happy thoughts and worthy causes

So while I have been writing much about my childhood memories of Ilocos, a big portion of my youth I have been meaning to write about were my college years in UP Los Banos.

I was only 15 years old when I went to the “distant” campus of UP Los Banos in College, Laguna. When I applied for the UPCAT, we only put Los Banos as an alternative campus upon the advise of my older brother, Manong Snokum, himself a graduate of BS Architecture from UP Diliman. He said at least we had a good back-up plan should I not get accepted for my first choice of Diliman campus. In fact, it was only our eldest brother Manong Butch who was able to get in immediately because he was an NSDB (now NSTA) scholar in BS Mathematics. Manong Snokum had to transfer from UST on his second semester, while both Ate Marie and Ate Annette ended up trying out and qualifying for UP Baguio and UP Manila, respectively.

Like the rest of NCR students, majority of my batchmates in high school tried out for UP. But when the UPCAT results came out, only 12 of us qualified or were wait-listed. I remember my classmates saying, “May isang Leonin na nakapasa e…d lang namin sure which one”, referring to me and my cousin, Edlyn. Meanwhile, like the rest of them, I also covered my bases and applied for other universities and colleges. By that time, I had already passed the entrance tests for CEU, Miriam College, UST, Ateneo and was in the process of applying for St. Paul. But of course, UP IS UP, and I quickly jumped at the chance to go the State University be it in a “faraway” campus.

Fortunately, my Mom soon realized that a second cousin of hers was married to a UPLB professor and was living in Los Banos. She reconnected with Tita Cora Pe Benito and made arrangements for me to stay with them. Later would I find out that Tita Cora’s husband, Tito Ruben Villareal was actually the Dean of the College of Agriculture and was pretty well-known and respected in the UPLB community. My affiliation with them would eventually influence my future in UP Los Banos.

* * * *

Our first visit to Los Banos became one of many regular treks to Laguna. Once I began studying in UP Los Banos, this routine became a cherished day trip for my parents and younger siblings, and a sort of bonding activity too. They would drive me over for the next schooldays after I spent the weekend with them in Manila.

Back then, it would be an easy 2 hour drive from Quezon City, traversing EDSA and SLEX to Los Banos. Still not much heavy traffic after Magallanes through Taguig-Bicutan-Paranaque area. As you leave Alabang, the long stretch of SLEX would still be lined by rice fields, and after some time, Maria Makiling’s outline would already be visible. That Southern Tagalog mountain range really looked like a giantess lying in repose; from the soft curve of her breasts to her forehead sloping into her long hair. Mt. Makiling with her accompanying Mt. Banahaw and Cristobal was truly majestic.

As we turn into Calamba, the only other slightly “urbanized” area besides Los Banos, we pass by a few fast food restaurants before the hot spring resorts begin to sprout from all sides. Since Mt. Makiling is a dormant volcano, they say those hot springs served as useful vents to let her steam out. Without those hot springs, some scientists claim Makiling could just wake up and become an active volcano again.

Entering Pansol before Los Banos Bayan area, all you can see are hot and cold spring resorts, and that ubiquitous red-brown quarry at the distance. Through the years, I would observe that natural tower-like feature get eroded both by man and by nature’s forces. We pass Camp Eldridge and PCARRD, which now has that shortcut mountain pass into the UPLB campus, I wonder if this is the same shortcut used by incarcerated Los Banos townsfolk when they were evacuating in World War II and needed to cross over to the other side of Laguna de Bay.

Before long, you reach Brgy. Anos where most buko pie, fresh milk and other pasalubong outlets are, and then comes the famous “Crossing”, that landmark intersection which passes as UP Los Banos’ commercial area. Turning right at the corner Mercury Drug at Crossing, you enter into College and the gateway to UP Los Banos.

Unlike the wide, awe-inspiring University Avenue at Diliman, UPLB’s main gate is narrow and simple. The first thing you see upon entering is not the statue commonly known as the “UP Oblation”, but the carabao heads, the symbol of the UP College of Agriculture first established here prior to World War II. Oh, we do have our own Oblation, albeit much smaller in stature, and it’s located at the center of the campus, in front of our Humanities building. But like Diliman, it would please you to know that scattered around the UPLB campus are some artful sculptures too – like the Mariang Makiling which now stands at the bottom of the road going to Forestry, or the “flying” carabao at the Main Library, the Pinay lass with her banga at the Palma bridge pavilion, or the notorious “the Graduate” at the Social Garden (these last two having some weird tales surrounding them, but that’s another story.)

Tito Ruben and Tita Cora’s house was actually off-campus, in a subdivision near the International Rice Research Institute (IRR). Getting to their place, you can take either the long route via Ipil Drive and IRRI, or the steep hill at the back of the Animal Husbandry side which takes you directly to their village after coming downhill. Due to the distance, we had to coordinate rides to and from campus. But with two of my cousins still in high school and my other cousin busy with his fraternity activities, it was quite difficult scheduling rides, especially since I started having my own extra-curricular activities. A few times I had to get rides from friends – the very popular Luistro brothers, Kim and Gianni, of the UPLB soccer fame, or my sweet and very kind kabatch, Noel Cuyno ‘86.

