When friends and relatives learned that my family was coming to Manila for a vacation, we received several e-mails from them inviting us to stay in their homes, visit their resorts in Antipolo and in Tagaytay, and in Baguio City. A close friend and schoolmate in college offered a fishing trip somewhere in Southern Tagalog -- Anilao, Batangas, I hope -- and I am so looking forward to this one. So much so that I bought a fishing reel off of eBay so that I could test it during the fishing trip.
The last time I went night-fishing in Anilao, Batangas must have been in the very early 70s, with my outdoorsman father, just a few months before he succumbed to a massive heart attack in December 1972. The declaration of Martial Law by President Marcos must have contributed to his early demise. He was 58, and he was working as a dental technician for a dental clinic on trendy Escolta St. in Manila. Back then, open heart surgery technology was in its infancy, and my father could not have benefited from that even if he wanted to simply because we could not afford it. And so he passed, just like his older brothers and sisters later from a common ailment in the clan: heart disease and hypertension.
My father was a consummate outdoorsman. He loved hunting and fishing, and was one of the few dudes in our barrio of Caingin, San Rafael, Bulacan that owned an imported Winchester 22 caliber rifle, back when P.B. Dionisio, the only importer of American firearms, brought them into the country from the United States. When I reached seven years-old, my father taught me how to handle and shoot that 22 caliber rifle safely. One morning, he took me and my older brother, Kuya Leo, to our backyard, at the banks of the irrigation canal (rampa) that brought water to the tumana (produce farms) on the other side. He had arranged a few bamboo sticks, two inches wide, some 15 yards from where I sat holding the rifle, and I remember hitting those sticks one-by-one, sitting on my butt, without missing one. The Winchester had a Weaver scope, making target acquisition much more convenient for my young eyes.
That rifle accounted for hundreds and hundreds of dalag (mudfish), which were plentiful in the water in the canal, and edible birds, like wild pigeons (bato-bato) shore birds like kanduro, which were plentiful in the mountains and on the shores of the rivers of Bulacan, and bayawak (large, edible lizards), which thrived in the bamboo groves at the river edge of our backyard. The canal, just in case you are wondering, was about ten to fifteen feet deep, depending on the season. It was swollen in the rainy season. Back then, the water was clear and greenish, and harbored mudfish, ulang (crayfish) and catfish (hito), and many other edible marine species. But my papa harvested mudfish the most because their manner of existence made them easier targets for the Winchester rifle. Every now and then, the dalag would surface from the depths, either to scope his surroundings or to get a whiff of fresh oxygen. And that's the moment for my papa to whack them with a 22 caliber bullet. He did not even have to hit them squarely, as even the report of the firearm was enough to stun and render them immobile.
My duty, which I performed with a little bit of fear, was to dive to the bottom of the rampa and retrieve the "dead" mudfish. One summer day, my papa and I went hunting for mudfish, and we walked a few kilometers downriver to "Luwasan," which is to say, in the direction of Manila. When we found our favorite spot on the bank, papa, who was a nimrod, began shooting the surfacing mudfish all throughout the morning, and I would dive every five minutes to retrieve the kills.
On that day, we brought home enough medium-sized and fully-grown dalags to fill one banyera (large basin), and that kept my mother busy the rest of the day, cleaning and dressing the fish. To keep them longer, she made some of them into daing na dalag ( salted and dried in the sun), and she cooked the larger ones into pesang dalag, with pechay (bok choy), cabbage, potatoes, a dash of black pepper, thin slices of ginger, and stalks of spring onion. If you have not already tasted freshly-caught dalag, you have not really tasted excellent mudfish.
More recently, driven by a craving for dalag, I purchased one small mudfish from an Asian market in L.A., and made pesang dalag, but I was let down because the mudfish, imported from Vietnam and frozen, tasted so far off from the way the mudfish of my youth tasted, which was sweet, with the flesh flaky, not mushy like the imported mudfish from Vietnam and Thailand.
