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.