Sunday, July 31, 2011

Remembering My Nature Teacher

Much of what I am now as a father, nature-lover, forester, farmer, and writer, I learned from my grandfather Pedro Pudiquet

Boy and grandfather at home in the fields of the Lord. (Drawn July 2011 by DANTE N. PECSON)

THAT A PICTURE indeed paints a thousand words is exemplified by the illustration here made by my fellow nature-appreciation preacher and bosom friend Dante N. Pecson who, for almost four decades, served as all-around artist, editor, student adviser, dormitory head, and faculty member at the UP Los Baños  College of Forestry and Natural Resources until he retired a few years back.

The picture was intended for an essay ("Katas ng Kagubatan ang Dugong Nananalaytay sa Aking Katauhan") to be included in the International Year of Forests issue of PFEC's Kapaligiran. But it happened that Dante sent this drawing within the vicinity of my late grandfather's birthday and so, for lack of a photo to depict how my old man was to me when he was still alive, I took the liberty of using it ala-first day of issue in this blog.

At Home with Nature

Yes, as shown in the picture, I shared my grandfather's appreciation, love, and reverence for the things of nature -- traits that over the years made themselves felt in my inclinations as a person and professional. Looking back at those years that he (of course, along with my grandmother) was nurturing me with the facts of life with other living things, great or small, I now realize I would not have been a better father, nature lover, forester, farmer, and writer (among other qualifications) had I not been their grandson.

No matter if he was a hunting, fishing, and foraging person himself, my grandfather was not of the abusive kind. Ordinarily, the sight of deer or wild pig tasting the camote or other such crops in a swidden farm would make many people salivate for a rifle or a trap with which to bag the animals the next time around. But not my grandfather.

Instead of grabbing a rock to take a chance at the forest creatures, he would merely soak in the sight of them nibbling at his crops, silently observe their feeding behavior, count which one had horns or had tusks, and see how many young ones there were. Some time later, such wildlife encounters would come in handy when villagers would converge on my grandparents' yard for basi and an inebriated braggart would overstretch his ugsa or alingo hunting tales.

Unlike the supposedly normal behavior, Apong was not one to grab get-rich-quick situations in one outing. On several occasions when we went fishing, for instance, he would let go a pregnant mudfish or let loose a small one. And before I could express my sense of loss, he would say in Ilocano: "Tapno adda pay paminduaan." (So that we could come back again.)

He also believed in the sacredness of life. A couple of times that he saw the trigger-happy kid in me aim my slingshot at any bird, dragonfly, tree, or even rock that caught my fancy, in his characteristic gentle voice he called my attention not to bother "dagiti di mangan-ano" (those who do you no harm).

One time we were fishing on a stream, we saw this orange-black-and-white-colored and pencil-sized snake sunning itself on a flat rock. Before my grandfather could say stop, I crushed the poor thing with a river stone. He merely said "Inan-ano mon?" (What have you done?) after that. But I felt his deep sense of sadness at what I did to the little, definitely harmless and beautiful creature.

My grandfather could have been a good jungle-survival adviser. He knew what plant and creature was meant for this and that. He knew which birds and insects dwelt or fed on this tree of that patch. During abal-abal (May beetle) season, he knew which part of the village had the best prospects for catching the insect. Just by looking at a part of the river, he knew if there was fish dwelling in it or not. When one showed a skin disease, he could prescribe a leaf for minimizing the ugliness.

They probably picked it from their parents or grandparents themselves, but both my grandparents somehow had a built-in almanac in their minds. They knew when it was going to rain just by looking at the clouds. They knew when it would be sunny the following day by the sound of a nocturnal bird. They knew there would be war or famine somewhere by the position of the crescent moon vis-a-vis the stars at night.

