It’s not often that you meet a man called Dante. Come to think of it, I have never met anyone called Dante. Dante the playwright, yes, through his works.
But this Dante, I meet in the beautiful Philippines island of Siquijor. On my way to visit Mt. Bandilaan, I see this little sign that says “Butterfly Farm.” For a long time, I used to believe that butterflies are angels. I can’t remember now why I ever thought that. Is it their transformation from caterpillars? But I believe that seeing a butterfly is a good sign. Like fluttering wings of serendipity. So, when I see this sign, I knew I should be visiting it. But. Much as I like butterflies, I do not like their previous avatars. I am averse to worms. To caterpillars. To just about anything that does not have a spine and crawls. Where there are butterflies, I know there would be worms as well. It’s this thought that makes me stop my bike while staring down at the rutted path to the Butterfly Park. Should I go? A boy in a wheelchair motions to me to go ahead, indicating I can leave the bike there. I am still undecided. I glance at the sky. Maybe, it will rain. Maybe, I should just back down to the town. But then, a woman comes along. “Butterfly park?” she asks. I nod. Someone else appears ready to park my bike. Isn’t this a village in the middle of nowhere? Now, I can’t very well say I don’t want to go as I watch my bike being carefully parked. Damn it, I think. Just worms. Who cares? Go on.
So, I do. A tunnel leads up to the park where a stool with a cardboard sign on it announces an entrance fee of 100 pesos. I enter inside where I see a little house. Somewhere behind me swathed in a green net is the actual butterfly park. I wander around as I wait for whoever owns this place to show me around. It’s not a long wait. Dante shows up, a delighted grin on his face. “Where are you from?” he asks.
“Ah! India! I never had a visitor from India!”
I laugh, thinking it’s good to be first at something. “Come, I show you my park,” he says. I enter expecting to see hundreds of butterflies swirling around in rapturous colors. Instead, they are all hidden. Dante knows where each one is though. “Can you see?” Dante asks, stopping in front of a plant. I don’t see. What? “Kalima,” he says rather mysteriously. And then turns the leaf around. There I see it. The dead leaf butterfly, artfully camouflaged to look like a leaf. That’s about the only butterfly I remember, as Dante takes me around all the other butterflies. “Where are the caterpillars?” I ask nervously. “Oh! Come! I show you!” Dante says, mistaking my question for enthusiasm. “No. Tell me where they are so that I don’t go near them!”
Dante laughs and then to distract me shows me wooden birds that act as signposts, made from coconut shells. “From my father,” he says proudly. Quite a creative father, I think.
The butterfly sanctuary is quite small and my tour is over rather quickly. Dante beckons me near to his house where I sit on a little stool. “This is my life,” he proclaims, motioning to the house. “It’s beautiful,” I say. And I mean it. I can hear cicadas. I see green lush foliage. There are 100s of butterflies floating around. It’s a beautiful life, indeed.
“I was working in the government for 11 years. Finally, I left the job.”
“Why?” I ask.
“I wanted to lead a simple life.”
“Are you happy?”
“Yes! I am happy. I am doing my bit for conservation. This house you see is all I have and this land. I don’t need much. It’s simple. Happy.”
“Do you get Internet here?” I ask, rather vacuously.
“Yes, sometimes when the connection is good, I get Internet.”
What did I just ask? About the Internet? I can’t believe I asked that. I am curious if he has a wife. Is he married? Does he have children? A child’s slippers are near my feet. But I don’t ask those questions. “So, how do you make money?” I ask. Dante looks out over his garden as he ponders my question. “Tourists come, you know. That’s enough. But it’s not money. I am doing this because I want to.” No. Don’t give me that passion word. Passion is the luxury of the rich. Those who are rich in talent or rich in money. Ordinary folks like me don’t get to invest in passion. And I am tired of hearing that word. I don’t understand what passion is. Do you love something? Are you doing something about that love? Isn’t that enough? This fuss over passion.But Dante doesn’t use the word passion. Instead, he is perplexed that I am traveling alone. And thinks I am very brave to be traveling alone. “It’s brave to be alone,” I agree, but not quite in the way he means. It’s the curse of our lives – this mad search to be with “someone.” Anyone. But. Just. Do. Not. Ask. Me.To. Be. Alone. How much of our sanity is lost because we can’t trust ourselves that alone is not a dark, heavy, suffocating place but a curiously liberating wonderful place of being? Dante is curious about my job. I try and describe it as best as I can. But somehow, “Manager, Head of Editorial & Quality Assurance,” does not have the same authority as “Owner, Butterfly Park.”
It’s at this moment, as I sit there, having a conversation in the middle of nowhere, that I realize I ought to leave my job. It’s just a little thought, and it would be months before it would become crystallized, but I like to believe that it’s the butterflies here that showed me the sign. That, and a man called Dante in the middle of his Butterfly Kingdom, leading the simple life.