Of Hot Affairs & Cool Cafe

Monday, 30 November 2009

Just came away from a meeting. Now, happily surfing the web for news and updates on my facebook in one of Phnom Penh’s trendy cafes.

There’s this item about Tiger Wood’s breaking silence over his accident and asking people to respect his privacy, alluding to rumours about his current affair with a New York hostess. Another superstar sportsman in his league now in the extramarital play is Manny Pacquiao. His is with a movie starlet. What’s with this thing about the world’s sports greats? Oh yes it’s their private life. Who am I to pass judgement?

I feel strange hearing a cacophony of foreign words from where I’m sitting and working with the laptop, finishing off a chunk of pizza. Two ladies converse in Spanish intensely (where some familiar words keep me distracted into an attempt to put some sense of what is being extracted from their own construct of reality); and in another table are Khmer locals who also talk loudly in their language.

This is my second visit to this cafe called Coffee Maker. Some feat of intelligence to have come up with such a brilliant name! Before, I used to dismiss it as just another cafe that sprouted in the city. But how it’s already growing on me! (to borrow my friend Maros’s fresh shout-out in her facebook, refering to her new “home” which is Samoa). My newfound hangout. Her current posting in the Pacific.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia




Bihira ako makakita ng uwak,
At tuwing makakakita ay wari may pinong ulan
Na kumakatok sa pintuan ng aking puso.
Bisitang naligaw lang ngunit may dalang malalim
Na alay ng pakikipagkapwa, isang maitim
Na sutla ang bumabalabal sa aking leeg.

Sa daungan ng Butterworth habang
Hinihintay kong umusad ang ferry,
Una kong napukol ng tingin ang uwak
Na nakatanghod sa bakal na poste ng causeway
Na dagling binigwas muli ang mga pakpak
At lumipat ng lugar, di mapakali,
Sumasabay sa abalang pagtatawid
Ng mga motorista hanggang huli kong
Namataaan na nakasampa sa ibabaw ng panel truck.
Ano man ang kanyang sadya, may bagay
Siyang kailangang itawid
Katulad ng sa akin.

Isang umagang paglalakad ko sa Penang
Muli kong nasumpungan ang panibagong uwak
(O di kaya siya pa rin yung nakita ko sa Butterworth?)
Sa kable sa harapan ng isang templo,
At may kasamang sa paglusong sa ere
Ay mahinahong tumuntong muli sa bubungan.
Tahimik ang templo ngunit mas pinatahimik
Ng sandaling pananahan ng dalawang uwak.
At sa katahimikang iyon ay di maisasantabi
Ang pakiramdam na may balong
Sinasalok sa pag-uugnay ng damdamin,
Sa pagtatagpo ng landas.
May umid na pangungusap ang nagdadala
Sa amin sa ibang lupain, mas malawak
Sa sulasok ng pagtutula, banayad na banayad
Sa bawat hibla ng hininga.

Abril 2002
Penang, Malaysia


Lyrics from the Gutter

Lyrics from the Gutter

I lean against a ledge on a roof deck
Of a shop house
As the night lengthens
Past the stretch of Sisowath Boulevard
Into a far-out distance
Where no mind can ever reach,
Where the language of the heart
Is never spoken.
But I have the Bassac
River before me shimmering
Under the moonlight,
A pale woman from Oregon
Considering it too at my side.
Amongst us the small party
Of Phnom Penh barang
Shifts about like nocturnal animals
Looking for a kill.

I have nothing immense
To think through the night.
I’ll let the river flow past
Without grudge,
Let the moon cast serene
Dreams on skewered lives.
It’s enough to stay blank, feel the lack,
Feel the light.
Later the party will spill
To the Heart of Darkness.
There all desires burn in frenzy
Like evening stars falling
Into a sewer.
There the exiles and transients
Are in their element,
Always moving or dancing through
The tentative country
Of x-y-z.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

barang – Khmer word for foreigner
Heart of Darkness – a popular bar in Phnom Penh


Sons of November

Sunday, 29 November 2009

I meant to post my blog yesterday but my evening meet-up with office colleagues and later a friend in Phnom Penh got me off-track.

