Iloilo in the morning

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Iloilo City is in the extreme opposite end of the dialectic Miagao inadvertently creates in the minds of students and professors that are forced to partake in its cerebral torturing and intellectual orgies at the university Mondays to Fridays without providing anything close to something we generally call civilization. By six, or very rarely seven, in the evening, or just after the Angelus is broadcast by the powerful sound system of the Miagao church, life and anything that has semblance to it come to a halt. Except for some brave souls sipping coffee in roadside bakeries and 24-hour burger stands, people are inside their homes with their families conversing about mundane adventures during the day while having dinner.

The gears of life in Miagao, a municipality forty kilometers away from the nearest city, have ceaselessly hummed like this ever since I first arrived in the place six years ago. Its people have religiously maintained this kind of life; nothing revolutionary or radical has occurred within those six years. And I am inclined to believe that its residents would like to keep this orthodoxy until a more forward-looking monsignor comes to their rescue like the titan Prometheus bringing fire to the Greeks.

In the mean time, since I can hardly wait for that progressive monsignor, I am disposed to traverse every Friday the dangerous highway connecting Antique and Iloilo, gambling my limbs and life on jeepneys whose speedometers have long gone futile since they travel, at minimum, 2 mach. Rumors have it that Pasajero Sosyal, the jeepney-maker holding the monopoly from Sta. Barbara up to San Joaquin in assembling the metal bodies of these all-Filipino transport, is developing designs that will allow these colorful jeepneys to travel even faster than the speed of light surpassing NASA’s technology by a decade. All this is because of the drivers’ obsession to induce the ‘high’ among commuters while these unknowing passengers take their chance on one of these jeepneys-to-hell.

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Nonetheless, my two-day stay in the city is all worth the hassles and effort. I wake up every Saturday morning in the blaring 80s rock song coming from the transistor radio of an AB English student in the room adjacent my sister’s. I wash my face, wear something decent (at least not a pair of boxer’s shorts and tattered shirt), and palaver my younger sister, who is not wont having breakfast, to eat in a carinderia on the other street. We pass by a newsstand, get a copy of national broadsheet, and read the paper on our way. Every once in a while I see familiar faces on jeepneys that go past us; I wave at them if I remember them or give them a wondering look if my memory of them escape me.

Even for a very short two-day sojourn, the break allows me to lose myself in the induced indifference of the city. The incidental noise, the extraneous conversations, the disinterested glances, the alienation, all these make the city an excellent place to visit after a week of forced nicety, assaulting familiarity, and hostile friendliness of Miagao.

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Iloilo ang banwa ko

I first heard my mother singing this song to my little sister as a lullaby. For me then, it sounded so sad, so melancholic. She sang it as if she’s been far away from home for so long a time that only being physically present in the place could her longing be quenched. And indeed she was.

Iloilo ang Banwa ko ginahingadlan
Matam-is nga pulong ang akon gin mat-an
Dili ko ikaw bulagan banwa kong nahamut-an
Ikaw ang gintuna-an sang kalipayan

Chorus:
Ilonggo ako nga tunay nga nagapuyo sa higad sang baybay
Manami magkiay-kiay sa tagipusuon bug-os nga kalipay

The other person I heard singing this song was a Japanese student from Tokyo University. She was taking up Philippine Studies with concentration on Hiligaynon and the culture of Iloilo. I was surprised because she could memorize the lyrics and sang it with almost perfect accent. Even though my parents were both in Iloilo, and I spent four years as a student and a year as an instructor in the University of the Philippines Visayas in Miagao, my accent when I speak the local language is still heavily Cebuano. In some times, some Ilonggo even mistook me as Tagalog.

I must say Iloilo charmed me. I learned to love its hot and humid atmosphere and even basked under its unforgiving sun. I love its rocky shores and how the breeze blowing from its seas burned me and bestowed on me my brown skin.

Belfry of Jaro Cathedral

Man is wired by evolution to seek for the place where he was born. It’s like an instinct such that of green sea turtles: they always go back to the exact spot where they were hatched and in that same spot lay their eggs that will continue the whole cycle. The same is true for me or for anyone who traces his root in that small patch of land in the heart of the Philippines. Iloilo has this charm that only the experience of being in the place can explain. It has this warmth that a bowl of hot La Paz batchoy can give meaning to. It has this grandeur that the churches of Molo, Miagao, San Jose, or Jaro Cathedral can expound on. It has this life and love that only an Ilonggo can let you feel.

Jeepneys along Calle Real

A walk along Calle Real will bring you back to the late Spanish era when sugar barons built impressive houses matched with intricate facades and imposing columns. These proud structures are remnants of once ruling borguoisie and the booming sugar industry that ended as soon as the second world war was concluded.

Skyline of Iloilo City

Museo Iloilo that houses artifacts and contemporary arts by Ilonggo artists

Iloilo City is not a big city in terms of land area, roughly 70 square kilometers, but it’s an urban jungle of its own that will give a newcomer a harrowing experience of its circuitous and narrow roads. Friends of mine who have been to Iloilo City told me that the city has come to a dead-end as far as growth is concerned because it simply cannot expand. And I concede. Iloilo City is one of those few Philippine cities that have maintained its unique charm. Not that is has economically stagnated, it has remained loyal to its identity. It’s a hybrid city of urban growth, cultural dynamism, and rather conservative atmosphere. This narrow strip of land boasts seven big universities that rival other good universities in the country. Its people are one of the most literate and educated in the nation.

Iloilo shaped me as individual. It was in one of its sleepy towns, in Miagao, where a big chunk of my intellectual growth took place. It has made me aware that a big world out there is awaiting for a young man like me; nevertheless, it also made me realize that the bigger challenge to conquer is how to allow dreamers like me, young students, make their own yearnings possible.

And, true to its epithet as the “City of Love” (which I used to think as very funny if not downright pathetic), it’s also where I found the love of my life.

Language has its limitation. And it has reached its limit when it attempted to describe with words this city. As for me, a man who dreams to be a citizen of the world, I may have reached countries that once I was only able to picture out in my mind, and cities I thought I could only visit in my imagination, I still would want go back to that small city in one of the islands in the Pacific and hear a Latin mass in one of its churches, eat a bowl of batchoy in Tienda Lapaz, buy 12 pieces of the most delicious bibingka in the world for 20 pesos (0.50 USD) in Tanza, or just watch a Jaro-CPU-Ungka jeep pass by.

I have not anymore heard my mother sing that song for quite a long time. After all her children, five of us, left for Iloilo to get our college degrees, and our youngest sister whom we plan to have her high school also in Iloilo, she stopped singing the song. But like any Ilonggo, I know that she also one would want to go back to that beautiful city one day.

And maybe by that time Iloilo and banwa ko will not anymore be as melancholic as I remember her singing it.

Photos courtesy of Bernardo Arellano III, a former schoolmate in UP Visayas.