My descent from the back of a carabao
Water buffalo – rice paddies – sugar cane plantation – scythe – farm bolo or machete – unleashed dogs – kerosene lamp – farmers planting or harvesting – chicken and swine roaming freely. These are some of the many images pictured vividly in my humble beginning. Images of simplicity and minimalism fused in undesired circumstances. Where excesses in life were unheard-of and our desire for basic material things were reduced in obscurity to mere dream and we called it ambition.
Born and raised in a village two kilometers away from the nearest dirt road, where electricity has not shone the light until the 80s. Where telling the time of the day is surmised and calculated based on the sun’s location on any sunny day. Where we could play past the dusk only when the moon shone in full, beaming enough brightness to light our paths while playing hide and seek in an open rice and sugar cane fields. We dispersed and scampered home when mom yelled out our names, bellowing summons urging us to stop playing and come home as moonlight began to fade. We were used to the method of discipline that was predicated on fear, on stories of ghoul or “aswang” that was out to get us if we dared not listen and comply with our parents’ will. So mom needed no further effort beyond a one-time over-her-lungs call to get us home.
Our house is built 40 meters away from the railway ridge rising about 8 meters from the plain. The railway served the most convenient form of transportation since the early ’40s until it was deemed bankrupt in 1988, shuttling passenger and freight between Iloilo City and Roxas City. During heydays when economic upturn driven principally by the sugar industry made a positive impact on the lives of most villagers in our town, we would take the train to visit relatives in Iloilo City. And at Christmas time when my dad received his 13th-month pay, we shopped for clothes and other goods in the big city, either in Iloilo or in Roxas. There was three scheduled passenger train runs in the morning from Iloilo to Capiz and another three coming from the opposite direction. From our barrio station, it would take four hours to get to Iloilo City and in the opposite direction two hours to Roxas City, assuming no maintenance delay or breakdown happened along the way.
Our village was very quiet, and still is, especially during the night. Listening to crickets chirping at night was still one of the common rustic soundbites interrupted by only a choo-choo and clickety sounds whenever an unscheduled cane train chugged by our home. During barrio fiesta, we could hear dance music trumpeted from a loudspeaker hoisted on the top of a bamboo limb from a neighboring barrio. But other than that, you can be assured of complete serenity at night time.
We used to take a bath beside the two-meter deep man-made well that brimmed water during rainy season as tap water has been non-existent, or in the river during sunny days as the well dried out. The water supply we used for drinking and for household and kitchen purposes was suctioned straight out from the deep well with a manual pump. When we were young my mom would bathe us to ensure remnants of dried mud were thoroughly cleansed. She would scour our limbs and scratch our backs with a piece of cloth dabbed against a corrugated bar of Ajax laundry detergent. What’s Dove? Back then in our village, it was non-existent.
Going to grade school was a form of respite, perhaps more than looking forward to learning. It was a brief break from herding carabaos full time. But responsibilities were embraced. The question, why we had to get up early at 4:00 am to herd carabaos so they wouldn’t starve while we’re at school was never raised. That’s how it was back then. We completely submit to our daily routines because obedience to our parents is sacred and we honor it gladly and harmoniously.
Our form of entertainment was limited in choice. Isolated as we were, we had no access to black and white TV. But back in the 60s and 70s, the owner of a sugar central mill in our village rented movie films regularly for projection every Saturday evening in our barrio plaza. On weekdays at six ‘o clock or right after the angelus, myself and my two siblings should be home for a reason. In the center of our bare living room, we would lie down flat on our belly on a bamboo floor in a circular formation, our heads almost touching a battery-operated transistor radio so we could hear and internalize the drama series unfolding.
We never complained when treading on mud to go to school during the rainy season and on the fissured ground during the dry season, four kilometers one way and another four on the way home, never seemed so far. At some point, we walked barefoot. It was better without flip flops as it gave us better traction and control when we crossed the landmark rainbow rail bridge, scaled hills, traversed through rice paddies, trudged on ridges, and hopscotched over puddles when it rained. The flip flop was the closest we could afford for footwear, and I didn’t even have a pair until I was in grade four. Rubber shoes were on a different level. You must present a strong case to convince your parents that you needed a pair. And you better ask three months early so that your mom could save or borrow enough money to buy them. I got my first pair when I went on a boys scout jamboree trip. I wore it sparingly so it would last long enough until my parents were financially ready for another pair.
