Journaling Train Travels (Part IV)
In 2012, the train to Bicol was revived. I had been hearing about it from other people but I was not ready to take that train journey again after some long years.
One of the last times I was on the train was a year after Martial Law. It was 1973. We were out of high school when we had a quick reunion in Naga. I do not remember whose idea it was anymore. Was it Jun Aguilar’s or Jesse Ces’s? The idea was to raise a fund for the Sipocot Leprosarium. This meant that we had to travel to that place to talk first with the Chaplain of the place, a Spanish priest named, Fr. Bosch.
The good priest seemed to have been there all this time. We needed to inform him about our plan and we had to seek his approval for the use of the name of the place to drum up our activities for the fund-raising.
Up to the 70s, the place was forbidding and forbidden, mainly out of ignorance from laypersons. Dear, brazen youth was on our side though: the idea of being with “lepers” would not deter us.
We took the train with the instruction that we should get off before Barcelonita. We were going to Cabusao. I barely recall Fr. Bosch, a charming, rotund Catalan eyeing us, visibly unimpressed with our idealism and asking if we were anxious that we were already with “lepers.”
That day, we returned to Naga in the late afternoon by train again.
From that adventure in Cabusao, we were able to stage a concert featuring our batch, “The Spirit of ’72,” in tandem with the colegiala singers of Ms. Mercy Regalado. We were even able to convince soprano, Cristina Roco, to join us non-singers for the concert titled, I Believe in Music.
The leprosarium is “gone”; in its place now stands the Bicol Region General Hospital and Geriatric Medical Center, the same place I would visit by taxi for my first anti-Covid-19 vaccination in protest of the slow vaccination program in the city.
Sometime in 1974 again, the Biology class of then Mrs. Lina Regis had a fieldwork in Del Gallego. It was by train again that we reached Sinuknipan. We had to walk a few kilometers to reach the beach. We missed the late afternoon train on our way back that we arrived nearly midnight in Naga. As curfew during martial law was very strict, we had to wait until four in the morning in the train station in Balintawak.
The train figured well in our growing-up years. My parents and grandparents would travel to Manila by train. Coming home, it would always be toys from Manila brought by Mama and Papa. We had our first scrabble set and chess set after those train trips. Lola Miling would favor always puto Biñan as a pasalubong. Huge and rounded, one puto could feed many. My grandmother would always tell us how when she saw the big cakes being proffered by vendors it meant they were close to Manila. And Manila was always Tutuban.
It would take years before Cubao would take over the mind of Bicolanos as the place of arrival and departure for them. It did not matter then if it was in Quezon City, Bikolanos always were in “Manila.”
I believe it was Chito Irigo, a consultant for the PNR in its latest revival, who convinced me to try the train. He reserved a Sleeping-Car ticket for me.
As I was living in the Scout area of Quezon City, Chito instructed me to travel up to España, where the railroad tracks bisected the street near Algeciras Street. It was odd instructing the cab to stop right after we crossed the railroad tracks. As I was facing the direction of University of Santo Tomas, I had to go the left side of the street and up the platform of the train station in that area. In that moment, the tracks and the platform mattered to me when before it was merely a bothersome structure that stopped traffics. I looked like a stranger in a pretentiously noirish film, with my jacket and luggage. The platform conductor noticed me and guided me to a first-class waiting area! He singled me out: I was not a commuter; I was a train traveler.
In the train, I occupied a single room with a bed and a reading lamp. I had sandwiches with me and bottles of soda. Upon hearing the voice of a vendor, I went out to buy brewed coffee (there is God!) and cake. The ride was comfortable and I fell asleep soon. A wake-up call came through the wall announcing “Pamplona.” I got up lazily from the bed and looked out, thinking it would still take minutes before arrival when I realized we were slowing to a stop already the old Naga station. I was home and it was by train after nearly 40 years of not being on this rambling mode of transportation.
Was it in late 2012 that the trains stopped again because of an accident? We Bikolanos know the word for this mishap – “nadiskaril,” the word taken from the Spanish word, “carril,” which means lane or track. The train literally jumped the rails.