The island of Alabat has three towns, two are on the opposite ends and the third is in the middle. The elongated island is about 33 kms. long and 5 kms. wide. Its nearest point to the mainland is the poblacion of Quezon, which is about 700 meters off Roma Point, part of Guitis, Quezon. The magsisil-its swim effortlessly the narrow strait in 15 minutes tops from the pantalan to the abandoned light house of Roma Point.
In 1980, President Marcos lost to Alejo Santos only in Alabat Island, and overwhelmingly in the town of Quezon, in that year’s one-sided presidential election. The former asked his aides why he lost to the obscure Santos from Bulacan in that obscure island of Alabat.
His advisers told him that the island of Alabat while only about 250 kms. South of Manila suffered from lack of electricity and the people there out of protest picked the old man Santos. Forthwith, Marcos caused the electrification of the entire island via submarine cable from Hondagua. Marcos showed admiration to the people of Alabat and their election officials who brooked no dagdag-bawas, as they held on uncompromisingly to palabra de honor.
It was only in 1992 when I, dabbling in local politics, touched base in Perez, the village that prides itself as the host of an emergency airport in Pambujan Norte, and of course, in Alabat, the most popular town of the island that boasts of national figures from the province.
Perez faces Mauban, and to its oblique left is the direction of Atimonan, and on the opposite side, the vast Pacific Ocean. One can go surfing on this spot. From Sanguirin, in Perez, one could see the glint of the chimney of Quezon Power, a coal fired-power plant hosted by Cagsiay, Mauban. Alabat on the other hand faces Lamon Bay, across Atimonan and to its left is Plaridel or Siain. Quezon, Quezon, the little town where I was born, is equidistant with Gumaca to the West and Calauag from the South. Its farthest barangay adjoins the town of Alabat and the isle again stares at the boundless Pacific.
Alabat Island now has its share of hi-tech growth as it has cell sites, cable television, landline phones and of course the internet.
Alabat is a natural barrier. It protects the coastal towns of Calauag, Hondagua, Gumaca, Siain, Atimonan and Mauban. The bay that abuts the island is a natural sanctuary. Lamon Bay cradles the rich marine life in that South-eastern side of Quezon. The waters that surround the island is magnificently clear where one sees the corals, fish, and the myriad marine life of Quezon. The inhabitants of Sto. Angel, Masilig, Dapdap, and Sinag of Upper Calauag, a flat and vast denuded land, fetch their potable drinking water from Lipuso, Talupis, Panag-an, and Sabang of Quezon that to this day retain an enviable forest reserve serving as the watershed of the place. Its drinking water is pure heaven, cool, sweet and abundant. In those parts of Calauag where water is scarce, strangers are reminded, “makikain na kayo, huwag lang makiinom.”
The design of the three island towns is unsurprisingly similar. Their main feature is the pier or pantalan. The pantalan is a concrete structure about 200 meters perpendicular from the shore and ends in a T. About 30 meters from the end is the main square structure measuring 6m x 6m. From there, is the wooden T-plank, supported by a trestle. At the end most part of the pantalan is where the deepest drop, the kitimkitiman.
Invariably, the main road divides the town either westerly/easterly or southerly/northerly. Like Quezon, it is split right in the middle of the camino real. It starts in the pantalan and ends in the municipio. By walking towards the municipio, the houses of the town’s principalia line the main street. As one approaches the interior of the town, he finds the characteristic old church. Unlike however of the towns in the mainland, where their churches are right across the town hall separated by the plaza or kiosk, and reminds us of the welded relationship between the civil authorities and the church of yore, the lumang simbahan of the three towns of Alabat are separately located distant from the structures of the civil government. Their churches sport their own open spaces or plazas.
