Saturday, April 15, 2006

Promdi Memories

Reminiscences of a Country Bumpkin

I haven’t had the chance to visit my old hometown for quite a long time now. I grew up in Camp Phillips, a housing camp for Del Monte employees in Bukidnon, site of the largest pineapple plantation in the world. My parents have now retired and resettled back in Bohol. However, I feel a stronger affinity with Bukidnon rather than with Bohol, despite the latter’s many charms, because that was where I spent my childhood.

Camp Phillips is a beautiful place, situated 2,200 ft above sea level in the plateaus of Bukidnon, a landlocked province flanked by gentle rolling hills and the mighty Mt. Kitanglad hovering like a sentinel. Upon entering the place and getting past the Welcome sign, the cool, fresh mountain breeze as well as the wonderful scent of pine never fails to greet you. The entire place gets enveloped by fog during chilly December early mornings and late afternoons. Grrrr. Cold. But it sure felt wonderful, a welcome relief from the heat and filth of Manila. Funny but I seemed to have taken these things for granted. I only realized this when I spent so many years in the city. You see, the urban blight, pollution and ugliness that I see everyday makes for a depressing sight. There’s just no comparison.

Designed like an American suburb, the place features bungalow-type houses evenly spaced and laid out, complete with manicured front lawns decked with bougainvillas and orchids, and back yards, where bamboos and banana trees take their places. Right in the middle is the huge plaza, green-carpeted with grass, so huge it accommodates the full-size football and baseball fields where as kids, we’d play softball with tennis balls and a dos-por-dos for a bat, do cartwheels, run and flail around in the rain after school, as well as the children’s playground, where I usually stopped to swing standing up and climb the chimney bars on my way to pick up the daily fresh milk bottles.

A clump of old santol and breadfruit trees provides a break to the wide open spaces while mahogany, eucalyptus and pine trees surround the verdant plaza. No wonder visitors from the city usually have their picnics here. The two schools and the large parish church, with the tolling bells that reached far and wide, which reminded us to observe the Angelus everyday, complete the idyllic picture of a laid-back, provincial image.

I went to school here, at the Our Lady of Lourdes for grade school, where wearing slippers with socks on when inside the classroom remains a policy, to keep the floor Johnson-wax shiny. I loved that school. We had plenty of English grammar drills (we had two English subjects!) declamation contests and plays. In fact, I can still recite Longfellow’s Sands of Time from memory. The other school, Plantation Elementary, was a public school. The kids always brought bolos and knives for gardening. I thought it was a preparatory school for would-be farmers.

It was a really hilarious time growing up. One kid A.P. came from a barrio in the outskirts. Unfortunately, he was always the subject of rumors of the “other world” kind. One time, nobody wanted to go near him, because his mother was rumored to be a practicing witch, ergo, if he tapped our shoulders, we were supposed to tap him right back, so that we will not become witches ourselves; rubbing ourselves with garlic was out of the question-our teachers would simply drive us out of school (Gasy explained this to us in great detail). Only Ambrose, the most religious (we all thought he’d make a fine priest-he wore the rosary around his neck) was the only one safe enough to approach him, for obvious reasons. I also wore a medallion given to my father by our Italian Jesuit parish priest and blessed by the Pope. My friends were not impressed. I wasn’t religious enough.

I went to high school here as well, Holy Cross High, run by nuns. I remember clearly my freshman Social Studies teacher scaring the hell out of us with personal accounts of ghost stories about White Ladies she saw while opening the jalousie window of her bedroom, and the mythical sigbin (demonic dogs that feed on babies). She’d frighten us further by confirming that at night, cries can be heard coming from the biology laboratory, which has a preserved fetus contained in a large jar. Since the town cemetery was a whisper away from where she lived, we believed her. In fact, years before, the fetus was rumored to have spoken to a few students and expressed her desire to be buried. Imagine that! It didn’t help that my own mom, a former teacher here, had her own stories to tell. Kids avoided passing near the school at night, if not then we’d run as fast as we possibly can.

There was also a small valley that separated our section of the neighborhood with the rest, connected only by a wide bridge. Passing this place at night alone can be traumatic, as it is eerily quiet and sounds of croaking frogs from the brook beneath can only be disconcerting. It didn’t help that upon approaching the top of the road, there was a huge mango tree. It was widely believed a hideous-looking Agta (I imagined him to be a cross between King Kong and Godzilla) would be sitting smoking a cigar in the branches. I used to pedal my bike at top speed when passing this place. One time, however, while going up the road, my cousin Paton was likewise heading down the opposite direction on his bike. We were both in a hurry to get past this place. In trying to avoid each other, we managed to crash into the deep canal nearby.

The camp’s social life revolved around the social hall. We didn’t get to watch movies that were shown in the city. Other than the 1950s or 60s black-and-white cowboy movies shown for free by the American soldiers stationed near Camp Phillips, the movies shown every Sunday afternoon were awful Tagalog and Kung fu rejects from theaters in Cagayan de Oro. And thus, a fund raising event for a beauty pageant candidate (winners were determined by the amount the contestants were able to raise) featuring a Hollywood (yehey, finally!) movie became very well-attended. All the kids were there and were bubbling with excitement. We had no idea what the movie was about before the screening. It didn’t matter. The title? The Exorcist!

We were all shocked and sprinted home after the screening. Linda Blair’s face turning around a full 180 degrees was a nightmare.

We didn’t sleep well that night.