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Archive for July, 2014

Remember ur Dreams, Young Man (For Marben)

We remember you as a curly-haired boy in pajamas

picking me up after night classes at UP Law

and on those hallowed halls you decided

what your future would be…

Remember those dreams, young man

In grade school, your teacher asked all of you

what do you want to be when you grow up,

listening to all professions named you never settled;

as sure and unblinking you replied

– to be the President of the Philippines

You always knew what you wanted

and was willing to work hard for it;

for a generation blessed with wikipedia and google,

I saw you do diligent research on the internet

as you tried to finish a paper for school

the youngest ever to learn how to drive,

you were driving around San Carlos by fifteen;

you single-handedly arranged a day-trip to Sipaway Island,

negotiating with the boatman, arranging for our packed food,

and planning the whole island itinerary

even then we knew, we had faith in you

because you made us believers in your abilities

So know that even when we make bad decisions for ourselves

it is always our choice if they remain mistakes or Life’s lessons learned

Remember your dreams, young man…

GPL 7/12/2014

A Mindanao Experience

I had been to Mindanao thrice before, but mostly it was just around Davao City and the Mt. Apo mountain range. The last time, I got as far as Malagos to see the Philippine Eagle Center which housed Kabayan, the eagle “adopted” by Noli de Castro. Before that, I got to visit Samal Island where I saw the hijacked Davao-Manila PAL plane fly by, simply thinking that it could have been my flight back to Manila had I not chosen to spend an extra day at the beach. While in Samal, however, I did not visit the crash site of the ill-fated Air Philippines flight even though the morbid tour guides kept on insisting that we go see the wreckage. Months before, my brother-in-law who was a pilot with the Philippines Air Force Search and Rescue unit helped with the salvage operations in Samal. He said the gruesome scene had him accidentally stepping on some burnt body parts as they recovered whatever remained of the plane and its passengers. He would not bring his boots into the house after that, fearing that pieces of human remains still clung to his boot soles.

 

Incidentally, my first time in Mindanao was a whirlwind trip that took me around Davao del Sur, Davao del Norte, Davao Oriental and Compostela Valley. I was still connected with the National Amnesty Commission then and the purpose of our visit was the awarding ceremonies for the rebel-returnees who had been granted amnesty for their political crimes. From Davao City, we went south to Digos, north to Panabo and Tagum, further up to Nabunturan, and finally eastward to Mati. I do not remember much of that trip except for my aching muscles at the end of each day, when we returned to the Marco Polo hotel after a four or six-hour nerve-wracking land travel aboard a rented van. However, I do remember the mountain roads which offered a great view of the coastline surrounding the Davao Gulf. Through the zig-zagging route, I saw bays and coves whose calm, tuna-filled waters provided a safe fishing ground for many small-time fishermen. I vaguely remember the juicy mangoes of Davao Oriental and the fresh vegetables of Compostela Valley. It was unfortunate though, that upon my return to Manila, I only had some pomelos and several packets of durian candies to bring back as pasalubongs.  

 

Admittedly, I had always enjoyed official out-of-town trips. Even if it meant long days away from home and doing work beyond the regular eight-hours (with no overtime pay, mind you), business trips gave me an opportunity to travel at no cost to my personal funds. It always meant that the central office would be paying for my plane fare and the regional office would be taking care of my hotel accommodations. And as a legal officer, that also meant comfortable lodgings and a regular transport service provided by the field office. I am not sure if such treatment is due to our stature as attorneys or because of a Regional Director’s genuine hospitality. But, government lawyers do have certain material expectations that are seldom disappointed by the local officials and we do tend to get spoiled sometimes. As such, I had no reason to think that my next official trip would be any different or that I would not be treated in the same “privileged” manner.

 

But last May 2004, I was part of the World Bank-funded Kapit-Bisig Laban sa Kahirapan (KALAHI) Field Monitoring Team assigned to Region X. This poverty alleviation program of the Department of Social Welfare and Development, required us to visit and evaluate six far-flung barangays from the municipalities of Sultan Naga Dimaporo and Munai, in Lanao del Norte.    

 

Sitting at the Centennial Airport, waiting for a PAL flight bound for Cagayan de Oro, I observed my own team composed of five people. Two guys were from KALAHI operations proper; and as required by the streamlining policy, the rest of us where from the regular DSWD bureaus and units. An elderly gentleman was from Personnel, the only other female was from External Operations, and I was from the Legal Service. According to the evaluation guidelines, we were supposed to look into the thematic area of Participation and Social Inclusion, including the Grievance Redress System. That singular consideration was supposed to explain our group’s rather strange composition. Nevertheless, I had always believed that should my legal education not be needed at this instance, my highly-technical agribusiness degree would kick in and provide some useful insights.

 

There was also a running joke going around DSWD that the people assigned to go on these evaluation trips were people who could be spared from their respective bureaus/units’ regular workforce (Read: dispensable). I don’t know about the others, but I actually volunteered for this task and my Director at the Legal Service agreed to send me on this “free vacation” trip as a prize for passing the recent Bar Exams. She neglected to tell me, however, that the week-long activity would cover my birthday leave and I would actually be working on my birthday.

 

            When we arrived in Cagayan de Oro (CDO), the capital of Misamis Oriental, we were informed by the Assistant Regional Director that early the next morning we would be heading for Macboy Resort in Bacolod town, a two-hour drive from CDO. Apparently, like its namesake in Negros Occidental, Bacolod is a “civilized” community, housing the only available lodging facility in the area. Macboy Resort would be our home-base because it was also a mere two-hour drive to both Sultan N. Dimaporo and Munai.

 

Our marathon meetings upon arrival in CDO barely gave us a chance to tour the city. All we saw that afternoon were the local malls – Limketkai, Robinson’s and Shoemart. Although I was impressed at how metropolitan everything in Cagayan de Oro seemed to be, the jeepneys and tricycles weaving through the streets without the assistance of traffic lights or traffic aides scared the hell out of me. I realized then that it was every driver for himself in these parts, and late afternoon traffic in CDO was worse than Manila’s rush hour road hazards. Just then, a passenger jeepney rear-ended us without any regard for the fact that we were a red-plated government vehicle. Our driver, Mang Claudio stopped the pick-up truck to check on the damage, but the other driver never even got off his jeepney. Seeing that there was no considerable damage, both drivers nonchalantly drove off as if nothing happened.

                          

            Checking in at the Pearlmont that evening, we were treated to a welcome dinner of some kind of clam and mussel soup, steamed fish, and the hotel’s ever popular fried chicken. Later, I would cherish the memory of this delicious first meal because it was truly a far cry from the other meals I would be having in the next few days. I should have also fully enjoyed the amenities like airconditioned rooms, cable television, hot and cold showers and room service. I took for granted that we would be enjoying similar accommodations where we were going, but I was so wrong. Psychologically, I should have prepared myself for seriously “roughing it” in Lanao.

 

            The early morning drive to Bacolod did not show much of the countryside landscape. The misty-gray dawn did not break into an orange-streaked skyline. The verdant mountains were too distant to be appreciated. Suddenly, there was just light and everything was brighter with the new morning. Travelling inland, away from CDO’s Macajalar Bay, the winding provincial road took us into Lanao del Norte. We passed by Iligan City, but we did not have time to see the majestic Maria Cristina Falls. Following a detour, however, we were able to catch a tributary connected to the falls and the wild, swift-flowing waters was proof of its power-generating potential. The bridge we crossed was wet with spray from the rushing torrent that was white and frothy in its passage. Meandering through smaller towns, the mountains intermittently rose before us. Enormous forest trees and various springs and creeks were visible from our view from the highway. The magnificent scenery was truly Mindanao boasting of its rich natural resources.

 

In Bacolod, we got to see the sea coast again, but Macboy Resort was unusually set in a mangrove swamp. Don’t ask me how, but apparently the owner was able to convince the Governor that it would be in their best interest to set up a lodging house for visiting guests since no other accommodation facilities were available for miles on end. To their credit, they kept as much of the mangrove trees as they could. The sleeping cottages and huts, as well as the main restaurant cum videoke bar, stand on concrete stilts above the placid waters. Stretched as far as the eye can see, with no wind stirring a single ripple or wave, the still waters merged with the horizon. It was like glass reflected on glass. One just cannot tell where the sky ended or where the sea began anymore. With no sandy beach in sight, wading through mangrove stumps just to be able to swim the warm waters did not exactly seem very appealing to me at the time.  

