A wonderful part of our life then was visiting my grandparents at their beach-side home, Cresta Ola Beach Resort in Bauang, La Union, on the South China Sea. Life was enchanted for a child at Cresta Ola. It was a beautiful place, with walls sparkling with pieces of cut glass. There was a hotel on the beach and, farther in, a clubhouse with three floors.
The bottom floor of the clubhouse had a cocktail lounge and was perfect for people who wandered in off the beach. There was a large copper samovar on the bar and a mirror on the wall. Our favorite waiter, baby-faced Jaime, was usually on duty, pouring out martinis, scotch on the rocks and San Miguel beer. Up the curving stairs was Marespuma, the main restaurant. There was a dance floor, a small stage and a balcony overlooking the swimming pool and the South China Sea.
Up the circular staircase was my grandparents’ penthouse in the sky. It had several bedrooms, and all doors opened up to a wraparound balcony and a wide porch that overlooked the vista. Up even higher was a viewing platform called, “The Crow’s Nest.” It could comfortably accommodate about ten height-seekers. The view from the Crow’s Nest was glorious. We could see the ocean vista, the highway at the end of the driveway, the tops of the acacia trees and coconut trees and the rice fields and barrio.
From the highway, one entered Cresta Ola via a long acacia tree-shaded driveway that and ended next to the hotel. Inside the lobby there was a registration desk full of nooks and a round bank of windows facing the South China Sea. Every hotel room had a balcony that faced the ocean. Perhaps my most perfect memories are those of falling asleep to the sound of the waves.
Bow-tied waiters took orders, affectionate kitchen staff made room for little watchers like me, and we ate dinner off of white tablecloths while watching the sunset paint the sky.
The cook, our maids and the waiters all told ghost stories. These conversations took place under my parents’ radar. I heard about the “aswang” a Philippine vampire, and ghost dogs that would appear barking in the window and ladies in white.
When I was six or seven, one of the maids told us that a ghost appeared in my grandparents’ penthouse.
The original story was simple. A maid saw a woman in my grandparents’ bedroom and when she looked again, the person was gone.
Looking back now, it seems to have been a wild imaginary romp. Every time I asked for more details, the story became more flamboyant. By the time my mother heard about it, there were floating heads and blood coming from the faucets. Across the compound, more and more sightings were reported. One of the waiters spoke about falling asleep on one of the lounge chairs next to the swimming pool and being suddenly awakened to the sight of a woman in white, dripping water across the walkway and heading to the sea.
It was so thrilling! Ghosts were thick, everyone had a story and they were more than ready to tell me everything.
My excitement was squelched when my mother issued an order forbidding the telling of ghost stories to the children. As quickly as we had warmed up a grand ghost story machine, it was shut down.
Two stories lasted past the story ban. One was about the faucet that streamed water that vanished into the air, rather than go down the drain.
The other was about a coconut tree that was called the Haunted Tree. If a guest parked under that tree, the car would not start in the morning.
But those stories were not entirely convincing. Maybe there was something wrong with the water pressure, maybe the cars were old. What I remember most though, was the willingness to believe.
When I was 11 years old and my youngest sister, Merci, was a toddler, a strange thing happened. At the time our cousin, Desa, was with us. It was 1969 and we were living at Cresta Ola. Merci had a yaya (nanny) named Leticia, who was a member of the Aeta tribe. Leticia was quite lively, and my sister was not a difficult charge.
Every night we ate dinner at the beach resort restaurant. We would enter the restaurant in a group. After dinner, we would reverse our path and walk down the curved staircase, past two fishponds and across a small dark stretch of shrubbery, to the stepping stones that marked the way to our cottage.
On this night, the big girls were engrossed in a conversation and Merci and Leticia were walking slightly ahead.
Suddenly, Leticia and Merci started screaming. We ran toward them and Leticia clutched a hysterical Merci.
In broken English, Tagalog and pantomime, Leticia said that a small man with a long beard jumped from behind the shrubbery. He tried to grab Merci and drag her away.
Leticia showed how she held on to Merci’s arm and the bearded one had the other and a tug-of-war ensued. We quickly ran the rest of the way home. Merci screamed for a long time that night and she wailed anew for a while every time she saw a picture of Santa Claus. This was our introduction to the mythological creature -- the dwende.
