The sun over Legazpi Boulevard in Legazpi City, Albay is unforgiving at daytime. The sea breathes hot wind and the mountain beside it is not tall enough to cover you from the sun.
This is not the Albay Gulf that my friend, Ephraim, grew up to.
While we were walking under the merciless heat that Sunday afternoon, Ephraim told me to observe the hill beside the road. It is called the Sleeping Lion, he said, because of its form.
He used to climb it when he was a boy, overlooking the vast sea that twinkled so gloriously at that time of day. Except there were no roads, no malls, and no bar strips unlike what I was seeing.
Just the Albay Gulf — where the Americans made its last amphibious landing that helped liberate Luzon from the Japanese forces.
“Maganda ang sunrise diyan (Sunrise is beautiful from that view),” Ephraim went on to tell me that the most famous photographs of Mt. Mayon with the Albay Gulf as its foreground were taken from the top of the Sleeping Lion or the Kapuntukan Hill.
“One day I just went there and asked the villagers how to get to the top, and I’ve been going there ever since.”
Ephraim would not be alone, he was with cows that grazed on grass every morning. Cows could not be seen at the top of the Kapuntukan Hill nowadays, its grass are less greener than how they used to be.
“Embarcadero (now Legazpi’s seafront mall) was at its early construction stage then, but there were no roads yet, no bridges — and on the other side, nothing at all, just shoreline. On the left, development, and on the right, the rustic side of my city,” Ephraim mused while we walked.
“It was the most visual indication of an economic divide.”
What a poetic childhood, I thought.
I couldn’t think of any memory growing up that was as romantic as that. Sea, mountains, cows and contemplation that was socially relevant.
I did fly kites at the fields behind our house at my hometown in Moncada, Tarlac. I remember being truly awed when I discovered that if I walked five minutes out to the field, it could lead me to another poblacion. I always wondered whether the field would end somewhere, it just always seemed so endless, but my kites could only reach so far.
I didn’t have seas and mountains, and no fascinating myths about how Kapuntukan Hill was once the home of a lazy husband who always slept and hurled his lovely wife down the hill where she fell dead, on a land where the Lignon Hill now stands.
We went to Lignon Hill too, Ephraim and I. On the way, while our taxi was passing this open field that provided a good view of Mt. Mayon, Ephraim told me of this one day in 1993 when Mayon began to act up. He was on his school bus and that morning, while looking out the window, he saw thick smokes billowing out from Mayon — an image that would turn any kid of Albay braver when confronted with disaster. Seventy Albayanons died in that eruption, and they have learned their lesson. Albay has the best disaster preparedness program in the entire country.
There is also this unconfirmed history that Lignon Hill used to be a Leprosarium. Lignon Hill is a majestic mountain whose trail to the top is dotted with flowers but it is this story of the sick and the downtrodden that hooked me.
I think I will always look at Lignon Hill that way from now on — refuge to the misfits, and I’m sure it was terrible, but somehow I would like to believe the mountain did its best to let them know life was still beautiful.
How could one City be filled with so many grim stories and yet exude such a mystique?
Like being back to that field behind our house and thinking that it almost never ends, but this time, I can go find out if and where it does, search the ins and outs of a God-forbidden City that has, time and again, proven that it can stand whatever test.
And on that quest to find where it ends, there are stories.
Like how houses on the foot of Lignon Hill had to bear with rocks falling on them when it was being built to the viewdeck it is now.
How an eerie two-storey house at Bgy. Busay is where some dozen residents died when they were trying to escape the lahar and flood during the 2006 Mayon eruption.
How whale sharks are beginning to vanish in Donsol at a time where fireflies have started to really come out, as if in a turnover ceremony of the marine fauna — ‘Donsol is yours now, fireflies, go light it for however long you could.’
How weapons of Japanese soldiers were hidden in tunnels.
How fishermen from the remote Cagragay Island could set out to sea and come back with parts of an american aircraft that crashed during the World War II.
How soil in Tiwi City is a special kind of clay that makes their pottery more extraordinary than others.
“In other regions, clay pots would break when bent like this,” Ephraim told me, bragging almost, either for nature’s gift to their land or the talent of his kababayans, or both.
I knew these because Ephraim knew them. Before moving to Manila to work as a producer in GMA News where we both work, he was a regional correspondent for Inquirer who covered Bicol and the rest of Southern Luzon.
There are many good ways to travel. But to travel with someone who not only grew up in that place but also covered the place as a journalist fares as one of the best.
Like looking at Albay through the eyes of someone who really sees it.
On Palm Sunday, Ephraim took me to Tabaco, which is a 30-minute jeepney ride from Legazpi. It follows the same setup as any other town in the province, the municipal hall takes center of the town, the plaza and the Church shadowing the seat of power.
But the St. John the Baptist Church is anything but a shadow. Standing for more than 400 years, it is a valiant presence that reminds everybody who come to visit that sleepy as it may seem sometimes, Tabaco is a town that can and will persist for many more centuries.
After admiring the stone church, Ephraim was quick to detour to an old mansion that used to belong to Filipina Poet Angela-Manalang Gloria.
Though it was Palm Sunday, and we were both born Catholics, we were not inclined to hear mass. We were more excited to see where a poet had once lived, to see and read some of her books because in our religion, nothing is a more spiritual journey.
Unfortunately, the house was closed except for an open door to what was probably once a receiving room which had since become a lotto outlet. It tells the story of people who cope with the changing times, and with the backdrop of the Tabaco Church just around the corner, the story of a culture who believes strongly in all forms of faith, whether it involves praying, or betting.
Albay was a formidable character, wherever I looked, distinct in each turn.
Something that is quite missing in Tarlac; I may also go as far as saying we don’t have that distinct identity. We’re not called the Melting Pot of the North for nothing. We don’t have our own dialect, we adopt the tongue of the places nearest to us, Kapampangan for the southern parts and Ilocano for the northern towns. We don’t have myths of mountains, just a tragic narrative of a farm land that continues to be controlled by Hacienderos of the same blood as the country’s heroes.
That said I am very proud of where I came from, but there was something about Albay that made me feel I could have belonged there.
I would have marveled at discovering its secrets and telling them proudly to visitors who had come to hear stories.
My bargain was that I came to Albay with one of its best storytellers. Ephraim could write a novel about Tinutungan and Pinangat and make looking at a pot a spectacle as looking at diamonds.
I’m sure there are more stories.
‘Til the sunflowers boom in Ligao, and as long as the fireflies light up the Donsol skies, Albay, I will be back.
Note: For more narrative of Albay, read Ephraim’s blog on Subselfie about the paradox of Mt. Mayon — Inside the Danger Zone of Mayon Volcano