A jellyfish kind of story

For nearly a decade from the mid-1970s onwards, I turned Cavite province into a big backyard, having been able to visit all its municipalities and gradually familiarize myself with its main routes, poblacions, churches and convents, even a number of beach resorts. Don’t ask me the whys and wherefores, because that’s another story.

A jellyfish kind of story
A jellyfish kind of story

In fact, this is just a side story, about what I considered my home base in Cavite — a beach resort near Daang Amaya in Tanza and my parents’ project to colonize the vicinity. No, actually, that would entail another long story. So this is just a side story to that side story. This is about something Anne Curtis and I have in common. In other words, this is a jellyfish kind of story.

Sometime during the early years of martial law, my parents had acquired a small landholding along the national highway in Tanza. The place was easy to spot because of a thick ipil-ipil grove on the left and a lone camachile tree on the right, just before you reached a dirt road with the signpost “Starfish Resort”. Starfish was a small beach resort and fishing community surrounded by ricefields some 500 meters down the coast.

On the lot they bought, my parents had built an airy cottage that magnanimously let in the whole day’s sun and seabreeze. At some distance away, they built a deep well and arranged for two families — both relatives — to live in two smaller cottages and serve as caretakers.

It was a perfect opportunity for a young lad in his late teens, just out of Marcos political prison and struggling to balance his activism and his spells of introspection. I exploited my parents’ weekend hideaway by turning it into a secret base. I set up a small study corner in the big cottage, with my books, documents, and typewriter. I was very close to Auntie L. and her family, our relatives who served as caretakers, and during my frequent stays I would often eat with them or drop by for chats. There was no electricity and running water back then, so I used a Coleman lamp at night and fetched my kitchen and toilet needs from the deep well. When I felt like it I took a bath in the open, right beside the water pump, or went down to the beach for a walk and swim.

The rustic coastal environment and simplicity of peasant-fisherfolk lives greatly appealed to me, while the urban metropolis was near enough for my underground political work to continue unhampered. (There wasn’t much traffic then, the fares were low, and I found the Manila-Cavite route an easy commute.) At times I invited trusted comrades and friends to stay overnight if they had nowhere else to go, or to hold underground meetings there. One time, the cottage hosted a big clandestine conference. All in all, the place was a perfect hideaway.

Perfect, except for days when the beach was full of stranded dikya (jellyfish). This is typical after an unusually high tide, or after a spell of rainy days when the nearby river spews out more organic effluents that the dikya feed on.

And so it goes. One morning while I’m preparing to go to the beach, Auntie L. warns me that the sea is teeming with salabay, a particularly dangerous type of jellyfish because of its killer sting. As usual, this daredevil teenager takes no heed, and walks the 500 meters to the beach anyway. The road is deserted. The whole shoreline is deserted, apart from the rows of washed-up dikya, drying in the sun. The water is lapping at my feet, cool and inviting. I wade in, and once the water is deep enough to tread, I plunge into relaxed hundred-meter crawls. (I wanted to force my right shoulder to work more, after a recent motorcycle injury.)

After perhaps an hour in the water, feeling a bit tired and wanting to get under the shade because the 10-o-clock sun is beating down mercilessly, I’m swimming back to shore when the salabay plows into my underside.

I don’t see it, but only feel it. The sensation is that of a unique liquid pain, like a thousand tiny razor-sharp blades, fitted onto a dozen whips, slicing across my arms, chest, belly, and thighs.

The salabay strike lasts for less than a second, and at first it’s more startling than stunning. Instantly, I recognize it as a toxic jellyfish sting, and I swim with urgency towards the shore. The pain starts to grow outward to my limbs, and inward to my innards. I run through shallow water, then across dry beach, wanting to get home before the pain gets worse.

But it’s not the pain that gets worse. As I walk hurriedly through the first hundred meters back to the cottage, my limbs start to stiffen. I have difficulty walking. The road is deserted, I see no one working on the fields, and the cottages are still too distant to hear my shouts.

Halfway, I can already see the cluster of cottages. But now I’m barely walking. It’s more like crouching and half-crawling. My breathing comes in belabored gasps. My skin feels on fire. I start to shout, but what comes out is a gravelly whimper. I push on anyway, reeling forward on hands and knees, and screaming like my life depended on it. (Actually, my life depended on it.)

Fortunately, Auntie L. is working in her garden plots, and hears my distant, desperate shouts amid the mid-morning quiet of the ricefields. She and Uncle B. rush to my aid and help me back to their house, where I lie down, still conscious but half-delirious and desperately gasping for breath. She knows it’s a salabay strike and goes immediately to work.

Luckily, they have a bottle of arnibal (molasses) in the house. They force-feed me the arnibal, in gobs. It’s not the main remedy, but the arnibal pumps up my blood sugar and (probably) helps prevent cardiac arrest. Then they soak a washcloth with vinegar and apply it all over my torso and limbs. When the bottleful of vinegar runs out, Auntie L. thinks for a moment, then decides on the next available remedy: Mountain Dew. Not to drink, but to soak the affected skin in lieu of vinegar.

By early afternoon, the muscle cramps subside and I’m breathing normally again, but I’m still too weak and groggy to stand. Auntie L. feeds me more arnibal, followed by lugaw and some dinengdeng stew. I sleep off the rest of the day in their bed, in that humble hut of a peasant couple knowing exactly how to treat a salabay attack, a common coastal hazard, with whatever domestic resources they have on hand.

Waking up the next morning, I look for a machete, threatening to take my revenge by chopping up all the dikya and grilling them over fire like marshmallows. I’m only joking of course, my native cheerfulness only dented a bit by the traumatic experience and by my Auntie L.’s justified nagging. (“Sabi ko naman kasi, huwag ka nang maligo sa dagat kahapon, e ang tigas ng ulo mo!“) People have been killed by toxic jellyfish, she says, and in a sense I was lucky for having gotten help on time.

I inspect the extent of the destruction. As Anne Curtis may have realized to her own dismay, the post-salabay terrain looks exactly like what you’d expect skin to look like after a severe flogging, only daintier. The wounds are not big ugly lacerations but intricate swaths of tiny beautiful patterns of reddish brown dots and dashes, spread out like alien tattoo tapestry on the body. That’s because, essentially, they are tattoos. Unless the medical community has found ways to shortcut the body’s self-healing, this tapestry will continue to decorate your body for many months until the deeply embedded cysts fall off with dead skin. In my case, the tapestry ran across my chest and belly, inner forearms, and part of my thighs. I wore it for nearly a year before it faded to almost nil.

You might well accept your new body decor as the artwork of a talented Cnidarian dominatrix, lurking in the marine shallows like a spurned princess, armed with a dozen tentacles, studded with a thousand nematocysts, and ready to pounce on young, tanned and sculptured beach bodies simply out of envy. I would surmise that Anne C. looks at her trauma that way.

Or you might simply shrug it off as just another scar from yet another encounter with life lived outdoors — the inevitable product of trading barbs and jokes with Mother Nature and her teeming life forms in the great littoral playgrounds we borrow from her — which I the part-time beach comber would have thought apt at that time.

Or you might see it, forty years later, as a nice cautionary tale to tell your kids on the beach. You might also wonder how many of these tiny starfish resorts still exist — beaches that merge benignly with fisherfolk communities, where salabay victims crawling back from deserted beaches could still be treated with arnibal and Mountain Dew in humble peasant huts.

These sultry summer days, with millions of Filipinos dreaming of weekends at the beach while the Kings of Real Estate lust for more lucrative beachfront properties, that last question certainly pops into mind more than ever. #

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