Even if he smoked a lot of rolled tobacco leaf as a farmer, my Apong Lakay did not succumb to the ill-effects of smoking. I'm now 60 as I write this but I bet I could not carry the same cavan of rice he used to haul at ease when he was more than my age. Looks-wise, he had grey hair but never went bald and never had a bulging tummy like what I now have (I should have told Dante about this). He didn't use a sarukod (walking cane) either; in fact, even when he was already in his eighties, he could still hike long distances to look for and bring home fallen coconut fronds that he made into brooms, or dried tree branches for firewood.

When my grandmother was not looking and even when she already passed away, my Apong would go on foot a couple of kilometers upstream of town with his tabukol (fish net) on his pasiking (wicker backpack) and come back in the afternoon with his catch of tilapia, catfish and mudfish to use as food for his cat.

A Belated Eulogy
If this post sounds like it has the elements of a funeral speech, it is. When my grandfather died at age 91, for some unmentionable reasons somebody got the privilege (or opportunity for public exposure, if you may) of delivering the eulogy for him.

I'm not crying over spilled milk. That was in 1998 yet.

But come to think of it, I was the eldest of his grandkids and was the one who practically served as house child and stayed longest with my Apong Lakay and my grandmother in their place in the barrio. I was the one for which he caught turtles and the water birds kebkeb and tukling for my playmates. I was the reason he would scour the rivers of I-iyo for fish and frogs from midnight till dawn, even when it rained, using a carbide-powered lampa.

Indeed, for much of my boyhood years, my Apong and I were like (pardon the comparison) Batman and Robin. The two figures are not far-fetched, as Apong always had this anahaw raincoat called labig (annanga to some Ilocanos; tajapiaw in Isinay) while I was this wide-eyed boy acting as his ever-loyal sidekick or always following on his heels.

One day you would see us riding tandem on a slow-moving carabao on the way to the ricefield. Another day you would find us hiking mountain trails in kaingin territory. Next time around we would be combing the rivers of upstream Dupax for fish and shrimps, roasting corn and broiling mudfish in the farm, or running after killer dogs that preyed on newly born calf in his small patch of hilly ranch.

It was from my mother and two uncles that I learned bits and pieces of my Apong Pedro's early life. Born August 1, 1906 in Agunnit, Dingras, Ilocos Norte, the young Pedro Duldulao Pudiquet never went to school. This was not his fault. The story goes that when Apong was a boy, his father didn't want him to go to school. It was probably because, like most farm-locked parents at the time, the elder Pudiquet didn't believe in what schools could do. It was probable too that Apong's father still harbored anti-Spanish feelings at the time. (My Uncle Atong said Pudiquet was originally Periquet. Apong's elders who were followers of Apo Gregorio Aglipay made the name-change to escape persecution by Spanish rulers after an abusive Spaniard in the Ilocos of early days was killed by a freedom-loving Periquet.)

Through sheer effort of his own, however, Apong became able to read Ilocano words and people's names. I don't recall him ever writing a letter unlike my grandmother, but he could at least print his own name. How he achieved basic literacy is a story worth telling to his great, great grandkids, particularly those who have no interest in studying.

It was said Pedro Pudiquet as a boy did envy those who were privileged to attend classes such as the cartilla (basic reading and writing education passed on by the Spanish colonialists). At the risk of getting whip lashes from his father if caught remiss in his tending their farm animals, for quite sometime after he has put the carabaos in his care to pasture, he would creep to the house where cartilla was being held, peep through the bamboo wall and listen to what the maestro was teaching, and using a bamboo stick for pencil and the ground for paper, he would copy what is written on the board.

Over the years, particularly when he got married to and had children with my literate grandmother Feliza Lacandazo (herself a Nueva Vizcaya migrant from Tagudin, Ilocos Sur), Apong improved his reading skills with the Bannawag, the weekly Ilocano magazine.

Lessons from Apong
Mama confided to me one time why her father seemed aloof in his dealing with his brothers- and sisters-in-law. Mama said that he acted that way as a consequence of his being looked down upon by his then more well-off in-laws, one of whom owned a calesa, the equivalent then of the passenger jeepney now. For his part, when Apong arrived in a caravan from Ilocos in the 1920s, he found work as a caminero (road-maintenance laborer) in the Almaguer and Indiana parts of Bambang, Nueva Vizcaya. That's how he met and married a kankanen-vendor named Feliza.

