Butuan: My Hometown Story

by Mark F. Villanueva

Dating back to when I was young, at a time when almost everything came to me as news, I was dumbstruck to hear for the first time about the Zero Pilots of the Second World War. When my father told me how they intentionally crashed their warplanes into enemy territory during battle, rather than accept defeat, and that they did it for pride and absolute love for their country, my first question was, how big is Japan? How could you love something you could not even hug?

It was such good news to me as a kid that love was no longer proportionate to girth or reach; that it was bigger than anything. I said I was going to learn to love our huge gas stove at the bakery, our old Ford automobile, and our two-storey home at the corner of Gomez and M. Calo Streets. In my renewed notion of love, I actively mentioned random things we owned, according to size, in my prayers before meals until I was given shorter ones to simply recite. Then and only then did I stop saying things like, thank you Lord for the sofa, the television, yada, yada, and for the food on the table. Amen.

Each night before I slept, Dad shared stories from the Bible, but not before talking about boxing, recounting the genius of Muhammad Ali in the ring, the Japanese and our wars. It was almost always that way for a time, such that boxing and the wars were my lullaby to sleep, yet I never got tired of it.

He told me a little bit about the Spanish era, too, and the First Mass in Masao, where he said our history had started. I never quite understood what that “First” really signified, so I simply associated that with “birth” on account of my limitations as a child. Since then I have always looked at my hometown of Butuan City as a mother.

Whenever I’m back home I like to take solitary walks downtown to revisit places that remind me of who I am or once was. When my mom passed away early last year I stepped inside the cathedral for the first time in my life without a living parent. I felt so lost and searched for the familiar Maya birds ’round its corners and high ceiling ’cause I’ve always liked the sound of them against the compact silence. It always, always gave me solace.

Once outside, I remembered the popcorn stands and balloons sold at the plaza on Sundays after mass, and that old traffic light hanging above the intersection too loosely, a bit awry. I gazed past that at the Police Station, and I could still see in my own eyes where the Hall of Justice used to be. I could still see Dad taking a break from work as the city judge, ordering pospas right beside it.

Walking down the narrow streets in the old sections of Butuan City for me is like tracing the lines of mother’s palm with my finger. You come across a network of paths like nerves and reach the gushing Agusan River that gives me an impression that I must be close to mother’s heart.

I retrace old steps down to Joyce’s Bazaar, Girlie’s Burger, and Urios High School for a glass of juice and bananas served with ketchup for only PhP 1.25. In the vicinity of the Magsaysay Bridge was Plaza Mart where I got my first Walkman that played songs too fast whenever a new set of batteries was used. I didn’t mind that at all when my cousin (Carlo Villanueva) and I jogged to and from the Capitol at dawn. In fact, we didn’t mind anything much at all because life in our mother city was simple, and whenever we re-enacted the movie, The Lost Boys (Corey Haim/ Kiefer Sutherland), every Sunday, we reached all sorts of places even without a coin in our pockets. Those were the best days, really. Not because we didn’t have money or anything, but ’cause we never even bothered to think about it. It was all good energy between us. Except when it was late at night after an Atari challenge, and we wanted Rubante’s barbecue at 50 cents a stick.

I never have to think of valid reasons just to travel back home once in a while. It’s always good to go back even if your new friends from the metropolis don’t get it and want you to stay.

We don’t always get along with our mothers but we love them dearly and with all our hearts, and saying this now reminds me of the river. You just love and do not let anyone tell you why. It’s who you are. 

 ♠ ♠  ♠

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