Penman No. 143: A Foray into Fairyland (2)

IMG_7281Penman for Monday, April 6, 2015

LAST WEEK’S piece on “Fairlyand”—the mountain of Calatong in my home province of Romblon—elicited quite a bit of interest among my readers, and I was very pleased with the response until my mother, who grew up around the place, called my attention to a potentially lethal mistake I’d made in my retelling of my cousins’ and aunts’ stories about that enchanted kingdom. (I’m thinking that “lethal” might depend on whether you believe in spirits or not, and I don’t, but talk like this always reminds me of a conversation I had with a sharp old nun whom I met in one of my Italian sojourns, who said: “The question isn’t “Do you believe in God?’ but rather ‘Does God believe in you?’”)

The mistake I’d apparently made was in saying that eating quinta, or black mountain rice, was an antidote to fairy spells. “It actually works the other way around,” my mother told me in our little garden in Diliman. “They’ll offer you black rice, and if you eat even a handful of it, they’ll take you to Calatong and you’ll never be seen again.” So folks, be so advised; beware of strangers offering black rice, although it’s not very likely you’ll be seeing any soon. The last time I saw truly black rice was in an American grocery store in the Midwest, where it was being sold as Indian wild rice, and cost considerably more than any other exotic variety on the shelf. But then maybe that preciousness implies more than a smidgen of magic. If black rice banishes people to oblivion, I’d like to buy a sack of it, whatever the cost, to feed to certain politicians before 2016.

Which returns us to the more prosaic realities of modern-day Romblon. Not too many people, even Filipinos, know about Romblon, which if they ever board a ship for Panay they’re likely to pass unseen in the night, after Mindoro. It’s composed of three main islands—Tablas, Sibuyan, and Romblon—and was a sub-province of Capiz during Spanish times. As Philippine provinces go, it’s a pretty small one, with less than 300,000 people (excluding encantos), and my favorite quote about it comes from Jose Rizal via NVM Gonzalez (who was born in Romblon in 1915), who passed it on his way back to Manila from exile in Dapitan, remarking that it was “muy hermosa pero muy triste.”

Much of the hermosa part remains. On this first long visit home in two decades, we took an SUV around Tablas, a day trip I’d never taken before, and I was awestruck by how lovely the place was, fringed by one emerald cove after another. I lost no time in telling my friends to consider Romblon as a vacation alternative to Batanes, Palawan, and Boracay.

Indeed, Boracay’s a short hop away by motorized banca, and being on the other side of the same oceanic basin, Romblon is also blessed with many white beaches, most of them yet undiscovered. (All these islands and their people belong to one ecosystem, as it were, their languages familiar to one another, though subtly different; my paternal grandfather must have come from the Dalisays of Ibajay, Aklan, where a playwright named Marianito Dalisay Calizo wrote moro-moros in the mid-1700s.)

Some of these natural getaways have been found out, and the developers and entrepreneurs have begun streaming in, and foreigners with Filipino wives have been buying up prime beachfront property for a fraction of Boracay prices. (The best fish catch in Romblon still goes to Boracay, where it can fetch two to three times as much.)

One happy discovery we made was just a 15-minute ride from my hometown of Alcantara: Aglicay Beach, owned and managed by an affable balikbayan doctor, which offers a white-sand beach, great snorkeling, and spectacular hilltop views, all within a resort with the usual amenities, including conference facilities and wi-fi. You’ll have to pay the admission fee, though—all of 30 pesos. (To know more, check out www.aglicaybeachresort.com.)

The triste part, I don’t know. There’s certainly enough to be sad about, as much of Romblon remains painfully poor. On the other hand, the tougher things get, the harder many Romblomanons work, with their brains if not with their hands. I was puzzled by the knot of schoolchildren who gathered in front of our beachside house at dawn every morning—they carried their shoes rather than wore them—until I realized that they had walked over barefoot from a nearby island at low tide. I would later learn that one child, barely nine, had drowned this way when the tide came back in too quickly. But there was no fear in these survivors’ faces, only an insistent resolve that now and then would fracture into laughter.

