Sunday, March 25, 2007

just another day in michel

(account of march 18, 2007)

It strikes me in mid-chop, as I help Berto prepare his dinakdakan. It's a typical day in Michel, that old pre-war apartment building on Mabini St, Malate, inhabited by a motley crew of artists and eccentrics. It's a Sunday afternoon. The sun is merciful today. None of the psycho summer heat it's been threatening us with the past few days. That we're a couple blocks away from the sea helps, I suppose. The wind blows in gusts, stirring the mound of gravel that a bolt of tarp tries to tame. It fails, and the gravel sprinkles us and hurts our eyes.
The grill nearby, fresh from being used to cook today's lunch (several pieces of garoupa), is resuscitated again to toast the pork used for the dinakdakan. The scene brings thoughts of the beach. Ungas (Derek) suggests we spread the gravel on the ground as sand. Miko, his Japanese neighbor, a glass blower and graphic artist, and all of 24-year old innocence about her, looks at him blankly. You don't know if she'll take him seriously or not. Around her neck is a Holga she purchased earlier from Quiapo. She tries to catch Gizzard, Derek's yellow lab, as he writhes on the concrete--and fails.
Back to my chopping: today, the people of Michel are in the mood for dinakdakan, a northern dish made of grilled pigface (P100 for a full kilo!), chopped all nice and fine, tossed with onions, ginger, chilies, and spicy vinegar. Berto fantasizes about pig's brain, which is also used to enhance the dish.
"But you can't mix it in right away," he says in his heavily accented Tagalog. The Scout Ranger has a handsome face--"like Omar Shariff," his commander describes--and the body of an active man who's seen too many inactive days recently, round and solid, like a barrel. He explains that the people of Solana, an area in Cagayan, up in the north, where he was stationed some time back, first wrap the pig's brain in plastic, then dip the bag in hot water to gelatinize the brain before it's tossed in the dinakdakan.
He pauses. We all pause, imagining the rich, sweet taste the brain brings to any dish.
"Eh...ano kung mayonnaise?" Berto ventures.
All at once, we violently disagree.
The chopping is nearly done. Mon does the ginger; I continue with the onions, red and white.
Ali, my sister, an environmental policy analyst for the Milken Institute in Sta. Monica, California, likes to write regularly about her tales to Vegas and Jamaica and New York and whatever city or country she might be visiting at the moment. What she ate, at what resto, what she saw, what she bought. I've always thought whatever stories I had to tell would pale beside dunganess crabs and Tumi bags and Tiffany. All I have are these little snippets of everyday life here in the Philippines (the most corrupt country in Asia!), its characters, their idiosyncrasies, and what lessons they teach me--or fail to let me see.
Today it's friendship I'm taught, once again. It's the joy in pushing through with a plan, however seemingly shallow--"hey, let's make dinakdakan today!" The afternoon has a village-y, tribal feel to it. I came to Michel this afternoon expecting to spend the day at the computer finishing a deadline. Instead, I am outside, volunteering to wield the knife. People gather round the worktable, tell stories, laugh, walk about, try to catch a runaway Coke bottle as the wind topples it and carries it to the far end of the lot.
Nina Simone plays from Derek's ipod. Milo, the beautiful chocolate lab, slumbers heavily in the backseat of Elvis, Ungas' Lancer. We settle the sting and the spiciness of the vinegar according to Jimmy's taste, which is too timid to take the wrath of the labuyo. Everyone is happy, everyone agrees.
And it strikes me, yes, in mid-chop. This makes for as good a story as anything.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

tabaco exhibit

Photo exhibit pays tribute to dying native tobacco culture

“I grew up on my lolo’s lap,” says Jose Enrique Soriano, “and he used to smoke cigars and pipes. So the aroma of tobacco always brings him back.”
His current exhibit, Tabaco, is inspired by memories of his grandfather and the hours of joy spent on his grandfather’s knee, enveloped in a comforting scent of habanas, Half and Half, and Mixture 79.
The collection of 40 prints pays tribute to the men and women in Ilocos Sur, where the culture of tobacco was born, and thrived for the past few centuries. It focuses on the “native” tobacco and the process of what the Ilocanos call‘Dobla’, the hand rolling of a whole tobacco leaf, cut in half. One half is used as a filler, the other as a wrapper--the same technique the Spaniards learned from the Mayan Indians, who were the first to smoke tobacco. The Spaniards brought this to Europe, and later to their colonies. When they reached the Philippines, Ilocos became the center of tobacco production.
The “native” tobacco used by the rollers today are of a similar variety, if not from the very same seeds Spanish friars took to the province from Cuba. This variant has been kept alive in small farms, as the plantations were replanted with Virginia tobacco by the Americans for the cigarette industry.
The ‘Dinobla’ cigar and the “native” tobacco are now a dying trade. It is the culture of this industry, kept alive by the fading numbers of tobacco growers and rollers, that Soriano captures in this exhibit.
Soriano frequently found himself in Ilocos over his 20-year career as a photojournalist covering the Philippines and Southeast Asia. “I used to watch the workers, and their toil would fascinate me,” he continues. Even when he lived abroad and other brands were readily available, Soriano stayed loyal to cigarillos produced and rolled in the Philippines. “I always asked people to bring some over for me,” he recalls.
As soon as Soriano returned to the Philippines from a 10-year stint in Singapore, he packed his bags and returned to Ilocos and shot the first part of the series. The project was shelved for almost two years, however, as Soriano continued with commercial and editorial assignments.
“It was also getting expensive,” he admits. Soriano is one of the few photographers who still works in the traditional way, using film and processing and printing out of his own darkroom. “It was also getting difficult sourcing paper and chemicals locally.” Last year, the project was revived when a friend suggested Soriano approach Instituto Cervantes, the arts and culture arm of the Spanish Embassy, for a grant.
Unlike other institutions that demanded a “methodology and scope of work,” Soriano says with a laugh, “Instituto Cervantes immediately understood the value of the work.” He returned to the Ilocos in September 06, and by December, had completed the series that is now on exhibit. Like most of his work, all the prints were shot with a Hasselblad and his trusty old Leicas on black and white film.
Soriano is known for the striking quality of his work. “They are stills that can still you,” remarked one writer of his 2004 show, Episodes, which documented mental illness in the Mandaluyong facility. The same can be said of this exhibit—albeit this time around, it’s a gentler, more settled Soriano that gives us the images. Only a calm, mature soul can express the stateliness in a worker’s gnarled hands; bring the viewer to near tears with woman’s tired gaze as she puffs proudly on piece of freshly-rolled tobacco; evoke the same restfulness with an image of women rolling cigars on their silyons, tired yet grateful.
When asked what his lolo would say if he saw the prints, Soriano pauses. “He’d say nothing—he’d just probably ask me to help him roll a cigar.”
His images—like his grandfather’s memories, a puff of smoke from a perfect cigar, and Soriano himself—speak softly, but their voices resonate and linger over time.

Tabaco runs till April 29, 2007 at the Silverlens Gallery, Pasong Tamo, Makati, Philippines. Artist's talk by Jose Enrique Soriano, "Sticking to the Path of Documentary Photography," will be on April 14, 2007, 3-5PM.