Island in the Stream

(Excerpts from “Hometown Memorabilia,” Ermita Magazine, February 10-March 20, 1976)

Isla de Convalescensia on the Pasig River (Photo by Ramon Velasquez/Wikimedia Commons)

Isla de Convalescensia on the Pasig River (Photo by Ramon Velasquez/Wikimedia Commons)

I lived in an island called Isla de Convalescensia where nuns of a charitable order ran an orphanage known as Hospicio de San Jose. Tugboats pulling barges wrestled now and then with the Pasig River. Our link to the north and south banks of the city was Ayala Bridge where every two months or so, someone would jump off the railings.

I was born on this island. Two giant acacia trees and three summer mango trees stood as the touchstone of a memory. On the fifth year of my life I tossed an egg into the river wondering if it would float or sink; it broke into its yellow and white content that glided downstream. In my sixth year I went to my first school in Marques de Comillas and learned more about God. On reaching seven I daydreamed on the rocks by the river. At eight I saw a raft of nilad lilies carrying a corpse draped in white, floating out towards the open sea. When I was nine years old, an older cousin revealed to me that nuns were not really bald under their winged caps and in truth were sexless. It was in the same year that my father decided to move the family to a home outside the city.

I cannot call my island birthplace my hometown. Isla de Convalescensia angles too close to the center of Manila where asphalt and concrete threaten to gobble it up. I cannot blame an island for its fate, or curse a city for its brazen whims and wicked uncertainties. If nobody weeps for old Escolta, or is moved by schizophrenic Ermita crawling with Japanese tourists, then let the colossal factories wall the island on both sides, flush colored wastes into the Pasig, and cloud the air with sulfuric fumes. I couldn’t care less. A dying city, after all, cannot kill the memory of a painless childhood.

Google map of Isla de Convalescensia

Google map of Isla de Convalescensia

Hospicio de San Jose (Photo by 1200px-Tomenbang/Ursua/Villapando/ Wikimedia Commons)

Hospicio de San Jose (Photo by 1200px-Tomenbang/Ursua/Villapando/ Wikimedia Commons)

I can recall my years on the island, my small fingers wrapped around the roundness of a glass ball, with the air suspended and no edges could bruise the mind. A hometown requires something else: there are rituals for breaking fragile objects and the landscape promises an adventure of pain.

Isla de Convalesencia is an invincible crystal ship that journeys through time, commanded by a mother superior with a crew of faceless orphans. As always, withered Spanish-speaking residents at the home for the aged are reading El Debate in half-sunlight. In the closed chapel, the saints step down from their pedestals and gather around the sanctuary lamp to talk of old times. There, in one of the orphanage’s rooms, three sisters exiled by their aunt are sleeping half-nude, and I’m rapping at their window to show them an illustrated copy of The Man in an Iron Mask. Ah, it’s Mang Felix again showing his prowess, teaching the sunflowers to kneel in the quarter moon, and there is my family, beguiled into mixing the colors for a sky-blue life.

There are nights I dream the crystal ghost ship has flown to the moon.

It is different here in Parañaque . The sunlight is warm, the sparrows rudely gossip below my window where the seedbed is sprouting green. I don’t go to the trouble of conversing with my toes to convince myself that I’m actually here and I’m the same person who waded two nights ago in the virtues of lambanog. Mornings don’t like to be questioned. If I wave my hand over my head and the breeze is hard to the touch, I consider it the first blessing of the day. You don’t have to be very bright to know this. A place like Parañaque helps you understand.

Sucat Junction (Photo by Ramon Velasquez/Wikimedia Commons)

Sucat Junction (Photo by Ramon Velasquez/Wikimedia Commons)

People also smile when I tell them how our street is called, but I’ll say it again anyway: Extra St. I understand their reaction because not even the roads to be built on the dark side of the moon will ever acquire that kind of a name. In the same way, a proud future denizen of the moon would boast that no place on earth can beat living in the Sea of Tranquility. Besides, neighboring streets have seen to it not to embarrass our street. Extra intersects Bodoni in the west, Masthead in the east; parallel to it towards the south, in proper sequence, are Lead, Scoop, Font, and then Banner Avenue. A friend of mine lives in Editorial; a meat dealer who loves fighting cocks lives in Industry; there are no high class ladies in Society; Horoscope lacks a Pisces resident; and I’d be very annoyed if we happened to live in Crossword.

