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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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Wednesday, August 30, 2023

entry arrow8:21 PM | Lito Aro

Cornelito “Lito” Aro is one of Dumaguete's best homegrown visual artists, and I wish his work gets more attention. I first met him when he was a resident painter at Antulang. He was painting a seascape, and I was so enthralled with it and must have been so effusive in my enthusiasm, that he picked up the painting from his easel and gave it to me. [This was a long time ago, and I could not afford to buy any artwork at all!] This one is titled “Magbibingka,” and it currently hangs at Residencia Orlina. Somebody should give him a solo exhibition soon!

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entry arrow7:00 AM | Poetry Wednesday, No. 150.

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Monday, August 28, 2023

entry arrow11:00 PM | 30

And with that, high school reunion season comes to a close. We had our farewell dinner at The Vineyard, and capped a reunion that included three wildly different dinners [last night at Hayahay was apparently dedicated to old-time debauchery], a community outreach program, and a parade. I missed our 25th year reunion, but resolved to join our 30th because it was such a milestone. It turned out to be pretty much an emotional one for everyone as well, and I’ve noticed that everyone was so ready to be vulnerable, to tell everyone we love them and miss them, to express gratefulness, to give endless hugs. Tonight, near the end of the dinner, the host made us do an impromptu communal singing of “That’s What Friends Are For,” and after initially giggling because it was so corny, everyone nevertheless gravitated towards forming a large circle, and — holding hands and swaying to the melody — we sang the song out loud with what I sincerely believe to be heartfelt gusto. When will I ever see these people again? Who knows? That’s the beauty of life’s flows and impermanence: they make nights like this meaningful and beautiful.

Happy 122nd Founders Day, Silliman University!

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Sunday, August 27, 2023

entry arrow9:00 AM | What is the Silliman Spirit?

A good friend of mine who’s been based in Dumaguete for years but has never studied at Silliman University playfully wondered out aloud during a meeting: “What is the Silliman Spirit?”

Frankly, I don’t know. No one does. It beggars definition, but—it’s a feeling? A kind of zealous but quiet loyalty? It’s definitely a strong bond that exists between Sillimanians even if they are separated by generations. It’s “school spirit,” yes—but that terms also barely covers what it means. And it has nothing to do with camaraderie over sports teams either, like many other schools do.

It’s a whole collective nostalgia for school life defined by similar milestones and landscapes, which can go pretty wild sometimes. It’s singing the “Silliman Song” in a crowd and feeling immediately emotional because of the resonance of everyone singing out with gusto. It’s loving the cafeteria cheese bread, and fried chicken, and pork chop, and fruit mix—and beelining to partake of these the moment you get back to Dumaguete after a long absence. It’s Silliman Beach memories, and fresh milk from the Silliman Farm, and teasing girls at Edith Carson Hall. It’s getting the so-called “Hibalag fling.” It’s the ghosts of Katipunan Hall, and the shade of the acacia trees. It’s the swelter of shows at the Luce—where, years after graduation, you realize you were spoiled for culture and took it for granted while you were a student. It’s going to other places in the world and then you bump into a resident who finds out you’re both Sillimanians—and they drop everything to be the perfect host, even if you barely know each other. It’s looking out for and taking care of each other because of a shared matricular identity. It’s feeling like a native Dumagueteño, even if you’re not from Dumaguete and you haven’t been to Dumaguete in years—but you always long to “come home.” It’s the feeling of having a home. It’s the trek hundreds take from all over the country and the world, every August every year, just to celebrate Founders Day, which is actually not a day—it’s a whole month of activities and parties and reunions, all coming to a heightened frenzy in the last two weeks of the month. [And nobody really holds classes, although officially classes are still on.]

Founders Day is weird because it is a weeks-long fiesta that probably has no other equivalent in the world: it is a compendium of events that run the gamut of a beauty pageant, various scholarly talk and symposia, a booth festival that hosts pop-up restos, concerts, etc., a horror chamber [yes], a cheering competition, a sunrise service, a sports invitational, an all-city parade, a host of cultural shows, a barrage of high school reunions [with their own schedule of events], an awards ceremony celebrating accomplished alumni, and a community dance. And lots and lots of food.

And the whole thing radiates to the entire community! All hotels in Dumaguete are full in August. All restaurants feel the impact of the influx.

