Saturday, January 12, 2013

Pagudpud and Christmas

"Feliz Navidad" on a tropical island! Not complete without a pouting kid in the corner...

Pagudpud Lagoon
Pagudpud is a white-sands lagoon on the northernmost coast of the Philippines. A quick breeze blew us north aboard 2 buses. Somewhere in the middle, we passed a huge line of wind turbines right on the sands of the beach. Found a place to sleep, cooked a marvelous veggie and rice meal, and passed out.

Wind whipped trees on the eastern cliff
The lagoon was gorgeous the whole next day, if only a tad crowded for our tastes. Afternoon brought a gale that blew us over and blinded us with sand. Darkness found us all sleeping deeply. Early next morning we were off along the route back south.

Nice Piotr! Now a 580 backside handgrab!
From Ilicos Norte, we passed Ilocos Sur and by dark, crossed into La Union, the province of my grandfather's birth. Each town along the coast of La Union glittered with Christmas lights. In one town, ornate ironwork fences or ancient mango trees were framed and highlighted. In the next town, huge hanging Santas, stars, presents, reindeer, and all of the usual Christmas symbols made the main streets and courtyards glow. Not surprisingly, the churches and Cathedrals had  Biblical Christmas displays. 

Sunset on the Blue Lagoon
It's hard for those who haven't been here during Christmastime to understand the zeal with which the Philippines celebrates Christmas. To begin with, the Philippines has a deep connection to family, and festivals bring entire regions (often one big, inter-related family) together for celebrations. Competition, cash prizes, and specialty stalls up the ante, making every festival a big deal. Christmas is the biggest festival of the year. People start celebrating in September. Yes, September. I don't mean just thinking about Christmas gifts or putting lights on the house, I mean Christmas season really starts in September. By the time cell phone dates read December, Christmas is inescapable at any time of day, no matter how far up into the mountains you go. Rolling down the west coast of Luzon two days before Christmas, the fervor was like passing through a swarm of bees. The buzz is overwhelming.

No pine trees? No problem! This is Uncle Dani's
brilliant Christmas Tree made from beach shrubs...
Finally landed in Aringay, we hopped in an SUV owned by my Aunt Marilyn and her brother, Uncle Ely. Then we were whisked away, landed in the garage of the beach property they co-own with Uncle Dani, the infamous doctor. Dinner was on the table, and we couldn't have received a better Christmas welcome.

Chritmas Eve Pirogies in the Philippines. Melting pot much?
Christmas Eve was cozy and small, just Piotrek, Dominika, me, Auntie Marilyn, Uncle Ely, and the caretakers and their family. We shared food, stories, and gifts and prepared for the mass influx expected the following day. The next morning, Doctor Uncle Dani and wife, kids, their wives, their kids, and a few helpers and Zyrel (who always deserves special mention) arrived. With the original crew from Baguio finally back in their lowland home, the party truly began. The next week was all food, fun, friends, family, and of course, karaoke a la cerveza.

Piotrek, Maribel, Jojo, me, pirogies, and gingerbread
Stuffed sirloin Pinoy style
One of my veggie concoctions
During the day, the uncles all displayed their mastery of Filipino food in the kitchen. Any one of them could start a restaurant to parallel any Filipino food in the world. I even tried some of the meat they prepared because it was so stunning! I cannot begin to describe the gargantuan amounts of food that endlessly streamed from the kitchen. Every specialty you can imagine, all day long for more than a week. Adobo, Pancit, and Lumpia were simply in-between snacks. Squid, Paella, Bangus Relleno, Beef Caldereta, and so many specialties I can't remember the names of. Even my cousin Jong, graduate of culinary school, rarely nudged his way between the uncles to reach the stove. We were all like puppies jostling to get a turn at the stove. Somehow I managed to squeeze in a vegetarian dish here and there, but my dishes rarely penetrated stomachs that had been full for days already. Carnivore or herbivore, we all got fat on holiday food. Piotrek and Dominika even made Borscht and Pirogies for Christmas. We made the first homemade gingerbread house – I'll go ahead and say it – ever built the Philippines. Well, if not the first, it sure looked like it. We got the kids and the kids-at-heart to decorate it with whatever we could find. Powdered sugar's a puzzle in itself. It might not have looked like much, but that gingerbread was tast-ey!