It appeared that Apong's road-maintenance job was at the time (and even up to now) considered a very lowly one. For this he was often ridiculed by his in-laws. Instead of fighting back, however, Apong took his being belittled as a challenge. Even as his kids were born in Bambang, he pulled pegs and sought greener pasture in neighboring Dupax -- away from the prying eyes of my grandmother's siblings.

It was from my grandfather that I came to believe it is never too old to learn new things. I heard him talk to my Inang Baket one time that he saw a unique knot in a forest vine and would return to to learn how to do the knot himself. Coming from one who was already an expert in making fishnets, roping cows and carabaos, and weaving rattan and bamboo basketry, I was surprised.

When I was in high school and Papa bought me a second-hand bulldog bike, Apong also bought one. He was already in his fifties then and never rode a bike before, so it must have taken him several evenings let alone bruises from spills to learn how to balance himself and pedal on one. Take this, when he finally learned to ride a bike, we even had impromptu  races on rough logging roads on the way to the farm or on a river fishing trip in the Mammayang, Langka and Nabetangan area.

It was from Apong also that I learned you could improve your lot if you spend your leisure time doing more worthwhile endeavors. Rain or shine, and often with a large cigar on his mouth, he always has things to get busy on. Even when listening to his favorite Ilocano drama on radio, his fingers were always doing something productive. Examples: Mending his fishnet or making one for my grandmother's batbateng (shrimp net). Twining and spooling lapnit (bast fiber of the bitnong tree). Splitting green bayog bamboo for bamban used to tie harvested rice panicles. Polishing rattan strips or weaving these into pasiking or labba.

Indeed, it seemed he got sick when he had nothing to put his hands, heart, and mind on. This was probably why, unlike many of his fellow farmers in I-iyo, he and his family (including us his grandchildren) were sort of better fed and happy. It was surprising how we seemed to always have lots of bananas, papayas, camote, tugi, corn, peanuts, and fish and rice -- and yet (I learned this later on) Apong didn't personally own the farms and ricelands he tilled. I realize now that he discovered one could grow crops in the riverbanks, flood plains, even hillsides -- for as long as you persevere enough to clear their tall grass cover, uproot stumps, and plow them ready for agriculture.

Even the rivers were an opportunity for "subsistence affluence" (a term I learned when I was working with the then fledgling social forestry program of the pre-Cory Aquino Bureau of Forest Development) that my Apong tapped -- but which his lesser-willed and perseverance-challenged barriomates ignored. Apong always had a dozen or so fish-aggregating contraptions (called rama in Ilocano; lajma in Isinay) in the rivers of I-iyo that almost always became the envy of passersby who would see him and my grandmother (or me and my cousins and uncles) happily scooping out the mudfish, tilapia, bukto, bunog, jumping shrimps, and river crabs from the tabukol used to haul the river goods that sought shelter in the rama.

I'm thinking now: how come it was only my grandfather who had those rama at the time when all one needed was to collect large river stones, assemble them into a circular mound on knee-deep water, then cover the contraption with also free and abundant bamboo branches? How come he seemed to be the only guy in the village (perhaps even in the whole town) who always had a tabukol for catching fish?

