eating utok sa baboy [pig’s brain] for the first time, in JP’s Eatery along Libertad Street in Mangga for my current carinderia tour of Dumaguete for National Food Month. Lami baya, mura’g creamy nga sisig.
Sometimes, a story just dictates itself to you, and you’re just wonderfully transcribing what the characters do and say as they lead the way into the ultimate ending. I started this story at 4 PM. I ended at 10 PM. I laughed, I commiserated, I found the ending complete.
It's the last week of National Literature Month, so we thought of sharing this e-book of photography and poetry, Dumaguete Distich, with photos by Hersley-Ven Casero and Urich Calumpang, and poetry in couplets by yours truly. Download is free.
The thing I most admire about Harry Belafonte was his capacity to walk away, even when movie stardom was at hand, and did not make movies in the 1960s for reasons that curtailed his principles, choosing only to come back in 1972. He was also a popular singer, but he soon chose not to make music either for similar reasons. But the one thing he never shied away from was his activism in the civil rights movement. He knew when to let go, and why to stay. Rest in peace, Harry Belafonte [1927-2023].
Today is Shakespeare Day, so I’m sharing this throwback photo of writers Reuben Canoy and Aida Rivera [Ford] onstage at Silliman in Dumaguete, as part of the cast of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It in 1949. [The two would become prime movers in the publication of Sands & Coral, which Rivera-Ford edited with Cesar Amigo. Canoy would do the iconic logo of the literary folio.] Rivera-Ford would write “The Chieftest Mourner” in 1949, which would become her most iconic, most anthologized short story. She would later move to Davao, where she would establish a school. Canoy would become a screenwriter/movie producer/radio personality, and also mayor of Cagayan de Oro City, where he would dominate Northern Mindanao politics for many years, especially as an advocate for federalism.
9:10 AM |
42 Questions Episode 1: With Susan S. Lara on Edith Tiempo
The first episode of 42 Questions with Ian and Renz is up! Our guest is fictionist Susan S. Lara, where we talk about National Artist for Literature Edith L. Tiempo, on the occasion of her 104th birth anniversary. [NOTE: This was recorded on 22 August 2020, so please don't mind the references to the early months of the pandemic.]
“Afternoon tea,” according to Elaine Lemm of The Spruce Eats, “is a British food tradition of sitting down for an afternoon treat of tea, sandwiches, scones, and cake. Afternoon tea is served around 4 p.m. When afternoon tea became fashionable in the early 19th century thanks to Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, it was never intended to replace dinner but rather to fill in the long gap between lunch and dinner at a time when dinner was served as late as 8 p.m. Lifestyles have changed since those times and afternoon tea is now a treat, rather than a stop-gap.”
That’s good to know, because we have seen so many Merchant Ivory movies and episodes of Downton Abbey—and afternoon tea always seems to be a culinary staple for the genteel people populating those screen entertainments, which was something at once familiar [who has not had tea before?] and foreign [wait, there’s a whole cultural custom over drinking tea?].
With the latter, we take the unfamiliarity as perfectly understandable, since the Philippines never really developed a comparable tea-drinking culture complete with ceremonial flourishes, and although it must be said that the “tsa” has never been an alien component in our ancient pantries. But a heavy tea-drinking culture that is akin to that of China [where tea originated], or Japan [where drinking green tea, or matcha, is a spiritual experience that sometimes even necessitates a whole ceremony], or Morocco [where the Touareg tea, or Moroccan mint tea, is a symbol for hospitality], or Tibet [where the Tibetan po Cha, also known as butter tea, is a beverage popular among nomads to keep themselves warm in wintry climate], or Hong Kong [where the milk tea, actually known as “pantyhose tea,” originated], or India [where the Masala chai comes from]. The closest we have to tea culture, according to Lara Antonio of The Fat Kid Inside, is preparing salabat from ginger. Today, when we want tea, we simply dip a grocery store-sourced bag of it in hot water, and voila!
In Dumaguete, tea certainly could be had. Straight from the grocery shelves, of course, for private consumption at home. Or at most coffee shops which have them on hand, for those customers who stray from the coffee crowd. But we are very much a coffee city, judging from the proliferation of coffee shops suddenly mushrooming everywhere—from a brick-and-mortar air-conditioned cafés to small booths for takeout coffee to sari-sari stores that offer coffee sachets, Styrofoam cups, and hot water. You can very well say that Dumaguete’s beverage of choice is really coffee.
It’s only recently that tea has infused itself into Dumaguete’s beverage culture through the now ubiquitous milk tea, invented in Hong Kong, popularized in Taiwan, and now spreading like wildfire throughout the world: milk tea shops have captured our taste buds with their chewy sweet pearls and their refreshing coolness.
But afternoon tea? British afternoon tea, in Dumaguete? What a quaint idea!
Enter Dudley’s, a British tea shop located at MO Building along Calle San Jose Extension, in barangay Taclobo.
The route it’s on is on our regular way going home to Renz’s place, and our introduction to it were the inviting bright lights emanating from its posh interiors as we’d speed. Its show window promised delectable treats. We knew we had to stop by sooner or later. Plus it was near home.
We found our chance on Holy Thursday, and going in, we were immediately enchanted by the intimacy of the place, the chic finish of its decors, and the surprise of being told the whole thing was a British tea shop.
Of course, we had tea. And since it was the Holy Week, we decided to get their hot cross buns—a British raisin pastry decorated with a cross made from flour paste, which is traditionally eaten over Easter, to symbolize the crucifixion of the Christ. And since we were having afternoon tea, we also ordered their scone with strawberry compote, and their Amaretti cookie. But the best we had was the Japanese muffin its proprietor, Harija Joy Tan, offered us—a muffin filled with a concoction she invented, including Japanese mayo, bacon, and onions. It was delicious. [“Dudley’s” is taken from the surname of her British husband, Robert Dudley; which seemed appropriate since his parents used to run a meat shop with that name in Somerset.]
“My macarons are the best in town,” Joy told us.
Although a Dumaguetnon, Joy had spent the past years working in Dubai, where she first ventured into baking as a hobby sometime in 2018. She wanted to make bread and pastries, because she was amazed by how bread could go from being a flat mass of dough to becoming a structured form. For her first foray into baking, she turned to YouTube tutorials and made a disastrous batch of cinnamon rolls—but she continued on anyway, ultimately learning from some of the best bakers and pâtissiers Dubai could offer.
But baking was always meant to be a hobby—not a business. The reality of Dudley’s was far from Joy’s and Robert’s minds, even as they started considering retiring from their work in Dubai and settling for good in Dumaguete. When they prepared to move to the Philippines in 2020, the pandemic struck just a few days before they decided to tender their resignations—a stroke of luck that made possible their continued stay in Dubai, which also gave them space to consider what business to put up in Dumaguete. They settled on real estate.
But they also both wanted to build a simple tea room, because Joy had already been giving informal afternoon tea parties, showcasing her baked goods, for friends at their house in Dumaguete—and she had been getting suggestions to open up a small shop where people could just come in and buy her bread and pastries. But a feasibility study the couple commissioned informed them that not only would they have problems establishing a tea room in the city, they also would not be able to find a space big enough for the business to flourish. The tea room idea went to the shelf.
That is until something happened: a family member was able to rent a space at MO Building in Taclobo, with the goal of establishing an aluminum and glass shop with the couple. When they finally surveyed the space, they realized it was too small for that kind of business. Alas, the rent had already been paid. Robert suggested opening a pastry shop in its stead. Dudley’s was born.
“What I want to do is push the boundaries of modern baking in Dumaguete by introducing flavors, textures, and concepts that many Dumaguetnons might not have tried yet,” Joy said of her dream. “I also really just want to have a small shop where we can introduce British afternoon tea.”
She got her wish—a unicorn made of tea in a city full of coffee shops.
There seems to be a whirlwind of pop art brewing in Dumaguete these days.
