Sunday, October 29, 2006

Fright night

(Published in Sunstar Davao, October 29, 2006 issue)

Time really flies fast, especially when you’re away from home. I woke up one morning and was surprised to notice cotton cobwebs behind ghosts, skulls and goblins displayed in grocery stores. It meant the approach of Halloween, (and it also meant that I’ve been here in this island for a year and 16 days to be exact) and I decided to use Halloween for my special feature for our anniversary issue.

Last night, I clipped a small advertisement from our previous issue of the newspaper before leaving for the “Wicked Warehouse” somewhere in Malakal, a few miles from my boarding house. I stopped by our office to get the thousand-dollar Canon camera we only use for rare occasions (the fear of breaking it and having it charged against my salary is not a welcome though) and prepared to be frightened out of my guts.

Expecting to see a deserted warehouse and a few daring people, I was surprised to see cramped parking spaces and a long line of people extending all the way to the main road. A yellow line (police lines) served to control the chaos. Alas, I forgot that this is Palau and nothing much happens so a little variation like this would surely draw in crowds from their homes.
Shrugging off the notion of falling in line, I just went around taking photos of the crowd, mostly teenagers, waiting for their chance to enter the warehouse. Only about 10 are allowed at a time. Unexpectedly, one of the ghosts (whom I of course didn’t recognize because of his frightening mask) went out and saw me.
That ghost served as our passport and in no time at all, I and my buddy Robert became one of the screaming victims inside the Wicked Warehouse.
The warehouse was dark and smoky, each room creatively designed to really scare the wits out of people, complete with squeaking doors, coffins, skulls and masked ghosts who expectedly springs at us from dark corners. I know I was too old to be frightened but my concentration in taking photos was lost.

Then we entered a smoky cemetery. “Kamatayan” was standing in a crudely built stage holding his “karit” and waving it towards anyone who enters the door. Gravestones and empty liquor bottles were strewn everywhere. I read the inscriptions on the tombstones and understood that the producers were discouraging the young people to engage in drinking liquor.
In fairness, the producers have created a magical and horrifying world from a crude warehouse, and I guess the youngsters got the message they wished to portray.

Halloween and my article is not finished yet. I’ve got to prepare for the Deadman’s Ball on the eve of October 31st. If I win a prize for the most frightening mask, that would hurt me because I’m planning to attend au naturel.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Blind Coverage

Judging from the long line of cars parked on both sides of the steep road, I knew I came to right place sketched by my editor. I found a place to park at the very end of the drive, near the sea and made my way up to the Japanese cemetery, sweat streaming down my back in the noonday heat.

Although just a few meters off the road, I had never been to the place before because I didn’t have the guts to explore the very steep road going down. A false step on the accelerator would send you hurtling down towards the cliffs and rooftops of houses below.

It was then when I felt like walking into a strange scene in a foreign movie or an alien intruding into some kind of a ritual I was not a part of, a total stranger.
There was a huge open tent filled with many solemn-faced people. Somebody which looked like a foreign priest (judging from his clothes) was chanting in Japanese in front of an ancient-looking tomb surrounded with wreaths and freshly-cut flowers. Before the tomb was a table spread with smoking incense, wines, cakes, cookies, sweets, candies and other goodies with Japanese labels.
Everything and everyone was in Japanese, including the huge banner hang from a nearby tree. Not understanding the language was a huge handicap.

I stood uncertainly at a corner, not knowing whether it was alright to take photos or not. I was afraid to just go and shoot without observing first for fear I might be intruding or offending some service. Finally, one of the local doctors spotted me. He motioned for me to feel free to go around and ‘do my stuff’. Suddenly, it seemed as if every body moved and the latest models of digital cameras and videos came out. It turned out I came at a time they were praying.

Somebody stood up and talked at length. Very soon the speaker’s voice broke and he cried. There was silence among the audience and they too, shed silent tears. My mind was wondering what the occasion was. I concluded it must be the death anniversary of somebody important because of the presence of important people there, including the governor and the ambassador of Japan. I also concluded that the person must be old as at least 80 percent of the guests are aged 60 above.

More chants followed. Very soon everyone stood up and formed a line towards the table before the grave with flowers, taking their turns to look like paying tribute by pinching a bit of the powder and dropping into the burning incense, bow then returned to their tables.

