The visiting area or dalawan is almost three times the space of any of the regular cells. It also functions and is interchangeably referred to around here as pahanginan. Once a week, each cell group, composed of twelve inmates on the average, gets the chance to lounge here for a few hours. The idea is to somehow experience breathing – not necessarily fresh but simply – air. There’s almost an extreme absence of oxygen inside the cells, especially between 10:00 am and 3:00 pm. And so the weekly pahangin is such a gracious respite the inmates anticipate with excitement much like waiting for a scheduled dalaw.
Every cell has a window that is not exactly a window but a mere square hole in the wall the size of my head, positioned well above anyone’s normal reach. The pahanginan, on the other hand, has one that is almost double my wing span in width. A row of inmates would usually lean on this real window, stare at the sky and just try to sniff it all in. The view, meanwhile, of a hill of swaying coconut trees, though blocked partially by the gates of the compound, provides another temporary assurance that hangin still does exist.
At eight in the morning, the dalawan is a cozy ancient room. A random but steady curtain of light and shadow gives it a cool bluish monochrome sometimes. I see it as an ingeniously lit stage design for some high social realist drama. At other times, it’s a museum of colonial history, a giant diorama. Once, I brought in a book and fixed myself on a bench and a table – strangely it felt like being in one of the reading quarters of Yenan in the 1940s.
During peak visiting hours, however, it could easily fill up to a standing room and could just be as hot and dank as the cells. But the inmate being visited could well afford not to care. He is simply in a zone with his guests – those familiar, tangible faces all gathered around him; those living, breathing creatures from the outside world who are always for him a breeze of precious fresh air.
But what if the inmate’s visitors happened also to be his complainants – or in my case, my fascist abductors and interrogators?
They’ve actually visited me twice already, these people from the 8th Infantry Division. It was not at the dalawan, though, where I was ushered to “receive” them, but in the slightly more spacious and almost empty multi-purpose hall. I remember there was an electric stand fan in the hall that ran at full speed during both times, but the prop was miserably of no use against the thick ere of militarist conceit that my unexpected guests had brought along with them. By some feat, however, of militant and punk courage, I had managed – and this is a rather priceless consolation given the circumstances – to actually make those scenes mutually suffocating. I’m inclined to reserve the details of this story for another blog entry, but there’s another gist – aside from the strongly insinuated warning that they were still pretty much in on me, these visiting mercenaries could offer me no other pasalubong.
This morning was selda uno’s turn at the pahanginan. I’m a batang selda dos but I was there too at around eleven, because a friend of mine had dropped by. But it was more of a prompt delivery than an actual visit. While shaking my hand, my friend apologetically informed me that some urgent business had come up and that he needed to go as soon as I received what he had brought me.
And so I was back in the cell in no time – with my pasalubong: a jumbo bag of crispy-fresh chicharon, complete with four packets of sukang paombong; a long brown envelope containing some documents about the Free Ericson Acosta Campaign (FEAC), and print-outs of selected articles from Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly; two ballpens, a notebook, and a thick pad of yellow paper.
I don’t recall if I had in fact requested for the writing materials, but guilt somehow led me to suspect these items as a calculatedly polite way of telling me to stop making excuses already and just write. Friends in Manila who are directing the FEAC may have given my visitor some instruction to remind me of my writing backlog; the FEAC blogsite had long been set up but no more than three works had actually come from me.
Very well, no more excuses.
I have started assembling my notes, especially from week one of my incarceration, which I think could form at least five essays. This is not meant as an excuse, but I think the problem – and this is really crazy – is that I’ve been trying to write all these pieces all at once; which is just like doing the utterly un-Maoist act of simultaneously punching with two fists or even kicking with both feet. And so it has been awful and tiring.
Anyway, I’ve actually finished one already and I’m posting it here. This was supposed to be a letter in response to those who had written me just a day after I got locked up, which never really took coherent form until a few days ago when this finally became “WELCOME VISITORS v.2.” This is mostly about things that happened seventeen years ago or thereabouts, which I think, could very well make for a narrative of the dalawan as well. For out here – or in here, rather – one of the most frequent and constant visitors is the past.