As a collective of events, Founders Day can be exhausting, and no one really manages to take them all. I think Founders Day can be a strange thing to behold to an outsider, but it’s so ingrained in the Sillimanian identity, it’s impossible to divorce August from our sense of self. I mean, take a look at one Founders Day tradition [see photo]: this is the “Pamahaw Sillimaniana,” where students and alumni regularly trek to Silliman Hall to partake of free breakfast for an entire week, just to mingle, and just to soak in that indefinable Silliman Spirit. Who else does that? Free breakfasts for everyone for an entire week?

I doubt I have managed to make a definition of the Silliman Spirit here. But it’s a lot like catching sunlight: you can’t, but you feel its warmth on your face, and you know it’s there.

See you at 6:30 AM for breakfast tomorrow!

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Friday, August 25, 2023

entry arrow11:00 PM | How to Survive a High School Reunion

First, before you go to the reunion—especially if it’s for your thirtieth year—take time to scan your old yearbook. Take a look at the faces of former classmates, and most of all, take a look at the names. Study them. Because you’re past your mid-forties now, and memory has lately been playing tricks on you. You will not remember everyone’s names, and the faces have definitely changed. Consider the yearbook quick-scan a preparation for the barrage of faces greeting you.

“Do you remember me?” a beautiful, familiar-looking woman greeted me when I entered Brooke’s Place, which was hosting my high school reunion welcome party.

“Of course I do,” I said. Because I really did.

“Then what’s my name?”

Ladies and gentlemen, I forgot Lovely Villaflores’ name—although we were pretty chummy in high school. [In my defense, I have the memory of a gold fish: names of people I haven’t seen in six months I cannot at all recall, and not because I’m a terrible person. It’s just the way my brain is.]

Second, don’t be conscious about having gained weight. Strut your stuff, and project the utmost of looking good—because everyone has gained weight anyway, but they are all still looking lovely. The good thing is, no one in a reunion really does the Filipino hello of “Nanambok lagi ka.” Which is a surprising thing. At the reunion, only one person ever commented on my weight by patting my belly—and I replied by squeezing his equally generous belly back.

Third, don’t be afraid to load up at the open bar. Cocktails loosen your nerves and make you sociable. It helps cut down on the uncertainty of having to bridge social relationships with people you haven’t seen in ages—and often the only thing you have in common is a shared school both of you graduated from together. But the alcohol makes you giddy; the alcohol makes you love everyone, and your hugs become generous; the alcohol loosens the memories of all the shenanigans you used to do together when you were young and largely an agent of chaos in the world.

Fourth, soak up on class lore before you get to the reunion—and that way, you will win all the prizes for the trivia questions that are bound to be part of the program. What was the name of the school secretary? Who stole the cassette tape of one group before an inter-class dance competition? How did you terrorize that poor substitute teacher? Alas, none of these became trivia questions, but this one did:

What is the title of your graduation song?

No one remembered the title of our graduation song. Daunted by everyone’s amnesia, the host who was grilling us with all the questions, gave us clues:

“It’s composed of two words.”

“‘I Believe‘?” we replied.

“No. The first word is ‘My.’”

“‘My Way‘?”

“Dear God, who would use ‘My Way‘ as a graduation song? ‘And now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain…’ Whaaat? The second word has two syllables!”

We had no idea.

It turned out, it was something called My Tribute. And everyone was like, “Huh?”

You will not remember your graduation song thirty years later.

Fifth, take it all easy. It’s your thirtieth year after high school graduation, and you are surrounded by old friends who know your secrets and who knew you when you were a sweaty little brat prone to mischief. That recall of your old selves is such a divine social leveler. In a high school reunion, no one “cares” [and I mean this in a positive sense] if you’re an award-winning writer or a very rich businessman or a mayor or a successful scientist or an important banker or a respected physician—you’re still that kid from high school everyone teases. And it is such a delight to find out that the Class Goat who made class history for flunking classes left and right is now a food maven in Vegas. Talk about having an arc! So be free on reunion night. Take all the grace in and enjoy yourself. Dance. Dance like no one’s watching. Dance the lambada, like you used to do in your JS Prom. Sway to Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love.” Do the country line dance to Billie Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart.” Sing your heart out to Madonna.

And lastly, be grateful. Be grateful to the organizers who have done a great job at an often thankless task of gathering old classmates for a reunion. Be grateful that you’re still around after all these years, and that you have all these people around you who are still your friends by the default of youth and memory and shared camaraderie.

You think of old classmates that have gone—the late Jacqueline Piñero-Torres, our valedictorian, most of all—and you realize you being in this reunion is a tribute to her and the others. You are saying, “You are missed.” You are saying, “I’m here to celebrate you.” You are saying, “Thank you for all the memories.”

