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Coming Home

However, I would always snap out of this dreamy state in a sort of “What were you thinking?” way. As I look back, the last time I spent a night in Pagalungan was nowhere near idyllic.

I have vague recollections of the last time I was home. When I say “home” I’m not referring to the two-bedroom bungalow in Davao that my partner Mogley and I and our nine cats inhabit, but the place where I spent my childhood, in the rural town of Pagalungan, Maguindanao. A few months ago I attended the funeral of an aunt on my father’s side in the neighboring town of Pikit, and upon returning to Davao I made a quick stopover to check my mother’s house. The house, built in the 1980s and not ancient by anyone’s standards, is a catastrophe waiting to happen. Termites have chomped on pretty much of the timber; the columns and beams have been reduced to the tensile strength of Styrofoam. The house is highly combustible, with yellowed textbooks and magazines and old clothes and furniture sitting quietly around the house. A ban should be imposed on matches, flints, lighters, magnifying lenses, and everything that can start fire. The structure is so fragile that a wolf can huff and puff and blow it apart in five seconds. When you’re inside the house a single inhalation of the musty air is enough to induce violent bronchial spasms. 

My parents have been planning a major renovation for years, but none of their children have any intention of becoming its permanent resident. Not even in the near future. It’s only on rare occasions—when I’m fed up with the complications of city living—that I entertain the thought of returning home. Life cannot be simpler. I can wake up early in the morning, have a cup of Pamugon’s thick coffee, walk around the poblacion and watch people go about their daily routine, perhaps drop in at a cousin’s house to exchange news and gossip, and inhale a whiff of the sweet-scented frangipani on my way back to the house to read a book or write. I can grow vegetables and herbs in the backyard. I can collect fresh chicken eggs each morning, even pick dozens of ripe tamarind that fall on the ground almost every day. Fruit trees are everywhere. Freshly extracted juice from the guyabano or balimbing can keep the heat at bay, and don’t forget the smelly but yummy durian for dessert. For afternoon treats, plantains can be turned into greasy plil, deep fried balls made from mashed banana and tapioca, or sangkurat, the Maguindanaon version of minatamis na saging. Tenants can deliver a sack of rice from the farm, and, since I’m not much of a rice eater, the rice can last until the next harvest season. However, I would always snap out of this dreamy state in a sort of “What were you thinking?” way. As I look back, the last time I spent a night in Pagalungan was nowhere near idyllic.

“Soldiers entered the interior barangays last night,” our housekeeper told me. The town is highly militarized. Government troops slip in and out, and, with the presence of Moro rebels –with camps everywhere, after all, the town sits on the Liguasan Marsh— there’s always a possibility that war can erupt anytime. 

The unfinished cement houses that dot the town are the fruits of OFW remittances. The people left behind are those who do not have the luxury of a second choice...

Bandits find sanctuary here. When I was growing up cattle rustling was their game. Now they rob gasoline stations in neighboring towns and run here for cover. Politicians and warlords, too, have their private armies. 

Like the rest of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, development comes at turtle pace. The only functional government infrastructures are the long stretch of national highway and the municipal government building, which was built during my mother’s term as mayor in the 1980s. Credit should be given to NGOs and donor agencies for constructing boat landings, warehouses, solar dryers, school buildings, and community centers. The local government is incapable of providing basic social services. Who do we blame? The Internal Revenue Allotment is already insufficient to support a decent lifestyle for the wives of our local leaders. My mother once commented that, “The next town collects taxes better. Why can’t do we it here?” She was referring to a small town—still in its infancy—which was carved out of Pagalungan only a few years ago. 

“Who do we collect taxes from?” I threw back a question to my mother. Almost all the income earners—my family included— have left town many years ago. They’ve built houses and started families in cities, and sent their children to the best private schools they can afford.

“There are only three reasons people still come back. One, they’re employed in the town’s public schools or the municipio. Two, they still have properties here, and, three, there are other family members around.” For several residents, poverty has forced them to seek gainful employment in foreign lands, mostly working as domestic helpers. The unfinished cement houses that dot the town are the fruits of OFW remittances. The people left behind are those who do not have the luxury of a second choice: farmers who continue to till the earth without assurance of a bountiful harvest (or in case war erupts, the opportunity to gather their produce), felons evading the law, and war refugees in a perpetual game of patintero with war and destiny. 

On most nights the town is covered in total darkness. You can’t depend on the electric cooperative for their services because, generally, the residents do not pay their dues, and illegal connections overwhelm electric lines. Halogen lamps in the national highway have long been put out of use. Hoodlums made them their convenient target during shooting practice.

I still have vague recollections of the last time I was “home.” But in rare moments that I stray into my hometown by some force of circumstance, I always find time to take photographs of the red house where I spent my childhood. And suddenly, I find a reason to be there, transporting me back to the summers of my childhood, holding a fishing rod in my hand, waiting for the inevitable, the unpredictable, in the clear waters of the pond at the back of my house.

© Gutierrez Mangansakan II

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