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Inebriated Tales


Times have changed. No longer do we have so many beggars from the Cordillera in the streets of Metro Manila. But that was not the case not so long ago. Up until the end of the millennium, it was not uncommon to chance upon a group of Igorots asking pedestrians and motorists for handouts in Baguio City and Metro Manila specially during the Holiday Season. Most of them were women, most of them were aging, and most were from Mountain Province.

There are many stories about these beggars, and these stories may or may not be true. What is true is that indeed Mountain Province once had the distinction of being the source of these resourceful persons who made a livelihood of begging.

I heard from others of such a story. Whether or not the story is true in its entirety or was embossed in the telling, or whether it is altogether the fabrication of an imaginative mind, is irrelevant. If it is not true, then it shall be added to the many urban legends about the people of Mountain Province. True or not, accurate or not, the story, and others like it, just reflect the reality of what once was at a time that seems so long ago but nonetheless fairly recent.

And so it was that in the late 90s, there was such a group plying their “trade” in Quezon City.

And so it was that the Congressman of Mountain Province at that time, the late Victor Dominguez, was in a convoy of cars with his staff and some local government officials visiting the nation’s capital.

Somewhere along the long stretch of Quezon Avenue in Quezon City, Dominguez, who was in the lead car, saw such a group of women actively asking pedestrians and motorists for alms. He asked the driver to stop and the driver obliged. Of course the other cars in the convoy also stopped, and everybody was wondering why the Congressman’s car stopped.

According to the story, the Congressman told his staff to get the straw hats (silag) of the women.

Those in the other cars saw the Congressman’s bodyguard, secretary and assistant getting out of the lead car. Of course, out of concern, others in the cars following also got out.

The bodyguard, secretary and assistant approached the women on the sidewalk.

The women, probably thinking that the ones approaching them were cops, started running in different directions. The Congressman’s men run after them. Without thinking, the passengers of the other cars followed suit.

And so it was that there was these group of about five Igorot women being pursued by Igorot men in the streets of Metro Manila. Eventually, the men caught up with the women. After the pursuers explained that they were not cops, the women were placated. However, when the pursuers asked for their hats, they refused to give these, saying that it was a hot day, and they needed the hats to shield their heads and faces from the sweltering sun.

The pursuers continued to demand the hats, and the women continued to refuse to give in. After a heated and extended conversation, the assistant went back to the Congressman to report. The Congressman told him that they must get the hats at all cost, and if necessary, they should buy it from the women. The Congressman pulled out his wallet and gave the assistant some money so that they could buy the hats from the woman beggars.

After another heated and extended conversation, the women finally acceded to sell their hats to their pursuers. So, hats in hand, the group got back to their cars and proceeded on their way.

Rumor has it that the price that the Congressman paid for the used hats was more than twice the price of new straw hats, but still the Congressman thought it money well spent. Rumor has it further that the Congressman would have been willing to pay more, just so the beggar-women would sell the hats.

Those in the convoy laughed themselves hoarse talking about the spectacle of aging Igorot women being pursued by burly Igorot men in the streets of Quezon City. It was even more hilarious since the women, and most of the pursuing men, were ignorant of the reasons for the chase. It was a funny moment, but all agreed that it was worth it, and the Congressman was justified in purchasing the precious hats at such an extravagant cost.

What made the hats so special?

Painted in bright red on the wide brim were the words “GAWIS AY MOUNTAIN PROVINCE.”


There are so many things in life that I am blessed with, and one of these is to have a very good friend in Patrick McDonough, former Peace Corps Volunteer in Bontoc, Mountain Province, Philippines and currently of San Diego, California. It was in Bontoc where he met his wife, Marjorie, a resounding punctuation to his love of the place and its people. Marjorie’s sister, Beverly, happens to be my wife, and so, Patrick and I became part of the same extended family.
It so happened that last April, Patrick and Marjorie decided to come home to the Philippines. Part of their itinerary was a visit to Palawan, and Patrick wanted us to go with them. Hesitant to add to my growing debt of gratitude, I initially declined Patrick’s magnanimity. I had to give in, however, when he pointed out that all he needed me for was as a drinking buddy and for inane conversation, two things that I am really good at.
Palawan did not have a choice. It was either I joined them or the trip would have been called off.
Our destination was El Nido, a scenic place that boasts of prime snorkeling sites and postcard tropical scenery. We certainly were not disappointed, as we took hundreds of pictures of the beautiful white sand beaches all over the place and the wondrous sunsets at each end of the day.

