One fine day with an overcast skies, I find myself and my grandson taking a bus trip to the Bicol mainland.
From Tabaco City, we take a ferry boat to the island (Catanduanes) which used to be part of Albay until 1946.
I am used to inter-island boat trips and no amount of unpredictable waves can make me go seasick. My grandson has acquired the same stamina and he remains calm and detached as he sees both the young and the old reach out for plastic bags to empty their innards.
For one introduced to the comfort of the Cebu-Bohol-Dumaguete boat trips, I find land and boat trips to the island like scenes from the Lenten Stations of the Cross.
At the Tabaco port after a 12-hour land travel, there is only one cashier attending to both senior citizens and non-seniors and from the looks of it, she is a trainee-cashier. The long line extends outside the terminal and poor cashier is at the end of grumbling comments from irate travelers at four in the morning. A seatmate says he started queuing for tickets at 3:30 in the morning and got his ticket two hours later only by requesting a senior citizen to “claim” him as a nephew and travel escort.
My senior citizen’s card allows me to beat the tyranny of a long line. But they have run out of tickets for the air-conditioned section and here we are in the middle of humanity whose common need is instant noodles. You hear the cackle of fighting cocks, you smell the faint odor of White Flower balm and indeed, the section looks like a scene from an evacuation center.
With an LPA (low pressure area) warning in the region, there is no hint of sunshine in the skies and the waves are pretty unruly as the ferry boat crosses the Maqueda Channel. Soon, my grandson sees a mass unwrapping of plastic bags and hears the sound of assorted throats disgorging last night’s dinner with dramatic obbligatos strictly forbidden by Emily Post’s bible of etiquette.
The boat has well-built cabin attendants attending to everything except the dirt and clutter on the aisles.
There is no pre-departure demonstration on how to cope when by chance the boat encounters travel problems. One’s eyes are trained on a closed box of lifesavers the uses for which remain unknown to most passengers.
Docking safely in San Andres port more than a couple of hours later, we arrive in the capital town by tricycle which is he quickest and fairly safe way out of the harbor town.
The mini-buses are there but the passengers on the roof and countless pieces of luggage rubbing cheek-by-jowl with weary passengers below make it the last choice.
In one such mini-bus trip, the passengers on the rooftop are asked to jump with early signs of an LTO check-point. They return to the rooftop when “the coast is clear."
Of course you are used to this sight described by foreign tourists as “quaint and idyllic.”
But the island is catching up with progress with its first fast-food chain, with more hotels and resorts and more internet cafes and still more stores selling cell phone loads.
As if by cue, crimes are on the rise with the onset of broad-daylight robberies and “riding in tandems” have become a quick way to rob unwary islanders.
Road accidents are also on the rise and it disturbs the congressman enough to remind the islanders to observe road safety measures.
Even with the prevalence of motorcycle accidents, the islanders have no use for safety helmets as they hit the road without them.
Progress (or the signs of it) is visible in my hometown where modest abodes have quickly given way to concrete residences.
Meanwhile, both local and foreign tourists are headed for the nearby Puraran Beach where a seasoned surfer named Ezra Efondo promotes island life by example. From the looks of it, he actually lives surfing from Puraran to La Union and on to Siargao and Quezon province. Actor Jericho Rosales was once entranced by this surfing turf famous for the simple fact that it is where assorted clouds meet the sea and the sight is awesome on this road to Gigmoto town.
My grandson enjoys the sight even as the sea looks foreboding with an overcast skies. He cavorts on the white sand and makes faces on my daughter’s camera. My parents and an only brother used to hike from Baras town to this new beach attraction passing the hills of Abihaw and Guinsaanan.
Many years back, my daughter and I took a boat to Puraran only to find a resort declared exclusive by a Japanese tourist-turned-businessman. The resort is gone now and so was the Japanese entrepreneur.
In its place are hardy islanders making a living out of its islets, white sand and surfing attraction.
The Holy Wednesday procession brings back memories of early youth in Baras. You remember your altar boy days, preparing the well-measured wine for the mass and the proper vestments at four in the morning and attending the Sunday meetings of the Legion of Mary.
Recalling those years, I don’t know how I managed to memorize all those Latin text, prepare the priest’s habiliments for the holy mass and still attend to my grade school class.
All throughout the procession, the church plays piano music from the special services devoted to the Mother of Perpetual Help which attracts devotees every Wenesday.