 

At breakfast, we were served grilled squid, kinilaw na tuna, and tinolang isda. The squid was the lumot kind, big and juicy. The kinilaw was thankfully soaked in chilli peppers, onions, and kamias juice which I was familiar with. The tinolang isda was something like fish sinigang except it had no sour taste at all. At that point, I realized I was going to have serious problems with the diet in this place. They naturally assumed city folk would be impressed with all the sumptuous seafood they would be serving. But they forgot to ask if anyone among us (me, in particular) was allergic to tasty crustaceans like shrimps, crabs or squid. I was also saddened by the fact that they forgot to serve any eggs, a basic breakfast fare for me. It was only later that I would find out that folks around here serve viands without distinction for breakfast, lunch or supper meals.  

 

 After depositing our luggage in our respective huts, we left Bacolod for another two-hour drive to the municipality of Sultan Naga Dimaporo. Formerly known as Karomatan, SND’s Municipal Hall was a dilapidated, wooden building which was shared by local government officials with the sole Municipal Trial Court and the resident Municipal Agrarian Reform Officer. The steps creaked and groaned as we climbed up the rickety stairs. Andrew, our KALAHI Grievance Monitor, joked in the vernacular, “Guys, parang isang anay na lang ang kailangan at babagsak na itong buong munisipyo!” I guffawed loudly with the three other babyboomers, as elderly Mang Boy from Personnel chuckled discreetly.

 

Ironically, the room provided for KALAHI operations had some semblance of dignity to it. There was an airconditioning unit which hardly worked and a worn-out red carpet for the flooring. There was a single executive work desk which was being shared by the three KALAHI staffers. There was smaller work table where our young engineer did his technical drafting. The Vice-Mayor was said to be very supportive and occasionally lends them office equipment, even his typewriter or computer for writing jobs. I was quite grateful to find out that the office had its own toilet and bath. But as I went to relieve my travel-battered bladder, I discovered the door could not be closed properly because of a broken lock, and it was very dirty for lack of water. Potable water, I would soon find out, was a prime commodity in these parts and its scarcity was actually a problem KALAHI sought to address.

 

            After an initial briefing with the Area Coordinator, we left for the ten to fifteen minute drive to Barangay Calube. Our travel was on a very dusty dirt road leading to a slightly elevated area; a sloping trail which obviously becomes very muddy in the rainy season. Without any transportion available, the Area Coordinator and her Community Facilitators actually have to walk the whole distance to this far-flung barangay, costing them about double or triple of our then vehicular travel time just to reach this community.

 

But owing to the consistent and moderate rainfall, vegetation was lush in these parts. Most plants were actually wild and uncultivated, with only a smattering of coconut plantations intercropped with pineapple which could be seen. My agribusiness background finally kicked in and I noticed the absence of coffee or cacao, profitable shrubs which grow easily on hilly areas. The Barangay Captain’s own backyard had some malunggay and banana shrubs, but there was an absence of relatively easy-to-grow cassava or papaya. This apparent dearth would later explain why our lunch of tinolang manok, although made with native Bisaya chicken, was bland and uninteresting because of the lack of vegetables such as malunggay and papaya. Eventually, I would soon realize that delicious food fare is the least of their worries in these poverty-stricken lands. The issue that concerns them more is whether or not they would actually be able to have something on the dining table come mealtime.

           

At the covered basketball court and Multi-Purpose Barangay Hall, we were met by some elderly persons, a good percentage of women, and some teenage folk. I was astounded by the many open faces that greeted us “Maayong adlaw sa inyong tan-an”, trusting and hopeful people who sincerely believed that we were there to help them. As both men and women participated in the vibrant discussion which was translated into Cebuano, I understood that these were people willing to help themselves and do what they can. That is why the KALAHI principles of voluntarism and self-reliance appealed to them so much; young and old did their share, women contributed their time and effort when their menfolk were busy working the fields. None of these people were begging for mere hand-outs; they were only asking for a “hand-up” – a simple lending hand. Their Barangay Captain actually said it best: “Dili pwede i-asa lahat sa among gobyerno; kailangan tabangan namin among sarili ba.

 

During the exchange, the community members admitted their need for agricultural support, a health center and a day care center for their children, but they focused on a water system project instead. Presently, they get their water from the low-lying areas several kilometres away, transported in drum-like containers on the backs of horses.Water remains in short supply; precious liquid getting spilled along the way because of the long trips the horses must make.

 

Meanwhile, our second barangay, Barangay Mamagum was situated in a relatively flat and heavily populated area, with a paved, concrete provincial road running through it. Although the community’s needs included a health center, a day care center and a secondary school for their older, school age children, they likewise opted for a water system project. However, unlike the previous barangay whose water sources may be tapped from flowing water from the mountainous and hilly areas, Brgy. Mamagum would need to pump its water laterally from underground creeks.

 

A distinguishing aspect of Brgy. Mamagum that struck me was the fact that the community decided to share their project as a joint endeavour with the neighboring Brgy. Kampo Islam, so that a total of two hundred seventy households or families could benefit from the water system. I realized then that these barangays chose to join forces to ensure that their project would get priority. They understood the importance of working together and cooperating for their common good.  

 

            Later that afternoon, we headed for the third barangay, Barangay Tagulo, which was the farthest community by far. It was closer to Zamboanga than to the rest of Lanao del Norte. The area was slightly hilly with some flat parts and not much vegetation. We were fortunate that the road to the barangay was currently under construction as shown by the presence of bulldozers and payloaders in the area. The resident engineer told us that before, when he was doing his initial inspections, this place could only be reached after several minutes of walking through very rough dirt trails.

 

But besides farm-to-market roads and infrastructure, a water system was also a primary need of this barangay. The community gets its water several kilometres away, either from the lowlands or near the Zamboanga water sources. The undulating hills offer a spectacular view that can almost be likened to a natural golf course. At certain vantage points, one can see the picturesque Illana Bay. In my desire to identify possible livelihood opportunities for these poverty-stricken people, I pointed out that the covering grasslands seemed perfect for pasturing milk and meat-producing ruminants like cattle or goats. The Barangay Captain merely smiled at my optimism – a far-away look in his eyes. Probably years of isolation and politicians’ broken promises had already taught him not to hope so much. This sense of hopelessness was unfortunate because Ayn from Externals came bearing good news. There was an offer from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to fund Tagulo’s water systems project even after it was not prioritised by KALAHI. But sadly, Tagulo seemed to have given up on their project and failed to complete their project proposal for possible financing by other funders. Our earnestness was completely lost on them.

           

That evening in Bacolod, my aching bones reminded me once more of my last cross-country land trip of Mindanao. A hot shower or a full body massage would have been ideal, but such standard hotel luxuries were not available in these parts. Suddenly, I caught myself. Here I was dreaming of a hot shower to bathe in and to wash away my aches and pains, when I had just met people that day who did not even have potable water for their consumption. The drinking water they collect from the lowlands may not even be safe enough for lack of proper filtration and chlorination. 

 

           Dinner that night was shrimp-based soup, grilled tuna panga and ginamos. I steered clear from the shrimps, but enjoyed the grilled fish dipped in brown bagoong sauce. I ate minimally, thankful for the veritable feast I was having compared to the poverty I saw that day in the countryside. I remembered the Skyflakes crackers and cheap biscuits they served with the softdrinks. In the typical Filipino tradition of hospitality, they felt compelled to feed us because we were guests. Earlier, a quick glance at the nearby sari-sari store showed me three bottles of soy sauce, six cans of sardines, four packs of noodles, cigarettes and some bottles of beer. I was willing to bet the case of lukewarm softdrinks they offered us was likewise the only stock in inventory.

 

           My mood after dinner remained mellow; part of it could have been due to exhaustion. Planting myself before a television for some brain-deadening TV shows would have been perfect relaxation for me at a time like this when I would just want to tune-out visions from the day’s experiences. My groupmates were also visibly bored, but entertainment that night precluded night-swimming even as the waters rose with the evening tide. Mercifully, the lack of cable TV was compensated by the videoke machines all around the resort. My companions and I decided to give the karaoke singers at the nearby restaurant a run for their money and belted out our own repertoire of pop songs. The torment we imposed on each other ended when the resort’s fusebox blew up.

 

In the darkness, we learned to appreciate a moonlit night without the city smog blocking the lunar rays. I myself had never seen so many stars lighting the sky. At a distance, mangrove trees seemed magically illuminated by a cluster of fireflies. The lowly bakawans actually looked like Christmas trees with miniature flashing lights. “Wow, talo pa ang Ayala Avenue kapag Pasko, ah!”, one of us commented, referring to the light display in Makati during the December holidays. Truly, the brightness of light is best appreciated in the darkest of nights. At our feet, as we squatted by the cement quay, hermit crabs scurried by in their intricately-adorned shells, definitely obtained from some other long-departed shell-resident. For such is the rule of life in these parts: coping and hoping.