There were days I caught the free shuttle to IRRI then took that wooden trolley contraption locals ride along the train tracks, and walked the rest of the way to Pleasantville. You go from the long line of trees along Ipil Drive to IRRI, then get a very good panoramic view of the experimental rice fields backdropped by the mountains of Mt. Makiling and Mt. Banahaw, and even Mt. Cristobal. The trolley ride was truly an experience – novel and innovative as it is, it was quite fun to have the wind in your hair. That is, until a train comes along and you all have to get off the tracks to let it pass since the train does have the right-of-way. The real challenge is managing not to get sucked in by the train rushing by. You have to cling to the tall grasses at the sides for dear life until then.

Either way, whether I take the Animal Science route or the long IRRI road, those walks usually treated me to the wonder of flying exotic birds, a rabbit crossing the road, or an occasional snake during rainy season. It was also there I learned to navigate by the weather…watching out for the dark clouds hovering above to decide which route I would be taking so I won’t be soaked by the sudden rain. Until now, I still watch out for cloudy days and time my trips accordingly because I hate getting caught in the rains.

Those days you could still hitch a ride from the vehicles going to and from IRRI, when we used hand-signals to indicate to jeepneys where we want to go, when UPLB was a close-knit community where most people are connected and know each other from somewhere, somehow. We were safe and secure, and the worst that could happen was getting recruited to become NPA rebels…that, or experiencing those notorious paranormal incidents UPLB is so famous for. Yes, those were the times when there wasn’t any Mayor Sanchez and his goons, or drug-related rape cases.

After my first year, deciding that I had adjusted well enough, I opted to move to an on-campus dormitory. I managed to get a slot at the foremost Co-Ed dorm, then-called “Men’s Dorm” because it used to be solely for male students. Of course, there were all-girls dorms on campus, like the neighboring Women’s Dorm and St. Therese dorm run by the local parish nuns. But I really wanted to experience the whole Hollywood teeny-bopper college campus life for real and luckily when a sorority sister graduated, I got her token space in the so-called Sigma Deltan room at Men’s.

When I was at my relatives, all I had to worry about was budgeting my weekly allowance and getting home after classes. But at the dorm, I had to budget my allowance for food, my transportation back to Manila, getting to my classes on time, and managing my extra-curricular hours responsibly. I was really on my own, and had to act like a mature adult. During the 1987 and 1989 coup d’etats, we got stranded in UPLB because Metro Manila was in chaos. We had to do our own laundry, scrounge enough extra cash to feed ourselves, and manage to home to Quezon City.

Prior to UP Los Banos, I didn’t know how to commute using public transport. Now, I had to learn to take the bus to and from Laguna. Back then, the premier busline was BLTB (Batangas, Laguna, Tayabas Buslines) of the Potenciano family. Eventually the company folded, and my alternatives were Kapalaran and Superlines plying the whole Laguna and Quezon route. While there were a few aircon buses, mostly it was ordinary, open-window commuters that you catch from Crossing. In summer, it was either you suffocate in the heat inside the bus or keep the windows open and let your face take all the G-Force of SLEX.

If not for the BLTB Pasay route, I sometimes had to take the Lawton trip and get off at the Metropolitan Theater in Manila for a Project 2-3 jeepney. Otherwise, I get off at Alabang for an EDSA bus transfer to Quezon City, usually a Monumento or Fairview-bound trip. Once in QC, I either get off in Cubao or at the corner of Kamias-EDSA. I had to learn these routes and transfers the hard way, because I made a few wrong rides too.

But I remember the Dairy Training and Research Institute (DTRI) milk I used to drink on those long bus trips. The shing-a-ling (local fried noodles) being peddled by vendors hopping on and off the buses, along with an assortment of commercial buko pies, espasol, banana or kamote fritters, etc. My sister, Giselle soon learned about kwek-kwek, those orange-covered eggs that you dip into vinegar, deep-friend day-old chicks, and pansit habhab at those bus terminals too.

Getting around the CALABARZON area with our friends, my sister, Giselle and I were soon introduced to the tradition of fiestas in these parts. Besides parish-led activities, most towns have other festivities that include feeding majority of visitors to their place. As s guest, you are invited to most homes even if they don’t know you and you are obliged to sample their dishes. One thing we noticed during these “culinary rounds” was that most houses served the classic pansit bihon, menudong Tagalog, and fruit salad.

These local delicacies and simple fare soon grew on me, and without the fast food cuisine we got so used to in the city, these were welcome changes. I learned to exchange my favorite Coca-cola for fresh milk, began to like buko pie and local breads from the bakery instead of burgers and pizza, and those long, necessary walks actually did wonders for my legs and gluteus maximus.

But the thing I really loved the most about my Laguna days, was the clean, fresh air, the amazing greenery surrounding you, a closeness to nature that I will always have an affinity for. Nowadays, I take the opportunity to drop by UP Diliman for a regular dose of nature. Sometimes, I get lucky enough to have the time to visit La Mesa Ecopark or the Parks and Wildlife Park of QC.

Every so often, I still trek to Los Banos to reconnect with my past, commune with nature, and to simply ground myself. For it was there I did a lot of growing up. It was there I found, and keep finding myself, when I feel lost and in need of some peace. Most of all, in that valley by Mt. Makiling, I keep finding focus and direction.

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