The church ritual also brings back childhood memories. You recall an entire school being asked to line up the road leading to the town to meet The Bishop; you remember the lead altar guy and the fair-skinned sacristan and their unusual closeness. At any rate, excerpts from their unusual association were the stuff of one of my first short stories entitled, “Prism” published in the pre-martial law NOW Magazine edited by the late Norma Miraflor. I also recall a classmate named Leonila Valenzuela given the cold treatment by the grade school class when she converted into Iglesia Ni Cristo.
The image of the Virgin Mary looking over the blood-stained Christ was with the family for over five decades. It is kept in one of the rooms of my Uncle Ben’s house and it was the same room we occupy when typhoons lash the island. Not a few in the family believed Uncle Ben’s house was spared from countless typhoons because of that image. It was from that same house where we took refuge in one of the strongest typhoons that hit the island in the 60s. It was over 240 kilometers per hour and it caused a storm surge that partly submerged Uncle Ben’s house. Inside while the typhoons roared angrily, my Aunt Magdalena screamed her head off and shrieking our end was near. It wasn’t. At least not yet anyway.
Nevertheless, the image mounted on a “caro” is part of family tradition during the holy week. I re-live this tradition after five decades and join the Holy Wednesday procession with my cousins and a grandson.
I don’t see a single familiar faces in the crowd except for a brief sight of a classmate who was a seminarian-turned-OFW. He looks detached, almost full of quiet pride. He is typical of townmates who have reached a level of comfortable life and makes sure he looks it. On the week he invites me to a get-together in Metro Manila, he calls to say he can’t make it as he will be busy over-seeing some properties and business concerns in Bulacan. I say, “No problem,” adding one is a slave of daily writing deadlines for various outlets. I stop short of saying it is good the get-together doesn’t happen. For one, I have no properties I can brag about and I am hardly the kind classmates can describe as “prosperous.” I go as far as to “unfriend” him in FB as I can no longer endure his “how-to-get-rich” posts. Out of curiosity, I visit the latest in his timeline and look what I see: endless reposts of “WIN UP TO 1,000,000 coins, 10,000 Premium Goods, and 10 Zoning permits!”
To be sure, I have provincemates who did well but they don’t flaunt their status or post how-to-get-rich schemes in FB. I have more genuinely prosperous classmates who did well in the stock market but we don’t talk about our incomes (or lack of it). Our common reference is the hometown and I like this particular classmate because on top of being a good son and brother, he is quietly good in Math, did well handling stocks, raised a family he genuinely loved and had a brother whose fiscal acumen showed in the way he ran the town as municipal mayor. I recall this classmate joining a special recitation of the rosary in his home and in a room full of books, laundry and vehicle spare parts. They owned one of the town’s transport business to this day.
During the homily, my grandson and I decide to leave the church and visit old landmarks. We visit Baras Elementary School where I recited Rizal’s “Mi Ultimo Adios” during the school’s graduation program. One sees a glimpse of the sturdy old house of my godfather, Kikoy Tejada and recall scenes from a funeral of my Ninang Paz. He re-married another teacher with my late Ninang’s name, a former neighbor on whose radio set we listened to soap operas in the late 50s when a town-mate named Roberto Tayam was acknowledged as the town’s answer to Elvis Presley.
We have dinner in what remained of my Uncle Ben’s house and recall where our old house used to stand. It looked very much like a sakada’s abode with bamboo floors and covered by a roof made of nipa shingles. The image of the Nuestra Seniora de la Salvacion loomed in the living room. We lost the humble abode to a strong typhoon and we have since then moved from one place to another: from Tinambac, Camarines Sur to Guimba, Nueva Ecija and on to Pasay and then back to the hometown and later, on to the capital town.
My paternal grandmother looms clear in my memory. I remember her slipping coins in my palm during trips to the capital town. She had a long bout with tuberculosis. Her favorite ritual consisted of early morning novena and capped by an early morning walk by the sea. One fine day, we hear her scream, “tidal wave! tidal wave!” The entire town evacuated to higher grounds as we watched the seas rise and fill up the river and fall again exposing the depth of the sea around the islands.
It was my first taste of tsunami.
My Uncle Ben’s house and what remained of my grandmother’s abode were all witnesses of what I still recall as happy childhood.
Come summer, cousins from both sides of the family are re-united feasting on pan cakes and molido and enjoying the seaside view of Minabalay Island.
As I figure it out now, my late Uncle Ben was the pillar of stability in the family. He built a sturdy house, sent his two children to good schools, acquired one of the town’s first radio sets and taught for decades in nearly al the barrios of my hometown with my Aunt Conching.
