Sunday, January 23, 2011

Of Fireflies and Forest Fairies (Part 1)

{Or Enchanted Trees, Sacred Groves and Forest Fairies: A Sampling
of Folk Beliefs Associated with Trees and Forests}


NOTE: This piece was originally written as a term paper on Environmental Communication at the UPLB Institute (now College) of Development Communication, then presented as a discussion paper in the Seminar-Workshop on the Application of Indigenous Knowledge Systems in Sustainable Upland Development held Oct. 17-19, 1995 at the UPLB College of Forestry, College, Laguna, Philippines. It was later published as a popular article in the Diliman Review, a quarterly journal (previously magazine) of the College of Arts and Letters, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, and the College of Science in UP Diliman. At the time, I was serving as University Researcher at the UPLB Forestry Development Center and, on part-time basis, was taking graduate courses in Development Communication and Environmental Studies at the University of the Philippines Los Baños. I'm posting the essay here because it does not only say something about my Dupax childhood, it also puts on record my strong views about Nature and rural people. (The photo of fireflies amidst trees here was borrowed from )

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WHEN WAS the last time you have seen fireflies?

Don’t look now but I started with this rhetorical question to plug on the idea that fireflies and folk beliefs have a number of things in common.

First is that we don’t see much of the two anymore.

In the case of fireflies, many bad things have happened to them – pollution in the air, for instance, then destruction of their habitat, disruption of their life cycles, and dwindling sources of whatever food it is that nurtures these insects.

As for folk beliefs, same problems – pollution by intrusive technology, destruction of the sites associated with their use, disruption of their fruitful existence by purveyors of miseducation, and diminishing number of nurturing believers and practitioners.

I also thought of fireflies because, just like much of our folk beliefs, they bring nostalgia. They evoke images of those sweet yesteryears when, yes, grass was green and roses were red and you and I were young and alive and there was beauty in the twinkling stars and paradise could be found underneath the friendly neighbor’s guava or mango trees.

When we get to see fireflies flickering and cavorting and swarming the way fireflies normally do atop some geriatric or flowering tamarind tree, we would believe among other things that they were the playmates of some invisible and supernatural friends. And, indeed, if you were alone and brave and in the middle of the night stared closely and long enough, the myriad of flickering tiny lights would morph into an evanescent yet quite distinct figure, the likes of the outline of a long-haired maiden clad in flowing white.


HERE ARE still remnants of the notion that folk beliefs and related indigenous knowledge systems and practices (IKSPs) have no scientific basis. Many of us belittle them as nothing but superstition and stupid concoctions fit for gullible dwellers in areas that have not been sufficiently reached by evangelizers, educators, and modernization.

Fortunately, there are local as well as international agencies working in the environment and natural resources sector that are showing keen interest on IKSPs to which folk beliefs belong. For example, the Rio Declaration explicitly calls for their respect and recognition. If this development means anything, it could only be the fact that we’re now realizing the immense value of this erstwhile ignored treasure trove of wisdom in improving life on Planet Earth and in increasing the chances of humans themselves to survive.

Yet the growing concern for IKSPs may have come a little late. For one thing, these nuggets of wisdom are rapidly vanishing, and frittering away beyond our reach and far beyond the enjoyment of our children. In other words, IKSPs are going… going… going… just like, well, the fireflies that formed magical moments in the youthful years of many of us who have been blessed to live during that era when kids were not yet Nature-starved.

Don’t ask me why this snapshot  appears biased for indigenous systems. I have been foraging and ruminating on belief systems and traditional practices for well over a decade now, partly because of my inclinations as a leaf-lover. And partly due to my involvement in social forestry and upland development where IKSPs should never be ignored.

So far, my distillations include the following:

1. Belief systems are “windows” that we could use to review our history as a country that is well endowed with natural resources – and to mend our environmentally disruptive ways. For instance, they could indicate that their originators and earlier advocates, the early Filipinos, did have very deep respect and love for Mother Earth or Inang Kalikasan.

According to Celso Roque (a pioneer of environmentalism in the Philippines), earlier Filipinos – such as the Ifugaos and the Kalingas of the Cordillera, the Maranaws and the Tausogs of Mindanao, and the swidden cultures of Mindoro and Palawan – have developed systems of ecological adaptation to their environment, and that some of these successful systems are still extant in the Philippines. In a paper presented in the First Seminar on Philippine Environmentalism (jointly sponsored by the FDC, DENR and PCARRD in 1988), Roque said:

“These systems of use and management of natural resources were learned through empirical testing over centuries of trial and error. While most of these have no basis in theoretical science, their merits have been demonstrated by the stability of the ecosystems that they worked. However, the most important feature of these indigenous systems is their total integration with the political economy of the society. The system of use of natural resources has become an indistinguishable component of a seamless cultural fabric.” (Roque, 1988)

2. Indigenous knowledge systems are pathways we could try in our search for ways by which human beings could live in harmony with God’s Creation and not subdue or exploit Nature for the sake of short-term material growth. They may be one golden key towards finding solutions and powerful allies to minimize, retard, forestall, ward off, or even annihilate humanity’s emerging nightmares, ranging from widespread famine and starvation, balding hills and festering fields,  and loss of species and biodiversity, to dying lakes and drying rivers, to destruction of the ozone layer, to acid rain… etc.

The Washington-based Worldwatch Institute noted this earlier in its On the Brink of Extinction: Conserving the Diversity of Life. A snippet from the booklet:

“Indigenous people in every tropical forest region have developed traditions of forest restoration and management but such traditional practices have not yet been systematically examined as a basis for sustainable development by growing populations, let alone a promising tool for conservation. The loss of such cultural knowledge could prove as costly as the loss of plant or animal species.” (Wolf, 1987)

3. Indigenous knowledge systems are reminders that indeed ordinary folks are also capable of extraordinary ideas and, along with their hinterland homes, can no longer be considered as unattractive backseat passengers in nation-building. Moreover, their continued presence may just be a blessing and a reminder for us who may have forgotten that conscientious scientists, academicians, researchers, development workers, and policy-makers have much to learn from them.

As the World Conservation Strategy (IUCN, 1980) puts it:

“Rural communities often have profound and detailed knowledge of the ecosystems and species with which they are in contact, and effective ways of ensuring they are used sustainably. Even when a community is growing in numbers and is clearly destroying a part of its environment, it should not be assumed that all this knowledge has disappeared or become invalid, or that the traditional ways of regulating use have atrophied.”

4. As bodies of knowledge, cultural beliefs and practices are largely related to the stewardship of the natural environment, are highly adaptive for improving human-environment interactions, and often play critical roles in determining behavioral patterns that, in turn, affect, modify, and regulate many interactions within the human ecosystem.

In the words of George Lovelace, an anthropologist who helped reorient people-focused forestry programs at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO):

“Belief systems help human societies understand the world in which they dwell as well as other worlds they may believe to exist, and help account for each society’s position and its members’ roles with respect to these worlds. Beliefs – and the ideas, emotions, and motivations that they generat – often serve as important stimuli for a wide range of human behavior that directly or indirectly affects the environment. Beliefs affect how humans position and organize themselves within, and with respect to, the landscape. They also affect human decisions to exploit, and how, when, and to what degrees these should be occupied or exploited.”

5. IKSPs are answers of rural people (including what some call “the barriotic folks” and the “Baroks and the Bartolas” in the boondocks) to: a) lack of government attention, b) dearth of extension workers, c) inaccessibility of development programs, d) scarcity of truly grassroots and remote-village-friendly civic organizations; and e) the Metro Manila-centric nature of many environmentalists.

(NEXT: Belief in the Divine Presence;  Belief in Sacred Sites. FORTHCOMING:  Belief in Critical Hours; Belief in Haunted Places; Belief in Unfit or Disfavored Trees; What’s Next for Folk Beliefs?; Appendix: Isnegs Declare Lapat to Conserve Natural Resources)


Friday, January 21, 2011

Indigenous Toys of Dupax Boys

WHEN I WAS growing up in the fifties to the sixties, we boys in Dupax also had many toys. Unlike most if not all kids today, however, our toys were live animals (like turtles, dragonflies, and maybeetles) or were directly made of bamboo or gathered from the trees (like the fruit of the tibig) or crafted from discarded materials  (like sardine cans, slabs from the sawmill, flower sheaths of the betelnut palm).

We called this palsuot in Ilocano. Tagalog boys call it sumpak. It consists of about a foot of bamboo branch open on both ends for “barrel” and a “trigger” made of 3 o 5 inches of same diameter but equipped with a sturdy and polished stick enough in length and thickness to go through the hole of the barrel. The “bullets” would be any soft material that could be plugged on the top end of the barrel then pushed through to the other end. Bullets could be wet paper, kapok flower buds, herb leaves, and unripe fruits of sapang (karrarawit in Ilocano; lubalob in Tagalog; scientific name: Bridelia stipularis) [see photo]. To operate, push one bullet towards the end of the barrel, then put another at the top end. When you push this second bullet, the air inside the barrel is compressed and pushes the other bullet out of the other end, creating a PLOK or other such popping sound. Innovations include putting a broken off 7-Up or Coke bottle neck to make the popping sound louder. Some have a hole on the side with which to push a succession of bullets, thus getting a semblance of rapid fire. It is fun playing longest-distance shooting or war games with this toy – some kids take too long chewing bits of paper for bullet; others take too long pounding the bullet to allow for tighter air and thus stronger shoot.