I think the dots can now be connected to form a picture. And among the dots I now get to see via hindsight are contained in the following event I had with Apong:

One time I was with him on his kariton (carabao-drawn cart) to have sacks of irik (unhusked rice) milled in the kiskisan (rice mill), we passed by a group of barriomates (including a couple of his in-laws) enjoying their time seated on the siesta swing of the municipal judge's house. Apong's words still ring in my mind's ear: "Dika tultuladen dagita a nakamasngaad... Kitaem, no ania ti tugawda iti agsapa, isunto pay laeng ti tugawda no lumneken ni apo init." (Don't ever follow the ways of those idlers... Look, they sit that way in the morning, and they stay that way when the sun sets.)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Baguio Earthquake of 1990

A full 21 years ago today an intensity 7.7 double-quake hit Baguio City and many parts of Luzon. I was there when the hills shook, roads cracked, walls crumbled, and buildings collapsed. I was there when nights that followed were dark and cold and hopes began to dim that breathing bodies could still be dug in the ruins of the Hyatt Terraces Hotel where my wife worked. I was there when the stench of dead bodies mixed with powdered concrete and began to waft in the otherwise pine-scented air. And most probably I could now profess to the truism of the words "We learn geology the morning after the earthquake" (by the American poet, lecturer and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson). It is ironic, however, that even as I get animated each time I make an oral rendition of the sights, sounds, smells, shivers, and shakes of that fateful day and the days and weeks that followed, up to now, now that the wounds in the hills have healed and thick grass and/or new buildings have covered the signs that a huge quake indeed once devastated Baguio and vicinity, I have not yet put on paper my personal impressions of the novelty of it all. But not one to pass a chance to mark the event, I opted to present here a prize-winning account, written 11 years ago (or 10 years after the earthquake), by someone who was with me when the big shake happened.

The July 16, 1990 Baguio Earthquake:
A Personal Account

By Leia Fidelis Gisela F. Castro

Almost everyone who was in Baguio City when the July 16, 1990 killer quakes struck  will never forget the experience of it all. Survivors’ accounts of the earthquake are still entertaining, even if they are already a decade old. Some are dramatic, others tragic, some are comic. But none could compare to actually having a personal encounter. This is my story.

It was around three weeks to my eighth birthday when the tragedy hit my home city. My family has lived in Baguio since the seventies. For all of us, it is the most beautiful place on earth. My father was then a researcher at the University of the Philippines Los Baños; my mother was a coffee shop supervisor at the Hyatt Terraces Baguio. I was studying at the Saint Louis Laboratory Elementary School together with my older brother and sister.

The Tragic Day
That fateful Monday started off normally for all of us. We kids went to school, my mom left for work and my dad was to leave for Laguna. There was no premonition that disaster would strike that day.

At twelve noon, I was walking home from school when I met my father near my school’s gate along Gen. Luna Road. He said he didn’t feel like travelling that day, so he fetched me instead. We bought some newspapers and went home. I remembered playing with my puppy named Gringo and making a mess in the living room. Around 2 p.m. I fell asleep beside my dad, who was reading the newspapers.

For a seven-year-old who knows so little about earthquakes, I had no idea what caused the tremendous jolt that woke me up around 4:30 that afternoon. I heard a very loud whipping sound, like that made by the wind during strong typhoons. Thinking it was a case of the hurricanes I saw on TV, I innocently asked my father “Ano yun, daddy, ipu-ipo?” He answered “Hinde, lindol!” My brother, who had just arrived from school, ran into the bedroom also terrified. My dad told him to go under the study table. But then the shaking would not seem to stop. My father then carried me and the three of us scampered outside the house as another tremor started shaking everything in our part of the world.

A few hours after the two major tremors hit, we started receiving news about how much damage was done. Major buildings collapsed, roads were destroyed, friends and relatives were missing, all city services were cut off, hospitals were overflowing with patients, many people were dead and a lot more were trapped under the rubble.

When my sister arrived, my father left us and ran all the way from Lualhati to my mom’s place at Hyatt Terraces. Word reached us that the hotel was badly damaged and that my mom was in a meeting at the basement of the apartelle that fell down.

The remains of the Hyatt Terraces Hotel along South Drive, Baguio City, days after the 7.7 double earthquake of 16 July 1990. The men in helmet are volunteer miners and mining-disaster veterans from the Philex Mines. [Photo from accessed through]

A number of my mother’s co-workers indeed got trapped in the collapsed building. But as luck would have it, she was not in the hotel that time because their meeting was cancelled and she instead went to a house near Camp John Hay to give condolences to a co-worker whose brother died a day before.

