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‘Home’ on the pages of a book

On their way back to their base in Laoang, Northern Samar, writer-couple Romy and Jesselynn de la Cruz were aboard a habal-habal, a motorcycle retrofitted with a long plank of wood to accommodate more passengers, when their driver miscalculated his speed over a muddy road and threw off his passengers. Picking himself up and wondering where he could get help, Romy’s reverie was suddenly interrupted by his wife’s voice: “Where’s the camera? I want to record this moment—the lengths I go to for you and for this book!”

A disclosure: I have known Romy and Jess (her nickname in college, although she is known by her family as Bing) since our college days too many years ago. And I am familiar with how Jess’ voice could break the silence and the dark of a muddy rural road. The book she refers to is a coffee-table book titled “Northern Samar: Our Home,” a self-published tome written and researched by Romy (also known as Mio), edited by Jess, and published by the De la Cruz family as a loving tribute to their home province.

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Through full-color photographs and deeply-felt prose, Romy traces the history of Northern Samar and of Samar Island, which is better known to most Filipinos as the “gateway” to the many typhoons that besiege the country from the Pacific Ocean each year. “Samar” is also generically known as one of the poorest provinces in the country, even if it is officially today three provinces: Northern Samar, Eastern Samar and Western Samar. Through the years, “Samar” has suffered from a rather shabby reputation, considered by some as a place through which one merely passes through on the way to Leyte and the rest of the Visayas islands, or else as a hotbed of insurgency where the communist New People’s Army has maintained a foothold.

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But there is more to Samar—and Northern Samar—than one’s general knowledge would allow.

For one, the northern end of the island has always been considered distinct from the rest of Samar, having been known as “Ibabao” (above or on top) even before the arrival of the Spanish; then later simply as “Norte,” with its residents described as “Nortehanon.”

It also was the site of one of the earliest rebellions against the Spanish colonizers, led by a local called Agustin Sumuroy, who killed the Spanish Jesuit missionary Fr. Miguel Ponce Barberan, allegedly as part of a protest against Governor-General Diego de Fajardo’s orders to bring a sizeable force of natives to help out in the shipyards of Cavite.

Though other narratives question Sumuroy’s motives, his rebellion spread through the area and lasted for a year. He was done in, as has been the case with many uprisings against the Spanish, by his own relatives and followers who plotted with the Spanish to capture him. He was subsequently beheaded as punishment for his rebellion.

Also a little-known fact is that Northern Samar played an important role in the Galleon Trade, being “the first land mass to be seen by passengers on board a galleon bound for Manila, after a long and perilous sea voyage from Acapulco in Mexico that sometimes ended in tragedy.”

But after 250 years of lively and profitable trade, the galleons stopped plying the route, “no longer beneficial to the interests of Spain and the Philippines,” paving the way for the trade conducted by Chinese junks.

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Northern Samar is today composed of 20 towns in the mainland and four island-municipalities. The province’s capital is found in Catarman.

De la Cruz says he first hatched the idea of a book about Northern Samar when, as the publisher of a local newspaper, he made the rounds of the various towns and met many of their leaders, experienced the rush of its tourist attractions, and partook of its numerous local delicacies.

He proposed the project to his siblings, rashly promising to produce the book in a year, though it would take considerably longer for him to finally put out “Northern Samar: Our Home.”

Little did he know, he writes, of the many difficulties he faced: the rough roads, the rudimentary transportation, and the astonishing lack of knowledge of many local officials, some of whom ate up his time by perorating on local politics, which he tried earnestly to avoid.

But the book is as comprehensive a guide to Northern Samar as you could hope to find, with each town given its own section detailing its history and tourist sites. And indeed, as the photos testify, there is much in Northern Samar to appreciate: white or creamy beaches with amazing rock formations in the background; streams and rivers through pristine fields; historic churches and heritage homes; a smiling, friendly-looking people.

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For De la Cruz, the book was also a chance to get to know his home better, as well as to find long-lost relatives along the way.

Nortehanons, he says, are strongly drawn to their hometowns, lured by the annual fiesta that beckons with hospitality and memories.

“Constantly through life, I would hear my mother say ‘Uli kam (Come back home)’ to her seven children, who had been uprooted to Manila when their eldest sister enrolled in college. And indeed, he writes, over the past year or so crisscrossing Northern Samar, travelling around the towns, braving the land trails and waterways, I have come to understand where this home was to her—where it is to me.”

Home is the traveler, then, at least on the pages of this handsome book.

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