Wait a minute... Is that meat in your mouth???
The cousins, myself included, spent lots of time in the ocean, which was volatile and sometimes crashed through the gate and into the yard. Swimming, boogie-boarding (is it still called that?), kayaking, or even skim-boarding were short order on any given day. Digestion naps were absolutely necessary. The aunties worked on the yard, tended to toddlers, cleaned up after everyone, and tickled the air with laughter. Sometimes I would paddle the kayak for hours straight out into the ocean. Burning off rice or craving the ocean, I couldn't tell which. Once I could no longer see where home was on the shore, I knew I could stop. I would lay the paddle over my lap and simply enjoy the silence, solitude, and powerful potential energy of the ocean. All of us skipped fireworks off into the ocean or shot them high above the house after sunset. Sunset is gorgeous in Aringay – every day.

Alternative Home Building
What a team!
In the evening, the uncles played with their toys. The latest toy looks like a 1m-long torpedo – a fire engine red grown-up's toy. The Torpedo has a tall orange flag and a bright light on the top. On one end of a long, thick line is a motored reel, Torpedo on the other. Evenly spaced long this line were 20 or so short lines, chunks of squid hooked to each. Now, in American culture, fishing is seen as a lazy man's activity. It just got lazier. To see my uncles hover over this thing was like seeing boys taking turns with the latest ant-fryer-o'matic. The good ol' magnifying glass was just too hard after a while. One of my cousins ran out beyond the breaking waves carrying this Final Solution – to fish – where it chugged its way out into the unknown, trailing death itself above the heads of the few unsuspecting fish that had evaded all of the other brilliant means people had devised to catch them. This is Aringay after all; ancestral land of fishing peoples. Everything has been tried at least once. Each time The Torpedo returned from its mission, my uncles and cousins danced with excitement. But the rush of triumph over nature never came. Each time, the Thing malfunctioned. For all the effort and love that went into preparing and “fixing” it, The Torpedo never did what it was supposed to. Maybe humans pushed one too many of Poseidon's buttons. Or maybe fishing is lazy because it's supposed to be simple. I was happy – happy for my family having so much fun, and happy for the fish living to see another sunrise.

Okay, let's move in... At least until the ants find it.
When New Year's Eve tapped on the glass of time, most everyone had already left. Dominika and Piotrek parted ways to embark on separated journeys. Baguio crew was in Baguio, Manila crew in Manila, Balikbayans wherever they needed to be. I stayed in Aringay for a quiet New Year's with Auntie Marilyn and Uncle Ely. I was glued to the TV until midnight. Yes, David, who hasn't owned a TV in his life, had his eyes stuck to the TV; the show? Chopp'd All-Stars. I eat food every day (usually even more than once!) so naturally, food is a big deal to me. Four cooks compete in each round. One round was Food Network celebrity chefs. Even the judges competed in one of the rounds. I'd even eaten at two of the judges' actual restaurants when I lived in NYC. Okay... digression over. It took a lot to get me away from the TV and up to the fourth floor by midnight with a bowl of highly over-salted popcorn (turns out mastery of food doesn't bleed through the TV and into the hands). My relatives ate some graciously as we watched fireworks erupt all around us for almost an hour. Finally, we crashed in bed, our thoughts already wandering towards plans for the coming year.

Sunset in Aringay
The next two weeks were more of the same though a little less intense. I stayed in Aringay the whole time, a permanent fixture for the ebb and flow of relatives, friends, neighbors, and guests who came and left. The unusual volatility of the ocean left countless, gorgeous stones on the shore of every shape size and color; the beach looked like a Pollack painting. I passed extra time by gathering some of the stones and laying them on the bare floor of the outdoor shower/toilet.