Last April 5, Arte Gallery Café [2nd Floor, Allegre Building, Rizal Avenue] opened the first solo exhibition of Moshi Dokyo, a testament to delightful chaos the artist calls Proquackstinate. And peering closer into the exhibition, it becomes also a testament to the bewildering “gifts” of anxiety and doubt and rage. Looking at the whole caboodle of it, I can also very well say they are mirrors to the bundle of nerves I call my life. [Perhaps also yours? Welcome to the club!]
Because what do you have here? A rash of confessional works that speak of a chaotic mental state, but acknowledging that chaos with whimsy and artistry, and rendering it into a playful landscape of color and lines. One work in a particular is a triptych of paintings, all portraits, that show the evolution of the subject—most likely the artist himself—from a state of edgy calm to a state of full-on rage, all three marked by fiery all-seeing eye floating, like a signifier of anxiety, on the subject’s head. The eye rages more with its fieriness as the pictures evolve, the rage made even more animated when the flames burst out of the confines of the painting’s frames. This work would have been terrifying if it were not, somehow, also funny. Which I guess is a double-edgedness I see embedded in the very nature of much of pop art: they can contain all sorts of expression, even maddening ones, but somehow the best of them retain an element of playfulness that provide us an ironic distance from the emotions at play. I like that. I like seeing the rage, and acknowledging its anger, but I also like being able to laugh at it. That is a good recipe for catharsis.
The fiery all-seeing eye is a motif that touches most of the works in Proquackstinate, including an installation piece that makes use of it as an emblem to a kind of altar, complete with another triptych set of portrait caricatures—perhaps depicting the artist and his fellow artist friends—in lines that evoke a weariness, a certain madness. Is this the artist’s way of acknowledging the pain that comes about when you come to the worship of the artistic life? I’m not exactly sure, but that’s how I read it. And the subtext everywhere else seems to be pain—we see a bloodied nail, a bisected dog, a plane window surrounded by objects of despair, a wall of graffiti that reminds us of the zany madness of the underground artist Robert Crumb.
And yet, despite all that pain and all that expression of anxiety, what transcends is an antithetical brightness. I like that duality; that is the essence of life—to know that undergirding all our brightness is also a consuming darkness, and vice versa. Life—and mental health—is not a monolith: I can both cry and laugh at the same time.
Moshi Dokyo carries over that playfulness—and thematic duality—in another work that’s part of a group exhibition, Hue, that recently opened in Shelter Gallery [Angatan, Tabuctubig]. In “Moshpit Aftermath,” Moshi’s contribution to the collection, we find the same tortured, fire-ravaged figure on canvas, but it comes with a more sinister twin: a work that reminds you of an emergency box glass casing, but inside, there’s a facsimile of a gun [dolled up in baby blue], and on the casing itself, a message: “Breakdown in Case of Emergency.” I found that play of words chilling: not “break glass” but “breakdown,” like an invitation to despair willingly. Why does Moshi Dokyo’s work feel like therapy?
Many of the other works in the group exhibition also take pop art’s cue, including Jascer Merced’s resin and acrylic renditions of Gandalf and Frodo from The Lord of the Rings; Skye Benito’s “Psyche,” a splendid and expressive portraiture of a woman with butterfly wing ears; and Jonee Jibe’s “Noe’s Space,” a beguiling work of acrylic on canvas that functions very much like a dream: you see a playground swing done up in barber’s stripes occupying beyond a forbidding arc, and silhouetted by either moon or sun, all the while flooded by undulating flesh-colored blobs that feel threatening but have the texture of cotton candy dreams. I live for images like this—because they are truly Rorschach tests. My favorite remains Dolly Sordilla’s “Daisy,” a gorgeous sculptural work from polymer clay, epoxy clay, synthetic glass, synthetic hair, resin, and acrylic paint, which depicts a girl with a sunflower for one eye taking a walk—but walking via the animated tendrils of her blue hair. It speaks nightmare, it speaks delightful anime; it reminds me of the dark fantasies of Neil Gaiman. But the gorgeous details of it all—the sculpted hair, the knitted dress, the blue eye, the sunflower—reminds me once again that Dolly is one of my favorite Dumaguete artists whose work I want to see more and appreciated more.
The other works in the group exhibition do not exactly epitomize pop art: two are pure abstraction, including Daniel Vincent Fabros’ “Exotiq 2,” which is a delightful uncut gem of a canvas pulsating in shades of emerald and amethyst and garnet, and Amber Tashiro’s “Liberosis,” which is a ravishing Zen-like work almost delicate in its deliberate use of dots and shades and shape; Sid Labe’s “Mangtaso’ng Kahanas” and “Bulawanong Bahandi,” both of which depict men of the laboring class going about their daily work [one is a potter, and the other is a peddler of plastic wares], are representational works of painstaking photorealism that Sid has become known for [although I still stand on my conviction that his sculptural works made from old ballpens represented a major departure for his art]; and two others are more conceptual—and almost invisible if you do not pay attention: Jan Alix’s “Terminals” occupy ceiling space, an installation of playing cards and strings that for the artist call attention to “the intentions of what we make [which] are evident in the ethics of how we create,” and Ma. Isabel Gutang’s “Work Transfer” occupies the floor space, which litters it with paper on which are printed assorted diagrams and texts and pictures, occasionally threaded by shoe marks. Both are ciphers done well.
Proquackstinate in Arte Gallery runs until April 23, and Hue in Shelter Gallery runs until May 5.
“Girls in the Windows,” photographed by Ormond Gigli in the summer of 1960 in New York. Made on a whim, made without a commission. Gigli looked out the windows of his studio one morning, and saw the brownstone right outside being readied for demolition. He thought he could use this condemned building for a photo, with girls in bright dresses in every gaping, empty window. He had someone ask the foreman of the demolition crew if he could use the building for an hour, and was told he could do it the next day, during the crew’s lunch time [and to use the foreman’s wife as one of the models]. Gigli made the calls to a modeling agency asking for volunteers, and he arranged the permits as soon as he could. The next day, on the appointed time, he had second thoughts — but the girls were already arriving. He went ahead anyway, directing the photo shoot with a bullhorn. He took 15-18 shots with a 4×5 Speed Graphic. The very next day, the building was demolished. And the photo went on to become an icon.
The extraordinary thing sometimes about art we’ve come to love is to see them with completely fresh eyes. I have always loved Hersley-Ven Casero’s “Catch a Moment” photo series, ever since he started prowling the streets and byways of Dumaguete more than a decade ago to, well, “catch moments” with his camera. I’ve written about his process before, how he'd put himself into specific spots, observing everything in the urban landscape before him, and always waiting for a literal voice floating near his head who prompts him with a simple command: “Now.” And then he’d click. The reality of getting it all in breathtaking composition, honed after years of study and technical know-how, only adds to that magic of obeying an unexplained inner prompt. [My insistence on the use of the word “magic” is deliberate, especially if you know where Hersley comes from.]
In any case, I and many others have enjoyed these gorgeous photos from his walks around town over the years, many of us claiming certain favorites. His sepia photo of a Dumaguete street complete with a tricycle, with the morning glimmer of the Rizal Boulevard in the distance, is mine. This shot of children playing with wheels and running through a smoke-drenched road is another. [Come to think of it, I do have a thing for sepia!]
And now to see the latter in a way I’ve never seen it before: in glorious, gigantic reproduction, 41.33 x 61.41 inches in size, and printed with pigmented ink on smooth cotton rag! The result is an immersive experience with the photos, as if privileged with stepping into the reality they offer. I have always wanted to have a photo exhibit like this in Dumaguete, but have always felt it would remain a dream: no Dumaguete printer is capable of printing photos in this size, and if there are any, the cost would probably be prohibitive. Now that it has come true with this exhibit, Onion Kids: Homecoming, in MUGNA Gallery, it feels like a dream fulfilled.