We would have preferred to stay a beachfront hotel, but the first ones we inquired in were rather pricey, considering that we were such a large group. So we settled for a hotel about a hundred meters from the beach, a hotel still under construction, the Big Creek Mansion.

The hotel has a friendly staff, and it was they who helped us save on meals. For a large group, the cost of each meal was getting prohibitive, so we asked the hotel staff that since they were not yet serving meals other than breakfast, perhaps they could cook lunch and dinner for us for a minimal fee. They agreed, so then we had to go to the local market to buy the ingredients for many sumptous meals of seafood, grilled, boiled or saucy delicacies.

The market sold lots of fish, of so many kinds, including coral feeders that in one of our not-so-inane discussions, we wondered whether how much the corals and the reefs themselves were damaged just so we could get something to eat.

On our second day in El Nido, Patrick was determined to pursue one of his passions, fishing. He purposefully brought with him from the states one of his old poles and whole set of lures that he wanted to test. He wanted to catch a few fish for dinner later in the day, as well as to once again enjoy the thrill of sharing in nature’s bounty.

So he and I went to a beach a distance from the center of El Nido. To get to this beach, we had to walk  about 300 meters from the road along a motorcycle trail, through endemic flora that piqued our   interest, though we had to forgo this passion. We also passed through a grove of coconut trees, and we had the fortune of seeing a squirrel that the locals said fed on coconuts, puncturing the husk and shell with its long front teeth and sucking the soft meat and milk inside. We saw the squirrel jump from tree to tree, a phenomenon that added to our fascination.

On the beach, there were several resorts that offered room and board, at a more reasonable price than those of the beachfront hotels in the center of the town. Our company however opted not to transfer, ruing the hassle of packing and unpacking again, as well as having to lug our baggage to the new site.

Along this beach were several fishing boats, and for a nominal fee we rented a small outrigger so we could go fishing. The boat was really small, but we only learned that it was too small for two persons later when we were out at sea.

There was a small island nearby, and in the water between this small island and the main island of Palawan where we were, was shallow rocky bottom filled with coral formations, most of which were bereft of the tiny animals that once lived in them. It was heartening to see that some of these formations were still alive with corals, and the fishes that hid in the formations was a heartening sight, promising a nice fishing experience.

Indeed, a few casts of the line hooked some lapulapu, though we deemed the fish too small for dinner so we threw them back into the water. We planned to catch bigger ones so we rowed further out to sea, with the intention of going to the other side of the island.

As we were rowing, we saw several fish jumping out of the water, an indication that a predator was after them. Shortly thereafter, we saw a fish jumping and skimming over the surface of the water, followed by a barracuda jumping and skimming after it. The sight itself was exhilarating, and we would have been content with it, only there was a fishing pole with us, and we intended to use it.

Further out to sea, Patrick cast the line several times, getting no bite. We settled in for a long morning, casting our makeshift anchor and repeatedly casting the line. Finally, a bite. When Patrick reeled it in, it was a barracuda a little over two feet long. Patrick said that we were lucky that the fish did not bite through the line.

Anyway we were reveling in the catch, and Patrick was again casting the line. I was excitedly fidgeting around getting our camera and then trying to get a good angle for a picture. In the meantime we did not notice a motorized boat passing by, whose wake was just reaching our small boat. Because of the confluence of these circumstances we suddenly found ourselves in the water with the boat overturned and everything wet.

After righting the boat, Patrick snorkeled around looking for our gear. Luckily it was shallow water of about ten feet. While Patrick was swimming around, I bailed the water out of the boat. After everything was found, and the water in the boat back in the sea where it belonged, we tried to get back on the boat, but, for the second time, the boat flipped over.