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Wednesday, August 23, 2023

entry arrow4:39 PM | Remembering Handulantaw, 10 Years Later

Ten years ago, we published this mammoth work of cultural history — a comprehensive book dedicated to mapping out and writing the entire artistic history of Silliman University from 1901 to 2013, in time for the 50th anniversary of what was then the Silliman University Cultural Affairs Committee [now the Silliman University Culture and Arts Council].

It had never been done before. I was editor and main instigator, and Diomar Abrio was my managing editor [and stress buffer], and we were helped by so many people who contributed articles, who made the art, who did the photography, who helped design the book, and who made the backbreaking work of research. Research was particularly hard because Silliman is actually notorious for being lax about archiving cultural work, and part of the work was being horrified by the discovery that we lost so much to termites, to fire, to World War II, and to plain neglect. [We documented an Amorsolo painting, for example, that was found neglected in the Buildings and Grounds Department. Albert Faurot's library was lost to termites. Et cetera.] Choosing fifty cultural movers that shaped Silliman culture was also a test of will and politics, and involved a lot of compromise. Creating a timeline of art-making in campus [literature, visual arts, dance, theatre, music, architecture, cinema and photography] was next to impossible — until we found out that Rodolfo Juan had been collecting programs and various memorabilia from all campus events since forever. Writing a definitive history of all the fine arts in Silliman was also hard, given constraints in space. We left out so much material actually, I swear I can devote 100 more pages to include them.

I'm proud of this work, even though this project almost killed me. [It made me fat actually, because food was my only recourse and pleasure after so much stress making this. I was thin and lean when I started this. The weight I have now can be traced back to this project!]

I really had no idea what I was diving into when I pushed for this project all those years ago. Sometimes being naive helps, because you are fearless. We also got a fantastic grant of P1.5 million from Tao Foundation, and that compelled us to finish the project once and for all. But it's done. This has been my enduring contribution to Silliman [and Dumaguete] culture, the text with which people will consult to understand the evolution of local arts.

Thank you to everyone [Julio Sy Jr., Moses Joshua B. Atega, Jacqueline Veloso Antonio, Annabelle Adriano, Leo Mamicpic, Elizabeth Susan Vista-Suarez, Warlito Caturay Jr., Isabel Dimaya-Vista, Ben S. Malayang III, Sherro Lee Arellano, Greg Morales, Yvette Malahay-Kim, Jeric Fernandez, Ian KS Malayang, Ron Calumpang, Sonia B. SyGaco, Myrish Cadapan Antonio, Dessa Quesada-Palm, Earl Jude Cleope, and all the writers, artists, photographers, researchers, and historical consultants] who made this possible.

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entry arrow7:00 AM | Poetry Wednesday, No. 149.


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Saturday, August 19, 2023

entry arrow7:47 PM | Birthday Returns

After the ravages of the pandemic, I’ve now found myself back to teaching. It was a very long hiatus from that part of my life which had always defined me. When I took the leave without pay, it was essentially to take care of my spiraling mental health, but it was also to find my footing in a world that suddenly felt alien. And now that I have come to the end of that long tunnel, here are some thoughts and some confessions.

There was a huge part of me that felt the leave was going to be permanent. When 2020 came around and we were on the precipice of the coming pandemic, about to jump into the abyss, I was already feeling burned out—although I must admit I was trying my best to ignore the symptoms.

In 2010, I had come back from the United States after a fruitful fellowship at the International Writing Program with so much vigor and many ideas, and then in 2012, I finally earned the MA I had been postponing for about a decade, and then I was appointed founding coordinator of the Edilberto and Edith Tiempo Creative Center, with the creative writing program now fully back on as an academic offering—after decades of it being a neglected part of departmental concerns. Everything was full of promise. The work was fulfilling.

It was a joy to teach creative writing. Even the fact that I was the only creative writing teacher on the roster—although with an esteemed and retired faculty filling in as adjunct professor for poetry—did not bother me at first. [I was told there was a freeze in hiring given the uncertainties of K12.] I did not mind for the most part, because I genuinely loved teaching. I loved having the opportunity to mold writers at the beginning of their creative prowess. I loved that the efforts of those years produced so many books by my students, with two of them winning the Palanca for plays workshopped in my classes. [For my teaching purposes, I considered the Palanca and similar platforms, like the Virgin Labfest, my equivalent of a board exam—which is just the kind of professional marker denied graduates of creative fields.]