And what a dream! Because I’m seeing this photo with details I have missed before: the density of the smoke, the griminess of the dirt, the prints on the children’s shirts, the fullness of the shadows, the texture of the foliage. And the joy that bounces off the kinetic energy of the children becomes more magnified. Hersley’s photos have always had that ingredient of joy. You can never find a note of dourness in them. In his photos, people fly into the sea, swim beds of onions, chase balloons, chase each other. [Heck, one of his iconic photos, which has traveled the world over and has become a meme, is that of a laughing kid!] I think people respond to that joy instinctively, which has made Hersley perhaps the most appreciated Dumaguete visual artist of his generation today.
Watching Keith Fresnido prepare the mushroom and S.A.N.I.B. pinsa we were grabbing from APAS Diner and Deli by Hitik along EJ Blanco Drive. [S.A.N.I.B. means "Such A Nice Iliganon Boy," which contains palapa.]
We are reminded of what Ige Ramos says he gives as a rejoinder whenever he’s asked the million-peso question: “What is Filipino food?” For him, the better question is: “How does food become Filipino?”—a reframing of the story of food and of culinary culture that takes note of history, of practice, of borrowing and blending that characterize much what we understand to be “local food.”
Taking note of that and taking it into our local context, we thus confront the question: “How does food become Dumaguetnon?”
An answer lies in sandwiches, and it takes the form of two men: Jan Barga and Keith Fresnido.
Both are friends, have known each other since they were mere boys, and both come from Iligan City in Northern Mindanao. Because of some strange twist of fate, both have come to call Dumaguete home. And remarkably enough, both have carried over from their old hometown a particular food culture that they have tried to introduce to the Dumaguete food scene: sandwiches.
Mr. Barga did it first. He has been a resident of Dumaguete since his college days at Silliman University, where he graduated with a degree in entrepreneurship. While rotating between Iligan, Cebu, and Dumaguete after graduation, he has made the latter more of his base while pursuing graduate studies at Silliman, and at the same time—because his other love is music—taking part in the organization [and management] of the Belltower Project, the community of musicians and bands in Dumaguete. Food has always been a fascination for him, even joining some of his friends in putting up a tocinohan in Dumaguete in 2015. [He was the hot sauce guy of the enterprise.]
During the pandemic, he whiled away his time in Dumaguete doing real estate online for an American company, and it was in the high doldrum days of the lockdown that he decided to put up a sandwich shop. He called it Pan-Q—a perfect name for the business, and for the circumstances it was born in: “Pan” means bread, and “Q” is a stand-in for barbecue, but you can also read “pan” as an abbreviation of the pandemic. It was an immediate hit.
Pan-Q started off as a mobile cart frequently seen on Hibbard Avenue [in Tugas, just a few meters before the crossing to Amigo Subdivision], and it served delicious hotdog buns that could be loaded with a choice of meat, from pork tocino to beef franks to chicken hotdog on skewers—which customers could mix and match, to make a perfectly rendered barbecue sandwich. Part of the appeal was the concoction Mr. Barga made of the sauce—a delectable mayonnaise blend that unified all of the flavors of the sandwich, topped with a slaw made of cabbage, tomato, and onions.
When it opened in mid-2021, we could not even put in our orders because their inventory regularly emptied out even way before closing time. Because the sandwich was customizable, affordable, and delicious, Pan-Q became a hit. The line in front of the mobile cart became longer—but the idle time was made more bearable with the local music Mr. Barga piped in, and made more entertaining with customers watching his staff singing and swaying to the sound as they prepared your sandwich, for take out or for dine-in.
Pan-Q soon opened a branch in Cebu, and also a branch along Escano Drive to a bamboo bungalow beside Mang Kaloy’s Fried Rice that seated more people, partnering with Kape Mystica which provided tea and coffee to customers. Along with the customizable sandwiches came a solid menu, now with rice meals paired with their meats and a savory saucy condiment of some kind, to be dipped with the barbecued meats. [Perhaps it is palapa?] But it’s a flavorful oil dip with green onions and fried flaked dilis. Whatever it is, it tastes delectable.
Pan-Q is where we go to when we need to have our tocino fix in Dumaguete.
Then there’s Keith Fresnido and Apas—Dine and Deli by Hitik. Mr. Fresnido had always wanted to open his own sandwich shop for so long—but not just any sandwich shop: he wanted each and every ingredient to be of the utmost quality, whether that’s sourcing authentic sauerkraut from local distributors to curing his own meats and baking his own bread. With Apas, he is making this wish come true—but it came about because of some challenging circumstances.
Mr. Fresnido worked as a chef in Tagaytay, but when Taal erupted in January of 2020, he was forced to flee back to Iligan together with his wife Marla. And then the pandemic struck. For livelihood, he decided to set up a stall outside his house and sold sandwiches. It was a huge hit for sandwich-hungry Iliganons. But there was another opportunity opening up for the couple: Marla took a job to manage a luxury hotel in Dumaguete, and they decided to start anew here—with Mr. Fresnido working as chef for another hotel. That stint, however, made him impatient to realize his dream once more of having his own sandwich shop, inspired by two sandwich shops in New York and in Charleston, South Carolina he loved. And thus, Apas was born—the name taken from the Bisaya meaning “catch up”—but also to mean having “a food system that is resilient to keep up with the changing times, and having a safe space where everyone is welcome to savor delicious food that will surely make one say, ‘Apas ko diha!’” It is also a playful take on “pass,” that space of time when food is inspected by the chef before it is presented to diners. They opened the doors to Apas along EJ Blanco Street last December 2022.
Despite the challenges, Mr. Fresnido says that the work of running Apas has been fulfilling because of the opportunity to expose customers to new flavors. Apas’s menu leans on a Western palate using ingredients sourced locally, but Mr. Fresnido is keen on having the opportunity to not only expose locals to new flavors but to also offer comfort to the expats and the visitors looking for a taste of home.
Apas offers sandwiches that tackle incredible flavor. The beef pastrami sandwich features Mr. Fresnido’s own cured beef pastrami, complemented with sauerkraut and mustard for that sour, bitter, and spicy kick. The ultimate picnic sandwich pairs locally-cured ham and bacon together for an unbeatable flavor punch, balanced by roasted bell peppers and cheese. Mr. Fresnido tosses his hat into the chicken sandwich ring with his own take on the classic, having an apple slaw set his sandwich apart from the rest.
Besides the sandwiches, he also gives extra care and attention to his flatbreads. They’re called pinsas—or Romanian-style pizzas—but Mr. Fresnido refers to them on the menu as “flatbreads” so his customers immediately understand what they’re seeing when ordering off the menu. However one calls them, they’re delicious, whether one chooses the cheese, the pepperoni, or the other items off the special menu.
On our last visit, we ordered two flatbreads that caught our fancy. The mushroom flatbread is painted with a smooth cream parmesan sauce, with shredded cheddar and mozzarella scattered on its surface. It is topped with fresh oyster and shimeji mushrooms and drizzled with a mild garlic and chili oil. Savor takes over the palate, whether from the cheese, the mushroom, the bread or the oil.
The other flatbread is called, interestingly, “S.A.N.I.B.”
Mr. Fresnido admits the acronym stands for “Such a Nice Iliganon Boy,” a call back to his roots with fondness and whimsy. The sandwich echoes what Mr. Fresnido knows to be a framework of an archetypal Iliganon breakfast: a rich salty meat, eggs, and a king among condiments: palapa. Palapa perfumes the palate with herbaceous notes of ginger and kicks it with a hit of chili. The characteristic ingredient that makes palapa stand out from all its other ingredients is the sebujing: a fragrant spice somewhat like the birth child of garlic and onion under the guise of a “scallion” in most ingredients’ lists on the palapa jar labels. [According to Mr. Fresnido, a “scallion” is much easier to understand.] To us, the Iliganons are right to keep the sebujing—this delicious jewel—under this guise and have it all to themselves. The palapa plays its part on the S.A.N.I.B. flatbread, with the shredded cheddar and mozzarella cheese substituting for the richness that the eggs offer. Ham would be the savory lead on this hit, with the garlic chili oil as a featured character.
