December 31, 1967

by Adriana Ortega Carter

You never forget the calm before the storm. You never forget the mornings spent with him drinking a warm cup of coffee and eating your favorite breakfast of bacon and pandesal on your small porch as the sun rose above the horizon. You never forget the way he made you laugh or the way you felt when he brought home another dress just for you, knowing the intricate designs and swirls of color would captivate you. You never forget how his strong yet gentle fingertips brushed your neck as he helped you put on your favorite necklace, the first one he ever gave to you. You never forget how he had given you everything you could ever want, how he would have done anything for you, how he would have done anything just to see a smile grace your lips.


It was December 28, 1967 in Butuan City, Philippines. A young couple walked home that evening to their small apartment. It was the kind of night where you could trace the stars as they formed a dizzying pattern across the setting sky. They illuminated the soft features of the young woman’s face, and her mind wandered to thoughts of her husband as she recalled how they’d met. His eyes had found hers and the rest became history. It was only 3 months later that he proposed to her. Their relationship was the kind you only read about in storybooks; the kind of pure love everyone in the world sought after. Her hand was enclosed in his, and he softly squeezed it as if to say mahal kita, I love you. In the couple’s home waited their three children being taken care of by their yayas, their nannies.

He was a lawyer and the chief legal counsel of the political party which won the recent election. All who knew him often mentioned his intelligence. They say he had photographic memory and owned the biggest dictionary you’d ever seen. They say that he memorized it, and that when he spoke, it was always with eloquence. He was the kind of person who carefully orchestrated each sentence into a melody. Each word that fell from his mouth carried meaning, and when he shared his thoughts, you listened.

He stopped his wife in front of their house that day, holding her delicate hands and staring deep into her eyes.

“Remember, dear, how I hated politics so much? Yet, here I am so deeply involved in it. Forgive me for my sins, my darling, I love you so much and am sorry for anything I’ve ever done to hurt you.”

She did not expect what was to come in the days that followed, but she did know that her husband loved her. And she loved him. Being young and in love, that was all she knew.

She would never forget what he said to her that day.


December 31, 1967 was the mayor’s anniversary. New Year’s Eve. Celebratory fireworks illustrated a collage of painted colors in red, blue, and gold. It would soon be a new year, a chance to start over. Mass at the local Catholic church had just finished, and the couple was invited to the mayor’s mansion for his anniversary party and proclamation dinner. The children were at home again with the yayas.

She wore her most exquisite gold dress, the one she reserved strictly for important occasions. It was one of the many dresses he had gifted to her. He was dressed in a beige Barong.

Some people still lingered around the church, but most had already left. The indigo sky was extravagant and each explosion of color in the sky fascinated her, the sound reverberating in her ears.

Their car, a small, olive green Renault, was parked in front of the convent. Being a gentleman, he walked around to the passenger side and opened the door for her. She was at the back of the car, walking around to the other side, when she heard him scream, “Aray!” Her first thought was that he had been hit by a firecracker, but when she looked around to the side of the car, there was a man. The man was running away holding a .45 caliber gun and was shrouded in a dark jacket so she couldn’t see his face. On the other side was another man holding a .38 aimed at the spot where she was supposed to sit. Another firework burst in the distance. The rest of the night became a blur.

She remembers running towards her husband screaming frantic, incoherent words, screaming for help, help, help. Somebody, please, help. She remembers that people ran, coming from the nearby plaza, she remembers how they rushed him to the hospital. She remembers that she didn’t fully comprehend what was happening. She was in shock. She remembers that she couldn’t cry.

The doctors told her that they couldn’t do anything to save him. The catastrophic injury caused significant trauma as his shattered organs sank into an unending pool of crimson. They told her that he was patay, dead. Her eyes were glazed over, everything felt empty. The words didn’t register in her brain. She couldn’t believe it. She wouldn’t. She sat in one of the cold hospital chairs trying to see through the hazy fog that had drifted over her. None of the words in her husband’s old dictionary, none of those words or their formal definitions that he had memorized could describe the numbness she felt that night.

The mayor’s party was canceled. Many offered their condolences; she didn’t hear them. She didn’t remember how she got back to the apartment that night.

Sleep evaded her. The bed was cold. Tears still refused to come. At 5 am, the phone rang; it was a good friend of theirs. He recounted a vivid dream to her in which her husband asked him, “Why me?” She wondered the same thing.

It wasn’t until later that she learned of the plot against her husband’s life by the bitter politicians of the losing party in the recent election. The hired gunmen were both prosecuted and given a life sentence in prison. The mastermind in charge of the assassination plot was not convicted because he was a political giant. She stopped fighting because she couldn’t fight giants. She was tired. She couldn’t fight anymore. She left it all to God.

The national newspaper that had an article of what happened to him with his face plastered on the front page is still hidden in a box of his things that she keeps beneath her bed, gathering dust. She visited his tomb at least once a year with her three children who grew up without a father, and she still visits the tomb by herself now that her children have families of their own.

“Upon this ground lies Manuel David Ortega, a lawyer and libertarian, whose love for law and justice could only be matched by his love for his wife and children. He fell at the fall of evening on December 31st, 1967, from the maddening fury of a gunman’s blind allegiance to those who have murder in their hearts.

This tomb is in loving memory of his name and ideals. If the man were to die a thousand deaths more, he would have offered his life a thousand times too, for those enduring postulates of justice his stout heart could never yield in compromise.

To those who, lacking mercy in their hearts, have only murder in mind . . .

To those who, having no respect for law, have less regard for life . . .

This cold and lonely tomb is their mellowing memorial.”


