Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Dupax as a Boy's Paradise

As a boy and the first-born grandchild, I lived mostly with my maternal grandparents in I-iyo (also called Surong; Daya in Isinay; officially Palobotan in the map), a hilly and riverside farming village upstream of my hometown Dupax del Sur, Nueva Vizcaya, in the northern part of the Philippines. It was normal parenting practice in the 1950s to the 1960s (hehehe... I'm now revealing how ancient I am) for kids like me then to be allowed to go outdoors for as long as they want, on the condition that they go home before lunch time and that they look after the carabao and see to it that it was brought to the river before the sun burned its back and cause the farm animal to suffer and probably die due to heat-caused exhaustion (termed masdo in Ilocano). It was also normal for boys in the barrio then to have as playthings (or accessories, if you may) small bolos, slingshots, and spearguns. I had all three.  But let me first describe my affair with the last.

No, sir, the speargun that I used to have was not the kind you see in the movies used to kill sharks and bad guys. It was rather just a small contraption consisting of a guava branch for bolt, the stem of a discarded umbrella for barrel, a piece of sturdy wire for trigger, a length of elastic rubber cut out of the interior part of a jeepney tire for driving mechanism, and sharpened steel fronds also taken from discarded umbrellas for “bullets” or arrows.

Locally called pana, we brought it when on hot summer days we go bring the carabaos to the river and, to make better use of the time while the farm animals enjoyed their bath, we would comb the calm and shallow parts of the water to spear shrimps, crabs, goby, and gourami. The more intrepid ones among us who have goggles went to the deeper parts to look for dalag (snakehead mudfish), paltat (catfish), and tilapia nesting under big rocks or feeding on tiny shrimps attracted to an overhanging bamboo clump. Occasionally, we used the pana to nail down an elusive  but edible frog (tukak in Ilocano; tadah in Isinay; palaka in Tagalog), to punish leeches (alinta or alimatek in Ilocano; bilavil in Isinay; linta in Tagalog) that sucked themselves full of our carabaos’ blood, or as weapon against the immanuy (spitting cobra) that threatened farm kids like us when we went to help our old folks in the uma (upland farm) or the taltalon (ricefield).

Prelude to Transformation

Don’t look now but, yes, to a certain extent I had my share of disturbing biodiversity. In fact, even when I was already in college and pursuing the B.S. in Forestry degree, I confess to having continued using spearguns, slingshots and air-rifles for fun and recreation each time I would go home at the end of each semester or during Christmas and summer break.

I also admit that as a teenager I preferred the company of my uncles and grandparents in clearing forest patches and tending to the resulting farm for growing upland rice, snap beans, string beans, winged peas, squash, bitter gourd, eggplant, sweet potato, cassava, papaya, banana, and yam.

In other words, once upon a time I was both a fisher and a bird-killer. 

Not only that. Once upon a time, too, when the kaingin (swidden farming) practice was still blamed to be the Enemy No. 1 of foresters, I had been a kainginero (slash-and-burn farmer).

I owe such destiny (if we may call it that) to my formation as a child, that is, growing up in a barrio that was relatively well-endowed by nature. Moreover, my grandparents and uncles who nurtured me were full-time land-tilling and forest-using rural folks.

Thus, it came to pass that, rather than play basketball all day long or going to pre-fiesta shows and dances at the town plaza at night (as was the norm for most of my peers and classmates in the central part of the town then), I preferred spending summer vacations in the barrio where my similarly outdoor-loving – or hillbilly -- friends and cousins had all the farms, the rivers, the forest glades, the bamboo groves, and the cattle-grazing hills for playground.

Even as once in a while there were cases upstream of the Ilongot (now called Bugkalot, an indigenous people of the Sierra Madre Mountain Range) getting out of their forest territory to collect the heads mostly of forest-using lowlanders, my barrio then was as child-friendly as could be. There were no fences then nor were there “No Entry” markers to discourage kids from sniping at the pirruka (Picnonotus goiaver) or the tariktik (___) that got attracted, respectively, to the luscious fruits of the bignay and kalumpit trees in one’s farmlot. 