Made of flat oval cans of sardines, the big ones. I seldom see these types anymore, but earlier the common brand was Rosebowl; one time in Dupax, a brand carried the name NAMARCO. The tin cans were good feeding trays for dogs, drinking bowl for chickens, containers of laundry soap (Perla or Argo) along with wash cloths and is-isu (bubbur in Isinay, this is a smoothened river stone used for rubbing body dirt), and organizer for nails, screws, and other small objects. But we often gave our old folks a stiff competition because the tin cans made good trucks (we had no concept of cars then). We bore a hole on one end and attached a string to it which we used to pull the thing. Almost always, our trucks’ loads were stones, sand, dust (tapok), and even a kitten or puppy. I recall one time there were plenty of Atlas moth larvae (fat, green ones) and the dreaded atattaru (Isinay term for an itchy worm; igges a makabudo) and we loaded and played with them too. For variation, a sardine-can could be opened only a little over halfway such that it has its top lid on; we folded this lid to resemble the roof of a bulldozer or a truck. More enterprising kids attach small Liberty or Darigold evaporated milk cans for wheels.

This is the slingshot we call baris in Isinay (tirador in Tagalog). This was my favorite multipurpose toy when I was a boy so much so that I have become an expert in making it (although not necessarily in using it). Many a perfectly Y-shaped guava twigs were sacrificed for the handle (pakawan) which I would first hunt in Pitang’s wild guava groves then tie with buri (silag) leaves to keep them trained (as in a bonsai). When finally I get to buy rubber (lastiko) from the market at Malasin, I would cut the guava branch and carved the handle into the desired U-shaped thing. I was wary not to go for the wide open Y handle as other kids would laugh at you and call your slingshot sawak. One time my Uncle Carting "Pagalmiduran" Legazpi has managed to get an inner-tire-tube from the sawmill, he let me cut my own supply of rubbers. Using Mama’s sharp scissors that she kept in her Singer sewing machine, I would go to Uncle Carting’s house and snip narrow shreds of rubber for tying the main rubber to my U-shaped pakawan. I would later abandon using these black truck-tire material for the more classy, well-trimmed and colored lastiko in Malasin that cost 25 centavos per length. Oh yes, the thing would not be complete if you didn’t have a palalat or that leather thing you attached at the other end of the rubber and on which you would set the stone for propelling by the rubber. I also happened to have an endless supply of palalat in the form of Papa’s discarded leather shoes. Other kids would use discarded upper soles of their mother’s bakya, which was not often good material. My slingshots were so artful I would not be ashamed of using them on my neck, like rosary or necklace, each time I would go out of the house. Not once did I also annoy Mama because I would pilfer some of the rubber bands she used for her hair-curling (kulot) livelihood as their red or pink colors blended well with my red or green main bands. As for Papa, I got his ire once when I lent my palsiit to my favorite cousin and playmate Nelson who used it to hit our neighbor Salin Calacala one time they quarreled and Uncle Ermin got the slingshot and shred it to pieces with a bolo while giving Nelson a scolding. Other recollections: Papa would capture slingshots from his Grade 4 pupils and bring them home. But he would not necessarily give them to me as gift then as I preferred the ones I personally made; besides, I didn't like their odorous smell that we called meyangdur in Isinay (naangdod in Ilocano). My sister Judith would of course choose one and, because I was her idol at the time, she would also wear one on her neck the way she would often see me wear one like a necklace. However, I have no recollections of the tomboy that she was ever hitting a bird or a mango with her slingshot.

Called dalih-dalih in Isinay, this had many variations: one with a meter-long stick/pole just to push around with, another with a bird or butterfly carving at the end and their GI sheet wings are attached with wire to the wheel such that the wings flap if you pushed the thing. The dual purpose (for play and for water-fetching chores) consists of a 2-meter sturdy bamboo pole that had a handle bar and could carry another kid or a pail of water. Some have two wheels of tebbeg (a fig tree; tibig in Tagalog) fruits; others with wheels made of sawn ends of round poles/posts. The dual-purpose or heavy duty ones usually have one sturdy wheel made of chiseled wooden board big and durable enough to carry loads. You could use discarded wheels of kiddie bikes for wheel or even those of a wheelbarrow. I saw one equipped with “busina” made of a string at the end of which is a milk can; if you pulled the string, a sound is made.
Much working like a water gun, this I usually made of the slender stems of the bulo (see photo below) that our elders discarded when they made garong (a huge bamboo basket used to store palay), this is simply a tube with the node left intact but with small hole on one end  and the other end opened to allow the entry of a stick with cloth coiled to it. The tube is filled with water which spurts into strong squirts when the pusher is pushed -- yes, it worked like a piston. We used this as toy when we bathed in the banawang (irrigation ditch) or when there was not much to do in the neighborhood and so we had all the time to play and chase the dogs and chickens and ducks in the whole neighborhood in I-iyo. If there were no dogs to chase (as they would often run for dear life in their langgotse beds under the ladders of houses when they see us terrorist barrio goons coming), we would use as target for our water guns a water-loving pig tied under a langka tree. Or we would compete as to how far the water from the nozzle reaches. Sometimes it goes up to10 meters.

A hollow bamboo tube made of the thin bulo (uhaw in Isinay; boho in Tagalog; scientific name: Schysostachium lumampao) bamboo. We polished the mouthpiece to prevent injury to our lips. Then we would find seeds of the bugayong vine and use it as bullet. No. sir, we didn’t use mungo beans and the like as we valued their use as food. To operate, you put one seed to the tip of your tongue, set it on the mouthpiece of the tube, then in a strong spewing action often with the sound of “pit-tuww” you hit the target you and your playmates fancied, like a sleeping dog or a hen with newly hatched chicks.

This is the bamboo toy that most often comes out in December when I was young, particularly when the St. Vincent and the Eagle Swing orchestras have awakened the whole town with their marchy music to encourage them to attend the misa de gallo masses (from Dec. 16 to 24). This flute-like toy produces musical sound depending on what tune you blew it on. The life span of the torotot however is only a few hours or as long as the bamboo film that gives the sweet vibrating sound lasts. To make one such flute, you have to have a green or half-mature  bamboo branch with less than one-fourth inch hole and has one-inch diameter. Cut one lawas (biyas in Isinay; internode in English) about one foot long of the green bamboo branch and remove the nodes on both ends. Smoothen one end to form the mouthpiece then leave the other end as is. Using a sharp bolo, you carefully sliced off one side of the less than foot long bamboo with the intent to expose but intact and uninjured the white film that forms part of the core of the bamboo. If the film gets broken or punctured, the instrument will not make a sound. 

The kadang-kadang is the bamboo stilt that was a favorite toy of both Ilocano and Isinay boys when I was going to school in Dupax Central. I don’t know how it started but word got around that a senior woman named Baket Ayang was mad at boys who passed by her house (Parucha’s house, before the Benitez) “aboard” such bamboo stilts. Pretty soon, a song to the tune of  Paul Anka’s “Diana” would be shouted by the more naughty boys with these words: “I’m so young ni Baket Ayang, iparitna ti kadang-kadang, aglayus ti karayan…” I was an expert in using this one and, imagining that there would soon be a kadang-kadang race during the fiesta, I practiced jumping onto the foothold of the stilts and race as fast as I could. I started with ones that had about  one-foot-high foot-holder and graduated to over two-feet-high items that made walking on muddy roads or crossing the river easy without wetting your legs. The tall ones also made us safe from dogs.

Called ta-i-tâ in Isinay, this instrument is called bamboo clapper in English. It is usually made during Good Friday and used  in place of church bells, that is, to announce the start of the Black Friday procession around town. In earlier times, it is said this instrument was used to warn the neighborhood of the arrival of pirates or visitors, while some farmers use it to drive away the swarms of sparrows that attack ripening rice grains with its "plak-plak-plak" noise that could be heard perhaps even a kilometer away specially at night when all is quiet. To make one palakapak, you have to select a well-seasoned bamboo or what they term in Isinay as neyamsan (natangkenan in Ilocano). Aside from making a more audible sound, this seasoned bamboo didn't break easily. Depending on your height, you can choose a bamboo pole a meter or more in length. The fatter the pole, the better. Then with a sharp bolo or better yet a hand saw, carve out about a foot-long hole on the nodal end of the pole taking extreme care so that the pole will not break. Carve out a similar foot-long hole on the other side of the first hole, then scrape the "wound" to remove sharp edges that may cut your fingers. Then turning now to the other end of the pole, get a sharp bolo and split the pole into exact halves until you reach the gaping foot-long pair of slits and making sure you don't totally split the pole into separate halves. After you've successfully freed your bolo from the pole, your bamboo clapper is now ready for use. You can hold the end of one side of the halved pole with one hand and the nodal end with another and proceed shaking the contraption the way you clap your hands. You can "clap" the halves into the sound made popular in the early 1960s that we called "Let's Go!" and went like this: "plak-plak... plak-pla..plak-plak... plak-plak!" -- CHARLZ CASTRO

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Holy Week In Dupax

(NOTE: I just found this essay stashed in a blogsite that I could no longer write new posts to because I forgot my user's name and password to it and, no matter how I tried to retrieve them, I couldn't get through the service-provider's barricade. I'm re-posting it here with some modifications in the hope that its contents would still be relevant to the memory of former Dupax busybodies who, like me, certainly miss those bygone days of Lent.)
Penitent yet nostalgic Lenten season recollections of an almost senior Dupax citizen 

I just hope the people of Dupax still celebrate the Lenten season like they used to when I was still fully obedient of the Catholic doctrines taught us in catechism school.

