Tuesday, December 28, 2010

CHILDHOOD MEMORIES: Spending Time Around Lepers

As a species we are wont to throwing around what we believe are truisms, like that as we get older and become adults we are at the same time losing the innocence of youth. But upon closer scrutiny that word,innocence,is quite heavily loaded with so many possible implications. Is innocence then inborn from childhood? All attributable to a child lacking the necessary experiences to make informed decisions? Or is it because a child’s perceptions of values or life experiences are still pristine and pure and untainted by the corrupting influences of adulthood?

In all likelihood it is all that and more.

But definitely a short and quick journey into the halcyon days of childhood could shed some more light.

This little journey therefore is undertaken with that in mind, an attempt to discover or re-discover the “innocence” that was in childhood.

As a mere “innocent” child of 6 or 7 years old, from a brood of 9 brothers and sisters, as deep as my recollections can reminisce I had the distinct privilege of being chosen the traveling companion of my dear doting grandmother who was widowed early and thus lived by herself in the beautiful island of Cebu.

Though my grandmother had a trusty companion in the house who had been with her since her younger years, she had need for somebody to be with her when she went avisiting her one married daughter who had lived away from afar, first in Manila and then to some remote island in Palawan. Her other daughter, my mother, though had also lived away from her could be reached by an overnight boat trip that she could handle on her own. One other daughter, the 3rd and the last of her children, had married a US Air Force veteran and was living in the US. So visiting her was out of the question.

I had surmised that as a young innocent I wasn’t expected to be fully aware of the grave responsibilities a traveling companion for an elderly lady had. Still I found myself summarily shipped off with no hustle to Cebu so I could join her for that long trip which with delight turned out to be very eventful and memorable.

The trip as planned was for an extended visit to a remote island in Palawan, called Culion, which was operated by the government as a leper colony – away from the peering notice and noisy bustle of normal community life. My grandmother’s son-in-law and my uncle was a dermatologist or skin doctor permanently assigned to the colony. His family had lived within the vicinity of San Lazaro Hospital in Santa Cruz, Manila. The hospital was and I believe continues to be the premier hospital in the entire country for diseases of the skin. Thus, my uncle most probably decided on his career as a result of exposure to the hospital and its work. During those times being a doctor was akin to entering the priesthood and carried with it the same respect and admiration from the citizenry. It was considered an alternate kind of priesthood where the concerns were of the body rather than the soul. And as kids we all had held my uncle in quiet respect and with the same high esteem accorded priests, idolizing him for his selfless work among lepers and for doing so under grave threat to his own welfare and health.

Given the generous accommodations and liberties he had in the island made me believe that he was one important doctor in that colony, maybe even the main doctor. Very recently I learned that in the 30's Culion was the biggest leper colony in the world housing over 16,000 patients.

And our sojourn may have been an extended visit not by design but because of the inherent difficulties in getting in and out of the island. To get to Culion one had to start in Manila in order to catch a boat going to Palawan with stopover in the island. And trip schedules were not very often, maybe dictated by the economic needs in Palawan and that of the leper colony.

Anyway after that boat trip to Cebu, I was on a boat again with my grandmother bound for Manila. In Manila we were met and billeted by some of her relatives, in wait for the boat that would bring us to Culion.

Granted that boats then were no luxury-liner types, but the boat we took for Palawan was definitely worse. The local shipping industry then made use of warships either left by the departing Americans or given to the government as reparations. They were generally unkempt, dirty, smelly, and congested with passenger cots lined up on the decks. I suppose the best among this odd lot were used to service the more-traveled routes. They were freight ships commissioned as ferry boats. But then we did not know any better, thus for me it could have been the regal Queen Mary of its time.

You board on shaky gangplanks, commandeer some dirty unwashed cots for your use, and essentially wait for departure time which was when the boat’s business was done. In the meantime, there is frenzied activity all around, with burly and smelly stevedores heavy with oversized luggage on their shoulders and assorted passengers with bulky packages and children in tow. And outside the docked boat in the dimly-lit pier you hear the incessant creaking of steel booms loading cargoes into the boat’s cavernous hulls.

It is only when things start to get settled and some semblance of quiet is restored that one, even a small child, can begin to observe more intently the suddenly unfamiliar surroundings. And since my grandmother was not talkative one was left to play with one’s idling thoughts as one looked around one’s limited ken. At that age like a good guard dog one simply sat as close to the old lady, trying hard to sit still and not be moving around.