We were roused one morning by the thump-thump-thump of techno music in the plaza. “They’re just testing the sound system,” said our host. “It’ll be fiesta soon.” They called the uncanny practice of waking every one up pag-di-diana, and I thought that it might have had something to do with Paul Anka’s karaoke staple.

A few other discoveries I learned on this trip were rather more personal. I had always wondered why I had spent such a long summer there as a ten-year-old in 1964—an experience I recounted in my first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place—and I learned that it was because we were then so hard up in Manila that we children had to be farmed out, as it were, to save some money. My aunts recalled me as a smart but prissy boy who wore long-sleeved shirts in a seaside village and who would recite long poems in English at the drop of a hat.

We also solved the mystery of why my grandmother Pinang left my Lolo Tolio in the mid-1920s shortly after marrying him and giving birth to my father Jose. It had been something of a forced marriage to begin with, and Pinang was a headstrong woman, but the story we heard was that she hated being made to serve hot chocolate when some constables came visiting one day, and took that as the last straw and left. (They would live a kilometer apart for the next 60 years, and would inevitably run into each other in town but never speak.) Now it emerged that Tolio was having a saucy little affair—an explanation that makes Lola Pinang much less petulant than the chocolate story would make her out to be.

Whether sad or funny, it felt good to hear and to understand these stories again in Romblomanon without having to defer to my wife’s more widely spoken Hiligaynon, to say udi instead of diri, basi instead of ngaa; it’s still palangga in both languages. I felt at home.

Penman No. 142: A Foray into Fairyland

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Penman for Monday, March 30, 2015

LIKE I promised to do after an all-too-brief overnight sortie last January, I returned to my birth province of Romblon a couple of weeks ago—my first real visit home in almost 20 years—for a full week of catching up with a barangay of cousins, uncles, and aunts, some of whom hadn’t seen me since I was a boy.

But the family reunions and the endless festivities aside, what stood out on this trip was a foray into Fairyland—a highly unusual detour for this hardcore skeptic, who nevertheless went gamely along for the ride, and who came out richly rewarded with fairy tales if not with actual encounters with the other kind.

You won’t see it in any of the tourist guidebooks, and you might need to know the cousin of a cousin to navigate safely around the place. They call it Calatong—a word for which, in the local dialect of Guinbiraynon, there seems to be no precise translation, but it’s otherwise known even to the place’s youngsters as fairyland, the mountain inhabited by encantos, the enchanted ones. It dominates this corner of Romblon’s largest island of Tablas, both physically and culturally; from far at sea, Calatong’s tall hump offers an unmistakable landmark; by land, along the winding dirt road from Alcantara to Guinbirayan, it rises on your left, a massive mystery, although it might take some time and tuba to get the stories about Calatong flowing through the conversation.

I had seen and known about Calatong from my earliest years in Guinbirayan—my mother’s hometown—and even on this most recent visit, it was the first thing I would see outdoors when I stepped out of the house at daybreak, because the sun would emerge from behind it like a glowing crown above a dark and brooding head.

But I had never gone out there, although it seemed close enough to walk from where I stood on the shore. On this trip, at age 61, I told myself that it was now or never, and on the appointed morning we rode out to Calatong, but not before Letty, the retired schoolteacher who kindly hosted us, armed each one of us with a sliver of ginger. My mother Emy, now 86, had not been back to Calatong since she was a nine-year-old schoolgirl on a field trip with her class. “My teacher never let me out of her sight the whole time we were here,” my mother said as we parked the SUV as far up the dirt road as it could go. We walked up to the shore and took a banca over the glassine water—now turquoise, now emerald—to view the mountain from the sea, turning back only when the waves grew choppy.

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It’s said that during the War, when the Japanese flew over Calatong, they saw a brightly lit city, but then found nothing on the ground. This gave rise to the legend of Calatong as a ciudad, the name by which many of the locals still call it.

Somewhere in that sylvan cosmopolis was a waterfalls or a spring they called Labhang Dalaga, or “where the maidens washed,” from which flowed bubbly water, fragrant as if it had carried soap. We didn’t venture far enough inland to catch this frothy spectacle, but the rocks did sparkle in the sun in Calatong, as we were told they would; it was easy to see that the rocks were granitic, and contained liberal inclusions of quartz and mica, among other shiny minerals.

