Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Letters to Chika-an Part 1

Dear Chika-an,

You sweet devil you. You finally came to the city of Beautiful People. Oh how my heart leapt when I saw your tarps a couple or so weeks ago announcing, "Opening Soon at SM Center".  So today the husband and I went and feasted on your dishes that I know by heart-- Pakbet with Chicharon, Bam-i Guisado, Filipino Style Fried Chicken, Ampalaya with Dilis and Cucumber Lemon Pitcher. Your service was impeccable. Our meal was served within 15 to 20 minutes as your no-nonsense waitress informed us.

Each bite of every dish was an explosion of home. Ampalaya with Dilis as appetizer was such a treat. Dilis also called "Lansang" by Cebuanos due to its nail-like appearance was just enough saltiness to the tongue. I remember how it was a staple in our home while I was growing up.

I especially like your Pinakbet which is my 2nd favorite from your menu. The sauce with a hint of spice that's just right made it such a pleasant experience to my palate. Each vegetable was succulent. The okra, talong, batong, kalabasa were beautiful to behold and relish.

Your Bam-i Guisado's noodles was a perfect 'al dente' with just the right amount of "subak"-- Carrots, pasayan, Baguio Beans, baboy, atsal.

Oh but your Fried Chicken brought back a ton of childhood memories for me. It was just like  promise of surprise like back in the day when my Papa was still alive and he'd take us out for Sunday lunches or dinners at our favorite Chicken place. You were still at Juana Osmena Extension back then. One that we'd look forward to every week.

Your Cucumber Lemon Pitcher was cool to the throat. Sweet, but not too sweet, sour from the lemon but wonderfully neutralized by the floating green  cucumbers. Many a lunch my cousins and I would down this drink over stories and conversations of  How are you's and How is life treating you's and how are you treating life.

But let me save the best for last. My most favorite dish of all was unfortunately unavailable. That's alright. Sometimes waiting is a good thing. I remember how my Papa would ask me to go buy Barbecued Chorizo at our Subdivision's eskina which was a good 20 minute walk. And he would wait patiently for me to get back. Chorizo de Cebu, that's right. My comfort food paired with suka and sili. When I was pregnant with my first-born, I would scour the city of Ormoc for Chorizo with no such luck. Our then driver would bear the brunt of a pregnant woman's unfulfilled food cravings. Pasaylo-a gyud ko Manong Camilo sa kadtong panahona nga gigutom ang buntis ug walay chorizo nga makit-an sa tanang kan-anan sa Ormoc.

Enough with the anecdotes of my most favorite dish, Chorizo de Cebu. You are here now Chika-an. This is all that matters. I waited for you for 15 years since I left the land of my birth and childhood. Of course I can wait  for the one elusive dish in the menu that will ultimately be the undoing of me. Kanang mura'g usa ka libong himaya.

 In the meantime, I shall happily remember today when we sat at your wonderfully native themed space with the most comfortable chairs, efficient staff and delicious food.

Daghang Salamat.

From a Very Grateful and Nostalgic Diner,

An Margaret

Letters to Chika-an Part 2

Dear Chika-an in SM Center Ormoc,

It is a week after our first meal with you and now we are back again. As whenever I go home to Cebu, I now also call you my comfort place. The clouds are looming outside promising the inevitable rain. And though the restaurant and all of the mall is cold with the airconditioning in full blast or so it seems, your atmosphere is warm with "Good Morning Ma'am-Sir's and smiles as bright as the service crews' yellow outfits. Miss Gayle, your manager, greets us and proceeds to seat us. She offers her apologies for last week's Chorizo absence. She tells us Chorizo de Cebu is definitely available as clearly as it is written on the menu. We thank her profusely and tell her we are ready to order.

As with the first time, our food is served within the reliable 15  to 20 minutes. The husband and I as usual take in each bite with conversation. We are deep into our stories and even deeper into the tasty Chili Garlic Tuna Belly, the naturally sweet with a hint of sour, deliciously basked in Tuno or coconut milk Puso sa Saging, and in the light yet filling Pancit Guisado and of course into the succulent fat of the undoing-of-my-heart, "tabla sa usa ka libong himaya" Chorizo de Cebu when suddenly a song of joy broke into our reverie. "Happy birthday to you!" the crew sang to a lovely lady in her senior years. Complete with the charming swish-swish sound of the maracas and delightful energy of the service crew they end with the line, "From your Chika-an family!" A chocolate cake with colorful frosting topped with a candle is brought to the celebrant. She blows on the candle and applause breaks from her family and companions. I chime in too with my quiet clap from our far end table. I half expect the rest of the diners to join in as well. But while all this is happening the rest of the diners look more  startled than happy. Apparently the Ormocanon crowd is still new to this practice--this outright, unexpected expression of celebration from people you barely know. And not too long after, another birthday song is sung this time to a little girl around 4 or 5 years of age. She too looks like she does not know what to make of it but happily blows out her candle. Thank yous are said, the service crew makes their way back into their posts and the hustle and bustle of the place resume.

There is a quiet and perhaps lonely pleasure that suddenly fills my heart seeing all that just happened. I suddenly miss the home I had for 23 years. The beautiful energy of your service crew as they sang birthday songs to the two celebrants tugs at my gut. Not coincidentally the lola reminds me of my mother. And the little girl obviously brings me back to my childhood. I don't know what the Universe had in store for me today and perhaps I am merely looking too much into things. Or maybe because Christmas is just around the corner and this always reminds everyone or at least me of family, homemade meals, birthdays celebrated in song, cake and candles blown. Oh who really knows? 

What makes a place comforting? What does it take for me to call you my comfort place?

