FIELDNOTES: Seeing and writing home

Tito Genova Valiente SOME six years ago I partially relocated to this city. My mother then was in her mid-80s, and was winding up with her teaching. When my father passed away, the family thought it would diminish the sadness and the aloneness that my mother was feeling if we would give her something to do. Our home is at the edge of the subdivision: meters from us is a vast field and population of informal settlers. The children who were not of school age would roam around noisy near our home. In more economically stable homes, these children would be enrolled in nurseries and so-called kindergarten schools. By the time, they had reached the proper school age, the children knew already how to read and write. The children from the field had to start from zero. The children in the informal settlement became the recipient of free education with my mother as their teacher. When people asked me why I was back, I would tell them it was because of my mother. One former teacher in the university, upon hearing this, had an odd way of seeing my return to the city. “You are lonely,” the teacher said. I was not really away from the city. Even when I was working in Manila, I would come home by bus. Arriving in the morning, I would spend half of the day sleeping. The late afternoon would bring me to my friend’s place, Grace, and there meet up with Rudy and Janet. We would all go to a Chinese restaurant and then to this hidden videoke bar in an old hotel and sing the same songs each week or each month that we would meet. Then, I was back in the big city. Six years ago, it was different. I decided to teach once more in the old Jesuit University, managing an office, and participating in the socio-cultural events in the school and in the city. I was spending more here than in Manila. Six years ago, I came back to a city that I felt I did not know anymore. There were tony hotels and fancy cafes. When we were in high school, we did not drink coffee; we drank juice and soda. We never could tell a latte from a cappuccino. Oat meal was for the sick or the recovering; we could not imagine oatmeal cookies. Magsaysay, which was a designation marked by an apartment called “Bonete,” had become a bright strip. Young people dressed up to see and be seen. Like any big cities, it was good to be finally pretentious in Naga. Young men and women whose parents would be shocked to see the price of coffee and tea their children drank each afternoon assumed a kind of bohemian lifestyle. My generation, of course, would never think this generation is more intelligent or enlightened than ours or the previous generations; this generation just knows how to live life as if there is no tomorrow. Our parents drilled us to deathly worry about tomorrow as if the coming years bode of famine and inglorious infamy. Lifestyle was not the only domain where change has arrived. The geography of the city appeared to have been altered altogether. There were malls and, goodness gracious, there were escalators! Our university itself had lost its quaint smallness. There was a massive gate and there were other gates opening to places that would not find us, in our youth, exiting or entering. The mythical Four Pillars were still intact but its view was marred by an avenue that had narrowed down. Years ago, when you turned at the corner of Bagumbayan, a few meters after leaving the Cathedral, there was the façade of the university (a college then), magical, even mystical from afar. It was welcoming you, not as a person but an errant knight (woe to the ladies for gender sensitivity was not alive in our youth) either misbegotten or in misfortune, proud or conquered by the cruel world he sallied on, and, yes, you were welcome. At the back of the campus was a handsome library named after a good teacher, Fr. O’B, who taught Bikol culture. The Queborac, a forbidden grassy area, was gone. In its site were a road and rows of houses. I knew it: youth and childhood disappear when lands are changed and wooded areas give way to ro ads leading to places that will never be ours. The two major plazas were still intact: the one honoring the 15 Martyrs changing its hues like a woman fastidiously opting for a different, facile nail polish each week. In the park for the hero representing an assumed nation, the gazebo had taken the place for the debating area where local philosophers, each day, could never tire of discussing the nature of Christ and the images of the divine. Instead of philosophy and religion, the most vulgar of shifts had taken place: an open-air site for what is deemed most private of activities: body massage. There is a minor concession: masseurs and masseuses were blind, perhaps to pretend that those hands were not seeing the surplus or lack of allure in one’s physique. The other people ministering to one’s body were elderly women. In my generation, there were only two kinds of massage: the one that your favorite barber gave you or the one you derived from Sauna Bath. The former was for tough men as you needed to be prepared for your head or leg to be cranked around to give you a rough release. The Sauna Bath, which usually never had a sauna, was one of the rites of passage for the boys and, some men, in the young city. You enter the bath a boy and come out a man disgusted or relieved, depending on the kind of morality you had formed already in those years. My mother is gone. She passed away last year, the 28th of May 2017. Strangely, my reason for staying in the city for some six years seems now my reason for not leaving. Each day, I am rediscovering this small city. I am honored that there is not much of the elite class that has made other cities grander and fitted with false histories. I am honored to live in a city where ordinary, regular people continue to create a dream, or plans, or wild fantasies, and pretensions. I may leave and even stay away again as if nothing matters for me here, but this city will always be the wellspring of my fieldnotes, for this city will remain by fondest, beloved fieldsite.