WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Take to the highway

Not much traffic on the road, except in Cotabato City and in the temporary bottlenecks going into Tacurong and Isulan. I brought my cellphone, but I kept it off about half the time. I purposely brought just a change of clothes, a ballpoint pen, and a batch of essays to check.

I figured where the highway runs through, there’ll be stores selling what I’ll need. My rule of thumb is that the farther it is from the city, the cheaper would be the price at sari-sari stores. And whatever the stores down there don’t carry on their inventory, you can probably do without for a day or two. Why weigh yourself down with the whole kit and caboodle, huh?

Five hours away, wet markets by the roadside advertised rice that on the average is cheaper by P5.00 per kilo. Early evening Monday, I hastily put together overnight stuff from the small mom-and-pop right outside Azalea Inn along Sinsuat Drive in Cotabato City. My purchases totaled about a third what a cash register at a convenience store in Makati would ring up for the same set of items.

My pack of cigarettes ran out in Isulan the next day. I bought a fresh pack for P21.00. Same brand costs P25.00 at the stores in Davao City. P30.00 on the sidewalk. In Sultan sa Baronguis and leisurely lunching on pastil – sticky rice with tasty ground chicken rolled up in a banana leaf – I figured how much cheaper it is to keep body and soul together in this part of the country. The pastil made me P5.00 poorer, but the discovery of a novel, ecofriendly way to pack a meal was priceless.

Maguindanao sprawls, and it’s not empty wasteland you see but, if the lush vegetation is anything to go by, this is probably among the richest land you can find anywhere in the world. The highways go over countless rivers, streams, and rivulets so clear and so pristine. Numerous egrets in the rice fields watch varied modes of transportation go by with unsurprised eyes.

Tractors ply the highway carting farm produce and people. It was market day in Datu Odin Sinsuat. The people were out in all manner of traditional garb. More used to seeing this fashion on stage at cultural presentations or during multicultural formal occasions, it was a pleasant surprise to see these colorful clothes as living culture made an integral part of the wearer’s everyday life. Taking in the instant bazaar laid out by the side of the road, my mind flashed back to Passi 30 years ago when, as a kid, I’d haunt the makeshift stalls for stuff to spend my hard-earned P1.00.

My eyes sampled the architecture. Remarkable among them is the new Cotabato City hall. I don’t know why it evokes “Buckingham Palace” in my mind, although the design looks like a takeoff from the Sarangani Provincial Capitol erected during the administration of then-Gov. Priscilla Chiongbian in the early 1990s. It looks like a keep or a stronghold. Maybe it will come in handy during times of mass evacuation. It looks like it could play host to the entire town.

The North Cotabato Provincial Capitol in Kidapawan City, on the other hand, brings to mind the term “government estate”, what with that long drive and well-appointed arrangement of auxiliary buildings to house support agencies. It’s a busy place. The maintenance personnel were putting up Christmas lights on those perfectly manicured trees. People were rushing up and down the front steps carrying sheaves of paper and looking like their business was so important it could not wait. Gardeners were tending the humongous football field. I caught talk about the DSWD director heading down to Zamboanga to pick up and bring home those kids who were saved from child traffickers. Nothing remarkable. Like, it happens every now and then.

Then, too, there’s the glaring eyesore of the twin manors across the highway from each other in a town in Maguindanao. They look so out of place among the modest buildings. Looking at them, one wonders if by any diabolical magic, one got transported to the pages of Arabian Nights. Like, there’s this palace and all around it were hovels. Then Aladdin’s genie puts up a bigger palace overnight. So now there are two. But the hovels and the people living in them remain for contrast.

Now why would anyone put a palace – let alone two – among the hovels? What does it do to your soul when everyday is a reminder that you got too much while others have too little, if they have anything at all? For someone who paradoxically tastes freedom every time all she’s got are the clothes on her back, I wonder if people who live in forbidding palatial homes ever feel free to step out of their gates to see what they could see.

Somewhere a little further down the road, on a dusty clearing a few meters from the road there’s a forlorn makeshift Quonset hut that spells UNICEF across its wall. Brings to mind children, literacy, and clean water. There’s also a sign that has USAID-GEM advertising a project in that community. What an irony that people outside care to make the effort for social uplift of those in the hovels when, by the looks of those palatial manors, the infusion of outside resource is not at all necessary.

Coming home to Davao, the gunpowder taste of irony is again evoked as, lining up at the UCPB ATM outside Ateneo, I see a two-platoon formation of riot policemen guarding the entrance of palatial Marco Polo against a score of demonstrators led by a lady in a black miniskirt. Fifty riot policemen complete with shields and truncheons to face down and subdue if need be 20 people armed with placards and streamers. And all because they’re saying something that the President doesn’t want to hear.

I was moved to remark on the return of militarized overkill response and how it’s so out of place in downtown Davao City. Reza Siason shushes me, pointing to two uniformed TFD personnel in full battle gear about three meters away and watching the riot policemen flanking the demonstrators back across the street to Freedom Park. Half of the demonstrators do a lie in on the streets while the other half wave the placards and take turns at the megaphone.

I would not worry about how the TFD guys took my comment. I assume they were there right beside me to protect my freedom of speech.

Crossing the street, I count at least 10 plainclothesmen and four other possibles dispersed at positions to the rear of the demonstrators. Rear guards. I would have enjoyed the exercise of spotting them all within 20 meters of Marco Polo, because there had to be more of them, but it was late. I figured I’d done a lot of road tripping the last three days. Never mind just how much security force Gloria Arroyo needs out there on the streets so she would feel secure in Marco Polo.

A security blanket is to an insecure person as monumental architecture is to someone who has edifice complex. Blanket security a red flag for a growing sense of insecurity. It seems like GMA’s sense of dread is getting to be harder to put a lid on with each passing day. Ah, well — leave the woman to her demons. Leave her to own up to the world her need to be protected from the people. The gentlemen in the police and the TFD obviously recognize how the President feels. When all is said and done, the gentlemen in the police and the TFD are of the people. Maybe they just don’t know it yet.

As I thumb a passing jeep for the ride home, I send up a wordless salute to the lady in the black mini-skirt. Mabuhay ka, kabaro. Kita tayo uli sa daan. (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 gail.ilagan@gmail.com. "Send at the risk of a reply," she says.)