The mountain resists poachers and souvenir-hunters unless they’re locals who respectfully ask permission. They say that a woman who picked up a black rock and brought it home was horrified to find that the rock, left in her bathroom, had turned into a snake. A man who reportedly dug up oil and brought it out would find his precious discovery turning to water. There’s talk of siphoning water from Calatong to serve the nearby barangays, but already there’s grumbling about irregularities in the process, and about the likely consequences of displeasing the spirits.

The encantos, our cousins said, were fair-skinned, and one way of ascertaining who they were was to note the absence of a philtrum—that depression in the skin on your upper lip beneath your nose. The encantos liked to come to town to join the dances during the fiesta, when beautiful strangers typically appeared from nowhere, enjoying themselves and charming the locals. The encantos seemed to particularly favor the pretty nurses from far away who came to serve in Romblon as part of their martial-law-era YCAP duties. The antidote to their charms was to eat quinta, or black mountain rice; marriage to a local boy also seemed to ward off any further claims by the spirits—so swore my cousin Fred, who thereby met and married his wife Nanette.

You had to be careful about whom you made friends with, as a boy would realize when he accompanied his new friend home, and made the Sign of the Cross to be on the safe side of things—only to suddenly find himself hanging from the limbs of a tree. The townspeople would also see their neighbors jumping out their windows—and these neighbors would later return with fantastic stories about riding golden chariots over the mountaintops.

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The most persistent story also happens to be the most fantastic one, its incredibility only magnified by the insistence of the storytellers upon its veracity. Among those storytellers was an aunt-figure we’ve always known as Manang Munday, who recounted her story at the dining table, thusly:

One mid-afternoon in 1942, when she was in the fourth grade, Manang Munday heard a large commotion brewing and joined a throng of people rushing to the Guinbirayan shore. There, she says, she and the others saw a light-colored ship—the kind that plied the Romblon-Manila route—with the name “COSME YAP” brightly emblazoned in gold letters on its side. It sailed behind Calatong, but when the people tried to follow it and view it from afar, it was nowhere to be found. Years later the villagers would swear that they had heard the sound of an anchor chain being unwound in the night from the direction of Calatong.

Cosme Yap was my maternal grandfather, a merchant and a goldsmith, one of the richest citizens of Guinbirayan in his time. Lolo Cosme did own a sailboat, a batel as they call it in those parts, but it rather dramatically sank in a storm on its maiden voyage, Titanic-like (his wealth survived the catastrophe, but how it eventually vanished is another novel unto itself, albeit an unimaginatively prosaic one). The boat and the gold probably explain the persistence of this tale, and of its variations. Relatives say that when my Aunt Nieves was close to death, she had a vision of Lolo Cosme coming to fetch her in a golden airplane.

Again, unlike my sweet Beng who’s wired to the Universe, I don’t believe in spirits—but if something golden flashes before my eyes in my final hour, at least I’d have an inkling where that was coming from.

Penman No. 132: Return to Romblon

RomblonPenman for Monday, January 19, 2015

 

SOMETIMES THE best-laid plans are those you don’t lay out at all. I’d been meaning to pay another visit to my home province of Romblon, where I was born 61 years ago, but I kept putting it off from one year to the next until that absence became 20 years.

The last time I went home in 1994, I was with my father Jose Sr., who incidentally would have marked his 92nd birthday today; he died in 1996, so that trip was also his last journey home. We were born in the same small seaside town of Alcantara on Tablas island. When I went there to address the graduating class of the local high school, the marching band spelled out my full name and WELCOME TO ALCANTARA under the hot summer sun. I felt bad for the kids but deeply appreciated the gesture. I don’t think most of them had any idea who I was and what I’d done, but why should they? The only writers they knew were probably white and dead.

