Iloilo on My Mind
February 5, 2018
Note: This is an excerpt from the author’s book, ‘Places, Faces, Phases’, published by Kasingkasing Press.
Whenever I get stuck in Friday morning traffic in Molo and I’m running late for my 8:30 class at the UPV city campus or after hearing Tuesday mass at San Jose Church in Plaza Libertad and the Villa jeep I’m on is caught in horrendous late early evening traffic at the intersection of Jalandoni and General Luna Streets, I cannot help but pine for the Iloilo of my childhood.
Before we relocated to Iloilo in 1985, during Christmas breaks or summer vacations, my family would go to Iloilo where my grandmother and my uncle lived. Traveling to Iloilo meant waking up early in the morning and occupying a tricycle from our house in Silliman campus to the Ceres bus terminal at the heart of Dumaguete. Apart from the four family members, the tricycle would be loaded with big bags which contained our clothes and food, lots of food, for the 9 to 10-hour bus ride to Bacolod through the San Carlos route. This was before the shorter via Mabinay route was built. From Bacolod, we would take Negros Navigation’s Don Vicente, Don Julio or Sta. Maria for the two-hour boat ride to Iloilo. Sometimes the 10-hour travel to Bacolod would stretch to 11 or 12 hours because of mechanical glitches along the way. This meant missing the 5:00 P.M. last trip to Iloilo. When this happened, we had to sleep overnight at the pantalan in Banago and wait for the first trip the next day. I didn’t mind sleeping at the pier. In fact, there were times I would silently wish that we would miss the boat so we could stay overnight at the pier. The thought of sleeping on the wooden benches over the night excited me as it whispered adventure, and the sights and sounds of the pantalan aroused my interest. As soon as we settled on the benches and accounted for our luggage, I would wander around my world for the night. I observed the weary passengers who were also camping on the wooden benches with us. I listened to the strange singsong accent of the people around me. I looked at the noisy vendors who were selling hard-boiled eggs, boiled peanuts and bananas. There were some who hawked sealed coconut shells which I later found out contained brown, sticky and sweet kalamay hati. While going around, I walked carefully, afraid that my little feet would get caught in between the wooden planks that made up the floor of the pier.
My earliest recollection of Iloilo was from the front seat of a tricycle one late afternoon in the early 80’s. My family just came from the port. We couldn’t get a cab at the port area, so my uncle, who came to fetch us, hired a tricycle to take us to his and my grandmother’s house somewhere in Delgado. As the vehicle rumbled through the streets of JM Basa, I saw people on the not so crowded stretch of the downtown area. There were two or three cabs that passed by. I was fascinated with the cabs and the jeepneys I saw. There were no cabs in Dumaguete and I hardly saw jeepneys there, only tricycles and tartanilyas. Just like Dumaguete, the downtown streets were not clogged with people and vehicles.
The biggest department store in Iloilo at that time was SM Shoemart on Delgado. My mother and my grandmother though opted to go to the shops in JM Basa. Numerous shoe stores lined up that area. One of the owners of the shoe store was a friend of my grandmother. Mama would buy my brother’s and my shoes and ismagol in that store and the owner, a matronly Chinese woman, would give us discounts. I remember every New Year, my mother, uncle and I would accompany my grandmother to her friend’s store. She would hand us freebies like bags and shirts from footwear manufacturers. She also gave us Bandag and Islander calendars that had pictures of actors on it. She would also give my grandmother a good discount on a pair of shoes she fancied.
Apart from footwear, I instantly remember food, siopao and batchoy in particular, when I think of JM Basa Street. In one of our summer vacations, my uncle brought us to this cramped restaurant near Freedom Grandstand. The name of the restaurant was Roberto’s. We sat on red upholstered stools, fanning ourselves as we waited for our order to arrive. The place was full of people and the electric fans were not enough to ward off the heat. I looked around and my eyes were drawn to two curious-looking photographs enshrined in the upper part of the restaurant. There were votive candles as well as food in front of the photographs. When our food arrived, my brother and I slurped the tasty batchoy soup and devoured the heavily-filled siopao. After more than three decades, amidst the proliferation of restaurants and fastfood outlets in that part of the city, Roberto’s, together with its famous King and Queen Siopao, continues to reign on JM Basa Street. The often packed interior and the long lines in front of the cashier that sometimes spill out of the resto attest that Ilonggos still very much patronize Roberto’s. The place has not changed much all this time. It is still cramped and the tables are positioned the way they were in the 80’s. It is not air-conditioned and electric fans are still used. The red upholstered stools have given way to red chairs. The cheery, healthy-looking gay Chinese, who is a character himself, still mans the cash register and still tirelessly asks for the name of customers who order take-out. I don’t know if the photographs are there until now. I haven’t eaten in the restaurant for years. I only go there for take-outs and always, whenever my order arrives and cheery, healthy-looking gay Chinese is at the counter, he would roll his eyes and call out, his voice lilting, “Dolce… Dolce and Gabbana,” while handing me the plastic bag of food. While much has not changed at Roberto’s, across the restaurant and a few blocks from it, places of entertainment that come alive at night and in the wee hours of the morning have sprouted. For some, the “entertainment” provided by these places are as tasty (and meaty) as Roberto’s siopao and hamburger, and delightful as their bola bola and bihon guisado.