On June 29, 2015, my Lola, Tagalog for grandma, visited the United States. We were at my cousin’s house in Patterson, New York, celebrating her 74th birthday. My uncle and cousins put together a book of pictures that reflected everything that she had been through in her life, all the memories she had made over the years. We all gathered around her and watched as her experienced hands flipped through the pages. I watched her grin in the warm light of the kitchen, I watched her laugh, and I watched her cry. There were tears of happiness mixed with a tinge of nostalgia as she saw the photographs of my mother and her two brothers, their weddings, my cousins’ births, my birth. And of course, there was the picture of her and my Lolo, my grandfather. I watched as a tear slid off her cheek onto the page of the book and her fingertip stroked his face. The photograph captured her holding my uncle and him holding my mother. They were smiling. It was the kind of smile that told you, “everything’s gonna be alright”; it was the kind of genuine smile that echoed hope for the future. I could tell just by watching my Lola that even after 48 years, she still misses him.

Sometimes I wish that I could have met him. Sometimes when my Lola tells me stories about him and recounts his personality, his brilliance, the way he held himself, I can see him sitting there on the couch across from her, remembering. When she told me the story of how he died, I could tell it still pained her to recall what she had seen that night. It only shows that there are some things you can never forget. There are some things that stay with you forever, and even if you move on, there’s still a part of you that can’t let go. However, today she is a stronger person because of what she experienced. The kind of pain she went through is one that I can’t imagine feeling. I admire the strength she exhibited in overcoming this heavy burden and her ability to still find the courage to get up each morning. My Lola is one of the strongest people I have ever met and is someone that I look up to and respect. I only hope that one day, I too will be able to hold my head high when faced with the black uncertainty of the future. Habang may pag-asa, may buhay; while there is hope, there is life.


This essay was Adriana’s entry to the 2017 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards where she was awarded a national Gold Key for the personal essay and memoir category.

Random Recollections

by Cas S. Garcia, M.D.

I’m not certain, the hazards of aging, hazy memory, 1947 or 1949, either date.

On a languid, lethargic afternoon, I was draped on a chair built by my oldest brother from discarded mahogany sticks pilfered from the Golden Ribbon Lumberyard the summer before, (for years after the Great War, all the students of Butuan Central Elementary School had to bring their own chairs or desks for their personal use). I was seated by a window, distracted from my midsummer mid-afternoon reverie by the multiplication table being droned out by rote by a fidgeting classmate in front of the class and our snake-eyed predatory teacher-in-charge.

Following the waves of clouds being chased away by the sun, at the same time counting the dragonflies perched on the electric wires hung between tall, thick wooden poles, part of me was contemplating the absence of traffic on partially coral-paved Juan Luna Street, the air infused by the scent of a potpourri of recently spread sawdust and overflowing, melting black and sticky asphalt in large metal barrels, the combination, to a pre-adolescent, a powerful sedative.

Butuan was engulfed in a typical tropical summer afternoon silence. I was a heartbeat away from somnolence when I heard a soulful  two-note tolling of the church bells, an echoing rendition of sadness, resonating across Rizal Park, across the town, announcing the loss and impending internment of someone dear; a Catholic proclamation of death.

Maria Montilla Sanchez, my great-grandmother, mother of my grandfather, she was “Apo” to me. She had died the night before. She had lived with my grandparents for quite a while. Old, really ancient. Senile, she was wrinkled and stooped, grey haired and all. And she exuded that inescapable smell of accumulated years of solitude and loneliness. All of her contemporaries had already gone before her. And all the kids were scared of her and all stayed away from her. I, too, was intimidated by her. I truly believed she could read my mind and that she knew of all the mischief being hatched up in my head, of which, as a child, was prolific.

Proprietary in their admonition and gentle in their parental restraint, my parents did not allow me to view the remains. I guess they did not want for me to have nightmares. They did not want me to attend the funeral services and burial either because I was not to miss school. I had to have a perfect class attendance. I was the golden boy. I was going to be the first doctor in the family. I was to rise above everyone and everything but the sky. I, naturally, was upset. I wanted to attend the funeral services. But displaying a primitive emotion such as anger or defiance was a character flaw, a sign of inferiority and my parents never tolerated it and so I complied. I went to school.

But, as I got older, I realized that they really just wanted to shield me from one of the inevitables of life – death. I don’t know why. Did they not realize that I would have to confront it and be confronted by it at some time, that there was no escaping it? As a doctor or as a man? I guess it was because I was the youngest of four and would always be too young for this or that. The baby.

They took a picture of the Montilla-Calo-Sanchez clan in front of the dilapidated, brownish-red brick church. I saw the picture. I can’t find it anymore.

I walked home from class, quite a distance then, but now, actually, almost just across the street. I was silently conversing with myself as I was wont to do. I thought about this error of a perfect God – death. I tried to reason out the fragility of life. I asked the why and the where. I wondered whether it was best to die when one was young like me or to die as old as Apo was. Apo, who was already clinging to the last vestiges of relevance to her children and the other people around her, her unfulfilled dreams and unredeemed hopes all but forgotten. Where was Apo now? Was she playing the lyre with the angels? Or will she be waiting for me when I get home? Will she be staring at me with a scowl that could desiccate a banana plant, reprimanding me with her eyes for a transgression I haven’t even plotted yet?

But, still, deep inside of me, I knew I would miss her. She had been a fixture in my grandmother’s house and it would be different without her.

I got home and as I reached the transom, I tried to wave away that inexplicable faint smell of dying candles, candles that were not there.

I decided I would be sleeping between Mama and Papa that night.

♣  ♣ 

Those Were the Days

by Rene C. Vargas, M.D.

It’s been some time ago… So much muddy waters have flowed down the wide Agusan. Yet, certain memories linger on, fresh as ever…memories of life in old Butuan… memories…

I REMEMBER coming out of UST Medical School in 1962, I landed my first job as an Adjunct Resident Physician at the Butuan Hospital, the official name of the provincial hospital. I was paid PhP 32.00 a month. There was really no salary for the whole first year of service in compliance with government regulations of the time. The PhP 32.00 was the monthly laundry allowance. The sum was more symbolic than material for me; I had this feeling of fulfillment that, at long last, I was a doctor. Forgotten were the seemingly endless struggles of leafing through the pages of extra-thick books and the sleepless nights during the 2 years of premed, the 4 years of medicine proper and the one-year internship, all the while supported by my parents who were sending me a good portion of their hard-earned money. 