After the balls of dough are stretched and flattened, Mr. Fresnido adorns the flatbreads with their respective toppings before placing them in the industrial oven, baking them in minutes. The dough and the cheeses bubble and brown until the cheese melts and the dough becomes bread. Pockets of air expand the matrix of dough bolstered by the proteins in the flour, accessible only by slicing the bread, exposing the cathedrals of carb for the eyes to eat.
Although flatbreads and sandwiches are not traditionally Iliganon, neither is Mr. Fresnido, really. He was born in Manila and lived there until he was five years old when his Iliganon parents brought the family over to Iligan to live. His childhood and adolescence were spent there before he returned to Manila to pursue a degree in culinary arts at the International School of Hospitality and Management. One would presume that these periods of time away from Iligan would take away from Mr. Fresnido’s experience of the city—missing out swaths of his life from his hometown—but being away built on his experience, not take away from it. As logistically as possible, Keith features Iliganon products like palapa and Iliganon beer in Apas, alongside the worldly flavors he stands with.
So are the “elevated sandwiches” of Mr. Fresnido and Mr. Barga Dumaguete food? Of course they are. That has always been the nature of Dumaguete anyway: we celebrate this churn of incoming cultures as our “paghimamat,” embracing all influences until we make them our own, marked in the distinctive air that’s Dumaguetnon. Mr. Fresnido and Mr. Barga are the instruments of doing that. Both offer their Iliganon food culture up for Dumaguetnons to experience. Their sandwiches become Dumaguetnon because their makers live here. These dishes are enjoyed by the people who live here. Although the flavor and method of cooking is Iliganon, the enjoyment transcends geographical boundaries, and now is suited to fit with the values and the palates of Dumaguetnons.
They were at the funeral, the gargoyles: these blistering bores who thought themselves so highly as society women in a city without a social calendar. They’re just mostly old and rich and bored, or at least were once rich — some had been stealthily selling off property piecemeal to keep up with appearances they could barely afford, the dreck of third generation of landed family without an ounce of an idea how to make a living, the heydays of their sugar wealth already decades behind. [The rest of them were athletes in the social game of climbing ladders.] There’s Katrina, whose claim to fame was having a gay father, now long dead, who did pageants for the city. There’s Melissa, whose family owns the biggest grocery store in town — and whose pink plastic shopping bags constitute the very colors of our overloaded landfills. There’s Minette, a secretary for a government official who feels that the light of power she basks in was hers. There’s Monina, whose English is as atrocious as rotten balut, and whose salvation was marrying a moneyed white man. Then there’s Greggyboy, a predatory gay man who calls himself a historian but whose laughable articles are littered with grammatical errors and stolen research, and makes much of the fact that he was [the poor] relation to many of the rich clans in town. I could pretend it was a bit sad to see them preen themselves like important birds outside the funeral home, but I snickered instead. They were a hive of noise, the chatter of gossip their shield, inflected sometimes by a phrase or two in bad Spanish. It was hilarious. But a friend was dead, a confirmed bachelor who had been their figurehead in that club they kept while pretending they did local culture and the arts proud in our small city, as if it was charity that needed their choking attention. That man was kind and nice and talented, and I could not see how he could be friends with these monstresses. Now all that was left of him was this urn of ashes, and maybe that was grace — perfect exit from a life in the company of gargoyles.
7:34 AM |
In Dumaguete, The Arts Flourish Part 13: The Literary Grind
It is arguably difficult to measure the ebbs and flows of the writing life compared to most of the other creative arts. There is always the cue we take of the applause at the finish of a performance, whether dance, or drama, or a musical extravaganza; and there is always the palpable and visceral reaction of the beholder upon seeing a painting or a sculpture or a photograph—and architecture solidly occupies space in the landscape that it cannot help but invite instant reflection.
But literature? This one is enjoyed often in the privacy of a sequestered mind—with the reader putting down a finished book, and reflecting quietly on the words they have just read. Of course, there are other [more public] markers of “literary success” comparable to the reception of its creative cousins: a public reading inviting applause, a piece winning a literary award, a book being published and launched, a work being accepted to a prestigious writing workshop, a work being accepted for publication in a magazine or journal, a book entering a bestseller list. Their common denominator is “acceptance,” and to quote speculative fictionist Stewart Stafford, “All writing is a message in a bottle, cast into the sea in the forlorn hope of recognition and acceptance.” But in the time of the pandemic, most of these markers grounded to a halt, and what deepened—if you were a writer still intent on writing despite the world coming to an end—was the very basic condition of the writing life: its solitariness.
Solitariness is not necessarily a sad thing. According to novelist William Faulkner: “Writing is a solitary job—that is, no one can help you with it, but there’s nothing lonely about it. I have always been too busy, too immersed in what I was doing, either mad at it or laughing at it to have time to wonder whether I was lonely or not lonely. It’s simply solitary. I think there is a difference between loneliness and solitude.” This is true—but writing in the pandemic also made it lonely for many writers: cooped up in the lockdown, the solitariness of the writing became an escape, but when we needed escape from the escape, there was only quarantine to face, and the fear of the outside world to bear.
But the writing experience during the pandemic was not a monolith. There was a variety to it, with some writers declaring going down into the depths of idleness and madness as the pandemic deepened, while others welcoming the respite to churn out works they’d been trying to finish for years but couldn’t because of other obligations [obligations which were suddenly nullified, giving them no more excuses to delay what needed doing]. For many, it was the combination of the two, with months bursting with creativity, and months that invited nothing else but bingeing on Netflix. And so the writing continued, or did not continue, depending on whom you asked.
In the meantime, the markers disappeared, especially in 2020. Gone were the poetry readings or the communal workshops, which necessitated face-to-face interactions. Gone were the awards, the Palanca famously going on hiatus for two years—the first time it has done so since its inception in 1950. Gone were the workshops planned for the year—with the Silliman University National Writers Workshop and other similar workshops finally, and awkwardly, going on Zoom-mode as 2021 dawned. The processes of publications, of course, continued on because their very nature proved immune to the systemic ravages of the pandemic: writers still wrote, still submitted to publications far and wide, still received either acceptances or rejections, repeat. And readers still read—and read voraciously.
In time, even with the pandemic still raging, some of the old normalcy returned.
There were readings again. The first one we attended was a May 2022 reading and a talk with Mitos Suson, a Cebuana author who had accepted an invitation to stay in Dumaguete for a while. She had just published Shards of Time, her memoir/novel about the Martial Law, and it was an opportune time to do a reading with her—but it was an intimate affair, hosted by 451°F Books and Café’s Mike Reyes and Lea Sicat-Reyes, small enough not to arouse much of our pandemic paranoia. That small event became the catalyst to holding bigger physical events—including a reading of the graphic novel ZsaZsa Zaturnnah for Pride Month 2022, still at 451°F Books and Café, with author Carlo Vergara as special guest [over Zoom]. Later that month, in July 2022, the local Department of Trade and Industry [DTI] held its annual 6200 PopUp creative expo and culinary fair, for the first time in two years—and part of it was a day dedicated to literary arts, curated by Dum.Alt.Press, which came complete with authors’ talks and panels, a creative writing workshop with Daniella Spontak, a screening of Dumaguete short films, and a poetry reading hosted by the Renaissance Youth Leaders Forum and Ang Sandigan. Ms. Spontak herself curated several spoken poetry exhibitions at Shelter Gallery and MUGNA Gallery in the succeeding months before leaving Dumaguete for London in 2023.
There were literary awards again. When the Palanca Award returned in 2022, it was my honor to win first prize for the short story in English for “Ceferina in Apartment 2G,” something I wrote loosely based on my mother’s brief experience as an immigrant to the U.S., where she came to live with my brother Rey in Los Angeles. [She promptly returned to the Philippines within two years.] It was a story I labored in the doldrums of the pandemic, in 2021, when all I felt was being bereft of anchor and only storytelling felt like the only thing that could save me. A few months after I finished that story, I also received the KSSLAP Award from the Cultural Center of the Philippines, which recognized my contributions to literary arts and cultural work—a prestigious award that I had received even when I was completely mired in a mental health spiral, and I could not see the future beyond the emptiness I saw in that empty Luce Auditorium where the awarding ceremony was being held. But winning the Palanca the next year felt like a jolt of hope, a window to seeing that I was being recognized for work I had done in the middle of my pandemic darkness—and perhaps it also served as my necessary push into believing that things would be fine.