My great-great grandfather Jacobo Araya’s house is along the camino real, and one street removed from the Church. Stories have it that bishops and other princes of the Church, and on various events, civil officials, were the esteemed visitors of my ancestors whenever the town celebrated the Feast of the Holy Cross every first of May. These honoured guests were met on the bisperas, the day before the celebration, at the pantalan copiously festooned with aranas and arkos made of bamboos and native materials. The guests were serenaded no end by the band from Calauag. From the pantalan, our ninuno together with the cabeza and the cura parroco would lead them to his house to partake a fine banquet. People all lined up the sides of the road to take a peek at the visitors. Our nuno‘s home prior to the guests arrival was all abuzz with uncanny activities, ranging from the sound of screaming swine and bovines being slaughtered and the womenfolk all busied up sprucing the place up for the comfort of the visitors. Remember the upli? The upli leaves are used as the reliable sandpaper to even up or to remove the stains on the pasamano, haligi, sahig, baluster, lamesa, silla, and anything made of hard wood usually yakal, narra, and maulawin where most likely the guests might touch or lay their hands on. After the gruelling as-isan, one smells the incredible effect on the wood, immaculately white with a hint of scented balsam or cedar mixed with upli.
If an island town has several points, the pantalan is a favourite corner. It is the focal hub of the place, the centre of activities. People congregate at the pantalan rather than the town plaza which is reserved only on special occasions. The day’s catch is hauled off at the pantalan. Fishermen, divers, and the naghibasan, converge at the pantalan, waiting for the hawkers and the ambulant vendors. From there they dislodge the bounties of the seas: fish of all sizes including matalos, balawis, tambakol, nokus, and buktit, where the perkal (a corruption of the phrase first class) like sebo, sigapu, and malasugui are the most prized, shells from the maghihibasan, foremost among which are the palapalakol and the balagwit, and from the divers, the to die for sil-it. We also find the regaton, filchers from the high seas, dislodged their days’ delegencia.
The departing relatives are seen off, and the arriving ones are met in the pantalan. Those leaving the town tarried about and the fundamental grief of cutting the umbilical showed on their faces. The thought of an uncertain homecoming is a faraway joy. The little village is like the womb confining yet reassuring. And the unmistakable shriek of arrivals of the long-time-gones vicariously amuse the natives meriting good natured kantiaw like pansitan na, surabutan na, pasingaw or abregana na. College students indulge in surabut or caramelized green banana as the main course of their annual homecoming cum party.
Every summer, starting when I was seven, I was transported to Quezon without fail. It was our agreement with my mother that came the summer months she had to send me to my Nanay in Quezon, because after all, as I believed then, my mother just borrowed me from my grandmother. My mother religiously did her part of the bargain. The last of the school days in Calauag were my much awaited moments. Soon I would be brought to Pinagbayanan to board the lancha of the Arceos, the Oliva or Ybanez. The lancha was moored a kilometre away from the seawall, as it could not berth along side it. The makinista had to wait for the peak hour of taib or hightide. While waiting for the water to rise, the passengers were made to board a baruto, a small flat boat directed towards the vessel not by a paddle but by a tikin or a long slim and sturdy bamboo pole. When everybody was aboard the lancha, and the boat was fully laden with sacks of copra and epektos or paninda from Calauag after a long wait for the rising sea, the engine was finally started or binibira by pulling the enormous fan belt simultaneous with the revving up of the engine. The cantankerous boat engine was in the middle of the boat, connected to the propeller by a 4-meter by 5-inch wide leather fan belt that had seen better times. My Tatay would warn me to stay away from the rotating cuero or I might get entangled. Edo Boy’s favourite story was the death of Tata Eliong, Oliva’s makinista, who was then naka-inom coming from a barrio fiesta in Camohaguin, fell down from the timon, and was decapitated when his head got enmeshed with the huge girdle.
The pantalan of Calauag then was a far cry from that of Quezon. Calauag is not a natural port. It is protected by a concrete seawall constructed during the time of Tomas Morato, circa American occupation. The bay of Calauag was previously mangrove, shallow and muddy. When the mangrove or landing was all cleared up, what was left was a foul smelling lala-o inhabited by amphibious marine life chiefly the hideous tambalo and butete. Not only that, people who lived near the sea wall or those whose houses lined up the Quezon Street or the main road, put up their toilet and banlin where the waste was discharged right on the lala-o exacerbating the rank smell of the breakwater. From a good distance, the stench wafted in the air, or sumisimoy.
A gang war erupted between the teenagers from Calauag and Quezon. The boys from Quezon, and vice-versa, were identified thru their trousers’ etikita. Once identified, they were mauled and thrown in the murky waters of the lala-o. My mother’s first cousin Quiting sought my father’s succour when he came home accompanied by policemen all bloodied up and badly stunk, amoy lala-o, obviously a victim of the mob hostilities. I saw him washing down all the grease-like mud all over him and wailing, “ay iya, huag silang pakikita sa akin sa Quezon!” My mother would scold him and told him to sleep and magpahulas.
I had an identity crisis then, the boys from Quezon taunted me no end that I was a Kalawagin because of my family name, while my classmates from Calauag teased me that I came from Quezon because of my punto. But to the boys from Quezon, I maintained my birthright telling them in no uncertain terms that I was born in Quezon pointing to them where my inunan or my placenta with the umbilical cord was buried right under the staircase of the house of Lolo Jacobo. Not only that, I brought them to the house of Tatang Sederio, the town hilot, who ministered my mother in delivering me and while he was still alive got his authoritative testimonial. “Ako ang nagpa-luwal sa batang yan,” Tatang Sederio declared. At that early age, I explained to them what jus soli meant. I guess I had them dead convinced as the sneers ceased.
The ride from Calauag to Quezon aboard the Arceo’s lancha took a full two hours. Passing thru Calauag Bay seemed an eternity. Sometimes I had fainting spells caused by the smell of bunker, and my Nanay would tell me to fix my eyes at a distant object, the greener the better, usually the tallest tree jutting from the niogan in Lagay or Kinamaligan. Dominlog, San Rafael and Balibago were the nearer side, and I didn’t fix my sight there or I throw up. Instead I trained my vision in the direction of Quezon, my excitement never hidden. I looked forward to the company of Kuya Nilo, an older relation, the son of my mother’s pinsang-buo, Kuya Dique who was an illegitimate son of American Boy, my Tatay’s elder brother.
American Boy or Tatang Uti was the first OCW from Quezon. His life was a legend in that little village. He fell in love with a handsome lady from the town of Lopez in one town fiesta. For unknown reasons his mother, Lola Dolo, vehemently objected. Unbeknownst to Lola Dolo, Tatang Uti’s girlfriend was already heavy with Kuya Dique. He asked permission to marry her and begged that they repair to Lopez for the pamamanhikan, but Lola Dolo flatly refused. In 1924 at the age of 18, he tricked the makinista of one batil loaded with lukad that he had Lolo Jacobo’s instructions, and sailed away en route to Siain. He sold all the cargoes, and from there, Tatang Uti travelled to Manila and rode an Ocean liner this time en route to California. He worked in one citrus plantation as fruit picker in North California and never married. His mother was beside herself and having received finally a letter from his globe-trotting son ten years later, wrote him back and pleaded for his return claiming she was ill and she was giving her blessing to marry his fiancée.
Tatang Uti relented and promised to return one summer day before the war. Once again the house of Lolo Jacobo was the centre of hustle and bustle and he ordered that the pantalan bedecked with welcome banners for his prodigal apo. But Quezon’s Romeo went home heart broken because he soon found out that his Juliet was already spoken for, with his then ten-year old son adopted by the new husband. Distraught, he hied off to Bangcalin and lived there like a hermit. Soon his niogan in Bangcalin was known as Sitio American Boy. His mother was guilt-stricken that when she learnt that Tatang Uti’s betrothed died in childbirth, she went to Lopez and claimed American Boy’s son, Kuya Dique. The father and son were at last reunited, until the latter married and had a family of his own. Kuya Simon was American Boy’s favourite apo, attending to the latter’s needs until his death when diabetes bedded him.
Kuya Dique had special skill. The island town had no electricity yet he could make popsicles or ice drop of various flavours out of one block of ice. Every morning during the summer months, Kuya Nilo and I would hang around the pantalan to wait for the Ybanez dislodged the quintals of ice from Gumaca. We would haul the massive blocks in Porto’s kariton and pushed by Butirok on the way to Kuya Dique’s ice drop factory, known in the place as “Dique’s Best Friend”. From there Kuya Simon washed off the ipa from the chunks and placed them in a freezer made of GI sheets where he furiously stabbed them to pieces with an ice pick. Once crushed, he mixed them with salt and laid them flat on the improvised freezer. Nora and her mother, Ate Feliza, who prepared the liquid sweet mix in the early morning, gingerly poured the formula in galvanized tubes then stuck them one by one in an orderly fashion on the flattened crushed ice and tightly covered them. In 45 minutes tops, the freezing ice drops in various colours, hard as granite, were hauled out from the steel container and were ready to go. I was the first on the line to be dispatched with 20 pieces at 5 centavos each snugly fitted in my wooden box insulated by a thick fold of newsprint, to be sold outside. Almost instinctively, I was headed to the pantalan, my exclusive franchised vending site. My ice drops were sold out once the next lancha arrived either from Hondagua or Gumaca, the disembarking passengers ordered their favourite flavour. Those who were departing bought as well while the boat was being readied. I earned 5 centavos for every peso I sold. Little girls my age called me, Kalawaging mag-a-ice drop.
Seminarians from Sariaya accompanying the Bishop were a big hit among the pretty damsels in town, and they were met and welcomed in the pantalan. Most of them were my suki. When I was twelve years old I had a big crush on Tipen, the lovely daughter of the principal. But, just like Being of Calauag, she never laid her eyes on me, an ice drop and pan de sal vendor. I overheard her one morning telling her friends that she adored seminarians because they were intelligent, well-groomed, and good looking. I entertained the thought of entering the seminary just to get the fancy of Tipen.
Travelling from Calauag as the Ybanez approached the pantalan, I was near hysterical. Quezon was the first paradise to me, next was Paang Bundok. From where I sit, it was one big plaza. Its streets were free from motorized vehicles and kids like me could roam the roads with nary a worry of vehicular mishaps. On my first day in Quezon, I hang around the entresuelo of Kuya Dique where Kuya Nilo stayed and I waited for him until his last chores in the evenings were thru usually his pangunguli. The house of Lolo Jacobo was huge and cavernous. After his death, it was divided among the heirs by way of toka. The upper floor was assigned to my Tatay. While the silong was given to Kuya Dique and Ate Oling, my Tatay’s youngest spinster youngest sister who practically adopted Kuya Nilo as her own son. Whenever I was in Quezon my dinner was with Ate Oling. She knew that Kuya Nilo and I were the best buddies, and once she got wind that I was in town she made it a point with Nanay that I was their kasahug downstairs. From there, Kuya Nilo and I would go straight to the store of Castro to buy kumpitis or multicoloured candies wrapped in diariong sinuso. Or we bought busisi or inadobong mani sans the skin in generous malutong na bawang. Armed with these confections we went straight to the pantalan longing for the familiar amalgam smell of asphalt, fetid fish, and burnt petrol.
Along the way we met the good-looking seminarians in the company of Tipen and her gang. I imagined I was one of the seminarians holding the dainty hand of Tipen, the love of my life. But Kuya Nilo would tease me, “shoot ka sa balde diyan.” What do you expect, unlike the handsome seminarians, I smelt like the pantalan!
At last we were in the pantalan ensconced in one of its steel posts. Its attraction was the serenity one felt the moment the salty breeze hits his face. The pantalan is one big berthing place of boats of all sizes. From there one finds the sibiran and the parao, the kalansisi, or bulinawan; the panti and saklit; and from the distance berthed the mighty basnig. There I heard my Tatay told me that all boats, no matter the size, rise in high tide. At the pantalan I learnt the names of the winds of Quezon. It was the gentle Maapon if it came from Mauban, the treacherous Salatan if it originated from Calauag, the timid Calampinay, if its provenance was Hondagua, and the ubiquitous Habagat from Gumaca, and the vicious Amihan, from the Pacific.
The pantalan was magnificent on clear evenings. On moonless nights, young boys were all busy fixing up their makeshift contraptions of hapin and aranas. Hapin is the simple hook, line, and sinker without the rod and the tackle, while arana is a decoy shaped like a squid or fish bedecked with elaborate hooks. The arana is dropped in a school of fish or gipaw and pulled forcefully, or hinihiklas, hooking the unsuspecting catch. As bait, the young anglers hunted for gutus or octopus inhabiting the base of the pantalan. “Parang gutus” was the phrase I heard from kiss-and-tell adolescent boys bragging about their amorous conquests describing the feel of tentacles.
Students on vacation gathered together in the pantalan. There they showed off their new shoes from Gilmore, and pants from Manlapat. Carmelo, the college-bound son of the rich teacher-couple in Quezon was the best dressed among his group. I never saw him sporting faded pants or worn-out shoes. His were the latest. His brother who was in medical school was bruited about to be driving a Thunderbird in Manila. When he got married no less than Erap was one of the sponsors in a splendid wedding at the Manila Cathedral followed by a luxurious reception at the Manila Hotel. The topics of exchange in the pantalan were mainly on the successful natives of the town and seldom on the duds. Kids like us were inspired by these banters that someday we would be talked about as well.
Summer vacation on the island was highlighted by the Holy Week, then the town fiesta, the daily mayohan held in most of the town’s barrios, and the Flores, the May Flower Festival celebrated at the end of May. Weeks before the big event, the binata’t dalaga gathered flowers from the countryside to be adorned on Mother Mary’s image.
On the last Sunday of May, the great ballroom dance was held at the town plaza. Everybody who was anybody in town was there, either tripping the light fantastic or parading the latest fashion. Amid the noise of a generator, I watched along the sides or atop the statue of Quezon. I was a great fan of Bertong Utot, the best boogie, cha-cha and tango dancer in those parts. The music was dished out either by Babat of Atimonan or Vic Abuel of Lucban. Rich hermanos y hermanas on rare occasions hired the two orchestras making them face each other and the music was non-stop.
As May ended and June approaches, I reluctantly packed my bags as it was time for me to leave. Before my departure, my Tatay would give me his blessing. Then I turned to my Nanay embracing her tightly. Nanay smoked cigarillong-Quiapo and she reeked with tobacco that I thought it was her perfume, and since I was a toddler, her smell was enough to put me to sleep.
My legs were unbelievably heavy as I headed towards the pantalan to board the Ybanez on my way back to Calauag. Kuya Nilo, I knew was equally downtrodden as it would mean I would see him again the next year. “O pa’no bata, sa isang taon ulit“. Riding the copra boat towards where the Salatan blew I had the worst feeling I ever imagined. As it was my wont since I was seven years old, I sat on the boat with my back against Quezon never looking back until I reached the murky waters of Calauag and jolted by the reek of the characteristic lala-o.
Before my Tatay died in 1967, I was going down the stairs while he sat on his tumba-tumba right across the balcon, after giving me his blessing, and I was on my way to the pantalan ready to board the lancha when I heard him talking to me as if leaving his final instruction. He told me that the earth always finds its orbit. “Alangan namang ikaw ay hindi.” He said he could not see why I could not. For Tatay, nothing was insurmountable. To this day, those words are indelibly etched in my head.
Like the compass pointing northward, so were my feet towards the pantalan, longing for its familiar amalgam: scent of asphalt, putrid fish, and burnt petrol.
October 11, 2005