We never complained when Sunday market was a few days away and our food supply consisting mostly of dried fish had run out early, leaving us no choice over a plateful of rice mixed with soy sauce or the usual alternate of salt and a sachet of sodium glutamate dissolved in hot water. We never complained when a rattan basket dangling from the ceiling containing a cache of food was raided and devoured entirely by feline with not a single tail of salted sardines left. My mom learned the lesson but we all suffered the consequence. Since then we used an empty cylindrical cooking oil tin container to store food with lid reinforced by the weight of a tapalan (cutting board).
My dad was laid back. He delegated discipline to our mom. When I was in grade four my mom brought me to my knees. I was crying hard begging her to stop as she hit me hard with everything she could get her hands on. I thought I was being a good boy when I told her that I would stop schooling and I would just help dad farming and tending to our carabaos full time. My mom had never hit me ever before. That was the first and last. I could never forget that instance in my life not because of lashes that left scars on me. But because she had a vision that was not evident to us when we were still young and growing. She left a powerful message of realization in me, turning my life around in pursuit of higher education. “Where would I be had my mom not insisted on sending me to school?” the question I asked myself in retrospect.
Graduating from elementary school saddened me, despite honors I garnered from scholastic endeavors. I thought I would never see school again as the secondary level seemed unaffordable for both myself and my older brother. But God’s providence could not be underestimated. Our parents found ways like magicians who turned tricks into wonder at a snap of a finger. My dad collected his pension when he retired from Asturias sugar central, working seasonally for over twenty years as a laborer. The meager lump sum cash plus the regular monthly SSS sustenance my dad received sent us both to school. I finished the first year without a hitch and my brother through the third year, while our youngest sister was still in the elementary.
That was how far the budget for school could be stretched. The monthly SSS as the remaining source of income for a family like ours was hardly enough to cover for tuition, daily jeepney fares, and food allowances for both me and my brother. That little SSS money my dad received still partially accounted for our food supply minus rice provision as we produced enough from farming. As hardship struck, my brother decided to stop school, unable to finish the fourth year. He ventured to Manila working as an elevator attendant at the National Book Store while attending night school in one of the vocational schools in the area to complete a radio operator certificate.
Sometimes on weekends, when I was aged eleven and twelve, I would work extra as “kargador” (porter), carrying a case of empty bottles of either Coca-Cola or Ginebra San Miguel from our local sari-sari store to the Facelo’s Store in Buntog where empty bottles would then be replenished in full content. A case of empty bottles was packed out of its original carrying case into a corrugated carton box tightly tied to prevent bottles from shifting and to minimize the aggregate weight of 24 bottles. Carrying the load of 24 empty bottles 4 kilometers all the way to Buntog by foot, crossing two railway bridges, was less concerning. But going back with filled bottles three-quarter heavier put a heavy toll on my juvenile body. The 65 centavos per case payment in return did not seem enough but back then it was a value regarded as a rare find for kids of my age. That was the time when 15 centavos extracted from a household during Christmas caroling was deemed generous.
I transferred to St. Martin Academy, the only Catholic institution in our town, on my second-year high school when Buntog National High School, where I spent my first year, was unable to operate further. I remember how I managed through 2.50 pesos as my weekly school allowance. That sum of money that my mom was able to set aside and spared for me was just enough for five days jeepney round-trip fares from our village to the town proper where St. Martin Academy is located. In 1970, Jeepneys charged twenty-five centavos minimum fare. I lied about managing the 2.50 pesos. There was no other way better to manage it. You just had to spend it all on a jeepney. Period. But not quite yet. There were some days when I had to spend part of that money in the school canteen when I could no longer suppress my craving for snack food during the recess period. Depleting my allowance for that purpose would simply mean I didn’t have enough to cover for the rest of the week or day depending on when that aggressive purchase was made. Asking for extra centavos from mom would be futile even if she could perfectly empathize as it would jeopardize my next week’s allowance – the domino effect even on such negligible circumstances. The solution was a no-brainer. After school, I would be walking the length of some 8 kilometers and I would make it home just as darkness began to set in. No cellphone or landline to advise my parents of my whereabouts, but they wondered no more as it already happened on a few occasions.