There were workshops again, the SUNWW going on to host two editions online.
And there were books being published again. The Sands and Coral, Silliman’s literary journal founded in 1948, brought out an Editor’s Issue in 2021, featuring works by all the editors of the journal, from pioneering writers Aida Rivera Ford and Cesar Jalandoni Amigo to latter editors including yours truly and Misael Ondong. In February 2023, it brought out two issues, Pandemonium [for Sand and Coral 2022, edited by Albertha Lachmi Obut and Patch Puengan] and Pagsubang [for Sand and Coral 2023, edited by Pia Alvarez, Isabel Torres, and Yudi Santillan III], which also included winning fiction and essay pieces that touched on the timely theme of “Hope, Transformation, and Rebuilding after the Pandemic.” [Jon Paculba won first place for fiction, and Paul Donaire won first place for essay.]
Zamboanga writer Sigrid Marianne Gayangos, who had moved to Dumaguete right before the pandemic and finally left to teach in Davao in 2023, used her lockdown in Dumaguete to teach mathematics online, and to put together her first collection titled Laut: Stories, published by the University of the Philippines Press in 2022. Of the book, poet Marjorie Evasco writes: “This first collection of thirteen stories by Sigrid Gayangos brings us back to the primal waters of the imagination. In the Malayo-Polynesian language of seafarers, laut is the name for the ocean on whose currents they rode to reach thousands of islands scattered in the Southern Pacific Ocean, some of them so small, and from time to time disappearing with the flow of the tides. In the thrall of stories inhabited by humans and more-than-humans, we echo Sigrid Gayangos’s praise of the seas and the oceans ‘for rolling relentlessly around the world, for reminding us of our smallness, for showing us how things are connected, for instilling a deep sense of wonder, for the air we breathe, for food, for the singing of the waves, for literally and figuratively everything. May we be better stewards of this water planet.’ To read each of these stories with care is to joyfully say yes!”
But even earlier, a history teacher in Bayawan was moved to do something with the pandemic, and resolved to put on paper her recollection of the simple life in a small barrio in that southern Negrense agricultural city—and somehow managed to weave these into tales that showcased heritage which she felt was fast disappearing. Her name is Dara Tumaca-Ramos of Malabugas, Bayawan, who studied to become a teacher at St. Paul University Dumaguete, and later worked as a social studies instructor at the University of St. La Salle in Bacolod. The book she managed to write is titled Sang Una: Stories From the Barrio, and in her introduction, she writes: “Life is not always filled with grand and extraordinary events. More often, it is filled with ordinary and mundane daily occurrences which give life to life itself. It is in the ordinary circumstances, in the daily grind, as one might say, that culture is lived and passed on to the younger generations. But with the fast-paced, technology-driven world we live in, most of what we have treasured that form part of our heritage as a people are also rapidly disappearing in front of our very eyes. So many of these treasures are forgotten with the passing of years, or lost with our older folks passing o to the next life without being able to share these legacies to those left behind.”
“And then the pandemic happened,” she continues. “As people got cooped in their houses and food was rationed, there seemed to be especially among city dwellers, an awakening in the longing for life in the province. A life where social distancing was not a concern, where growing your own food was the norm, and playing outdoors with cousins and neighbors until dusk was a daily pattern of childhood.” She provides an answer to that longing with poignant observations of farm life, including the various processes of rice farming—from uprooting seedlings [panggabot] to planting [patanom], from harvesting [paani] to threshing [mapalinas]; bamboo cutting [panggama]; bamboo-weaving [manglag-i]; buying fish from the shore [panugbong]; catching crabs [panulo]; catching flying fish [pamanse]; and gathering tuba [pananggot]; as well as detailing stories of specific personages such as the aswang and the manugluy-a [the barrio doctor]; and traditions such as a wake [bilasyon] and games played at wakes [bordon], dancing [bayle], and firing bamboo cannons, among others. Sang Una also takes care to situate its stories in the unique language of the Malabugas community [Kiniray-a, from the Panay immigrants that settled there], and always minutely observant of the specific traditions it chooses to describe. Ms. Tumaca-Ramos would independently publish Sang Una in May 2021.
The visual artist Hersley-Ven Casero and I also released a children’s book, The Great Little Hunter, a picture book and art book put out by a local publisher, Pinspired, in April 2022—which also inspired an exhibition at MUGNA Gallery later that year, in December. In recollection, I have no idea how I came to put out this book, and to put out a Palanca-winning story, even when I remember the pandemic days to be an endless span of three years with gaping nothingness. How did that happen? Where did those specific bursts of tangible creativity come from?
Tackling these questions to make sense of my own literary output during the pandemic actually makes me nervous. Truth to tell, what has always remained clear to me, as I conclude this series of essays about the creative arts in Dumaguete in the throes of the lockdown, is that I really had no choice but to put the essay on the literary arts last—simply because I knew somehow it would limn the edges of autobiography, even the confessional. But I have written about this before, when I noted that writing in the pandemic became my savior as it deepened, and with it the stability of my mental health even as I spiraled outside of it. To make it easy to understand, here is my summation: when I was writing, I was fine; when I was not writing, I was lost in the storm. Not writing was often my status quo. But when I wrote, I was happy—and rewarded for it. But keeping at it was not easy.
Take the confessions of other Dumaguete writers.
From poet Simon Anton Diego Baena: “The pandemic period was my most productive year. I was living on the edge because I had nothing else to do. I never knew what could happen. And the pervasive presence of death fueled my desire to write more and more poems. I was also depressed for half of that first year because my wife was in Iligan and I was stuck here in Bais, which I dubbed Ciudad de los Muertos. [Strangely enough], the news of [pandemic] deaths on TV encouraged me to write about a more personal subject—specifically about my father’s passing—that I couldn’t let go of. It was like a shadow that never left me. It was like a noose around my neck.”
From poet Lyde Sison Villanueva: “I was productive during the first few months. I planned [and started] a couple of writing projects. I completed the Written Comprehensive Exam for my MFA. I revised old works and submitted them to various publications. And was published once. A year or so after the start of the pandemic, I got exhausted and I couldn’t focus on writing again. Life happened, and I had other priorities. But this year, in 2023, I’m starting to write again. But I became more selective and conscious of how I was using my time. I’m committed to take care of myself more, health-wise. I now strive to spend more quality time with family and friends. I don’t let my work compromise my mental health and personal life.”
From medical doctor and fictionist/essayist Justine Megan Yu: “During the pandemic, I went back to a previous idea for a longer piece: a personal piece about a year in my life where I wrote three eulogies. I wove these together into an essay and submitted it to a creative writing workshop specifically for doctor-writers. I was accepted into that workshop and spent a few weekends happily being in the online company of doctor-writers. Most of us were readers growing up, and wanted to write, but didn’t have the courage to pursue a career in writing or were encouraged to do something ‘more stable’ or ‘more realistic.’ It was nice to know there were others like me, who loved to read and write, who went into the medical profession and still had this urge to write and share what we wrote. But the pandemic gave me the opportunity to slow down. My medical fellowship training was paused because my specialty center that catered mostly to non-urgent, outpatient cases closed. I still went on duty at the hospital but I had less paperwork to do. This freed up my mind to go back to reading non-medical things and back to writing for myself again. However, I was not productive, writing-wise, because I only came up with that essay. But after years and years of not writing anything, I think that was productive enough for me. Still, the pandemic brought a clarity to my choices—what I really wanted to do with this one life, what kind of person I wanted to become, what kind of person did I want to spend my years with.”