Oh Chika-an, you outdid yourself this time. You might tell me that maybe I just miss my own home. This is why I am emotional and biased to you. So what if I am? But from my rose-colored glasses I see your genuine attention to detail. I see that you took the time to listen. I see that  you cared enough to know what the people who come to your place need. Be it a grandmother or a little girl celebrating her birthday who may not have asked to be sung a birthday song to, (Give them time, they may not know they needed it until you gave it to them earlier.) or a nostalgic diner who misses home very much and in dire need of Chorizo de Cebu, you listened. You sang, brought out the cake and you delivered 2 plates filled with 8 sticks overflowing with a big fat serving of love and home. Tell me, aren't these enough to be called comforting?

The rain is pouring hard now, Chika-an. And just so you know, very much like the gratitude in my heart.

Daghang salamat.


An Margaret

P. s. The discount by the way is such a thoughtful gesture.The heart is full as much as the belly. 

Friday, July 27, 2018

The Most Important Question of All

The man stood tall and dignified at the rostrum. Microphone on his right hand, he spoke to us with a sense of honesty and intimacy that can only be described as if there were only five people in the room. As he said the last few lines, there was an unmistakable break in his voice, a holding in of air.  And as he gazed at us, his eyes glistened with emotion. Then applause broke.

Inspiration. I tried to explain this concept to our 2nd Graders as I told them Christina Newhard's story of a girl named Amina who could not weave a story in her loom. She tried to find inspiration in the mountains and the sea but still could not find it. And so she went about in the city to find it. "What does inspiration mean?" the students asked me. The closest two words I could share with them that their 7-year-old minds could understand, were "imagination" and "dreams".  Slowly, we  somehow made a connection of how imagination and dreams allowed us to create something beautiful. 

Inspiration. The first person I saw as I entered the venue of the 52nd Rotary Club of Ormoc Induction of Officers was Calvin. His trademark mustache was still perfectly in place. And as we embraced, I felt the life and strength emanate from the core of his being. It has been too long since I saw him last. This was somebody who three years ago, was diagnosed with Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer. A few months after he was diagnosed,  the Rotary Club family created a fund-raising event for him, Zumba for My Friend and Lift Up Calvin. Now three years after, he has overcome this adversity by radically changing his manner of living through alternative medicine, nutrition overhaul, exercise and lifestyle change and is now more  than ever fired up with verve and a love for life.

Inspiration. "My dream is to be a pilot." "Mine is to be a gymnast," the 2nd graders piped up excitedly. "So what do we do to achieve that dream?" I asked them. "Does your dream make you want to do something?" "How do we make it come true?"

Inspiration. "You have been with us in times not only of joy but also of pain," the man in the blue long-sleeved polo with necktie standing tall at the rostrum reiterates. "Yolanda hurt us." He continued,  "The earthquake hit us severely last year. And then another typhoon hit us in December. Rotary Club of Ormoc has been there all throughout those times." Applause filled the room. "Under the initiative and leadership of Anna Louisa Bumagat the Parade of Lights  became the turning point of the city fiesta as it brought out for the first time ever, hundreds of Ormocanons from their homes and into the streets to gather together and marvel at the showcase of creativity of the Ormocanon themselves." 

Inspiration. "The process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative."

Inspiration. To serve others beyond the self, to be the inspiration so that others may be inspired as well and do the same-- this is Rotary's motto and this was the answer that the newly-inducted president of the club, Darwin Catingub was looking for as he was striving to find a deeper purpose and meaning to his life. Winston Churchill's words, "We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give." drives him to live out Rotary's mission.   "Be the inspiration," he strongly admonishes the audience.

As I continued to tell the Story of Amina and the City of Flowers to our 2nd Graders, their faces lit up as they imagined the colors, shapes and sounds Amina saw in the city. They could not wait to see what story Amina was able to weave at the loom. "Do you want to see what story Amina weaved into the loom? Do you want to see what she created?" They almost yelled a very excited "Yes!" There was a collective holding of breath in the room and then when they saw the tapestry that Amina made, their voices became a symphony of "oohs" and "wows". "I want to make a tapestry too!"  And even though in the middle of the story, I struggled in making them understand the concept of inspiration, I knew in the end, they understood.

Inspiration. "The drawing in of breath; inhalation."

Standing tall, he stood with a presence that can only be described as honest and  human.  In a clear voice, he said the last few lines, "We will not stop working very hard not until our city is in a better place than where it was yesterday." His voice broke. His eyes glistened. He held his breath, his tears threatened to fall and then the applause broke through the hall. 

Inspiration defined--

Mayor Richard Gomez, the man in the blue shirt standing at the rostrum, microphone in his righthand, dignified, honest, human. The breaking of his voice, the sincerity of his heart, the daily drawing in of his breath just so he can be the father our city truly needs. 

Calvin, the cancer survivor who has only given us love and laughter.

Anna and the many other Rotarians who have held the torch in lighting up the city.

Darwin, who sought purpose and meaning in Service above Self and now embarks in a mission of being an inspiration.

The Rotary Club of Ormoc who have served the city for more than 50 years in shared joy and shared pain.
Our 2nd graders asking, "What is the meaning of inspiration?" 

Our 2nd graders understanding the words imagination and dreams, slowly discovering this must be what it means to be inspired.

Me, a guidance counsellor and teacher, constantly challenged to nurture students so they may live a life of purpose and meaning.

Me, a witness to all these stories, writing them and telling them the best way I know how. At least for now. 

Inspiration comes in many forms, needless to say. But in the many forms of inspiration, in the fragments of stories I write here,  there is one true thing that holds it all together-- it asks of all of us perhaps the most important questions of all  "What is your meaning? What is your purpose? What does it compel you to do? What makes you draw in your breath everyday?"  Or quite simply, in the words of Mary Oliver,
"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" 

 Photography by Mhaey Tanael