It’s become almost a ritual to spend much of December in the province, and this year it just seemed like the best idea to escape Manila, not just because of the Christmas traffic, but because of the culture of consumption fashioned around this season.
Sure, we refuse to get involved in this enterprise; and yes, we can disengage. But you have to admit that the reunions and parties demand of one an amount of money, and time, both of which one might not have a lot of.
All the way in Tiaong, Quezon, disengagement becomes real, also because in such an undeveloped town, one realizes that Christmas is still celebrated differently, in calm and quiet mostly, where even the noise is provincial.
Over the stretch of time we were in the house my great grandparents built, and which has been rehabilitated by family the past three years, prayers were periodically blasted over the loud speakers from the church nearby. It was always unclear what the prayers were for, but like a novena, it happened every hour on the dot for much of the afternoon. On Sunday, the whole Mass was heard over the speakers, too.
No one seemed to mind the intrusion into the otherwise uneventful afternoons of this town, and yet not once did I see people stopping to hear the prayers that were being blasted for the whole town to hear. And while at first it was disconcerting, soon enough it became but white noise to the tasks that filled our days.
Certainly this was not as quiet as this town usually is. Yet the ritual of prayer was a welcome replacement to the videoke parties and construction noise, the sounds of heavy traffic and uproar of impatience, we would be subjected to in the city.
The church bells would chime at certain hours in the afternoon, with a rhythmic tolling, a musical piece, one that became more and more familiar every day.
At 3:30AM the bells would toll, this time to wake up the town for the Simbang Gabi masses at 4:00 and 5:00AM.
Of course the Manileña living in the center of town was just about getting ready to sleep as the bells rang, and after a couple of days it became the signal that my day was over, just as the rest of this sleepy town was waking up to prayer and ritual, faith and Christmas.
As soon as the sari-sari stores open and the noise of tricycles and motorcycles fill the streets, so will the neighborhood kids begin lighting up small firecrackers – less than a five-star, but more than a watusi.
We would shout from the window and ask them to light their paputok elsewhere, far from our walls. But it seems their parents have asked them to do it elsewhere far from their walls, too.
The elders of the neighborhood chime in: stop with those firecrackers, nakakaistorbo kayo! Nanay implored them: may nakatirang matanda rito!
Nasaan po? One of the kids asked.
Rarely inhabited for long stretches of time, this town is used to having this house to themselves, which is to say they are able to use its outside walls for whatever purpose it might serve at any given time. It is apparently the perfect place to light a firecracker and run, for one thing. But also, it is the best place to take down passengers from a tricycle, and the parking lot of choice for cars and motorcycles, given the shade it provides from the sun.
One knows it is a curious site to have people in this house, and the urban legend of ghost and spirit sightings can only be in the back of their heads. You know this when you sit by the window on your first day and people on the street take a second, third, look. Working in the sala one evening in the past, with the windows wide open, I smiled at the curious teenagers walking down the street and heard one of them say: Sabi ko sa’yo totoong tao eh!
On our first day at the house, I walked to the statue of Elias de Tayabas slaying the crocodile – as per Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere – and two little boys no more than eight years old, looked through the gate and gaped at me like I was a ghost.
The ghosts of this house we’ve inherited from family is far from being scary, especially if one compares it to the ghosts of the 2015, a year that has been difficult in many ways, for nation and too many among us. It’s not just the tragedies and disasters, as it might be the discourse that likes to make us believe that we are okay, that we are better off than we were last year, or the year before that.
We know that is not true, no matter what those government numbers say. Because those of us who actually live in nation with eyes wide open, those of us who talk to manong drivers and SM salesgirls, those of us who have the ability to imagine the working conditions in factories across the country, those of us who spend time speaking with the Lumad, we know that the numbers do not stand for what it’s like to live here and now.
One cannot overstate the impossibility of conditions that have everything to do with inequality and injustice, with the majority getting so little and a minority acquiring much.
All year, has felt how little has changed. On Christmas, with the celebrations and the magnified bounty, with hearts more charitable for those who have less, with reminders of Christianity’s notions of sharing and giving, and in this tiny town of Tiaong where Christmas is still celebrated differently, and simply, one does not forget of need. And hunger.
As children we had this tongue twister that went: Pasko, paksiw, pasko, paksiw, pasko, paksiw.
Paksiw, any day.