Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Down Memory Hole: Spending 3 Years in Old Manila

The 60’s ushered in a number of propitious events that electrified the world’s collective attention.  But for a wide-eyed probinsiano like me, the ensuing decade marked only unwanted changes that on the surface would be quite alien to the idyllic existence lived in a sleepy town.

I was abruptly moved to Manila from Cagayan de Oro to live with my father’s family on the latter months of 1959.  Just out of high school and having earned a year of college, I was set to continue my interrupted studies in fabled Manila.

For the trip, I was tasked not only to take care of myself but also of a younger sister who needed medical attention in Manila.

Since it was my first trip to Manila, there was obvious unease and discomfiture during the trip.  The 3-day boat trip did provide sufficient idle time to mull over the coming new existence.  On arrival, only a few moments of apprehension were expended since my older brother did arrive on time to fetch us.  After a  confusing jeepney drive through unfamiliar streets, I found myself at my father’s rented flat nestled in old Malate, a quiet bedroom-community, which formed part of old Manila.

That would be home for me for the next 3 years in which time I would earn my first bachelor’s degree.  This labored recollection then is about this inauspicious place of existence which grudgingly does have lasting impressions on me, not so much for its grandiosity and grand experiences, but as testament to how humanity can live, or survive, which is the more apt term, with so little of the usual amenities many families take for granted.

For a start, here are three coarse sketches to enable one to zero in on where exactly is this place.  Looking at any map of old Manila, one easily finds the district of Malate, being only several kilometers from downtown Manila going south.  Its street names were mostly those of US states, and this we learned that that was because during the American occupation, mercenary troops from different states encamped in the same areas.  Many of the street names have been changed in the interim.

My father’s rented flat was inside a fenced compound, which was bounded on two sides by two streets.  One side faced or opened into noted Remedios St. which to this day I hear continues to be a popular avenue to visit. Based on today’s standards, its rows of about ten two-storey timber houses would be considered as decrepit and low class.  Aged in looks and short on maintenance.

Our flat was on the ground floor of the elevated building, which stood on exposed timber posts atop concrete piers.

It was partitioned in a typical fashion, 3 bedrooms with one closet that could double up as ironing room, or even sleeping room.  And only one toilet and bath and whatever leftover space as living/dining room.

I recall to add needed space, my father had spent a little sum to add an outside open terrace on the side, where chairs could be located.  And we could hang out during warm nights

The entire place as described would be at any given time home to at least 12 people, and at times as many as 18 people.  While the number may surprise people, those who lived on it know exactly how we all fitted in doing everything needed, like a place to sleep, to eat, to converse, to watch tv, and yes, even to attend to bathroom needs including taking a bath or shower.

Whether because there was just too many of us, or maybe because the place was just too old and in neglectful disrepair, we had always experienced clogs in the sole toilet and bath that needed assistance coming from the compound’s office.   No doubt, we had become friends with the people sent to our place, given the number we had had to deal with them.  This prompted one of our intermittent residents to name the flat, the MV Barado.  And we all had a hearty chuckle when we heard this.

The room assigned to us was Room 3, and we were all boys in there.  Two double-decks were flushed to the sides, and a foldable cot would still have enough space in the middle.  For a study desk, another older brother had assembled together parts of an old wooden “baol” nailed to the window jamb.  So a total of 5 occupants to our room, all of us still schooling.  How we managed to study under such trying conditions is still a wonder.  We all did accomplish what we had willed to, that older brother even finishing difficult medical school some time later in the future.

Seven other children called that home, too. And they were all crammed in another room, Room 2, a bit bigger but not much bigger, or big enough. And most if not all of them went to school, too.

Under this mish-mash of conditions, this microscopic place was always a frenzied beehive of activity, noise, and interaction.  Not a moment of serene quiet or inactivity.  Somehow, like a colony of ants, rarely were the incidents of conflicts, crashes, and even incidents of sorrow and/or despair.   We just all dropped our heads, did what was needed to be done, and plodded on to the next day.  Until years had been accumulated and crossed out.

By the way, all this put together and made possible by the financial inputs of one man, my father, who was the only member of the extended household who had a permanent job.  He was an attorney for the biggest government commercial bank in the country.  One attorney in a Legal Department that had a slew of lawyers working there.   Since I had on one occasion peeped at his paycheck, I could testify to the miraculous way that he had been able to keep us all together.  The amount involved even in my youthful estimation barely sufficient to cover rent and food.

After those 3 eventful years, my father decided to uproot lock, stock, and barrel, and move back to Cagayan de Oro.  And this we all did, riding in one slow boat back to the old hometown.

Everything ended, but for the stubborn memories of those trying years eking out an existence in some strange land.