But the toll of all that eventually got to me. Workshops are not easy classes to teach; they require blood and sweat from both student and teacher, and immense amounts of concentrated time—and part of that difficulty was my fault: I was a demanding teacher, meticulous to a fault, and I also allowed the work to swallow me, sometimes giving up my own free time just to be able to workshop all the stories and plays submitted for consideration, with all the attendant revisions that come with them. I was also ignoring the fact that in that immersion, I was letting go of my own practice of writing—and then, like a cancer metastasizing, I secretly began to begrudge all the time taken away from my own pursuit of crafting fiction. I would find myself feeling defeated when a work that had been previously workshopped did not bear any effort at revision, and I’d think: “We spent all those hours talking about this work so that it can be improved—and yet nothing? What a waste of time!” Still, I worked myself to the bones. I did not take any sabbatical in a decade, nor did it occur to me I should. I was constantly told to pursue my Ph.D., but every year I was also given heavier loads to teach—and with the creative writing program still in the process of being fully formed, I felt the need to stay. During one schoolyear, enrollees to the creative writing program actually topped all the other programs being offered by the department—and I felt a sense of pride in that. But unbeknownst to me I was also slowly cracking.

The pandemic, with all its Zoom classes, broke me. In 2020, I thought making lecture videos for all the classes given to me would be the best way to go. As usual, I went about it with unsustainable effort that sprang from my undiagnosed ADHD: I was crafting meticulous scripts for every lecture, designing meticulous graphics to go with them, and waking up at 2 AM every day to record my spiel without the distraction of outside traffic to mess with my sound design. I wanted my videos to be topnotch, information-wise and design-wise. And I was making at least three lecture videos a day. It was a heavy burden that I was somehow able to “sustain”—until I contracted COVID-19 and was so sick, I could barely continue.

When I recovered from COVID two weeks later, I found I could not regain my footing—my anxiety was a deep maw I could not overcome; my brain was forever distracted like glass shards in perpetual limbo; my physical capability was limited and I could not move properly; my hair was falling out in clumps, I thought I was going bald; and my every day was defined by waking nightmares I could not begin to comprehend. Which was when my boyfriend finally forced me to seek psychiatric help.

I was diagnosed with adult ADHD—and it made perfect sense. It gave me an idea why over the years I was often forgetful, why I was often feeling overwhelmed and panicky, why I needed specific boosters to carry me through even tasks I could usually finish in an hour, why I hated answering text messages and emails, why it took so much to muster motivation for things that were quite easy for me to accomplish—but also why I also had a thousand brilliant ideas, and why, when the condition is properly managed, people with ADHD also say their mental singularity is a superpower. It was all that, and then multiplied to a greater degree because of the pandemic. [My therapist told me she was beset with so many mental health cases when the pandemic happened. “It is unprecedented,” she said. It was often difficult to set up therapy appointments with her, given the high demand on her time.]

For a while the psychotropic drugs I was prescribed to take helped. I cannot even begin to describe the perfect feeling of being on Ritalin. The way it massaged my brain. The way it made me feel secure. The way it made everything so clear. This is the thing: every single day for a person with ADHD is like having a brain that’s constantly full of static—but most of us learn to live with that kind of chaotic brain chemistry it feels almost normal. Ritalin, on the other hand, was all about calm, steadiness, and focus. Taking it was like being a person with bad eyesight finally putting on a pair of prescription glasses and seeing the world perfectly for the first time: you notice the outline of the green leaves of the trees, you notice the subtleties in the shadows, you can read signs from far away. The sky is bluer, the sea greener. Ritalin gave my brain breathing space, and its gift was concentration. I could remember things now; I could follow through tasks; I was no longer nervous about messaging anyone. [In fact, my first act on Ritalin was to respond to and purge all the unanswered emails on my inbox.]

And so the drugs helped, until they didn’t—because, truth to tell, I was feeling their efficacy waning out with every passing month, even as I slowly became physically dependent on the drugs. There were times, when my prescription was running low at the end of each month where I’d panic because I was running out of medicine to take—because the withdrawal was often severe. And the medicine was also very expensive.

Eventually, because of this and other circumstances, I made the decision to manage my condition without medicine. It felt unsustainable. When I made that decision, it was the month I was due to receive an award from the Cultural Center of the Philippines, which was recognizing me for my work as a writer and as a cultural worker. I remember giving a speech in a televised ceremony at the Luce Auditorium—but feeling like my brain was flying elsewhere, especially in the panicky clouds that was secretly smothering me. But there I was on stage, acting as if I was perfectly fine; inside me though there was a dervish threatening to spin out of control.