From health worker and poet Andre Aniñon: “Surprisingly, I was productive! I didn’t write every day—but I was able to pen two stories in the first year of the pandemic. Still, it was definitely more productive than the years of not writing I spent prior. [The last formal piece I finished prior to the pandemic was in 2018.] I could attribute my pandemic productivity to the little ‘quarantine book club’ my friends and I had set up to try and give structure to our otherwise shapeless days. We started with novels, but seeing that most couldn’t commit to reading hundreds of pages within a week, we moved to short stories. One of the stories we read during that time was the late Luis Katigbak’s ‘Subterrania,’ where I found a comrade in one of the characters, Kaye, who at one point in the story, said: ‘I love these [stories] ... because even the worst of them, in their own way, are perfect. Better than a life of uncertainty. They have beginnings and endings. I get the world distilled in its purest form.’ I saved the entire passage as a note in my phone. Early in the pandemic, when so much of the world was upended, I was left, as a healthcare worker, to struggle navigating this ‘new normal.’ All I wanted at the end of every tiring shift and commute was a sense of structure and certainty. Reading gave me that. And when I was not content with finding that structure and certainty in reading, I took refuge and I tried to understand things, and I found solace in writing.
“But perhaps the greatest effect that this pandemic had on me was this realization and dread in thinking that nothing was so certain anymore. It was common to hear, every day, especially early in the pandemic, that the days were the same because of work suspensions and quarantine and endless hours of ‘staying at home.’ But I found that sentiment further from the truth. Life then was so unpredictable: one day I’d hear of someone I know being hospitalized due to COVID-like symptoms, and the next day I’d hear of their deaths. There was this grief that surrounded everything. And on some days, I’d keep on thinking: my God, what if COVID would get to me? And what if I’d pass it on to my loved ones? What if someone in the bus I rode to and from work carried the virus? What if the patient in front of me was infected but just asymptomatic? Working in a small laboratory at that time, we weren’t really given that much assurance and protection as to what would happen if we did contract the virus. Even coming from bigger hospitals, some of my friends felt the same way. So much of COVID and its manifestations were, as of then, unknown. And as a healthcare worker, I couldn’t exactly ‘stay at home’ until we were given answers. We had to continue despite it all. The fact that people thought all of COVID was a scam for us to accumulate money—the irony, given the realities of healthcare workers in this country—didn’t help. So even though I was ‘out and about’ in the world, because of this grief and uncertainty, I still felt cooped in some form of enclosure. It was in this darkness that I tried to find solace in reading and writing.”
From student and poet/fictionist Junelie Velonta: “Before the lockdowns of 2020, I was able to qualify for my first writers workshop in February of 2020. It was my first exposure to everything ‘creative writing’ so I did a lot of catching up during the first year or so of the lockdown. A panelist at the workshop gave me a copy of Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘Steering the Craft’ and I spent time reading that during the early [months of] lockdowns. Some of the finger exercises recommended by Le Guin became seeds of stories, and I’ve turned two into actual short stories. From then on, I’d written three stories—one, a fantasy; another, something noir-ish; and another, a screenplay for a period short film. The first two I was able to submit to the SUNWW. The screenplay was the result of a two-week-long screenplay writing workshop organized by the De La Salle University. I’ve submitted the fantasy piece for publishing a few times now but the most I’ve gotten are two personal rejections, which I frame positively in my mind, since I have only started writing seriously over the last four years or so.
“Perhaps one of the reasons that I have been writing actively in the last three years is the exploration that I’ve been able to do because of the pandemic, not just because of the spare time, but also because it allowed me to see, converse, and observe people who I would have not met if I had turbo-ed through my STEM education and holed up in the third floor of the Science Complex [at Silliman]. Seeing the good and the bad, the moral and the questionable, the selfless and the self-serving sides of people—family, relatives, friends, politicians—educated me on the kinds of people in a community. In turn, they inspired me to create characters. The semi-constant presence of the radio broadcast in our home revealed to me that storytelling, the way Nicky Dumapit and Anthony Maginsay from DYWC do it, can reveal softer, ‘unworded’ truths that hard journalism can sometimes gloss over. Thus, my experiences during the pandemic solidified my ‘purpose’ on being serious about writing.
“But to frame how the pandemic affected me as a person and as a writer, I must mention that I am a STEM student, and a son, and a brother. My father retired right before the lockdowns, but developed TB at the height of COVID, and had a stroke and heart attack a year or so after that TB diagnosis. All of his retirement benefits were suddenly gone, and we had to sell our plot of land in Valencia where we had planned to build a house. These problems piled on top of doing online classes, and there was filial pressure to finish early so I could fund the education of my siblings. With the ever-worsening economy as manifested by the rising prices, the pandemic both radicalized and paralyzed me. I have developed a deep anger to the state and the status-quo, but also an overwhelming pressure to persist within it to build a future for those I treasure most. I can’t see myself developing radical beliefs and doing extremist actions, even in writing, simply because my sisters and brother look to me for guidance and support. The pandemic has made me an angry individual, student, and writer, but I have to make this anger die down because I can’t let the pot boil over.”
From fictionist Tara De Leon: “As the only able-ish bodied member of our household, I became the quarantine tribute–keeper of the barangay pass—and so, between having to wait at checkpoints and at hour-long lines to get into the grocery and sanitizing said groceries and cooking while struggling with my contamination anxiety, there wasn’t much time to write. The elaborate ceremonies drained me physically, mentally, emotionally. I checked out. It didn’t help that all ‘my year’ plans for 2020 were canceled. My partner met my family during my sister’s wedding in January 2020. Later that same year, I meant to travel to meet his family where we would officially announce our engagement. But borders closed globally. The pandemic felt eternal. Not knowing when borders would open, or if they ever even would, brought about new worries. So in June of 2021, he ended things. And I couldn’t do ‘girls’ nights’ because there was a pandemic out there and an 8 PM curfew. And I couldn’t book a ticket to fly to him to try and win him back because I couldn’t even leave the island! I had no outlet for all my feelings so I finally turned to writing. There was still a lot left unsaid in that relationship, but I cut off all communication with him—so I wrote letters I’d never send. It was cathartic. I don’t write letters anymore, I don’t feel the need to. Though I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still reeling from the changes, even after almost two years. My pandemic story isn’t typical I guess but, it is what it is.”
And from the great Cesar Ruiz Aquino: “Pandemic or no pandemic, I was waning in my capacity to write poems. It feels like our species is paying for our meanness.”
* * *
The stories feel like a mix of somber reflections and surprised productivity. But there are bright spots, especially in terms of another marker of literary success: book-selling. For some reason, before the pandemic, there were only five “bookstores” in Dumaguete—a heritage establishment that has, frankly speaking and even though I love the store, has seen better days [Caballes Bookstore along Perdices Street], two that sold “pre-loved books [XIQ Books in the bowels of LuPega Building along Locsin Street and BookSale at Robinsons Place], a Christian outfit [Philippine Christian Book Store along Calle San Jose], and a tottering mainstream behemoth [National Bookstore, also at Robinsons Place]. Truth to tell, many would not even consider these establishments as “real bookstores,” and even NBS closed its doors for good the moment the mall was locked down because of the pandemic. And then, for the longest time, the feeling was that—for a place like Dumaguete that sometimes calls itself a “city of literature”—it was sobering to note there were no bookstores around. Can a literary city be “literary” when there are no bookstores around?
In 2020, right in the middle of the first year of lockdown, something in that status quo changed: a new bookstore opened shop. Ikaduhang Andana [Binisaya for “second floor”], located in the attic of the Solon house in the compound right behind the SUMC Medical Specialty Building, was the brainchild of 19-year-old Natania Shay Du. And for a while, it felt like water quenching thirst in a literary desert. “In the process of building the bookstore and connecting with the community…we realized that, because of the pandemic, there is an immediate need for more accessible education in any way,” Ms. Du told Renz Torres in an interview for MetroPost the month it opened. What’s more, her focus on Philippine publications felt like a gift. But then, the bookstore quietly closed shop within a year. And that felt like a heartbreak. [It has to be noted, however, that two more bookstores opened in its wake: PhindBooks along Aldecoa Drive, which caters to foreign trade books, and 451°F Books and Café, which caters to comic books and graphic novels.]