The following year, I was promoted, and became a Junior Resident Physician, this time with a salary of PhP240.00 a month. It was hardly enough to pay for personal expenses and transportation to and from the hospital which was then located near the present day Capitol – at that time considered as quite distant from the Butuan of my time. But it didn’t feel that far to me, now on my own, treating the sick, and assisting in surgery, and receiving remuneration, however inadequate the pay. 

People today will call it the era of frontier medicine. I REMEMBER that it was a time when disposable needles were unheard of. Needles for injection were used and re-used, repeatedly. They were sharpened again and again by rubbing them against a grinding stone. They were sterilized with a thin wire inserted into its hollow shaft to prevent sludge build up inside. Neither was there any disposable syringe. Syringes were re-used after re-sterilization, the matching syringe plunger was tied with a white cotton thread to the syringe body to prevent mismatch, because many different syringes were placed in the sterilizer at the same time.

I REMEMBER that there was no anesthesiologist then, it was a time when pioneering, yet skilled, surgeons were doing thyroidectomy, mastectomy, and even Cesarian Sections, under local anesthesia. The surgical suture needles were not disposable, they had tiny holes through which we inserted cotton or silk or gut threads that would strain the eyes of today’s surgeons accustomed to ‘ throw away ‘ ready-to-use threaded sutures. And yes, the needles were re-sterilized and re-used again and again, until they were no longer sharp enough.

I REMEMBER that we used scraped soap for washing and scrubbing our hands and arms before surgery. PhisoHex came later, Betadine even much, much later. And the brushes we used were re-used repeatedly after re-sterilization. Today’s age of throw-away paper masks, paper caps and paper boot covers is a far cry from the time when cloth was used, laundered and sterilized after each use. The hospital had a sewing department to cut, sew and fabricate all these stuff. For skin antisepsis, the use of merthiolate and mercurochrome was the vogue; both are now banned because of their mercury content.

I REMEMBER the many times when the lights went off during surgery, and those dark times were not uncommon. Yes, those were the times when the surgeon had to keep his cool, a time when the circulating nurses had to be adept at starting the Petromax fast, and at focusing the flashlight unto the depths of the surgical incision for the surgeon to see what he was doing.

I REMEMBER the nightmare of the Cholera El Tor epidemic that devastated Butuan and the entire country. It was an overwhelming experience for a green doctor fresh out of medical school. Dozens of seriously ill patients were brought to the hospital in near death from severe diarrhea and dehydration, their skin so dry and without turgor that long after being pinched the skin remained curled up, their eyeballs deeply shrunken, their voices husky and reduced to a whisper, their bodies so severely emaciated that weight loss was evident in just hours, the skin of their hands were so wrinkled, disheveled, and rumpled that they were described as ‘washerwoman’s hands’.

Intravenous fluids were dripped into veins so fast just to keep up with the huge losses of fluids from the diarrhea that, many times, we had to have one needle in each arm and leg at the same time. Blissfully, the Department of Health had a good supply of intravenous fluids. Many times we saw patients losing water and salt so fast that their kidneys refuse to put out urine.

Unable to stand, much less walk, they arrived at the hospital in makeshift stretchers, benches, hammocks, or on other’s backs. When the hospital ran out beds, patients’ families ran back home and brought their own beds. Those living in far-flung areas who were without their own beds, had to sleep on the floors. Hospital doors were unhinged and removed, and laid flat on stands to serve as beds. Plywood beds were constructed in a big hurry, a circular hole was cut at the site where the patient’s buttocks should be, and a commode was placed underneath to catch the watery stools that flowed almost endlessly from the bowels. The cause was the cholera el tor germ in contaminated food or water.

I REMEMBER Butuan during those difficult years. There was no potable water supply to speak of. Water chlorination was unheard of. Drinking water was rain water collected from roof gutters or was fetched in pails from deep wells, or collected from the salty free-flowing artesian wells. In the rural communities, water was fetched from streams.

I REMEMBER old Butuan where flush toilets with septic tanks were a rarity. Today, sanitation and public health are many multiples better, but back then the so-called Antipolo toilets were in use. Without the water trap and the sealed system in use today, the Antipolo toilets of those innocent times allowed flies and vermin unhampered access to cesspools, carrying the vibrio cholera el tor germ and other microbes to the kitchen and unto food or water. It was a miracle so few had died.

I REMEMBER that, as the epidemic was raging, hospital resources and staff were severely strained. The usual stab wounds, fractures, pneumonias, malaria, infectious diseases, gunshot wounds, falls from fruit trees, pregnant women in labor, injuries from brawls, all of them had to be attended to as well. It was a time when there was only one “public” hospital, there was no city hospital. People seemed much, much poorer then than now. Patients from all over the then undivided province of Agusan favored the provincial hospital over the smaller private hospitals for economic and other reasons.

I REMEMBER the great flood, the heavy downpour, the Agusan River swollen and overflowing, dumping its brown waters unto the community. The river dike we have now was not yet conceived in the early to mid-60s. The deluge lasted an unbelievable 3 months. The whole city was underwater. Whatever vegetables, fish, or meat there was, were sold on the roof of the market building, or at the kiosko at the Rizal Park (it was called Guingona Park then), others were peddled from floating barotos.

The ground floor of the hospital was submerged deep under flood waters. Patients were transferred to the second storey, crowding even the hallways. Due to lack of space, patients were now packed like sardines, lying next to each other. The Lord must be kind to Butuanons because there was hardly any cross infection. Doctors had difficulty making patient rounds because there was hardly any space between patients. From their homes, the hospital staff had great difficulty coming to work, riding on barotos without outriggers. Many came late for work, others simply did not show up. Many were the nights and days I stayed on duty in the hospital, sometimes for a stretch of 2 or 3 days, because the reliever, himself a flood victim, couldn’t make it through the flood waters. But there were light moments too. Our chief of hospital had fun hunting wild ducks and snipes from the hospital window with his .22 caliber rifle. Yes, ‘them were those days’ indeed.