The years (not to mention the semi-peripatetic nature of my professional life which made me live in places far from the old town, and which forced me to have long absences from my usual ways) have so blurred the images of those bygone Lents. I have thus lost track of the sequences and even many of the personalities of the events associated with those Lenten seasons past.

Nevertheless, back then, we know it was Lent when one Wednesday we would attend mass and come out later with black crosses on our foreheads. Weekday masses then were held only at 6 in the morning and, if it happened that Ash Wednesday was still school season, we self-conscious boys made sure we avoided touching our forehead when we washed our faces in plain pumpwell (we called the thing gripo or bomba then) water before going to school.

Then came Palm Sunday, which we referred to then as Domingo de Ramos. It was easy to know when it was that kind of Sunday because the Thursday and Friday that followed it was printed red in the red-and-blue calendar that carried the name of saints. It was that Sunday of the year when suddenly the palms in the neighborhood, particularly the buri palms (which we called tahtah in Isinay and silag in Ilocano) of Imong Calacala, became useful. Otherwise we would only notice the palms when we needed material with which to tie sacks of palay to be brought to Mercado’s ricemill (kiskisan), or when “District Schools exhibit” period came and we Dupax Central Elementary School pupils were tasked to produce broom from the fibers of the buri stalk.

Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday), as far as I recall, was also the only day apart from Christmas when I saw my grandmother Inang Feliza go to church. Before she went to the centuries-old (the belfry carries the year 1776) St. Vincent Catholic Church, however, she made it a point to first drop by the house to kiss my sisters, bring bananas or karabasa or utung or tugi or whatever their produce in the bangkag or their uma was, and give us our share of the palaspas (coconut frond handicraft?) that Apong Pedro made for the occasion. Apong used yellow coconut fronds then and his artistic pieces almost always had a pineapple-shaped body and figures of birds or grasshoppers on the tip of the midribs. After mass, Mama would put the palaspas on the door or in a corner near the kitchen – it was believed to be an-anib (talisman) against kimat (lightning).

The days that followed were marked with certain stillness. Even the wind stopped blowing. I guess even the birds that used to be noisy during other days of the year, also stopped chirping, cawing, and tweet-tweeting. But ah, the tamarind, the anonas, the mango, the lumboy, and the guava trees along with the sapang bushes had ripe fruits by then and their irresistible calls to self-taught tree-climbers like me were only rivaled by the seemingly increased population and tame nature of birds in the nearby groves.

Yet, as if on cue, normally boisterous, itchy-footed, and slingshot-happy kids like me stayed home then. Suddenly we were well behaved. Suddenly nobody climbed the fruiting trees in the neighborhood. Suddenly no one ran after the neighbor's cat that earlier chewed a pet martines bird sunning itself after a bath.

As if by miracle, too, we became useful in mending fences, splitting wood with axe (agbalsig in Ilocano; manisih in Isinay), guarding pre-harvest rice or palay let out to dry on mats on the roadside, watering wilting coffee saplings and eggplants, and baby-sitting (agaw-awir in Ilocano; mangahayam in Isinay) kid siblings. Oh well, that's penitencia as we knew it. You could almost hear the saraguelas trees (with their now leafless branches starting to go heavy with hundreds of marble-sized green and stony fruits) laugh and seemingly whisper gunggunam! (in Isinay: sanat naeyam! In Tagalog: buti nga sa iyo! In English: it suits you!).

Oh yes, even the Spanish-era church bells (the peeling of which provided our only time-piece then, usually at 7AM, 1PM, and 6PM) also became silent, starting Maundy Thursday (Huebes Santo), the whole of Black Friday (Biernes Santo) and up to Holy Saturday (Sabado de Gloria). Pity for those who die during such days when the bells are silent as they would not have the privilege of having their passing away announced by the then familiar mournful and seconds-apart peeling of the bells.

In place of the ringing of the bells on Good Friday, particularly when it would have to be announced that the libut (procession) was about to start or was already on its way around the town, was the tai-ta^ (palakapak in Ilocano; bamboo clapper in English). A dozen or so boys each with his own bamboo clapper would be perched on the topmost part of the torre (belfry) would make their bamboo instruments make sound with all their might.

The church sacristan mayor (at the time, it was Eligio Seangoy and then Eufracio "Parasyo^" Dinu) would prohibit us lesser boys to also go and grope our way on the very narrow and dark winding stairs up to the topmost level of the torre -- for our own safety then, I guess. And so, if ever we would get past him, one of the boys would be instructed to pull the shaky wooden ladder up to the top where there is a flimsy and also centuries-old brick railing. And we would just content ourselves peering through the huge bells to look at the "ant-sized" church-goers below.

Of course, I would join the procession -- as at the time I had this inclination to become a priest (a spinoff, I guess, of my having been a consistent First Honor in Religion from the elementary grades up to 4th year high school). From the St. Vincent Church, the libut first turned left towards Bagumbayan; turned left again at the back of the church; crossed the Bailey bridge across Abannatan at the northern edge of St. Mary's High; went straight to the Dereya part of Domang; turned left again past Castillo's kiskisan and the public market and on to our part of Domang (where Mama has already put out a tiny table where a couple of candles provide illumination to statues of Mary and San Vicente Ferrer); turned left again past the Nuestro, Salirungan and Mejia houses; then left again at the Magallanes part straight to the Pastor Perez, Cirilo Magaway, Jose Castro, Fernandez, Mercado ricemill and Guiab part; then right towards Dupaj passing by the Mamaoag, Castaneda and Guzman houses and then the historic Dampol Bridge. After Dampol, past the front of St. Mary's and the century-old acacia trees, the procession would hit the tip of the church grounds again but would turn right at what would pass for the widest road/boulevard/avenue in Dupax del Sur, past the side of the Dupax Town Hall and the Reyes, Arroyo, Lopez, Albano, Evaristo, Magalad, Felix and Galapon homes; turn left past the Bombongan, Sagario, Boada, Daran, and Dingras homes; then left again past the corner of the Ivilao Road and the Abijay, Guzman, Ramos, Vilde, Daran, Ferrer, Adducul homes; then left again to the Feliux and Galutera homes, then a slight right and left in front of the plaza; then back to the church.

All along the sturdy taita^ boys atop the belfry continued clapping their bamboo instruments and their plak-plak-plak choruses would compete with the solemn procession hymns played by the St. Vincent Orchestra on the front section of the procession and then towards the rear was the Eagle Swing Orchestra. Oh yes, that's how the Black Friday procession typically looked like then but with all the available and appropriate statues in the Church, including San Vicente Ferrer (the patron saint of Dupax) and the "Dead Nazarene" (my term, harking back to my boyhood when we avoided looking at the figure of Jesus lying in a glass-encased bed each time we would enter the church alone to to say a little prayer or just to genuflect).

The following day, Saturday, the uncircumcized among us would troop to Morgado, the town's only panday (blacksmith) at the time, to undergo the right of manhood (called kugit) in nearby Abannatan. The rest of us would join family picnics by the river (wangwang in Isinay), mostly in Iiyo, some at the Yeso, some at the Nazareno/Birayan area, and some further upstream, where we would sun ourselves all day catching goby (sappilan in Isinay; bunog in Ilocano) via our Isinay and Ilocano ways of catching river edibles such as the use of the batbateng, sarep, lipit, pi^yat, and tabukol.

Sunday would be Easter Sunday and -- alleluia!-- the church bells would ring happily and loudly again as if to say through their thick iron-bronze-copper immensities that, indeed, the Lord is risen. This time the "dead Jesus" (again, a name that I invented; see photo) would be pulled away to an inconspicuous corner of the church where it would gather dust and cobwebs until it gets noticed again when another Holy Week came. In its place would be a half-clothed statue of a standing and younger Christ, with its palms and side and feet still red with "wound".

I'm not sure now if the Risen Christ took the right or the left path as it was carried by devotees from the church. What I'm sure of was that the other path would be taken by a black-veiled statue of Mother Mary with its artificial long and curly tresses. And the two statues (along with their bearers) would meet under a square "corral" made of bamboo poles and decorated with colorful crepe paper and fern fronds (no flowers then nor even anahaw fronds in Dupax in April!) where, as climax of the ceremony, a girl seated on a laawe (I'll describe this later in another post) would be very slowly lowered down to Mother Mary while singing "!" to the tune of the church organ played by Juan Dinu (or was it another guy?) and/or the violin (which we called eng-eng) played expertly by Juan Felix.

Still singing with quivering but still sweet voice, the "angel" would next slowly remove Mother Mary's black veil and then the cantores (church singers) Juan Dinu, Juana Bastero, ___ Campo, et al. would sing some more Latin hymns appropriate for the Sabet (yes, that's how Papa used to call it). And then the two statues would be carried side by side back to the church as the orchestra (I guess the combined St. Vincent and Eagle) would play a happier procession music... and we kids jostled or outraced one another back inside the church and to our pews. All the while the church bells would ring "kaleng-kaleng-kaleng!" very loudly again.