The guests cried, applauded, laughed and nodded their heads when somebody talked in front but I did not cry, applause, laugh or nod my head because I did not understand what was going on. I just went around and snapped photos of everything and everyone while searching for answers to the coverage I blindly covered. My editor just called me to go to the event, only telling me there was something going on there.

Finally the program was finished, or so I guessed because everybody stood up and milled around, majority going to the table and hoarding the goodies in loot bags.

I finally found somebody to tell me what happened, a Japanese from Okinawa who regularly come to Palau every September 13. At last I was told they were paying tribute to the 3,432 Okinawans who died in Palau during the World War 11 in 1942.
At last, too, I was able to nod my head because I finally understood what I was covering.
I left the cemetery carrying a pack of something which looked like small round balls of deep-fried flour and a pack of square, orange candies which smelled more like air freshener I was not that sure of eating. Both packs were given by my news source, goodies from Okinawa, he said.

I still hesitate to eat the goodies because they were already offered for the dead and they might not like it if somebody else, a non-Japanese speaking person at that, to eat what was offered for them. I guess I need to learn a little Japanese. The goodies are still in the compartment under the armrest of my car. Maybe I’ll share them with friends.
(Published in Sunstar Davao, September 24, 2006 issue)

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Sleeping in Court

Of all the things I want to avoid as much as possible in my work as a reporter, it’s being sent to sit in at seminars or trainings, or any gathering that requires me to sit still and listen for more than 30 minutes. I consider it pure torture.

Just the other day when I was about to start eating my breakfast at 10 in the morning, my editor called me to cover a controversial case at the Supreme Court involving the former president of the electric company in Palau. Expecting something like the trial courts in the Philippines, I left my baon and drove to the court, promising lunch buddies Celina and Denice to be back within 30 minutes.
The trial, which was the first one I covered since I worked for Island Times newspaper here started just as soon as I arrived.

I didn’t even sit down properly because I was expecting that one of the lawyers will file a motion for postponement or other motions that will delay the trial but I was in for a disappointment. The Attorney General (AG) began his delivery pointing out the merits and evidences why the defendant should be judged guilty of the 15 counts of cheating and forgery. The minutes ticked by and the AG was still blabbing on and on. I began to nod my head, not in agreement but because of extreme drowsiness. Exactly 45 minutes later, he stopped and the judge gave the floor to the defendants for the rebuttal.

I haven’t expected a full-blown court battle. At exactly 12 noon (can’t believe I was still alive after two hours sitting in court), I had shifted my buttocks in almost all positions available while sitting and had desperately fought my hunger and drowsiness when the judge declared he was not hungry and that the trial will go on till lunch.

Oh gosh! So the court trials here will depend on the stomach of the judges, I mumbled but I couldn’t leave. My buddies were waiting for me because I brought our food in the car. To divert my attention from hunger and wake up, I began fumbling with my cellphone inside my bag, turning it to silent mode before starting to send messages to Celina without looking at the keypad. I had mastered texting without looking at the keypad that if amazed my boss who doesn’t know how to text. Of course he didn’t know that my cellphone back in Davao is the last thing I hold before going to sleep and the first thing I touch when I wake up in the morning.

“Lady, you turn that cellphone off right this minute!” I was startled when a huge Palauan hissed behind my ear. I was irritated because I kept the cellphone inside the bag and it was in silent mode but I obeyed just the same, albeit grumbling.

It was the third day of hearing and the case was judged at around 2 o’clock that afternoon. So that’s how speedy cases are decided upon in Palau. I got another headache because unlike there in Davao, it is so hard to acquire copies of the decisions and other documents here. You have to go to the Clerk of court for it and have to squeeze blood from stones before you can get what you want. I made an appointment to talk with the AG (you can’t simply conduct ambush-interviews here, you’ve gotta make an appointment first) at 10 a.m. the following day to get more details of the case.
I showed up at the agreed time and was informed by the secretary that the AG took the day off and went fishing. Uh-uh.

Chopsticks 101

I never got the chance to learn how to use chopsticks before and I often wondered why people would waste their time trying to learn how to eat using them. I thought trying to eat using chopsticks is silly because the spoon and fork is a much more advanced eating tool and I don't see why I have to bother learning something so useless to me. Or so I thought, until I had to feature a Japanese restaurant for last week’s issue of our newspaper.

