A recent first-ever trip to the island province of Palawan coincided with random readings of the latest edition of the Agam agenda, poems and stories from the edge of the climate crisis published by the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities and Milflores Publishing. Seemed fitting enough, as Palawan has long been considered the last frontier of the country.
Any photograph taken in the capital, Puerto Princesa, or during the more than five-hour road trip to El Nido, and in El Nido itself, could be at home in Harvest Moon, which collects poetry and mostly non-fiction partnered with photographs in different parts of the world slowly sinking in environment-conflicted straits.
While we have our doubts about the translations (however expertly done), certainly not much is lost in the photos of gradations of human interest on which the prose is generally based and constructed. For example there is Luisa Igloria’s treatise on crazy bottles that somehow house ships meticulously unfurling their sails in constricted space, to the delight of souvenir hunters or the plain curious. Like a message in a bottle or found microcosm, the essay could be suggesting that our own sad world may one day be seen in such light of mind-boggling curio, but curio nonetheless.
The first hours in Puerto from airport to humble pension inn reveal an unspoiled frontier of greenery, almost reminding one of the time in Dumaguete between tartanilla and tricycle, roads snaking through sprawling landscape not so much urban as pocket idyllic. No more crocodile sisig here, taxi driver says, the industry another victim of the pandemic, with no one left to tend to the crocodile farms much more prepare the island delicacy. The crocodiles in Palawan are weeping crocodile tears over the development, not exactly a congressional victory, but for sustainable sisig, yes.
Then there is the improvised koan-like poem of Marjorie Evasco about keeping the light on near a well that serves as a waystation and refreshment stop for any lost vagabond to help find the correct way again, or affirm the rightness of chosen path despite the occasional detour or straying from the straight and narrow. Can almost shine the light on the page of book in low wattage, hear the water being scooped up and poured straight down the gullet, rivulets streaming from corners of the mouth. Surely she is waiting somewhere, keeping the faith like Penelope of the tales of brave Ulysses.
In Puerto, tricycles are banned from the national highway during regular business hours, forcing them to take roundabout routes to certain destinations that increase their consumption of fuel, easily over P80 per liter even before the latest price hike. Thus a 20-minute ride to the city baywalk goes through winding trails where roadsides are replete with trees and hanging vines; you could almost hear the crickets and cicadas bracing themselves for twilight. At baywalk, there is a slight drizzle that doesn’t discourage the few promenaders, who take pictures and selfies by the city logo — “I (heart) Puerto” — and at the Kusina sa Baybay, there is a sumptuous spread of grilled tuna, halaan soup, and a seaweed salad made of latok (grapes of the sea).
Back to Harvest Moon. A kankanai elder mulls over how the tribe measures distance by the traversing of mountains, and how soon these mountains might never be the same because of catastrophes both manmade and natural, while a doctor can only look on helpless while a patient dies of COVID, trying to catch one’s breath in a drowning-like sensation, how oxygen has become a rare commodity in the age of disease and faith, love, time and Dr. Lazaro.
El Nido was a different story altogether — the tours to the Big Lagoon, some snorkeling, Secret Lagoon, and Seven Commandos Beach, the last of which took its name from seven Japanese holdouts from the Pacific War, according to a rapper guide. At the Secret Lagoon was a treasure trove of secrets comprised mainly of towering karst cliffs and structures, forming impromptu sculptures to fertile imaginations — gargoyles, wrestling T-Rex, giant pangolin and surreal grotto. In the town itself is the Kopi&Bake coffee shop, where there’s good banana walnut and blueberry cheesecake, latte and pastrami sandwich as refuge from too much sun wind and sea, while a cashier tries to look for clues in a faded P20 bill that’s been through so many hands she can barely make out the serial number, what goes around comes around and then some, as it were endlessly.
Editors of the Agam agenda, including Baguio-based Padma Perez of Mt. Cloud bookshop, advised the writers and contributors to the second number of the anthology that certain clichéd words and phrases were anathema to whatever poem or story sent in, so as to steer away discourse from the hackneyed. No climate change or global warming or fossil fuels or carbon emissions, in effect reprising a workshop mantra from the south: show, not tell. The photos may not be as prone to the commonplace, and the verse and prose find a good place to sprout and bloom in the margins and laylayan.
Takeaways from the last frontier include various products of the magical cashew fruit, as dry roasted, fried, food for the gods, butterscotch, etc., as well the redoubtable lamayo and the island’s best-kept secret Baker’s Hill hopia, wild Palawan honey yogurt, a T-shirt little over a hundred pesos with the words “Land of beautiful harbors,” and the harvest of a nearly full moon peeking through the tree branches. No earthquakes on the island, a tricycle driver says; doesn’t rain around here either; it just comes pouring down.