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     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.

Buntog Station. Photo Courtesy: Rudyard Florida

Buntog Station. Photo Courtesy: Rudyard Florida

     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.

My drawing of the 'biring' from memory. October 27, 2014.

My drawing of the ‘biring’ from memory. October 27, 2014.

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.

Lola Mansing. Photo courtesy: Delfa Avelino Dorado

Lola Mansing. Photo courtesy: Delfa Avelino Dorado

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.

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    Puerto Rico stole my heart. However briefly, Jae and I were transported to a different world, and every minute that we spent there reminded us of it.

2Old San Juan8

Espresso with a kick at Caficultura, a small street-side coffeeshop on the corner of Calle San Francisco and Calle O’Donnell.

    Old San Juan was a pleasant assault on the senses — the crisp, rapid Spanish erupting from its jovial people, the strong aroma of coffee and mallorcas wafting from open-air cafes on street corners, and the humid air barely urged to motion by the warm breezes that snake through the close-set colonial buildings.

    The city’s architecture is, I exaggerate not, a feat of historic preservation. Calle de la Fortaleza literally took my breath away, and for a few seconds I forgot we were supposed to be looking for our hotel. The streets are cobblestone, and in some areas, so polished by foot traffic that the blue stone shines strangely metallic.

Calle de la Fortaleza.

Calle de la Fortaleza.

    Along major streets, buildings up to seven stories loom close on each side; I felt almost claustrophobic as Jae and I walked between two colorful walls extending to the horizon, one building’s facade distinguishable from the next only by the alternating pastels and the subtler variations in design.

    Churches, museums and the graceful remains of castles long-dead lay casually throughout the city.

Old San Juan 21

Quaint terraces.

    Quaint terraces — sometimes of wrought iron, sometimes of wood — overhang the already narrow streets, often dripping green aerial plants. I loved peeking out of our fourth-floor hotel window and seeing a baby playing on the porch straight across the street, so close I could reach out and give him back his toy. I loved looking at the patterned floors of the terraces and getting glimpses of home life through the louvres of doors and windows.

    Anthropologist Ricardo Alegria opposed the destruction of historic structures, urging politicians to make sure that any new construction within the old city uses Spanish colonial motifs. The city retains its old-world charm that now acts as a magnet for tourists.

El Morro at sunset.

El Morro at sunset.

     El Castillo San Felipe del Morro was a sight to behold, perched on a low hill jutting out onto the ocean. Its walls are thick and ancient, worn by the centuries but still watchful and defiant. The interior is a maze of rooms, tunnels and levels on a massive scale. During the day, it’s a warm ochre between the sky and rolling green grounds; at sunset, it’s a dark silhouette against a golden sky.

   

Kite-flying at El Morro.

Kite-flying at El Morro.

The forbidding fortress is now somewhat softened by families picnicking or flying kites on the surrounding field. Jae and I spent some hours there launching our own kites into the air, eating helado, or just watching humanity happen all around us. At El Morro, every day was Sunday.

    On the actual Sunday, Jae braved the busy Puerto Rican thoroughfares (they drive on the right!) to drive to El Yunque, the famed bosque nacional one hour out of the metro, to get his nature immersion. We drove through the dense tropical rainforest all the way to the top of the mountain to take in the trails, the waterfalls, and the panoramic views. Jae was ecstatic; apparently old buildings only worked on me. He said we were going back just for El Yunque.

    If you managed to get this far, thank you for reading through. I hope that the photographs somewhat share what Jae and I have experienced on this anniversary trip, this wonderful place and its gracious, big-hearted people. There are truly beautiful places in the world, and after my homes — the Philippines and the Virgin Islands — Puerto Rico ranks high on this girl’s list.

     When I was a very young child, I used to think the world was a straight line. I knew of maps, of course, and that the world was round, but my mind, which probably couldn’t fathom how large the earth must be for me not to see the land bend, pieced together its own — and quite literal — worldview.

     So I decided the world was a line. And it began, in the fashion of Garcia Marquez’s mythical Macondo, in my hometown, Dumalag.

     These are my early memories of that world.

     Some late afternoons, a farmer would pass by just outside the bamboo fence of our backyard, herding ducks with a stick. The ducks would wade across the muddy fields, dipping their heads now and then for snails that somehow survived in the mud.

     On this particularly dry summer, someone had dug out an irrigation channel for the parched rice paddies. My friends and I would take turns stepping into the hip-deep torrent, pretending we were sitting in a swimming pool. Rich people had swimming pools. No one we knew had one. I would come home dripping, clothes stained yellow, and smelling strongly of the metallic minerals in the water.

IMG_5853

Redbud flowers by our house.

 On one side of our house was a vacant lot overgrown with tall weeds. It might as well have been a forest. But beyond that carpet of green was a row of small trees that bore the most beautiful, purple flowers. The flowers clustered in bunches like grapes, each one small and tight, like miniature lilies, only blessed with more petals. I dared not cross, imagining snakes each time my foot sank into the green carpet, but on those rare times when we could get our hands on those flowers, we’d get some string and make necklaces.

Photo by Jojo Gabinete. For more photos like this, click here.

