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Looking Back
Hidden history of the Pasig River

By Ambeth Ocampo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:45:00 09/09/2009

Filed Under: Environmental Issues, history

When it rains I am happy for the Pasig River because its thick polluted water will be diluted. The water level will then be higher and its stench will be reduced.

It is sad that the river that has played a role in the history of the capital is practically dead in the sense that it cannot sustain fish and other pleasant aquatic life. The Pasig River may be dead to all but organisms that promote diseases.

When people speak about the beauty of Metro Manila, they speak in the past tense. When people speak about the romantic Pasig River, they also speak in the past tense.

Today there is a river ferry that can take you from Guadalupe to Escolta in less than an hour, compared to a ride through traffic-choked streets. The river ferry is air-conditioned, efficient, comfortable. Using the river again for transportation is like going back in time.

Alejandro Roces said it best when he described the Pasig as a short river with a long history. It is only 25 kilometers long, dividing Metro Manila in two parts, north and south. It is a long artery connecting Manila Bay and Laguna de Bay. Depending on the season, the flow of the river changes: during the dry season when water levels are low, the flow depends on the tide, but during the wet season water flows from Laguna de Bay to Manila Bay passing through Laguna, Taguig, Taytay, Pasig, Makati, Mandaluyong and Manila.

How the water flows gives us a clue into the origin of the name ?Pasig? which is said to be rooted in a Sanskrit word that describes ?a river that flowed from one body of water to another.? But despite this highly plausible linguistic explanation for its name, everyone is still drawn to the tragic legend of the lovers Virgilio and Paz: They were being separated by their parents, so they decided to elope and make their escape via the Pasig, but poor Virgilio fell off the banca (boat) and the terrified Paz realized he didn?t know how to swim. As he sank into the water, coming up thrice gasping for air, he struggled and shouted, ?Paz! Sigue me! (Paz! save me!)? His famous last words are ?Paz! Sig...?? This is the most popular story on the origin of Pasig.

Another etymological explanation is that in Spanish the river was known as ?El rio de Pasig.? Its short form ?el Pasig? happens to be an anagram of ?Legaspi.? And that?s Miguel Lopez de Legaspi who founded Spanish Manila in 1571.

Pasig is a river with much history. It is what the Thames is to London, what the Seine is to Paris, what the Tiber is to Rome. The Pasig could be an alternative tourist attraction, except that our bridges are not as old or as pretty as those along the Seine.

There are 13 bridges that cross the Pasig from end to end: Bambang Bridge (a.k.a Napindan), C-5 Road Bridge, Guadalupe Bridge, Makati-Mandaluyong Bridge, Sevilla Bridge, Lambingan Bridge (which Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim wants to rename Corazon Aquino Bridge), Pandacan Bridge (a.k.a. P. Zamora), Mabini Bridge (formerly Nagtahan), Ayala Bridge, Quezon Bridge, McArthur Bridge, Jones Bridge, and Roxas Bridge (formerly Del Pan). All these bridges were given a face-lift in the centennial years leading to 1998, but only Mabini remains. Huge brass profiles of Mabini ornament the sides and at night the bridge has lights that change colors, reminding motorists of the interiors of seedy bars in the former red-light district in Ermita that bears the name of the ?Sublime Paralytic.?

The Pasig is older than Manila or May-nila (not ?May nilad? as propagated by the ignorant). The Pasig is older than all the other cities that have grown along its banks. Archeological excavations in Sta. Ana revealed fantastic grave goods, Chinese ceramics dating from the 11th to the 14th century, a time long before Magellan was even born.

Today the Pasig gives the visitor a different view of the metropolis. It shows you the city from the river.

A cruise down the Pasig also helps us imagine how people traveled in the past, making us realize that the way we see and describe our surroundings has already been formed by our history. For example, when you ask children taking Araling Panlipunan to describe the Philippines, they will probably say, ?The Philippines is an archipelago, a country comprised of a group of islands separated by water.? While not entirely false, this statement would not have been the way a Filipino in pre-Spanish times described the archipelago. For a person who lived in the age before the coming of the wheel and the horse, for a person who lived before the construction of roads and bridges, the archipelago would have been a group of islands connected by water. In pre-Spanish times people traveled in boats. Isn?t the smallest unit in our government known as the barangay, from the pre-Spanish boat balanghai? River and sea were not obstacles to the pre-Spanish Filipino. For them water connected rather than separated islands. Water connected river banks bringing people and goods together.

I have been fascinated by the Pasig for many years and have not lost my enthusiasm for its hidden history. One can only hope that more people will travel on it to appreciate both its present and its past.

When the Pasig is cleaned up and revived, then we will not speak of it in the past tense anymore.

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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