Day 1 – Jan. 31, 2016 – (Sunday): Nueva Ecija here we come
Rey, who would be driving, arrived at my aunt’s house at about 3:45 AM that balmy Sunday morning. January usually is the height of the dry season in the archipelago but the cool westerly winds also gave that early part of the day a calm and almost comforting atmosphere.
I hardly had any sleep that night as I was still suffering from the late effects of jet lag as well as from the non-stop noise coming from the tricycles and scooters. My aunt’s house straddled the main road in that part of Imus that had become a veritable commercial area — a far cry from the rural appeal the place had for me where I finished my high school years in the mid-70s.
We wasted no time and left for Mandaluyong – where we ended picking up Rona, and her mother, Nita (my mother in-law) as well as Ronald’s family (his wife Winnie and twin sons, Dominic and Benedict) – as we’re running late. But not after stopping by at a drug store where Rey bought some medicine for his stomach ulcer and at a gas station where we inflated the tires to their correct pressure. After all, the trip to Nueva Ecija, in spite of our very early start, would be about 5-6 hours.
Ronald had married a coworker while he was teacher in a private school in nearby San Juan, Metro-Manila. Winnie‘s parents hail from Santo Domingo, Nueva Ecija where both had been tilling a sizeable piece of farm land that was entrusted to them.
They don’t own the title to the land but only gets a portion of the rice harvest. Nueva Ecija owns the title of being the ‘rice granary of the Philippines’.
It was almost 6 AM when we left Manila and its outskirt cities as we entered the first of three expressways to our destination.
Along Mindanao Avenue in Quezon City, we used a connecting road to enter NLEX (North Luzon Expressway). This two-lane expressway (this would be the equivalent of a secondary road in advanced countries) would go all the way to Santa Ines in Pampanga until we utilized another connector road somewhere in Tarlac to another expressway called SCTEX (Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway). We traversed only a short portion of this newly built two-lane highway until it dead-ends in the city of Tarlac as we veered east to the final expressway, TPLEX (Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway).
The road narrowed after we utilized the Aliaga exit along TPLEX and found ourselves along the old MacArthur Highway that was once the main artery if you’re going north of these islands.
You know that you’re already in Nueva Ecija when portions of the road are used to dry out ‘palay‘ (unmilled rice) as well as the presence of numerous passenger tricycles.
We finally arrived in the town of Santo Domingo five hours after we left Mandaluyong. The trip covered only about 250 kilometers (155 miles) yet it felt like one of the longest days I was on the road because of the numerous turnouts we took after we got out of the expressways.
Winnie’s parents (Willie and Gloria) house is a low-slung, single-story concrete structure located about a few hundred meters from the main feeder road surrounded by rice fields.
I was immediately attracted to a set of varnished bamboo chairs two of which are longer than the others – in the small lobby of the house that overlooked the rice fields. What perfect spots to take a quick nap!
After we had been introduced to the entire family, I used my bag as pillow and stretched my tired body in one of the longer chairs that faced the rice fields while Ronald and his wife went to the nearest fresh market using the family-owned tricycle to buy what was needed for lunch.
Lunch was almost ready when I woke up an hour later. Winnie had been busy grilling the large yet fresh ‘pusit‘ (squid), several pieces of fish locally called ‘dalag‘ (mudfish) and pork spare ribs marinated in ‘calamansi‘ (small limes) and soy sauce.
Winnie’s mother also prepared a version of ‘pinakbet‘ whose ingredients were freshly harvested from a nearby plot of land planted with mango trees and assorted vegetables. A side dish of green mango salad and copious servings of their multi-grained rice were also laid out on the table that they had set up outside the house.
After lunch, I couldn’t resist to take a few pictures of the rustic sceneries and then headed back to my makeshift bed and took another nap. The magnificent view of the verdant rice fields seem to have cast a hypnotic spell upon me that in no time I was in dreamland once again.
At about 3 PM, Rey reminded me that we should leave for Talavera before it gets dark as we might not find it easy to look for my relatives’ place.
I had planned to visit my uncle, “Tata Amado” (the only living brother of my late father) and cousins in the nearby town of Talavera and it was one of the reasons why I had agreed to join the trip.
Along with Ronald and Winnie, we managed to get to the Calipahan Bridge – the only landmark that remained in my memory on how to get to the place – in about 40 minutes using the interior roads. We had to ask for directions twice until we found the house of my cousin, Fidela or “Ate Dely” as we use to call her when she was still in a teenager and was staying with us in our house in Baclaran. She’s the second to the eldest in the big family of my uncle — 8 daughters (Lucena†, Fidela, Ila, Vita, Tate, Fina, Divina and Ata) and an only son, Ambrosio or “Ambo” who’s about my age.
It had been more than 30 years since my last visit to Talavera and the last time was during the summer break before I entered my freshman year in college.
I had brought along my bike on that trip and was able to pedal as far as the boundary of the province with Nueva Viscaya.
After “getting acquainted” with my Ate Dely for almost an hour -Rey wandered around the vicinity while the couple took a quick trip to nearby Cabanatuan City on a tricycle- I moved on to the visit the rest of my cousins whose houses were just next to each other — just a few meters away from Fidela’s.
Some of the siblings houses were built on the ancestral lot the family had owned and a portion of the old house where they all grew up was still there.
Upon seeing my Tata Amado on his wheelchair in the veranda of their old house, my mind raced back to the time when I was in my late teens and everywhere I looked, it was fresh and expansive.
I could still visualize the seemingly unending rice fields, the carabaos on a shed, the pomelo and other fruit trees as well as the dusty road that led inwards to the town — the same road where Ambo and I used to ply our bikes on our way to Pantabagan Dam.
Except for the now crowded road, everything seem to have been taken over by an amalgam of concrete, steel, sheet metal and other appurtenances to what humans call progress.
And, I felt a deep sadness in my heart and that same question beckoned — “Why do we have to grow old?”
Pictures were taken, a lot of questions were asked and answered and met some of my nephews and nieces whose names and faces I won’t probably remember as the next time I’ll hopefully visit them again they would have all be grown up and changed and have their very own families.
The sun was almost setting down when we decided to head back to Santo Domingo. But not after passing by a busy 7-11 store where Ronald bought 3 bottles of San Miguel Grande and a roadside “ihaw-ihaw” (barbeque) stall where we got several orders of grilled “pork liempo” and “lechon manok”.
The rest of our companions were already on their sleeping attires when we arrived. We had our beers and BBQs for dinner –along with a plateful of rice and a vegetable dish.
Winnie’s father and brother later joined on the table as we spent the rest of the evening listening to stories that primarily focused on how their family had settled on the place.
Day 2 – Feb. 01, 2016 – (Monday): The Road Back to Manila
An electric fan plus a mosquito net enabled me to get some deep sleep and so I grabbed my camera as I took nature’s call outside to take a few pictures of the surrounding areas at daybreak. It was about 6 AM.
The narrow dirt road that leads to a cemented one that will take to main highway was still empty and the horizon painted a dominant colors of varying shades of gray and yellow.
I staggered back inside the house to make myself a cup of coffee. Everyone seemed to have waken up early except one of the twins who was still snuggled in the cushion of the sofa in the living room that served as their bed.
Someone had prepared the kitchen table ready for a quick breakfast — a Thermos bottle, packets of instant coffee as well as chocolate and a blue plastic bag full of bite-sized hot “pan de sal” were already neatly laid out.
I grabbed a few pieces of the tiny buns as Ronald emerged from the door near a hand-driven water pump and held up two cans and asked if I wanted either corned beef hash or sardines for him to sauté. “Both,” I replied and, immediately, I headed to the veranda to enjoy the morning view of the rice fields with my impromptu breakfast.
After everybody had their breakfast, we took turns fetching water from the manual water pump using plastic pails for our showers. I used the smaller outdoor toilet located near some bamboo trees and tidbits of memories streamed to my brain how I used to go through all these motions during my long stays with my cousins in Talavera.
It was about 9 AM when all of us got ready for the trip back to Manila. But not after passing by the small parcel of land centrally located among all the rice fields in the surrounding areas that Ronald had called “gubat” (forest).
We had to walk along very narrow foot paths to reach it so we parked the van along the road where there was a tree house nearby. My mother in-law was not able to come along as she required a wheeled walker so Rona decided to stay with her in the van for a while. She would join us in the ‘gubat’ a few minutes later.
The ‘gubat‘ serves as a perfect resting area and refuge for farmers after tilling the land for hours not only during the hot, dry months but also during the typhoon season when sporadic rains and howling winds batter the rice fields.
‘Manong’ Willie had erected a small hut with an elevated flooring made of bamboo and nipa. Both – bamboo and palm – came from the trees that grew abundantly on the fringes of the same tract of land. The underside of the hut served as a temporary coop for native chickens and their young broods until he has decided where to put up a permanent and bigger one on the land.
Except for electricity and a permanent water source, the ‘gubat‘ could well be a good place to be in case of a calamity since it’s not only elevated but also self-sufficient. Fruit trees were abundant as well as a variety of vegetables were planted all over the place. There were also several pigs as well as ducks that roam freely in the open spaces.
We lingered on the place for over an hour with my mind trying to connect the span of years that have separated me from my lost youth to the current state of my being. Time surely has it ways to temper even the most outrageous dreams of humankind.
And so, it was during this brief summer interlude in Nueva Ecija that I had come to realize that although my idealism may have long been gone, my appreciation for life and all its blessings will always remain.