Ah, Dupax... when its church bells still echoed in the hills and grass was still green and I climbed almost all the town's tamarinds! -- CHARLZ CASTRO

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Diyyes then was Already Heaven

WHEN I WAS going to school at the Gabaldon (that’s how Dupax Elementary School was called then, which I later learned to mean the type of building that an American architect designed for schools in the Philippines), it was seldom if ever that Mama gave me money.

Well, it was probably because it was not fashionable for parents to pamper their kids with allowances (unlike now). It might have also been because we simply had no money for such luxury as Papa’s salary as a public school teacher then was only enough to buy a week’s supply of grocery that Mama and I went to buy from Ko Peng’s stall in Malasin every Sunday after mass (usually consisting of a kilo of sugar, a can of condensed milk, two or more cans of sardines, a 6-pack bundle of Siga-siga cigarettes, a pack of 6-box matches, a kilo of bihon, two boxes of Purico, two long bars of Perla laudry soap, two bars of Lifebuoy bath soap, a small jar of Fighter or Atomic pomade, Johnson’s baby powder, etc.)

I therefore had to earn a few centavos selling bote and landuk to the Chinese man with assiw from Malasin. No diyaryo then and, if ever, what little paper we had was meant for kindling the pugon or was ripped into pieces and hung on the wall of the toilet for wiping one’s behind.

What did I need money for? Well, to buy candy with rubber bands or delicious mamon bread from Incion “Pawa” Galam’s store at the gate of the Dupax Elementary School. Or during recess when Rosby “Oppi” Ferrer’s sorbetes cart was around and his bell’s incessant kleng-kleng-kleng went irresistible, my mouth went watering to have a lick at the most delicious icecream there was in the whole of Dupax at the time.

My best ally before Nelson grew big enough to join was Elnora. We went scavenging rusty nails on the trail/road between the Ili and Magaway lots and connecting Domang with Dupaj and across Abannatan. We passed there after Sunday mass and put whatever pickings we had on sabsabut/ungut that also abound in the filth. (As a footnote, Elnora has taken up nursing at St. Louis University in Baguio and has been working since the early 1980s as a nurse in a hospital in Maryland, USA. Her brother Nelson has taken up Forestry like me and is now the DENR's Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Officer or PENRO of Zambales.)

Good finds then because they commanded better price were dilapidated kaserola, broken paryok, punctured kaldero, and spent up plow share. The plow share (sarapa) plus the subsub I would get from Surung but this was if Apong agreed, otherwise I would go home to Domang with resentment as the plow materials were meant to be dalikan for the binugbog (chopped papaya, gabi, or tigi cooked along with rice bran and used as swine feed).

One time I fought with Elias Felix in Surung over a landok that I found and took pains to pry from its place in the banawang. Another time, the bote-landuk man wanted to buy the shotput steel ball that Papa brought home from Gabaldon and which Tata Ikko^ et al. would use for throwing contests. Other times I would find grenade-sized iron blobs and the bote-landuk man rejected them (I didn’t know then they were the heads of World War II bombs). These dangerous (?) items used to abound then under the mango trees or sapang vines in Pitang where I used to go scavenge for our favorite polbora (tiny square chips and centimeter-long wire cuttings).

Ordinarily, our collections were Rose Vinegar bottles and Cliquot softdrink. The Siok Tong or vinegar bote were gin bottles that Inang used for her herbal medicines or coconut oil.There were aluminum casseroles then which commanded better price. But Mama did not discard the ones that got holes (perhaps due to too much scrubbing) as she found them light and good (they didn’t rust unlike kerosene cans) for her kutsay herbs that she used to cure my sisters’ bumps each time they stumble or hit their heads onto something.

No one bought milk and sardine cans. Nonetheless, we treasured these. The flat sardine cans became gargarusa (toy cars) and later for tambourine. The milk cans similarly served as wheels for the sardine cars or made into maracas that we equipped with guava twigs for handle and a dozen or so tiny stones for the sound. The tambourines and the maracas we used as carolling paraphernalia when Christmas came and my sister Arlyne and cousins Elnora, Neneng, and Jessie went to sing “Dashing thru the snow,” “Soap as the boys of an angel” and “Sa-ay lent nayt” in the houses whose owners we knew were not so stingy as to part with 5 centavo or 10 centavo coins each. We would later divide the fruits of our singing efforts and if there was not enough to make all members have at least a diyes (10 centavos) each, Uncle Kusep (oldest brother of Papa and Uncle Ermin) would fill up the deficit — and then we would all go home happy and then later dream of doing another carolling the next Christmas around.

A Town Among The Hills

There’s a town way up there among the hills
Everybody there’s happy and gay
All the people there are busy all the day
Yet sweet smiles you see everywhere.
Oh town of Dupax… I’ll never forget
My humble home where I freely love to roam
Town of Dupax… keep me closer unto thee
Ever and forever we will sing thee mabuhay!

One's balik-bayan or homecoming would not be complete without a visit to say a little prayer inside the St. Vincent Catholic church of Dupax del Sur, Nueva Vizcaya, Northern Philippines. Older than the churches of Laoag City (Ilocos Norte) and Vigan City (Ilocos Sur), this witness to the Dupax of yore has for over two centuries now (1772-2011) remained the most durable symbol of the Isinay/Inmeas tribe even as the beautiful Isinay language itself is now starting to dwindle -- much like the huge molave and narra trees, the dutiful carabaos, and the Isinays used to build this glorious monument. 

ONCE IN A WHILE a time comes when, walking down a garbage-littered city street the likes of those we now see common in Metro Manila, suddenly a flash of half-forgotten images appears in your mind’s eye and then, although you have set your self for a busy work day in the office, you fall prey to the itch to write.

And so you write or rather pound furiously at the computer, unmindful of the day’s deadlines and do so by consoling yourself that, oh well, deadlines can wait... bosses can wait some more time... but not inspired moments which, when left unattended, will surely no longer come back and as sweet as they first knocked on your consciousness.

A thing like that just occurred to me today, with the song about my town Dupax del Sur, in southern Nueva Vizcaya, above suddenly coming back to my mind and sending off myriad images that, while parading in my memory, surely kept me oblivious of the filth and the garbage and the noise and the concrete and steel jungle that is Metro Manila.

First, there was the image of ricefields framed on one side by gentle mountains and on another by glistening rivers. The blue sky accentuated by a few cirrus clouds here and there, and a gliding hawk out there... give only one message: these fields are fortunately not yet polluted.

Farther back in time, there were the grassy hills west of the Dupax Elementary School. The gurgling waters of Abannatan. The gigantic acacia trees in the St. Mary's and St. Vincent Church compound. The mango and sapang and guava paradise I used to play kites on in Pitang. The starlit skies when there was no electric lights yet in Dupax. The long line of carabaos passing by the house in Domang. The picturesque country road to I-iyo that swirled with dust in summer and was a haven of mud puddles when it rains.

There was also the panorama of the whole of Dupax when you went to gather firewood up there in the remnant forests of Mount Abuwew, or when girls and boys in our part of Domang went to climb the highest hill nearby and set a bandera among the wind-swept rocks up there. And there was the image of the place we called Tamuhaha where in grade school some intrepid upper-class boy would lead us to during very welcome teacher-meeting breaks and we would all troop to the site, like little soldiers, to gather all the pitcher plants we could (for what purposes other than showing them off to our girl classmates I don't remember), and on the way find a muddy guava left unpecked by birds or outdo one another rolling brown rocks downhill.

The images were of course more than the fleeting and intangible shadows of a bygone era when childhood was bliss and all the town was free playground and the rainbows were frequent, for they came in full color -- along with their respective scents and sounds even -- that were part of the now fast vaporizing mementos of a half-century-old city rat compelled to be like that by circumstances all pointing towards the need to earn a decent living and keep family and soul intact.
My town among the hills may not have the luxury of superhighways, glitzy hotels, fast-food centers, and shopping malls that cash-strapped people  may crave for. But at least it has sweet and bird-rich mountains, rice-scented and emerald green scenery, and fish-endowed and unpolluted rivers that are now becoming a rarity in many Philippine towns. Reflecting now on this September 2010 photo of the grandkids of Junior and Isabel Calacala, was it very long ago indeed when as a child in the 1960s up to the early '70s I freely roamed this upstream part of Dupax del Sur myself and enjoyed sun-kissed places, forest-fresh water, and the thrill of "fish jumping as high as the sky"?  

I shall later write vignettes triggered by those returning shadows of those days in Dupax when, oh well,as the lines of the Brothers Four’s song “Time to Remember” go:

...when grass was green and grain was yellow
and dreams were kept beside your pillow
and love was an ember about to billow.

July 24, 2001

A Spearfisher Remembers

Used ballpens, broken umbrellas, freshwater rivers, and other recollections of a spearfisher

(NOTE: Like many of the essays I have written, this piece was triggered by what others would think to be a trivial thing or event – in this case disposing of used ballpens. What have ballpens have to do with spearfishing? Funny, indeed, but I did find a link and in fact was about to use “Of Ballpens and Spearfishing” as title for this piece that I started to compose morning of August 11, 2006 in my computer at the CBRMP office, 7th Floor, EDPC Building, Department of Finance, Bangko Sentral Complex, Roxas Blvd., Manila.)