I REMEMBER the Obstetrics practitioner at the public hospital sending hospital utility workers into the nearby swamps to catch frogs. A “frog test” was the pregnancy test at that time. While today the test is done so simply and conveniently by the patient herself at home without sacrificing those poor amphibians, at that time it was not that simple. So, off went the aides to the marshes to gather the frogs.

I REMEMBER the x-rays taken during those years. One x-ray plate was used for several patients. Each patient’s radiograph took up space of only just over an inch square of the whole plate. One plate contained exposures of several patients. Radiologists today would think of it as a big joke. But that was the practice at the Chest Center in the 60s when the economy was still so bad just 20 years after the Second World War.

The “micrograph”, as it was called, saved on the cost of x-ray plates. But of course, the films were not developed until the entire plate had been used up by many patients. Patients just had to wait for the results else the rest of the plate would be wasted. The Radiologist at that time would cut the plate to separate each patient’s micrograph, mount the tiny square piece of the plate under a huge magnifying lens the size of present day viewers, and lo and behold, the image becomes big enough for diagnosis to be made. The service was free of charge to patients, part of the country’s program to control tuberculosis then so rampant in the Philippines. Today of course, with the advent of digital imaging, there is no more use of plates and no developing the films as there simply are no more films used.

I REMEMBER patients waiting to have their x-rays taken. The city’s electric utility was unreliable then and they had to wait for the availability of electric power. While the Chest Center had its own generating unit, there were many times when the machine broke down. People today take many things for granted, but those of us who lived through those lean years appreciate more the conveniences we experience today. 

I REMEMBER the Butuan we left in 1965… the tartanilyalamaolambog… Manapa…Tinago…Then, I had my residency in General Surgery at the Hospital of the Medical College of Ohio and Affiliated Hospitals…Was extremely excited to be back home in 1971…then, Marcos promptly declared Martial Law the next year… militarization… violence… night curfews… check points… Being stopped at night on the way to the hospital to answer an emergency…Bright lights flashed on my face by black uniformed military men in a military jeep… A different Philippines emerged…Left my home country in 1983… practiced my profession in Ohio… Returned soon after EDSA to serve my fellow Agusanons again… But that’s for the next chapter in the book of my life.

♣  ♣ 

The Storytellers

Cel Atega Rosales-Amores is a grandmother who works for TV but has recently taken to blogging and writing e-books. She wants to preach the value of cultural story-telling to the youth, especially to young Butuanons in particular.

Jasper Caesar Espinosa Jampac is a son of Butuan who grew up under the Sacred Heart and Urian teachings. He joined several publications starting at Urios (Urian Graders, The Gleaner), then at UP Diliman (Philippine Collegian), and at AIM (The Asian Manager). Jasper has also written for Woman Today and edited the ASEAN magazine, LINKS98, while studying at the National University of Singapore.

Malou Monet-Solidum is a dentist with Butuanon roots.

Mamet Magno has been involved in development projects for the past 20 years. She comes from the Villanueva-Magno-Rosales clan. She graduated from UCHS in 1982.

Mark F. Villanueva is a boxing writer, boxing trainer, and founder of the Villanueva Boxing Academy for underprivileged youth. His boxing articles from various sites are compiled in his blog –

Myle T. Macalam is Butuan born and bred. She is one of the Tius of Silongan Street by way of her mother Lette. While enjoying a corporate career in Strategy and Communications in the big city, she continues to pine for her hometown by the river where she spent the first sixteen years of her life.

Ramil L. Cabela. After topping the Philippine Nursing Board Exams in the 1990s, Ramil worked in New York as a critical care nurse while going to business school. Upon earning his MBA in 2001, he launched a career in the pharmaceutical industry where he has been leading drug safety teams in the last 15 years. He loves to travel the world with his wife, Gina, a family medicine physician.

Rene C. Vargas, M.D., FPCS was born and raised in Butuan. He is an Urian (High School Class of ’55) and a graduate of the UST Faculty of Medicine and Surgery ’62. He was an active member and former officer of the Philippine Medical Association and a past president of the Agusan del Norte Medical Society. He is a Senior Fellow of the Philippine College of Surgeons.


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. 

 ♠ ♠  ♠

Friends for Life

by Babette Cabrera Malbas

I just greeted an old friend on his 45th birthday and couldn’t help but smile at how old we have gotten. Time flies so incredulously fast. The memories of our childhood are still so vivid in my head – days filled with nothing but happiness. Teasing was fun and at times being upset was even funnier. As I look out on our street, I can almost hear the all too familiar “clapping of the hands” that signaled to everyone the start of another day of adventure with the gang. As the sound invaded my mind, so did the memories flood…

Days of Sesame Street when everyone would rush to the nearest black and white TV to watch Ernie and Bert with an occasional argument erupting as to what color Mr. Snuffleupagus really was and why nobody can see him. Endless hours spent reading Marvel Comics; carefully peeling away the dog eared pages as we lived out our fantasies in the lives of our superheroes. There were days spent playing jolen (marbles) competing with each other as to who gets the most wins, with the winner going home with one sock filled with the day’s bounty – feeling proud and accomplished. A day well spent.

There was just no room for boredom under the glorious sun; we all had our bikes that brought us everywhere and nowhere. Our pintiks (slingshots) would hang proudly on our necks ready for the next hunt which usually targeted the helpless dragonflies and mudfish commonly seen in the canals of Malvar Street and the wonderful pitch black drainage systems of Pili Drive. We literally spent hours just sitting on the sides of these canals unmindful of the smell and enduring the mosquitoes in wait for our prey, which actually prepared us for the deeper things in life like patience, timing and handling disappointments as well.

