Countryside Superhero

MARK JOSEPH TAJO SOLIS, the contributor, is from the KYUSHU UNIVERSITY in Japan. This essay he contributed was adjudged as one of the ten national winners of the Hands On Manila Volunteer Chronicles 2 National Essay Writing Contest organized by the Hands On Manila Foundation, Philippine Daily Inquirer, and Powerbooks. (You, too, can have your articles published here. )

The shuttle bus we were riding on took an abrupt stop in Tarlac...
          “O, ihi muna ung mga naiihi dyan. Mahaba-haba pa biyahe natin,” said the conductor in a hoarse voice. Partly unconscious of where exactly we were that time, I immediately surveyed the status of my two companions, only to find out that that they weren’t even bothered by the imbroglio of standing passengers off to take a respite outside. Fortunately though, Jovan and Jon-Jon were certified deep-sleepers. Even an adverse storm was unlikely to interrupt their slumber. 
          Fifteen minutes after, the passengers went up and stationed themselves back to their reclined seats. As manong George, the bus conductor muffled up in a jet-black slicker, went back to the shuttle’s front seat with his arms tightly folded, the bus reverted to its restful atmosphere. 
          Despite that, I refused to doze-off. I took hold of my senses. I knew that I took a nap only for two and a half hours, but it eventually sufficed as I recalled to mind all those great things that made my weekend the most remarkable out-of-town volunteering stint I ever experienced. For during those very fateful days, we became countryside superheroes.
          When I was a small kid, about six or seven years of age, I already knew that superheroes come in a variety of shapes and sizes. From Batman to Astroboy, from Ironman to Gundams, and the Justice League all the way to the X-Men, I knew that those beings are of extraordinary nature. They possess superpowers that can save the world within the snap of a finger and will always end up saving the day as well the entire humanity.  They have awesome gadgets, well-crafted costumes, and exceptional instincts that render them immutable. And oftentimes, they are also of wealthy dispositions in life like Batman or prominent personalities of their age like Ironman. In other words, they are – no more, no less – the greatest of their own worlds.
          Obviously, if those were the only qualifications of a superhero, everyone would certainly be ineligible right away. But as I see it, superheroes are born from different planes of existence. 
          They come to us when we need them most, however not always in ways that we expect them to be (i.e. flying in hypersonic speeds or teleporting in a matter of split-second). Instead, they come to us as ordinary individuals complete with superpowers called “the mind”, gadgets named “the heart”, and costumes molded as steel plates of “civic consciousness and social responsibility.” All these things converge under the superhero named “volunteer.”
          I then remembered the Friday night Jon-Jon and Jovan called me up while I was in the middle of a cordial party in Katipunan, Quezon City. 
          “Mark, ‘asan ka? May ginagawa ka ba?” said Jon-Jon as if he was in a hurry. 
          “Bakit? Nasa party ako. Ano ba meron?” I answered back. 
          “Basta lift your as ass right away from where you are right now and ride a cab. Be in Philcoa Mcdo[donalds] in 20 minutes. Punta tayong Abra,” he said as if he suppressed a giggle. “Long weekend naman. Wala ka naman sigurong gagawin diba?”  he added.
          “Teka tignan ko muna planner ko!” I retorted.
          “C’mon Mark, get a life –
          “Okay, okay! Para naman tayong mga bumbero ‘nyan. (laughs)” I quickly interrupted him. “So ano ‘toh, tawag ng tungkulin? Sige na, sige na. Kita-kita na lang sa Mcdo[nalds] Philcoa.” 
          And so I ended our three-minute phone call in the middle of our fortissimo party. Never did I expect that seven hours later, we would set foot in a rural place of brawny carabaos, rationed electricity, and periodic clan wars: Bangued, Abra.
          We were already there, all aboard the Partas shuttle bus about to leave from its Cubao station. Jovan then told me that the three of us are about to hold an advanced debate and adjudication crash course in what we eventually claimed as the northernmost province we have gone so far. A teacher from Bangued emailed one of our colleagues in the society if we could help them. I knew it before hand. Apparently, the glaring common denominator among the three of us is that we are all college debaters of the UP Debate Society. That is, of course, apart from the spontaneous personality and insurmountable bravado that led us to that bus station. 
          In accordance with the organization’s Philippine Debate Education Program, hand-picked varsity members take part in holding free crash courses and seminar-workshops all over the country in pursuant of one ultimate goal: bringing relevant questions of our time to the young minds of our country – in the hope that eventually, critical exchange of ideas and informed decisions will shape, test, and challenge them as the leaders of tomorrow. All geared-up with just a meager amount of clothes, toiletries, and debate materials in our knapsacks, the “league of heroes” were ready to save Gotham City.
         Saturday, 6:05 AM. When I woke up, Jovan was already wide-awake doing his morning regimen of checking his Facebook account through his mobile phone. As for Jon-Jon, I found him still groggy. 
         I recognized by the shuttle bus window that we were already in Bangued. The stark contrast between Manila and Bangued seemed to envelop my mind with fear and apprehension that my weekend there will be no more than the extraordinary weekends I used to indulge in. Or so I thought.
