MINDAVIEWS WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Airborne and underground. By Gail Ilagan

DAVAO CITY (November 23) — They say that it is quite possible to hang a newborn babe up on the clothesline to dry. The loss of support would make the baby instinctively cling to the line until someone pries his fists open.

I’d been meaning to test that theory about instinctual behavior for the longest time, but have yet to find someone willing to lend me his infant for this research purpose. Over the weekend, I decided to test it out on a 44-year-old babe.


So there I found myself perched on a rough hewn stool on top of a mountain in Comval with an inane song of my youth going through my head: “…for he lived on the twilight side of the mountain and she lived on the morning side of the hill…”

The ropes course director had me raising my arms straight up and shooting my hands through loops on either end of a leather strap laid across a high tension rope running from the tree up behind me to the tree down there. New rope. It needed breaking in. And I just happened to volunteer to be the guinea babe.

Rats. Guinea pigs are rodents. Rats.

Inane humor is a sign of mental inefficiency. Block that. Focus.

I was directed to give both wrists a twirl to tighten the strap, firmly grasp the top of the loop and hold it in place without touching the rope. The leather should slide through the rope unhampered with just the distribution of my weight through my hands on either side keeping the balance. I was also supposed to yell, “Gail Ilagan is ready to perform the slide for life, sir.”

Just so they know. Like, sign me up for dead, sir!

Aw, come on. I don’t really have to, do I? This lamb to slaughter pose barely quickens my pulse.

When you’re 44, people almost always let you off when you ask politely. So I said, “I’m going off now.”

I lifted my feet off the stool and let gravity take over. I didn’t have to remind myself to keep my legs together, make a letter L. Coasting 350 meters down at a 45-degree angle, I hit the end of the rope too soon. Way sooner than before I could work out the time it would take to travel.

Rats. I could have gone on forever. It had zing, but it did end too soon. The adrenaline rush had yet to kick in.

Getting off to the cheers of the landing team, I thought about my usual partner in crime, Rex Rola. He had class that day and couldn’t come, but he is usually game for whatever crazy adventure I want to drag him along to try. Lately, though, it seems like maybe he and I have lived too long that the pulse seldom misses the beat at defying gravity. We realized that last month as we set for launch at what they advertise to be Asia’s longest zipline.

Up in harness and about to go, we caught ourselves glancing at each other as if to ask what the crazy screaming was all about. I tried to cajole the staff to launch me without the parachute thingy so the zip would actually go faster. They said no can do. So, okay, they just zipped me 800 meters across, 150 meters up – face down – at a very sedate pace, so slow I almost fell asleep if not for the girl on the other wire who was screaming her head off.

The slide was a different thing, though. Only your grip on the leather straps keeps you up there. No harness. Baby can’t let go, indeed.

Rex would have had fun at the catch part. The landing team breaks your fall with a rope across your midsection. Christ. How barbaric. I’d have dropped myself off had I known. I think my knees could still take landing coming in at that speed. Ah, but it’s been a long time since. I was roped. Bum steer.

I dangled eight feet up. The boys on the landing team jumped for the rope to hold it down with their combined weight until my feet kissed ground and I could extricate my hands from the leather straps. For a moment there, when those jump-happy boys were bouncing up and down all around me, it felt like I was the most-wanted favor at a birthday party pabitin. And just when I let go of the leather, they burst into exuberant clapping.

They’d probably put me up their shoulders had I let them. We settled for me giving them a deep bow.

Yeah. I like that. I like a show of respect when I’ve earned it. So sue me.

Of course, after that, I really had to lose myself in the caves down the forest floor. I went spelunking with visions of Tom Sawyer and his Becky. Bernardo Carpio. Andres Bonifacio. Maragondon. Lazarus rising from the dead. The cave man with his cave club. And into the bowels of the earth I willingly came.

The bats did not like humans bumbling into their habitat. They would dive in a swarm and sometimes clung on clothes.

I wanted to stay dry in there, but very soon I found that there was just no avoiding the cool, clear, running water in places. Somewhere midway through the tunnel, I finally gave up rock-climbing up walls to get past the pools and just waded in. The uneven ground got my brain working up to a comfortable speed as I calculated where to put my foot and how much weight to distribute to keep me upright and moving forward.

Three kilometers of meandering caverns, so big in places I could set up house down there. People don’t really need to build houses when they have natural rooms like this.

It’s like a womb, or something suggesting a biological organ – digestive tract or vascular pathways. I idly imagined myself as an organic material moving through this system. Was I an irritant, a catalyst, or nutrient? And how would transport through eternal nocturnal dark transform me? How would my passage transform this subterranean walkway?

I had to smile catching myself at mid-thought. Just because I was making memory of my time with her, I just assumed she would retain a memory of me, too. Hubris to think such timeless monument would register my passing.

The sun shining down the hole signaling exit was like a reminder of rebirth. I emerged, pleasantly surprised to find we’d crossed the mountain and had come out on the other side.

They tell me it’s a historic place. They tell me of the little wars in the 80s when these caves were used as exit routes. And maybe people lived there even before that. How long it’s been down there I can only guess. It’s just a very big bubble of air bearing the massive weight of the mountain above, a silent witness to God knows what.

It took me in and put me out, and I am eternally humbled by its beauty. Some fundamental things about the self came home to me underground, devoid of light. (Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan’s column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches Social Justice, Family Sociology, Theories of Socialization and Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University where she is also the associate editor of Tambara. You may send comments to [email protected] “Send at the risk of a reply,” she says).