We flew kites and fought kite wars with the same fervor as kamikaze pilots. We sent ants, bugs and lizards on board our kites feeling as accomplished as NASA when it sent the first chimpanzee to the moon. Among all the games we played, shatom was the favorite; with each one trying his best to avoid the loser’s run. It’s a wonder why nobody ever complained about the noise – the shouts and the screams, the teasing which was more done in ridicule than anything else. It also amazed me that in spite of how heated the repartee got, no fights ever broke out, just a silent and lethal resolve to get back on another day at the person who teased you the most – the sweet beginnings of vengeance for such a young heart. 

Then there were also days when we just sat silently and just basked in the solidarity of kinship. These were moments of contentment that can never be expressed in words and only understood in the realms of deep friendship. Nothing spectacular of cosmic proportions ever happened during these times, just the silent strengthening of a brotherhood that transcended the formalities of family ties. We were little individuals drawn together through admiration, like-mindedness, acceptance, loyalty, and commitment. There was nothing we didn’t share with each other, from toys to champorado to weird imaginings. We trusted each other implicitly to keep personal secrets, and used each other as a safe base for exploring issues and problems that we dared not discuss with anyone else. Unknown to us at that time, our togetherness would bring strong, solid bonds that would last far longer than we could ever imagine.

As we grew older, weekends remained a thing to look forward to with the same call-out filling the street, the infamous “clapping of the hands” which brought each one running outside the house like an animal hearing the call of the wild. We still shared those strong ties through Michael Jackson (before he got really weird and all), Punk Rock, Break Dancing, Disco, Duets, Piano Sessions, Poker, Piat2 and Mahjong. The shift from childhood games to this was evidence that we were growing up. And the memories continue – first beer, first cigarette, first kiss, first serious relationship, first heartache, first fight over love, first death, first business, first failure, first job, first marriage, first kid… All through these, the closeness stood as strong as ever with an intimacy deeper than anything we can compare it with.

Even as we entered adulthood with its many challenges; when the choices we made either brought us closer together or apart on different paths, there was no waning in the camaraderie I shared with these guys. We no longer had those 5-hour phone calls or those beer sessions that lasted till dawn where we talked mostly about life and this thing called living. Years sometimes went by without us hearing anything from each other but the ties still remained unbroken in the wake of long absences. We all got busier and our eyes grew older with a wisdom that can only come from surviving our own trials. But once in a while, the memories come back, triggered by a text message or an unexpected phone call from one of the guys, light up those tired eyes and send our blood rushing and hearts pounding once more. An echo of a past long gone but still vibrant in our hearts and in our minds slowly awakens our souls. A fragment in time when we were our own superheroes; when we stood in the face of difficulties with a smile and a twinkle in our eyes – where every day was an adventure and everything was a challenge. We were young once again.

The friendships that I made when I was 3 years old still count as one of the most awesome bonds in my life. I never had any friends later on like the ones I had back then. These are the friendships that I will remember forever. These childhood friendships may lack the drama and intensity that is shared in adult friendships but never depth. There is a definite carefree quality that exists between young children at play. We never asked ourselves complicated questions like whether we have enough in common or are good enough to be friends. It was enough that we were kids and that there was playing to be done.

Our street is empty now. You don’t see children playing nor hear laughter anymore. The street where we grew up and which bore witness to our coming of age still holds the secrets of the past. They say all we really needed to know in life we learned in kindergarten. In our case, it was the everyday life on the streets of our childhood where we experienced our most defining moments, where the imagination was stronger than knowledge, where dreams were more powerful than facts, where laughter was the cure for all grief and the love among friends was stronger than death. 

Life has its way of ending even beautiful things. The shadow of the axe may hang over every joy, every relationship and every love. And the roads may at times lead nowhere. But, I take comfort in the fact that no matter what I am faced with, I can draw strength from this period of my life when I viewed everything through the eyes of a child, when friendships were real, when all things were possible, even the most improbable. And every day was a miracle.  

 written on November 19, 2014 

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My Lolo Joaquin, the Hero

by Marilou Monet-Solidum

Years ago, I was introduced to a dear old lady named Manay Alita Torralba-Lish, who was in her late 70’s then. She’s a dear aunt of my fellow dentist, Dr. Winona Torralba Bernas-Amante.

As in any normal introduction, my friend mentioned my name to her. What followed was the usual follow-up question, “Kanin-o ba kaw anak, Ne?” I replied that my father was Juanito Monet. And she immediately asked, “Monet? Ono mo ba si Joaquin Monet?” I told her that he was my grandfather. Upon hearing my reply, her eyes just widened all of a sudden and she became teary eyed.

She excitedly told me that she could never forget my grandfather because he saved her from drowning in the Agusan River when she was a little girl. She remembered that during her struggle to save herself, a tall teenager pulled her out from the water and saved her. And that tall teenager was Joaquin, my grandfather.

I grew up knowing that the Agusan River has always been synonymous with my home city of Butuan. My father used to tell me stories of his childhood when they would spend their free time jumping off from the bridge into the river below.

I could not imagine anyone doing the same today until I computed the years and realized that the bridge he was talking about was the old wooden bridge that spanned the river before the Magsaysay Bridge was constructed. Perhaps that was the advantage of someone whose house was just a stone’s throw away from the water. Until now, our ancestral house still sits on a lot at the corner of Del Pilar and Silongan Streets.

Earlier today, I again met Manay Alita Torralba-Lish. She is now 85 years old. And of course, she could no longer remember me. She just had this polite look on her face as she looked at me while I was talking to her niece, Dr. Weng.

However, when she was reminded about my name and who my grandfather was, her face lit up like the sun, and she excitedly told us once again about that momentous incident when she almost died in the river. And of course, my lolo Joaquin was again, her hero.

