Many years ago, when ‘flood days’ were happy times
Storms and floods always put me in a nostalgic mood. While listening to the raindrops drum on the roof and watching the water rise on the streets, my thoughts go back to my happy boyhood days in Malabon, when the rainy and flood season was a time to play in the floodwaters and swim in the river. Not anymore, today the floods bring untold suffering to the people.
We lived in a house on a big lot in the middle of fishponds. It was almost an island, connected to the street only by a long narrow dike. As far as the eye could see, there was nothing but water. It was like a big lake crisscrossed by dikes that separated the fishponds.
Along the fishponds was the Catmon River, a tributary of the Tenejeros-Tullahan River that emptied into Manila Bay. The riverbanks were lined with mangrove trees and big trees called kalapinay whose branches, arching over the water, served as diving boards from which we jumped into the river.
During heavy rains, the river swelled from the runoff water. We would go to the wooden bridge over the Catmon River and watch the water—brown like coffee with milk—angrily rushing under the bridge. Leaves, branches and various flotsam on the water.
All the lots around the fishponds had drainpipes emptying into the ponds so that the water levels in the ponds slowly rose. All that water, pushing against the earthen dikes, put pressure on them so that eventually, a portion of the dike, weakened by holes burrowed by crabs, would give way and the water would rush out.
Pond caretakers tried to ease the outward pressure by letting out excess water through the many control gates to the river. But when the river was swollen, the pond water could not flow out.
Sometimes it was the other way around. Water in the swollen river pushed inward against the dikes. Workers tried to strengthen the dikes before the arrival of the flood season, by taking mud from the pond bottoms and plastering them on the sides and tops of the dikes. The sun’s heat baked them into hard walls resembling weak concrete.
But even then, these measures were not enough. Weaker portions of the dikes would eventually surrender to the constant pressure and gave way, and the river water would rush into the ponds. This was what fishpond owners feared most.
When the floods subsided or the tide went out, water flowed out of the ponds and into the river and the fish with them. During a bad season, the owners could lose all their investments in bangus fingerlings that they had put in the ponds.
That is why, when there was warning of an approaching storm, the owners would harvest their fish if they were of marketable size. If not, or their efforts were too late, and the floodwaters had swamped the ponds and the surrounding backyards, the fish would escape and there would be a free-for-all among the surrounding residents to catch as many fish as they could.
Since we were kids and did not own the ponds, these occasions were happy ones for us. We chased the fish in the streets and in our backyards with all sorts of implements—throw nets, spears, fish traps called salakab, gallon cans, washtubs, clay pots, and even pieces of firewood with which we clubbed fish swimming in the shallow waters. We would have fish for viands for weeks.
Our house then had a basement. When the ponds overflowed their banks and flooded our yard, water flowed into the basement—and with it, fish. When the water receded, the fish would be stranded in the basement. We could hear them splashing down there. We would go into the basement to catch some of them when needed. But in-between, we fed them leftover rice and fish and meat. We had fresh fish for months.
At other times, during heavy rains but before the floods, we would watch fish, called martiniko or liwalo, climb up the banks of the ponds, mistaking the water flowing over the banks and from the drainpipes as the upstream to which all fish are attracted.
After they got over the banks, the fish would splash around in the shallow water in the yard. When there were enough of them there, we would go down and catch them with salakab. This was a bamboo fish trap with a hole on top. We clamped it down in the water where the fish was, then reached through the hole on top and caught them with our bare hands. We put them in earthenware jars called tapayan and left them swimming happily there until we needed them for viands. Broiled over hot coals, this particular fish was very delicious.
Before the river swelled too much and the current became too strong, we would swim and play in the river. In barrios along the river, most children learned to swim soon after they learned to walk.
We dove from the Catmon Bridge and from the trees lining the banks of the river and played all sorts of games in the river. We would stay there from morning until mid-afternoon when our elders would call us to go home for lunch.
The first big typhoon I can remember was when I was a little boy, a preschooler. The typhoon lifted our small nipa hut whole and deposited it intact in the middle of a pond. (It was after this that my father built a big concrete-and-wood house firmly anchored to the ground with steel and concrete.)
With the loss of our nipa house, we sought shelter in an aunt’s house in a nearby barrio, on the mainland. A cousin carried me on her shoulders. The raindrops were so big they hurt my head. So my cousin put a gunny sack over my head and shoulders and we proceeded to my aunt’s house.
All the big mango trees in the neighborhood were blown down. But curiously, four huge tamarind trees and two big santol trees, as well as all the kakawati trees surrounding our lot, withstood the strong winds.