My brother and I always looked forward to the time when we would go to SM Shoemart as the store was called then. The size of the department store and its varied merchandises—“We’ve got it all for you” was the store’s tagline—awed us. The only department store we came to know in Dumaguete was Cang’s, and its size was not even half the size of SM. A visit to SM also meant ice cream for my brother and me as Papa would buy us a cone of our favorite flavor. Occasionally, we would eat spaghetti and siopao at La Veranda Fatima across the department store.
Our family was able to buy a house and lot in Molo before we transferred to Iloilo. Molo then was bereft of commercial establishments. The Molo of the 80’s, particularly the part where we live, was a residential area. There used to be a house and a vacant lot where Supermart now stands. My family and I would hear mass at Molo Church and after mass, we would stroll in the plaza. The place was a scene out of a European travel magazine. With the majestic church and its imposing twin steeples as backdrop, the plaza was classically beautiful. There were white painted statues scattered around the plaza. In the middle was a dome that housed a fountain. Around the fountain were statues that rested daintily on their pedestals. My brother and I would often rush to the fountain and throw coins in it. Sometimes we would sit on the ledge and just listen to the trickle of water. While Molo is known as the Athens of the Philippines, the district having produced a good number of intellectuals ranging from chief justices to writers, the plaza in the 80’s had a Roman-like feel because of its structures. Sadly, the old statues, which through time were defaced, broken, vandalized, have long been gone. The dome sans the fountain is still at the center. So are the massive urns sitting on their pedestals.
One thing I cannot forget about the Iloilo in the 80’s and 90’s are the moviehouses. There were so many of them. There was Regent where my father, brother and I watched Bernardo Bertolucci’s Academy Award winning film “The Last Emperor” when I was in Grade V. Later, after the decline of moviehouses in the downtown area brought about by the coming of malls that had cinemas, Regent was well-known for showing sexy flicks. There was Main Theater which featured double movies—one got to watch two movies for the price of one. The theater is now City Square. There was Cinema just across the rotunda. It is now Unitop. Huge Crown Theater, now a bank, at the corner of Ledesma and Quezon is unforgettable since it is where my high school classmates and I watched the Sharon Cuneta-Robin Padilla hit Maging Sino Ka Man. Still wearing our UP High School uniform, we rushed to the theater after our afternoon class. The theater was jampacked so we had to sit on the stairs. We didn’t mind if our pink skirt got dirtied or stained as long as we saw Bad Boy Robin Padilla on screen. My favorite moviehouse was Allegro where I often watched romantic comedies and Hollywood blockbusters. Next to Allegro was Riviera that showed Filipino films. These moviehouses on Iznart have now become fastfood outlets and a furniture shop.
Diversion Road which is full of commercial buildings, restaurants, coffee shops, hotels and places for night-outs used to be a lonely, almost deserted highway. It had very few establishments that were sparsely spread along the road. Tall tigbaw grew on the vacant spaces and along the highway. I was in grade school when I first went to Diversion. My classmate in Assumption invited me to her birthday party which was held in the restaurant that her family owned. I had never been to that part of Iloilo. The restaurant was a quarter of a kilometer after the bridge that overlooked Iloilo River. After the party, I went out of the restaurant. I felt I was so far away from the city. I did not see any shops or houses nearby. The place was quiet; I felt isolated. I wanted to go home right away and Molo seemed so far from where I was. Today, if you find yourself on Diversion near the river, Molo is a ten-minute leisurely walk passing along the Esplanade.
Consequently, that first time on Diversion was followed by numerous trips to that area. My family discovered a restaurant just after the bridge. It served seafoods and delicious chicken inasal. One could eat in one of the restaurant’s huts beside the Iloilo River. The name of the restaurant was Marina. Whenever we had visitors coming to Iloilo, we would take them there. My high school girlfriends and I had come to love Marina. When we were in college and even when we were already employed in our first job, we would hold our annual Christmas get-together at Marina. We always ordered our favorite chicken barbecue and saté rice not only because these tasted good but these were the only food we could afford given our allowance, and later on, our meager first employment pay.
