Diaspora Journal: Whisper, Carabao

The Philippine Carabao (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Not long ago I saw an interview with a Filipino writer who spoke of clichés Filipino writers, mostly beginning Filipino writers, use. He cited such things as “mango-colored suns,” “white sand beaches” and, of course, the obligatory “carabao” as hindrances to the literary landscape one is trying to create. The writer’s comments made me think of my own writing and the role the carabao has played in it.

Firstly, I have never seen an actual carabao. The carabao is a beautiful animal–hardworking and loyal–I’ve been told. The people who have told me this also happen to be hardworking and loyal (and I’ve been told that I have displayed just the opposite qualities, namely, by my father).  I have seen the carabao in pictures–in National Geographic and numerous books showing the landscape of my indigenous ancestral home, the Philippines. I felt somewhat guilty regarding the writer’s comments, because I had used carabaos and mango-colored skies as metaphors in my writing.  

“You’re a sham,” a friend once told me.  “You’ve never seen a carabao in your life, nor have you been to the Philippines.” This was true.  But I began to think about the writer, who is quite well known since the release of his book, which has been well received.  I looked at his face, his clothes, his hair—all were immaculate, all impurities had been swept away in the Arkipelago winds.  I was curious if this writer had ever stepped on a steaming mound of carabao dung in his oxfords or boat shoes and subsequently fallen?  Or did he ever wake to find carabao crust in his eyes, or walk with carabao mud between his toes, or carabao snots running down his nose? These and other questions remain—the mystery persists.   


I have never seen an actual carabao.

My uncle, the poet Al Robles, wrote of carabaos. His book of poems, Rappin’ With Ten Thousand Carabaos In the Dark, are carabao tracks on the page, tracing their journey in the Philippines and in the U.S.  Each poem is stained with the mud, saliva, tears, tae (excrement)—the life of the carabao, the memory of the carabao, the music of the carabao—the heart of the carabao, which is the heart of the manongs.  The sound of the carabao brings us closer to home, closer to the earth, closer to ourselves. Carlos Bulosan wrote of the carabao in America is in the Heart.  In the story his brother, Amado, beats a weary carabao with a stick, to which his father responds by slapping him sharply across the face. What are you doing to the carabao? I think of one of my uncle’s poems and the reverence he had for the carabao:

                                    He’s nice one, you know

                                    Carabao is nice to you

                                    When you come in the afternoon from the ricefield

                                    He go home too, by himself

                                    After the sun go down he lay down

                                    Goddam!  Like a human being.

                                    International Hotel Night Watch

                                    Manong –carabao

                                    I ride you thru the I-Hotel ricefields

                                    One by one the carabao plows deep

I recently took a walk to the grocery store in my neighborhood.  I picked up a few things and headed back home.  A couple blocks away from my house I came upon a garage sale.   I approached and saw the usual—books, plates, clothes, knickknacks—all kinds of stuff.  It all belonged to a young white guy wearing a Giants T-shirt.  His face had a pinkish tint due to the unusually hot weather.  He sipped on a Pabst Blue Ribbon as people browsed through the items making up his life.  I looked at a few things but didn’t see anything I wanted to buy.  I was ready to leave when something caught my eye.  It was on a table, a wooden figure that looked worn but beautiful, crafted by someone I’d never met but whose feelings I’d feel as my own.  I reached for and touched the figure.  Its eyes whispered.  I tried to make out what it was saying but was interrupted by the guy with the beer.  “You like my yak?” he asked before taking a swig of beer.  

The author's carabao figurine that he chanced upon at a garage sale in his San Francisco neighborhood.

He took a very long swig before proceeding to crush the empty can with one squeeze of his freckled hand.  He stood examining my face.  I looked at the wooden figure and realized it was a carabao.  It was beautiful.  It had eyes that were alive.  But before I could tell the garage sale guy that what he had was a carabao, not a yak, he went to the cooler and pulled out another beer.  He walked back over and told me that his yak had belonged to his ex-wife, who had gotten the lion’s share in the divorce.  He made fun of the yak, saying it needed another yak to f--- (a “yak to yuk,” to use his exact words); he positioned the yak on top of the other yak, simulating copulation.  I looked at the carabao; it looked at me.  We knew.  Then the man started rambling about this and that—a rant of belligerence mixed with a twinge of sentimentality; his words spilling forth in a spirited froth of beverage-inspired verbiage.  As I recall, it went like this:

 Yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak

Yak yak….yak yak yak…yak yak yak yak…yak yak yak yak yak yak

Yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak

Yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak

Yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak

Yakitty yak.

Kayak.

He yakked my head off for almost half an hour.  Finally he stopped.  Then I uttered two words:  How much? 

Five bucks.

I dug into my pocket, and the carabao seemed to say: If you don’t get me out of here and away from this fool, I’m gonna back up and run as fast as I can, dead at you, and ram one of my horns up your ass.   

I found five dollars, gave it to the guy and picked up the carabao that had to endure being called a yak for who knows how long.

I brought it home where it belonged.

 
 Tony Robles

Tony Robles

Following the carabao footsteps of his uncle, the poet Al Robles, Tony Robles is Co-editor of POOR Magazine and author of the children's books, "Lakas and the Manilatown Fish" and "Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel.  Nominated for Pushcart prize for story, "In my Country" and currently working on novel, "Fillmore Flip" about his family's life in the Fillmore of San Francisco.

 

Diaspora Journal

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