 

                                                            * * * *

                       

The next day, we were bound for the steep and mountainous area of Munai. Even while some parts are still heavily forested, deforestation and soil erosion has been one of the difficulties of this municipality. Mudslides and flashfloods regularly occur during typhoons, further cutting off already quite remote communities. Heavily populated by Muslims, Munai was also the site of the Camp Abubakar bombings during the MILF conflicts. KALAHI operations there were stopped because of the peace and order problems in the community. Twice the wooden Municipal Hall of Munai was burned down, and only recently was the new concrete Municipal Hall constructed and relocated to a different barangay.

 

We passed by many DSWD-funded core shelters and housing units left damaged and abandoned. We were informed that not all the previous evacuees returned to their homes after the armed conflict. Muslims do not want to live in seemingly vandalized and desecrated houses. Not that the soldiers who made them bullet-ridden and graffiti-covered left much to begin with. Looking at these structures, I can only imagine the number of women and children who were displaced and whose lives were rudely interrupted. Men willingly die as soldiers and combatants, but the innocent women and children who survive them suffer even more.

 

Munai can only be reached by traversing an uphill, very rough dirt road with rocks the size of human heads. The road actually looked like a dried river bed because of the size of the stones and boulders lining the trail. It was a miracle our four-wheel drive was able to negotiate the path. It was really just an hour from Bacolod, but it seemed like two-whole hours as we rocked to and fro inside the all-terrain vehicle.  

 

            At the solid-cement and marble-floored Municipal Hall, the KALAHI office was likewise impressive. The office was clean and presentable; there were enough tables and chairs for the staff, and they even had a computer for typing out various paperwork. Since it was already high noon, we ate our packed lunch of halal food right in the KALAHI office. There would be no Barangay Captain hosting us, we were told. We could not even expect to be served any merienda at any of our visits. The communities here were not just materially-deprived, their seclusion and remoteness also added to their seeming “invisibility” as if forgotten by the government.

 

            Our first barangay in Munai, Barangay Ramain, was far up the slopes of the thickly-forested mountain range. Their prioritized project was the construction of a farm-to-market road because to reach the place, one had to traverse a rough dirt road full of riverbed-sized rocks and boulders and flanked by tall grasses on both sides. Further up the path, the presence of hardwood trees like narra, acacia, mahogany, and apitong, and guijo was reminiscent of the government-sanctioned forest reserves. Wild orchids grow on tree branches and Jurassic-size ferns live interspersed with wayward cassava, papaya, and banana shrubs. Long-term plantation crops like coconut and mango trees haphazardly lie about, as if growing accidentally. Aided by uniform and evenly distributed rainfall, the climate was very cool, almost chilly in these parts which I deemed ideal for vegetable growing. But casting my glance around, I noticed that none of the local farmers cultivated vegetables which were considered “cash crops” because of their quick turnover into money.

 

            Ramain, like the rest of Munai, is a Muslim community. Populated mostly be Maranaos, they speak their own dialect, Maranawan. As such, we had to ask the members of the KALAHI staff to translate for us although the people understand a combination of Cebuano, Tagalog and English.

 

For a traditionally patriarchal society, the Muslim men and women here were equally represented. While some men had taken the leadership roles of village elder, barangay captain, and religious authority, the women were the project heads and sitio representatives. What caught my eye though, was a transgendered young male who was allowed to be garbed in traditional Muslim feminine wear. I was curious how important traditional gender roles are in communities where day-today economic struggles dictate sensible practicality in all their activities. I noticed that the transgendered male was taking care of the younger children in the company of other teenage females. And as in the other poor barangays, voluntarism was likewise prevalent in Ramain.

 

            During our interaction, significant social impact was disclosed by the community members themselves, especially with regards women empowerment. The ratio of women participation was high, including membership in the project management committees. They shared that upon seeing our female Community Facilitators ride the habal-habal (a two-stroke motorcycle which carries five people as passengers), their womenfolk realized that they can also do so without any harm. Fortunately, even with the very limited road construction accomplished, other vehicular transports like jeepneys have also become available. As such, more women and children have become mobile and are now more comfortable travelling. They claimed that the availability of vehicular transports on the road now allows them to “dress better or smarter” for travel purposes.

 

            Meanwhile, our visit to Barangay Sendiga Munai, which also prioritized another road construction project, was delayed. We were not able to catch any of the community members because they had to go to the markets to sell their wares or to their fields to tend to their crop. It was their livelihoods at stake after all, and they could not wait for us the whole afternoon and risk their productivity for the day.

 

            We encountered the three Community Facilitators on the way down already from the mountain barangay. We were visibly impressed with the dedication of these hardworking young girls. They were college-educated Maranaoans, strikingly pretty enough to be flight attendants, but they had chosen a life devoted to helping less fortunate folk in the countryside. By the time we met them on the road, they had been walking downhill for about an hour. And to think, that they had even taken a shortcut across the forest already.

 

            Traversing the rough and rocky dirt path, they each had long sticks which I thought were trekking aids for balancing against slippery pebbles and gravel on the trail.  When I mentioned this, they explained that the sticks were to ward off the monkeys who drop from the trees above and naughtily harass them. These playful creatures were known to run after travellers, clamber up their shoulders and pull at people’s hair. Such close encounters with the local wildlife may prove to be quite humorous for some, but with the gathering darkness of the early twilight, we could not leave them there to walk the rest of the way down. Amazingly, we managed to squeeze all eleven people into the pick-up truck.

 

            Our last visit was to the distant barangay of Cadayunan. To reach the community proper, we had to get down from the vehicles and cross the make-shift footbridge ourselves. About three tree trunks made of coconut lumber were attached to the washed-out remains of a concrete bridge foundation. Only one side had a handrail made from connected bamboo stalks. As seen by the remains of the concrete foundations, a heavy downpour could cause the river current to simply wash out these lightweight materials.

 

            We crossed slowly, one by one in accordance with weight and bulk considerations. The barangay members watched with bated breath, afraid our sheer number would destroy their make-shift bridge. We gripped the handrails so tightly, one of us cracked the connecting bamboo stalk. The community members shouted across to us not to worry so much; should one of us fall, the water was not so deep  that it could drown anyone. But looking down, I saw the enormous rocks and ranging waters below. Sure, you won’t drown, but you could just as well get your head bashed in and your body thrown against the rocks. We were later told that once in a while, one of them does fall, like the man transporting his copra produce just the other week. He survived, but his copra was washed away by the river waters along with his family’s prospective income for the month.

 

            I suddenly realized what these people had to go through everyday just to transport their copra and other farm produce. We learned that along with their Community Facilitator, they tried to coordinate with the two upper barangays who could have benefited from the bridge project as well. But these two barangays had the option of another road access and decided to go on with their own road construction projects instead. They eventually got prioritized by the Barangay Assembly, but Brgy. Cadayunan’s project lost in the voting. Since the barangay was able to finish their project proposal, we promised to help them scout for other funding sources. An option was to reduce the amount to be solicited and instead spread it out among various possible donors, like politicians who won in the recent elections.

 

            When we got back to our home-base, Macboy Resort that night, I could no longer feel base of my spine or my buttocks. My lower back and legs were numbed from the strain of being squeezed into a pick-up with ten other people. I did not complain out loud this time for shame and embarrassment. I was riding in a vehicle all that time and all my innards felt shaken and stirred like a martini. But those upland folks in Munai have to walk, ride horses or five-person motorcycles to be able to travel that road. I remembered the native pony tied to one of the backyards. It had apparently sprained a foot because of all the slippery rocks and boulders it was forced to trot on everyday.

 

            We were all very hungry when we got to Bacolod. While we brought our own lunch as baon, we were not offered any merienda at any of the barangays we visited. We could not blame them; for such deficiency in food was clearly evidence of their destitution.

 

At the table that night, there were salt-water crabs for dinner, along with some grilled fish and kinilaw. I ate the viands which I wasn’t allergic to and downed it with Coke. I was quite wary of the water here since my companions were already complaining of stomach aches. Since bottled mineral water was also very hard to find in these parts, I settled for softdrinks with each meal.

 

            The next day, three of my teammates had upset stomachs. One from drinking too much beer, the other two from eating the crabs. They did not include the gatroentiritis-stricken Regional Office staffer who unfortunately drank tap water earlier and our team leader who had a toothache. I gave them my emergency supplies from my travelling medicine kit because there was no pharmacy or drugstore around. Doctors were also hard to come by since there was no nearby clinic or health center to speak of. Only then did it strike me. Such utter deprivation in medicine and health care these people were experiencing. I’m sure they make do with whatever resources to survive, but is this really the way a person should live?