Enter Gayle Acar almost two years later.
Born and raised in Manila, she graduated from the UP College of Fine Arts, and had worked as a musician, a store supervisor, a personal stylist, and a graphic designer. In April 2022, Ms. Acar moved to Dumaguete with her husband Ernest and their two girls. “But I’ve been coming to Dumaguete since 2009, when I first met the parents of my husband [then my boyfriend] in Bais. Since then I would visit a few times a year, for gatherings or holidays,” she says. “My husband and I have always talked about moving to Dumaguete, for the slower pace and to be closer to nature, but couldn’t, due to my husband’s office work.”
But the pandemic hit, and work switched to a hybrid set-up. “And after spending too much time indoors, we just decided to finally relocate,” Ms. Acar says. “I was also homeschooling my kids and part of it was spending time studying nature, which was a struggle in Manila. Now we can go to the beach or mountains whenever we feel like it. We also live within walking distance to the bookshop.” There were other things she loved about Dumaguete: “The environment and stress-free living just inspires you to create,” she says. “And I’ve heard of writers workshops here before. But it was when we moved last year that we saw a lot of newly opened galleries and artist hubs.” These were incentives to the move.
In August 2020, prior to the Dumaguete move, she started LibrAria Books on Instagram. “It was primarily to sell books that my kids have outgrown. It was a blink decision to call the enterprise ‘LibrAria,’ because I was initially selling my daughter Aria’s books. We were beginning homeschool as well, and were trying to source books for our curriculum. It was hard to find most of the titles here, and I somehow found myself developing a skill for finding rare and beautiful books. I documented them through photos, and soon LibrAria became my visual playground.”
She ended up falling in love with bookselling, and pursuing it full time. She started with thirty titles, which became a hundred, to almost a thousand over a week-long drop. On ordinary days, she would post about two hundred titles on her Instagram account.
But it helped that she had always loved books. “Books have always been my companion,” Ms. Acar says. “Being surrounded by them makes me feel like I belong. I spend hours scouring and flipping through them at thrift shops, my kids browsing alongside me. Years before that, my husband proposed to me in a bookshop, and we got married in a library. Even more years prior, while in college, you would find me seeking solace within library walls and stacks of books.”
Establishing LibrAria in the middle of the pandemic felt like the right thing to do. “It was a time when we were confined and stifled, and LibrAria provided us with an opportunity to pass our time in creative ways, and try our best to live in spite of fear. It was just like any clean-up/garage sale but turned out to be my ikigai,” she says.
There was also the fact that running the bookstore combined all her interests. “It’s my love for retail, customer service, and visual merchandising that inspires me to make the online experience as personal as possible,” she says. This includes the process of curating titles [“meticulously selected, relentlessly hunted”]; putting them into themes like Fairies/Japan; arranging them into a teaser [“focal point, levels, balance”]; doing the photography [“the teaser, each book’s content, illustrations, flaws … my love for documenting books in a romantic flat lay plus dramatic lighting”]; scheduling [“sequencing, invoicing, shipping”]; designing graphics [“schedules, glossaries”]; custom wrapping [“stamps, stickers, flowers”]; and book recommendations [“I keep track of preferences”].
LibrAria on Instagram proved an instant success. Part of it, as mentioned above, was her attention to detail in her retailing of the books she was selling. “I am also passionate about retail and the customer experience, so I made packaging as personal as possible, with stickers, ribbons or lace, and flowers. It was also a way of connecting with the outside world during a time that everyone was indoors.”
Moving to Dumaguete meant moving the business as well—but it was easy to do, since the enterprise was mostly done online. But the more she thought about it, the more she felt that LibrAria needed a brick-and-mortar equivalent at this stage of the business. And so, in December 2022, the Acars opened their first physical store in 58 EJ Blanco, a collective enterprise of artists and entrepreneurs in Dumaguete.
“I used to keep my stocks at home, but it seemed more practical to keep them somewhere else. And I’ve been coming to 58 EJ Blanco since we moved to Dumaguete, and I loved the community there,” Ms. Acar says. “One of the artists showed me a space—which inspired me to create a hidden bookshop, with a shelf for a door, something that would transport you to a different time once you are inside. I also wanted it to represent my store on Instagram, how it would feel when you would expand the flat lays with flowers and antiques. It is also a representation of my introverted self.”
But it was a challenge opening the bookstore. “We only had less than a month to build, because we wanted to open in time for the art bazaar at 58 last December. So we did the essentials first, and refined details after the opening.” Another challenge for her was balancing and bridging the online/offline experience of LibrAria. “We are also learning about different customer profiles online and offline, and their preferred titles and genres,” she says.
Now, the bookstore has grown, including its curation of titles. “I would like to provide beautiful educational books for homeschooling families,” Ms. Acar says. “Also Filipiniana selections for transient guests, antiquarian titles for collectors, and a showcase Dumaguete-based writers’ and illustrators’ works. We are more than a bookshop, we also want to build a community of readers, through literary events and customer engagement.” The aim is “to become a source of inspiration for writers and artists, through books, or meeting colleagues and enthusiasts,” and to do that she envisions LibrAria to host a variety of activities to expand their community, including storytelling for children and families, workshops that would promote books on local culture and history, and others. “We are learning as we go along,” Ms. Acar says. “It was initially a passion project. But now, meeting the writers’ community in Dumaguete, we are exploring how we can give support or be a platform for their voices and their work.”
That last bit, a focus on Dumaguete writers in her bookstore, is the best draw—and one of the pandemic’s best gifts to Dumaguete literary arts.
9:00 AM |
The Ultimate Holy Week O.B.T. Around Negros Island
The term “O.B.T.”—for “one big tuyok”—was probably first used by Dumaguete resident Raffy Teves in 1982. It caught on, and decades later, we’re still using this term for the now “traditional” habit of going around Dumaguete in a car or motorcycle for several cycles before heading home. It started when quiet Dumaguete, once a city of 𝑡𝑎𝑟𝑡𝑎𝑛𝑖𝑙𝑙𝑎𝑠 or horse-drawn carriages, started having a considerable number of cars on its narrow roads. According to Jacqueline Veloso-Antonio, “There was nothing to do, so we would be hanging out at our homes, on rotation each week, for tapok. Then, if we ran out of things to do, Raffy would say, ‘O.B.T. ‘ta!’ and we’d all get on our rides and do a big tuyok of Dumaguete, which included all the cemeteries in town!”
Renz and do this, too, all the time. And so do many of our friends.
But back in 2018, in time for Holy Week, I did the ultimate O.B.T. with my friends Xandro “Chucky” Dael and Felix Dela Peña Mosqueda III: to go around Negros Island at the top of Holy Thursday, and return to Dumaguete at the end of Easter Sunday. Our haphazard aim was to see if we could do it, and also to see the various sites in our island that we’d heard so much about but never got to see, because life was always busy. I also decided to do, on a lark, a bit of heritage documentation: I wanted to photograph every single Jose Rizal statue in all the towns and cities we passed by, and to photograph every parish church.
You need four things to be able to go around Negros Island in four days:
First, have an absolute and heedless denial in impossibility. This is essential. An impromptu O.B.T. around an island as huge as Negros will have most people say, “No, thank you.” We said yes instead.
Second, have a company of a few friends to share the madness with. Chuck and I have always shared a love for traveling—we used to do staycations a lot—although we differ greatly in our estimation of what constituted great accommodations: I love the rustic charms of nipa hut resorts, and he loves them chic and modern. Nonetheless, I love going on daytrips with him—something we actually hadn’t done ever since the pandemic happened. But in 2018, we just decided out of the blue to take this O.B.T. trip. It was completely decided on a whim when we were chatting on Facebook one night right around the beginning of Holy Week, and I think I said something like, “My dream is to do an O.B.T. of Negros Island.” And he replied: “Let’s do it this Thursday.” And that was that.