The streets are indebted heavily to journalistic jargon because this piece of middle-class attempt to suburbia was originally meant for journalists and those working in the newspaper industry. It was one of those low-cost-housing projects that convinced my parents, after a night’s deliberation, would be a good place to raise the children. My father was then working for a Manila daily.

Sucat Road was then a bumpy gravel stretch which linked the highway to the town proper and was ignored by everybody because there was nothing of interest in between, except for some rustlers and hoods who found it a convenient dumping ground for dead bodies. Twenty kilometers of highway and three kilometers of rugged road and we arrived at our new home.

We were the fifth family to move into the area and the only residents of our street. About 50 meters towards the sunset, the rice fields began. It was the month of May and so the paddies were idly cracking under the summer sun. In front of our unpainted house were cogon and talahib thickets turning sickly brown. There’s a wide, flat space where we used to fly our hawk-like kites safe from the clutches of Meralco posts and wires.

For nearly a week, we lived in our new house without the blessings of electricity, and on those nights my family sat quietly in each private darkness and rippled with the crickets.

Before our place acquired the pretensions of a “village” in the same manner that Magallanes, San Lorenzo, and Bel-Air are Makati “villages,” these were all rice fields, starting where the salt beds ended, and coming to a dead stop where the highway knifed through.

Kaybiga must have been having a hard time believing what was going on before her rural eyes. This ex-farmland used to be called by that name. We hardly heard Kaybiga’s heartbeat then; she must have been very old.

She definitely was around when people began calling the site where the Parañaque river emptied into the bay, Palayag, because of an old, imposing balete tree which served as a navigator’s guide for sailors and fishermen. Palayag, means point of navigation, but the tongue is quick to alter in order to please the ear and so, the settlers around the area smoothed it out to “Palanyag.” She already knew the rites of fertility when folks corrupted a Spanish phrase and joked about it so many times a day that the word “Parañaque” stuck.

Innocently, with dreams that had nothing to do with hers, we came in 1960s and laid Kaybiga to rest under streets and houses. Now I sit on her grave.

I don’t know if it’s anything to complain about, but this place has changed little since I spent hours parked at the corner store, just looking around and trying to understand. The only form of progress seems to reside in a barrio of shanties that has risen from the mud and wild grass beside the creek where quails were once hunted. The place is inhabited mostly by the families of carpenters, plumbers and masons who built the first hundred houses in the community. They have decided to stay. The providential kangkong lingers all year round in stagnant pools near the creek where frogs go mad in the rainy months. And for some reason Perhaps it’s better this way. I’d be very sorry if this land approximates the ambition of a gated suburbia. I want my town as it is: half-civilized.

When somebody asks me: will you spend your whole life in Parañaque? I answer: I don’t know. I have a pair of boots and two shirts stashed away for me in an apartment in Teachers Village; a book by Dylan Thomas in Kamuning; a pillow and a flower pot in San Andres; a jacket in Loyola Heights; a pair of eyeglasses in Cubao; a skeletal radio that plays only FM music in an Ermita office. The few poems I wrote were lost in a taxicab, and I’ve fallen in love with the woman who lost them.

I’ve also been to Baguio on a Holy Week, to Mount Banahaw where firefly nights nearly drove me crazy, and I once took a slow boat to Japan. I always like long walks, long rides and sleeping in strange beds. Everyone has a reason for staying and leaving. Some people find it better to depart than to arrive. Some people prefer journeys of the mind. And sometimes the person becomes the place. It takes all kinds.


Victor Peñaranda

Victor Peñaranda

Victor Peñaranda is poet, writer-researcher, and community development worker. He is the author of three collections of poetry: Voyage in Dry Season; Pilgrim in Transit; and Lucid Lightning.