I regret I did not get to know Lola Mansing, my fraternal grandmother, very well. She recently passed away, but I can’t even remember what she and Lolo Tibô looked like. For most of my life, my mum had been separated from my dad, rest his soul, and somehow that meant my brother Archelle and I rarely saw our fraternal relatives. The last visit I remember, I was but four or five.
The Fales lived in Buntog, the part of Dumalag that lies in the path of the old railroad. Up until the early 1970s, under the Marcos regime, the “Burban” and the “Diesel” made stops there as they chugged across the Western Visayan provinces.
Uncle Benjie said he used to take the trains to nearby Passi to buy pineapples. The busy railroad infused Buntog with life and energy, my mother recalled, making it the most prosperous barangay in Dumalag.
Then the trains stopped running.
It’s been decades now since the railroad ceased operations. The trains are long gone, along with much of Buntog’s former bustle. But the tracks stayed intact, and they were put to good use by Filipino ingenuity.
Buntog residents built small vehicles — called biring — designed to traverse the train tracks. Made almost entirely out of wood or bamboo, a biring was nothing more than two crude benches on top of a five-foot-square platform. The whole contraption sat on metal wheels not unlike those of trains.
Passengers got on the biring from the main road, right across Erning’s batchoy place. As soon as a biring had enough passengers, a lone driver would push the vehicle along the tracks, aided by a pole and the laws of physics.
Needless to say I loved riding the biring. I remember hurtling through the tracks — no walls, no seatbelts, just the wind whipping my hair, rushing coolly against my face. The countryside whizzed past in a blur of greens. I could feel the wheels grinding against metal under my feet, the rhythmic tak-a-tak, tak-a-tak, tak-a-tak as they hit the places where the metal tracks joined. The grinding would die down to a whine as we slowed to drop off a passenger, and I would grab my seat against the change in inertia, careful not to lurch forward or get thrown off.
There was only one track, which meant we were on a collision course with any biring headed in the opposite direction. In such cases, one biring would have to relent: its passengers would get off and the more muscular folks would help the driver lift the whole thing off the track, then lift it back on again once the other biring had safely passed.
My grandparents’ house stood just off the tracks. I remember walking across a small rice paddy behind mom and several uncles, grabbing my brother’s shirt so I didn’t fall off the narrow, elevated mud trail. On the other side was a familiar two-story structure made of concrete and wood.
The living room was at ground level, with some wooden stairs rising from the center of the room to a square hole cut into the second story floor.
Lolo and lola gave me my first grown-up drink in that room — a type of wine made from coconut flowers called tuba — that my mother would never have allowed under normal circumstances. It came out of a piece of bamboo that was cleaned out and turned into a receptacle.
I liked tuba; it was sweet and tart and deliciously forbidden.
Chickens roamed the backyard. They must have had other poultry and livestock, but I don’t remember. My grandparents told me I could chase the chickens, and I could keep whatever I caught. In hindsight, I think it was a ploy to get rid of me so the grown-ups could talk, but hey, I had a blast chasing yellow chicks while fending off angry mother hens.
My Papa Pedro, who’s actually my uncle, owned a biring, and he’d treat us to the best joy rides. The tracks were elevated where they cut through rice paddies. In some areas, the packed earth had crumbled, leaving the tracks hanging over thin air in a slight dip. It made a perfect makeshift roller coaster track, and that’s exactly what we did. My mom, who was stuck with the grown-ups, would have been sufficiently freaked if she saw us riding the biring at warp speed across that dip, screaming our lungs out.
My mother now tells me I’d forgotten the best bits: crossing a deep stream on a bridge made of nothing but two bamboo poles latched together, splashing on the banks of that stream when it’s swollen and muddied by rain, and riding the biring splayed on the floor because there were no benches. She said my grandfather took me to ride his carabaos — water buffalos — and that my grandmother affectionately called me Nene Apple, and my brother Nonoy Cheche.
So even though I didn’t know Lola Mansing, she left me some solid, rocking memories. Through her, I remember how our Buntog family always made us feel welcome and loved. If we could have that much fun with them on a brief visit, I wouldn’t mind riding the biring express to their houses again someday.
Cover photo courtesy of Rudyard Florida.