To Discard or to Recycle

As I was rummaging through my drawer for a fine-tipped pen to use for my text-message “diary” one morning, I found two ballpoint pens that I thought already belonged to the trash basket. One was a Panda 757-RP whose ink-tube I transferred to an empty but more classy HBW 200. The other was a Dong-a My-Gel 0.5mm that has run out of ink.

What happened was, I got myself wrestling whether to throw the two fellows into my wastebasket or keep them longer, even if the latter would mean giving up again on my New Year, Birthday, and Holy Week resolution to clear my workplace of junk. I found it difficult, nay, painful to dispose of them. It was as if they were telling me someday somehow they would still be of good use somewhere.
And then it hit me: the items could be used to make spearfishing guns!

I shall outline shortly how this tool of my youth is made. But, for the uninitiated, let me start by saying that spearfishing guns look like mini rifles. For bullets, however, they use one- up to two-foot-long steel rods the tips of which are either sharpened like needle or shaped like a tiny arrow, and as a propelling mechanism they use elastic rubber bands the likes of those used to make slingshots.

Were I to construct a fish speargun today the housing of the crystal Panda ballpen could be a good barrel to guide the steel projectiles. The perfectly cylindrical and narrow ink-tube of the Dong-a would be best for rods fashioned out of the ribs of umbrellas.

Umbrellas, Fences, Rubber Tires

Indeed, the most used barrel then were the stem of broken umbrellas. When I was young, the material was hard steel and it would take hours for one to cut them to desirable lengths by means of a file or old bolo.
I once used the metal ink-tube of a ballpoint pen – a Glorial. It worked well and made my arrow shoot straight. But then it easily got bent if used to probe stones. Besides, it was very rare to get hold of empty Glorial inktubes then. We used Bic, which was plastic.

In place of umbrella cylinder, one can use bamboo. There was this type that we called runo. It grew near mountain creeks and it was a favorite raw material too for making carillas or that tube used as spool for the thread used for weaving abel Iluko.

It was difficult to find broken umbrellas in the barrio; folks preferred using dalungdong or salakot for protection from the sun or rain. But in our house in the ili, we seemed to never run out of broken umbrellas. This was way long before roving repairmen came to our way-out-of-the-main-route town.

We used the ribs for arrow. Yes, sir, they were yet unalloyed unlike umbrellas of today where a gust of wind will make you a laughing stock when your umbrella does not only break but also gets reversed.

But the size of umbrella ribs was only fit for bunog and small buntiek. For arm-size dalag and other fish, particularly the igat, better to use thicker wire. We got this from the barbed wire used to keep stubborn cattle from getting out of the pasto. Surprising how such wires get steel hard after years of exposure to sun and rain int heir super stretched condition.

For rubber, we just bought this from the market in Malasin. One band was enough and it sold for only binting (25 centavos), later to salape (50 centavos).

If you could not afford it, ask around and there is always somebody in the barrio who has one interior tire that is not tuna or patingga (inelastic) but super elastic. This came, I guess, from the mechanics shop of the trucks of the logging company or sawmill.

Guava Twigs or Slabs from the Sawmill

For stock (the wooden part of the speargun that held the barrel and the lock), we used the choicest slab from the sawmill. Narra, guiho, dalingdingan, ipil. If you can’t go to the sawmill or have no access to slabs, best option would be guava branches, particularly the ones that curved into a pistol. By instinct, we never used caimito (brittle). We didn’t use tamarind either.

We used the sharpest bolo to carve the slab or the branch into the shape of a long-barreled pistol or that of a tiny rifle. Depending on the dryness of the wood, you either let this dry or hang this near the dalikan (stove) for hardening.

The next step would be to bore a hole through at the juncture between the handle and the barrel. The hole is meant for the kalbit (trigger) the fashioning, fitting and fastening of which completes the gun. The trigger is made out of wire that is pliant but sturdy enough to serve its pulling function. The wires I often used were from the extra end of mother’s clothesline, or the protruding ends of the fence that was normally used in Dupax before hollowblock fences became fashionable.

It may be blasphemous but I liken this aversion to disposing of ballpens that have seen better times to what Mother Theresa-like mortals do: rescue and take care of homeless or abandoned people, cats and dogs.
Perhaps it was the combined Ilocano frugality and environmentalist in me but I do have a cache of used ballpens that grows each time the ones supplied to me run out of ink or when I rescue and/or adopt ones that have been junked by officemates due to erratic ink flow, missing caps, broken clips, chewed top ends, and other such deformities.

Off to the River We Would Go

And what follows after one speargun gets finished? Of course, if it were made during school days, I would be looking forward to the weekend where either before twilight on Friday or before the morning sun gets too hot on Saturday I would grab my bicycle and off to my grandparents' house in I-iyo I would go. I would hide my bike inside the house (particularly when no one's at home), find a vacant pasiking among mg Apong Lakay's paraphernalia, rummage among the pots in Inang Baket's kitchen to find out if a boiled tugi or corn or banana  is ready for the taking, then off to the river that divided I-iyo and Ballasiw I would go. Some days I would be  lucky to get a catch (the likes of the bunch shown in the photo) and have juvenile mudfish, a lot of goby, a couple of frogs or so, and a half dozen small tilapia. Some days the tilapia are so wild or could not be found anywhere. Some days too the river gets murky due to bulldozing by some logger upstream. Some days I would have the company of my barrio friends/cousins Arthur and Duardo Guillermo, Tony Agcaoile, Milit Lacandazo, Cardo Jasmin, and Midsor Pudiquet. Oh well, like what one song by John Denver goes: "Some days are diamonds, some days are stones."

Nourished by Bananas

I’M CURRENTLY working on the production of the very first dictionary of the vanishing Isinay language of Nueva Vizcaya (particularly Aritao, Bambang and Dupax) and each time a new entry emerges from the caverns of my mind, almost always my memory comes alive with images, sounds, tastes, people, places, and events associated with the word.

For instance, while I was thinking of the Isinay term for the Ilocano agpaluom (literally, "to make something ripe"), I thought of the bananas (and also the mangoes, anonas, jackfruits, and avocados) that we used to goad to ripe during those days when buying such was not yet in our household vocabulary.

Never mind that up to when I sat down to write this piece, I was not still contented with what I came up with, that is, “mampayutu” and “mampajinuj” – derived from “nayutu” and “najinuj” (which both means "ripe"). This is because, at least, the remembering brought back to life images of people who played big roles in my boyhood — like Inang (my maternal grandmother Feliza Pudiquet y Lacandazo), Apong (my maternal grandfather Pedro Pudiquet y Duldulao), Papa (Vicente Castro y Mambear), Juan Reyes (my favorite barber), Carlito and Carmelito Lacandazo (my deceased barrio playmates and uncle-cousins), and Bonifacio Campo (a muscular neighbor who Papa often relied on for carrying sacks of rice to the rice garanry that we called kamalig in Ilocano or e-yang in Isinay).

Yes, as a kid, I derived much nutrition from bananas. In my grandparents’ house in I-iyo, we used to have tumok, dippig, lakatan, gloria, immasukar, camarines and other such varieties that my indefatigable Apong and Inang raised in the lower part of their upland farm in Langka and some in their defunct and formerly kasoy-lined bangkag (rainfed farm; gitaw in Isinay) on the left side of the Palabotan Elementary School. I remember Inang had two large earthen jars (burnay in Ilocano; mawaga in Isinay) that she used as container to make the ripening of the bananas faster and even. Presumably bought from Ilocos and used earlier by Apong to brew sugarcane juice into basi (sugarcane wine flavored with fruits of the samak or binunga tree) when the dadapilan (carabao-powered sugar mill; pan-asotan in Isinay) owned by Uncle Berong Miranda was still operating, the burnay were perfect storage containers for bananas as they kept the heat well and they were impervious to rats. Inang would drop a couple of thumb-sized karburo (carbide) stones from Apong’s lampa (carbide-powered lamp used for fishing) and then cover the mouth of the burnay with banana leaves then keep the resulting lid in place by tying it with a strand of lapnit (dried bast fiber from the bark of the bitnong tree that is called tan-ag in Tagalog).

When I was still in the elementary grades at Gabaldon and even when I was at St. Mary’s High School, I would sneak into my grandparents house in I-iyo (we called it Surung then) each time I felt like going there. The bananas were a magnet to me that became easier to go to when Papa bought me a bulldog bicycle. Of course, I would bring home some for Mama and my sisters, but not after gorging on a whole sapad (bunch; sapar in Isinay) of the nutritious fruits that my doting grandmother allowed me to, even if the bananas were meant to be sold outside of Surung.

