of course i held my breath. what do you think i would’ve done, our car zipping past the same fields, on the same road we passed countless times, so many summers and cold seasons ago.
i knew we were approaching. we were coming from echague, isabela, where we had just covered the launch of the partnership of the biggest name in agri-biz and an argentinian company. we stopped by josie’s panciteria in cabagan to try her famous pancit cabagan, stopped by the eerie san pablo church in the dying capital of santiago. we did what journalists do: enjoy under the guise of work, work under the guise of enjoyment.
but riding in that car, with the sun setting and the sky turning a deep, silvery blue, anticipating what i was going to see, i was again eight, nine, even 12 years old, on my way to the big house in Larion Alto for a summer vacation.
it’s gone of course, that ‘bahay na malaki.’ in its place, and on the grounds surrounding it, are new, expertly manicured lawns and spanking new, curlicued gates and walls around new, swiftly-constructed houses not even one-fourth the size of our ancestral home. bright lights illuminate the perimeter of the walls; brightly-colored penants stand there, proudly flapping their colors. an alien landscape.
my lolo fred, a poor boy turned rancher, whose last name was tumacder–‘to stand’–built his family home after the war on a portion of that land. around it was a cattle ranch, a sawmill, wild lands where my cousins and i used to roam after breakfast. we’d carry a picnic basket, a boombox, a large knife (in case we came across any snakes), and all the bravado kids can muster.
we’d venture far, far, far, we thought. we laid down our banig and food and eat. one time we came across this giant banyan tree in the middle of a clearing. we were sure it was enchanted. now, as an adult, i’m not even sure if it existed.
my lolo’s house was called ‘bahay na malaki’ by everyone. later, as i became more cynical and more read, i called them ‘serfs’. there were three living rooms. we used to skateboard across those rooms. the dining room was bordered by a hall where servants would pass through without being seen. the rooms in that hall always smelled like rice grain and corn husks. there were a couple of bedrooms and bathrooms in that hall, and in one of them, a distant niece has reported seeing the ghost of my lolo taking a bath.
this hallway opened up to the “clean kitchen”, where food was assembled (“plated,”, as they say in culinary terms), and beyond that, the real kitchen where the action happened: coal stoves; large, blackened pots; the walls stained with years of soot. and just outside, a space where i witnessed many a slaughtering. pigs, chickens, goats. as a child i already knew what “jugular” meant even before i knew the word. i remember a distant cousin, kuya lando, heating up a giant wok of water for the goat meat, dipping his hands in the boiling water, and holding up his hands to show everyone he remained unharmed. he later saved me from a renegade gansa (goose), picked me up just like they do in action movies, while on horseback, and me, running the fuck out of my life and imagining how deep of a scar the goose would make if it had indeed bitten me.
behind the house were huge storehouses of rice and grain. a chicken house. i should remember more, but can’t at the moment.
everything was sold off in 2008, 2009, to the real estate developer whose mediterranean-inspired houses now dot the hills of barrio larion alto.
i still feel stunned and a little weepy when we get to the hotel, another feature from an alien landscape–impressive, yes, but alien all the same. the tuguegarao i knew had arinolas and calesas, not inverter aircons and hot and cold showers. but i’ve been gone so long, too long, and of course things have to change.
other things bother me. things petty and silly, like how people seem to be put-off with my ybanag, or how they don’t recognize the name ‘tumacder’ anymore.
but there are welcome changes: i discover the next day that all the government offices are in one area of the city, a sign of thoughtful zoning; business seems to be booming and the people seem to have taken a confidence never before seen. when we catch our flight the day after, we see that the plane is again full, with a good share of foreigners.
but not before we visit the cathedral and the market. the last i remember of the cathedral is that it is loud and raucous and hot, with gravel and soil beneath my shoes. i remember my lola telling me to kiss the feet of a saint during one holy week mass: “kiss it, don’t be ignorant.” that was the biggest insult of all, being an ignoramus.
the cathedral’s grounds are now nicely paved. when we visit, it is closed, so it is quiet and peaceful.
a couple of teenage boys approach me and hand me leaflets for houses for where our ancestral home once stood. i refuse, of course, and board our coaster for a short trip to the market.
i find enamel plates and cups, stuff that can’t be found in manila anymore. to my utter delight, the vendors speak to me in the local tongue, seem to understand what i’m saying. it doesn’t matter that i speak in broken ybanag, mix it with ilocano and tagalog, they converse back with me!
i board the coaster, beaming.
my cousins are at the hotel, waiting for me outside under one of the umbrella tables. i wave to them and practically jump from the coaster to give them a hug.
later, one of our local guides says, “kaano-ano mo si kalbo?” he refers to my cousin, randy.
i tell him, and tell him i am a tumacder. his eyes light up, “ah! tumacder! malaking pamilya yan!”
i smile too. i feel i can breathe again.