Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Growing Up By the Malabon River

Growing Up by the Malabon River

The first house my family ever lived in was by the river, the Malabon River. We lived at my fraternal grandmother's house located in the fishing town, Malabon, which was about 20 minutes without traffic from Manila. My grandmother lived on the first floor while my family occupied the second floor. In fact, my uncle who was single when we were staying at this house also occupied a room on the floor where we were.

The house was located on the same compound that had then and even now the bottling facilities of the fish sauce company my grandmother who I called Nanang founded and which flourished in the hands of her five sons and two daughters. We lived in this house in the fifties till I was ten years old.

I remember a flat large deck on this second floor where our labandera or laundress would hang wet clothes on clotheslines to dry.  As young children I remember eating fried chicken on the wide window sill in front of this deck during which one of my brothers, Benjie, would be throwing the chicken bones to a rat (or two) for it to eat.  He found pleasure watching them gnaw on the bones while they were trapped in an inverted waste basket made of wire with holes in it. However, he discovered those rats could squeeze themselves out through those small openings easily once they were full and escape. This was one of the ways we found to amuse ourselves during our stay in this house.

For me I entertained myself by watching the various vehicles that passed through this river. From large fishing boats called lantsa to small ones ran by motor or by hand. The ones that fascinated me the most were the bamboo rafts that "parked" across our house for two or three days.  The raft had a little igloo shaped structure made of nipa which was just big enough for the fisherman to sleep in at night or shelter himself from rain.  Once they found the right spot for fishing, I always admired how these men skillfully maneuvered the rafts in place onto a post with their long bamboo poles.

These fishermen looked so peaceful and zen like in their movements.  Everything they did seemed more like they were on vacation rather than making a living. Whatever they caught did not seem much to me either and were deposited in woven baskets with covers. Once filled they would set out to go back to their homes.They apparently knew the meaning of enough.

I always pictured the scene of these fishermen in their bamboo rafts like they were taken from one of the paintings of the great Filipino painter, Amorsolo. They were iconic and pure and truly represented the Filipino life then which was simpler and less hectic than today.

The river was more than a place for boats to travel or for people to catch fish during those times in the fifities when the river water was still clean and free of pollution.  During the month of December, exactly on December 9, a fluvial parade featuring a pagoda on a barge was held to celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception which is the patron saint of this part of Malabon where we lived. This custom is continued to this day and I believed was and might still be sponsored by the company my Nanang Fina established. I remember days before the pagoda set sail, people from the factory planning, building and decorating it especially the focal point where the statue of the Blessed Mother would be perched. For photos of the fluvial parade. you can visit this website Chasing Philippines,

The statue of the Blessed Mother was carried on the shoulders of several men who transported it to the pagoda starting from the church with people in a procession on foot.  The pagoda by that time would have been decorated with lights, flowers and balloons.

Also part of the day's fiesta celebration was the fireworks show that was actually performed across the river from our house on the shore of Navotas, the adjoining town to Malabon.  I remember as a child, fearing some of the relatively harmless remnants of the fireworks descending on me which I brushed off with my hand while screaming.

Before this show, we would eat a big feast attended by guests of my grandmother's seven children.  I remember several people on tables strewn around the compound feasting on the food prepared by cooks imported from another town.  My favorite dish served was the paella to which I compared every one I have ever eaten of this dish ever since.   Once we heard the blaring music from the pagoda we would run quickly from where we were eating and to the short wall that separated the grounds of the house from the river. We would try to fight for the space that had the best view of the beautifully decorated barge bearing the Blessed Mother.

Prayers recited in that monotone voice by the leader were also said and could be heard amidst the sound of the Ave Maria music and fireworks. After all this was more than a parade it was a religious procession except it was held water with the swarm of people packed like sardines moved by the boat rather than by walking.

The last time I attended the fiesta was in the early nineties with my two young children.  We were all suffering from jet lags being the first few days of our Philippine trip visiting from the United States. I remember still running when I heard the familiar sound signalling the pagoda was coming and I still jostled for the best spot to view it. I was glad my children were too sleepy to see me do these childish behaviours.

Glitzy as this fluvial parade is, my favorite memories of the river were still those of the vehicles that passed through it everyday. I would never forget the serenity of the fishermen in the bamboo rafts especially against the backdrop of the setting sun.  The ordinariness of these scenes of everyday life to me then and especially now is just as colorful as the fully decked out pagoda with all its pomp and pageantry. I am grateful for both the ordinary and extraordinary parts of my stay in the house by the river. I learned from both of them how my faith, culture and experience have shaped who I am now.

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