       

                                                            * * * *

 

Evidently, the success of the KALAHI program depends a great deal on the municipal mayors’ genuine cooperation and support. Genuine civil servants should welcome KALAHI projects as a way to assist their communities and bring the much-needed social services to their impoverished barangays. But some self-absorbed politicians would recognize the KALAHI system as a form of “disempowerment”. They might feel their influence and prestige may be diminished because the money for the projects does not pass through their hands. Instead, it is given directly to the community through their community-established bank accounts. While potential for graft and corruption is reduced, their opportunity for influencing communities for votes is also decreased. As such, a “resistance” from mayors would seem understandable.

 

A certain “culture” among Muslims is also an obstacle being experienced in KALAHI projects. Both Area Coordinators of the two municipalities cite difficulties with Muslim communities which they do not encounter with other Christian barangays. This is evident in the politicking and power-play of the Muslim mayors. We also tried to verify a certain aversion of Muslims for menial work like road-clearing for example. The regional engineer agreed since he already noticed that there was not much “volunteer” work on road construction projects like these.

 

Meanwhile in Munai, the MILF presence and armed conflict had a significant impact on KALAHI projects. After the barangays were evacuated, homes were bombed and vandalized. Other Muslim families did not come back to their old barangays and simply relocated somewhere else. As such, this altered the barangay compositions, lessening the number of households and families in the community. We knew that the peace and order situation will continue to be a pressing issue in relation to KALAHI projects’ sustainability and continuity. Admittedly, Munai had all the odds against it when it was first targeted for KALAHI’s programs. But the progress that has been achieved recently despite the Camp Abubakar interruptions is a ray of hope for the KALAHI field workers. I believe we should not give up on these people just yet.

 

            I came back to Manila a changed person. That last visit to Mindanao left such a lasting impression on me. It taught me never to take anything in my life for granted. I was reminded to be thankful for a great many things that I do have. For apparently, it is not true that a person does not really miss what he or she never had in the first place.

Dumaguete Homecoming

We boarded the boat in the late afternoon, just in time to see the famous Manila Bay sunset. The slowly setting sun was coloring the clouds beyond the horizon a breathtaking pink and orange. Behind us, the various buildings and structures of Makati and Manila were a grim and gloomy gray, already masked in dark shadows and city grime. A cool wind was blowing and the sea’s salty scents mixed with the stench of crude oil from the ship engines. It was my first long distance boat trip and I was totally excited.

 

She told me the trip to Dumaguete was a long twelve-hour travel by water, but a mere hour and a half if by plane. But our present itinerary consisted of Bacolod first, then to my sister in San Carlos City, before finally heading for Dumaguete. It would practically be a cross-country trip of Negros Island.

                    

At first, I did not take her invitation seriously. But she said they would be having their annual San Jose celebration and a family reunion of sorts in April. Would I like to go with her? I knew she did not go home often and I remember our past two Christmases. We burned the telephone lines with our long-distance phone calls. At this stage in our relationship, we just couldn’t stand to be away from each other for too long. Actually by our second Christmas, her father grabbed the phone and told me to come to Dumaguete and spend the Holidays with them. Since then, I had a standing invitation from her father to visit Dumaguete.

 

I had been to Negros Island before, but that was mostly on the Occidental side – Bacolod, Silay, La Carlota, San Carlos and even Kanlaon. She often joked that those were the rich sugar planters’ territories. Her hometown of Dumaguete was in Negros Oriental – the poorer, simpler side of Negros. Instead of vast sugar plantations or prawn farms, Negros Oriental was characterized by a beautiful coastline lined with many small-time fishing villages. And Dumaguete was also home to that great academic institution, Silliman University.

As we landed in Bacolod, I realized that her Cebuano was useless in these parts where Ilonggo is the spoken dialect. Somehow, we managed to get a Tamaraw FX service bound for San Carlos and what followed was an express tour of Negros Occidental.

 

From Bacolod, we passed the sugarland towns of La Castellana, Benedicto, Talisay, Victoria, Silay and La Carlota. Apart from the cosmopolitan grandeur that was Bacolod, all I saw were fields of sugarcane that lined both sides of the highway. The scenery was only interrupted by the occasional sugar mill or railway track. From a distance, black smoke trailed from a farm already burning sugarcane by-products. Since it was harvest season, big trucks heavily-laden with cut sugarcane traversed the roads with us. Sometimes, slow moving trucks blocked our way and we had to overtake by driving through the sugarcane fields themselves. The driver told us to close the vehicle’s windows because the sugarcane stalks and leaves were sharp and could cut you across the face. Besides, a certain small, poisonous snake liked to live in the sugarcane and just might try to catch a ride with us. The driver laughed but I knew he wasn’t joking.  

 

On the Occidental side of Negros, I didn’t get to see much of the coast. The only bodies of water I saw were actually ponds used for prawn farming. Even San Carlos City is actually a small sugarland town. You could completely go around the whole place in less than an hour. But its land area and income is large enough to qualify as a city. My eldest sister had married a local and had been living there for almost twenty years. Family visits like this was rare, and when she heard I was going to Dumaguete, she insisted we dropped by. I didn’t realize that it would entail a cross-country trip across Negros.  

   

After an overnight stay in San Carlos and a hearty breakfast of dangit, tomatoes and fried rice, my sister saw us off and we boarded a Ceres bus bound for Dumaguete. With us for the two-hour trip were a few Silliman students returning to the University for summer classes. Somewhere along the highway, there was a distant view of Mt. Kanlaon and its mountain range. It was a clear day and the clouds were dispersed enough to show its majestic peaks. Still an active volcano, its slopes are nevertheless verdant with vegetation. She told me that besides sugarcane, various fruits and vegetables are grown there by small-scale farmers.

 

Soon, the landscape changed from plantations and mountains to a distinct shoreline. Clear, blue waters rippling with gentle waves became the predominant panorama. Sheer mountain rock on my right side gave way to a vast seashore dotted by fishermen’s huts. A small town even had a freshwater creek straight from the mountains empty out directly into the sea. Mangrove forests are visible from the road and rare seabirds occasionally fly out from underneath the mangrove trees.

 

She called out the names of the various townships we passed – Tanjay, Mabinay, Bais, Amlan. Her father had at one time or another been assigned to these places when they were setting up the Negros Oriental electrification project. Tanjay is known for its tasty budbud kabog, a local suman of sorts. It is made special by Tanjay natives and if thrown against a post, it will wrap around it. Also from Tanjay are cacao tableas perfect for breakfast tsokolate. Bais, on the other hand, is a popular tourist destination because of its whale and dolphin sightings during summer. Meanwhile, Amlan is notorious for its highway White Lady who flags down buses at night and causes unusual vehicular accidents.        

 

Shortly thereafter, we reach the borders of Dumaguete City and we passed by their airport. She tells me that since airplanes approach Dumaguete airport from the sea, one gets a picturesque top view of the city early on. From a distance, one can already glimpse the city pier beside Silliman Beach and the very popular walkway by the wharf, the “Boulevard.” But Dumaguete airport is quite small and its runway is unusually short. It is oftentimes a challenge for any airline pilot to make a timely stop because the runway abruptly ends right before the busy provincial highway.  

 

As we exited the terminal, public transport to the nearest hostels or pension houses were eagerly offered by a variety of people. We politely declined because we were supposed to be picked up by her father and brother. The minute their car drove up, the drivers recognized the vehicle and mumbled her family name. That was my first clue that her family was apparently quite well-known in these parts.

 

From the station, we traversed the highway just outside the city proper and passed by St. Paul’s College, her alma mater. She told me that the Catholic nuns or Daughters of St. Paul (SPS) put up the school to prevent the Protestant influences of Silliman University from spreading too much in the community. What followed was a religious as well as an academic competition that bode well for Dumaguete. Good education became one of the most important legacies left by both the Catholic and Protestant missionaries.

 

We then headed for the outskirts of Dumaguete City, to the nearby municipality of Sibulan, where their family reunion was going to be held. I noticed the unique architecture of the old houses we passed along the way. The white paint and plain, angular design was characteristically American. They reminded me of the housing facilities for American servicemen in Camp John Hay and Subic Bay. They seemed to me “box-like” and overly too “practicalized”. On the other hand, such western influence was identifiably more dated, like circa early 1900s. She explained that this was also due to the American Protestant missionaries who put up Silliman University a long time ago.  

 

We turned into a short dirt road that led us to Cangmating Beach and to their native-themed, three-bedroom beach house. The predominantly wooden structure with anahaw roofing was their family residence for a good fifteen years before they moved to their city address in Bagacay, Dumaguete City. Some of their neighbors here have already sold their property to be developed into beach resorts and diving dens.