Time passes quickly but stories like these make unforgettable memories about our river.

♥  ♥ 

Where Do I Begin to Write You My Letters

by Jasper Caesar Espinosa Jampac

Dear April,

I always hated you, and somehow secretly sought you out – you, with the sunny personality yet scorching temper: beckoning us to come out and play with you but searing us at midday.

One early morn, mommy dearest brought me to a tabo-an (Sunday street market) in the mercado (public market) when I was about four years old. The maddening crowd amazed me, my eyes lit up, and my frail hand slipped away from dear mother. But I held hands again, only to find a stranger holding me. I quickly took my hand away and walked off. I didn’t find mother, but I miraculously found my way home.

I hid under our staircase, scared to get a kusnot (pinch) from mom when she would get home. Instead of a pinch, my family was just so relieved to find me; surprised at how I managed to come home all by myself.

Mommy sat on the piano chair and played her favorite piece, lulling me as I watched, a little scared.

I always look forward to your coming, April – summertime, sea, sand, siesta, school-off, yet you make me cry.

In my boyhood days in Butuan of the Eighties, your coming meant the commanding sullenness of the Catholic world of Christ Jesus’ death, which translates into the No TV, No Meat policy, extended to a week of sacrifices that happily ends with the dawn procession called Sugat (the Meeting). Everyone congregates at the Provincial Capitol compound wearing their Sunday’s Best (translation: most decent attire for a Church Mass or something probably picked out from Grand Collection, Klothes Korps, Annie’s or Jerry Shoppers’ World, whichever suited your budget and taste), on Easter dawn to take part in ceremonies that feature some of my schoolmates hanging like silly seraphim, they who did little angelic acts at school anyways. 

No one would mind the week-long puasa (fasting) for Girlie’s burgers across Rizal Park were the prize for the sacrifice. And more. For Easter Sunday is a big fiesta.

Later that day, and almost by no coincidence, I see half of Butuan at its coastline, garbed in their ubiquitous bathing attire of oversized shirts over puruntong shorts (dungarees): enjoying the grey, powdery sands of Tinago beach, munching on puso (rice cooked inside diamond-braided coconut leaves), kinilaw (Filipino ceviche) and lechon (roast pig).

Easter is the only time I see familiar faces from school as after, I am back around my neighborhood playing street games like kariling (rolling bike tires), tagu-tago (hide-and-seek), and bahug-bahug (base takeover a.k.a. agawan base). If school rivalry had its beginnings, for me, I learned it all from these games. It was a test of character to be taunted or hailed, but in the end, friendships prevailed.

Growing up, summer meant a rite of passage: of many boys crying in overhyped pain, and of some girls changing and becoming slightly stranger; of leaving boyhood through tuli (circumcision) and of metamorphosing girlhood through ear-piercing. This gave me a gender bias that earrings were made for girls, more so when years later, my passionate Religion teacher declared with conviction that boys who have their ears pierced are ‘kampon ni Satanas’ (the Devil’s advocates). To this day, April, I wonder who else believes in that crap as I honestly do. But Miss Romano will be so proud of me. Don’t you think so?

Your temperature’s soaring, April, and there was no way that we could play with you all day. After enjoying the antics of Gleek and the Wonder Twins from Justice League, it was time for siesta. My summer siestas were spent poring over books of my mother, and of being enchanted by the world of imagination beyond my gaze, and of curiously wondering what’s out there.

Outside my shell was a world to discover. April left and I met May.



Dear May,

There is no mistaking that pomp and pageantry start with your arrival – you, with your feminine gait, your luxurious tresses and your beautiful blossoms – that made me take a second look at you. You are the enviable kiss in one’s midsummer night, or a longing for some place I have never travelled to.

The moment I learned to cycle, I pedaled as fast as I could, around and beyond the city, enjoying every journey I made and all the scenery captured in my head. That long, breezy, quiet drive from the City Hall to the Provincial Capitol was, by far, my most favorite ride. With rice fields on one side and cogon grasses on the other, this tree-lined pavement was unimpeded by structures, save for a few government buildings. The curve where the old rickety wooden City Hall stood, provided makahiyak (tummy-heaving) moments in one’s speedy turn. The Iglesia Ni Cristo temple offered me a Disney-esque feel as I pass by it while the grand majestic Provincial Capitol of American architecture, at the end of that road, lures with its magnetic appeal.

All roads lead to the Capitol, where Butuanons either converge, jog, hang around or find love. No one pesters promenaders around the Capitol, not even the guards from one security agency with an ironic promise: “gamay’ng kasikas, mata dayon” (a little stir and we’re awake). This is the same road where agony and beauty walk; where the once silly seraphim have now all turned into captivating Maria Elenas and Santa Cruzan beauties parading with their handsome consorts for the Flores de Mayo procession.

As unhurried life plods onward, Butuan’s simple joys include a walk of distinction – to be chosen as one of Butuan’s Santa Cruzan and Flores de Mayo beauties and consorts during the Balanghai Festival. You either get elected or invited to its roster of muses and escorts – a particular proud moment, and a step higher than being crowned as, say, Queen Anna I of Barangay Dumalagan after the final canvassing of monetary votes during its fiesta, with one’s new royal moniker emblazoned on the wall using silver-dusted styrofoam letter cut-outs tacked on either dead maroon or red satin drapes.

By the time a barangay coronation of a Queen One is completed, the lights dim, and the bayle (communal dance) ensues within a perimeter of the kasagingan (banana plots), bordered by fuchsia crepe paper cross lines. The boys ask the girls for their hand – 25 cents for hot music and 50 cents for a sweet dance.

Oh no, May, it is an excuse for merriment, socials, gossip, love and perhaps fame.