Looking Around the City
After learning that our family (including my two student aunts) was in tact, that same evening my dad and I went hiking to see the situation at Hyatt. I remember seeing a lot of fallen trees, twisted fences, leaning electric posts, cracks on the roads, abandoned cars, and people outside their houses and on their knees praying the rosary.

I recall seeing the East wing of Hyatt first. It looked warped as part of its foundation collapsed. Windows were broken and around 3 to 4 ropes made out of knotted bed sheets and clothes were hanging from some rooms on upper floors. This was where some of the guests made their way out of the building. The main entrance had only broken windows and some cracks.

When we got to the west wing, I saw fires burning around the parking lot and the Igorot garden. The fallen apartelle looked like pieces of sliced loaf bread, piled and pushed on one side. People around were running, shouting and crying. I think I even saw men pulling out live and dead bodies from the rubble. Some (like my mom) were shouting orders to do this and that… and still some (like my dad and me) were just curiously looking on (or making “usi” as they called it then).

Later that night we slept under makeshift tents in our front yard at Lualhati, near the Mansion House. Of course, it was an enjoyable event for my siblings and me, since pup tents were part of our playthings under the pine trees of nearby Wright Park then. I recall peering at the stars twinkling so brightly, as if they were assuring me that everything will soon be okay. I don’t think I would ever appreciate stars that way again.

The next morning, I joined my dad again to do another “inspection trip” of the city. This time we were with a friend who had a car, thus we were able to visit more places. At the back of the Baguio General Hospital we saw cars pinioned to the ground by fallen walls. We checked on some of the fallen buildings like Hotel Nevada, the University of Baguio, the FRB Commercial Complex, Baguio Park Hotel and the Skyworld.

We also visited some of the more populated places like Aurora Hill, Brookside, Bonifacio and New Lucban. The situation was all the same: destroyed houses, improvised tents, and people living in the streets. We didn’t see human corpses but we did find dead kittens and dogs.

For a month or so my mom and dad were part of the volunteers at Hyatt, staying there from twilight till morn. To make up for their lost time with us, at daytime they would usually take us to visit other more places in the devastated city, on foot and walking long distances.

I saw for myself how huge the cracks were at the Baguio Cathedral. I felt sorry for the beautiful cement statues of Igorots at Burnham, some beheaded by the quake, some now lying helpless on the muddy ground. I also saw how deep the sinkhole at Magsaysay Avenue was. And, yes, I also smelled the stench of decayed flesh coming out from the rubble of erstwhile magnificent buildings.

Living Conditions and Necessities
All classes were suspended until August 20 but this was later on moved to September. Most of the time we kids in our neighborhood at Barangay Lualhati where we lived were just playing and running around. We didn’t seem to mind the situation we were in. Nor did we even bother to seek shelter when strong aftershocks occurred but instead enjoyed counting and feeling the tremors.

There was no electricity, so we relied on overpriced candles that often quivered with each aftershock or got extinguished in the misty winds of July. More than a month later, electricity finally came back. My playmates and I ran throughout the barangay shouting "May kuryente na! May kuryente na!” Indeed, the lights seemed to us a luxury after so many nights of darkness!

But then piped water was still a problem. And so we kids had our share of what our ancestors normally did in their time – get water direct from the source. Yes, long before moneyed strangers built a huge condominium over it, a live spring used to gush forth clear, cool and sweet-tasting water near Lualhati. There we could queue up for our laundry and bath and genuine spring water.

Food wasn’t much of a problem for our family, since we have sayote plants at our backyard. We ate sardines and sayote, until we couldn’t stand seeing sardine cans any longer. My mom brought home flour, eggs, coffee, cream, gelatin, jams and sardines that she bought from the remaining stocks at Hyatt. Most grocery stores were closed or would only sell minimal amounts of essential commodities like canned goods, batteries, candles, matches, milk and sugar.