But Romblon has been good to writers (NVM Gonzalez was born several kilometers and 40 years ahead of me), offering a wealth of material as lustrous as its signature marble. And like marble, sometimes it lies starkly bare on the surface, and sometimes its veins need to be probed and palpated. My first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place (Anvil, 1992) was set largely in Romblon, based on the events and discoveries of a long summer I spent there as a ten-year-old boy in 1964. Those discoveries included my grandfather’s windowed tomb, an enchanted mountain, and sweet water bubbling out of the mountainside, not to mention a crush or two on an older girl. Ten years later I returned with a wife heavy with child, seeking refuge from one of the many dragnets cast by martial law, and it wasn’t government agents my aunts sought to protect my wife and unborn baby from, but other evil spirits best kept away by a wad of herbs pinned to Beng’s chest called a carmen-carmen.

Two Fridays ago I had and took a sudden chance to return to all that, upon the invitation of my niece Susie and her husband Toto, who had to make a quick weekend run on family business to Bgy. Guinbirayan in Sta. Fe town, about an hour’s dusty drive from Alcantara. My mother had been born in Guinbirayan in 1928 and I myself had many happy memories of the place from 1964 of picking up sea shells at low tide and gorging on duhat as fat as my thumbs. I had a mountain of work set up on my desk for the weekend, but how could I possibly say no? I packed as much of my work as I could into my laptop, and Beng and I joined Susie and her sisters in a Pajero driven by Toto to the Batangas seaport, where we left the jeep and got on board a RORO vessel bound for Odiongan, Romblon’s busiest port.

We left Batangas at sunset and arrived in Odiongan early in the morning, shaken and stirred by tall waves off Mindoro, but eager to board the waiting van driven by another one of my nephews (I would discover that I had a whole village full of them—my Lolo Cosme had a dozen children—and the word “Uncle,” in English, would resonate throughout our brief stay). Guinbirayan was another couple of hours away by a winding mountain road, now thankfully paved for the most part (“It depends on who the mayor is and on his political clout,” explained Toto), and getting there at sunrise, in time for a breakfast of grilled fresh fish, crabs, squid, and nilupak, proved well worth the journey.

We had just one full day in Guinbirayan—Susie and her siblings were getting their lots surveyed—so we spent most of that on the old farm feasting on fresh buko and native chicken, and in the afternoon we took a banca ride to Puro Island, where my mother still owns a small seaside lot, with much of the beach now washed away. The following morning, before boarding another RORO boat for Batangas, we paid a visit to my hometown of Alcantara, just long enough to say hello to a favorite aunt, Manang Adoring, and to note that a Globe cellsite now served that part of Tablas (Smart ruled the other part, so it helps to have two phones in such corners of the archipelago). By sunset, we were steaming out of the harbor for home.

Forty-eight hours after twenty years may not seem long enough, but brevity makes for intensity, and everything that I had seen and felt from my previous visits came swarming back to me with poignancy, making me more aware than ever of time past and time passing.

I went back to Lolo Cosme’s tomb, recalling my peek through its curious window in my novel: “I saw my grandfather’s skull on its macerated pillow, its teeth long and raw, the bone laced with patterns of black and yellow moonscapes and Great Walls of China running into the hollows and into the silver thicket of his hair—fine wiry hair that radiated above and around his brow like an aura, rampant, resplendent, indestructible.” That view was gone, as they had joined his bones with my grandmother’s and two aunts’ in a big concrete box. But the beach on which I had strolled many an afternoon was still there, and across it rose the massif of Kalatong, the enchanted mountain, where, my cousins and nieces swore, fairies and spirits abounded, ever ready to cast their spells on the unwitting visitor. “They can look like beautiful children riding golden chariots,” said one. “But they can also be evil.”

As we crossed fields of mango and cassava, I heard how one schoolgirl was known to have been possessed by these spirits, periodically falling into a trance: “She would faint on the muddy road in her white dress, then rise without a spot of dirt on her!” We were spared the carmen-carmen, but were warned about the kilkig, a slow-acting poison induced into one’s food, causing days of misery. My cellphone caught a signal on a hilltop and I called my mother in Manila, who cautioned me about meeting certain people: “They’re a family of witches,” she whispered.

We were, indeed, bewitched during that weekend, and entranced by the food, so I suppose there was some sorcery at work. The first thing I did when we got back was to book ferry tickets for a longer visit in March.