 

From this vantage point, we could clearly see the nearby island of Cebu. Besides numerous fishermen’s bancas dotting the sparkling blue waters, hydrofoil ferries like Delta and SuperKat navigated the narrow channel between Dumaguete and Cebu called Tañon Strait. She informed me that the mountains of Cebu protected Dumaguete from heavy rains and strong winds caused by typhoons, so the channel remains relatively safe for fishermen even in inclement weather. To prove this, she tells me that sometimes during high tide, the sea reaches up to their breakwater-fence. But never has it overflowed into their backyard even during typhoons.  

 

Meanwhile, the reunion party was already in full swing at the neighboring vacant lot which also comprises their beach front property. Although, I was already a familiar face with her parents and siblings, I was introduced to her other relatives as her “amiga” from Manila. I believe they intuitively knew about us by then, but they were very nice and polite.

 

On the buffet table was an assortment of Visayan food. I tried the Cebuano version of sashimi – the kinilaw. Kinilaw is actually made with fresh fish like tuna, Blue Marlin, dilis, or tamban. The fish slices are soaked in vinegar or kamias juice, with ginger, onions, garlic, black pepper and green chilli peppers as additional spices. Sometimes, they put in coconut milk or evaporated milk for extra flavor. There was also a pansit dish called Bam-i which utilized all three types of noodles – bihon, canton, and especial sotanghon. I also tried the humba, a sweet pork dish with oily, brown gravy which reminds me of our own Ilocano Spanish-inspired estofado.

 

Just then, she came rushing over with a plateful of lechon. This is something I shouldn’t miss out on, she said. Their lechon is made from native pigs and stuffed with an aromatic lemon grass called tanglad similar to pandan. The taste is really something to die for, she promised. True enough, it wasn’t just the roasted skin that was tasty. Even the lean meat parts were dripping with pure, fatty flavor!

 

There was also a variety of grilled deep sea fish, like whole slabs of tuna and local salmon. There were clams and other edible seashells, as well as different types of seaweeds soaked in vinegar or salted with sliced tomatoes.

 

It was already late in the afternoon when the party adjourned. We drove back to the city with her mother in her Volkswagon Beetle. Her mother decided to take the long route home to show me some of the city sites likethe Dumaguete Cathedral and its ancient bell tower, the Provincial Capitol and its fountain, plus some other municipal buildings, including the central plaza. We also passed by the gateway of Silliman University before entering the commercial center or shopping district of Dumaguete.

 

When we reached Bagacay, I was not prepared to see her family’s house. It was huge by my standards. The driveway was a long way off from the main gate. The frontage had a rotonda for vehicles, but they actually had a two-car, covered garage at the back. Their garden consisted of various fruit trees and ornamental plants, including her mother’s orchids which flower and bloom effortlessly. The main house was a sprawling four-bedroom, two sala bungalow. Each room had its own toilet and bath. Near the front door was her father’s office and receiving area which strategically adjoins the master’s bedroom. I was visibly impressed. It must have been the egocentric city-girl in me, but I just didn’t expect that besides a beach front house, my simple probinsiyana had a hacienda for a home!

 

As soon as we parked, her mother announced that the next morning, she would be taking me and the other visiting cousins to Valencia.    

 

The nearby mountain municipality of Valencia is a good 10-minute drive from Bagacay. The road slightly ascends and temperatures suddenIy lowers to a cool level. Vegetation was lush and diversified, conducive for both cropping and animal raising. By the height of the coconut trees, they were clearly quite aged. Cacao and coffee grew underneath them and were interspersed with banana, papaya, cassava, and guava. I also noticed red chilli red pepper and even pineapple haphazardly growing in backyards.

 

Valencia is known for its hydro-electric power plant and Casaroro Falls. Trekkers can also hike up to Mt. Talinis, Nailig Twin Lakes, and Twin Falls. In Tejeros is a mountain spring resort where there were numerous pools for bathing. A clear mountain creek runs through the length of the whole resort and feeds some of the pools with cold, mountain spring water. There was also a picnic grove with nipa huts.

 

But when we got there the next day, the water was too cold, so we did not go for a swim. We simply went sight-seeing and had a couple of pictorials. We also could not venture too far as to reach the hike trail because none of us were in proper trekking footwear. The tour guide informed us that it rained the night before so proper “no slip-grip” shoes were important.

 

After the banquet the day before, people were now in the mood for simpler fare. Lunch was a type of fish paksiw called inununan. It makes use of medium-sized fish like galungong and is cooked with vinegar, onions and ginger. Her father also brought out jars of preserved seafood to melt over newly-cooked rice. Ginamos is made from dilis-size fish and is very much like the brown bagoong Balayan of Ilocos and Batangas. Meanwhile, Si-si unusually looks like eyeballs swimming in saltwater, but are actually miniature oyters pickled in a vinegar, ginger, and garlic solution. On the other hand, Dayok is danggit fish entrails soaked in a similar vinegar and ginger pickle solution.

 

I dutifully tasted everything for politeness’ sake. But by then, I was hoping that the leftover lechon will be served as paksiw that night. I soon learned that lechon paksiw Cebuano-style only made use of soy sauce and vinegar, with no liver spread or Mang Tomas lechon sauce for extra creaminess. As a result, the dish practically tasted like a modified pork adobo.

 

That afternoon, she brought me to Silliman University. She showed me the metal plate that carried her name as the sole University Awardee for academics and extra-curricular activities in 1992. She took me around her favorite haunts on campus like the cooperative canteen, the building where the university student council regularly met, and the soccer field where she marched as an ROTC cadet officer. She pointed out the on-campus Protestant chapel and the haunted Katipunan Hall basement which served as a morgue during WWII. She brought me to the Silliman Museum of anthropology which housed locally-excavated artifacts, Sung and Ming Dynasty porcelain, and witchcraft paraphernalia from nearby Siquijor.

 

We then rode a tricycle to the Silliman Marine Laboratory where they bred giant clams and other endangered water species. The Marine Lab was usually closed for any unauthorized viewing, but the graduate assistant was an old classmate of hers who was rumoured to have a female lover. The minute she saw me, she instantly warmed up and even opened their exhibit of rare shark mandibles. Her American lover arrived just as my partner and I were leaving. The conversation mainly dwelt on the marine lab exhibits, but that encounter had a profound effect on all of us.    

 

On the way back, we walked along the famous Boulevard. The whole stretch fronting the sea was a commercial district of bars, lounges, restaurants and other business establishments. We went for some halo-halo at a small time ice cream house near the Bethel pensionne. By the water, ferries and boats bound for Siquijor lined the wharf. She told me that a planned reconstruction of the city pier would eat up part of the scenic Silliman Beach and the locals are strongly opposing it. However, the University administration might need the extra funds.

 

On the way home, we passed by the wet market and visited her fish vendor-aunt. She whispered to me that her aunt was said to have a lesbian lover in her youth, but she was married now with a dozen kids. I was introduced again as the amiga from Manila and the aunt smiled knowingly.

 

We bought some barbeque near the tricycle stop and some pu’so. Pu’so is rice cooked inside a small heart-shaped basket made of woven young coconut leaves. With BBQ stick on one hand, you can handily eat the rice-in-a-basket with the other. She watched me with amusement and commented on how I tried to experience everything with relish. I said that I did not feel awkward or out of place in her hometown because something about it already felt familiar to me. It was not like I was being introduced to everything for the first time. I declared that she must have brought a little bit of Dumaguete with her to me in Manila.

Hometown Tales

I had warned her about this long drive up North; all seven hours of land travel. But she was of the South and she said she wanted to see a different culture from that which she grew up with. Maybe it wasn’t so much as for the alien culture as it was for the change of scenery – a weekend free from the hustle and bustle of the metropolis.

            It was a good thing we took a late night bus to Ilocos; we avoided much of the North Expressway traffic and managed to sleep through much of the ride. And just as dawn was breaking, we entered the first few towns of Ilocos Sur. Traversing the great Santa Bridge, solid mountain rock on the right side, and the blue China Sea on the left, the sun splashed its gentle rays on the water.

I tell her about the original town of Santa, the one which now sits at the bottom of the sea. Fishermen say that sometimes you could hear the bells of the ancient church tolling underwater. I point to the houses and other structures scattered along the mountainside. After the sea reclaimed their town, the townspeople of Santa were forced to relocate on the other side of the highway and build their homes on the rocky hills.

As we passed the towns of Sta. Maria and Narvacan, a breathtaking coastline presented itself. I point out to her the statue of the Virgin Mary standing on the distant rocks along the reef: it served as a beacon to boats and ships. It is said that this cove was the sight of many colonial sinking accidents because of the coral reefs, and the Virgin was supposed to keep the area safe. 