Since my birthday fell on August 5, we could only afford a very simple celebration. We feasted on homemade pizza, spaghetti, buko pie and coke. My mom told me that we would have a better celebration for my next birthday. I understood our situation, since I was with my mom when she queued at the half-open grocery store just to buy a pack of pasta and tomato paste for my spaghetti.

Relief goods arrived after 4 to 5 weeks. We received some canned goods, rice and weird looking clothes. An evacuation center made up of two army tents was raised in our barangay but we didn’t go there since the house where we were renting was still strong and standing. A medical team also came to give free checkups, medicines, vitamin supplements, and water-purifying tablets. Fortunately, despite our situation, nobody got sick in our family. Our barangay officials also led the whole community in cleaning our place. There was a dumping site for garbage and the collection was strictly scheduled and followed by everyone.

My dad didn’t go back to work for a month. I recall him trying to explain to us that he had to be with my mom in doing voluntary service at Hyatt – as his way of thanking God for saving my mother and her other friends. They were there day and night, feeding the miners from Philex and other rescue workers assigned at Hyatt.

They tended the bonfires, made vats and vats of coffee, opened cartons after cartons of sardines, served interminable meals and snacks, and washed hundreds of cups and plates – simple things to keep the morale of the rescue workers and the relatives (waiting for word of the still unfound victims) high.

They were there when the girl Michelle Reyes [daughter of Hyatt executive Noli Reyes] was still heard crying “Mommy! Mommy!” under the huge mountain of fallen steel and concrete. They were part of the cheering when somebody was brought out alive – and the praying when a stiff body or a nameless limb was found.

They were there when Pedrito Dy was found still alive even after having been trapped for 14 days and even after the foreign volunteers gave up all hope of finding any survivor.

My mom was among the last to leave the place when the miners finally found the last body [that of her friend Fely Rimando] at the end of September.

Starting Again
School finally resumed on September 17 and extended until April 1991. Of course, the first thing they asked us in class was what we did during the earthquake. All my classmates and teachers were alive. A week after, our school celebrated a thanksgiving mass and we were all asked to pray for those who perished.

My mother lost her job and a number of friends at Hyatt. But as if to compensate for everything, my dad later got an assignment with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, Baguio City came to life again. The first thing the city hall people did was to make the new Baguio City a little more earthquake safe. Old and new fault lines were determined. Roads and other infrastructures were fixed. Building construction engineers were told to limit the number of floors per building to six. Structures and foundations were also improved.

The scarred mountains got back their pine trees and sunflowers. Most important of all, a lot of people regained their bearings and composure and started to build again. In fact, today, who would believe that Baguio ever got hit by that tragedy?

Turning a New Leaf
It has been ten years after that tragic moment. Our family left our beloved barangay Lualhati, which has been our home for over 10 years, and we moved to Camp 7. Our new place is quite far from the city proper, has still vestiges of greenery and serenity, and is not yet densely populated.

Slowly but steadily we recovered from the effects of the earthquake. However, up to this day there are times when I still recall and, yes, long for the days when Hyatt was still there. That institution was part of my and my siblings’ childhood. The earthquake took away much of my childhood memories… of cold December nights when we Hyatt kids would sing Christmas carols to hotel guests… of the paintings and the wall decors and the wood carvings that adorned the hotel’s hallways… of the trees and flowers and the fountains that formed part of the hotel’s premises. I felt something died in me too when I learned that there are no more plans to put up Hyatt in the same place again.

But one thing that the quake gave me was the valuable experience – which is why every time a small temblor comes, whether in Baguio or in Los Baños, I just take it for granted. Why? Simply because I have been there before. And so I feel like next time another big one strikes, I will no longer be terrified. I now know what to do. I now know what victims and their surviving friends and respective families need.