After we went through the recovery process and bailing out again, we decided to go closer to the smaller island’s shore before we tried getting back on the boat. We did get back on the boat eventually, though the humor of the entire exercise was getting to us, as we were laughing all the while.

Needless to say, the barracuda got away, and we did not even have a picture to show for it. Later on, as we were relating the story to the company, we could not blame them if they thought it another fish story.

The experience was invigorating, and except for the camera and a cellphone that ceased to function, was a funny and happy one.

Afterwards I thanked Patrick for inviting me on the trip, and for giving me one of the best days of the rest of my life.

Little did I know that the next day would equal the experience as to worthiness of remembrance.

It was the day that we scheduled for snorkeling, something that never before have I tried. Guides suggested that we go several of the small islands near El Nido, but we opted to go to just two of the best snorkeling sites, and we were not disappointed.

Going to the islands provided us with stunning vistas of the sea and the main island, as well as the islands we passed by.

The two snorkeling sites were indeed prime spots, giving us the opportunity to see so many varieties of fish and corals and other marine life concentrated in a small area. It was unfortunate that we did not have an underwater camera with us so we could have taken pictures. Despite the lack of photographic record of the underwater experience, we enjoyed every minute of snorkeling, tirelessly floating and swimming around as we basked in the majesty of nature.

We had our lunch on what the locals named Helicopter Island, named so because it looked like a Huey without rotors from afar. It also boasts of prime snorkeling, with the fish found just a few meters from the shore.

The snorkeling experience gave me another best day of the rest of my life, and Patrick must have thought me mushy and overly sentimental for thanking him again and again for the memorable day.

Indeed the whole experience of Palawan, the beaches, the marine life, the people, the land, and the company will always count as memorable. Despite Patrick’s being embarrassed with my eternal gratitude, I thank him and Marjorie for it.

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Glasses

There are some among us whose problems with their vision become apparent very early in their lives. Fortunately, they are but a small percentage of the population. Nevertheless, those whose conditions were diagnosed and who had the means had glasses fashioned so that they could go about their lives normally.

Most of those who wear glasses early in their lives have really bad problems with their vision, otherwise these would not been diagnosed. Nature helps correct vision problems in childhood, and those who had problems but did not wear glasses would outgrow the complication, benefiting from the body’s correction of the vision problem.

However, many who start wearing glasses early in their lives would continue to wear these throughout their lives, as glasses were never designed to correct the underlying cause of the vision problem, but merely to correct the refractive error in our eyes. In fact, there are many who say that glasses are harmful to the eyes. Once one begins wearing glasses, one becomes prone to straining the eyes to overcompensate when the objects being viewed are nearer or farther than the distance that the glasses were fitted for.

There is contention that it would be wiser not to wear glasses at all, and the eyes would naturally turn toward normalcy.

The reason why more and more of us need glasses in these times is because while working, we need to look at things closely for extended periods of time, thus eventually causing our eyeballs to somehow physically deform according to the focus needed in the extended viewing.

Thus professions that need reading or looking at computer monitors for extended periods tend to need glasses after a time.

The suggestion for people in such jobs or vocations is for them to somehow break the pattern by stopping every once in a while and focus on farther objects, so that the eyes retain their flexibility.

Unfortunately for most of us, that option is not available, specially if we are engrossed in what we are doing. Therefore many would need glasses.

The use of glasses is certainly helpful, for then we could read easier. However, they remain harmful, for beyond or closer than the reading distance that glasses were fitted for, our eyes are forced to compensate for the discrepancy. And the longer we wear glasses in the same close work conditions, the more the eyes would be exposed to an abnormal situation, reinforcing the initial problem.

In modern and post-modern times, glasses and other vision correction items like contact lenses became common. What is however disregarded is that there are no studies that have established that glasses are not harmful. This is because glasses were being used way before the modern and post-modern practice of requiring products to be tested for their safety before these were made available to the public. So we continue to wear glasses, even though we could say with some certainty that these are more harmful than beneficial.