They reported to school by boat in nearby Putsan barrio and in another seaside barangay and that’s where I heard my first Neapolitan song sang by my Uncle. Before I heard Pavarotti’s version, I thought “O sole mio” was a Bicol song.
In the old days, we fetch drinking water by boat in the nearby sitio Lini passing through a swamp where we used to catch crabs. Cooked with coconut milk with malunggay, this crab recipe is what I still cook today and it comes with my obsession with fresh pili.
Like it or not, Baras was paradise even if it had its share of strong typhoons that inevitably taught us how to be strong inside and out..
I briefly join the seaside picnic of ‘cousins’ from the other side of the family in Mamangal Beach in Virac.
We can’t help remembering what looks like endless summers in the old hometown. We played hide-and-seek, we were always cavorting in the nearby beach and we used to just spend sunsets in the nearby sea dike where my aunt Nieves regularly showed off her city fashion get-up while Uncle Ben’s radio was blurting a song from the film, “High Noon.”
Seeing them for the first time after many decades, the “cousins” from the other side of the family recall the years we were always re-united in the same familiar hometown and look at the same familiar island facing our seaside houses. Moreover, cousins from abroad -- now sporting American and Australian surnames -- would recall summer in the same hometown when we were young and tender and not yet overran by adult responsibilities.
Most of my cousins coped very well with life and some didn’t. A few went abroad, got assorted jobs and now they can afford instant vacations inviting cousins who still share that infectious laughter that has become the trademark of the family.
Meanwhile, another cousin became a pastor or what passed for one. He couldn’t live on his faith, literally and figuratively, and his children suffered his life choices. His mother – our aunt -- died a poor man’s death and it was like a scene from “Les Miserable’s.” Her wake attended by a few cousins was the opposite of previous deaths in the family. It was a lonely death and even more a lonely chapter in the life of my cousin who thought he could support his family with his newly acquired faith.
In this latest reunion, you realize some cousins are better breadwinners, better providers and better parents than you will ever be. Some cousins are helpful during your “dry days” and they wonder why you remain poor even as you enjoy modest fame in the media circle.
An Australia-based cousin was shocked that one doesn’t have a “decent” cell phone and not even a laptop. “Manoy, you are a writer and no laptop?” she shrieked unbelieving. She invited me to go with her in this shopping mall and bought me a laptap the price of which amounted to three months of my house rental. Used to working with computers with big screen, I couldn’t use her iphone. The expensive laptap went to my youngest daughter who needed it most.
It is obvious I cannot cope with the big inroads of technology. Their high-tech gadgets still don’t make sense to me. I realize my mistake when I end up in internet cafes in every place I visit while a friend can check messages through his laptap and finish deadlines at three in the morning. In the island, I have to wait till eight in the morning to find open internet cafes for my deadlines.
If at all, those gadgets are simple reminders your cousins love you more than you love yourself and they didn’t mind parting with a huge chunk of their hard-earned income to be of help to their less prosperous cousin.
To be sure, we all had our share of life’s trials and struggling days.
How your cousins have evolved you can see through their face book postings. They quote famous authors and wise men about the true meaning of life, why forgiveness is better than revenge and why one is better off ignoring people who look down on you.
The face book gives you an idea some cousins are lonely as they post photos of loved ones who have moved on.
Other cousins hurdled life’s challenges for what they are and have learned to enjoy every minute of their existence. They invite you for quick get-togethers before a flight back to Australia, they treat you to endless rounds of beer and the laughter comes back, the same laughter that we shared during our happy summers in the old hometown. I don’t know if this is a part of family tradition. Before we part, a cousin would sidle up to me and quickly, if, discreetly, put in some cash in my pocket. It was her way of saying it’s okay to be poor for as long as we are still sharing laughter and memories of the old days.
Watching my cousins re-unite in this white beach in the capital town as I watch my grandson climb trees and run through the white sand, we realize we cannot bring back the good, old days. We pine for the old landmarks, the childhood delicacies we used to enjoy and the soap operas that converted my Uncle’s living room into intimate theaters.
We are all survivors of the cycle of typhoons in the island and the other storms that figured in our private lives.
For now, some cousins are better off living the city with grown-up children who also drive cars.
But if I have a choice, I can live simply in this island, surrounded by sea and sky and with just a few things that the revenue collectors will not find taxable. . But this is the beauty of vacations.
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