Nobody seemed to mind then if my playmates and I got sunburned as we spent hours in the river having friendly competitions as to who would catch the most bunog (minnow), bukto (goby), and buntiek (adolescent mudfish) using bare hands or the speargun. Nobody scolded us if we happened to step on some farmer’s peanuts or corn plants when we ran after the papa (wild mallard), the pugo (quail) and tukling (gallinules), or when we acquired scratches on our legs or kwantung (Amaranth sp.) thorns on our soles while climbing alukon (himbabao in Tagalog) trees in search of pirpiriw (bee-eater) and martin chicks to take care as pets. Nobody seemed to mind if we spent hours in the tropical sun creeping up to a hapless dragonfly to catch it either with our nimble fingers or with a bamboo stick at the end of which we placed super sticky sap from the jackfruit -- then later convert the poor insect into an airplane (complete with paper "wing" attached to its wings), and if it would not fly there was always a hen waiting to feast on it nearby.

As old folks in rural Philippines are wont to do, our elders would advise us not to stray too far, especially during agmatuon (high noon) when the unseen beings guarding the trees and the rivers are said to be in their most active mode. We were also told stories of malevolent spirits dwelling in geriatric trees, especially the balite (strangler fig) and any tree growing beside Spanish-era stone fences. And we were cautioned from using fire, playing with our slingshots, climbing starapple trees, harming the bambannagaw (chameleon) or any other lizard, catching fireflies, and doing raucous behavior during the Lenten season. 

Other than those warnings, we were free to swim in the river with carabaos as diving boards; we were free to chase grasshoppers and dragonflies to feed our pet martin birds; and we were free to paint our faces with the flaming-red seeds of the appatut tree (Bixa orellana) if we wanted to look ala-American Indian.

Blast from a Biodiversity-Rich Past

Indeed, among my favorite stories for my children when they were small was my closeness to birds and other denizens of the wild, and the paradise-like nature of my boyhood barrio. I told them guavas, mushrooms, ferns, palm piths, rattan fruits, bamboo shoots, and other edible plants in the wilderness were common property then. I told them I never felt squeamish playing with earthworms and caterpillars. I told them I never learned to play basketball and never went to dances because I grew up in a place where kids were at the time more at home with wild creatures and the joys of nature than with TV and Jollibee.

I also told my kids how I would escape household chores just to be able to try my slingshot skill on birds like the pirruka  that fed on the ripe fruits of the guava or the bugnay. I told them that my favorite pastime during mango season was to go escape the heat under mango trees, whistle for the wind to come, and be alert for ripe fruits that fall. I told them that my grandparents almost always built cogon-roofed farm huts under a bitnong tree that in turn was always abuzz with sunbirds and bumblebees. I told them how as a toddler I always went with my grandparents to the farm and there get lulled to sleep by the chatter of crows and monkeys and the song of cicadas in the forest glades and the reassuring gurgle of a mountain stream nearby.  

As a first grandchild, indeed, I had the luck of living under the wings of doting grandparents whose nutrition they provided me often reflected the biological richness and diversity then of our place. For instance, for breakfast, we had: frogs or mudfish that my grandfather caught using lampara (carbide-fueled lamp) the night before, along with pinakbet (a dish of mixed vegetables seasoned with salted fish-paste locally called bagoong) and aromatic upland rice. For lunch, we had a merry mix of freshwater fish, shrimps and crabs cooked with wild button-tomatoes, or jumping shrimps seasoned with sugarcane vinegar, or similarly fresh and raw fern seasoned with green mangoes (if in season) and bagoong, plus, again, pinakbet.