I must mention here that last Friday, two of my good friends also celebrated their birthday apart from father. One of them is Neal who works as a consul at the Philippine embassy in Singapore. Neal is a graduate of Ateneo and a poet to the core, has published his book of poems, and a very reliable friend for a friend in need. At one point of my wandering four years ago, he helped me through my deportation hassle in Thailand (this is one story I’m putting aside for future entry). We’ve been out of contact for some time now but I’m pretty sure he’s doing a great job as a diplomat, a husband, and a father.

The other son of November is Nuth, a Cambodian who is taking a two-year schooling to become a policeman, apparently his next station after acquiring a university degree in computer science and having worked in a private company for more than a year. Nuth considers himself a lucky person in that he is moving up in the world from a difficult life in his village in Kean Svay. Like my father he ran away from home to find job in the city where he started as a laborer in construction work, became a guard, and later waited on tables in a beer garden/restaurant. And like my father his successs story as an urban migrant, although filled with struggles, is an enduring testimony of an individual’s sheer determination and power to overcome the odds that fate throws at him. Plus throw in the mysterious working of luck.

Nuth, however, had a brush with misfortune on his birthday when he accidentally hit his foot with an ax while cutting firewood in his house in late afternoon. For the first time he said he screamed so hard as the doctor tended to his torn skin like it was beating the living daylight out of him. Earlier in the morning he went to his village pagoda to pray for his departed father’s soul and for continued blessing of Buddha on his family. He prepared a small luch for his family, gathered his nieces and nephews for some games where they were rewarded with small notes of riel. Only, after the laughter and convivial atmosphere had dissipated in the house, the unexpected cruel game was played on him.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia


Something About Father

Friday, 27 November 2009

Today is father’s 73rd birthday. He’s in Bicol, the southern Luzon region of the Philippines, right now laying foundation on his political career.

Despite his venerable age, father is not one who succumbs to the pressure of reduced physical agility. He likes moving around, making trips to Bicol, to Cubao, Makati, the Veterans Memorial Hospital for his regular check-up, the market in Novaliches almost a daily routine.

His penchant for doing the marketing in the family is something of a legend in the book of fatherhood. I can remember to this day the countless Saturdays and Sundays I and my brother (both of us in high school) had to get up at four o’clock in the morning and drove off to the Zamboanga City market with father on his motorbike. At the market, father could negotiate every transaction briskly without so much as ponderous haggling over a price; he made his way through the maze of stalls also at a brisk pace with us in tow. And the hardest part of the job of being father’s assistants is that we had to carry each sack filled with vegetables, fish, and meat with all the power we had in our puny frame.

Father’s life story is about a rural boy who ran away from home to escape poverty and the strict oppressive disciplinary ways imposed by his father, worked as a priest servant in Albay, drafted into the Philippine Navy, took his college education while keeping a family. He’s also a very athletic person, he did judo, wrestling, and weightlifting, and is a basketball afficionado. To add to this list is his passion for chess. He could play for hours at a stretch without minding food, and his matches would usually be punctuated with yells and arguments against his opponent because of perceived screw-up or cheating. The scene most of the time verges on the homicide, but later on the game would actually end up peacefully and a brotherly or neighborly feeling enveloped between the players as they retire for the day.

What I know is that father wants to write the history of his hometown of Sta. Magdalena, in Sorsogon province. He knows well its stories like the back of his hand. And there’s a sense of urgency now to this project because the old people that can provide connection to the rich past are one by one leaving this mortal world. He needs to pick their memories and bind them together in a book that will live on through generations and disasters. And only time can tell whether he could make a go of this.

