Tuesday, January 11, 2011

When pencils, beetles, and tadpoles were toys

IT SURELY was a different life we had then when my sisters and I were young. Back then, we spoke both in Ilocano and in Isinay -- very much unlike kids in Dupax today (be they of Ilocano or of Isinay ancestry) who no longer speak a word of the native Dupax tongue -- only Tagalog which they learned from watching too much TV, and reinforced by the educational system that gives preference to using Filipino and English for instruction. We also had insects for toys and playmates then (such as the cotton weevil or baka-baka in the photo above) -- compared to the play stations and computer games that kids now commonly have.
We had indelible pencils that papa brought home most likely from his election duties at the Dupax Elementary School (which oldtimers used to call then Gabaldon). We didn’t know why there were such pencils then. I recall we would put the pencil’s tip on our tongue each time I would use one on the pages of Mama’s notebook for her dressmaking measurements or when Arlyne would draw her stick figures on her part of the cabinet where she and I were sent to sleep on summer afternoons when Mama would be singing Tennessee Waltz and Changing Partners to whoever was her baby that needed to be sung to sleep then (most likely Merlie and Tessie). Our lips would be blackish violet due to that pencil then.
There were tadpoles and grasshoppers and dragonflies and bumblebees and alutiit (house lizard; batbatilaw in Isinay) and atlas moths and large green worms around the house in Dupax then. Plus litlit (bats) in the roof, owls at night, pirpiriw (bee-eaters; plepplew in Isinay) up in the kapok trees, baka-baka (cotton bugs) in the fallen kapok cotton capsules, black ants in the guyabano, ulmog (chicken mite; alin-amut in Isinay) in the poultry, flies in the kitchen, ipes (cockroach; baya-i in Isinay)  in the aparador, lamok (mosquito; imu^ in Isinay) at night, and kiteb (bedbug; itov in Isinay) in the bamboo bed and the rattan chairs. We also had pag-ong (turtle; bau-u in Isinay) in the pagarasawan, rats in the kamalig, noisy pigs in the pigpen, housebirds in the saraguelas and starapple trees, and titit (sunbirds) in the zigzag flowers. In the dry parts of the house’s periphery there were red ants that bit my sisters’ feet (that’s why Tessie had nabo^gan toes). And there were ant-lions we called sunud-sunud that we caught by getting one and tie it with long hair then let it dive on the conical hole on the dust and the resident ant-lion would come out of hiding to bite the intruder. There were also baka-baka in drying kapok fruits and we delighted the red and black color of them with their young of all sizes as they crawled just like cows grazing on hilly land. There were seeds colored red and black that we used to collect, and lipay seeds from Surong that we used as pamato.
My dog then was named Dargo. It was a gift from Uncle Osio (Ambrocio Mambear). I think it was the second dog we had at home because before then we had the bitch Brownie that bit me on my toe and which later "was put to rest" when its mouth got froth (they called it agu-uyong in Iloko and natahe in Isinay) and started to chase anybody (particularly women who had long dresses) who came to the house, including Mama's dressmaking customers. We also had a cat that was always giving birth and we gave its kittens to neighbors or relatives. We also always had a martines on a cage (often given by Mama's friend Nana Lita Dicen-Calacala whose husband Tata Ikko was Judith's favorite barber) and a mother cat that always gave birth in Mama’s box of dirty clothes. Of course there were also the rats in the rice granary (kamalig in Iloko; e-yang in Isinay) and in the rice bin (pagbagasan in Iloko; pampurutan in Isinay). I always had fun holding the pink babies of the rats on my palm, even as they always chewed Papa’s old combination black-and-white shoes including the tolda (canvas) that he would bring each time we went on a picnic to the river in I-iyo and we caught fish the old way by damming or diverting the stream and make the goby (sappilan), river crab (ahasit), and shrimp (ahdaw) easier to catch.
My toys then especially in I-iyo consisted of whatever was available in the trees or around us kids. If the tibbeg trees (Ficus nota) bore fruits, we would have endless supply of easy to reach fruits to make into wheels. We also treasured the fallen sheath of the betel nut palm as it was good for our trak-trak – one rode on the wide sheath while another pulled the petiole. It was, however, the May beetle (abal-abal in Iloko; salagubang in Tagalog) that gave us the most fun. When they started to emerge during the first rains of April, the abal-abal season meant we would have plenty of games, almost all of which were cruel, using the poor insects as protagonists. For instance, we chose the most agile pairs and made them do a tug-of-war (ginnuyudan) and locking of horns (sinnangduan). At times, we asked our aunties to thread them with a needle and a strand from the pagabelan (weaving loom) then we would delight at letting them fly here and there (pinnatayaban) -- failing which we would throw the lazy ones (beetle plus strings and all) to the ever-alert mother hen. If we got tired of insects, there were always flat cans of Rosebowl sardines that we turned into gargarusa (toy trucks) whether wheeled with tebbeg fruits or just plain pulled with a bast-fiber string. We also played with the itchy atattaru worm by making them crawl or burying them in the tapok (dry soil) that we had plenty of in I-iyo. Depending on the mood, we also had palsuot, salbatan, torotot and kadang-kadang. Of course the more common toys we had was the palsiit (baris in Isinay) and the daldalig (dalij-dalij in Isinay). All of these we brought with us when we went to the farm or brought the carabao to take a cool dip in the river.
