Personal geography

Daet_Camarines_Norte
Screen shot from Google Maps

This month’s National Geographic features an essay by Garrison Keillor about his personal geography. It begins,“When a man lives in one place for most of his life, he doesn’t need GPS.”

I’m fascinated with people who have lived most of their life in one place, because this is not the way of my own family—a trend started long ago, by my grandfather, and perhaps even by his father before him. Back then, for them, moving was not a matter of choice, but of sheer survival: if they stayed put, they could die. Now, reading my grandfather’s stories, it seems to me that his life has been a long succession of moves that affected not only his life but his descendants’ as well. Take me, for example. It’s because of my grandfather that I am here, in Canada, staring out at snow-laden trees instead of at coconut palms waving on an island beach. (No, I’m not bitter. Really.)

I will probably always need a GPS—except perhaps in Vancouver. Which makes me think that a good definition of home might be “the place where you don’t get lost.” But needing navigational instruments to find your bearings is not necessarily a bad thing. It just means you are exploring, expanding the map of your world.

This excerpt from my grandfather’s memoirs takes place in Daet, Camarines Norte. I’ve never been there, but at least now I can add a pin to the map of my personal geography wish list. It’s south of Manila, by the sea—between it and North America, there is nothing but the blue expanse of the North Pacific. I would like to go there someday. In the meantime, here’s the story.

The week that war was declared, and the American and Filipino armed forces were preparing for the expected Japanese invasion of the Philippines, my Father had to go to Manila, where my sister, Chita, was studying in St. Paul’s College then at Herran Street in Paco. I recall his arrival with my sister and two nuns.

From then on it was a flurry of activities that led to our having to leave Daet and go up the mountains to flee the coming Japanese occupation forces. I remember that while crossing a river, I dropped my pair of Keds rubber shoes and couldn’t retrieve it from the rapids. That was the last time I wore shoes. Not until we left the mountains some months after for the safety and comfort of Manila did I again got to wear a pair.

My brother Ricky was born up in the mountains while we weathered the initial shock of having to be uprooted from our Daet home. It was up there, though, that I metamorphosed from a pampered niño-bonito to a rather dependable aide to my Father. I remember chores like walking about 5 kilometres back and forth every morning to get fresh carabao milk for breakfast.

Coming home from one of these trips I recall having to stay away and hide at the back of our hut because I saw a military truck parked in front of our house. They were on routine patrol. Things like these helped keep our senses keen and sharp, and ever alert for the unexpected.

In the beginning the enemy soldiers were not scary, but later on [when] we began hearing of some atrocious actions on their part, especially towards the women, our neighborhood thought of a plan on how to put our area on alert when Japanese soldiers were coming. Tomtoms were used, and whenever we heard them, our women, young and old, left their houses to hide. Can you imagine this happening at night?

Next: From the sea to the mountains

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