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Far from home

/ 08:07 PM February 06, 2012

The sun was setting and the sky was getting dark as I looked out my window. I could no longer see the imposing buildings which used to dot the horizon. Instead, some moments and a flight of steps later, I was greeted by the familiar sights that brought me back to my childhood—sugarcane fields. It seemed unusual that a tarmac was built in the middle of a sugarcane plantation, but nonetheless it instantaneously gives arriving Negrenses the feeling that finally they are now back home.

It was almost a decade ago when I left my favorite football and my Ilonggo accent to pursue a degree and chase my dreams. I promised that I would never let myself get lost amid the busy streets. But after years of immersing myself in the ways of the city and adopting an urban lifestyle, my desire to go back to my humble beginnings dwindled faster than a speeding bus in Edsa. I never realized that day by day, I was being captivated by the charms of the big city and its many types of amusement.

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It was almost night time as my ride home sped through dusty highways sandwiched by lush sugarcane fields. In the heyday of the sugar barons, train tracks, which served as a link between the harvesters and the millers, were ubiquitous. I remembered that before I learned to count, I  frequently visited my Tita’s house that stands next to a train track. I considered it my home along the rails; my cousins and I would cry for stalks of sugarcane every time a loaded train passed by. We would then sit on the doorsteps and peel the freshly picked produce with our bare teeth.

However, as soon as I became aware of my female classmates, I realized that the train tracks had been taken out. Although I no longer had the temerity to ask for free sugarcane, the loss still left an aching in me. I never understood why the tracks should be taken out since the trains were the most efficient means of transporting sugarcane to the mill site. It was not until my university years when a case study in a business class elaborated on the collapse of a Negros milling company that I realized the magnitude of the problem. It was a confluence of international events, local legislation and human failings that led to the disintegration of the wealthy hacienderos. And along with it came the loss of the train tracks and the sweetness of the Negros sugar.

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I’m nearing home, two more sugar plantations and I could now smell the newly cooked cansi, the Negros version of bulalo, that my mother was preparing. Like the towns in most provinces in the Philippines, Negros towns are separated by acres of farmlands. It used to be that almost all farmlands were used for sugarcane production. However, most of these lands were converted into rice paddies and mango orchards after the fall of the sugar industry. The two sugarcane plantations are just some of what were left of the former symbol of Ilonggo affluence.

The mountain breeze caressed my skin as I stepped out of the vehicle. I can still recognize our simple dwelling along rows of insignificant houses. In a span of years that saw the Mall of Asia, Bonifacio Global City and the new Manila airport terminal constructed, our town remained static and the nearest McDonald’s is still two hours away. It would have been different had the train tracks not been taken away. The sugar industry was not only a source of livelihood for the Negros native, it was a way of life. Everyone benefited from the industry, from the shrewd landlords to the enterprising food stall owners near mill sites, to the uneducated sugarcane loaders. After the crisis, life for these people became bitter. Gone are the days when every family had a member working in the sugar industry. Nowadays, it’s remittances from abroad or from Manila that keep remaining family members afloat.

Just a few steps away from home, my cross-trainers already felt the weight of the mud clinging to their soft cushioned soles. They’re the type of soles that would not last on the farm field, but I don’t mind. I stopped hoping that I would ever get any sugar money, my life now belongs to the corporate jungle where I make a living. Being a sugar farm owner was no longer part of my fantasy, and it might have been a nightmare had I become one.

I did not realize that I had stayed in the province more than week. I hadn’t accomplished anything. I hadn’t visited my childhood friends and former classmates. I hadn’t visited my dad, grandmother, uncle and aunts in the place we laid them to rest. And I hadn’t gone back to my Tita’s house where the train tracks and my sweet childhood memories were, now buried by cement and surrounded by new houses. I was so busy trying to connect to the Internet and update my status that I lost track of time and the real purpose of my vacation. If only I could extend my vacation.

Now it’s nighttime and my horizon is already clouded. It’s not raining but it’s hard to see past the window. As I walked around, I knew I was in a different place. I was no longer greeted by the dancing of the sugarcanes, all that was left for me were lifeless pavements and restless souls. Now I know I’m far from home.

Mark Anthony Goroy, 26, works for a media company. He is also taking up MS Industrial Engineering at the University of the Philippines-Diliman.

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