Speaking of time, I have a poem I wrote for my father some nine years ago whose title I borrowed from a song of Nick Drake. I wrote this when I was working and living in Pursat, my first posting in Cambodia, at a time when father had just been released from the hospital following his brain operation due to a blood-clot. There are times that I couldn’t read this poem myself. I don’t know. It sort of possesses a power to unsettle me. Here it goes…

Time Has Told Me

Father, I was like a schoolboy, whose bones
Are whimsical and truant in a book of adventures,
This afternoon after work as I walked
Along the river bank towards the direction
Of a telephone shop in the town.
The call that I meant to make
Was like an assignment I had written full page,
Embellished with crude drawings
Of fast cars and aircraft.
Twice I dialed the hospital numbers
And twice a stranger’s voice came through
Giving me a moment of panic and bewilderment
As tough it was so bizarre for me
To be looking for you there,
As though you never inhabited the room there
And you were just at home all these days
Watching your regular fare of sports on TV
Or doing in Uncle Pat in a game of chess.
So I tried home and before Nikki handed
The phone over I heard the other kids’
Frolic in the background and gaggle of voices
Whose words I gathered faintly through this distance.
“How are you, Pa?” giving a snappy pitch
To my voice to bury my incipient fear
And keep up the tentative mood in the house.
“You checked out today, huh?”
And when you issued your words I flinched
At the pain you bore to bring them forth
Here in the settling dusk of Pursat,
Where before me the monks file past,
And in fading trees the fowls come home to roost.
You dragged them out like your tongue
Has never grown to hammer
Our bones with your ramrod words.
It stunned me to imagine you
Warped and overtaken by fate.
“I’m cutting you off now, Pa. You’re hurting.
Happy birthday. Bye.”
You drawled your thank you,
I hung the phone and suddenly seemed lost a while.
Father, I walked back along the river bank,
Stopped and sat on a stone bench
Facing the water, powerful and gushing with life,
And I felt like going with the disappearing light.

27 November 2000
Pursat, Cambodia

I promised myself that I’ll write another one of a happier mood in a happier time.


Before the Rush

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Some small meetings today that kind of perked things up. A new project looming in the horizon in the serious affair of conservation in this part of Cambodia. It’s slowly taking shape with no non-sense push here and there. A new challenge of garguantuan scale if I may be permitted of exaggeration.

Because of this, I have to shorten my Christmas break back home in Manila. Flying on the 23rd and getting back on new year’s day. Whew! On new year’s day! That would be a first for me. Spending the first day of the year 33,000 feet off the ground.

Meantime, I really don’t have time now to trouble myself with finding presents and pasalubong for folks back home. Only a frantic buy at the Russian Market (Toul Tumpong) at one crammed hour would get me somewhere. I don’t know… But this is not entirely new to me. Been there, done that. So I’ll see again…

Koh Kong, Cambodia


Bells, Wine, River, In the Days of Our Lives

Bells, Wine, River, In the Days of Our Lives

 The opulence of bells, this is what grabs you upon
crossing the threshold into Maxine’s Pub,
round a road bend on the other side of the river
that offers a weightless point-of-view,
clouded blithely by the spirits on the house.
A gathered stillness of blue air keeps the bells
in their hold, not a whine or clink to sound off
their misgivings, their quiet rumination
unless touched by losers or seekers.
Whoever steps into this temple bar,
the patron sheds a certain vulnerability.
It’s in their eyes, the intensity of their gaze
at life flowing by, at the scattering of lights at dusk
across the bank; the attitude of a slouch,
the quality of sadness or buoyancy in their voice.
They come and go in fashion with their stars.
Like a chance crossing of path with Karen
whom I need to introduce myself again;
back from Papua New Guinea on a sea-change
turn of thoughts and feelings, she’s now
getting back her old Cambodian grooves
in her third-country-child syndrome,
vibrantly settled in tenuous moorings.
There’s the Irish bloke, Mick,
who fiddles with his cameras, feeds more
of his life to chance and accidents
like love that defies race and distance
in a cinematic unfolding of anguish and desires,
integrity and faith, hope and redemption.
A gaggle of Brits, with a dog on a leash, keen and
brimming with Phnom Penh tales over gin and tonic.
Thanks to the cool music and the beer and yes the bells
we take nothing for what it’s worth
as things can be illusory the shamans confound,
we come adrift, jazzed up by Snowy’s take
on arts and reflections as his ruckus in the City of Ghosts,
the guts and cuts of an expatriate,
the blurry way of getting hung up in situ.

04 February 2009
Phnom Penh, Cambodia