Soon after, we moved 20 miles up the mountain to Baguio, the City of Pines and the Philippines’ summer capital.
My grandfather was one of Baguio’s old-timers. After he graduated from the Colorado School of Mines in the 1920s he moved to Baguio to work in the booming gold mining industry. In 1928 he married my grandmother. Before long, he built a large, beautiful house in front of the old Main Gate of Camp John Hay. They called it Casa Blanca.
In Casa Blanca, which was quite run down when we moved in, the past was always pressing on the present. It was full of memories, but the memories were not mine. It had been a grand house in its day, but that day was gone.
There were odd things about the house. Baguio was cold; dipping into the forties in the cold months, yet the dining room had a wall of windows overlooking the mountains and the radio antennae of Mt. Santo Tomas. There was no insulation in the house, and it was drafty.
Everything we had in the house, the dishes, the spoons, the beds, the tables and sofas had come from the house’s past. There were cabinets full of silver. There were closets full of party dresses from the postwar era between my mother’s college years and her departure as a bride.
There was a library full of books, and at the top, pictures of us when we were the babies living abroad in California. I remember the smell of a children’s set of books, bought for my aunt. The pages were shiny and had a delicious smell. Decades later, I bought the same set from a book dealer, just to smell the pages.
There were fireplaces, wood floors, old sofas and paintings. In such a house a child could dream of impossible things. Since then I have loved old heaps of houses, and have loved the smell of everything old.
When I remember the house now, I remember cool red tile in the dining room, the smell of red floor wax on the wood and the aroma of pine sap soaked firewood in the fireplace.
The house had different levels that were all connected by doors, hearkening to a time when my mother’s siblings married and had their own apartments. Before the children grew up, the different sections were rented out to Americans from the air base across the street, or to Peace Corps volunteers.
By the time we moved in, the house needed major renovations, but we made do. I always loved it and associated the foggy and rainy days with intense coziness and reading. And the sunny days were marked with an autumn-like brilliance. In that house I became an avid reader. During the summer, I would stay up until the early morning hours reading. As I read, time flew by and it would be well past midnight before I began to get sleepy.
That is when I would hear it.
My room belonged to my mother when she was little, and had passed on to my aunt. My aunt said she used to hear giggling in the middle of the night.
What I heard, over and over again, night after night was a high-pitched, out-of-tune whistle. I would hear it at around two in the morning, sometimes later. Just this: the late night, sometimes the bright moonlight, the books and the whistle, while the rest of the house slept.
Every summer the house was full of our cousins. We decided to play the scariest game ever – Hide and Seek in the Dark. These were the rules. Everyone needed a partner. To make it scarier, we declared it would be Whole House Hide and Seek in the Dark. Our territory covered two floors, ten bedrooms, lots of dark corners and no lights.
The game began. I hid with my cousin in an alcove off one of the front doors. Next to us was a staircase. At the top of the staircase was a large sliding door that separated the upstairs from the downstairs. When the game began, the door was open.
My sister Lizzie was the seeker because she was brave. She must have been next to us in the dark when it happened.
The door slid across six feet of floor with a bang.
“Kathleen? Kathleen? I know you are there! You did that!”
Then we switched on the light and all three of us were staring up the stairs at the large door that had slammed shut, apparently by itself. We ran screaming into the living room.
There were many other things in that house, footsteps pacing the length of the floor, the sound of a cane. Sometimes there were knocks on my parents’ door.
My cousin said that one New Year’s she woke up to the sound of all hell breaking loose upstairs. She said there was furniture being thrown, and there were people screaming. The house had been commandeered by the Japanese Army during World War II and had been witness to its share of violence and horror.
Casa Blanca came down in the great earthquake of 1990. Cresta Ola's ruins stand sentinel to the past, catching the eyes of old fishermen who remember when we children bounded down the stairs to see what catch they brought in. The sunsets are the same. Locals speak of seeing familiar faces, now long gone, who seem to be waiting for the children of long ago to return.
Kathleen Joaquin Burkhalter grew up in the Philippines. She recently graduated from Harvard with a master’s in journalism. She blogs at http://crestaola.wordpress.com. This story is a chapter from her book, Through A Glass Darkly (The Firefly Press, 2013).