My mother’s family hails from the town of San Vicente in Bulan, Sorsogon. She came to Manila when she turned 13 and started working to help her family in the province. The youngest daughter of 8 siblings, she had two smaller brothers who eventually benefited from her toil.
My first conscious memory of traveling to the land of Mayon was sometime in the 70s. I cannot remember now exactly when that was, but it was a trip that saw us taking the train from Tutuban, which was the hub of the Philippine National Railway or PNR as it was known then. We took the executive coach which was an all-airconditioned car down to Legaspi City, taking all of 14 hours. I remember we even had to sleep in Legaspi overnight in what must’ve been a hotel, then we continued to travel by land in the morning in a rented car. It was another grueling 6 hour drive to my Lola Tia’s home.
It was the same house my Mom grew up in. It had a nipa roof, no interior bathroom, an outhouse a few steps away, and no real plumbing. Here I saw my first “balon” or deep well. The would actually throw down a bucket with a rope into this murky waters and heave and pull up the water which was not for drinking, only for washing.
There was no electricity in my grandmother’s house so I learned about kerosene bottles which my grandmother fiddled with during the day, making sure the bottles were full, and the wick was sufficient to give good light. At the ground level, there was the earth for your floor.. children marveled at seeing the “kids from Manila”. We were a novelty then because we arrived in a car. My siblings and I were also fairer than most children in the village who sported perpetual tans and sun burnt copper hair. (Talk about a natural dye!)
My grandmother was a lovely woman who spoke no Tagalog. I spoke no Bicolano then but we always understood each other. She would greet each one of us with a tight hug and a hard kiss on the head which sometimes made me lose my balance slightly. She always smelled of sweet coconut oil which she used amply on her black hair. She was a quiet woman but when she laughed, she laughed so heartily I loved to see her eyes glow. She always had her nganga and I would watch enthralled by the ritual of it how she put it all together.
My aunts and uncles and cousins would flock to the house in droves when we were there. They wanted to say hello to their Auntie Nene, their term of endearment for my mom, and meet their cousins from Manila who they would all say were magayunon. I think it was simply because we weren’t from there that they thought of us as good looking. I had no front teeth (no thanks to my early chocoholicism!) — but that never stopped me from smiling from ear to ear.
Our vacations there were always much too short. Bicol was too far away from Manila and Mom could not leave us there and commute back and forth as we would do with Baguio in the summer months. And much as Mom wanted to keep coming back every summer, we couldn’t promise to be back every year. We eventually flew to Legaspi, and then later on when the roads improved dramatically, we traveled the distance by car.
I learned about tuba and how men seemed to love it. I couldn’t figure out how the same thing from which the vinegar came from could become something the men loved to drink so much. I ate fresh buko from my uncle’s small farm to my heart’s delight. There was always fresh seafood meal after meal. I would witness my first pig slaughter here and we would have a real lechon roasted in the backyard..
As the years wore on, the old house was replaced by one made of cement blocks. My Uncle became the Barangay Captain (and despite a short respite for a few years, he is once again the head of the barangay). The house burned down in a suspicious accidental fire, but the lot is still there, and my Mom goes home when she can although she stays at an Aunt’s house.
The last time I visited was when my grandmother passed on sometime in the late 80s. My Mom dreams of retiring there one day, although I am imploring her to reconsider because I’m thinking of how difficult it would be to visit her when she is no longer strong enough to make the trip to Manila, and worse, fly to the United States.
To be continued..