Mom’s home province, Albay, is a beautiful place. A seriously beautiful place. Not pretty, but beautiful. It’s dominated, as I said by Mount Mayon (“My own,” Not “Mae On”), the “most perfectly symmetrical volcano in the world.” That has always sounded to me like a Tourism Board grasping at straws for a superlative, but it’s true: Mayon is the perfectly-drawn volcano, even more perfect in form than Mount Fuji.
Unfortunately, though, two hours after our arrival, it decided to go into hiding and never show itself again. It was a wet Christmas. Our hotel is in Legazpi, about an hour south (30 miles) from mom’s hometown, Tiwi. Legazpi is one of only three cities in Albay, and it’s by far the biggest of the three. This is exactly how big it is. You’re looking at Legazpi from the airport to the suburbs and from the Philippine Sea to the foothills of Mayon.
Not exactly a metropolis. But it’s where Mom spent her formative years. She went to high school there (Albay High School, rah rah!), and because of the distance between Legazpi and her hometown of Tiwi, she roomed with (and was doted upon by) the faculty.
Once upon a time, the area outside the high school was completely clear, affording a perfect view of Mount Mayon. Now, there are trees, mini-malls, and additional, hideous, concrete additions to the campus, which is now Bicol University. Here’s a picture from mom’s graduation so you can see. Mom is third from the left.
The road to Tiwi is a two-lane highway. Well, we wouldn’t call it a highway. We’d call it a road. And (at least at Christmastime) it’s filled with Jeepneys (the elaborately decorated bus/taxis that are the national Philippine vehicle), tricycles (motorcycles with roofed sidecars), and pedicabs (tricycles with a bicycle in place of the motorcycle). Because many parts of the road are periodically disabled by little inconveniences like flooding and lava flow, the traffic periodically attains the ridiculousness one associates with Philippine transportation.
But the vast majority of the road is encircled by trees and rice fields. When we visited with my father in 1981, he was certain that my mother was taking him into the very depths of the jungle. Not so. But it’s certainly the sticks. The towns you encounter on the way to Tiwi (Santo Domingo, Malilipot, Tabaco, Malinao) are composed largely of dwellings made of cinderblocks, bamboo, tin roofs and reclaimed vinyl. The difference between these dwellings in Manila and the provinces seems to be that the vinyl reclaimed in Manila comes from Marlboro ads. The vinyl reclaimed in Albay comes from agricultural sacks.
Which is not to say you don’t encounter friendly faces. You might get, for example, to moo with a carabao, the Philippines’ ubiquitous beast of burden. You might even get to meet her daughter (don’t approach: carabao mothers are protective!)
The carabao are surrounded by friends: roosters and hens, goats, cows and geese, and through out the rice fields, snowy egrets feasting on the little frogs and things in the water.
First stop in Tiwi: mom’s ancestral home. Once upon a time, Mom’s house was one of the only two-storey structures in Tiwi. Her father, my Lolo Lino, was mayor for a while, and he brought in many innovations—some in his own house, like the first flush toilet. On the left is the Clutario house as it stood in the 1930s.
Today, time and termites and weather and mildew have taken their toll on the house. Nothing lasts forever in the tropics. In 1968, my Uncle Oriel had the upper story torn down after it was damaged in a typhoon. Now, the house is worse for wear, and only a few relics remain. The only part of the old house still standing is one sliding door. But the lot is still lovely, with vegetation taking up where architecture failed. This is now home to my Auntie Mina, the matriarch of the Clutario clan, and Lulu, one of her six children, who has built a lovely thatched-roof addition off to the side. It also houses (like many Filipino houses, some dogs and some very skinny (and very wary) kitchen cats.
Next stop, my cousin Victor’s house, which is built, like many modern provincial dwellings, entirely out of concrete. This saves it from the aforementioned architectural maladies. Victor built it himself, and it has three bathrooms (one for every bedroom). That may sound incidental, but it’s a huge luxury in these parts.
Victor, his wife, Mary Ann, his kids Mavic and Anthor, and their two Maltese dogs, Tim and Tom, gave us a beautiful luncheon of mud crab and local greens, tuna belly, tuna steaks in sour-soup, HUGE shrimps, ribs and rice. My mother was in heaven. Show that woman a mud crab and stand back. She starts to sing (see previous post).
This, gustatorily, was only a fraction of what was to come.
Reunion, Part One: Auntie Luly
The next stop was my Uncle Moring’s house. Uncle Moring is married to my mother’s sister, Olga, whom everyone calls Luly. When Auntie Luly’s health began to decline, Uncle Moring decided that it would be easier to find her caregivers in the Philippines, so he built her the grandest house in Tiwi.
Mom hadn’t seen Luly in ten years, and during that time, she changed a great deal. Luly was a firecracker. An indomitable woman. Now, she can’t walk or communicate much. She’s twelve years older than mom, and that twelve years feels like an eon to look at the two of them. She mostly speaks Bikol—she seems to have forgotten most of her English, even though she spent a huge part of her life raising her children in the States. But with some prompting, she remembered mom. And she’s very happy.
Seeing the two of them together again: fantastic.
That night, Cousin Lulu organized a fiesta for mom’s homecoming that was truly spectacular. They held it in the party space above the mini-mall that my Uncle Moring owns. Among the highlights: the entire Clutario clan in the Philippines—acres of them, much of the Corral clan (Uncle Moring’s family), a feast that, by Tiwi standards, was absolutely monumental.
Standouts: well, the lechon. The roast pig. Stop it. Just stop it. I guess no feast in the Philippines is quite complete without the lechon. It has been a standard joke of mine that the Philippines is the only country where pork fat is considered a sauce. That sounds like a slam, but it isn’t. Escoffier couldn’t do better.
Other standouts: There was karaoke. Okay, I’ve never done karaoke before, and I HATE being put on the spot in social situations. So I started with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Judy, right? Can’t fail.
Wrong. Lukewarm reaction. Especially when my cousins Bella and Gyro are rocking it out like Celine Dion. Okay… So Pete gives them his standard Karaoke go-to: “From Russia With Love.” Big hit. I can’t be outdone that way.
So I pull out something I’ve always wanted to sing but never quite had the cojones to do. Alicia Bridges’ “I Love the Nightlife (Disco Round).” This song is probably most famous for its use of the word “ACK-SHAWN!” which is meant to pass for “action.” I figure: white disco queen trying to be a Sassy Black Girl. Can’t fail, right?
Right. People start dancing. Thank you, Polydor records! This is especially heartening when Moring and Luly take the floor. They used to be a king and queen of the dance floor: Rhumba, Foxtrot, you name it. Their signature song was “Spanish Eyes.” Especially amazing considering that Moring is 94 years old and has moves better than anyone else at the party. ANYONE. Peter included. (Sorry, Pete. I know you want to be a ’60s Black Girl really bad.)
And that was just Christmas Eve. Christmas day coming right up…