Around this time, I made peace with myself about no longer teaching, because going back gripped me with so much despair. There were also circumstances that made my heart harden, like my department hiring the worst possible person in the world to be my replacement—and also finding out that in my gravest hours when I could not function, they could actually hire more people to teach and share the creative writing load. It was a dark time, and I admit my mental condition made many of my actions irresponsible—but never once did I feel my former colleagues reach out to me. [Some did, privately—but not the ones who mattered.] I had no plans of going back. A dear friend, Karl Villarmea, advised me however not to entertain thoughts of retirement or resignation: “Take a leave of absence instead, and then find out later if this is something you truly want to do.” I was at that time completely incapable of making definite decisions, and I am grateful that he went beyond himself to facilitate things for me as a representative of my teacher’s union. [In moments like this, you find out who your truest friends are.]

That was also the time I decided to focus on finding myself, and on pursuing writing without baggage. That was also the time I made the choice to step away from things that felt superfluous. I remember Renz reminding me: “You have done so much already, Ian. You don’t have to prove yourself anymore. You can just be yourself.” So I exiled myself to the proverbial desert for three years, turned my back on almost everything I used to hold dear, and leaned only on my creative endeavors for sustenance. It wasn’t utopia. Like I said, there were often psychotropic meds involved. And there were a lot of failures and disappointments, as well as unexpected successes.

I learned discernment.

I now know how to map the ebbs and flows of my mental challenges, and to recognize the whole thing as being not a flaw of character but as a health condition that can be managed. [Still working on this.]

I now know how recognize the honest promptings of my heart, and to obey it. [In other words, to trust your instincts. Because they’re often right.]

I know now how to calibrate expectations. [To under-promise, but over-deliver. Still working on this.]

I now know to disregard the entrenched worship of the institutional.

I also now know who friends truly are.

I have learned that I’m at my happiest when I write and create. [The exile was an extraordinarily productive time, creative-wise.]

I have also learned gratefulness, forgiveness, and the delicate balance of the adventurous yes and the self-preserving no. [Always saying yes burns you out; always saying no makes you lazy and uncreative.]

I do still need to work on replying to people in a timely manner [I get overwhelmed so easily by the volume I get, compounded by debilitating ADHD], but I’ve set up a structure that will help manage the flow.

Above all, I hope I don’t have to go back to the desert again. It wasn’t bad, but life I’ve found is more than just a metaphorical abundance of sand.

In the first faculty meeting I attended after being away for three years, my fellow teacher Rina Hill led a short reflection before we tackled the formal business of getting ready for a new schoolyear. She gave us a piece of paper with a question on it, which she asked us to ponder on. The question read: “What motivates me to work and work ‘with all [my] might’?”

It felt like the perfect question for my first day back as a teacher. What motivates me indeed? I found out that I’ve never lost my passion to teach—all the lectures and seminars and cultural tours I’ve given while in the “desert” prove that—but I just needed rest, and a new way of looking at things. My resolution now is to teach the best that I can without losing sight of myself, and my time, and my health.

Around June this year, while I was counting down the days before my official leave of absence was set to expire and I needed to decide once and for all what I wanted to do by the time August came, two friends approached me, each on their own, which motivated me to teach again.

The theatre artist Dessa Quesada-Palm, who teaches theatre directing, came to me and said: “Ian, my students need you as their playwriting teacher”—and explained why I needed to come back. Alana Narciso, a fellow literature teacher who was sitting in as chair of the department, also made an effort to meet with me, and told me over coffee: “Ian, you have so much to give our students as a creative writing teacher. Please come back.” She explained why I needed to come back. I thought of their implorations, and my heart began to melt. Sometimes the reassurances of friends are enough to make you reconsider things.

So here I am, back again. Scarred, but think wiser. The desert taught me well.

I celebrated my 48th birthday soon after the current schoolyear started. Birthdays are usually fraught with the blues for me. My dark days usually start right around the end of July and only lets up at the end of August, a monthlong commiseration about disappointments and growing older.

