The small town became the center of my universe until I was nine. We lived in the sentro (town center), where electricity was available only for a few hours each night. We didn’t have a TV set or a telephone, but we did have the luxury of owning a radio. It was an amazing toy because we could hear broadcasts from as far away as Taiwan and China. Ballesteros also had one movie house that showed a Tagalog film twice or thrice a week.
While agriculture was the town’s main industry, fishing was also big since Ballesteros is on the coast of South China Sea. The sea was the town’s main attraction: We went on picnics on the beach, strolled on the sand, or watched the sunset. We children would help the fishers haul in their huge nets, and would be rewarded with a handful share of their catch of the day.
When the tides ebbed, a small shellfish called gakka, would be left in the sand. Gakka is a culinary delight endemic to few coastal towns of Cagayan. Fishers would wade into the waist-deep seawater and scoop the gakka out of the sand, using a basket with a bamboo handle called taku.
Cooking the gakka was simple. Boiling water was poured over the gakka and immediately drained. Then, the shells were ready to be opened.
The sea in Ballesteros was also the source of local myths and legends. Grandaunt Inding told us stories about a mermaid that would appear to one good-looking guy in town. But the sea was also feared by the townspeople. The children were discouraged from swimming because at least one person drowned every year.
There was, however, no escaping the presence of the sea in our lives. At night as I lay in bed, I could hear the sound of the waves, lulling me to sleep.
Small Town Life
Being a small town, the layout of Ballesteros was easy to figure out. There were three schools in the sentro. The two private high schools were on the opposite ends of the sentro, whereas the public elementary school was on the far north toward the sea. The marketplace, bandstand, municipal hall, open-are auditorium, tennis court and Roman Catholic church were within walking distance of each other.
There were few motor vehicles. Generally, people in Ballesteros at the time walked to their destination. Or one could take a kalesa, a two-wheeled horse-drawn carriage. The trip was usually slow, which was fine with me because I loved observing people and houses along the way.
Some of the houses caught my attention, especially those with signs on their facades. The signs advertised the professions of the residents, in some cases, even if they no longer lived in those houses. Ballesteros professionals then were limited to three types: medical doctors, attorneys-at-law, and certified public accountants.
The townspeople of Ballesteros knew how to have irreverent fun. The town honored the dead on All Saints’ Day. At 12 midnight of November 1st, people guarded their material possessions because “spirits” might steal them. The next day, the stolen stuff, such as ladders, crosses from the cemeteries, and large earthen jars called burnay, would appear at a street corner, where the burglary victims could get them back. Although they were not pleased, the owners did not complain because the “crime” was a tradition.
Our family stayed with Grandaunt Inding in a nipa-roofed house that was built in the ‘40s. We knew this because the date of construction was painted on one of the beams. My mother would talk about her own family’s house that was located in the same lot but near the commercial street of Ballesteros. It was burned down during World War II.
From Grandaunt Inding’s house, which was a few steps away from one of the private high schools, we could hear a teacher giving a lecture or students booing their classmates. Grandaunt Inding would mutter to me, “Those are disrespectful students. I hope you and your siblings would go to a better high school in Manila.”
From the window, I would watch the high-school students pass by. I noticed everything about them and would not hesitate to give our a comment. My mother described me as a “prying” child, even at age four or five. For example, when I saw a boy and a girl walking together, I would holler to the girl in Ilocano. “Manang (an appellation for an older sister or female), is he your boyfriend?” The girl would usually say, “No, ading (an appellation for a younger person), we’re just friends.”
The high-school students did their physical-education exercises in the street. I would watch them while sitting on gigantic logs, which were, I later learned, the horrifying results of deforestation. Back then, however, my playmates and I had fun climbing up the logs and feeling like we were on top of the world.
My mother was a hardworking woman, She was a nurse at the National Orthopedic Hospital in Mandaluyong, a suburb of Manila. In Ballesteros, she was a homemaker and a self-employed entrepreneur. She did other women’s hair, raised turkeys, and had a thriving business selling potted bougainvilleas from our garden.
In the early ‘60s, the market days in Ballesteros were Thursdays and Sundays. I would sometimes accompany my mother when she went to the market. It wasn’t always fun because she wouldn’t buy my fantasies on having oodles of toys. She always emphasized that our family should live within our means, a veritable example of the Ilocano people’s trait of thriftiness. I was therefore forced to be resourceful.