A most enjoyable vacation during the war (2)
(Continued from Monday)
We were assigned by the barrio captain to live with different families. They were very kind to take us in. The captain assigned a new bamboo-and-talahib house, still needing finishing touches, to us and most of us lived there. I think a bachelor was building it for himself and his future bride; the couple later decided to wait until the war ended before getting married. We made the finishing touches. We are very grateful to that couple, the barrio captain, and the barrio folk for their kindness and hospitality. That’s the hospitality that Filipinos are famous for.
I do not know how our elders procured the food we ate during our yearlong stay there. I do know that they managed to make American-style cigarettes from native tobacco mixed with yellow papaya leaves to provide the yellowish color. These were grated together in a homemade contraption. They sold the cigarettes to the residents of Sta. Maria and the nearby barrios.
The farmers planted camote, eggplants, tomatoes, and sugarcane during the dry season, and rice during the rainy season. So we ate mostly camote. In the sandy soil, they grew as big as coconuts.
To us, the three littlest boys, our stay there was one long, happy vacation. We spent the days gathering firewood or going with the farmers to pasture the carabaos or plow their fields. We rose at dawn with the farmers, each usually taking two carabaos to his field. While he was using one to plow the field, now ankle-deep in water, the other was pastured. That’s where we came in.
At midday, when the sun was at its hottest, work stopped and the carabaos were led to the irrigation ditches or pond to wallow there. That was what we enjoyed most. We swam in the pond, diving from the backs of the carabaos, which seemed to enjoy this interlude, too. There was always kangkong growing in the pond and we gathered bunches of it as well as snails, if there were any, to take home.
We ate our lunch of rice and dried fish wrapped in banana leaves under the shade of a tree. When the sun cooled down in the early afternoon, work resumed, this time using the spare carabao. The plowing continued until early evening, longer when there was a moon. We little boys would go home in the early afternoon because the spare carabao was no longer needed at that time.
On the way home, we would stop to pick camote tops, a few eggplants and tomatoes to go with the kangkong and snails we had earlier gathered.
But while pasturing the carabaos, we always had sugarcane to chew on.
In the evenings, the older boys went serenading. I went with them. We came to know pretty girls in the barrios and they liked having boys from Manila as friends.
Young as I was, I came across a girl my age in a house hidden by talahib growths. When not in the fields with the farmers, I wandered through the clumps of talahib where I found surprising things. Sometimes I found birds’ eggs in nests hidden in the grass, occasionally with hatched chicks; sometimes I surprised a bird sitting on her nest. During one of these wanderings, I heard the sound of a pestle pounding on a mortar.
I followed the sound and came upon a clearing with a house and a kamalig. A girl about my age was pounding rice in a mortar. I approached and said hello. She responded with her own greeting but continued her work. I watched for a while, then took another pestle and joined her in pounding rice. I had learned how to do it with up to three persons pounding in the same mortar.
She was eating a boiled camote and without a word she broke it in half and gave one piece to me. I took it and also without a word began eating it while pounding. From time to time, she expertly scooped with her hand the palay in the mortar to expose its other side to the pestle.
We continued pounding, barely talking, until her mother arrived with a basket on her head and a cigarette in her mouth, the lighted end inside. “This is one of the boys from Manila,” she told her mother. Obviously they had heard of us. The three of us talked while eating camote.
They asked me how we were, how we came to their barrio, and how life was in the city. I told them as much as I knew.
After that, I visited her as often as I could and we became friends. Her name was Guadalupe.
One day someone came running, shouting in Kapampangan: “The Americans are here, down in the river!” We rushed to the river and there they were, bathing naked in the waist-deep water, using their helmets to pour water over their heads. A soldier with a carbine perched on a rock, watching out for Japanese snipers.
The GIs camped there during the night. They must have left in a hurry very early the next morning because they left so much stuff in and beside their foxholes: plenty of canned goods, some still in boxes, a bayonet, even a hand grenade.
We gathered everything. That day, it was like a fiesta in the barrio as we ate canned goods we had not tasted in more than a year.
The Americans later made camp near the barrio beside the highway, and many of the local folk found employment washing uniforms, keeping the camp clean, running errands, and serving as assistants. My big brother attached himself to an officer and tagged along in a jeep or a weapons carrier whenever he was needed.
One day my brother came home to tell us: “The Americans are in Manila.” Not long after that, we returned home to Malabon, this time riding in a six-by-six truck. Our house had shrapnel holes from mortar rounds. It was fortunate that we had left, or one or more of us could have been killed or wounded.
I was too young to realize that then. But that interlude in a barrio in Tarlac was the most wonderful vacation I ever had.
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