You must be aware of these before we begin.
The archipelago nation of Indonesia straddles the infamous Pacific Ring of Fire, a series of fault lines that is responsible for eighty per cent of the world’s seismic griefs. Its islands teeter upon the great Pacific, Australian and Eurasian tectonic plates that grind and mash against each other like slow, giant teeth.
It is a land of volcanoes.
Over one hundred and fifty volcanoes.
One hundred and twenty seven of which are active, awake.
(The ones that are asleep are simply waiting to be woken up).
Devastating eruptions of potentially world-ending proportions are, unfortunately, commonplace in this part of the Earth.
Roughly seventy-seven (though some say sixty-nine) thousand years ago, the Toba supervolcano on the island of Sumatra produced the most powerful eruption known within the past one-and-a-half million years. A less widely accepted (but no less juicy) theory purports that this apocalyptic detonation dragged the entire world into a volcanic winter and caused the near extinction of humankind.
From April 10 to July 15, 1815, Gunung Tambora decided to unleash its pyroclastic fury – complete with tsunami, earthquake and toxic ash cloud – upon the island of Sumbawa. And it didn’t stop there. Oh no, it most certainly didn’t stop there. It lowered global temperatures and caused anomalies in the weather: the monsoon seasons in China and India were altered, frosts gripped the northeast coast of the United States and snow fell in Quebec City in the middle of June. Crops worldwide struggled through the Year Without a Summer. Seventy one thousand people died.
Not to be outdone, the volcanic island of Krakatoa shivered, shook, and collapsed in a series of earthquakes and colossal eruptions that lasted between August 1883 and February 1884. It also subjected the world to yet another volcanic winter – because, of course, there can’t be too many volcanic winters. This one claimed thirty-six thousand and six hundred souls across the globe.
Gunung Kelut awoke on May 19, 1919. It killed five thousand one hundred and ten people. A serial killer, it woke up again on February 10, 1990. Killed thirty five more.
On July 17th, 2006, it was Gunung Semeru’s turn. Its eruption nearly shattered the eardrums of tourists and Yadnya Kasada festival attendees who were visiting Gunung Bromo nearby. Semeru sent them scurrying down Bromo’s slope like ants. It unleashed black ash shot through with veins of fire and lightning up into the sky, and sent a man toppling into the depths Bromo’s sulphurous crater. Down, down, down he went, along with rocky outcroppings, wooden footholds and handholds that tumbled fastfastfast into the stinking black void, a torrent followed by other loose tidbits: ratty children’s sandals, moth-eaten scarves, sacrificial offerings meant to placate the gods of the volcano, chickens fluttering their wings in vain, live buffalo, garlands of jasmine and bougainvillea, sleek cellphones and cameras that flashed like fragments of confetti, a toupee and a battered black briefcase which contained innumerable memories and regrets.
The death toll: twenty three chickens, six goats, two buffalo, one Englishman.
One sad, aging, desperately idealistic, self-absorbed Englishman.
He was forty-five years old. A disciple of the Romantics and their predilection for the Exotic and the Sublime. Stubbornly pasty and pale even in the tropical heat. A handsome man – once. Many years ago. A teacher of – what else? – English Literature at a private school for expatriate children in Jakarta, where for seven years he lectured passionately at length on Wordsworth, Blake and Keats before a blank audience that, frankly my dear, didn’t give a damn about desperately idealistic, self-absorbed Englishmen who wrote desperately idealistic, self-absorbed poetry centuries ago.
His name had been Balthasar Van Alst.
Or Basil, for short.
By January 1918 women had had enough of the war crinoline. The skirt, though shorter than it had ever been in past decades with the hem cutting off at the calf, was not short enough, not practical enough. What was once the Zeitgeist as dictated by the most influential Parisian fashion houses had become entirely extinct, replaced, forgotten—C’est la vie!
So it was thus: the fashion world saw fit to usher in the advent of shorter hemlines and eschew the monochrome colour palette in favour of brighter, bolder hues. Jewellery began to adorn necks and wrists and ears once more, this time accompanied with feathers! Beads! Sequins! Alors, the stage of the Jazz Era was set. In the spirit of Paul Poiret—that elegant mastermind who helped severed women’s fashion from the chains of the Victorian Silhouette forever—sly, seductive hints of the Orient lurked in the prints and patterns of fabrics once more, now reinvented for a newer, freer age. This was already happening long before the war was over. It was time. Out with the old, in with the new! as the fashion-minded like to say. For to be fashion-minded is to be prophetic.