I have learned a lot from that event. I learned that strength is not the only basis of survival, we need to have faith in God and in others, unity and cooperation to achieve our goals. I learned that everyone must put away aloofness and pride and instead help those in need. I learned that we must not take for granted what we have because we might lose them in just a blink of an eye. Above all, I found out that we Filipinos are blessed with good traits, that even in the midst of disasters and calamities we could find our way and even come out laughing.

The earthquake proved to me that nothing is resilient. Everything can change and so have I – particularly because I have grown from being a precautious eight-year-old observer to an almost 18-year-old young adult who now writes of her experience.

Looking back, I now feel several notches above my peers simply for having been one of those who experienced the earthquake and lived to tell about it. Truly, I could say “HEY, LOOK, I WAS THERE… AND I HAVE SURVIVED!”

Sunday, July 3, 2011

This Beetle Was a Favorite Isinay Toy

Rhinoceros beetle and button tomatoes [Jan. 2011 photo by charlzcastro]

I was sweeping fallen avocado leaves on our part of the road in Baguio City one morning last January when -- as if my guardian angel gave a sign that she was happy I was starting the day right -- I chanced upon this rhinoceros beetle feebly crawling in the dew-drenched pavement.

Called dumoj in Isinay (barrairong in Ilocano; uwang in Tagalog), it has been years, nay, decades, when I last saw this creature.

It was my first time, too, to find one in cold Baguio and, in fact, I half wondered if it really grew up in pine country or it was brought from the lowlands and was able to escape its boy captor.

I picked the beetle up, held it on my palm, and forgot all about my sweeping fallen avocado leaves. And right then and there half-forgotten boyhood memories of playing with the beetle (as well as cicadas, dragonflies, fireflies, crickets, and grasshoppers) raced like video tape on fast forward in my mind’s eye.

But before I called my daughters to come look at a sample of my toys as a boy in Isinay country, I plucked some reddish-orange fruits plus a leaf of my wife’s wild button tomato plants, put the sleepy insect on my palm, set the specimens for a good photo op in the morning light, and the picture above was one of the results.

My memories about the rhino beetle (called as such because its horn resembles that of the rhinoceros) include finding them among the stems of acapulco (tutu^paw in Isinay), a small shrub whose leaves and golden yellow flowers we use as cure for the "white-spots" skin disease that we learned in elementary school to be Tinea flava (kamanaw in Ilocano, isaw in Isinay).

When I was little and even when Papa already bought me a bicycle, either on the way upstream to my grandparents house in I-iyo or, conversely, on my way down to my parents house in Domang, I would often have a pit stop on the side of the road near the bridge in Ongkay. Well, purposely to look for the beetles -- as well as to pluck a young leaf of the acapulco and rub its juice on the white spots on my face.

I digress, but incidentally, that part of the Dupax to I-iyo road that used to have plenty of such dumoj is now the same spot where Bonnie Calacala makes his roadside garden of bush sitaw (utong in Ilocano, gayya^ in Isinay). When I went to the area last May, I didn't notice though if there was any remnant of the tutu^paw plants that used to abound there.

I would often find half a dozen of the insects crawling or just sleeping among the acapulco plants there. And sometimes, because of such luck, I would entertain thoughts that God indeed acknowledged that I was a good boy as I went to church every Sunday morning, did my household chores well, performed my best in school, did not quarrel much with my sisters, and took a bath every day.

The beetles' legs and claws were to me so sharp that when I put the squirming insects on the good pocket of my short pants I would see to it that the pocket didn't get too close to my skin. There were no convenient plastic bags in Dupax then, mind you. I would have used matchboxes but they were too small and not strong enough for the fat and sturdy beetles.

Oh well, here's another side note: The Isinay term tutu^paw for the acapulco plant may have been applied by an Isinay ancestor who noticed that the oval leaves of the plant did seem to "fall asleep" at the end of day. Indeed, remembering one of my UP Los Baños lessons in Forest Botany, most leguminous plants (which include the acapulco, makahiya, ipil-ipil, tamarind, and rain tree) do close or fold their leaves at twilight to save on heat and moisture that would otherwise escape through their leaves' stomata or breathing organs.

