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Writers, travel, and memories

By ALFRED A. YUSON, The Philippine STAR Published Feb 27, 2023 5:00 am

Writing and travel are often inextricably related. Decades of memories come tumbling through whenever familiar cities are revisited. 

On Feb. 16, Baguio poet-journalist Frank Cimatu and I had a special turnover ceremony at a resto in Kuala Lumpur when he handed me my contributor’s copy of Tim-tiwong: An Uncyclopedia to Life, Living, and Art in Baguio, the Cordillera, and Beyond.

We realized that the book had its inception exactly a decade earlier, when Kawayan de Guia and Frank, among the co-editors, broached the idea at the Singapore Biennale in 2013. A large contingent of Cordillera artists had participated in the international exhibit at Singapore Art Museum.

Frank Cimatu hands over my copy of Tiw-tiwong

Consequently, the AX(iS) Art Project that Kawayan spearheaded earned a grant from the Biennale host country for the book publication. It’s taken 10 years, but now the nearly 400-page full-color hardcopy has finally come through, as a unique, upbeat compendium of everything that celebrates Cordillera art and culture. It’s a fascinating read, and I should do a proper review of the book in a future column.

The happenstance turnover in KL transpired since Frank and I were part of a three-day tour in Malaysia as an extra prize for the 2020 Bright Leaf Agricultural Journalism Awards winners. The Asian country tours had been deferred on account of the pandemic, but now the sponsor PMFTI just owes the last batch of winners, for 2021-22, their country tour.

For the Malaysia jaunt, nine of the 2020 winners got to join: Frank Cimatu and Rose Makekchan from Baguio, photojournalist Erwin Mascariñas from Cagayan de Oro, photojournalist Willie Lomibao, Jasper Arcalas, Cai Ordinario, Maureen Simeon, Karl Ocampo, and Vina Medenilla. As judges for that year, online editor Kristine Bersamina, J. Albert Gamboa and I were delegated as chaperones, along with Didet Danguilan and Cor Renes of the Philip Morris Fortune Tobacco Inc. or PMFTI.

Such stories told within minutes in a tour bus actually telescope centuries of history.

Some of the tour participants have been old hands as previous winners, such as Arcalas, Lomibao, Mascariñas, Ocampo, and Cimatu. The last was also with us in Hanoi in 2016, and maybe at another jaunt. In fact, his last two wins have upped his winning slate to four, priming him as a candidate for the Oriental Leaf Award in the event of a 5th win—as Arcalas has done.

Traveling around the region for as many decades as this super-senior has, a storehouse of memories has been built up, albeit with a confusion of dates to partner with the experiences. We may also become somewhat jaded in having to revisit certain tour stops. But the bus rides through the itinerary also give one a chance to relive previous moments.

My first visit to Malaysia was in 1979, when I took my young family on a Mercedes-Benz taxi ride to cross over from Singapore where I was working on a travel book. From KL, we moved on to Malacca, then Penang, before crossing another border to reach Songklah in Thailand.

In Penang, I remember watching a heavyweight championship fight on TV that featured Larry Holmes. It wasn’t his successful title defense against Muhammad Ali, since that was in 1980. There was also the seaside Fort Cornwallis in George Town, and the savory street hawker cuisine all over town.

Kampong in Kuala Lumpur

In KL, a visit to a kampong had us sitting cross-legged on a wooden floor with our hosts, hospitable strangers who were the village elders. They treated us to something they called “silver bullet.” Enjoying the ganja that had been wrapped tightly in silver tinfoil, we embarked on a laughing session while tracing common terms like “mata” and “mukha.” I even counted in Visayan to prove that we knew additional Bahasa.

The next visit to KL was in the mid-’80s when poet-buddy Ricky de Ungria and I joined a World Reading Festival. At a private party after a reading session, a sing-along ensued, where the guests were asked to render folk songs from their countries. When the mic landed in my hands, I decided to preempt Ricky’s performance by announcing that I’d sing one of the most popular folk songs in the Philippines, then came up with a spirited version of Love Me Tender. Channeling Elvis worked. Out of embarrassment, Ricky declined to follow suit.