Vision problems in earlier more simpler times, or in simpler societies, are mostly associated with the aging process. Eyesight problems occur mostly when people get old. Yet not all old people would develop eyesight problems in these societies.

Sadly for most of humanity, we have forsaken that simplicity, and so more and more of us would wear corrective lenses. And once we begin doing so, would inflict progressive myopia upon our unlucky eyes.

I am no doctor, but I now write about glasses and vision problems. It is because I misplaced my glasses (perhaps another sign of aging), and am typing this while looking at a blurred computer screen. I leave it to my spelling and grammar checker to correct whatever errors I commit, beyond the usual convoluted nonsense that I normally churn out.

If errors survive after editing, I beg understanding from the reader.


The Philippines is continually in a fuel crisis.

The recent social and political disturbances in Northern Africa and around the Arabian Gulf has only made things worse. The situation has deteriorated not because there is a shortage of supply, or an increase in demand, as “economists” would sure to allude to. Prices have skyrocketed to its present levels because oil, from the producing countries to the distributors, say that petroleum prices should increase because of the troubles in Libya and the Gulf. Prices have risen because speculators in oil trading and in the global stock markets, like to take advantage of the troubles and make humongous profits. By feeding the illusion that indeed prices have to rise on account of the social and political troubles in Africa and the Gulf, the price of their stock would likewise rise.

When the stock prices plateau or peak, these speculators would divest themselves of these. After the troubles simmer down, stock prices would also fall to their more natural level, where the same speculators would buy them back, and hope for another crisis in a major oil-producing region to resume the cycle. As things go, because of the speculation, it is expected that fuel prices will continue rising, irrespective of supply and demand issues.

Come to think of it, oil trading is one of the few industries where profits are assured. When fuel prices do rise, whether artificially or for real, petroleum companies would simply pass on the increase to the consumers. For countries that subsidize petroleum products, government takes care of some of the cost. In any case, the oil companies do not lose. It has long been the suspicion of many that price adjustments in petroleum products have always been done to ensure bigger profits for these companies.

But the Philippine government, like most other governments in this environmentally-devastated planet, is hostage to the oil and energy industry. Our government is rather inutile dealing with the astuteness of oligarchic petroleum companies, whether it be during the time when the industry was regulated, or after it was de-regulated.

Government is ever afraid that a stand-off with the oil companies would result in a fuel and energy shortage.

The effects of a fuel shortage would be catastrophic to the economy, and before it happens, government will give in and allow the petroleum companies to have their way. In the Philippines, the industry is dominated by three companies, Petron, Shell andCaltex.

Fuel prices do have to be reduced, if consumer groups are to be believed, as petroleum products are overpriced by as much as P8 per liter. This claim is totally believable, since the big three in the Philippine fuel scene, Petron, Shell and Caltex, are perennially included in the top earners in the country. Where else do these earnings come from but from their sales of overpriced fuel?

True, being businesses, oil companies are expected to profit, but what these three are earning is just too much.

Since the industry has been deregulated, prices are supposedly dictated by market forces, but we have not seen any competition at all between the three. Rather, what we have seen is cooperation, a cartel, where they raise prices together. Pundits believe that they do it too early and too often. They even roll back prices at the same time. The same pundits say these rollbacks are again too little too late.

Some form of regulation is needed, since the effect of fuel prices is far ranging, reaching out to every other industry and enterprise. If needed, the oil deregulation law should be revised to ensure more reasonable fuel pricing. It seems too much to hope that Congress shall enact laws that will mitigate the people’s suffering, at least on the issue of fuel prices.

The penchant of the oil companies to maximize profits may be seen in the difference in pump prices in Baguio and La Union or Manila. Prices in Baguio are higher by as much as P10 than Manila. Logically, this is explained by the cost of transporting the product, that cost being passed on to consumers as the price difference. However, if we look at other franchises, it boggles the mind that oil companies charge us for product transport when others do not. Cocacola products, for instance, costs the same here and Manila wholesale, despite the reality that the products are also transported. Jollibee sells all its products all over the country at the same prices, even if these are also transported. Wholesale prices for many other products are mostly the same nationwide.

But fuel prices are different. The consumer has to pay more for the transport of fuel from the oil depots. The farther, the more expensive. Where is the logic in that? It simply means that at the disadvantage of Baguio consumers, the oil companies are earning as much as P10 additional for every liter. If that price difference is the cost of transportation, it boggles the mind that it costs that much to transport a liter from Poro Point to Baguio.

If only on this point government will act so that pump prices will be the same nationwide, it will be an incalculable reprieve for our crisis-ridden people.

 


“May all your teeth fall out – except one, so you can have a toothache.” So goes a Jewish curse.

There is no doubt that there are people in this world who do not like me, and there is no doubt that they may have wished me misery one time or other. Perhaps one of them did curse me about my teeth.

My teeth are falling out.

Teeth falling out have long been associated with aging. In earlier times, members of our species whose teeth fall out were abandoned, for they could no longer eat. Our nomadic ancestors did not have second thoughts about this. The toothless aged may linger along, but eventually they shall be left behind as their strength fail.

With dogs and other animals, the falling out of the teeth is also considered one of the last signs of old age, the portent of the final doom of death.

Prior to developments in nutrition and health and dental care, people’s teeth fell out quite normally, some earlier than others. Tooth decay arising from hygienic shortcomings is arguably the foremost reason why teeth fall out.

It is not uncommon to see many of our old folks, then and now, specially those who did not have the means and opportunity for dental care and advice, with most of their teeth already lost, and the remaining ones discolored and already rotting. Those who eventually had the means and the courage to go to the dentist after they have lost their chompers may now be sporting dentures now, lucky them.

Efren “Bata” Reyes, billiards’ “the Magician,” is one of these. In fact, whenever he is playing competitively, he removes his dentures, believing that he is luckier without them. And he is now the richer for losing his teeth. Ironically, his poverty in his younger years was the reason he could not afford a dentist, and thus lost his teeth. The question that should be asked is: would Reyes be as successful a billiards player if he did not lose his teeth?

Most of my teeth were intact until I was in my thirties, a testament that indeed I took proper care of them, brushing my teeth in sufficient frequency. However, dentists did not have the privilege of peering into my mouth, and so nobody noticed that my teeth grew bizarrely, with two or three crowding each other out, so that it was truly impossible to clean the spaces in between.

Nowadays, it is perfectly possible to correct the peculiarity, what with braces and all, never mind that they cost a fortune. Even if a dentist would have seen the unusual formation of the teeth in my mouth and suggested braces, it would have been folly, for I certainly did not have the means for it.

And so when the uncleaned spaces between my teeth became the comfortable home of innumerable bacteria, the acid they secreted ate away at my teeth, eventually causing their decay. When they did, it was not unusual for me to have toothaches in several teeth all at once.

As things go, we rue toothaches and curse the suffering in so far as we feel it. When the ache goes away, we pass off the experience as a mere reminder of aging. And so visits to the dentist are forgotten.

After the decay set in, some of my teeth fell out. Others were merely chipped, with the roots still embedded in the gums, but the crown already joining its mates in the tooth afterlife.

I was not overly troubled even then, believing that my person is not diminished with my lack of teeth. I have not been overly concerned with appearances before, and having no teeth certainly did not make me any uglier than I already was.

Yet in fact lacking teeth did pose many problems for me. When I meet people for the first time, they tend to disregard me immediately when they notice that my gums are bare save for some surviving bits of calcium. Whatever I say after that initial shock is somehow not regarded as seriously as those coming from a mouth with a complete set of chewers. This was in itself a catastrophe for me, for I tend to believe that my ideas are as good as the next one’s. Even if I did articulate an idea with considered eloquence, the effect was somehow diminished because they know that the person speaking lacked teeth.

Also, when I talk to people, they often awkwardly glance away, refusing to look me in the eye (and thus gaze into my mouth). For many years now, I have been talking to people who would rather look at the ceiling, the floor, or the other  more interesting surroundings.

I was convinced to see a lady dentist partly because of these. She was good, and after looking at my mouth and the discerning the mysteries it contained, she informed me that more of my teeth will have to go so that dentures could be fashioned to fit. I agreed, and we scheduled the days when my teeth will join their friends in tooth heaven.

