Backpacking with a Book
Homebound
May 31, 2011
Aguinid Falls, Samboan, Cebu
Dao, Binalayan, and Aguinid Falls in Samboan
September 20, 2011
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City of the Smiling Mask

Backpacking with a Book

THE cheeks are overly pinched. The eyes are shadowed with purple. The lips are painted red. The lips form a sickle. The mask smiles.

Smiling Masks

Why do most masks smile?

Happiness is hard to suppress. We wear it. Assuming it is contagious, it is our utmost intention to infect others with the happy virus. Or perhaps happiness is contrived. We exhibit our happiness as to make others covetous. Suffering fills the world, and happiness is the white dot on the black paper of suffering.

 Why do most masks smile?

There is art in sadness. It requires discipline. Bending a concave into a convex is no easy task. Pitching the voice a note higher necessitates skill; so does brushing two glints in crestfallen irises. The face, the voice indeed masks our true state.

While looking at the small masks in a souvenir shop, I remembered what Nune said.
“There is beauty in sorrow and pain,” Nunelucio Alvarado casually claimed in a conversation in his Namitnamit Gallery. Nune paints the struggle of peasants, positing an irony to Bacolod’s image: smile-loving, gentle, regal, to some. Bacolod is a land of few elite and a multitude of peasants.

Perhaps there is a reason—a tragedy perhaps—which forwarded the rather touristy “the City of Smiles” tagline. Tragedy—because a smile is always an icon of survival, of yet another suffering triumphed. Tragedy because a mask demands, paints hope; and how it reminds me of MassKara, a multitude of smiling faces.

The River of Our Younger Selves

Attending the two-day filmmaking seminar in Mambukal Resort provided a free travel pass. At first, I was reluctant to accept the invitation from Bambi Beltran; yet upon knowing Mambukal has a river, my reluctance thinned out and disappeared. The seminar was just a bonus; the place was the real deal.

When everyone was still dreaming, I dragged my sleepy self out of the room. It is better to explore a place unbusied by people.

A portion of the river is gathered in a lagoon (perhaps intentionally) before it continues its journey.

While watching the water crawl down the slippery riverbed, I surmised reaching the river source perhaps is as liberating as reaching the river mouth. Relying on my intuition, I started trekking the river up. From the bridge above, Radel Paredes, a painter from Cebu, was surprised to see me standing in ankle-deep water. After exchanging morning pleasantries, we decided to set off upstream together.

Still a sleepy morning, the grass was pregnant with dew, reflecting the green around.

As the trek was unexpected, we were not appropriately geared, especially in footwear.

Slippery it was, we grappled continuously with the slickness.

Boulders are deceptive. They look dependable, firm on the ground; and yet, once one jumps on them, either one rolls with them or one slides alone while the boulder mockingly rumbles.

How to cross from one boulder to another? Test the boulder with a joggle. Be light with the step when it is unstable, firm when it is. Put confidence in one’s footing.

Make the hands ready in case slipping is inevitable. When one inescapably slips, laugh.

Sir Radz and I were far from being directionless: the river is direction itself.

Rivers are natural guides. When lost, one has to follow the river’s course—it leads to the sea, to openness, to liberation. In our case, after an hour of braving slippery boulders, the river led us to its falls.

The cascading water makes the river alive; yet at home, ours is dead: rocky, waterless, mute. Every time it rained, it was my trifling prayer to let it flood.

Foolish and young, I did not weigh the possible effects of the flood on our community. 

I simply wanted the dead river alive.

Somewhere in my childhood, my siblings and our neighbors gathered in the river every time it flooded. We teased our limbs with the yellowish turbulent water, testing how long our body could stand the current. Assigning older ones as our parents, we pretended as a big family. We cooked meals with the riverbank’s soft earth and pantomimed our way in eating them. We built a shanty of dried coconut leaves. Most of the time, we caught ourselves laughing, chasing one another, swimming. Our laughter resonated in the river’s roaring descent to the unseen sea.

“Rivers are storied places. . . . Rivers tease the imagination. They are an important part of the remembered landscapes of youth.” Ah, Resil Mojares could never be so right.

Rivers gave birth to powerful civilizations in history. It gave birth to a civilization of childhood happiness. I have not outgrown such. The sight of a river fills me with happiness and equally compelling sadness. Adulthood snatches away our fascination over trivial matters. But as time persists, so does memory. Memories of our childhood are the most treasured. It reminds us of the being that used to be so achingly familiar yet now so foreign.

The Lagoon of Distance

A statue of a man on one side, a woman’s on the other. The distance between the man and the woman is as wide as the carp-swarmed lagoon. Staring at the other end, I could not make out the details of the other statue: a man’s figure, for sure, with a beast by his side.

These two characters and the existence of the lagoon appeal to me as a metaphor, a story of distance: a tale of temporary space for the hopeful, of ignored distance for the scared, of irreconcilable distance for the hopeless.

A story of wooing: here, the woman waited for the man to approach her, playing coy, patient, and seemingly distant. To show his honest intent, the man wooed the woman and the woman’s family through his diligence since tradition dictated hard work can bridge personal indifference. Our culture taught us that Maria-Clara-ness is a virtue. Yet with the demands of contemporary society, the Gabriella character is more fitting. The mask of coyness and patience deteriorated and became a disadvantage. 

A story of marriage: the distance does not have to be physical, at the least: the man—the farmer, the husband; the woman, the homemaker, the wife. When the husband arrived home penniless and drunk, the wife’s mouth metamorphoses into a “lubot sa himungaan.” Local idioms are often colored with unpleasant hyperboles. Once aggravated, women never stop talking. Yet I theorized the husband arriving home penniless and drunk were secondary concerns of the wife. Perturbed, she could not help but assault the husband with words or hands. Perhaps women have a tough time crossing the distance between honest dialogue and relentless badgering. The mouth becomes a front, a mask of the real.

A story of tragedy: lovers caught in their stillness, the immobility of distance between them. Cannot be crossed, the distance eternally divorces these two beings: the woman, the man. Michael Ondaatje poignantly mused, “Do you understand the sadness of geography?” Yes, geography and the perpetuity of its meanings: the vulnerability of its geography is a factor of Japan’s three-fold catastrophe; the finiteness of the body and the infiniteness of geography. How many times does it occur when one wants to be there, somewhere, far from here? Irreconcilable distance is the aching reality that here cannot be there.

Yet, I am often prodded, comforted with Resil Mojares’ words. “Still, we must never lose our fascination with distances. Our world must always be a world of possibilities, or else it cannot be a place worth inhabiting.

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on June 02, 2011.


Jona | Backpacking with a Book

Hi, I'm Jona! I write stories and poetry and take a lot of photos, which I'm too lazy to upload. If you want to receive some photos that I don't share here on the blog, please leave your email here. I'm crazy about cats too. Feel free to browse through BWAB, and I would love it if you say hi! For collaborations, projects, and other things, please email me at backpackingwithabook@gmail.com For more stories about BWAB, check here. Connect with us through

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5 Comments

  1. Sujay says:

    Excellently written and delicious photography!
    You make me want to read more and more. You are a great writer!
    I will not tire saying it, for it will not be cliched. 🙂

  2. Marvs says:

    A very nice share indeed!

    The photos are amazing! 🙂

  3. […] the travel essay “The City of the Smiling Mask“ LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

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