At 15, I unsuspectingly agreed to a barangay evening affair, only to find out that I was to escort the new Queen One. As I stood on stage all night with pellet-sized sweat pouring down my back, I only had one fervent prayer: Dear God, if you be so kind, please don’t let any of my classmates come near this open-air event or I’d be scarred for life. Otherwise, please let the earth open up and swallow me instead. The following year, my fortunes improved as I became a Flores de Mayo consort. Years later, I hosted the Mutya Hong Butuan pageant and co-directed it twice over.

With wide-eyed awe, I stare at the stars that all glitter in your nights, May, that somehow give my otherwise sleepy hometown a reason to return to. You deserve a mañanita (dawn birthday serenade) each day, if only for your blossoming beauty and brains. To me, in my day, you are Maria Dalsa Montalban, the last Miss Urios of her kind – a sixth grader who won the title over the entire school cohort. To most of Butuan, you are Joy Busa – hailed as the city’s most beautiful.

As beauty flourishes, so shall it fade. May happened and June came.



Dear June,

Why rage with ruthless fury and abandon me with deathly stares? I have known you to be extremely dichotomous: beginnings and endings, joy and grief, yin and yang. But I await your coming, June, as school beckons to reunite me back with my Urian classmates. You bring me excitement for a whole new world of discoveries, and of returning to rigor and regimen once more.

I start my day when the AM radio at home starts blaring at full volume at 5:30AM. The familiar vendor’s call of “itlog mo ’Noy, orins” (boiled eggs, sir, or Tru-Orange) comes ringing across the neighborhood. Dragging my feet to the bathroom, the super-cold shower wakes me up. Afterwards, I hurriedly eat my breakfast of fried panit (tuna), scrambled eggs, rice and sikwate (homemade hot chocolate drink).

My siblings and I leave the house before 6:45AM, giving our dad the courtesy mano (Philippine custom of respect upon leaving and arriving by putting an elder’s hand on one’s forehead), before taking the tricycle, if he won’t be driving us to school. From Janet Cinema, we dash to the Urios gates along San Francisco Street.

My desire to discover had the utmost impact on my education, inquiring about just anything, even the silliest of things.

“Why do you girls not come to class with fully-dried hair? It keeps the shoulder portion of your uniforms wet.” I wondered whether this was a way to make their stringy hair look straighter.

But, you know, June, I could be wrong. Like how wrong I was about you.

I thought you were all excitement and rebirth. However, you sometimes came with wrath from your winds, with rains that never end. You wreak havoc – even in the hearts of men, by sending beauty to madness.

The first beauty I knew in life who I adored, you took away from me and my family. On that 5th day of June in ‘82, at the 6th of the eve, my mommy dearest lay on her bed lifeless. Holding her cold ankle, I asked whether she was coming back to life – or at least speak for one last time. But I never got an answer. I was seven.

The day we laid her to rest was as sunny as April, as beautiful as May and drizzled the way that you are, June.

I continued on with life in Butuan without a mother. One day, I sat on her piano chair and discovered her favorite piece, A Love Story. I looked at the dog-eared sheet of music and remembered the last time she played this on the piano.

“She fills my soul with so much love,                                                                        That anywhere I go, I’m never lonely, with her along who could be lonely,              I reach for her hand, she’s always there.” – Where Do I Begin (Love Story)


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What makes Butuan interesting?

by Mamet Magno

From a non-Butuanon’s perspective, the answer to this question does not seem to be obvious at first. Butuan is not as touristy as the more popular travel destinations in the Philippines like Cebu, Vigan, Bohol, Palawan and Davao City. But why do Butuanons keep on coming back to this place even after residing for a long time in more developed countries?

If you ask me, I’d say it is the people and the memories that they share. Nothing beats hanging out with friends and cousins around a table laden with buntaa, sugpo, lechon, tinolang pigok, pao dipped in latik, palagsing, kayam, boiled bananas with ginamos flavored with kabayawa, and kinilaw (just to name a few of the favorite dishes of Butuanons).

If the fave hang-outs in Butuan may not be as sophisticated and trendy as the ones you see in metropolitan cities, Butuanons make the most of their experience in these places by focusing more on what matters most – touching base with their roots and their fond memories growing up in Butuan. Friends who are from other places can never understand our penchant for repeating the same stories from our elementary and high school days over and over again and still laugh at them like crazy.

Back in the ‘80s, when there was no Boy’s Bar yet, young adults would bring bottles of beer and pork bar-b-que to the “Kapitolyo”.  Some will find a dead end street at Estacio and have their beer fix there while listening to music blaring out from their car stereos. Those who loved dancing went to Tico-Tico. Sports-minded people played badminton at the court near Boy Calo’s house, tennis at Luz Village and bowling at Timberlane.

The younger set of Butuanons has more choices now in terms of entertainment. But no matter where they went, it was always the company and the stories that they shared that made these experiences memorable. The friends that Butuanons keep can go as far back as their pre-school years (that’s how long friendships are kept here!). Butuanons can keep count of cousins that they are still able to touch base with up to the 5th and 6th degrees.

Butuan is also the gateway to natural attractions in Northeastern Mindanao – especially the world-class surfing areas in Siargao, the pristine waters of Sohoton Cave (also in Siargao), and Tinuy-an Falls in Bislig.

The other interesting thing that makes Butuan unique is its history. Local historians claim that the first mass was held at Masao (not Limasawa as written in our history books). The balangay, a wooden boat used by Butuanons for  trading, was unearthed in Ambangan, Libertad in the 1970s. According to Wikipedia, the first balangay that was unearthed was radiocarbon tested and was dated to year 320. The balangay boats are now displayed at the site where they were discovered. Some pieces can also be found at the Butuan Museum. The museum also showcases other artifacts dug out from the site where the boats were unearthed. The more interesting antique pieces though were sold to antique collectors. Fortunately, some of these antique collectors are Butuanon. If properly coordinated, these Butuanon collectors may allow you to view their personal collections.

To appreciate Butuan, get to know the people first and let these people guide you in making your Butuan experience truly memorable.

