The town I grew up in

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Many hardly know anything more of Tuguegarao than that it has one of the most extreme temperatures: sizzling in summer, freezing in December until February. In fact, a new diagram of the solar system drawn along Copernican lines shows Tuguegarao separately orbiting around the sun somewhere in the region of Mercury—perhaps, even closer to the sun. That is really how it has felt, and continuous to feel this summer. Despite the onset of rains that have made Manila and other cities miserable these past days, Tuguegarao continues to sizzle. But Tuguegarao is the town (now the city) I grew up in.

Like many towns of the Philippines, its founders and its early leaders hardly envisioned that it would become a bustling metropolis, one day bursting at the seams. That is just what is happening now. But it was not always like that. The Tuguegarao of my childhood was a quieter, saner and more sedate place to live in. My grandparents, parents and I lived together in a comfortable house in a rather quiet part of town. “79 Luna Street” —that was our exact address, which no longer exists. A huge hotel and a busy restaurant have been built where our house once stood. It was walking distance from the Tuguegarao Central Elementary School (now known as West Central) where my brother and I did elementary studies. My grandparents were teachers: my grandfather, Sofronio Callangan, was the district supervisor, my grandmother, Constancia Purugganan, a Grade 3, Section 4 teacher. As a grandmother, she was doting. As a teacher, she was stern, and a bamboo stick was part of her teaching apparatus. Such practices that today would land her in jail for child abuse such as inflicting hand-whips according to the number of mistakes in a quiz were common fare. None of her students died. None I know ever resented her severity. Many have been profuse in their gratitude for her “tough love.”

Acacia trees lined Luna Street. In fact, they were ubiquitous in Tuguegarao, until we became stupid and, in the name of progress, started felling them. We hacked them down to put up electric posts. We felled them to build multi-storied buildings. We chopped them down to widen the roads. And that is where the next part of my recollection takes me. Road widening has been a constant problem because in many cases there just is no room to widen. I recall that on Luna Street, we had a front lawn large enough for some trees and shrubbery, including my grandmother’s favorite sweet-smelling “rosal.” But calesas then traversed the road and there was no problem. Soon, the first tricycles made their appearance, and the revving of their machines drowned out the pleasant clip-clop of trotting horses. But when motor vehicles—including a Chevrolet that my father bought for us, sturdy as tank and as bulky as a road compacter—increased in number, the municipal government started having a problem. Soon, we lost one half of our lawn to a widened street—and one step out of our doorstep took us four steps closer to the street. By all accounts, it was a dangerous proposition.My parents taught at a local college, now a university, and we could walk without much trouble and danger to our lives to the college where they taught from the high schools we attended. The “calle (de) commercio,” Bonifacio Street, was a long street of one-storied wooden buildings with a variety of stores selling different items that the locals needed. No, Tuguegarao was not backwater by any means, but it was many decades away from being the busy center of commerce and education that it now is.

People were devout in those days, and Wednesday afternoons were novena days. My grandmother took us, her grandsons, in tow to the Perpetual Help Novena, and to these days, the beautiful songs of the novena and their equally moving words—“When the voyage is o’er, oh stand on the shore and show him at last to me”—move me tremendously. I have no doubts that because church was so much a center of Tuguegarao life, it had much to do with my “insistence” on being a priest. The siren sounded at 6 in the evening—and everyone, horses in mid-course included—reverently stopped and even if not all knew the Angelus, everyone knew that it was time to pray and to thank God for the day that was drawing to a close. On Sundays, the Cathedral was packed, since parishes within Tuguegarao were yet to be created. And because public address systems were unreliable, many a priest still had to make the trip from the altar to the pulpit— erected midway through the Church—ascend its steps, and then deliver his perorations in stentorian tones that made it seem to us, children, that priests were angry most of the time when delivering their sermons (the term “homily” was hardly ever used then).

Obviously there was no wifi and so people were more communicative towards each other. Conversations were highly prized; gossip was readily available. It was, in fact, one of the preferred forms of recreation. But because people talked to each other so often, communities were more tightly knit, and both in times of joy and in times of sorrow, they readily came together to laugh together and to mourn together. Community did not have to be forced on us. It was no artifice, like the Church’s BECs today are. Our community at Ugac—that section of Tuguegarao where we lived—was not necessarily as cohesive as we might imagine the Pilgrim’s communities were, but we were close to each other. I remember that one night, one of our neighbors, a lawyer and therefore my parents’ compañero, suffered severe abdominal pains. His children roused my father from sleep, and, without much ado, my father drove him in our sturdy Chevrolet to the hospital.

I mourn the loss of the Tuguegarao of my childhood, and while I rejoice in the comforts and amenities we now have, the demise of serenity and sanity is certainly worth the mourning. Contrary to all common sense, we have allowed the construction of two, even three ginormous malls in the heart of an already asphyxiated Tuguegarao. Why, I have asked myself and others several times, could they not have been built in the towns immediately adjoining Tuguegarao? People would still have flocked to them, as malls always have a certain capacity to draw hordes of, if not shoppers, at least gawkers, and the neighboring towns could have shared in the blessings of prosperity as well. But it looks like in the Philippines, we have this penchant for making madhouses of what once were beautiful and peaceful towns.

When I first started taking the plane—as that was a pricey thing way to go to Manila when I was a child and so could not happen too often—one knew almost every passenger onboard. Today, that is rare, and it is joy to recognize one face or the other. And when I asked myself whether all towns are meant to go the sad way Tuguegarao has gone, my study of the development of towns and cities provides me with no easy answer. For some towns have kept their quaintness and, for that very same reason, their alluring and charming qualities. Others have gone bonkers, like Manila, the country’s capital madhouse. Tuguegarao has paid a high price for the “progress” that has come to it—and it is not always clear to me that it has all been worth so much that we have lost!

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