          Meanwhile, the coastline joined with the distant mountains and began to depict the supine figure of a female. I tell her that the place is called “SusoBeach” because of the breast-like protrusions on the land. The locals believe it to be the buried remains of a giantess, the wife of the mythical giant, Anga-lo. Up in the mountains, there is said to be gigantic hole in the shape of a human footprint. Legend has it that it was the footprint of the giant, Anga-lo, so it was called “ paddak ni Anga-lo.” She laughed at my enthusiastic sharing. I said part of her education on this trip would be to learn about the local folklore and myths. All these I fondly remember from my own childhood, when my Mother and yaya would regale me with such stories, probably to keep me preoccupied during those long, boring drives to my Mother’s hometown.

            We quietly pass through a few more townships; alternately fishing villages and small-time tobacco plantations. Admittedly, life in Ilocos was hard. The dry, crumbly soil was full of rocks and pebbles which are not ideal for planting and cropping. The outlet to the sea opens to a rough and vast ocean. With no smooth coastline and unprotected by coves, fishing was likewise difficult and dangerous. These realities gave birth to the unique quality of Ilocanos of being thrifty and hardworking, a characteristic oftentimes misinterpreted as miserliness. Similarly, this difficult situation forced Ilocanos to seek their fortunes elsewhere, thus characterizing them as “adventurous” people. They have drifted as far as the productive farmlands of Mindanao, even becoming the old-timer, Filipino pineapple pickers of Hawaii.

            Finally, we reach Vigan, but the chaotic bus station still hid the true beauty of the capital. On the way to our ancestral home, we were able to glimpse the famed churches of Ilocos, a legacy of our Spanish colonizers. Foremost of these was the Vigan Cathedral, also known as St. Paul’s Cathedral. I tell her that this place had sadly acquired a sense of political notoriety; for it was where the father of Bingbong Crisologo, our one-time local Bad Boy, was assassinated in the middle of hearing Sunday mass. Then serving as the province’s Governor, it was believed he was killed by his political rivals, his own distant relatives – the Singsons. She started at the mention of the now familiar surname and gave me an incredulous stare. I just gave her a sly little wink.

            Beside the Cathedral, next to the St. Paul’s College campus, is the Bishop’s Palace. Another formidable structure, this place is the residence of the Bishop of Nueva Segovia, the Ilocos region’s largest diocese before the Cagayan Valley. Its grandeur is a tribute to the reverence the Ilocanos put on their clergy, reminiscent of the excessive religiousity handed down by our colonized ancestors. My grandparents used to say that even the location of one’s home is reflective of how prestigious one’s family name is. The closer your house is to the church, the greater is your favor or influence with the parish priest.

We next pass the Church of Bantay, famous for its dilapidated bell tower where Fernando Poe, Jr. shot a vital scene for the movie, Ang Panday. Inside this classic Spanish minster would be various relics and statuettes of patron saints, the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ, encast in pure ivory or marble. These statues are likewise extravagantly dressed in expensive clothes and costumes spent for by their traditional sponsors who are well-known clans and families. It is a marvel to see these rebultos paraded during Holy Week processions.

I tell her that it is a perfect time to visit during Holy Week because the churches of Ilocos come alive with such activity. We would be able to hear the pasyon, the Catholic Lenten prayer depicting Christ’s passion, chanted in native Ilocano. The traditional Visita Iglesia, where one gets to visit different churches to recite the Stations of the Cross would be extra special, because the thirteen (13) Stations are variably presented in paintings and/or in sculpture, either in wood or stone. Besides the architecture, one gets an added education in the arts and the humanities.

I also tell her of our custom, that as a first-time visitor to a church, she is allowed three (3) wishes, and it is believed that at least one of them may be granted. This revelation ultimately excites her.

            At the house, we were treated to a breakfast of fried rice and Vigan longganisa, served with tomatoes and red (salted) eggs. She noted that unlike the sugary-sweet longganisa in Manila, our local version was rather salty and spicy, with tinges of sour. My aunt explained that it is because the “curing” process is different. The ground pork, composed mainly of lean meat, is mixed with soy sauce, vinegar, ground black pepper, and tons of chopped garlic. This mixture ultimately helps preserve the meat and after being inserted in the casings made from pork intestines, it is divided and stringed before being dried out in the sun for days.

As we ate, my aunt already announces that dinner would be pinakbet and bagnet. I explain to our guest that authentic Ilocano pinakbet is a dish made from an assortment of “inexpensive” and easy-to-find vegetables like eggplant, sweet potato, string beans, and okra, stewed in the brown, fish-based bagoong. True-blue Ilocanos never use the bagoong alamang commonly used by the Tagalogs and Kapampangans in their version of the pinakbet. On the other hand, bagnet is the local version of lechon kawali. Such fare is a veritable feast, considering that in these parts, beetles and locusts may be fried and eaten as pulutan. In the rice fields, a specific variety of a frog may be cooked as adobo, while certain snails may be cooked in coconut milk and served as the local version of escargot. But contrary to the popular belief that Ilocanos started the fad of eating asocena, it is actually the Ilocano-speaking mountain tribes of the Cordillera regions who prefer dog-meat. They say eating dogmeat gives off heat – ideal in the cold weather and high altitude of such parts.

            After a short rest, the day found us touring the various museums put up and maintained jointly by the local government and the Department of Tourism. The museums themselves are the famed old houses of the Spanish era; complete with the red brick walls, wide Capiz windows, red-tiled floors, and elaborately sculpted banisters and beams. My first-time Ilocos visitor recognized the place as the one used in the filming of Rizal and a variety of Regal Films-produced teeny-bopper movies in the ‘80s. I told her that even Tom Cruise used the site for his film, Born on the Fourth of July when they needed an exotic, Mexican-looking place.

            Inside these buildings, the original furnishings are still intact; high window seats which look like bar stools, the traditional rocking chairs, the four-poster beds, unglamorously complemented by the practical mosquito net and the porcelain urinal underneath. There is the so-called “butaka”, the precursor of the modern-day Lazy-Boy and comparable in comfort. It is a slightly-supine chair, with woven netting, and extended wooden arms on which you can rest both legs on each side. There is also the age-old weaving machine that produces authentic Ilocano cloth called “abel.” This cloth is quite popular because it makes for a warm and comfortable sleeping blanket.

            In one garage, there is a one-horse carriage and a grinding machine which may be animal-drawn or mechanically operated by a person. What caught her eye and completely enamored her were the uniquely-shaped pottery which we call “burnay.” And so, we then headed for a modern-day factory which still cultivates this ancient skill of pottery-making. These miniature bangas can be utilized for a variety of purposes, from kitchenware to gardening accessories. They are made from a combination of mud and wet clay, to be hand-molded on a spinning horizontal wheel, and then cooked/baked in outdoor earthen oven. Burnays have such a unique quality to them that even the collapsed, messed-up ones have a charm all on their own. Nowadays, these goods are so expertly-made that they are being produced for export to other countries.

            Deferring to our custom of having to visit all the relatives when one is in town, we agreed to have lunch at my other aunt’s house. We were served the other Ilocano vegetable staple, dinengdeng with another high-cholesterol viand, ladek. Dinengdeng also contains the traditional cheap vegetables, but this time, it is boiled in watery bagoong stew. Meanwhile, ladek is actually a meat patty made from the bits and pieces of pork meat left in the giant frying pan used for pre-cooking bagnet and longganisa. Already pre-cooked, these patties are simply squared and wrapped in banana leaves. They can just be heated above newly-cooked rice and quickly served.

Upon learning that we have not made arrangements for our pasalubongs yet, my second aunt took it upon herself to put in our orders. There is no problem with the tasty cornick which have become a popular finger-food in Manila. They come in various flavors: plain, cheesy, extra sweet and extra spicy. However, for the classic Ilocano bibingka, orders must be put in at least one day ahead. Again, this is different from the coconut-based kakanins of the Tagalogs. The batter used as its base is a specially formulated combination of rootcrops, coconut milk and other mysterious ingredients. Even the actual cooking technique is a closely-guarded secret by the locals.        

In the afternoon, we hung out at the plaza near the Vigan Cathedral. A plaza is like a townsquare, but it is actually attached to the church and not to the municipal hall. Accordingly, all the churches in Ilocos have the token plaza in their frontage. It usually has a playground and auditorium-like stage or platform. Around it, various food stalls can be found which sell the popular empanada and shrimp-filled ukoy. The empanada is the local version of the Mexican tortilla. It is made of a specially-concocted batter which is deep-fried. It is usually vegetable-filled, but “specials” sometimes include ground meat and eggs. It is eaten after being dipped in a vinegar solution made of native onion called “lasuna”, red or chili peppers, a little garlic, and authentic sukang Iloko.

            Later, we toured a couple of more churches, so my friend could make as many wishes as she liked. Towards dusk, we took a romantic calesa ride through the restored cobblestone streets of Vigan, parts of which are prohibited from being traversed by motorized vehicles. These are specially-preserved sites where one can really get the feel of old Vigan. A picture straight out of Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere or El Filibusterismo, these are actually ancestral homes renovated to retain their original beauty. Some have unfortunately been abandoned by their clans, and the government has taken over their repair and maintenance after Vigan was declared a “protected” Tourism site. In the gathering twilight, amidst the gentle clatter of the horse’s hooves on the road, it is as if time had stood still and we were back in colonial Philippines.

                By evening, as my Dumaguete native put up her tired tourist feet, I could see that she had fallen in love with the vacation spot of my childhood. I had spent many a summer reverie dreaming of bringing a special person here and her eagerness today made it all worthwhile. For today, with her, I saw Vigan with new eyes. By showing her the local sites which I took for granted when I was young, my own sense of pride in my Ilocano heritage was renewed. I realized that although I was born and raised in Manila, much of the Ilocano culture has been instilled in me and I’ll carry it proudly for always. Panay museum

Summers Up North

As a young city-girl growing up in Manila in the 1970s, I always longed for the summer break after classes. I would run around reciting Bugs Bunny’s childish chant: “No more homework, no more books; no more teachers, dirty looks!” But, deep inside, I also dreaded the monotony of doing absolutely nothing for days, and our family “tradition” of a summer vacation. Summer after summer, it was always the same routine. And in my pre-adolescent angst, I had begun describing it with a cool, new word I had just discovered: “BORING!”

 

            My childhood summer vacations were always spent up North in the Ilocos region. As soon as classes ended for the schoolyear, my parents would pack up all seven kids, yayas and all, and cram us into my father’s service vehicle which was a Chevrolet four-wheel drive – a cross between a modern-day space wagon and a van. Besides our suitcases filled with at least two-weeks of clothing, my mother always packed a picnic basket of “to-go” food for our benefit. We also had pillows to sleep on during the seven-hour road trip.

 

            We usually left Quezon City at dawn and at the Balintawak Exit, my younger sisters would already be catching up on their disturbed sleep. I, on the other hand, managed to stay awake until Bulacan or Pampanga. As we traversed the North Expressway, I would sometimes be able to watch flocks of assorted bird species in their early morning feeding in the Candaba swamps. There would be ducks of the Mallard or Muscovy variety, locally known as either pato or itik. There would be geese or gansas, long-necked egrets otherwise known as tagaks, its long-legged relatives, thestorks and the herons, and even cranes, also called tiklings. It was amazing to see these large wading birds converging on the same body of water, but never getting violent or chaotic over the same food sources. They kept to their own flocks, never getting lost in the feathery mixture. You could clearly see the delineations; just how the white and long-limbed cranes towered over the brown-green and yellow-eared ducks, separate and peaceful, every flock minding its own business.

           

            But smaller birds like the common, brown ibong tarat or the white and gray maya which plague the rice fields would also be present. Perched on heavy electrical cables spanning the horizon, these small birds would be all lined up like inverted rain droplets ready to fall into the blue-gray sky. When they do fly off, they appeared as a strange black shadow moving in the half-light of dawn. And through all this accidental bird-watching, I would watch the sun rise against the backdrop of Mt. Arayat and drop off to sleep just as the stench from the Pampanga piggeries starts to assault my olfactory nerves.

 

            I would only awaken to the market din of San Fernando or Dau. By then, my Mom would have asked the driver to stop at some generic cold cuts store so she could buy some more baon. Remember, this was the time before Pampanga’s Best and Tita’s tocinos became the rage. This being the first of many stop-overs, we were in no hurry because travel then was unimpeded by lahar-damaged bridges or heavy traffic. The north-bound highways were also well-maintained because Apo Presidente and his family regularly went home to   the Malacañang ti Amianan (Malacañang of the North).

 

            Passing through Pampanga’s other towns, I would watch cross-carrying penitents and bloody flagellants trudging up the highways. This spectacle was quite common among the Kapampangans during the Lenten season and usually culminated in an actual crucifixion come Good Friday. While my Dad would sound off the name of each province we would pass, it was my Mom who would take time explaining such religious practices to us. In my head, I was crying, “Jeez! Philippine geography and theology class; it’s like being in school again!”

  

            Tarlac, Tarlac was usually our first pitstop for food and toilet needs. A client of my father’s had a popular restaurant where we get to eat in the air-conditioned VIP room, apart from the other bus passengers of Farinas, Viron or Times Transit. It was one of those instances when I would realize what privileges my Dad’s legal stature gave us. As Chief Legal Counsel for the latter bus company, my father was greeted in recognition by bus drivers and conductors. Occasionally, local court officials drop by our table or nod in our direction with familiarity. Away from us at least three times a month, my father was often busy with out-of-town hearings, and this has apparently made him “popular” with the local folk.

 

            Our belated breakfast would consist of hotdogs, eggs and garlic rice, downed with hot chocolate made from native cacao tableas. In these Ilocano-speaking parts of Tarlac, there would also be the local kakanin called tupig, a sticky rice concoction wrapped and roasted in thin strips of banana leaves, and peddled by itinerant vendors running after buses and other vehicles. On the way back, tupig makes for a tasty pasalubong for the folks in Manila. But since then, I would associate Tarlac with pitstops for food, toilet visits and much needed leg-stretches.

 

We would breeze then through the remaining towns of Tarlac before reaching the boundary of Pangasinan. Along the way, summer harvests of sweet corn, peanuts, turnips and mangoes would be displayed by the highway – ever tempting to the weary traveler. Again, my Mom would occasionally ask the driver to stop, so she could buy an assortment of fruits and vegetables. By then, most of my siblings would again be asleep in the summer heat of a daytime trip.

 

My father would routinely wake us though, to show us our grandfather’s ancestral home in Villasis, Pangasinan. Dilapidated and abandoned by then, it was rumored to be a haunted house. My father would also show us the mysterious bridge in the town of Carmen where vehicular accidents were said to happen under very strange circumstances. The large balete tree beside the bridge was said to be the home of a kapre who dangled his legs over its branches and caused passing buses to suddenly swerve. The townsfolk swear that on late nights when the moon was full, they would see puffs of smoke as if from a cigar blowing from the balete tree.

 

On the other hand, in Rosales, a white lady was oftentimes seen along the highway either crossing suddenly or flagging down a passing vehicle. My father told us of the time when he was a still a law student, the late-night bus he was riding bound for Manila, hit an unusually large, black sow in the area. The vehicle grinded to a halt and their driver asked the conductor to go check on the injured animal. Unfortunately, it was no pig that the conductor saw, but a strange old woman with glowing, red eyes standing in the middle of the road. The conductor jumped back on the bus and told the driver to get out of there fast. Curious, my father said he looked out his window and did not see an old hag. Instead, he saw a large pig with a pair of bakya or wooden clogs on its hind feet! But my Dad was fond of telling us stories like that. And frankly, sometimes we did not know whether to be genuinely horrified or to simply burst out laughing.        

 

            After approximately six hours of travelling, we would havereached La Union and its coastline of beautiful beaches. My father would do a quick courtesy call to our relatives in San Juan town, and then we would head directly for MarPil Beach in Bauang. The owners of the resort, Don Mariano and Doña Pilar were my paternal grandmother’s cousins- members of the old rich and Spanish mestizos. Every summer, half their beach cottages were rented out to relatives like us. Soon, various other cousins would trickle in and it would be a family reunion of sorts. The senior members would spend their time playing mahjong in the restaurant pavilion; teenagers would be at the tennis courts or playing ping-pong, while younger kids like us would be left to enjoy the beach with our yayas.

 

            While the beaches of Bauang were covered by ordinary dark grey sand, it was a characterized by an even coastline. There were no sudden drops, undertows or treacherous currents to be afraid of. There were no rough outcroppings or rocky coral reefs to skin one’s feet; no seaweeds to get entangled in. The presence of jellyfish or Portuguese Man-of-Wars was also rare. In the mornings, assorted shells and corals washed up by the tide still lined the beach. The sound of the waves rushing to the shore lulled me to sleep in the evenings and gently woke me to consciousness in the mornings.    

 

            At first light, I would be out on the beach with my younger sisters and yaya, gathering seashells and corals as my Dad went for an early morning jog. My Mom would be watching us from a distance, at a nearby hut, afraid to get sunburned even at that hour. She had certain rules for us: one, we could not enter the water that early because it was still too chilly; two, we had to get out of the water as soon as it was high noon because it was too hot and the high tide would be coming in; and three, an adult who knew how to swim should always be with us once we’re in the water. She was very strict about this since she herself could not swim. An accidental fall from the Puerto Pier in Vigan left her too traumatized to even learn how to swim. And as a result, she has never been a fan of the “sun, sand and surf”.