♠ ♠ ♠ 

Mud Pies and Childhood Friends

by Myle Tiu Macalam

We met when we were babies. I am a year older and was one of the first visitors at the nursery when she was born. We both lived in our family compound on Silongan Street – in between Maternity Hospital where her Nanay and my Mommy used to work and the Magsaysay Bridge.

Our friendship was forged in the joys found in making mud pies and the sound of raindrops on our roofs. We were each other’s best playmates and spent most afternoons playing with our toys within the safe walls of my lolo’s compound. On sunny days, we found our childish thrills in chasing dragonflies and grasshoppers and plucking gumamelas from mom’s garden out back – and when it rained, we played balay-balay with our plastic kitchen sets in our living room.

mud-cupcakes-sepiaOne day, Dad found the two of us squatting before the drainage canal where the rainwater passed, deeply engrossed in the fine art of making mud pies. Dad approached us from behind, intent on scolding us for playing with mud – but when he loudly called our names – Myle!! Jojo!! he found his displeasure melting in the wide-eyed innocence of our shocked gaze which was immediately followed by sheepish, guilty looks and a long drawn out — yes, daaaaad/Uncle Saaaaam??? Instead of getting scolded, what we got was a soft smile on Dad’s face and an admonition to go to the kitchen to wash our hands with soap and water and rub alcohol all over.

As children, we laughed, we played and we chattered on and on about nothing and everything. And we became fast friends. We went to the same kindergarten school run by the nuns and learned our ABC’s from the same teachers. But she and her family moved away soon after, when their new house was built. And for a while we did not see much of each other.

However, upon entering grade school, we found ourselves in a new playground right next to the church and the kumbento – Urios College. Although I was a year ahead in class, we shared many common interests that brought us together.

We were both star scouts, then girl scouts and proudly wore the green uniform on scouting days. We were active in the student government – and learned to launch campaigns (and duck from our political opponents’ darts) as early as grade school. Both of us got good grades, played softball, wrote for the school paper and joined the Glee Club (as background noise more than anything) and the Theatre Guild (she facing the audience as an actress while shy me stayed behind the curtain and worked on production management).

We did not look alike at all – she with her cafe au lait brown skin and round, sparkling eyes, me with my fair skin and chinky eyes – so nobody would mistake us for sisters. But we shared a lot in common, certainly more than many siblings would, and a bond that would last until adulthood.

Being a year older, I was the Ate between the two of us. And when I went off to UP for college and she followed a year after, this became even more pronounced. Away from our families for the first time – I felt all the more the big sister – responsible for making sure she was safe inside and out of the campus. After all, I was party to the pleading and the campaigning that went on that summer of ‘85 – just to get Nanay’s and Tatay’s permission for her to join me in UP.

Like a big sis, I’d always looked out for her. I remember panicking at the onset of the EDSA Revolution and running all the way to Kalayaan Residence Hall to check on her to make sure that she was okay. Of course she was nowhere to be found in the dorm, as by then she and her friends had already gone to the nearby Church to work as volunteers and make sandwiches for the yellow army of tita Cory. That’s when I realized she was ready to spread her wings and soar.

In UP, we both flourished, though we started off a bit shakily in the beginning, being promdis and terribly homesick at first. But once we got our bearings, we were off to conquer the world – or at least that’s how we felt at the time 🙂 We were both Kalayaan kids and later Ilang-Ilang ladies (the resident “convent” in campus). It was at this time that I asked her to drop the Ate and start calling me by my first name. And the reason for this was that Jojo was so popular with her batchmates that upon knowing that I was her Ate, everybody else whose student number started with 85 began calling me Ate too. And I just was not ready to have 100++ new younger siblings all at once!

The college years flew by and soon it was time for me to find work and she to enter law school. Through the years at UP and the years that followed, we were at some point classmates, dormmates, neighbors and flatmates – still for the most part sharing the same air space though by now we had developed our own bigger circle of friends and went off in various outings with them. But even as work and life got busier and more complicated – we kept in touch by snail mail and phone and met up once in a while when we found ourselves in the same city at the same time.

Our lives are so different now. She is back in Butuan with Bebot and their four kids, enjoying the comfortable pace of our home city yet leading a life so full that it continues to amaze me – practicing and teaching law, and being an advocate for women, children and the environment, while I live in the big city, travel a bit and enjoy a corporate career that is both challenging and fulfilling but frustrating at times.

Through all these, our friendship has remained strong and fresh. And whenever we find ourselves in the same space, we tend to forget about time as we still talk on and on about nothing and everything. When she used to visit me in my lily pad, Jojo would indulge my nocturnal body clock and stay up with me so we can chat deep into the night while I would wake up early enough in the morning so I could send her off when it would be time for her flight home. When I go home to Butuan, she offers me the comforts of her home and the wonderful company of her kids. She has been my lifeline to Butuan news and I, hers to the world outside.

As we celebrated our silver high school jubilee one after the other, the madly exciting and joyful celebrations that we had in Urios made me cherish all the more the value of friendship and kinship. And as I basked in the company of my batchmates during homecoming night, I knew that our celebration was made seamless because our hosts were old friends of ours. And the following year, as I saw Jojo celebrate her silver jubilee with her own batchmates, I could only smile and join in the celebration of friendship that was unfolding before me. And this time, I did not mind being an Ate.

More than four decades after and still counting, Jojo and I continue to be the best of friends. For even as our lives have traveled along different paths – they have a way of meeting and crossing at various times. And even as innovation drives technology and change in our lives and moves the years forward in ever faster ways, I can still lean back and relish one thing that has not changed at all. And that is the deep friendship, forged out of mud pies and carefree days, that I share with my dear friend, Jojo – accountant, lawyer, teacher, environmentalist, children’s and women’s advocate, girl scout, wife, mother-of-four – and Wonder Woman all rolled into one petite frame.

This piece was written on 12 June 2010, a month after Jojo’s birthday. 

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