Bacolod City, the Philippines
December 27 – 30, 2009
This was where my life began.
Still groggy from our red-eye, blinking away the first rays of sunlight, I took my shades off, rolled down the window, stuck my head out – and beheld the place of my birth: Our Lady of Mercy Specialty Hospital. Fittingly, I was with Mom who pushed me out to the world one fine day in 1969. And here we were coming full circle 40 long years later. I asked her if I could get off and kiss the ground. Nah, no time for such sentimentality in our regimented schedule – it was so tight, it squeaked!
Bacolod was my hometown where I lived the first decade of my life. I still spoke the language, Ilonggo, fluently, but didn’t usually think in it. I had that same unsettling feeling about the place – equal parts familiarity and mystification, akin to seeing a person whose face you recognized but didn’t exactly remember. And so I made the trip back home with Mom, brothers, and nephews, expecting to be both balikbayan (a person who went back to his native land) and turista (tourist) – which could be a dicey situation (sightseeing and visiting relatives was a difficult juggling act).
I had a narrow time window to take off on my own – and I used it to visit Capitol Park and Lagoon. This was not the first place a tourist would go to see in Bacolod. I think it was more a picnic place for locals than for visitors. But personal reasons compelled me.
I partly learned to walk on this park’s grounds. The park fronted the Negros Occidental Provincial Capitol, a neoclassic edifice that hadn’t changed much since my childhood. It was flanked by pink-flowering trees. Beside it were other provincial government buildings. The heart of the park was a huge rectangular man-made lagoon that formed reflections of important landmarks around it.
On its extreme ends were a pair of carabao (water buffalo, the national animal) sculptures facing each other – one had a man pulling it, the other a woman leaning on it. They were dull-colored in my childhood, if my memory served me right; now they gleamed in gold varnish. I had vague memories of the carabao sculptures, but I had completely forgotten the human figures. The male figure was pulling the leash on the carabao, presumably to stop it from going forward. With torso bent and right leg wedged between the ground and the animal, the farmer’s gluteus maximus (ok, butt muscles) contracted to absorb all the pressure. This muscular contraction formed a perfect orb on his derriere.
Cheeky me couldn’t help but touch his tush – mine was just as round though not as firm (time to pump up that rump!). The female figure on the other end seemed to have more grace and efficiency in dealing with livestock. Without much effort and with much poise, you could tell she had more success in stopping the carabao on its tracks than the straining guy. So much for being supposedly the weaker sex.
These sculptures were a throwback to traditional rural life. The carabao was a beast of burden used to plow land and transport produce; they still did but were slowly replaced by farming machines. In fact, I was shocked to know that the carabao was now endangered. As a farm boy, I was well-acquainted with the gentle and graceful animal, incongruously doe-eyed and meek despite their heft and funky smell. They were not just a national symbol and a source of meat, milk, and hide; they also had their ecological place in the sun: they limited vegetation cover of swamps, opening these areas for human use and other wildlife. And they were cute.
The old Philippine National Bank (PNB) building beside the park, its 10 storeys looking rather unremarkable, had not been dethroned as Bacolod’s tallest building for my entire life. It was exactly the same as I remembered it – just older, but otherwise unchanged!
Another childhood staple I revisited was a restaurant we frequented that had served Western food since the 60s. In Bacolod, Bob’s Restaurant was the place to be. The original restaurant was in the same place (across from the Riverside Hospital); we also chanced upon a smaller branch at the mall.
The servings were humongous (read: American size). I had a juicy bacon cheeseburger that could feed a village. Half a serving was all I could take. Not with my other family members though. My mother had foot-long hotdog and, given her voracious appetite, that foot-long was an inch-long in no time. My grown nephews demolished an extra-large pizza without much ado.
But it was native food that I craved. The city was known for chicken inasal (grilled chicken smothered with secret sauces); we just didn’t have time to try it. However, an obligatory stop at Negros Showroom (across from Capitol Park and Lagoon) wasn’t only for souvenir-shopping but also for buying delicacies that I’d rather eat than give away.
If Italy had pizza and Greece had pita, Bacolod had piaya (also spelled piyaya). This indigenous pastry, a flat unleavened biscuit sprinkled with sesame seeds and filled with muscovado sugar (unrefined sugar that’s dark and moist, like caramel), was at the top of my list. It was still a mess to eat, but a good one shouldn’t leave too many crumbs with each bite.
The pastry was most representative of Negros, the island known as the “sugar bowl of the Philippines” – and piaya was basically sugar and dough. The volcanic soil proved to be fertile for sugarcane. Plantations sprouted during the Spanish colonial era, owned by mestizo families who also set up the hacienda system, as in the Caribbean (West Indies slavery took the form of sacadas – farm laborers – here). Predictably, this turned ugly but, from then on, sugar had defined and defiled Negrense history. All that jazz was borne in each piaya – sticky, sweet, and messy.
When I was little, I’d skip school and hop on our truck with my mother for her weekly farm checks. Before taking to the highway for our long trip, we would drop in a bakeshop owned by an amiable Chinese couple (Mr and Mrs Cong) to buy packs of bañadas (pronounced ban-ya-das).
Basically just an icing-glazed cookie, but for some reason, it was – and still is – my guilty pleasure. It was cheap, sweet, uncomplicated, and turned to fluff, but it delighted the mouth without filling the tummy. This simple childlike joy in every cookie that tempered my bratty nature better than any distraction now conjured up dusty road trips and farm treks with my mother in every bite. All these delicacies could be bought anywhere in Bacolod or the province of Negros Occidental. The Negros Showroom carried those labeled Virgie’s Homemade Products.
It was a short yet meaningful trip. It was said, “Life begins at 40.” If it were true, then I could say I began my life in the same place I was born. On the day of our departure, a rainbow appeared forming a perfect arc on the horizon. The unobstructed view from the roof deck of L’Fisher Hotel was nothing short of stunning. Wasn’t a rainbow God’s promise of faithfulness? I could rest assured I’d have nothing to worry about in my life – the one that began at 40 in Bacolod.