For snacks: we kids have all the Vitamin C-rich guavas, tamarinds, and mangoes we could munch while we were outdoors, otherwise we had tupig (a roasted native rice delicacy), boiled corn or peanuts, or bananas dipped in pulitipot (sticky sugarcane molasses). For dinner: we had bisukol (apple snail) cooked with squash or, when in season, de-winged and fried abal-abal (May beetles), plus the ever-present pinakbet. And before we call it a day after husking corn, peeling peanuts, sorting tobacco leaves, or pounding newly harvested rice in the kulluong (boat-like facility carved out of the solid trunk of a huge tree, usually narra), we shall have partaken some more of boiled corn, sautéed peanuts, or boiled camote (sweet potato).

I also recall that at least once a month an uncle or a neighbor would be lucky in his fishing or trapping sideline and, depending on his catch, we may feast on the meat of igat (eel), abuyo (wild fowl), mutit (civet cat), or banias (monitor lizard) all cooked adobo-style. When I was in grade school, I saw an uncle catch a pair of kebkeb in his ricefield, using a fishing-net and very carefully crawling on the side of an adjoining rice paddy to get near the long-necked, long-legged and chicken-sized birds. It was only years later that I got to know the hapless creatures were Eastern Sarus cranes. One time, too, a couple of hunters who didn’t speak our Ilocano language dropped by to cook and share to us the meat of a couple of kalaw (Rufous hornbill) they shot in a patch of forest near our village. I was hoping they would leave me one of the bright-red bills of their catch but they didn’t.

Oh yes, at least once or twice a year, the Ilongots would come downhill to barter-trade their split rattan, beeswax, dried meat of deer or wildboar, betel nut, and sweet potatoes with salt, sugar, bolos, canned goods, bagoong, matches, sweaters, threads and needles, colored beads, and blankets. On their return trip to their mountain villages a couple of days hike further upstream, they would drop by my grandparents’ house, stay for a night or so, partake of my grandfather’s basi (sugarcane wine) and tobaccos, chew betel nut and betel leaf with my grandmother, and ask for carabao horns or broken plow shares or other such items they could make into knife handles and spears. One time, they asked for my pet puppy which their interpreter said they would train to hunt deer. In return, when they depart, the Ilongot womenfolk would leave their unsold deer meat and beeswax to my grandmother. The men would leave their split rattan and the chieftain would give tips to my grandfather on which mountain streams and trails in the hills to follow to get to where he could find all the rattan he could gather.

That was in the ‘50s up to the ‘70s. Our town, as well as its neighbors, is no longer as nature-rich as it used to be. Its formerly deep-green forests that were very much coveted for their dipterocarp and narra (Pterocarpus indicus) timber, rattan, and wild pigs, among other resources, have since been over-exploited by loggers and farmers, many of them new faces. The Ilongots, who have changed their tribal name to Bugkalot, no longer hunt Christian heads, and have also stopped coming down the hills to trade their forest products. My boyhood hills no longer sing with birds and the rivers that nurtured me have not only lost their fish but now turn murky and ferocious when it rains, and almost dry and lifeless when there are no rains. 

In fact, the last time I went home and tried to renew my friendship with them hills, fields, and rivers, I felt very sad. Somewhere deep inside me, a voice was asking: Where have you gone? At the same time, I was also asking: Do kids in the barrio still do what I did as a child? Does anybody around, boy or girl, young or young once, still talk to you hills and rivers and fields and call you “friends”?

Aside from the fact that the hills and valleys are now mostly vegetated with yemane (Gmelina arborea) that certainly were not there when I was a boy, there are now more houses and countless faces that I no longer know. The birdy and breezy hills that I used to climb to enjoy the panorama of ricefields and rivers and blue mountains and carabao roads in the distance now have houses. The bamboo groves and verdant forest glades by the banks of the streams and rivers where I used to catch cicadas or snipe at sunbirds all day are no longer there. The sylvan and fish-rich river by the barrio that I loved to go cool my young body in, the lipnuk and the pual where I used to swim with my cousins and barrio friends, the river bend where I got circumcized -- all of them have been totally obliterated and gone!

I felt like I was already a stranger! -- CHARLZ CASTRO

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