Touching My Roots
I was in Aringay to spend time with my family, but even more importantly to walk in my grandfather's footsteps. He was born and raised in Aringay, and though it had changed dramatically, friends and family still lived in the same places they always did. The river and ocean were even different, but some of the old paths were still there. Slowly, I teased stories from my uncles and cousins about my grandpa and his youth, which naturally led to stories from their own youths.
View from the fourth-floor roof of the beach below
My grandfather was the cool guy. My mind takes his swinging gait (a little skip at the end of each step) and transplants it on the pencil-thin, teen-aged body I remember from photographs. I see sunglasses, foreign Manila shoes, and slick hair walking down rocky paths. Of all the stories, one really stuck to me. My grandpa and his “buddy-buddies” would strip their clothes, hold them above their heads, and wade, sometimes neck-deep, from the north side of the river to the south side. The point of convergence with the ocean was often deeper one day to the next. 

Once across, they would serenade girls with the ukuleles they brought with them. The grandmothers were the wretched guardians of their granddaughters' innocence. If one grandmother was especially rude to them when they came a'callin, they would play cruel pranks on her when they came next time. So, while the river pushed and shoved with the ocean behind them, my grandpa and his friends pushed and shoved with the grandmothers ahead of them.

After hearing this story, I was inspired to do something similar. I walked the beach south from my family's homes, took off my clothes, and waded across the river. I meandered along paths through the grass and shrubs. My instincts were at a loss since there were many sudden turns. Cows and goats were no help, and the birds and trees were shy so I asked anyone I was lucky to meet for directions. Eventually I found my destination; the house of one of my grandpa's “buddy-buddies”, Tony, who still lives where he did when they were young together. I had met him once before but not alone. By grandpa's request I brought rum and cold coke with me (a ukulele doesn't woo the soul of an old farmer the way it does girls). I spent a lovely afternoon with Lolo Tony, and returned with a bag full of corn, mangoes, eggplant, and bittermelon from his farm. I wished I spoke Ilocano or better Tagalog at the very least. It was incredible to touch this man, a living memory of the life my grandfather lived before he came to North America.

Little Zyrel, Dominika, and uncles working on The Torpedo behind
David, You Smell!
One of my big motivations in all of my journeys has been to find my inner child. I never really had a childhood. I couldn't relate to other kids on any level, and I was bullied all the way until college. I paid too much attention to the confusing expectations of society, school, and family. So I tried hard to fulfill what I perceived to be their expectations. Part of this process means rejecting all expectations that aren't mine. That means no deodorant, shaving my beard only when it's annoying, and even no meaning attached to words or language. It's also a process of letting go of insecurities of the ego, which for a while meant inwardly disregarding what other people think.

One day my uncle, bless him, graciously says to me, “David, you're starting to smell. Maybe you should take more showers.” Knowing that because I am always active, sweat will always pour and dirt will always follow, but inwardly uncaring, I assured him it would be okay. I showered more often and practically trailed a broom behind me wherever I went, but my hygiene and overall dirty-ness inevitably clashed with the near-germophobic sterility with which my ever-loving hosts kept their new home. I'm writing this in the near future and have since experienced major growth regarding ego and Self. I look back on the holidays in Aringay with deep thanks for the overwhelming love and grace with which my relatives welcomed me and my friends, antics and all. Hopefully this scene will replay again next holiday season, but in the presence of the man who started it all: Artemio Cacanindin. We gotta get him back for one last visit!

Wedding Bells Toll
The fair-skinned guests
I finally left Aringay with my uncles around mid-January to attend my cousin's wedding in Manila. Uncle Ely lent a casual white shirt similar to the traditional man's formal dress, a barong. I don't own white things for a reason. They always get dirty in my travels. I had to wash that shirt four times before I actually had to wear it. With my beard gone, baking soda under the arms, and sporting a clean white shirt, they said I looked like a movie star. The wedding was presided over by the bishop, of all people. I thought it strange that after how many weddings he facilitates like a wedding machine, he still had to struggle through word after word of each prayer by laboriously reading from his books and notes. More familiar relatives from North America had come for the wedding, and we reconnected after many years of separation. There wasn't much food for me at the reception, but there were free drinks!

After a few days at my Uncle Rolly's in Manila, I settled into the space offered to me by my best friend Jason's uncles. The next five weeks I spent in the big city, living the big city life until the very end. 

Pirogies on the beach for Christmas