Lest you get the impression that we didn’t have bananas in the ili (poblacion or town center), particularly our house in Domang, let me tell that Papa and I spent countless hours of father-and-son bonding trying to grow some in the solar (fondly called Mangga by my sisters) when it was still arable enough for planting, among other crops, cowpeas (iris in Isinay, kardis in Ilocano), stringbeans (gayya^ in Isinay, utong in Ilocano, sitaw in Tagalog), mungbeans (betung in Isinay, balatong in Ilocano, munggo in Tagalog), eggplant (balaseno in Isinay, tarong in Ilocano, talong in Tagalog), and kamote (sweet potato). Papa’s favorite was the señorita (a banana variety that had small or bite-sitze and fit for kids and very sweet fruits). Uncle Ermin (Herminio Castro) also grew the same variety but also had gloria in his beautiful road-on-all-sides lot across our house, the one where the houses of Ellen and Ninfa now stand.

In Langka, we would know when bananas are ready to be harvested when the crow or raven (gayang in Isinay, uwak in Ilocano and Tagalog) hovered and made loud “kwak-kwak-kwak” among the banana groves. If Apong and Inang were busy in their other farms (such as in Palabutan and Arwat) or had their hands full with their tobacco leaves (aggatud and agtunus, no Isinay terms for these; I guess because Isinays didn't grow as much tobacco as the Ilocanos), the crows and the martines would beat them to the bananas.

Sometimes, the neighboring farmers would help themselves to the ripe ones but would later tell my grandparents about it in the spirit of being neighborly. Often we would have one or two bulig (bunil in Isinay; this is the whole set of fruits along with their “petiole” or “cob”) loaded in the kariton (carabao-powered cart) and we would bring these home to I-iyo. When I was around, it would be my chore, in addition to washing the dishes (manajpat in Isinay, aginnaw in Ilocano), to convert into sapad (bunch) the still green bananas. You could do this by using a sharp knife, but in my case my favorite was the tip of the panabas (huge knife or bolo) used for cleaning the ricefield dike (tambak in Ilocano; tamnang in Isinay) if not the barusok (iron-tipped dibble used for planting upland rice; called asad in Isinay).

Inang would next take over setting the bunches in the burnay (mawaga in Isinay) while I would dump the “cob” in the abandoned tupig pit converted into garbage pit. And then, depending on the time of the day, off to the river or the hills I would go, along with whoever friends in the village were around. A couple of days or so later, the bananas would start to ripen and, because my grandparents were so permissive to me then (which I observed was not the case with my cousins), I would be free to help myself with all the bananas I could stuff in my mouth.

IN THE HOUSE at Domang (I have to tell here that I had some kind of a "dual personality" then, living with my parents in the town on schooldays and staying in my grandparents' house in the barrio on weekends or during vacation from school), Mama and Papa had a different way of ripening bananas. Yes, correct, we did have some stands  in the solar and in the then backyard garden that we used to have in that spot where Mama’s house (also known as Tessie and Romy’s house) now stands.

I always took delight in doing the panagtebba of a banana "tree" (I’m a forester, so I have to be careful here). I forgot the Isinay and Tagalog terms for this activity, but it is simply involved the felling of a banana "plant" whose fruits are ready for harvest. The joy of doing the task simply stemmed from the fact that it would entitle me to whatever ripe fruits there would be in the whole bulig (all right, let’s use the term “bunch” for lack of proper English word). There would always at least be a couple or more of such ready-to-eat fruits in the bunch which I would share to any sister (at the time Baybee, Judith, Tessie, Arlyne, and the late Merlie) who would be around. But they would often not be around as it was either they were too busy with their girly plays or Mama scolded them if their dresses got stained with the banana’s fluid (stain is mansa in both Isinay and Ilocano, mantsa in Tagalog).

As always, I would also process the bananas into small bunches, taking care not to injure the fruits. Then Mama would bring out a carton box and place the banana bunches there and cover them with fresh madre cacao leaves before putting the box beside or atop the pile of firewood (itungu in Isinay, pagsungrod in Ilocano, panggatong in Tagalog) near the kitchen. By the way, the box we used to ripen the bananas usually was a discarded “pagikkan iti mureng” (place for putting soiled clothes) which originally was a grocery goods container box  from the Chinese merchant Co Peng in whose puwesto (stall) in the public market in Malasin my mama and I would regularly go to encash Papa’s tseke (paycheck; usually not more than 200 pesos, if my memory serves me right).

I have not yet told of my tales about the banana that could probably make it to Guinness' book of records for having the most number of seeds. We called such variety saba ti sunggo in Ilocano/Iluko and majanilan si araw in Isinay, which both mean either "monkey banana" or "banana suited for monkeys." But I have to park for now and save the other tales for separate postings later. -- CHARLZ CASTRO

Once Upon a Breezy Hill

IF I WERE to choose a place for my final resting place, I want it to be on a hill overlooking Surong, the tiny village in Dupax del Sur, Nueva Vizcaya, that can probably lay claim to molding much of what I am now as a nature lover even as I was born in the central part of the town and spent most of my elementary and high school years in the house of my parents in Domang in the northwestern part of thee town.

There are many hills surrounding Surong (or I-iyo or Palobotan or Daya, as the village has also been called when I was young). But I prefer the  hill  on the left when you face the Palabotan Elementary School. It has both a commanding view of the village of my youth as well as the “pasto” that formed part of my life as a hill-loving young man.

Equally significant, I remember that that was the first hill I ever got to climb as a child when my grandmother would take me with her to dig tiny shrubs for their ginseng-looking roots she mixed with siok-tong and dispensed as “panig-an” to her women patients who just gave birth. The hill is also beside the lot where my grandfather planted the kasoy seeds he brought from Coron, Palawan, which grew to be small but robust trees that became our source of pride as his grandkids when their fruits turned luscious yellow then red-orange.

The hill was part of my playground with my friends in I-iyo (Arthur, Duardo, Tony, Rilo, Dinong, Cardo) and relatives (the Lacandazo brothers Litok, Milit, Mamer, Junior, Tasio, and Castor, as well as my cousins Melchor, Peter, Robert and Emy/Tems Pudiquet). We went to the hill when we felt like enjoying hide-and-seek among the tanglag or just to try our luck at finding where the kulipattung bird built its nest. Snakes? If ever we heard of such danger, we ignored it.

Surong, of course, was our perpetual “supermarket” when I was young. It was not only because my maternal grandparents lived there and their house was always home to me and my siblings and cousins. It was also where we sourced most if not all the vegetables, fish, rice, banana, corn, peanuts, tugi, shells, ferns, and bamboo shoots that blessed our dining table. In fact, were we to put a peso sign to all the myriad goods that my family got from the place, the amount would be far, far more than the combined monetary earnings of my teacher father and my dressmaker cum hair-stylist mother.

We went to Surong during the first rains of April and May to catch “abal-abal” (May beetle). We went to Surong when Inang Feliza called for an impromptu family reunion over “iniruban” (pinipig in Tagalog) which meant everyone had to pitch in from the gathering of the glutinous rice to its burning to its pounding then winnowing. We went to Surong to hold family picnics by the river and enjoy the akasit, ahdaw, sappilan, dalah, tilapia, pattat, and alalu that almost always were provided by the then very rich river via the “rama” (fish-aggregating device made of stones and bamboo branches) that my Apong Pedro built. Mama and I went to Surong when it was mushroom or “kudet” (edible tiny fungi) season or when the wild ampalaya in the “uma” (swidden far) were big enough to uproot for their nutritious leaves. Almost everybody in our part of town looked up to Surong during All Saints/All Souls Day for the “kankanen” (native rice cakes), particularly “tupig” (a delicacy made of glutinous rice ,mixed with young coconut meat, and roasted on tinplates).
Surong to me meant freedom, friends and relatives, lots of fun and sunshine, immense joy when at play in the ricefields, the hills, or by the river, and when dealing with the things of Mother Nature. Surong meant unfettered hours catching fish with “pana” or by “sarep,” playing cowboys with our carabaos, testing our bravery with the “bambannagaw” (chameleon), “ampipit” (a paniful-stinging large ant), “uyukan” (honeybee) , and haunted places, or proving one’s capacity with the bites of the “abuos” (tailor ant), the itch of the “budo-budo” (butterfly larva whose hair causes skin allergy), the stings of the “alumpipinig” (a tiny hornet), or the scary tactics of the “alinta” (freshwater leech).

Surong meant feasts each time somebody there got married and never mind if you are not related to any of the couples being wed for as long as the cooks were somebody’s relations, you get generous shares of the “ittip” (rice tip) fresh from the giant cauldrons, you were called to the long bamboo table even before the newlyweds arrived from church, after which you went to the nearby “banawang” (irrigation ditch) for a dip and more play, then squeezed your way back again later in the now more thickly populated dining table for another dig at the lauya, igado, dinardaraan and whatever delicacy it was that the Ilocano cooks often prepared during wedding in those times.

Surong was where I got circumcised at age 11 or so. This was on a Thursday, a Maundy Thursday if my memory is correct, when there was no school. The surgeon was Apong Berto Lacandazo, a younger brother of my Inang Feliza. The blood-letting rite was at the river across the then big kallautit (Tagalog kalumpit) tree where once, when I was still “supot” (uncircumcized) my friend Duardo Guillermo hit my bird with the fruit of the kallautit while we were all enjoying its sweetish sour fallen purple fruits, and we were all naked as we just took time off from enjoying our diving and swimming in the nearby “pual” (deep part of the river caused by a fallen tree or bamboo clump), and it hurt a bit.