My editor Maam Lei has already made reservations for us at Sushi Bar, an authentic Japanese restaurant right along the main street of Koror, Palau’s capital state ahead of time so when we got there, everything was almost cooked (or uncooked) to perfection.

After taking several photos of the various dishes prepared for us, we settled down to start eating. I shook my head at the whole lot spread before us: food with complicated Japanese names which in reality were mostly raw fish sliced and served in different styles and comes with different dips and paste, fish rolled in sticky rice and topped with some leaves, sushi, sashimi and other foods designed to produce tears to my pure Bisaya palate.

And then I noticed something lacking. Placed beside my table napkin is a pair of chopsticks, those two long thin sticks made of bamboo which translates loosely into the English as "speedy ones" or "speedy fingers". Chop sticks, I learned later, used to mean "fast stick" but it doesn't apply to me because how could one eat fast by picking food with it is still a wonder to me.

“Miss, pahingi naman ng kutsara at tinidor please,” I asked a passing waitress but before she could give me what I want, Maam Lei stopped her. She must have understood what I said and told us to practice using chopsticks because “it’s a must in this Republic”. Oh gosh.

Maam Lei demonstrated to the four of us (I was with officemates Celina, Au and Maam Lei’s daughter Bella) where and how to hold the two sticks together to be able to pick up food. We were so clumsy at first but towards the end of the meal, we were able to pick something using the chopsticks. I ended up still hungry though.

I was attending a press conference during my SunStar days last year at the Marco Polo hotel when a small table was laid and dainty bowls of food I only see in Chinese restaurants were set before us for “media sampling”. I was hungry and getting hungrier by the pleasant aroma rising from the food. Then we were handed chopsticks.

It was not my first time to touch chopsticks, mind you but I never did learn (or acquired the interest to learn) using them.

"Why would I spend more time trying to spoon food into my mouth using two thin pieces of wood when the realiable spoon and fork are doing a fairly good job of it?" I've always argued to myself.
I guess I would never be comfortable using them.

Everybody was having an easy time. I did try though but I did not enjoy the food despite my hunger. The little bits of food I successfully spooned into my mouth were even too little for birds. I had a hard time spooning rice into my mouth because it took more manual dexterity than I currently possess.

As there were only very few of us, I was unable to escape and was forced the join the 'food sampling'. Admittedly, I missed breakfast and was getting considerably hungrier but I did not fancy Chinese food, plus the use of chopsticks.

I joined the other media practitioners and spooned food into our small dishes and we were handed the chopsticks. The appetizing aroma of Chinese fried rice tempted by tastebuds but the futile attempts to spoon rice into my mouth using those chopsticks were getting on my patience.

I’m having rice and fried wahoo fish for lunch today. I’m using chopsticks and I’m slowly learning how to use it but I still consider my hands the most realiable alternative in the absence of spoons. I always get a different satisfaction from eating with my hand.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Bar-hopping in Palau

(Published in Sunstar Davao, May 28, 2006 issue)

I’ve been working in this pacific island for the past seven months and yet homesickness is still a constant visitor. In a place as small as Palau, (which literarily means you can’t hide anywhere because no matter where you squeeze yourself or your car in, somebody who knows you is always bound to see you), there’s not really much to do except go bar-hopping but its your pocket who would surrender first.

Woe to the nocturnal beings like me! Not much of a bar-hopper myself here in Davao before, I refused to go with my co-employees at first but after I’ve already memorized all the slits and slats and designs on my ceiling as I stare at it every night, or look out the grilled windows (yes, there are steel grills plus glass plus screen, whew! Occupants of the city jail must be feeling freer than we do) and listened to the crickets outside and memorized the constant litany of the bickering couple next door, I decided there’s not much choice but go with them. Sometimes ex-Sunstar buddy Cel and I would just lock ourselves in her room and swap stories over a couple of “six-pack” cans of beer.

