Leaving the island of Ticao was leaving childhood.
People would call it being uprooted; I call it saying goodbye to a place and a time. It was bidding farewell to a school that I thought was the only school in the world for me. In those years of living in the town of San Fernando, on Ticao Island, when schools were not named geographically as to being at West or Central, my school was located in a place called “Pocdol.” But there were times when I would be moved to another place, called “Cogon.” But this is another story.
To my memory, I was not an ideal learner. My first memories of entering a school for the first time was being urged by my grandfather one morning to attend the first class. There was a lot of foot-dragging and crying. Whether I ended in the classroom that day or not, my mind is not clear. I get this feeling my brain had obliterated the said event.
I was then living with Mamay Doyi (her real name was lovely – Dolores), my grandmother’s sister. I was, what they would call then, “borrowed” from my parents. But Mamay loved me to the moon and back and to the moon again. Whenever I did not feel like going to school, my Mamay would go to my Grade 1 teacher, Vicenta Badillo, to tell her I was not feeling well. If Mrs. Badillo had only doubted a bit my grandmother and walked slowly to our home, she would have caught me reading komiks while struggling with the “balikutsa” cooked by another character, Lola Ensa.
My first school was located outside the patio of the Roman Catholic Church. I would walk from our home, which was often in Mamay Doyi’s small house or, sometimes from the bigger ancestral home of my grandparents, which was behind the old convent of the church.
The school was built elevated off the ground, creating a huge open basement. That was our playground. I recall catching these small creatures called “kagukoy,”tiny crabs, which burrowed themselves under the sandy loam soil beneath the floor of the school building. During recess, I discovered a new kind of snack, which my grandfather, Elpidio, being the first Sanitary Inspector of the island, would have greatly disapproved. This was powdered milk mixed with sugar and wrapped in old newspaper “balisungsong” style. You bit off the part at the point where the wrapping grew thin and you shake it so the powder would come out onto your open mouth. It was heaven for a small child.
Sometimes, we would have a kind of ginat-an party. How we did this was amazing. The teacher would ask each of us to bring any of the ingredients needed to make that delicacy. Kamote, balinghoy, butig, saging na kalibo, lubi, and many other root crops the name of which eludes me now.
For some reason, I never thought of myself as one of the better pupils. There were two bright classmates in my memory: Santiago Villamor, Jr. and Myrna Bufete.
Even as I do not recall spending lots of time playing with my classmates but when I left that summer of 1964, I brought with me the faces and memorized the names of my classmates – Gregorio, Alicia, and family names like Azares, Cabiles, Cantuba, Medalla…In the big city, I would warm to children with the same family names, which were quite rare; I would look for faces that resembled those who, I felt, I left in the island.
In Naga, the childhood that began from that island seemed gone. There were trees around but there were no more farms to which my Papay Emin would bring me. Manga was the name of that place. On our way there, I would wade with this other grandfather to cross the brackish water that came from the sea and mixed with the upland stream. On our way back, Papay would carry me on his shoulders as the water had risen by then to two feet or more.
Going back was magic, for I would be carrying with me then a brightly colored bird, which always ended in the tummy of a wayward cat in the house. In the many instances that I had those birds with me, I never had the chance to show it to my playmate. I had one constant playmate then, same age as mine. He was Vic (Alindogan), who was a relative (In the island, we were all kin). Vic lived in a house that was not so much huge as it was tall.
The wondrous technology of Facebook has brought us back together – Santiago “Jun” Villamor and Vic Alindogan after many years. We promise each time to meet again but this pandemic has made that impossible.
I see my friends’ faces online. Memory, however, has its own habit of persisting and resisting. In my mind, nothing has changed. I still see Jun and Vic as those little boys of my youth. Both of them have left the island but, in my remembrance, they belong to this enchantment called childhood. I like it that way. If and when we do meet again – and I pray we do – it shall be on the island of our birth, the origin of our deep friendship.