Surung and Pitang were our foraging as well as play grounds, especially for me. Surung was when I was Ilocano; Pitang was when I was Isinay. But either way, both places meant lots of sunshine that "almost all the time made me high" (to borrow from a song by John Denver). That clinches it: I was always "high" each time I was out there in the great outdoors, cold rain or searing sunny weather. Ah, the memories! Looking back now, I'm not only thankful I was (and I still am) a country boy but grateful too that I have lived during those times when Dupax was still green country and crystal-clear river and gentle hills and bird-rich and there were no NO TRESPASSING signs... so much so that I can relate to "Greenfields" and other such songs of summer by the Brothers Four, and the poems of Hiawatha ("Minnehaha, the laughing water"), and the nature writings of Henry David Thoreau (taking long morning walks at Walden Pond) and Aldo Leopold and John Muir.
I went to school with no money. So during recess I joined classmates who heeded teachers’ word to eat guava. We raided Latar family’s fence, braved the Benitez dogs and the old man himself. Abused Bunyeng’s anonas trees. We had a term: “recess ti-ve” (literally: having snacks at recess time only to have constipation). One time my friend Ariston Laccay bought ice cream from Oppie Ferrer, the sorbetes man. He gave me one tip of the cone filled with the delicious thing. The next time around, I saw myself finding opportunity selling toyo and suka bottles. But not enough. So twice I secretly put and egg from the baki  on my pocket and sold them to Linda benitez on the way to school for diyyes (10 centavos) each – enough for a double icecream cone, pad paper at the store of Anut Suput and Incion Pawa, a new pencil (not the Mongol) or a mammon bread or candy with lastiko. Later I would be saved by Inang who would often give me salapi (50 centavos) which at the time was already very generous. She gave me money each time on weekends I would go and help in the farm work even if only to make bubon (shallow river well), tend the stove fire, weed the corn of overgrown kalunay, gather paltong or beans, and in the evening help “pusi” (pry the kernels from the cob) the corn and then do “surgery” on their soles to remove kwantung (spiny amaranth; suwit in Isinay) thorn that got their foot swollen.
Accidental deaths of our pets occurred in our house — with me around the scene of the crime. For instance there was the case of a hen and a puppy (her name was Mona, after Mona Sulaiman, the fastest Filipina runner at the time) that went to kingdom come when Abeth was being baptized. A distant uncle, Karting “Manmanaas” Jasmin was around to help Uncle Atong butcher and cook the pig for the occasion. Oh, even as I was thankful he was the one who dug the hole when we buried the puppy while someone dressed the chicken, I hated it when he kept saying that the puppy died of a cracked head or something and even went to the motions of showing how the animal’s forehead became soft. And yet, I swear to high heavens that I was only holding my puppy’s two forelegs then. The case of the hen was of course a different one. I remember it was making lubbon (occupying the baki nest of another hen) and so I took her out and threw her on the ground. Mama was angry and so, even as the guests were enjoying their snacks, I stayed in the corner contemplating what happened. Could it be that I got mad at the chicken out off frustration that the newest member of the family was again a girl and not somebody I could call brother?
We went to school using the church bell as clock. It rang at 7 then at 1. We called it “koling” (calling). Ah, the church bells were the strongest sound one could hear in Dupax then. We could hear it even when we were gathering firewood at Abuwew, flying kites in Pitang, or gathering slabs and trimmings at the sawmill. At 6pm, the bell would be pealed again to signal vespers time which  oldies called “dalas”. Time to get home for dinner. Dalas also meant getting the right hand of elders (in our case, particularly Apu Dalin Mambear, Papa’s maternal aunt who I never heard speak a word of Ilocano) and putting the back of their palm on your forehead. If you don’t do it and one who was aware of the revered Isinay custom remembers, you would hear the Isinay command “Naveyandah, mammano ayu!” (By golly, go kiss the palm of your elders!).
There is a hill we used to call Kudus. Kudus is of course Isinay for cross. When I was a boy the word was used to refer to that hill above Uruddu or southwest of that part of town where the house of Uncle Ado Boada and those of the Daran families and the cluster of houses they call Kadingrasan (on account of the folks surnamed Raza, de la Cruz, Ramos, and others who were said to have migrated from Dingras, Ilocos Norte). It was one hill I have yet to climb.

Bits and pieces of information I got here and there from conversations of old folks and Isinay classmates revealed that Kudus Hill was called as such because in the olden days there was a huge cross on its peak that served as end-point of the Way of the Cross prayers done around town, with the small lime-and-brick dome-shaped structures as stations.

The structures were also called kudus. We had one such in front of the Salirungan house, on the intersection of the road to Auntie Tibang’s house. We used the said kudus mound to test our prowess at jumping from up high. It was for us kids then a big thing and woe to those who could not climb on it then jump down on the grass below. Once in a while we would use the kudus structure as “save” when on fullmoon (tallivung in Isinay) nights we would play tuttut or kukulandoy (hide and seek games). One such structure stood in front of the Boada family’s house. I think I have climbed that also when the Boadas would tender a lunch gathering for the Castro, Boada, Daran clan to celebrate Uncle Ado and Aunti Tanacia’s wedding anniversary or something.

Probably built in the 1940s or earlier, very few remnants of such structures are left and I feel the urge and the duty to one of these days take photographs of them for posterity. --CHARLZ CASTRO

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