Most of the entertainers in night clubs in Palau are Filipinas or Chinese. Unlike here in Davao, where Rex and Jun and I would just sit on the rooftop of Cogot’s and spend more hours in a few bottles of San Miguel light and nobody would mind, these scantily-clad entertainers hover about the tables, ever ready to tilt the bucket (beer is served by the bucket on some clubs, and a bucket contains 5 cans of Budweiser, or San Miguel light priced at $10.) every few minutes, silently prodding you to drink and be quick about it. For us who belong to the kuripot type, we drink Emperador or Fundador, or buy “six-pack” cans of beer for only $5.10 at our barracks (boarding house) first before going to the clubs. On paydays, the bars we usually go to are brimming with Filipinos plus a handful of Palauans. There are also bars which are patronized mainly by Palauans but we very rarely go there.

The most unpleasant part in barhopping is in going home, and that is usually between 2 to 3 a.m. (the bars close). If I’m not driving, I don’t set limits in drinking but if I take my car, then I really have to set aside my last ounce of sanity to reach our barracks still in one piece.
I had a drop too much when we got out of the bar last pay day when I found out that my co-employee who was supposed to drive us home was already in the car, snoring and very drunk. It left me with no choice but to drive my other companions home. They were very noisy and I have to exert a gargantuan effort to concentrate on the road. I thought I succeeded when suddenly, I saw multi-colored lights flooding the street ahead. I blinked my eyes and yes, the road was paved with an unusual orange glow. I thought I must have been more drunk than I thought I was so I slowed and then I saw the flashing blue lights from several cars which could only mean one thing- the police! They were conducting a random patrol and any car which runs over the orange markers on either side of the road are flagged down and the driver checked if he’s drunk. The line of flagged cars was getting longer as the bars closed. Fighting the rising panic, I warned my companions to stay still as I poured all my efforts to stay free from the orange markers. Fortunately, we didn’t end up at the rear of the line of cars and we got home intact.

By the way, all my road accidents (average of once a month!!!) happened when I don’t have a single drop of alcohol in my body. Otherwise I would have been a constant overnight visitor in Koror State jail- and even the thought of it makes me shiver with fear. And- don’t get me wrong, we don’t go barhopping that often, only when its pay day, and you know it’s not that often!

Monday, February 20, 2006

Car Blues

Before I acquired a driver’s license here in Palau, I only need to announce that I have a coverage somewhere and somebody from the office has to deliver me where I need to go and pick me up afterwards. The same applies for co-reporter Aurea. But it was not always nice because all the people in the office have their own specific tasks and are very busy that sometimes I had to wait for a long time before I will be picked up.
Our boss keeps on nagging us to get our driver’s licenses so we don’t have to bother anyone with their work.
“This can’t go on forever, all of us are busy so you need to fend for yourselves,” Boss Phillip keeps on telling us.

Au and I passed the driver’s written test in November last year yet but here, you have to take an actual road test with a police officer before you will be issued a driver’s license. That is if you pass the test. If not, you will be required to take a Learner’s Permit good for 60 days which will allow you to drive provided someone who has a driver’s license is with you.

Au took the road test last December and got her driver’s license right away. I chickened out after I backed from the parking space of our barracks (that’s what boarding houses are called here) and accidentally ran over the foot of my officemate who was teaching me to drive. I did not drive again for the following weeks until I felt the necessity.
As soon as I’ve collected enough guts, I took the road test last month (this after two postponements). I was sweating but an officemate told me not to turn on the car aircon so that the examiner will not feel comfortable and hurry on with the exam. Miraculously, I did not drive the car straight to the sea or down a cliff with the huge examining officer sitting next to me and I passed with only two mistakes. I forgot to turn on the signal light when he told me to make a U-turn.

The license gave me absolute freedom because I no longer cower in fear whenever I meet a police car on the streets. Just a couple of weeks ago, the office granted me a car loan and I got a second hand silver Toyota Camry. (which, I discovered, is a big headache because it consumed all my allowance).

The day after I got the car, I went to have my key duplicated in a hardware in Koror and decided just to walk to my next appointment which is just five buildings away. But to be honest, I still had a hard time trying to park and back the car). After finishing my transaction at the National Communications office, I called our office to ask for somebody to pick me up. I sat on a bench waited. It was then when I noticed the key dangling from my shoulder bag strap. I had to make a second call to the office because I forgot I already have a car.
(Published in Sunstar Davao, February 19, 2006 issue)