This year, I decided to let go, to let others in, to swim with the flow, and to reconsider once again my life’s work—and for all that, this turned out to be the happiest birthday I’ve celebrated since forever. Understated, but so full of meaning. May we all have this kind of birthday revelations.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2023

entry arrow12:44 PM | Reflection From the Exile

Here's a pre-birthday reflection. After the ravages of the pandemic, I’m back to teaching after a very long hiatus to take care of my mental health — and here are some thoughts. I exiled myself to the desert for three years, turned my back on almost everything, and leaned only on my creative endeavors for sustenance. It wasn’t utopia, there were often psychotropic meds involved, and there were a lot of failures as well as successes — but I learned discernment. I now know how recognize the honest promptings of my heart, and to obey it. I know now how to calibrate expectations. I now know to disregard the entrenched worship of the institutional. 𝕀 𝕒𝕝𝕤𝕠 𝕟𝕠𝕨 𝕜𝕟𝕠𝕨 𝕨𝕙𝕠 𝕞𝕪 𝕗𝕣𝕚𝕖𝕟𝕕𝕤 𝕒𝕣𝕖. I have learned that I'm at my happiest when I write. [The exile was an extraordinarily productive time, creative-wise.] I have also learned gratefulness, forgiveness, and the delicate balance of the adventurous yes and the self-preserving no. I do still need to work on replying to people in a timely manner [I get overwhelmed so easily by the volume I get, compounded by debilitating ADHD], but I’ve set up a structure that will help manage the flow. I hope I don’t have to go back to the desert again. It wasn’t bad, but life is more than just an abundance of sand.


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entry arrow7:00 AM | Poetry Wednesday, No. 148.

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Sunday, August 13, 2023

entry arrow11:30 PM | Life Goals

Setting some specific life goals with Renz for the start of birthday week. He and I know we need each other’s support for the things we want to do, or dream. And we’ve been together for ten years! It was time. Really happy to know we’re on the same page. For the first time in years, I feel like I can start breathing for real.

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Friday, August 11, 2023

entry arrow4:26 PM | The Prince and the President's Son

I just watched Matthew Lopez’s Red White and Royal Blue (2023), the adaptation of Casey McQuiston’s novel about the son of an American President falling in love with a Prince of the United Kingdom. I won’t begrudge the kilig. Kilig is so rare these days, so I’ll take it from anywhere I can. [Plus, Greg Berlanti produced this!] I like that this film tested my expectations. Like, why did I expect Uma Thurman’s President Ellen Claremont to go nuclear if she finds out about her son’s gay dalliance with the prince, only to be given a nurturing scene where mother bonds with son? Was that patriarchal heteronormativity having conditioned me to only expect disappointments with gay romance? Don’t we deserve our own happy-ended fairy tales? It is an aspirational film, made for our times, and my skepticism knows it holds no water over anything that dreams of a romance like this.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2023

entry arrow7:00 AM | Poetry Wednesday, No. 147.


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Saturday, August 05, 2023

entry arrow12:05 AM | We Need a Tourism Reset for Negros Oriental

On the last day of July 2023, a Monday, all the roads in Dumaguete led to the Negros Oriental Provincial Capitol where—in the forecourt of the heritage building housing the office of the governor of the province—a tourism extravaganza was about to be unveiled. It was something definitely new for the province as far as I was concerned, and when I arrived at the venue—which was jazzed up to accommodate a huge stage—my first impression was: “I’ll take this as Negros Oriental’s tourism reset after the horrors of March.”

Because there really is no denying the blood-soaked March we just had—only three months ago as of this writing. There is no denying the hellish turmoil that followed that made headlines and broadcast news—and losing two governors in the process, one to cancer and another to carnage. The damage was deep, and also impacted the way Negros Oriental was being seen everywhere: our province was now the unfortunate haven to craven politicians eager for tactical assassinations. Post-massacre, it was not unnormal for visiting friends to ask me: “Is it safe to go to Dumaguete?”

So how does one rise from that? To quote the local musician and theatre artist Hope Tinambacan: “What we artists have tried so hard to establish for Negros Oriental as a place of great culture, has been undone so thoroughly in just one day.”

It is perfectly ironic then that for the rehabilitation to come, culture and the arts are the tools being used once again in the name of tourism. The July 31 program at the Provincial Capitol was being dubbed a “tourism roadshow and cultural exchange program,” and served as a welcome program for the First Silliman University International Choral Festival, which had participants coming in from various parts of the country and the world. The tourism roadshow was working from the slogan, “Negros Oriental: Garbo sa Kabisay-an [Pride of the Visayas],” and the Negros Oriental Provincial Tourism Council was hoping to use it as a “platform to showcase and celebrate the essence of [the] province’s vibrant culture, arts, and heritage.” Everything was the brainchild of Woodrow Maquiling Jr.—RR to friends—who had come home to Dumaguete from a long and fruitful stint working at the Department of Tourism head office to find himself appointed by newly-installed Governor Chaco Sagarbarria as the Provincial Tourism Board Executive Director and concurrent head of the Provincial Tourism Council.