The first extraction went along just well, and I was beginning to have dreams of myself smiling in full.

However, when I went back to the dentist to have the second tooth extracted, she was not able to extract it at all. No matter what she did, she was unable to dislodge it, like it was somehow welded to my jawbone. She kept trying for more than an hour, eventually applying more anesthesia as needed.

Other patients were told to leave and come back the next day, as she tried and tried in vain to remove the stubborn tooth. Her husband, who got tired of waiting for her as they previously agreed, eventually came to her clinic and was conscripted to hold my head still as the dentist tried moving the tooth this way and that to loosen it.

After so long, the tooth broke, with its roots still solidly attached to whatever anatomy it was attached to. The dentist finally accepted defeat, and told me that I will have to come back another day so she could finish the job.

I was in anesthesia heaven when I went home, but as soon as the drug wore off, I felt like somebody methodically pummeled my jaw. Despite the many medications the dentist gave me, I felt like my face was swollen for days.

I never went back to a dentist again. The chipped tooth may already have fallen off naturally. Other teeth also fell off, some of which did with my assistance.

And so I continue to talk with people who try to avoid looking at me, or to people who do not believe me because I lack teeth.

So why do I write about teeth now? It is because I have toothaches in two of them.

Perhaps after the aches subside, I shall exorcise my dental demons and see a dentist. Perhaps.


If it was up to me, I would have been content staying at home with several good books during the holidays. But the rest of the family had other ideas.

For Christmas, the kids and the wife wanted to exchange gifts with each other, so some weeks before we drew the names of two other members of the family to whom we will give presents. Of course we spent the days before Christmas shopping for gifts, and trying as hard as we could to keep the names of those we drew secret. We failed, for on the day after we drew names, we all knew who was to give each other’s presents.

On Christmas eve, the kids wanted to have the usual barbecue, and we also had spaghetti, macaroni salad, and cake. This was I suppose the most lavish a dinner we could treat ourselves to, considering our necessary frugality. Nevertheless, it was a very happy celebration, and we stayed up to view the fireworks that the people of La Trinidad lit up at midnight.

On Christmas morning, we opened the gifts that we wrapped for each other. We had a lot of fun doing so, taking each other’s pictures and acting surprised, even though we already knew what we were getting. Of course there were some of us who were truly surprised, and the ribbing and tomfoolery that accompanied the exchange of gifts added to the joyousness of the occasion.

Later in the day, we went to the beach with some relatives.

As previously decided, we slept overnight at the beach. The kids enjoyed the continuing celebration, leaving the water only to partake of the meals we prepared, alternating the briny sea with the swimming pool. So it was swim and eat, swim and eat.

We all got up early the next day, with the kids going to the water again before breakfast. They also had a boat ride.

Meanwhile, their parents were pestered by hawkers of seafood, and after the hard decision of whose shrimp and crabs and fish to buy, several kilograms of the tasty food was bought, which the ladies had somebody prepare for us.

And so it was a breakfast of shrimp, crab and other shellfish, as well as the ubiquitous sinigang na isda. The deliciousness of the meal was punctuated by its happy partaking and the usual picture-taking. One of our kids is allergic to shrimp, and yet she was as happy as the others as we shared the veritable feast.

I chanced upon one fisherman on the beach later that day, as he and his little boy were untangling their fishnet. I dared ask just how much he earns from a night’s catch, and he told me that on average, he catches some P600 worth. Not bad, considering wage earners or the many others who are jobless or underemployed. Perhaps it was a reason to celebrate, for the fishermen celebrated their Christmas night out at sea just so we could partake of the sea’s blessings.

To make our Christmas celebration at the beach more worthwhile, there were of course other people who did not go on vacation as we did. The ambulant vendors of snacks, the storekeepers, the people who rent out tire floaters. Aside perhaps from their greater need, the increased commerce on Christmas eve, Christmas day and the day after must be a cause for celebration, as they for sure earn more on these days as more people troop to the beach.

