Saturday, February 14, 2015

Summer of '94

In the island province of Masbate, summer meant fun and great adventures, and though I was only 14 when I first went there for a vacation, I was able to recall a lot of those endeavors and use my recollection as proof that MasbateƱos (and Bicolanos in general) were the most hospitable people in the world. It might be different for the locals, but as a 'tourist' I was overwhelmed by how accommodating everyone was. 

   Aunt Esperanza usually threw a family reunion on the first Sunday of May, a potluck to which everybody brought an ethnic dish. She cooked some kinunot na pagi and ginataang manok. Uncle Charles showed up with two gallons of tuba. I sipped a little bit of the funny drink and passed the bottle to my younger cousin, who drank with such enthusiasm and filled his mouth with that awful, vinegary liquid. My mother brought her famous Bicol Express. She had an extraordinary appetite for chili peppers, the stronger the better, but sometimes she had to tone it down so more people can enjoy her dish.

   Our relatives were mostly farmers and fisherfolk; hardworking citizens who embraced pessimism only when discussing the weather, local politics, and the lousy price of copra. The town was filled with warm and friendly people, but they don't really trust you unless they trusted your grandfather.

   My lolo lived in a very old house near the beach, six miles south of San Fernando, where his parents lived and died. It had been built in the nineteen twenties, back when indoor plumbing and electricity were unheard of in Masbate. It was spacious but vile, and with no one to maintain it, the house that was ugly became wholly rotten. There were old books and calendars everywhere, piles of records on the floor, broken furniture and empty wine bottles.

   When he wasn't ploughing the rice field or tending his vegetable garden, my grandfather kept his hands in alcohol. From the time he was seventeen until he was sixty, he drank steadily, but throughout the last ten years of his life, he did not take a drop, saying, "I've had my share."

   Before he was ill, he used to have these parties, at which loads of people would gather at the balcony, making loud noises and bizarre pranks. He was so obsessed with Dr. Jose Rizal's Mi Ultimo Adios – he made me recite it with him, verse for verse, at one of his ill-fated shindigs. 

   He was an occasional gambler who knows very little about picking winners. He rarely played cards, and his involvement with gambling was limited to weekend cockfights at the town square where he ended up losing most of the time but continued to wager his limited cash on the outside chance that he might get lucky.

   It wasn't anything my parents had planned on, but after a two-week vacation, I heard words that would change my life. With the air perfectly still, my mom said, "We'll stay here for good." I stared at my father, who was smoking near the railing on the part of the veranda. And I glanced at my lolo, who didn't seem at all surprised with the news. I wanted to be alone, to have a good cry in private. I never had intimate friends in Manila, but the thought of spending my entire high school life in the province was unbearable.


To be continued.

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