There was no denying the grandness of the roadshow presentation and the robust talents it was showcasing—many of them recreations of various festivals from around the province. From Gov. Sagarbarria’s keynote speech, we learned of his new administration’s recognition of the importance of local culture and the arts: “[Our program] stands as a testament to our unwavering commitment to preserving and promoting our cultural heritage as it brings together local artists, performers, and community members who share an unyielding passion for showcasing the unique identity of Negros Oriental. This collective effort encapsulates the very essence of our province, providing both visitors and locals with an opportunity to delve into our rich cultural tapestry and witness the remarkable depth of our heritage.”

Sagarbarria noted as well the importance of tourism not just as an economic powerhouse for the province, but also as a mark for local pride: “[I have] an unwavering passion for our province’s extraordinary potential as a captivating tourism destination”—noting all the tourist spots of pure potential dotting the province, and then ending with this declaration: “[I am for] embracing the delicate balance between preserving our environment and nurturing sustainable tourism. [My administration thus] is making tourism among my top priorities, and [I pledge] to elevate Negros Oriental to the forefront of global travel destinations, inviting wanderers to embark on a soul-stirring journey through our paradise.”

Truth to tell, we didn’t need the new governor to tell us of our riches—with most of them being untapped potential. Aside from culture, we do have beautiful beaches and marvelous mountains; we do have hundreds of waterfalls; we even have our own “Chocolate Hills” in Guilhungan, and our own “Rice Terraces” in Canlaon. And there’s so much more!

But how come Negros Oriental remains a “secret” to most travelers? People undeniably know more Bohol and Cebu, and even when people mention “Negros,” they mostly mean the Occidental side.

The pandemic, too, has not helped. And the numbers remind us of the long work ahead if we have to showcase Negros Oriental as a place to visit, and not a place to run away from because of bloody politics.

On a lark, I decided to calculate tourism figures provided by the Department of Tourism, primarily for Dumaguete and Negros Oriental immediately before the pandemic and then during and after, comparing them to equivalent numbers posted by nearby provinces [Cebu, Bohol, Siquijor, and Negros Occidental] and cities [Cebu City, Bacolod, and Iloilo].

I was not prepared for the stark reality of numbers, which are tabulated by the DOT from reported occupancy numbers in hotels, hostels, and resorts—but not including the numbers from Air BnB.

In 2019, right before the pandemic hit, there were 1,025,407 visitors to Negros Oriental [an aggregate number combining foreign travelers, overseas Filipino travelers, and domestic travelers], and 854,661 to Dumaguete. I used these numbers as my base for “normal times” moving forward in this analysis. In comparison, there were 781,145 to Negros Occidental [with Negros Oriental edging out considerably]; 1,088,938 to Cebu Province [only slightly overtaking Negros Oriental]; 1,581,904 to Bohol [the clear statistical winner]; and 168,366 to Siquijor. Among the cities, Cebu City had 2,869,809 visitors in 2019; Iloilo City had 1,171,520; and Bacolod had 803,911. There were more visitors to Dumaguete than to our sister Negrense city.

And then the pandemic hit in 2020, and the numbers everywhere plummeted—which was to be expected. Negros Oriental posted 171,650 visitors, a drop of 83% from 2019, and Dumaguete posted 130,656 visitors, a drop of 85%. [That number also included returning residents who had to quarantine and stay in hotels, as mandated by COVID-19 protocols.] In comparison, Negros Occidental posted 202,147 visitors, a drop of 74% from 2019; Cebu Province posted 226,019 visitors, a drop of 79%; Bohol posted 177,341, a drop of 89%; and Siquijor posted 37,980 visitors, a drop of 77%. Among the cities, Cebu City posted 599,188 visitors, a drop of 79%; Iloilo City posted 186,980 visitors, a drop of 89%; and Bacolod posted 143,114 visitors, a drop of 82%. You could see Dumaguete and Negros Oriental taking major hits in 209198.

I used the 2020 figures as my base for COVID-era numbers, to note if improvement in tourism numbers could be seen as the pandemic progressed and waned.

In 2021, things improved for some—and worse for others.

