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By Rocky Cabral Cabanes

For each of us, there is a place which has the power to evoke memories
from a special time in our lives. A place whose images bring us back
to a time of wonderment and innocence, images that have lasted the
onslaught of years, impervious to milestones and subsequent experiences
which, though they may be more glorious and bold, have not drowned the
mainspring of who we are, what we are, and how we came to be.

I had been to many places in my lifetime. My journey has taken me to
five of the seven continents covering, as of last count, half a hundred
cities in over two dozen countries, clocking no less than a million
miles in Northwest/KLM alone. Yet none of these places could take my
breath away, make time stand still, and cause my mind to wander off to
another time by the mere mention of its name in the way that one small
town, not too far from where I am today, can do.

Let me take you on a journey to my special place.

As an introduction, allow me to state that I am a Tagalog. I've got
Bicolano, Spanish, Portuguese, Malay and (for good measure) maybe even
some Chinese in me but for most parts, I am a Tagalog.

Though my province has produced illustrious names as the two del Pilars,
Tecson, Ponce, and Valenzuela, among others, it is quite surprising that
it has not produced a single Philippine president. But while only few
of its sons and daughters were able to ascend to national stature in the
realm of politics, it has more than its fair share of artists, writers
and poets including national artists Virgilio Almario, Nicanor Abelardo,
Amado V. Hernandez, and Jose Corazon de Jesus. Bulacan, after all, is
the birthplace of Francisco Balagtas and of the balagtasan!

Let me be candid and say that none of these distinguished gentlemen
whose names I just mentioned come from my beloved town, Pulilan. And
while some historians place one of the ancient lords of Pulilan as a
witness to the inscription of the country's oldest surviving written
record, my town's hold on the national consciousness is most likely
limited to its celebrated fiesta.

As a young boy, I remember peeking through the barandillas below the
windows in our ancestral house to watch the old ladies dressed in
baro't saya while they danced the pandanggo and the marching band
played folk songs even older than the ladies. In the afternoon during
the fiesta, we would all watch the carabaos on parade, with their horns
and hooves oiled for extra sheen, their hair shaved in a pattern. Most
are adorned with flowers and ribbons and a few would be pulling carts
just as fancily embellished. They are on their way to church in the
kabayanan where the carabaos would kneel obediently as the farmers and
their beasts pay homage to San Isidro Labrador, the town's patron.

My maternal grandparent's house, so I was told, is the oldest bahay
na bato in our barrio of Balatong, named after soy beans which I never
saw ever being planted there. That is the house where my mother's
family grew up in and so whenever we were in Bulacan, that's where
we stayed. Sometimes, four families --including ours and those of my
other Manila-based cousins --would sleep there. We would lay down the
woven mats and hang the mosquito nets and --presto!--we would all fit
in. Either the living room, with its wide apitong floor planks were
that spacious, or because we were simply small.

The Cabrals of Pulilan were not at all prominent as those from
neighboring Hagonoy. But in the barrios of Balatong and Inaon where
they resided, they were distinct because of their Hispanic features. I
took after my Lolo Temyong. Maybe not anywhere as handsome but enough
to make me my Lola Kulasa's favorite apo. Especially after Lolo
died, whenever school was off, I would be my Lola's frequent
companion. In the summer, I would spend more time in Pulilan than any
of my siblings and more than any of my other Manila cousins, in fact.

And so, I would know secrets about that house that none of them ever
knew about. For example, on the floor in the bedroom underneath the
almario, there used to be a secret door leading to a compartment where
two, maybe three adults could squeeze. During the Japanese occupation,
it was used for hiding purposes whenever sakang soldiers would inspect
houses for guerillas. Lola Kulasa told me stories about the war and
how at that time, the ceilings were used for storing rice which was in
short supply because nobody farmed the fields. How, quite fortunately,
they never ran out of rice until the American liberation.

