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A city boy’s love affair with Cuyonon

By DUKE CAMPILAN Published Sep 03, 2021 5:00 am

Sinking my feet into powdery sands of roadside beaches and getting my hair windswept in tricycles twice the size of those in Manila are only a handful of memories that make me miss Palawan constantly. Locked up inside my room and chained to my computer, the closest I can travel to Palawan now would be through candid pictures and the occasional delivery of daing from relatives concerned about the inferior produce from Manila’s grocery stores. 

The longer I’m kept in my little room in Manila, the less I’m able to immerse myself in my culture — even less so practice my Cuyonon. When, once upon a time, I would cringe as someone spoke in a logat-logatan way (Cuyonon code switched with Tagalog), today, I can barely string a sentence together without falling back on English. “Ano ngani dia sa Cuyonon?” “How do you say this in Cuyonon?” I find myself asking more often. 

Feeling my tongue shrivel by the day, I recently found a little white notebook I used to bring along with me to Palawan. In its yellowed pages, I wrote down unfamiliar words I’d pick up from conversations; trying not to embarrass myself among friends and relatives who grew up actually speaking Cuyonon.

Looking through my entries now, however, tells a completely different story: one of realizing how words are woven into people and the history of the spaces they inhabit.

Bagat /ba•gát/ - (to) meet 

Baragatan is a festival celebrated in the month of June in Puerto Princesa. Stemming from the root bagat meaning “to meet,” the festival celebrates cultural plurality; recognizing not only the Cuyonons but the multitudes of people who are woven into the colorful tapestry that is Palawan today. 

Meeting people from all over Palawan became my Baragatan. On lazy summer afternoons, I’d often ride my bike to the town market to buy merienda. Though I was worlds away from the metro, the fishmongers hawking the day’s catch in their thick Hiligaynon accents, the Muslim women donning their sequin-studded hijabs while tending to their boutique stores, the ricecake vendors selling bundles of the Ilokano favorite tupig, and even the noodlehouses serving the quintessentially Palaweño chaolong (a local spin on Phở), reminded me that even the smallest town in Palawan can give the high culture of Manila a run for its money.

I guess the essence of Baragatan for an outsider lies not only in the convergence of Palaweños from all corners of the province, but also in experiencing firsthand the culture that breathes life into this island.

Bosong /bo•song/ - an ethereal punishment for disrespecting food

My grandmother used to chide us, saying that wasting even just a few grains of rice could have one wound up with a terrible bosong: a sort of celestial punishment awaiting those who dared treat food irreverently. I’ve never had firsthand experience with bosong but the mere existence of the concept spoke volumes on how people from this part of the world value things like rice. 

Whenever we sat down on the balcony on a hot summer’s day, grandmother would hum tunes from the Cuyo Balitaw — a popular folk song recounting the tediousness of planting and harvesting rice. The song wraps up with the lines “Dadi loto ro’ang paray, kita magkalipay! Indi ta’y panombalien ang ateng kabedlay.” which roughly translates as “Now that the grain is ripe, let us rejoice! For now, we can finally set aside our hardships.” 

For islands isolated in the middle of the sea, rice equates to life, and perhaps the only fitting punishment for disrespecting life would be one sanctioned by the otherworldly.

Leba /lə•bâ/ - one’s disposition

Where English may use the heart to express a particular disposition such as in the words “goodhearted” or “downhearted,” and Tagalog does the same with “loob” such as in the words mababang loob or masamang-loob, Cuyonon uses the word leba. The catch? Leba isn’t tied to the human body in the same way heart and loob are. 

Cuyonons use the word maleban to describe someone who’s goodhearted, raet ‘ang leba for ill feelings, mababa’ leba for humility, and ara leba (literally no leba) for immaturity.

Leba remains firmly interlocked with one’s character, perhaps even after one is long gone. This capacity for the language to express humanity without being bound to or even referencing the human form is a gracefulness I’m sure poets could only dream of. 

Regda /rəg•dâ/ - (to be) finished

I’ve always been told that the Cuyonon are a people who often give way whenever conflicts of any sort arise. Nonetheless, one shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that feebleness is characteristic of Cuyonons. Once one reaches regda, there is no turning back. 

For a people so ready to keep composure in all sorts of situations, regda is a way of communicating one’s breaking point. Whether it bursts out in a heated argument or comes from a muted non-response, regda’s finality is always clearly understood.

In the same way the unspoken preserves harmony in Cuyonon culture, it is in the silence of regda, the complete abandonment of any connection between two sides, wherein unyielding detachment is so painfully punctuated.

Sarimsim /sa•rim•sim/ - (to) sprout

No word in my little white notebook holds more meaning to me today than sarimsim. Picture the stump of a tree: hewn, flat and lifeless. Enter sarimsim, the sprouts of life that spring from the felled tree.

Hope springs eternal: Sarimsim is the Cuyonon word for sprouts of life that spring from a felled tree.

Being stranded at home with the thought of so many what ifs and the aching sentimentality for life before lockdown(s) leaves me feeling much like a tree stump: flat, lifeless, and a mere reminder of a life that once was. 

Nonetheless, I find consolation in possibilities. I find comfort in the hope that, at some nondescript point in the future, a version of myself will sink his feet into the sand once more, and like a tree stump, hope to sprout from ruins; marveling at life’s ability to pull through some pretty tough times. 

Until then, I’ll be in my room, in front of a computer, waiting for when the planes will take me back to Palawan.

Photo art by Bea Barros