Negros Oriental posted 91,580 visitors, a decrease of 47% from 2020, while Dumaguete posted 41,851 visitors, a decrease of 68% also from 2020. In comparison among the provinces, Negros Occidental posted 311,577 visitors, an increase of 54% from 2020—and three times more than Negros Oriental. Cebu Province posted 387,484 visitors, an increase of 71%; Bohol posted 179,781 visitors, an increase of 1.4%; and Siquijor posted 9,017 visitors, a decrease of 76%. Among the cities, Cebu City posted 219,169 visitors, a decrease of 63%; Bacolod posted 147,582 visitors, an increase of 3%; and Iloilo City posted 211,914 visitors, an increase of 13%. Bacolod’s number is a reversal to Dumaguete’s from 2019 figures, and by a considerable stretch. What happened? In 2022, with restrictions being relaxed and vaccinations programs firmly in place, there are marked increases across the board in terms of visitor numbers—except Dumaguete.

Negros Oriental posted 204,164 visitors in 2022, an increase of 123% from 2021, and an increase of 19% from 2020. In comparison, Negros Occidental posted 510,022 visitors in 2022, an increase of 64% from 2021, and an increase of 152% from 2020. This is a reversal in fortunes for the two Negrense provinces based on 2019 numbers—with Occidental posting 40% more visitors than Oriental in 2022.

Meanwhile, Cebu Province posted 737,163 visitors, an increase of 90% from 2021, and an increase of 226% from 2020; Bohol posted 535,803 visitors, an increase of 198% from 2021, and an increase of 202% from 2020; and Siquijor posted 99,386 visitors, an increase of 1002% from 2021, and an increase of 162% from 2020—the statistical winner among Central Visayan provinces.

Among the cities in 2022, Cebu City posted 1,063,503 visitors in 2022, an increase of 385% from 2021, and an increase of 78% from 2020; Iloilo City posted 752,301 visitors, an increase of 255% from 2021, and an increase of 302% from 2020; Bacolod City posted 618,682 visitors, an increase of 319% from 2021, and an increase of 332% from 2020.

Meanwhile, in 2022, according to DOT numbers, Dumaguete posted 48,719 visitors, an increase of 16% from 2021, but a decrease of 62% from 2022. Apparently, more people [99,386 of them] went to Siquijor than to Dumaguete [a difference of almost 50%] in 2022. And more people [204,164 of them] went all over Negros Oriental without going to and staying in Dumaguete—that’s 76% of people who went to Negros Oriental without staying in Dumaguete.

It does not make sense. Surely, the number for Dumaguete posted at the DOT website is an encoding mistake. [I asked someone from the Dumaguete City Tourism Office to clarify—and I was told there’s a mistake in the encoded number, and should be rectified by DOT.]

But let’s assume for now that it is not. One clearly sees from the overall data that Negros Oriental [and Dumaguete] has been falling behind in terms of tourism recovery compared to most places near and around it. I have no answers to explain the stillborn numbers—although local tourism diva Angelo Villanueva recently quipped to me: “Nobody is flying over because airline tickets are ridiculously expensive. So tourists will never get to see [any of our tourism endeavors] except for the usual suspects.” [I checked online and the cheapest one-way ticket from Manila to Dumaguete I could find as of this writing cost P1,482; compare that to P993 for Cebu City; P1,048 for Bacolod; P1,213 for Iloilo City; and P1,268 for Tagbilaran City—definitely, going to Dumaguete is more expensive. I know a friend who flew in from Manila to Bacolod, and then took a bus to Dumaguete—because “it was cheaper.”]

It is not for lack of trying. Over the course of the pandemic, the Dumaguete City Tourism Office released two magnificently-produced tourism videos that tugged at the heart, painting the city as a place of resilience, and then of welcoming recovery. The reception to both marketing videos was solid. And now, in Dumaguete alone, we do see a city thriving once more—even with more establishments catering to hospitality and culture than ever before in the pre-pandemic. That has to say something.

Sometime in the run of the tourism roadshow at the Provincial Capitol last July 31, an unexpected thing occurred: the power tripped while the Silliman University Dance Troupe was presenting a number, and the whole show was drenched in darkness, leaving the dancers to carry on even without lights or music. It lasted 13 minutes, RR later told me—but the show went on, as it should.

I’m positive about our potential moving forward—and I know that our tourism numbers will go up again—but using the sudden power outage of the tourism roadshow program as a metaphor, there is indeed a lot of work to be done.

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[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Wednesday, August 02, 2023

entry arrow7:00 AM | Poetry Wednesday, No. 146.


[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich