“Yo no hablo de venganzas ni perdones, el olvido es la única venganza y el único perdón.”—Borges
After more than a decade, I was on my way back to the island of my birth—Ticao, in Masbate. Its isolation has always been palpable to us who have left it. But to its inhabitants, like in San Fernando, the town of my grandparents is as much a land that remembers itself as a land. To forget its “landness” is to be swallowed by the sea, and be forgotten.
No one forgets an island. A town gets richer and turns into a city; a city becomes a capital. The shifts banish a place of simple life as people embrace the wealth of progress. Small islands isolated from the bigger land are not given the grace to change. It must do so much for its terrain and territory to change.
To go back to an island therefore is always a journey to the past. Imagined past. It is for me.
There are, however, changes after all. When before, it was always in the town of Bulan that we took off as we left the mainland before crossing, this time it was by way of Pilar, still in Sorsogon. Some 20 years ago, we managed to cross Ticao Pass in kumpit, motorized boats with outriggers. They are banned already. In their place are ferries that could carry a number of vehicles, big and small.
As it happened, arrival on the island was through another town, San Jacinto, and not San Fernando. Upon docking at the port, we were whisked off to a home where the Mayor, Francisco Altarejos, was holding court as his staff edited the program for the fiesta. The mayor was the perfect host, a raconteur and wine was offered to us. But we had to leave.
This particular trip had two purposes: to conduct a film education workshop in San Jacinto for selected teachers as arranged by the principal of Bagahanglad National High School, Henry Lumbero Macabuhay. I was also there on the island to coordinate events for the 2nd Bikol Book Festival under the National Book Development Board, Ateneo de Naga University Press and Savage Mind.
How far is San Fernando from San Jacinto? What time do we wake up in the morning if we were to be there in San Fernando at 8 in the morning? A letter has arranged a meeting with the young town leader, Mayor Byron Bravo. We could not be late.
The good principal had made available for me his car.
The town of San Jacinto woke up early. The sun was up at 6 in the morning. Coming into the principal’s home at almost 8 in the evening, we spent the first dinner in that home on a porch, where we looked down on tall trees. The next morning, we saw we were in a house built on higher ground compared to other homes. But we were not prepared with what the open windows of the house offered us—a strip of the bluest sea was hemmed in by the land on either side, creating a narrow channel where lazy boats floated.
The breakfast was good and quick. Henry was kind enough to move the dried fish away from me, an island boy who does not eat fish.
Driving to San Fernando, we passed by ponds around which hovered old mangroves and low-lying hills. The pavement eased down always to the sea or to a body of water, lime green as it moved farther into the woods.
The sign above the police outpost stated the name of San Fernando. We were that fast? Are we just near?
As a child, I recalled how San Jacinto and San Fernando were considered very far from each other. That distance—13 kms—made no sense that day. The curving roads slowed down the driving but the two towns could have been villages linked to each other.
Gone in one day my memories of a distant town where death and sustenance supplied its fame. There was no hospital then in San Fernando and when a loved one was brought to the hospital in San Jacinto, that always elicited quiet sobs or hysteria. Was he dying? And when indeed a dead body returned from the said hospital, death became remembered as linked to the old town. In the same way, a particular kind of bread—Pan Navarro—assured everyone the two towns were on eating terms, if not on speaking terms, with each other.
That day—my second—on the island, I was back in the town of my birth. I went around, going first to the old church, its age a mere remembrance. A new structure is in place. The Aligada bells, donated by the family of the same name, and fashioned from the Fundacion Sunico, were still there. The said foundry was the maker of the bells found in many old heritage houses across the country.
Why would this small town with its small church be gifted with such an important bell?
Many years ago, in May, a visit to the same church always brought us to a grandmother, Lola Diday, she with her lyric soprano, busy teaching young girls and boys the song for the Flores, a dedicatory rite for the Blessed Virgin. The women of the family were singers. With our own grandmother, Emilia, was another grandaunt, Ambrosia. During Holy Week, their newest acquisition were black, simple dresses, as dolorous as the sorrow of the Mary whose loss they fleshed out with their dulcet voices.
They are all gone now. Some in graves younger kin could never visit. But we remember them as we remember this island. As Borges has once said, let me not speak of vengeances nor of forgiveness; to forget is the only revenge and the only forgiveness as well.