I plan to make a nostalgic visit to Barrio Caingin during my stay in the Philippines. Maybe, I would even take a jeepney to San Rafael, the sleepy town, northwest of our barrio. I had worked in this town's Catholic church as a sacristan (altar boy) back when Mass was still being said in Latin. Of course, that stint did not stretch for very long, as I found out life away from my family was no picnic. Despite the occasional tip when there was a baptism, working as a sacristan held no financial attraction to me. Besides, it was my papa's idea.
My youngest sister still lives with her large brood in Barrio Caingin, although she works in Manila. The barrio is only 56 kilometers from Manila (about 35 miles), and used to take one to one-and-a-half hours by Baliwag Transit, Victory Liner, and De la Fuente Lines. The latter bus line had its depot right in our barrio, and according to my father, we were related to the De la Fuentes, who lived in a big, two-storey Spanish-style house that was de riguer with wealthy citizens of Barrio Caingin.
My grandfather, Rafael Villaroman, although not as rich as when his family migrated from Nueva Ecija years before I was born, owned a similarly huge house with a large, dark silong (basement) where my cousins -- boys and girls -- and my brother and sister and I used to play taguan (hide-and-seek) on summer days. I learned how to puff my first cigarette in this silong, goaded by my more adventurous male cousins. I remember choking after my first inhalation.
The house had wide narra (Philippine mahogany) floorboards, a very large bedroom, a large dining room, and a capacious but dark dirty kitchen with a big banggerahan, where they stowed china and other dining utensils. The windows had capiz shell lenses. In the salas (living room) hang a large framed portrait of Tatang Rafael, wearing his revolutionary riyadilyo (Katipunan uniform). He died at a ripe old age of 96. If my computation was accurate, my Tatang was born during the same decade as our national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, in the late 19th century.
Our ancestral house is still standing in a lot so large (approximately 1.5 hectare) that it extended from the kamuning bush-lined two-lane blacktop main drag all the way to the eastern bank of the irrigation canal. It is planted with fruit trees, including santol, tsiko, atis, sampalok (tamarind), kamiyas, mango, balimbing (starfruit), guavas, and large avocados, which I liked. and kaymito, which I hated. My sister, whose house occupies a lot closest to the canal's bank, tells me that most of the fruit trees are still living and bearing fruits.
When we were young, my papa's older sister (Tiya Nena), used to sell the fruits of the santol, kaymito, tsiko, and tamarind trees to a merchant who arrived in large truck once a year to harvest the fruits off the trees with a long sungkit (large bamboo pole with a net at its tip). I guess, she made quite a bundle from the sales. We younger members of the Villaroman clan contented ourselves by bringing down the ripe santol fruits with our home-made tirador (slingshots) whenever we craved the sweet-and-sour, large-pitted fruits. We made sure, of course, that Tatang Rafael was asleep or out trading stories with our male neighbors on the papag (bamboo table) of the sari-sari store across from our house.
My father was in Manila working in his dental laboratory at Palomo Building off Azcarraga (now Claro M. Recto) the whole day, and he took the last Victory Liner or Baliwag Transit bus from its station in Divisoria to go home. He would arrive in Baliwag, some six kilometers from Caingin, before midnight, and to get home, he would hire a kutsero (rig driver) with a caretela (horse rig), which transported him to our house in a ponderous clip in about an hour. The jeepneys that plied the Baliwag to San Rafael route have long retired by this time.
On Friday afternoons, papa would walk over to the big Arranque Market on Azcarraga and buy several kilos of the best beef and lots of cabbage, string beans (sitaw), and potatoes (Burbank variety) for our traditional weekend nilagang baka (boiled beef) treat. He did the cooking himself, dumping the beef with bones with marrow in them, and the veggies in a very large stewing pot, and lovingly tending the wood stove until the boiled beef was fork tender. To keep the sitaw together, he tied them with a string, complete with a short handle so that he could retrieve them from the stew in one batch.
Last night, we bought a pack of short ribs and a pack of soup bones (with some meat on them) from our favorite Ralphs supermarket in Glendale. We've not had nilagang baka for about two weeks, and for us two weeks was a week too long without nilagang baka. I am chowing down on it as you are reading this blog. Bon appetit!