Breakfasts in the old house are a treat. I can't remember any
place else in the world where champorado could taste so divine. Or
carabao's milk poured onto a bowl of fried rice with daing on the
side. The bibingka? Or pandesal na putok generously smothered with
butter from that shining red can? Or fried duck eggs? Or ensaymada
straight from Malolos?

Kuya Enteng, the youngest of my Pulilan cousins although still a few
years older than I, was always assigned to take care of me. (Years
later, when he started going to college in Manila, he would shed the
"Enteng" in favor of the more cosmopolitan "Vic".)
Together, we would take long walks. Sometimes even all the way to bayan
which was at least five kilometers away. Along the road, we would take
detours picking caimito or chico where we can. When in season,
balimbing and macopa would fall and lay scattered on the ground. Even
camachile which I never liked but would pick anyway because Nana Minang,
my aunt, likes them.

In May, we would pick common flowers. Anything from kalasusi, santan,
gumamela, even kampupot and take it to the visita, the small barrio
chapel. Kuya Enteng told me that flowers are to be offered to the
Virgen Milagrosa and that in lieu of flowers, one has to pray the rosary
where each Hail Mary represents the equivalent of one rose. Picking
flowers is a lot easier so that's what we did.

At night, we would go downstairs to the bodega with flashlights in tow.
The best and biggest spiders can only be caught in the late evenings.
We were always on the look out for the gagambang kuryente, the fiercest
of the various species of fighting spiders, but would take gagambang
bahay just the same. We would place the poor creatures in matchboxes
specially fitted with compartments separating one from the other.
Once, I chanced on a gagambang salapitik which, when I took it back with
me to Manila, won quite a number of bouts with rival spiders over a
stick of walis tingting.

Among my constant playmates in Pulilan was a neighbor named Ramon who
was also a Bedan but one grade younger than me. Theirs was the house in
front of the basketball court and since the bigger folks usually played
in the afternoon, we'd have the courts all to ourselves in the
mornings! Together we would play ball for endless hours chanting Bedan
cheers and singing the "Indian Yell". Each time we missed or fumbled,
we'd blame it all or make fun of Ateneo, La Salle, Letran or Baste.

When we had enough money in our pockets, we'd drag our sweaty bodies
and stop by Nana Celing's store for "de bote" as we used to
call softdrinks back then. My elders would frown on this. They'd
rather we drink juice of some kind and they'd make juice from
everything kalamansi, dayap, guyabano, sampaloc, kamias or santol.
Forbidden to eat junk food, our merienda would almost always involve
rice or its by-products. Sweet jam or ripe mangoes with rice,
condensed milk poured on rice, minatamis na saging or langka with rice,
ube halaya or leche flan with rice. Everything was fair game with rice.
Alternately, we would eat suman, biko, espasol, puto or leftover
bibingka from the night before.

Tata Eseng, being my mom's oldest brother and patriarch of the clan,
would always exhort the bachelors in the family: "Marami tayong
bigas kaya't kung kayo'y mag-aasawa, humanap kayo ng mula sa
angkan na maraming ulam." (Roughly, this translates as: "We
come from a clan that has lots of rice so, if you're going to get
married, look for a spouse from a clan which has lots of viands.")

Each time I had to come back to Manila, it was almost always with mixed
emotions. Happy that I would be back with my family and siblings
again. Sad because I would be leaving behind all the fun and the
freedom of movement which I never get in the city. As kids, we were
not allowed to play in the streets or outside the house and we know very
few of our neighbors in Sampaloc.

In my early grade school years, I would begin the first few weeks of
each school year shedding off the accent that I acquired in the summer.
My burgis classmates, most of whom are exposed only to Manila-style
Tagalog, found it odd to listen to me speak obscure words they have not
heard of. I once recited "Invictus" in front of the class with
my impeccable Bulakeno accent and my seatmate thought I was hilarious!
Imitation, so they say, is the highest form of flattery. I didn't
think so. How many fights did I get myself into defending the honor of
my heritage as other boys get overboard in imitating the way I spoke?