         Shortly after, we reached the bus station. Ma’am Rachel, the teacher who emailed our colleague, was already there. Wearing a velvety green shirt and maong pants, she welcomed us and shook our hands. “Ikaw ba si Jon-Jon, Jovan, at Mark?” pointing to each of us by turns. “Nakatulog naman ba kayo?”
         “Ay, opo! And layo po pala ng Abra,” I uttered. 
         Ma’am Rachel then talked in Ilocano to a tricycle driver as if to tell that she needs another one for the four of us. When another tricycle came, we immediately rode it until we reached her humble abode in what I heard as “near antenna.” After some time, she mentioned that it was in Tayong, a site near Bangued. 
         She cooked breakfast for us. We ate danggit, fried eggs, muscovado sugar, and the foul smelling sukang abrenian, which I eventually realized as one of Abra’s pride. Since we had quite a travel to Bangued, the three of us ate two and a half cups each of sinangag. After which, we promptly took turns in taking a quick shower because the agreed time of the crash course was 8 AM.
         And so day one began. Reaching Divine Word College of Abra in 15 minutes through a tricycle, Banguedeños gave us a warm welcome and ushered us to their function room. By the time we entered the place where we’re about to hold the seminar, I instantly witnessed unfamiliar yet small eager faces ready to listen to what he have to offer. Due to unfinished concrete walls, dusty floor without tiles, and a lack of ample ventilation in the “room” under the college’s basketball court, I told myself that the task at hand wasn’t simple. Yet, I told myself that it should not contingent on the task’s environment.  After all, we were there for a higher purpose beyond what our human senses could initially perceive and dictate.
         For the first day, we adhered to our agreed plan. I opened up the crash course by asking what “debate” means to all of them. Fortunately enough, they swiftly responded and I received valid answers. The subsequent discussions alluded to the rudiments of debate from analysis, argumentation, and rules and formats to rebuttals and points of information. On periodic shifts of facilitation, Jon-Jon, Jovan, and I also presided over workshops on concept mapping, set-ups, and clashes. 
         Throughout the day, there wasn’t even a single time that the course became too dragging or dry. Everyone was highly attentive and inquisitive. I noticed from their eye an insurmountable drive to learn and improve in the craft of debating. I observed from their stance and composure that they want to become more informed and better equipped as public speakers. I realized that, on hindsight, they want also want to be like us – that they see us as superheroes. With that, they sustained our collective drive to teach them in better ways and at best, prompted us to be better role models.
         The crash course reached its second day with a sustained momentum fueled by eagerness, determination, and enthusiasm. We went though tips and tricks on team splits and strategic debating. We administered drills and motions analysis. We even had sample debates and facilitated a mini-mock debate tournament simulation. But what set that day apart from the first one was that we got to know them better. Yes, all 40 of them and I could still remember their names: Alvin, Anthony, Audhe, Christine, Jerna, Katherine, Nicoles, Nova, and so and so forth. 
         Before we left, we realized that it was the newfound friendships and ties beyond the nitty-gritty of debate that we’ll treasure from Bangued , not the muscovado or the abrenian. It was those candid on-stage mistakes and the hearty laughs that we’d surely miss from them. Best of all, it was their high regard for us as countryside superheroes that we’d certainly be forever grateful of.
         As we headed back to the nearby bus station in Bangued, I could not help but reflect on the good times, admiration, and hospitality they accorded to us those two fateful days. But in a moment of sheer melancholy, I felt an indistinct yet warm nudge in my chest – that same nudge Anthony, one of our newfound friend, gave me as he bid his farewell, “Agyamanak manen, Superhero Mark. Hope to see you again.”
         Seemingly dumbfounded due to a handful of Ilocano words he uttered, I still managed to reply, “See you din. Magkikita-kita pa naman tayo, Superhero Anthony.”
         No matter how much we think about it, superheroes are born, raised, and seen everywhere.
         Superheroes are agents of change. One doesn’t have to possess superpowers, own sophisticated gadgets, or be clad in awesome vintage costumes. They are the sidewalk cleaners who sweep the polluted streets despite indecent conditions. They are the community volunteers who help grassroots farmers learn new things and acquire the capacity necessary for them to become self-sustaining. They are the teachers who impart knowledge on students despite financial constraints. They are the doctors who work round-the-clock just to heal and comfort the physically afflicted. Most important of all, they are ordinary people.
         It’s because superheroes are simply men and women of unrelenting drive to serve, help, and make the world a little bit better. We were regarded as Bangued’s superheroes. In contrast, we see them as the “real” superheroes. Why? It’s because in the ultimate sense of the word, superheroes are mere instruments of social redemption. Others leverage on the superhero’s talent, skill, and knowledge to create real-life solutions on the most pressing of problems. The real superheroes are the ones who have the power to call forth superheroes. They are not Batman and Superman but the residents of Gotham city, of Smallville, and of Bangued. At the end of the day, while Anthony may have esteemed me as their superhero, I regard him as our “real” superhero. 
         It was already Monday, 2:38 AM. As the shuttle bus approached our final stop, I could not help but feel a tinge of bitterness in my heart. Our journey was over. My journey was over. Instead of looking at it as the end, I looked at it as the beginning of a more rewarding and fun filled life of a superhero. Our volunteer work in Abra may have ended, but our dream as superheroes lives on. 
         It will live, surely live.
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