During school days my mom prepared pack lunch for me and my brother. The picture and sound of “pack lunch” could easily connote in today’s convention and standard as lunch food prepared in a Snaplock or Rubbermaid plastic container with three little partitions for cutlery, rice, and viand. Cooked rice from the newly harvested crop mixed with either “pinakas” or dried mackerel or sardine wrapped carefully in banana leaf was the exact functional meaning of pack lunch in my vocabulary back then.
During summer in the ’60s when all kids are out from school, we would work in the sugar cane plantation weeding out the base of sugar canes with espading or machete. Eight hours of work under the glaring sun would yield 35 centavos. Today, centavos are no longer part of the Philippine currency denomination but back then receiving 35 centavos was tantamount to a bottle of Royal Tru-Orange and a couple of mamon — the fruit of a whole day’s work that could not even last for 10 minutes when spent in a snack indulgence.
I fared well in school despite inadequate learning materials and supplies. Even to this day, I would still hold myself indebted to some high school friends and classmates who would readily lend me an extra pen and tore a few pages of writing tablets off their pads so I had something to use during quizzes. I have never thought that studying at night time at home to do school assignments with kerosene energized home-made lamp or lantern was that difficult. We were just used to it since birth and we didn’t know the difference.
Halfway into my second year in high school, the Dominican sisters absorbed my school fees and living expenses when I dutifully worked as a famulus (working student) in the convent. My status was a blessing and was welcomed tearfully by my parents. I spared them completely from the financial burden of school expenses in exchange for me scrubbing wooden floors with coconut husks with my two feet in the convent and school buildings, sweeping school premises, and fetching several pails of water to fill a big receptacle in the sisters’ bathroom in the second floor every single day. I also became a utility guy doing carpentry works, building pigsty, and chicken enclosure. My service was appreciated well by the sisters and they showed how valuable I was by giving me new clothes, either as a donation from their relatives or purchased with the funds from their donation coffer.
There were a total of six live-in famuli (plural of famulus) in the convent, three girls, and three boys including myself. Every night before bedtime the sisters would gather us all in the chapel to pray the five mysteries of the Holy Rosary, followed by a novena to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Then in the morning, we would occupy the right-wing of the St. Martin De Porres church adjacent to the sisters’ convent to hear mass and participate in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. This religious observance had never seen reprieve all year round or for as long as I was living in the convent. The vocation for priesthood I developed and nurtured while living as a famulus was a pleasant surprise for my parents when I told them I was joining the Dominican Order right after high school. I would credit the onset of my priesthood vocation to a few Dominican sisters who took me in as their protege, inspired me, and instilled the Dominican spirit in my youth.
Life in the Dominican Order could cover another long colorful chapter in my life’s narrative. But for the purpose of plugging in a “Fray In Focus” section, I would stop right here right now and leave out many details of my spiritual encounter so I could tell it firsthand to my family and friends. My entrance into the Dominican Order was a total about-face from my life in the village. It was a turning point that characterized allegorical instance of myself descending from the back of a carabao and down to earth grounded in realities of a new life. While “descend” could negatively connote a downtrend or moving down to a less favorable condition, my choice of word was predicated on the willful and deliberate act of transiting from one situation to another, practically and spiritually.
I called my introduction growing in a far-flung village a humble beginning but it took more than humility to loosen oneself and pour out elaborate details so my audience could understand the hardship we lived through. Our standard of living then might have been below the common standard. But the hardship we experienced and the challenges we encountered were never looked at with dejection, pity, and deprivation. Hardship is a relative term and during the time when we were living through it, did not strike a single nerve as we thought it was normal. To me, hardship is predicated on a physical exertion of effort in doing a specific task or activity that could only be regarded as hard if you have previous knowledge of something facile as a point of comparison. Growing in a village in my case, there was no memory of that whatsoever.