As for the men—
They had had enough of everything: the war, with its excessive losses and minimal gains. The khaki and olive drab uniforms they wore in the trenches. The tin hats. The eyes of the dead. Ceremonies that honoured traumatized war-heroes and funerals that mourned the fallen. Here’s a shiny medal for your troubles. Here’s a grave to bury your sons.
The Animal Welfare Act, established by the Philippine government in 1998, prohibited the selling or killing of dogs for consumption. Ten years before that happened, I left the Philippines to stay with my American father. He lived on the other side of the world in Queens. I was fourteen years old.
Dad was glad to see me. More to the point he was relieved, I think, when he saw I could speak fluent English and that I could even recite a bit of American history and pop culture whenever he quizzed me. When was the Declaration of Independence signed? July 4, 1776. Give me three Bruce Springsteen hits. Thunder Road, Born to Run, and Badlands. Who walked on the moon first? The Americans. And how many times? Twice. Damn right they did, sweetheart, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
I could never talk to him about literature, however, American or otherwise. That was his tragic flaw. I’d talk to him about Sylvia Plath and he’d shoot back with: “Yeah? Well, what about Babe Ruth? Know him?”
“He hit seven hundred and fourteen home runs. Sixty of them in 1927.”
“That’s my girl. He was some guy, lemme tell ya. Some guy.”
That’s my girl. Some guy. You hear these catchphrases a lot in American movies and novels and they sound cliché. But it’s different when those words are applied to you by someone you love, and I adored my pale, fat, balding father. The overused words become fresh, genuine and—you can’t help it—your heart swells full because you’ve been christened anew. Acknowledged. Validated.
Perhaps that’s why we Filipinos are maestros at American trivia. We know Americans. We yearn for them, dream about them. In their absence, we amuse ourselves with their ways and whiles, their music, their sports, their movies. Americans came to the Philippines waging war in 1899 and left in 1946. Ever since then, we’ve been fascinated by America in the same way a child might be fascinated by the father who abandoned him or her to wage more wars, or to start up bar fights. Maybe it’s foolish for us to want something so callous and careless, but that’s the way it is.
“You’ll fit in just fine, Barbara,” Dad assured me when drove me to my first day of school. “You’re smart. You’re exotic. You’ll walk in that door and knock the socks off their feet.”
He said that because he thought I was gorgeous like my mother, but he didn’t use my mother’s name for me. Baby. No one in America ever did, even if I managed to knock their socks off.
I won’t dwell on my teenage years in Queens any further because I was happy enough there, apart from one or two inevitable experiences with racism. It would be dull of me to try to codify contentment for you—otherwise, there would be no story.
Another thing: everyone has an idea of what Queens is like, or knows where Queens is. New York City, New York in the Land of the Free. That’s why I won’t talk about it. Anyone can point out all that on a map. It takes far more effort and skill to find where all the world’s most notorious dogeaters come from. Can you? Here’s an atlas. Go on, point out the Philippines and impress me.
What is it you Westerners like to call us? Dogeaters? That’s what foreigners like to accuse us of doing, no? That Filipinos eat dogs. That we take our little dogs, skin them, butcher them, cook them with potatoes, soy sauce and black pepper, garnish them with laurel leaves and serve them as finger food with a side of beer. The Pinoy version of a McDonald’s Happy Meal. I’m loving it.
Me? I liked to think I’d never eaten dog, even by accident. I believed that the dish of mystery meat that my cousin JoJo cooked for my fourteenth birthday as a present was not dog, but chicken adobo. I remember that the meat had been buried in too much sauce to warrant thorough inspection. I stared at the thick layer of gravy, looking for a tell-tale shape that I might recognize: a tail, a dog’s hindquarters, a paw. I remember remembering that last week Makoy, the boy living down the street, sat on the front step of his house for a whole day and cried because he’d lost his dog. I pushed my plate away.
JoJo leaned over me to pluck a dripping piece of meat off of the plate with long fingers. He popped it into his mouth and laughed at me. “Don’t be such a Baby girl,” he said. “It’s just chicken. Eat it.” He chased my lips with another piece until I had no choice but to open my mouth and swallow it. I remember my tongue and teeth grazing against his fingertips when I took the morsel. The salt of his skin went well with tender tanginess of the meat.
He watched me chew and swallow with unblinking eyes and his thin lips pressed together. It was that same, trancelike expression he always wore whenever he was painting or hijacking pixelated cars for points in arcade games. Was he looking at me because I was a work of art to him then or just a score? I held onto his wrist and glared at him as I slowly chewed.
“What’s it taste like?”
I ran the back of my hand over my mouth to wipe away the last of the gravy and told him he was right. It had tasted exactly like chicken; therefore it must be chicken.