Surong, many years earlier, was also where I first learned to sketch my name CHARLIE. My teacher was Uncle Atong (Liberato Pudiquet), younger brother of my mother. No, sir, there was no pencil nor pad paper. What we had was only a “ruting” (bamboo twig) over the rain-soaked ground. Uncle Atong wrote my name on the soil and told me to imitate what he sketched. I loved the challenge then even as it took me a precious hour or so from playing with my equally curious playmates.

Surong was where I had experiences that my children nor any children even in I-iyo will most likely never get to experience in their lifetime. One was sugarcane milling time using the “dadapilan” (carabao-drawn sugarcane crusher). (I have a separate post for this.) Another was watching how the “lapnit” (bast fiber made out of the bitnong tree bark) was made into ropes with the use of a wheeled and Y-shaped contraption that twisted three long strands of the lapnit until became one sturdy rope. And another was when masked strangers came to the village with metallic cylinders on their backs and went from house to house to spray their insides with a smelly white liquid they called DDT.

Surong was where I had farm work not undergone by other kids. In my memory stands out tobacco growing and harvesting. I was once given my row of tobacco plants and after being couched by my doting grandmother on how to detect the green worms among the very green leaves, I did enjoy the newly acquired skill and power of hunting and squeezing them pests with my tiny fingers. But soon the call of the mountain clock birds became frequent and the sun on my uncovered head caused sweat to drop and the soil which a few moments earlier was soft and kind to my bare soles became hot like river sand on a summer day, I had to beg off and asked to go make a “bubon” (shallow well) by the river which took longer than usual as I was at the same time hunting for ripe kitkitiwit (Passiflora foetida) that abound on the river banks in the area of Mammayang and Langka then.

Surong was witness to the many creatures I harmed or annihilated as part of my nature-rich childhood and business of growing up. Fish and snails were normal. The birrurukong (Japanese snail) were often targets of our slingshots if not used as projectiles. For birds, our common targets were the pirruka, billit-tuleng, pagaw, sitsitik, tukling, pirpiriw, tiktikrubong, kinkin-od, garakgak, and kulipattung. There were also occasionally kali, kebkeb, tariktik, alimuken, puwek and kilyawan. For insects, there were all colors of the dragonflies and damsel flies, the abal-abal, arus-arus, sammi-sammi, simmawa, barrairong, riyari, kundidit, ararawan, dudon, kuriat, ansisilud. There were also alumbayad, arabas, bambannagaw, banias, mutit. We spared the butterflies and bees but not the Atlas moth.

Surong calls to mind those times when my grandparents were hosting the Ilongots who came down the hills either to barter their “pindang” (dried meat) and camote (sweet potato) with our salt and tobacco – or (this I realized later) to escape from being persecuted by the military sent to go after members of the tribe that cut the heads off the bodies of some Isinay kaingineros, including the reputedly muscular Turo^ Maejan and on a separate occasion the Fragata family who lived in a house beside the Lacanal’s house a block away from our house in Dupax and one member of which, Bobot Fragata, was once caught and furiously scolded by Papa while gathering the tumpup or bamboo shoots in our solar. (I’ll have a separate post later on the Ilongots and their headhunting practice.)

Surong once upon a time also played host to a platoon or more of fatigue-uniformed soldiers. I’m not sure if the names and numbers are correct but they sounded like 7th Infantry BCT, Tabak Division or something. They got a few of the younger and idle men to cut bamboos, gather pan-aw (cogon), make bamban (split green bamboo used for tying) and pretty soon there was a kamarin (open-sided bamboo-cum-cogon hut) at the entrance of the village near the Jovinal and Raza farms, near where we got the tebbeg fruits for our trumpo (spinning top) and daldalig (wheel) toys. And almost daily, while they were camped there, there was a fiesta of sort as a dog, a pig or or lots of mudfish would be cooked and since the area was one of our playgrounds and, as it was normal for strangers to be objects of curiosity and attention by barrio kids then, we were almost always invited to join in their sumptuous meals. I have no recollection, however, of the soldiers having caught even one Ilongot brave. In fact, I don’t remember seeing them leave their camp at all.

Surong was where I first came to doubts about the benefits of logging. Even as occasionally we would be allowed to ride atop the huge logs fastened by cables on noisy logging trucks during late afternoons when we would go home to I-iyo from a day’s work weeding rice in Langka or Mammayang, I detested the way the crystal-clear rivers were often muddied by their road-building activities and a few years later their causing floods. Even as in the ili, the sawmill at least made firewood bountiful via the slabs and trimmings and barks they allowed us scavengers to get before being hauled off for burning, still I hated the way the logging industry brought strangers in Dupax.

Surong was where I saw how kariton, pako, tali, garong, dalaydayan, pattuki, tabukol, pagabelan (hand loom), inabel, tanggal, asar, wand other such farm contraptions were made. It was also where I saw how cows and carabaos got branded, how worms are taken out of the hoofs of carabaos, how a young carabao gets its nostril brutally puntured with bamboo stick to allow entry of  its “taldeng” (small rope with knot or a piece of coconut shell on one end to make the beast easy to command). It was in Surong where we got warned to stay indoors each time a “simaron” or “alsa a nuang” (feral carabao) was in the vicinity.

Surong was where I witnessed how the landscape changed over the years… for instance, there used to be plenty of remnant trees called kadir in areas being cleared for bangkag (vegetable farm). There are no such black-and-white large trees now. Nor are there giant pungdol (tree stump) dotting the farms now. In fact, when I was in high school there were still patches of remnant forests on the banks of my boyhood river. The last time I looked, I hated the emptiness I saw. No more bamboos, no more kallautits, no more bitnongs, no more ariwat and fern thickets! Gone too was that pond like portion in the farm of the Dotimas family where we used to go “liwliw” (angle) susay and tilapia when Gabriel “Buisit” Dotimas or his boys were not around. In fact, the last time I made a hesitant glimpse of I-iyo on my way to my farm in Sinagat, I saw that the banawang that also formed much of my reasons for liking the village was also nowhere to see — the river became mad sometime back and swept away all the vegetation and the land of Lakaya Pilis “Lawa” Raza that served as divide between the river and the banawang, and in the process erasing many traces of my boyhood playground, circumcision spot, and foraging ground.

Surong was where only the lazy could not survive. My grandfather had no land but there were hills you could make kaingins in and grow upland rice, squash, tugi, and ube. There were flood plains you could plow and grow corn, camote, eggplants, cassava, tomato, mustasa. And the rivers are teeming with crabs, shrimps, and fish. The ricefields have leddeg, bisukol, birabid, and buntiek. Some creeks have suso or gusipeng and if you’re lucky they have giant frogs. The banks of the rivers as well as the sides of the irrigation ditches have ferns, button/cherry tomatoes, and gabi. The remnant forests have ratipan for ubog, rattan for barit, uyukan for diro or at least allid. Almost anywhere there are bamboos underneath which you could go hunt mushrooms or bamboo shoots when they are in season. There are wild bananas whose blossoms (sabunganay) are better for salads than domestic ones. There are abandoned uma areas where the decaying tree trunks and branches play host to edible and dryable fungi called kudet. You could build a hut of bamboo and cogon and grow camote and raise ducks on by the river or on some idle lands and rest assured no one would question you for squatting.

Surong was where I heard stories of how life was in the early days, during the Japanese period…. The stories somehow set standards to follow, particularly as regards survival. For instance, what to eat, where to stay, when to do this and that. (More on this in a future post.)

Surong was where everyone knows everyone. It was also where many people were called funny names and so we many  guys were better known for their “birngas” than their true names. Examples: Karansiwa, Pagalmiduran, Manmanaas, Dippig, Sallukob, Nakset, Aradas, Dugang, Sisiaw, Buntiek, Purpuraw, Arikumkom, Lawa, Arikakkak, Buisit, Pangkis, Bangabanga.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Educated by Rivers

I recently developed a deep concern for rivers, particularly the small ones that technically others would call “streams” or “creeks.” In fact, sometime last year I tested how my fellow members in the Senior Foresters Google Group ( would react to my observation that the Philippines has not been giving the attention that rivers deserved. “What good would healthy forests and watershed management be if the rivers that they feed with clean water would just be spoiled?” I asked.

I suggested that my alma mater, the UPLB College of Forestry and Natural Resources, would do well to give justice to the “Natural Resources” in its name by including rivers and lakes -- not only forests -- among its curricular, research, and development concerns. I also suggested that the DENR would probably be a sexier agency if it designated qualified personnel in its central and field offices to specifically look after the country’s rivers.

Apart from my well-received postings in the foresters’ e-group, I even articulated my emotions and aspirations for the country’s rivers in an essay that my friend Joey Austria (head of the DENR Special Concerns Office and National Vice President of the Society of Filipino Foresters) was so kind enough to include in the Souvenir Program that we labored to produce (1,000 copies) and distribute during the SFF National Convention and Forum held at the Dakak Resort in Dapitan City last November.

y concern for rivers had its roots in their having been part of my life as a child. Given the choice between school and river, I’d go for the latter then if it were only possible for kids then to go on living even without going to our reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic subjects.

The situation may be different with today’s over-accessorized but nature-starved children. But, as a boy, the rivers were my playground, day-care center and fast-food paradise all rolled into one. I encountered, tasted and got affected by more flora and fauna along the rivers than in the deep-blue mountain forests (said to be home then of the headhunting Ilongots) east of our barrio.

