January 10, 2011

Cagayan de Oro City has been in the news recently due to typhoon Sendong.   (http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/video/anc/12/17/11/sendong-devastates-cagayan-de-oro)  Thousands died.  Many more were injured.  The damage is estimated to be over a billion pesos.  I watch the videos of Cagayan de Oro in the aftermath of the typhoon and the scenes look surreal.  What I see don’t match what I have preserved in my memories.

When I was growing up, I considered Cagayan De Oro as my second home.  My mother’s family was from there.  We visited the city frequently.  There were things about it that I hated- the biting heat, the stink of the bus terminals, the fumes of the numerous jeeps and motorelas, the hustle and bustle.  There were things about it that I loved, especially the beaches.  Although in the end I preferred my home up in the mountains over the coastal Cagayan de Oro, I have a soft spot for Cagayan de Oro in my heart.  And even though I have not been there in almost twenty years, I still dream about it.

What follows is a piece I wrote before in a collection of vignettes.  This is the Cagayan de Oro that lives in my memories.

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Tagabukid.  That is what we are.  Of the mountains.  Our mountains and forests are magical.  When you start to trek up a mountain and walk into the forest, you will find yourself suddenly surrounded with silent fog, as if the pale enkangtos swirl around you, deciding whether you are worthy enough to grant a visit into their kingdom.  If you keep walking deeper into the forest, that low drone that you hear will become a roar and you will see waterfalls so mighty they will pound you to death if you foolishly enter the water.  But sometimes, like in the summer, the pools under the falls are calm and you can jump in and swim from boulder to boulder.  The cold water will zip through you like painful electric shots but soon thereafter you will feel very awake and you will realize there are twice as many leaves on the trees above you and three times as many birds as you first thought, each trilling a different note.  You will leave the mountains and the forests filled with so much energy, you will feel you can run like a horse, all the way home, all 20 kilometers of it, maybe more.

But the people in the coastal city, the ladies with heavy make-up who work at the big shopping stores, or the college students in their bleached white uniforms, when they whisper “tagabukid” behind our backs while pointing quickly at us with their lips, they don’t seem to know the beauty and magic of the mountains.  Otherwise, why would they act as if we come from a dirty place?  When I visit the coastal city with my family, the city dwellers always seem to know that we are not one of them, that we are tagabukid.  Maybe it is the plastic bags we carry, or our darker skin, or how we stare and point at everything new or unfamiliar to us?

But I pay them no attention.  I look forward to the few trips to the coastal city with my family.  I suffer the nauseous hour-long bus ride up and down the windy roads.  And just when it seems I can no longer hold in my vomit with good thoughts of my crush, the bus reaches the sweet spot where the chill disappears and the air becomes heady with the smell of fresh coconut boiling in sugar.  My nose buds taste fried coconut bukayo and my nausea disappears.  The surrounding green trees and hills also disappear and instead I see wide, wide blue skies and sparkling ocean water as far as my eyes can see.

I am fascinated by the city.  How did the roads get so big they can fit more than 4 cars and still have space for pedestrians?  Where do they go, these thousands of people milling about?  What is inside all those giant buildings?  With each visit, it is as if I am seeing for the first time the big fluorescent lit Gaisano Super Store which is a thousand times bigger than Lolo’s Masagana Store.  I don’t tire of examining the hundreds of canned goods and colorful snack packages and shapely bottled drinks and boxed cookies from all over the country.  There’s even a counter where the “imported” goods are locked in.  The scent of waffles and hotdogs baking inside Gaisano store makes me giddy and hungry all at once.  I love riding the crowded jeeps and motorelas, stare at all the beautiful college girls in their sophisticated polished high heels.  They smell clean and sweet like Palmolive shampoo.

But nothing fascinates me more than the beach.  There I can stay the whole day, ride the waves with a rubber tire floater as my salvavida, dig for starfish with my pruned toes, drink salty ocean water.  Even when my eyes turn red and my skin tingles from too much sun and wind and sand, I still want to stay.  At the beach I forget about the mountains and hills where I live.

But always, at the end of the second day of the visit, my throat will hurt, my head will itch, a rope of dust moistened with sweat will strangle me, and all I will want is to ride up the windy road and breathe in pine trees again.

Where I live, here in the mountain, things are small.  I can take the bike with my cousin Ivan and in only a few hours, as fast as our legs can pedal, we can go around the whole town; past BSC, the town’s main school for elementary through college; Caltex gas station; the banana fryers stands; the shoe repair stall; the old Faro theater; the biggest shopping center Belyca and the cluster of fruit stands around it; the park where Dr. Jose Rizal with his books looks at the highway.  We whiz by the mean street dogs and the noisy motorelas.  We chase Mrs. Kilem’s free ranging turkeys.  With my best friends Raziel and Sheila, I go the Sawaga River where man-eating carps have been said to live for hundreds of years.  We jump from boulder to boulder to cross to the other side of the river to pick some not so rotten passion fruit, lie down on one of the boulders and look at the sky, count the great puffy clouds, cumulus, I think that is what they are called.

Here, the same things happen.  When summer came last year, my cousins Ivan and Biboy climbed the same guava tree we climbed the year before, where Biboy used to hang like a monkey and spit guava seeds at me.  The whole of October last year Sheila and I ate unripe mangoes with sea salt while minding their brood of hens ranging in their front and backyard, and that is what we will do this October.  Every weekend, my brothers and his friends wait for the logging trucks and wave goodbye at the freshly cut pine trees, narra trees, molave trees, still oozing sap, when they rumble by on their way to the Japanese-owned mill.  And when or if it rains and the street canals overrun, my cousins and I catch the warm rain with our mouths wide open, stand in the middle of the flooded sidewalk and dare the gushing water to knock us down or take our slippers away before we head back to Lola’s house where she will feed us rock-hard Sputnik bread dipped in champorado with evaporated milk.

I like going to the city, gape at the various groceries, gawk at the city folks, play at the beach and with the waves and the silver nail fish.  But here is home, where I am happiest for the longest, with my family, friends, forests, and the mountains.

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