There was one vendor who went about the beach carrying an assortment of knives, from butcher knives, machetes, to some fancy switchblades and “Rambo” knives with compasses and small flashlights. His wares were an arsenal of deadly weapons.

Haggling with these vendors was fun in itself, and I managed to whittle down the price of a machete from P550 to P200. Nevertheless, the vendor later that day said that his first sale with me was lucky, as those who afterwards brought his wares hardly asked for a bargain. And so while he earned little from his sale to stingy me, he had a boon with other customers. He certainly had another reason to celebrate the season.

The crowd at the beach was expectedly happy, from the local beach urchins to the fancily attired and car-riding celebrators.

The family enjoyed the celebration, swimming, eating and otherwise engaging in frivolities. With the hundreds of pictures we took of each other, it will certainly be remembered.

More so for me, for I was blissfully laid back as I observed all these. Perhaps there are some things that are better than a good book every now and then.


 

I once had a white rat for a pet, back in the 1980s when there was a short-lived fad for guinea pigs, white rats and white mice. It was about the same time when Korean bugs were also popular.

I never took on the Korean bug craze, though there are many I know who raised the beetles and regularly snacked on the insects, supposedly increased one’s virility. That the craze was short-lived is a statement on the bugs’ effectiveness.

Anyway, I took the white rat with me when I was on an adventure in the hinterlands in the boundary of Mountain Province and Kalinga. At the least, I was probably viewed as an oddity, maybe eccentric by the villagers who saw the white rat perched upon my shoulders. Some probably considered me entirely bonkers.

Rats, after all, were considered pests by the more grounded beings in our villages. Being pests, they were killed regularly by dogs and cats, and the people also trapped them to prevent their proliferation. Field rats, distinguished from those found in households, were caught and actually eaten. “Tastes just like chicken” is the general description of rat meat.

My pet therefore attained a certain celebrity status, and the kids in the village would follow the crazy guy with the white rat around. A few would ask to hold the animal, or to feed it with scraps of food.

Being a vermin and a scavenger by instinct, my pet did not choose what to eat, gobbling whatever the giggling kids would give it.

At night, when people were normally asleep, the rat would find a way around the makeshift cages I made to contain it. If it did not chew through the rattan or bamboo cage, it would dig through the soil under the cage. In the morning, one of the villagers would inform me that my pet was seen in another part of the village. Sometimes one of the kids would catch it and give it back to its negligent owner. Most of the time I had to spend an hour to locating and catching it.

At times I considered not looking for it at all. I would just allow nature to take its course – for the pest to be caught by its natural predators, or some villager who would find it gnawing on his store of camote. If a cat or dog caught it, I would not have complained. And if a villager slew it because it was indeed raiding camote stores, the villager would have been more than justified to do so.

But the rat lived to see more days with me.

Eventually, we had to leave the village to go to a camp some days away. The rat stayed on my shoulder during the march, and even though it wandered away at night when I was asleep, it somehow eluded capture by the forest’s nocturnal predators, despite my fear that the owls would have an easy time espying its white fur.

It became a conversation piece at camp, and the cooks would continually complain that the rat was always in the camp kitchen, though it was merely content at picking the food bits on the floor. Nevertheless, I was quite concerned that it would leave the camp, to give in to its wilder instincts. But it did not.

When we broke camp, there it was, again perched upon my shoulder as we started back home.

However, on the night of the first day of the march, I noticed that my pet was no longer on my shoulder. It was also not in the backpack pocket that it would curl up in when it wanted to sleep. Somehow, the rat must have fallen off, either accidentally or on purpose.

After the rat left its loony master, I wondered if it survived in the wild for a time. And if it did, could it somehow have affected the ecosystem it found itself in. What if it somehow carried a sickness that the wildlife were susceptible to? What if for this reason it radically altered some predator-prey relationship in the forest? Could I have caused an ecological nightmare?

If it survived for a time, could it have found a mate, and sired a colony of half-breed white rats? I know not what happened to it, but I still wonder if, somewhere in the forests of the Cordillera, woodsmen would be puzzled by oddly-colored rats. 

 


 


 

 

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