Waking Up in the Philippines

4 am. Jetlag and the soothing sound of rain on the roof wake me, the way a mother’s touch, a lover’s kiss or gentle music rouse one to consciousness. No startling noise, no sudden jerks. Just a smooth transition from sleep to wakefulness, accompanied by the comforting sloshing of water on ground, wind on shutters, dark that’s very slowly turning to light.

This is it, I’m home. My past is once again my present. Though the externals have changed, I’m not much different from the child who loved playing in the rain, the teenage girl who daydreamed at dawn and the woman who cuddled her baby to sleep as a torrential downpour cooled the air.

Rain at dawn in the Philippines. Nothing else to wish for.

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In Pansol, the roosters start crowing and, on cue, the sound of tricyles signal the beginning of another day. It used to bother me, this cacophony of motors running in the very early morning, but this time, the noise of daylight comes almost as a relief from the darkness and the quiet of night. Still jetlagged, I’m awake long before dawn, at the ungodly hour of Napoleonic thoughts as someone from my past used to say. The dark in a rural area still scares me, having been fed a steady menu of tales of the supernatural in my childhood. How easy it is for one’s mind to revert back to how it was when the world was still unknowable and magical. How strange to still be bothered by childhood fears.

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The familiar swish-swish of the walis tingting (stick broom) must be THE national waker-upper. I woke up to it as a child and an adult because the helpers, no matter which province they came from and without being told, would uniformly start their day, walis tingting in hand, sweeping whatever leaves or debris had accumulated in the night into a pile before scooping it up with a dustpan made of cut-up biscuit tin to the garbage bin or the far corner where it can be burnt. The same ritual takes place daily – in the plush neighborhood where we stayed in Quezon City, in the UP Diliman campus of my childhood, in the crowded narrow streets where one drives through to avoid as much of the unavoidable traffic, outside the stalls of the Boracay tiangge (market), in the tightly packed subdivisions of Cebu, even in the immaculate grounds of the beautiful getaway where we spent the weekend in in San Nicolas, Batangas. It was only when we stayed two nights at a 15th floor condo in Bonifacio Global City that we didn’t wake up to the swish of the walis. Pity the kids who no longer hear the comforting signal of a day just beginning.

 Walis Tingting and dust pan (Source; tagaloglang.com)

Walis Tingting and dust pan (Source; tagaloglang.com)

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You know you’re back home when the solitary aroma of coffee in the morning is replaced by the more complex smells of garlic on fried rice, longganisa (native sausage) and fried eggs, danggit (dried, salty fish) and champorado (chocolate sticky rice), or tocino (sweetened pork) and itlog na pula (salted egg). Many times you’re even served all of the above along with hot pan de sal or ensaymada (brioche). How can one resist this symphony of odors when it conjures up all the happy memories of youth? I can’t and I didn’t, despite being very disciplined about my breakfast routine – fruit first, then toast or oatmeal or yoghurt, and tea – when not in the Philippines. It takes so little, balikbayans know, to throw disciplined eating and sparse diets out the window when spread before us are the flavors that never fail to bring us home.  

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What memory triggers bring you back to Manila dawns? Here are some of the common ones:

* chicken barbecue at 24-hour Aristocrat in Roxas Blvd. after a night of clubbing or partying; otherwise, balut from the sidewalk vendor

* the pot-pots: vendors on bicycles selling freshly made bread;

* the neighbor’s radio blaring the annoying early-morning talk shows (Johnny de Leon comes to mind)

* dogs barking, roosters crowing and door hinges squeaking as you try to slip into the house trying not to wake up anyone especially your parents.

 Roosters are always part of the soundtrack of early mornings in the Philippines. (Photo by Irwin Ver)

Roosters are always part of the soundtrack of early mornings in the Philippines. (Photo by Irwin Ver)

 A view of Taal Volcano in the early morning. (Photo by Irwin Ver)

A view of Taal Volcano in the early morning. (Photo by Irwin Ver)

 Enjoying the "amihan" (cool northeast wind) by the shores of Taal Lake in San Nicolas, Batangas (Photo by Irwin Ver)

Enjoying the "amihan" (cool northeast wind) by the shores of Taal Lake in San Nicolas, Batangas (Photo by Irwin Ver)

 Another view of Taal Volcano from a lakeside home in San Nicolas, Batangas (Photo by Irwin Ver)

Another view of Taal Volcano from a lakeside home in San Nicolas, Batangas (Photo by Irwin Ver)

Gemma Nemenzo

Editor, Positively Filipino