Problem was, I don’t drive—so it was left to Chucky to do all of the driving around Negros Island, 206 kilometers of nautical highway in total. [The poor guy developed a wrist problem right after.] Also, I’m such a bad companion on the road: I always fall asleep the moment the car I’m in speeds on a highway. Good thing we had Felix to accompany us. He provided the laughs, especially when I slept, and he was there to break whatever indecisiveness the two primary instigators of the trip landed ourselves into. [In the meantime, I charted our trip, determined our stops, decided on the tourist spots to visit, and booked all the hotels.]
Third, have a car that’s stocked up with gasoline and chichirya for the road. This is a must.
Fourth, have a good map to track where you might stay for every stop for the night. Since we only had four full days to do a complete trip, I determined that we needed to do three nightly stops. I decided that our first stop should be in Negros Oriental—and that should be Canlaon City, right at the border of the two provinces, and which would provide us with our only excursion to the interiors of the island, and at least see Kanlaon Volcano and pay homage to the gods from the vantage point of what is said to be the oldest balete tree in all of the island. We earlier determined not to visit the interior towns for lack of time, hence no stops in Pamplona, Mabinay, Don Salvador Benedicto, La Castellana, Moises Padilla, and Isabela.
In Canlaon, we stayed at Mountain Citi Hostel, and enjoyed our first O.B.T. night going around the mountain city at dusk, looking for cheap food, and pondering about the first day of madness we just went through. Our first leg from Dumaguete to Canlaon was probably our most familiar trip, because we’d been through these cities and towns before—but doing it during Holy Thursday added a different flavor to the trip. When we stopped by Tanjay, we managed to catch a glimpse at the Semana Sanata kasikas in this most Catholic of Oriental Negrense cities. It was interesting. The Oriental towns going north also increasingly became rustic, and because I was documenting all the parish churches, it was jarring for me to take note that they became more garish the more up north we went, save for Tayasan’s. Also, we couldn’t find the poblacion of Vallehermoso, so we skipped that. [Truth: I have never seen the población of Vallehermoso.]
On our second leg, we started by going from Canlaon City to San Carlos City—a city I love—and then we were on a route that was no longer familiar to us. We were now in the Occidental side of Negros, although all the towns until Manapla—which includes Calatrava, Toboso, Escalante City, Sagay City, and Cadiz City—were all Cebuano-speaking. But suddenly in Manapla, while we were looking for the Gaston heritage house where Peque Gallaga filmed Oro Plata Mata, we started hearing more Hiligaynon, just like a switch being turned on. [Also in Manapla, we chanced upon the Chapel of the Cartwheels—something we did not plan to visit at all, but glad we did. It was near the Gaston house anyway.]
It was also around here that I really began to feel the grand sugar heritage of my island. Sure, I’ve seen sugar haciendas in Bais and Tanjay, and in Sta. Catalina and Pamplona—but the sugar fields of Northern Negros are something else altogether—a vastness of sugar fields that essentially serve as time machines. In Victorias City, we decided to visit St. Joseph the Worker Chapel, commonly known as the Church of the Angry Christ, which is located inside the Victorias Milling Company—just to see the famous mural done by Filipino-American modernist painter Alfonso Ossorio in 1950. Also in Victorias City, we witnessed the biggest Santo Entierro procession we have ever seen in our whole lives, and we made this strange distinction: Oriental towns and cities seemed to go into somber mode during Holy Week, while Occidental towns and cities were practically using the high holy days as a chance to, well, party. There was such a festive atmosphere the moment we entered Victorias, and which carried us all the way through our trip to the southern Occidental towns. Another observation we made: Occidental towns and cities really do flaunt their wealth—you could see it in the ornate [and preserved] architecture and other infrastructures, even in the smallest of towns. The whole thing brought a certain honesty in the Occidental Negrense boast, “Sa amon ya, ang kwarta ginapala, ginapiko.” It’s true.
This second leg would end in Silay City, where I chose the German Unson heritage house, now a thriving bread-and-breakfast, to be our second stop for the night. I thought that there was just no other way to stay in Silay—a city famous for its heritage houses from the heyday of the sugarcane decades—except be in an actual heritage house. We did our requisite tour of all the sugar houses in Silay—which, lucky for us, were all open on a Holy Friday. But all of us had been to Silay before and had done this heritage tour, so we soon opted to loiter around town looking for a place to eat—and even though the city was festive and full of people, we could not find a single restaurant that was open. We ended up buying diyes chicken off the streets, and spent the evening under the shadow of the grand San Diego Pro-Cathedral.
We began our third leg by leaving for Bacolod mid-morning. We didn’t really intend to stay and explore Bacolod, because we’d all been here before—but we took time to take a photo of the San Sebastian Cathedral, and a photo of the Jose Rizal statue along Araneta Avenue. We knew the road to Sipalay, our third stop, would be long—the longest leg ever in our O.B.T.—so we immediately went our way, although we decided to bypass the sea route after Bacolod to do a quick interior look at Murcia and Bago City, where we promptly got lost on our way to find an exit to Pulupandan. We laughed nervously when we finally found our bearings, knowing we lost an hour or so going round and round the interiors, and then it was smooth-sailing to Kabankalan. From there, we were finally in the heel of our boot-shaped island, the southern tropical wilderness of Ilog and Cauayan—which was absolutely beautiful for its density of foliage. It was nearing nighttime when we reached Cauayan, and then suddenly we were in the middle of a heavy downpour. We weren’t even near our destination yet! We braved on in the uncomfortable darkness that suddenly was everywhere, the highway blurry in the rain. Finally, after a few apprehensive hours, we did reach Sipalay.
What Chuck and Felix did not know however is that I booked us accommodations, not in Sipalay itself, but in Sugar Beach—a cove which was only accessible via a pump boat the resort was sending us. In the increasing darkness of evening, around 8 PM, while the rain was petering out but was still quite strong, we finally boarded the pump boat on rough seas, with rainwater and seawater drenching all of us. It was in this condition—fun for me, but horrifying to Chuck and Felix—that we finally reached Driftwood Village Resort, a place I’d stayed in from a few years back when I spent an entire Holy Week vacation with my brother Edwin. The rain was no longer as harsh when we settled in for the night, and we spent dinnertime in the company of hippies and expats. By Easter Sunday morning, the sun was out in full force—and Chuck and Felix finally found out why Sugar Beach is called exactly that: the fineness of the sand and the gloriousness of the view were all worth last night’s heavy rain. It was beautiful.
By noon, we were preparing to go on our final leg—the homestretch to Dumaguete after a brief stopover in Bayawan, Chuck’s hometown and mine, to visit family and friends. It was already late in the afternoon when we started on that final stretch—but not without a final decision: “Do we go through Pamplona, or through Siaton?” I opted for Siaton, knowing I could catch more photos of churches and Rizal statues that way.
We arrived in Dumaguete near dusk, stopping for a bit at M.L. Quezon Park to behold our Jose Rizal statue and our Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria, just within a stone’s throw of each other. We were finally home—and our O.B.T. was a grand success I don’t think the three of us could surpass again.
So, which churches were the prettiest and grandest? Silay’s, hands down, architecture-wise. Art-wise, the Church of St. Joseph the Worker in Victorias, but Manapla’s Church of the Cartwheels is fantastic for its idiosyncracies. But in terms of traditional feel, Bacong, Dumaguete, Bacolod, Pontevedra, and Valladolid were the tops—although Valladolid’s has terrible interiors. The churches in the south side of Oriental are older and more beautiful, but in the north side, especially after Bais, not so much, except for Tayasan and Amlan, the latter which somehow managed to preserve the old architecture. In terms of lovable strangeness, I love the parish churches of Cadiz, Bais, and Amlan. The saddest were the churches in San Jose, Toboso, Basay, and Ayungon. And the most disappointing is probably Tanjay. For an old parish, its church is unbelievably garish.
As for the Rizal statue documentation, that’s another story.