August 24, 2013

It was a year after our wedding, and I wanted to do something special. Without telling me, Jae booked two nights in a little cottage at a beautiful campground on St. John, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the most untouched by development.

With no cellphone reception and no Internet, I thought, Dear God, I’m doomed.

Most of the island is protected national park, and it seemed every turn we took was more breathtaking than the last. Take a picture on St. John, and you wouldn’t need Photoshop.

St. John4

Trunk Bay, St. John.

The island’s beaches are right out of a postcard: smooth white sand, crashing blue surf, sun-bleached driftwood half-buried in the sand. The contrasting blues of the sky and greens of the hills had a subtle paralyzing effect. It took a while for the brain to take in the image, knowing this was the real world, not a travel brochure.

We visited picturesque sugar mill ruins and relived, somberly, some of the darker parts of Virgin Islands history. The remains of the Annaberg sugar factory, perched on a hill under the shade of blooming flamboyant trees, are a flaming vision at sunset.

The animal encounters were fantastic. Jae woke me up one morning so I could see two stags feeding quietly at our doorstep.

Donkeys on the road.

Donkeys on the road.

We stood and stared at bright orange crabs playing peek-a-boo in and out of holes in the ground, which were all over the place. Donkeys strolled idly on the road, so at home you’d feel ashamed to honk at them to get out of the way.

I did try to get up close so I could pet them, but apparently, I wasn’t worthy (or subtle) enough.

St. John8

Petroglyphs at the end of Reef Bay Trail possibly date back to 900 AD.

On our last afternoon, we went on a truly leap-of-faith (it was, to me, anyway) adventure, following a rocky, winding trail that descended to a deep and gloomy valley in search of ancient rock carvings.

We walked downhill for an hour, and the only way out was back up the trail again. It was not for the faint of heart. Luckily, my husband was naturally attuned for the both of us. Well, at least he didn’t freeze in his tracks at the sight of running deer in the middle of gloomy woods, thinking they were wolves.

I haven’t heard the end of it yet, actually.

 

 

 

     When I was a very young child, I used to think the world was a straight line. I knew of maps, of course, and that the world was round, but my mind, which probably couldn’t fathom how large the earth must be for me not to see the land bend, pieced together its own — and quite literal — worldview.

     So I decided the world was a line. And it began, in the fashion of Garcia Marquez’s mythical Macondo, in my hometown, Dumalag.

     These are my early memories of that world.

     There used to be a payag — a little hut — in the middle of the fields, not far from my house. Nothing but a thatched roof sitting on four rough poles with bamboo slats for a floor.

     If it wasn’t raining, I would grab my teddy bear blanket, a pillow, a Sidney Sheldon novel, a bottle of Coca-Cola, some sweets, and head for the hut. The blanket would make up one wall, depending on where the sun glares the harshest. I would lie down, read my book, suck on a sweet or sip my cola until the warm breeze lulls me to sleep. Sometimes, I’d wake up to the cooling twilight and my nanny’s frantic calls cutting through the wind.

     Then I knew I was in trouble.

Photo by Jojo Gabinete. For more photos like this, click here.

     When I was a very young child, I used to think the world was a straight line. I knew of maps, of course, and that the world was round, but my mind, which probably couldn’t fathom how large the earth must be for me not to see the land bend, pieced together its own — and quite literal — worldview.

     So I decided the world was a line. And it began, in the fashion of Garcia Marquez’s mythical Macondo, in my hometown, Dumalag.

     These are my early memories of that world.

     The house I grew up in stood at the edge of an uyapad, a wide expanse of rice fields. I spent most of my time time in the city for school, but I would return to Dumalag on most weekends and for entire summers. I remember the sky was always so very wide and blue, the clouds white and fluffy, tearing off here and there into animal shapes.

    It was warm year round, but summers were cruel. The sun would beat down on the barren fields until the mud shriveled into gasping cakes of dirt.

     I would go around back where the concrete wall has crumbled down, skip over the gutter, and run freely to the yellow piles of dried hay left over from the last harvest. Kids from the neighborhood would be there before me, bouncing or burying themselves in the pile, sending straw flying everywhere. I would dive in guiltily, exhilarated yet cautious of the allergies my nanny said I had.

     Sometimes, we would chase small birds scurrying through the cracks in the ground, hoping to find hidden eggs. I don’t recall ever catching a bird or finding a nest. Now I realize the other children might just have been exaggerating their own backyard adventures.

     My brother would fly a kite, called a burador, if he’s lucky to get an older cousin make him one that actually flies. Sometimes he’d let me hold the spool of string. I liked the sensation of the kite trying to pull free, marveling at the physics that lets me feel the struggle of a thing so far away. My brother’s kite occasionally got tangled up with another kid’s. This was sure sign of trouble, so I’d walk gingerly back to the house, careful not to get my rubber tsinelas stuck in the broken ground.

Photo by Jojo Gabinete. For more photos like this, click here.

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Rotary II Names Bishop Bevard its ‘Person of the Year’ (V.I. Source) Click here Bishop Herbert Bevard
 Winners All at the Special Olympics (V.I. Source) Click here  Special Olympics 2_032820151