One then begins to notice the assorted passengers crowdedly encircling your little space, crammed as it is with your own luggage. While observing all and sundry, a child especially tries to evade eye contact and thus disguises his own curiosity from other prying eyes. Though in this instance the people around were just as careful in evading eye contact. It is then that some itchy realization dawns on a young inexperienced mind. Many of them do not look like me or my grandmother. Somehow certain parts of a picture are missing. Some fingers are missing, parts of the nose are not there, and the ears especially have been ground close to the face. And the skin all look like those of very old people, badly wrinkled and mottled, though some were not that old.

Suddenly the boat’s shrill whistle breaks not only whatever silence or subdued noise there was but all activities inside the boat. It is the loud startling announcement that the boat is ready to leave. So all thoughts and activities turn toward the next phase of the trip – the days to be counted and endured before we see land. It was good because the attendant youthful concerns about the passengers were relegated to the background replaced by more pressing ones. Like, can we even get some sleep once the boat is at sea and starts to rock? What about food? There would be some food from the boat’s pantries, but my grandmother with her trusty companion had provided enough provisions to last the trip. What about toilet needs? Better try to postpone or risk having to walk on shaky decks and maybe throw up in the process.

And in celebration of still another oft-quoted truism, we got through all that with the firm hope and prayer that this too would pass. And it did.

And the lull occasioned by the long anxious wait for the boat to dock and unload from its belly the antsy passengers was yet another occasion to observe the assorted passengers, standing as close as they could to the exits that led to the gangplanks, loaded with packages and kids, and packed like sardines ready to burst at the seams.

They indeed looked different and the light of day made that even more so. But nobody made any mention. Not even my grandmother who always had something to occupy her time – prayers and reading of devotionals. I am sure she knew but found it not noteworthy enough that her traveling companion should be notified.

The following days and weeks, I believe we stayed there for at least two months, were happy, exciting, and memorable ones. Imagine a small kid from the province who was mostly housebound transported into a lush andverdant island that seemed like paradise. Like I said I believe my uncle was an important personage there because he had a very nice spacious house for his and his family’s use, and he was supplied with ample foodstuff like canned goods and other usual amenities like newspapers and yes, comic books. There were tennis courts nearby where the loud voices of players could be heard. The house was built close to the side of a mountain, facing toward the ocean and from there we could see the island’s small decrepit pier and beyond, the horizon. Even from a distance one could tell that people fished along the pier.

During our entire stay, I do not recall having visited inside the colony itself which was fenced and gated as far as I can recall. But aside from the leper colony itself and the staff houses in its own compound, there were other houses scattered throughout the island.

So we never had any direct contact with those who were still suffering from the disease, only the doctors and their staff I suppose.

So we had very good accommodations when we stayed with my uncle, maybe better than home. I particularly remember being called the Spam kid because of my strong proclivity for the product which has endured to this day. And as I kid I enjoyed even more the fact that there were comic books I could read, being very much attached to them during my entire childhood. They only negative if we can call it that that I could take away from the experience was that everything we touched there had the smell of antiseptic or Lysol. The packages you received, the news, the comic books, and maybe even the canned goods delivered to the house. And yes, definitely even the people who worked inside the colony. Anyway, as a kid I did not know enough for me to be bothered by it. But it was a constant reminder to all that we were in a different place.

There were also activities outdoors where I too participated, like a little jeep trip exploring the mountain by the back of the house and trips to the pier to enjoy the cool afternoon breezes and to be among fishermen as they fished with their backs turned to us.

One vivid recollection happened in this manner. As we were walking along the pier, I had veered a bit from the group and went near one of the fishermen whose back was turned. Though I had sidled as quietly as I could, he suddenly turned to look at me. And again that face that looked at me seemed different, that certain parts of a picture were missing. Again the missing digits, the snubbed nose and ears, etc. My uncle must have sensed my discomfort because I do recall somebody explaining that those fishermen and their families lived around the island. They were cured lepers who because of the social stigma could not return to their homes in hopes of picking up their former lives. So instead they opted to stay in the island where they were more accepted and could less obtrusively blend into the overall environment.

Before long our extended stay had ended and for the love of me I cannot recall anything about the trip back home. Though I can well remember the exciting times spent with my cousins and the youthful fun we had in that little island. My uncle was eventually returned to Manila and that ended any possibility of returning to the island.

Surprisingly after all these years, I cannot bring back any strong uneasy or fearful recollections about lepers and leprosy during that long past trip; and yet during those times, and maybe even today, sufferers of the disease were shunned socially – considered outcasts and isolated in very remote places away from sight and smell of the rest of the population.

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Credits for the pictures:
http://thecheenee.blogspot.com/2010/05/travel-culion-palawan.html

http://reesefernandez.wordpress.com/2010/02/15/my-up-engagement-story-and-a-strange-wonderland-on-top-of-the-mountain/

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