 

            Since my older siblings already knew how to swim because of their required PhysEd class in college, it was “bonding-time” for us with our Dad. He taught my younger sisters and I how to float on our backs, do the basic dog-paddle, and do a pseudo-freestyle stroke. I never did learn how to tread water (even with swimming lessons in my adolescent years), but I discovered that diving and staying underwater could be a lot of fun, too.

 

            In a way, I resented my father’s busy schedule and his frequent absences from home. Unconsciously, to get back at him, I did not want to be around him even when he was available and had some free time on his hands. On these vacations, my siblings and I got to see my Dad almost every day and to spend every hour with him. It was all rather strange for me and it made me very uncomfortable. I believed I was not very close to him, so what can I say to him to carry on a conversation? Nevertheless, my Dad was obviously in-charge of the itinerary and after three or four days of swimming, beach-combing and sandcastle-making, we would hie off to Baguio to cool ourselves.

 

The drive up through Kennon or Naguilian Road would give you an incredible view of some waterfalls, an occasional rockslide, and the sculpted giant lion by the highway. If we passed through the wider Marcos highway, we get to see the controversial Marcos head-bust carved by a local artist. My relatives would go directly to the old Pines Hotel for accommodations, but my family would stay at my Dad’s quarters at the terminal of the bus company he worked for. Yes, no hotels for Atty. Leonin’s family. Besides his own service vehicle and a special VIP table at a restaurant in Tarlac, my father had his own “apartment” in Baguio as well. I did not realize it then, but I grew up with all the trappings of an upper-middleclass childhood because of my father’s prestigious profession.      

 

Those being the last few working days before the Holy Week, he usually had a few more court appearances. So while my father attended hearings or met with clients, my Mom would take us to Wright Park for horseback-riding and to Burnham Park for some boating or bicycle riding. Sometimes we would go sight-seeing at Mines View Park or to Imelda Park, which has since been renamed as the Baguio Botanical Gardens. In these parks, young Igorot kids would either jump off the cliffs for coins, perform the ethnic dances, or have their pictures taken with you in their traditional costume for a small fee. Years later, as kids peddling plastic bags at the Baguio market would jostle with each other for the “right” to carry my purchases, I would remember the innocent faces of these indigenous children.    

 

In those days, Baguio wasn’t much of a metropolis yet and motorized vehicles didn’t pollute the crisp mountain air. An early evening drizzle sometimes brought with it a mild hail storm and lots of fog. It would get so cold in the afternoons, my younger sisters and I would marvel at why we could see our breaths in the air, as if we were blowing cigarette smoke from our mouths. While we gorged on fresh vegetables and strawberries, each meal consisted of some meat dish to maintain our body heat. A family friend would always take us to the popular Sizzling Plate restaurant for tenderloin steaks. But once, a client of my Dad’s brought us some grilled meat which did not taste anything like pork or beef. I had already chewed on a couple of strips before this Igorot native told us it was dogmeat or asocena. I thought it served him right when I vomited right unto his shoes.

 

My father did not get mad for he knew I loved dogs. My first pet was a German Shepherd named “Woody” a client from Subic Bay had given him. Since then, my Dad kept gifting me with puppies every so often, especially on my birthdays. There came a time when I had twelve dogs and puppies to take care of. And as for that asocena-eating client, I finally understood why he was the only guest our dogs would keep barking at whenever he visited my Dad for a consultation.    

 

In spite of all the steak dinners and meat-laden meals, three days in Baguio’s cold weather was all that my Mom could take. Soon, we’d leave for Ilocos to spend Holy Week with my maternal grandparents in Vigan. Having missed out on Palm Sunday, we would still be treated to the reverberating chants of the Pasyon being read at every other street corner. An arc-like construction called the abong-abong marked the boundaries of each sponsoring zone or barangay. Ornately adorned by assorted fruits, vegetables and other non-spoiling food items, such ostentatious display of prosperity is the ultimate pride of each zone or barangay.

 

Since my Dad would retreat to his room to officially embark on his Lenten Week book-reading marathon, my mother would then drag us to pray the fourteen Stations of the Cross at the nearest church. This would be the church at Bantay town where her uncle, the parish priest, would be still celebrating mass at the ripe old age of seventy. Because it was just a block away from my grandparents’ house, I always brooded that it wasn’t much of a pasyal for me. My mother would then say that according to Spanish colonial traditions, the nearer your house was to the parish church, the more highly-regarded you were in the community. This was because in the old days, only the rich could afford to build their houses so near the church – the social center of any town. A few years later, I would see that ancient bell tower and church façade featured in FPJ’s Ang Panday and countless other teeny-bopper movies by Regal Films in the 1980s. By then, my maternal grandparents had already passed away and we were no longer making regular visits to Ilocos. But I was always proud to tell my showbiz-addicted classmates that those were the sights I grew up with.

 

The Lenten practice of Visita Iglesia to at least seven churches would be such a treat because Ilocos is home to a variety of beautiful Spanish-styled churches. Mostly designed by the Augustinian friars, the churches of Ilocos are reminders of our colonial past. Many have endured the years, albeit aesthetically restored to retain their original grandeur. Each parish would boast of its relics and well-costumed statues of saints, including the Black Nazarene and the grieving Virgin Mary. Such pompous display would reach its highlightduring the Good Friday processions when all these images would be set on carts and paraded in the streets. Sponsored by the rich families, each saint’s carosa would be lavishly decorated with flowers and lights, while life-size statues made of authentic marble and ivory would be clothed in their finest garments. It was rumored that some those gold-plated halos on the statues’ heads were actually made of real 24-carat gold.

 

            My Mom would make it a point for us to attend the prusisyon in our Sunday’s best. The old matrons of Vigan and Bantay would likewise march the whole route with us, middle class and barrio folk alike, but all dressed to the nines and adorned with family heirlooms for jewelry. To keep us entertained as we walked, my Mom would identify each saint for us. “The old man with a rooster is St. Peter, who denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed; the young unbearded one is St. John the Beloved in whose care Jesus left the welfare of his widowed mother, Mary; and the young woman holding a stained cloth is Veronica, who wiped Jesus’ sweaty, bloody face and got an imprint of it on her cloth;” etc., etc., etc. If one paid attention to catechism class, it was easy to follow the story of Christ’s Passion after all.

 

Barangay after barangay, our procession trailed in the darkness, lighted by a multitude of candles held by young and old, man, woman or child. We trudged on, solemn and prayerful, lulled by the soft murmurings of the Holy Rosary being said, decade after decade, until all three mysteries were covered; and just in time too, as we finally reach the church of destination. I remember looking up at my mother’s face, and seeing there the quiet dignity of one fiercely proud of her Ilocano roots. These are the three things that my Mom had instilled in us: pride in our Ilocano heritage, respect for family traditions and strong religious beliefs.      

        

And although there was not much to do on Black Saturdays, the various rituals and ceremonies do not end there. To cap off the Holy Week, there is the Easter tradition of the Salubong where Mary and the Risen Christ would meet in theearly dawn. A four-cornered scaffolding would be set up at a chosen street crossing for this purpose. The Virgin Mary dressed in black would be wheeled in by an all-women entourage from one direction, while the resurrected Christ would be wheeled in by a throng of male followers from the other direction. Underneath the scaffolding, they would face each other and a little girl dressed as an angel would be lowered from the scaffolding to take off Virgin Mary’s grieving garments. From the four corners, other little girls likewise dressed as angels would throw rose petals at the statutes and the crowd, as firecrackers are set off to officially welcome Easter.

 

After Easter, the remaining days in Ilocos would be a blur of bicycling and playing at the plaza, riding the calesa around Viganand eating freshly-made empanada or macopa, duhat, and karamay fruits with my cousins and childhood friends. This routine would only be interrupted on summers when I would get afflicted with measles, mumps or sore eyes. But just as these childhood diseases eventually passed me by, only too soon would my summer vacations in the province be over, and it would again be time to return to Manila.

 

Nowadays, as an adult busy earning a living and who can hardly get away from the office and other responsibilities, I long for those summer respites which I took for granted. I remember the last time we were there as a family. My grandfather had just died and we were taking my grandmother back with us to Manila. There were just us three youngest kids, my second brother who drove for us and my parents. My other siblings were not able to make it because they were either busy with college or work.

 

On our last day there, my Dad took us around all the plazas and Vigan’s cobblestoned streets. He took photographs of us against the red bricked houses, the churches and horse-drawn calesas. My Dad said the photos would be “for remembrance”, as we love to say in Filipino. My sisters and I posed moodily, cooperating with him nonetheless. But I should have paid more attention back then. I should have taken in the sights as my father did. For instinctively, he must have known that such idyllic summers have come to an end, and there would no longer be any more like visits for us.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA