Our trip commenced with a jeepney ride to Plaza Lawton early in the morning before the sun was out. From Lawton to Batangas pier, the trip would take all of three hours. South Superhighway then was just a long road on a large ricefield. Things would get slow as the bus took the right turn to Tanauan and the two lane road all the way to Batangas pier would be obstructed by trucks, local jeepneys, tricycles, and pedestrians. The bus driver would also be happy to stop for an old man on the bus who needed to take a leak badly. The world was not too in a hurry in those days. People shared the road and tolerated each other’s gears and incontinence.
Batangas pier welcomed us with that salty whiff of air on our faces. There’s a hint of smoky fish being grilled on the fastfood makeshift restos on the side. All around hawkers had something to peddle -- steamed white corn on a cob, sweet tamarinds, grilled tulingan, panutsa, peanut brittles, boiled chicken eggs and quail eggs, banana chips, banana cues, camote cues, maruya, boiled bananas, espasol, turones de mani, rimas, and colorful drinks known as "samalamig" which were iced vanilla-flavored and sweetened water. The varietly of culinary treats from the peddlers could fill up an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s.
Not to be outdone were the porters who would race to their customers carrying heavy stuff from Manila. There were no big ships, which would be known as roll on - roll off or "ro-ro". Passengers had to take their belongings from the bus parking to the waiting ship, a good two hundred meter walk. If one arrived late, he had to make the trek under the hot sun, so the porters came in handy all the time. As soon as they got a deal from the travelling customers to carry off a heavy luggage or a box of personal stuff tied up with a piece of yarn and marked with the owner’s name and destination, “Pola, Oriental Mindoro”, the porters sped off to the waiting ferry boat, and I had to catch up with my eyes. I used to worry that a porter might run away with our stuff or do something foolish with them, but in all those years, I never heard of any one losing their baggages to their porters. The porters of Batangas and Calapan and the passengers who made the regular ferry ride between the two ports had a good symbiotic relationship grounded on the strength of muscles and trust. We travelled with no worries.
The straight from Batangas pier to Calapan port is the womb of many dreams, myths, and stories. The National Artist for Literature and a native of Mindoro, NVM Gonzalez, who was my teacher at the Ateneo, asked me to read his short story, “On the Ferry” about a father and his son who were coming home to the island aboard the ferry, because the father could no longer afford to send his kid to school in Manila. It is probably the finest story ever written about the trip from Batangas to Calapan or about any ferry ride for that matter. Inspired by his story, I submitted to him my own version of the trip, “Ayos!”, but this time it was the trip from Calapan to Batangas about a young ambitious kid’s first encounter with corruption among the ship ticket masters. NVM was happy to read it and published it in Katipunan, a newsmagazine for the Filipinos in Berkely, California.
The best part of this trip was always the big island, Verde. Surrounding the island was this vast depth of the sea known to be the center of biodiversity in the world. From the ferry, I always imagined what life was on that island — the pristine beaches, that cliff that looked barren from afar said to have been the spot where a star-crossed lover leaped to his death, and that tip of the island known as the washing machine of the straight, because of the strong whirling currents that were equally beautiful and dangerous.
A good three hours aboard the ferry boat of Viva Lines, which was usually named after a princess or a saint, would give travellers an occasion to catch some sleep. Back then air-conditiong was not provided and neither was it necessary. We stayed on our chairs made of foldable woodwork and canvass, reading newspapers, comics, magazines, books, and a few pages pass, and we’re dozing off, snoring, dreaming, and the "tulo-laways" among us receiving the jeers from those who managed to stay awake. We had no GPS devices then but we knew we were near by checking the time and looking out to find the hill above the port of Calapan, which said “Welcome to Oriental Mindoro.”
As soon as the ferry docked, the porters of Calapan would inject a burst of energy to the boat whose passengers would be just waking from their sleep. The porters would be on the “andamyo”, the bridge from the ferry to the pier and would be calling out for deals, some whistling, some shouting, their eyes hunting for those big baggages and their owners. The “Taga-Polas” had a favorite porter, Arturo, a stout but muscular man. He was always the “Taga-Pola’s” "suki" for he was quick, strong, and never charged too much no matter how heavy his load was.
Calapan in 1976 had a different and quaint air with its small pier, and rows of big jeeps and trucks. I knew I was in a different place just by the sound of the tagalog conversations. I heard it first from the kids in the pier who asked for coins for people to throw at the sea as they raced against one another to find the coin at the bottom of the sea. "Dine, dine ka magtapon ikaw ng pera dine!" There were inflections, a sing-song, crescendo, and diminuendo in the speech, a lot of onomatopoeia. You hear similar tagalog words, but they sound like they are handled by masters of the tongue. Some Manila tagalog words are not even there. The word “kasi”, for example, was hardly heard in a conversation, and instead, you hear, “gawa ng”.
In this trip, we took the old trusty passenger truck, a remnant of World War II overruns and surpluses with large wheels probably towering up to the shoulders of an average man, and the big chassis underneath which could be seen from afar. There were no doors and everybody had to enter the truck from the right side of each row. It had no paint and was barely covered by rusty GI sheets.
While negotiating the curve overlooking the Naujan Lake, the old truck had a flat tire. It stopped and we were told to alight as the driver and his assistants took the reserve tire from one of the back rows to replace the flat one. I was lucky to have a front row view of the happenstance as the driver worked on the jack, unscrewed the flat tire with a cross wrench, screwed in the reserve, checked if the screws were tight, and restored the tools back in place. In about fifteen minutes, we were back on the road.
The long trip from Calapan marked a left turn in the corner of Socorro and Pola. It would be a short but dusty ride. The travellers' ritual when we hit this spot was to put on a head gear -- which could be a cap -- sunglasses for the eyes, and handkerchief or bandana to cover the face for protection against the dust as the road was not asphalted and the dust would animate the final stretch of the trip. Just a few minutes after we passed the bridge over the river in Barangay Pula, we would be greeted by mango trees and their large fruits dangling on the road and then Barangay Casiligan with its elementary school and the cemented basketball court. A few more minutes and we would see the splendor of Pola Catholic Cemetery. The town's founders were buried there and so were the educators, public officials, traders, fisherfolk, farmers, and common men. They each had a spot in the sprawling mountain of white and marble, proof that rich and poor alike were equal in death; they bring nothing as they lay on the parched earth that they share.
As we enter the town, our main stop was the house in Everlasting, Francisco Street corner Alikpala Street. But for lunch, we went up the house of Lolo Parminio and Lola Nita. I negotiated the wooden steps to the second floor and found a rocking chair. There was a room to the left where I used to see Baby Joan, Tito Rene's daughter in her crib, I remember they had left for Canada a few years back. To the right was the sala with the window where the May santacruzan processions were the regular spectacle in the evenings. Lolo Parminio and Lola Nita would be happy to see us as I kissed their hands. They would tell me how much bigger I have grown. We would have a lunch of fish and rice, and I would be teased over and over for something I said when I was three years old. They claimed I had once complained to them why they didn't cook chicken for a visitor like me, "Sa amin pag may bisita, nagpapatay ng manok." I had absolutely no recollection of the incident but I was happy to go a long and be the object of the teasing.
From the window of the sala, I would often watch how a minibus would be parked in a crammed parking lot in front of Lolo Parminio's house. They called it the "Grace" bus, its name was inscribed in large letters on the body. The bus would move forward and backward at least three times before it was safely parked.
A few minutes after lunch, Lola Tindeng would be at the door. She found out that the boy, son of Edmundo, son of Mariano was in the house. She would offer her hand for me to kiss, and she spoke with the tabacco stuck in her lips and the ember ligthing up from inside. And I often wondered what kind of skill was it that this old lady had talking while puffing a stick of tobaco as it burned inside her mouth? How was it possible that she didn't burn her tongue? But she would pull my hand and say, "Come you must see your Lolo Amboy."
And I would follow her as we got down the steps of Lolo Parminio's house. We crossed the street, and on the ground floor of the house, we would see a bench where a small group of people had gathered. We went up the second floor, a grand staircase in magnificent woodwork beckoned to be climbed. I would carefully take little steps and emerge from it to find a big bed on which Lolo Amboy was reclining. He held a fan with one hand and offered his other hand for me to kiss. Lola Tindeng would say "Ito yung apo mo, anak ni Edmund na anak ni Mariano." Lola Amboy would look at me and mutter something to Lola Tindeng as she handed to me a few coins that I carefully tucked inside my pocket. Lolo Amboy's voice was high pitched and a bit husky. He was probably in his 90s then and he would die a few months after I met him.
This was the home I remember. The cradle of the Orosa-Aceron family of Pola, Or. Mindoro. Lolo Amboy on his bed, Lola Tindeng beside him, the big house in Everlasting, Francisco corner Alikpala street, the house we now call Malacanang. The memory of those days has stayed with me for forty years and every trip back to Pola is a trip back home.