It was in the bamboo thickets and forest remnants by the river that I learned to identify courtesy of Ilocano land-tilling and forest-using uncles and grandparents such trees as anteng (antong in Isinay; pagsahingin in Tagalog), alukon (ame in Is.; himbabao in Tag.), bitnong (bitnung in Is.; tan-ag in Tag.), kallautit (kalutit in Is.; kalumpit in Tag.), appatut (achuete), tebbeg (lavay in Is.; tibig in Tag.), lupa (tu^bu in Is.; lipang kalabaw in Tag.), bittaog (bitaog), kaburaw (abuwew in Is.; kabuyaw in Tag.), pakak (antipolo), and samak (binunga in Tagalog; scientific name: Macaranga tanarius), the fruits of which my Apong Lakay used to gather to add flavor to and prolong the shelf life of his famous basi.

It was in the river that my cousins and I learned to identify edible flora, including my favorite ariwat and kitkitiwit (vines with edible fruits and young leaves). Woe to barrio kids then who could not distinguish the edible pako from the bitter ones, and who found ballaiba (balliba in Isinay, bulbulintik and tabtaba (bahase in Isinay), taratara and other river greens not up to their tastes!

During rainy season, we went to the river to comb their then still bushy banks not only for edible fern but also butinggan (wild button tomatoes; sometimes called butbutones in Ilocano), bamboo shoots (rabong in Ilocano; tumpup in Isinay; labong in Tagalog), edible fungi (kudet in Ilocano; urapping in Is.; tengang-daga in Tag.), tigi (imbayang in Is.; pongapong in Tag.; scientific name: Amorphophallus campanulatus), and mushroom (uong in Il; amabuvun in Is.; kabute in Tag.). In the dry season also when the rats or locusts would not leave us farm folk enough to harvest, we survived with karot (karut in Is.; nami in Tag.; kalot in Cebuano) that grew plenty by the riverside but were said to be poisonous if not sliced thinly then soaked in running river water before dried and cooked as rice substitute.

The rivers were where we ran to each time health personnel came to give us barrio folk vaccination. We also hid by the river when Tagalog-speaking guys came with huge sprayers on their backs to whitewash our huts with DDT. We were wary of such strangers because of the “stay home, don’t go out” tales our elders told us about kid-nappers (kumaw in Ilocano and Isinay; sipay in Laguna Tagalog; manunupot in Batangas Tagalog) out to catch naughty boys, put them inside sacks, cut their throats like what they do to chickens, and spill their blood to fortify a bridge being constructed somewhere downstream of the Magat River.

Armed with palsiit (slingshot; baris in Is.; tirador in Tag.), we frequented the rivers to try our Olympian skills at running barefoot (at times naked) after the wild ducks/mallards (papa in Ilocano; engah in Is.; papan in Tagalog and Bicol), and tukling in Il.; tikling in Tag.) that cavorted in the reedy portions.

When there was not much bangkag (vegetable farm), kaingin or ricefield work to do, we went to the river to make sarep (seyup in Isinay) which involves damming shallow portions and be able to gather bowlfuls or kalderofuls of river fish such as bunog (stone goby; sappilan in Is.; biyang-bato in Tag.), bukto (goby; guggur in Is.; biya in Tag.; pidyanga in Surigaonon), ar-aro (small carp; alalu in Is.; martiniko in Tag.), gurami, or akasit (crablet; ahasit in Is.; talangka in Tag.).

The more intrepid among us would scour the deeper parts with pana (speargun) and santol-wood antiparra (goggles) to get to the bigger tilapia, mudfish (also called “snakehead fish: in the USA; dalag in Il.; dalaj in Is.; dalag in Tag.) and occasional eel (igat or  kiwet in Ilocano; dalit in Isinay and Bontoc; palos in Tagalog).

We boys in the barrio often went to the river to sharpen our bolos (usually badang or lilit which were often dulled by years upon years of use  and thus discarded by our elders). We spent some time to look for flat stones to use as our sharpening blocks (pagasaan in Il.; pampaliran in Is.; hasaan in Tag.). Later, we would test our skills in using the knives to gather a dead branch or two for firewood to bring home as sort of good deed for the day (so that our parents would not scold us somuch and would allow us to go gallivanting by the river again the next day).

Most of the time, however, we vented our bolo-wielding skills on the ferns, reeds, or whatever vegetation that unfortunately caught our cruel fancy. On some occasions, especially when the bush we call sapang in Isinay (karrarawit in Ilocano) start to fruit, we would go cut choice branches of the spiny bamboo (kawayan in Ilocano; lamuan in Isinay; kawayan-tinik in Tagalog) and make them into a toy-gun of sorts we call palsuot in Ilocano (kalido^do^ in Isinay; sumpak in Tagalog). The green fruits of the sapang were perfect “bullets” for our bamboo guns the absence of which would make us resort to young buds of the cotton tree (kapasanglay in Il.; apos in Is.; kapok in Tag.) or put a sheet of used Grade School pad paper on our mouth and chew it till it becomes malleable enough to insert in the hole of our bamboo toy-gun.

he rivers were also our all-season swimming pools and we just loved to go out on the day-after of floods (aggravated by the forest-clearing and migration induced upriver by two logging concessions) to look for newly created lipnok (deep part of the river) or pual (spot made deep by an uprooted bamboo clump) to swim on. We would use a stranded log or bamboo for diving board or sometimes whatever carabao happened to be laying nearby. That was how I learned to do the daplat (flat stomach) dive and how to swim the bara-bara (free style) and the langoy-aso (dog-style).

We would go back again and again to such swimming holes and do other games – like pinnautan (literally “endurance”) which involved staying submerged in the water and whoever comes out last would be the winner. Some other days we would go there to test another skill we river-loving kids are supposed to be master of: spearfishing.

The rivers were also testing grounds for how brave we were at crossing their rapids during the rainy season or going to fetch water at night and passed by trees full of fireflies (kulalanti in Ilocano; i^irung  in Isinay; alitaptap in Tagalog; aninipot in Bisaya). The rivers were also our clinics when we had circumcision (kugit in Il. and Is.; tuli in Tag.) and needed privacy when we boiled young guava leaves (uggot ti bayabas in Il.; utlo^ si bayawas in Is.; talbos ng bayabas in Tag.) to clean our penis wounds.

In summer, the river banks would become noisy with cicadas (riyari in Ilocano; duluriyaw in Isinay; kuliglig in Tagalog) and our excited voices as we joined our aunts to gather the edible pearly eggs and nymphs of the tailor ant (abuos in Il.; eha in Is.; kara-kara in Tag.). Of course, summer would be that part of the year when birds such as the bulbul (pirruka in Il.; pinuu^ in Is.; pulangga in Tag.) would be at their noisiest especially when a bugnay tree (buhnay in Isinay; bignay in Tag.).

On other sunny days when I could not sequester my cousins from their peanut-, palay- or tobacco-drying chores, I would go to the river alone to make mini rice fields and irrigation canals. Sometimes I combed the shallow parts or the so-called “oxbow lakes” (nangalisan in Ilocano) to look for stranded shrimps (lagdaw in Il.; ahdaw in Is.; sugpo in Tag.) that almost always became my instant “jumping salad” as they went straight to my mouth with their legs and tails still wriggling.

Quite often though, I went there to escape from farm chores and to play with the  tadpoles (bayyek  in Il.; tohong in Is.; butete in Tag.) or to catch red dragonflies (tuwwato in Il.;  atittino in Is.; tutubi  in Tag.; alindahaw  in Bisaya) to feed my pet martines. I would also scour the river debris to collect forest seeds of all shapes – some marble-like, some star-shaped, some almond-sized – that I contributed for extra points to my elementary science teacher’s classroom display.

When the first rains of April come, the riversides would again be busy at twilight as we would compete with other farm folk in I-iyo in catching May beetle (abal-abal in Il.; e-ve in Is.; salagubang in Tag.). We would use a beetle attractant we call keddeng which is simply the bark of the bitnong tree soaked in smelly mud for weeks and then airdried and wrapped in old cloth to keep its smell strong. Oh, it was pure delight seeing the insects fly one by one and later in pairs towards the keddeng that we stretched between two poles or sometimes just entwined on a stick or twig! As alternative, we sometimes applied a thick dose of pomade on our hair and it would be fun seeing the beetles go around you like little airplanes flown by drunk pilots!

We placed the unfortunate beetles in bamboo tubes (tubong in Isinay and Ilocano) with corn cob for stopper and, later, over flickering kerosene lamp (kingke in Ilocano, Isinay and Tagalog; sometimes tibanglos in Batangas Tagalog), we would count how many we were able to catch. And what did we do with the beetles? Well, we used them to whet our entomophagous appetites. My grandmother fried them with little lard, salt, garlic and tomato and – presto – we had a high-protein viand for supper and there would often be enough left for breakfast! Of course, I would keep a couple or more of the beetles to use as toys or to show off with playmates the morning after.

Oh well, those were the good old days, my friend! Even as I wish I could live my life with sylvan rivers all over again, I pity boys and girls of today who no longer get to experience the countless joys of life close to Mother Nature. — CHARLZ CASTRO