More memories revolve around friendships made with notable Malaysian writers. Muhammad Haji Salleh and I attended a poetry conference at the East-West Center in Honolulu in 1979. The bilingual poet, critic and academic has since authored and edited a slew of books. A national laureate, he has visited Manila several times.

Novelist K. S. Maniam introduced me to fresh real ale at Stratford-upon-Avon, on a break from the Cambridge Seminar on Contemporary British Literature sometime in the 1990s. Sadly, he passed away a few years ago. Then there’s Kee Thuan Chye, an actor, dramatist, poet and journalist, with whom I trekked daily at Katoomba, also in the ’90s, while we sojourned at the Varuna Writers Center in New South Wales, Australia. Quite famously, he had a speaking part in the 1999 film Entrapment starring Sean Connery, which featured action scenes involving the Petronas Twin Towers—where in 2023 we took lifts all the way up its 84 floors. 

Lois De Paor of Ireland, the author Krip Yuson of the Philippines, Mineke Schipper of Holland, Suffian Hakim of Singapore, Egyptian publisher and festival director Mohamed El-Baaly, and Bernice Chauly of Malaysia at Ain Shams University in Cairo

At the Cairo Literature Festival in 2019, poet and novelist Bernice Chauly and I toured around the Giza pyramids and checked out the new library of Alexandria. We also posed for a doufie at the entryway to Cavafy’s former residence that had been a brothel. Bernice was an academic colleague of Danton Remoto when he served as sheriff at KL’s University of Nottingham until recently.

In 2013, the Bright Leaf tour landed in KL the first time. Memorable was a pedicab ride from the Dutch Square to a Peranakan restaurant in Malacca to join up with the lunch party. If one has been to Malacca, one will recall the gaily decorated pedicabs that moved along to loud music from a cassette tape.

The Maritime Museum in Malacca

At present, this practice has evolved to the use of a digital music tape helped along by loudspeakers. In fact, Malacca has developed considerably, gaining many modern high-rises around the Old Town. Jonker St. now has more cafes and tourist stalls—the same with the Dutch Square, St. Paul’s Hill and Church, and A Famosa fortress built by the Dutch in 1511.

Having climbed up that steep hill twice in the past, I balked this time out, opting to stay with our tour bus where it parked, thus giving me the chance to smoke outdoors while taking random photos of new attractions such as the Maritime Museum. Oh, before all that, lunch break was at the popular Ole Sayang restaurant serving splendid Nyonya cuisine.

While sleepily counting time during the long bus rides, I enjoyed some of the local lore shared by our tour guide James Wong. He retold a legend dating back to the 1400s, when a beleaguered Indonesian prince escaped Palembang with his followers to cross over what became Malacca Strait. Under a Melaka tree, he witnessed how his hunting dog chased a mousedeer that kept running until it smartly stopped by a river and used its hind legs to kick the dog into the water. This inspired the prince to establish a settlement on the coastal village that had no name. He named it Melaka after the tree he had rested under, and began to trade in tin, until his power grew. Of course he was eventually supplanted by the Portuguese and then the Dutch, who built a fortress—before the Napoleonic Wars made them withdraw and leave the town in the care of the British. The last colonial power never gave it back, ceding instead some territory in what hosted the Dutch East Indies. While the British were deconstructing A Famoso, Sir Stamford Raffles came over from Singapore to demand that the fort’s gateway should at least be preserved.

Such stories told within minutes in a tour bus actually telescope centuries of history.

Before we parted, James let on that his brother Jimmy Wong sent word that he had met Jimmy Abad and me a decade or so ago when he joined us for dolphin watching. As an academic, he must have been at Silliman University that summer for the National Writers Workshop. And we must have taken a weekend cruise along Tañon Strait towards Bais Bay and the Manjuyod Sandbar.

From the Melaka Strait to Tañon Strait, then, and Manjuyod to Malacca, regional friendships too are telescoped through time and happenstance. We should all crown ourselves with Oriental Leaf laurels to celebrate these memories.