Another place that my girlfriends and I went to in the 90’s and in the early 2000’s when we wanted to have a few drinks and listen to music was Barracks, a bar and restaurant at the far end of Diversion Road. The military-themed resto bar was a popular venue for Ilonggos seeking for music (different bands played every night) and a good, fun night out with friends. Marina and Barracks are no longer around.
My girlfriends and I would sometimes reminisce about our lives before the coming of cellphones, Internet, social media—glorious times really when life was simple and our lives were less complicated. I remember when I was in high school, during summer breaks, whenever I want to meet any of my friends for a movie or to window shop, I would write them a letter. I would set the date when we would meet, what time and where. I would mail the letter to Villa or La Paz or Jaro. My friends would also write back to confirm our meeting. The post office and letters were very much part of my life in Iloilo in the 80’s and 90’s. I used to have a pen pal, my elementary schoolmate, who lived in Tabuc Suba in Jaro. From elementary until we were in college, we would send each other letters almost every month. In the early 90’s, PLDT installed a telephone line at home. The telephone made communication with my friends easier. We no longer had to write each other for our dates. My frequent phone pal was a friend who lived in Villa. Almost every night we would call each other. There were times when we would get so engrossed in girl talk or gossip. During these long conversations, we could hear a phone being lifted intermittently from its cradle a couple of times or sometimes an impatient voice out of nowhere says, “Hello, party line,”—a cue that we had to wrap up our phone call since my friend’s party line needed to make a call.
Iloilo has come a long way from the quiet, uncrowded, smooth traffic city that I came to know from the front seat of a tricycle more than thirty years ago. A few months earlier, I was in Mandurriao waiting for a ride to SM City. For a while I was disoriented where I was. Huge machines were leveling the land where there used to be salt beds, fish ponds and rice fields. What used to be a sleepy, sluggish part of the city is now humming with so much activity. Enormous trucks carrying cement mixers were all over the place. Roaring sounds of machines could be heard as workmen with hard hats were busy excavating or cementing an unfinished part of the road or working on tall, unfinished buildings with cables sticking on their sides. Cranes hovered in the distance. Then I remembered the old Iloilo airport.
Before the Iloilo airport transferred to its present site in Cabatuan in 2005, it used be in the Mandurriao district. I have fond memories of the old airport where one could see goats or cows grazing beside the runway during take offs and touchdowns. I had never felt stressed whenever I had a flight back then. The airport was a short ride from our place in Molo. I only had to take a jeep and then alight at the intersection to the airport. From the intersection, I would ride a trisikad and I would be dropped in front of the one-story terminal. The planes would fly above our roof in Molo so often that we already memorized their flight schedule. Whenever we would meet someone, we would just wait for the sound of the plane overhead, a signal that whoever we’re fetching had already arrived. The old airport property has since been developed by Megaworld. A grand international hotel and the iconic Iloilo Convention Center where the 2015 APEC ministerial meetings were held now occupy what used to be the runway. What’s left of the old airport is the control tower that still stands tall, albeit forlorn, amidst its developing surroundings—a silent witness to arrivals and departures, and to inevitable endings and new beginnings in that now progressive side of the city.
While I occasionally lament the terrible traffic and I miss seeing the sun set on the salt beds in the once quiet Tabucan in Mandurriao, I love the city that Iloilo has become. In spite the fact that the city pulsates with development, progress, opportunities, it has remained laid-back. My favorite part of Iloilo is the Esplanade, a 1.2 kilometer promenade built along the Iloilo River and designed by architect Paulo Alcazaren. It stretches from Diversion Road to Carpenter’s Bridge that is the boundary between Molo and Mandurriao. Whenever I have the time, I would take a walk along the Esplanade late in the afternoon during the golden hour when the sun is about to dip on the horizon. I love watching the soft, radiant colors of dusk while the cool wind from the river fans my face. In the distance I could see the tall spires of Molo Church. After a relaxing walk, I would walk again to Molo Plaza and stop by Jo-Ann’s kiosk for its famous fishballs. Armed with fishballs dipped in hot sauce number 3 and a bottle of cold Coke, I would sit in front of the church and just stare in wonder at the towering beauty in front of me. After all these years, the church still takes my breath away. Sometimes, I allow my mind to linger to the Iloilo of my childhood and my youth and I think about the noteworthy, unforgettable memories I have of La Muy Leal y Noble Ciudad de Iloilo, my second home after my beloved Dumaguete.