Soon enough, I would get rid of the accent. But the depth of my
Tagalog vocabulary and my talent in verbal fencing never went away.
Having been exposed to such colorful and poetic language, I can conjure
at least fifty ways to say that a classmate is stupid. And while the
average San Beda boy could only muster four or five synonyms for the
word "ugly", I could whip up a whole litany of how ugly I think
he is and how he got to be so. Haha! Among my pals, I usually came up
with the best explanation of why a teacher's hair was combed a
certain way, or why a passerby walks with a limp. I put this talent
into good use writing poems in Tagalog for "Ani", our annual
literary magazine.

During schooldays, I would miss the afternoon siestas and the evening
stories of kapres, tiyanaks, dwendes and aswangs which the womenfolk
never seem to run out of. I would miss lying down on my Lola's lap
while I watch her and Nana Minang prepare nganga. How they would
spread the apog and mascada on the ikmo leaf. Cut a piece of hitso
using a strangely shaped scissor called kalukate and grind it in an
adobe mortar using an oversized bolt as pestle. The rationale they
often gave for chewing nganga was to make their teeth strong and this
would elicit laughter because my Lola was bungal.

The food too, I would miss. Simple as they may be, such viands as
pinangat na sapsap, pritong kanduli, tapang usa, hinalabos na hipon,
adobong pinatuyo, even the more humdrum paksiw na bangus, tinapang
salinas dipped in halubebay or sinigang na baboy never tasted quite the
same back in Manila. Perhaps it's the breeze. The lawiswis ng
kawayan that accompanies every Pulilan mealtime. Or could it be that
the mundane practice of putting a leg up on the bangko truly works
wonders on the appetite?

And the champorado, I would crave for it over and over again.

It has been months since I was there. Nowadays, my family, my sisters
and I would only go to Pulilan occasionally, each year less frequently
than the year before. Only during birthdates and anniversaries
celebrated at the pantyon where, after clearing vines away from the
grilles and cleaning the chamber of dust and cobwebs, we would light
candles, lay flowers and say our short prayers. My parents are both
gone and at their request, they were buried there at the family
mausoleum in the town cemetery beside the church of San Isidro.

We seldom go to bukid, if at all. As my grandparents and my
mother's generation, aunts and uncles, have all passed away and a
good number of our cousins have relocated elsewhere, there is very
little reason to go back to Balatong. There are fewer and fewer people
still left there for us to visit, and we have no more place in which to
stay. Though the barrio has not really changed that much (only
apparently smaller) and a lot of the houses are as they were some
decades back, we no longer recognize as many faces as we used to.

Last time I was there on an errand, I noticed that even the caimito tree
where we used to pick fruit is still there. Leaves still dancing to the
gentle sway of the wind, branches heavy with ripe fruit, sturdily
standing tall inside what used to be Ka Orang's yard. Should I stop
by? But then, it dawned on me that she is no longer there. Minutes
later, with my son seated beside me, we drove pass our old house. I
felt a bit of unease as I gazed at that sanctuary which was, once upon a
time, so personal and familiar but which today has become so seemingly
distant and reticent. There is a longing, an urge to show my son the
secret doors, the places where the spiders hide, the rooms and the games
we played in each, the stories told, the laughter shared. But that
would be next to impossible. Strangers live there now.

Sad it is to realize that the only place in Pulilan I can still call my
own is a tiny plot of land where loved ones I once saw in the flesh,
very much alive, and who were all important parts of my life, have
chosen to take their final stay. And they who were witnesses to my
experience, whose testimonials could substantiate my claim to having
walked the streets and played the fields of this rustic town, they are
now silent. Their lips could no longer affirm that I still belong to
this place.

But for as long as I keep its endearing memories in my heart and its
language--magnificent in all its florid and fiery splendor--rests in my
tongue, Pulilan will always have a special place in me.