In summer, when there are evening occasions (such as pre-fiesta benefit dances or movie shows) in the plaza in Dupaj or in the then seldom used tindan (market) in Domang, there would occasionally be a couple or so of the rhino beetles that would hover around and around the electric bulb lights of Robin Angat (the lone service provider for such lights and music in those days when there was yet no electricity in Dupax). Naturally the bolder boys would outdo one another in chasing and catching the insects and would soon ignore what was going on so they could ogle at the beetle.

There used to be a forested spot near the Dupax Central Elementary School in upstream Abannatan where I also used to collect rhino beetles. I happened to discover a particular beetle habitat there in a clump of vines and appatut (achuete) saplings one time my fellow wilderness-loving classmate Peredo^ (Wilfredo Felix) and I escaped from watering hopeless lettuce, cabbage and other plants in the school garden beside Abannatan. During summer vacation when I'm not in I-iyo and have already done my chores of feeding the pigs and the chickens, I would go there early mornings to take a digos ti uwak (that's Ilocano for taking a bath with no soap; omos si gayang in Isinay) in Abannatan's cold water then later sling-shoot birds or find beetles.

And what did I do with those that I caught or rather plucked off from their attachments on the host plants?

First, if I there were more than two, I would only get the male ones, the ones with distinctive horns, and discard the females, the ones with no horns. Sometimes I would also let go smaller males if their horns were not as long and mean-looking enough as the big ones -- or if I remembered my being a big brother, I would take them home to my sisters.

Rhino beetles are lazy fliers, so tying their hind legs with thread (the way we used to do with May beetles) is out of the question. In fact, I don't recall having seen rhinos fly. But these guys are rather good fighters, pullers, pushers, and crawlers. Thus, if I had a pair of long-horned ones, I would pit them into a bullfight of sorts on a cleared spot on the ground. Sometimes I would set a stick or twig on the pincers/horns of one beetle and enjoy watching how it carried or held on to that twig for several minutes.

Pity the little creatures. When we got tired of them -- or when they got too tired to play what we wanted them to play -- we just left them on the ground to fly if they still could fly. More often than not, however, we just threw them in the direction of the chickens for them to peck then chase one another with.

You must have heard how many of us Northern Filipinos, including Negritos, Ilocanos, Ifugaos, Igorots, Ilongots and Isinays, eat almost anything that moves, in much the same manner that we are able to use as food any succulent green along streams or on the mountain trail. (They say this instinct for edible wild plants and animals was the reason why during World War 2 American soldiers assigned in Luzon were said to have preferred going on food-hunting forays with locals rather than their countrymen).

Well, unlike its relatives, the rhino beetle is not the one that could be fried and eaten with gusto. Rather, the favorite delicacy among its tribe is the May beetle (called abal-abal in Ilocano, e-ve in Isinay, salagubang in Tagalog) that emerged when the first rains in April or May came and which we caught in riverine farms with the use of keddeng, a beetle attractant made of the mud-soaked and air-dried bast fiber of the bitnong tree.

For its part, the wild button tomato (called butinggan in Ilocano and Isinay; sometimes butbutones by other Ilocanos) was a common wild food plant among us rural folks in Northern Philippines when I was growing up. It grew and still grows wild and untended (balang in both Isinay and Ilocano) -- hence, organic to the max! -- among the ferns, saluyot, am-amti, allay (amaranth), vines, grass, and shrubs on river banks or at the edge of the talon/payaw, bangkag/gitaw, or uma/soppeng.

Be they rhinos or Mays, I'm pretty sure there are still such beetles in Isinay country. What may be good subject for quick research, however, is to find out if kids in that part of the Planet Earth, including its neighbors Aritao and Bambang, still care to hunt for them and play with them. -- charlz castro