Flowers from Antique and Other Stories

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Writing by the beach at an island in the middle of nowhere is my idea of the perfect writing life. No internet, no tv, no work-related calls, not even my laptop. Just a notebook and pen, a cup of coffee, me, myself, and I far, far away from the urban distractions of home.

I work for a Fortune 500 IT company where long vacations are a dream and a three-day leave could get interrupted anytime. Last June, we had an extraordinarily stressful but ultra-successful month and I thought I deserved some uninterrupted extended time off. Fortunately, my boss agreed.

But where to go?

The Philippines is an archipelago and there are thousands of islands to choose from. To whittle down my choices, I made a list of requirements of the perfect resort:

  1. Isolated enough and uncrowded where I can write in peace but still somewhere near ‘civilization’ in case I needed a break and wanted to roam around or sample local food
  2. Has basic amenities like electricity, running water, and a restaurant
  3. situated on an island that didn’t need a ferry ride owing to the rainy season when the weather is uncertain and the waves too dangerous

A few blog entries ago, I wrote about my fascination for genealogy. I remember thinking then that if I ever had the time, I would go research the Flores branch of my own family tree.

There was only one place in the world that met all of my requirements: Antique, Philippines.

Located in the large island of Panay, Antique (pronounced /Ahn – TEE – keh/) is one of three provinces in the Western Visayas region that have a certain reputation for the supernatural.

For example, mention the island of Siquijor to anyone anywhere else in the Philippines and the mangkukulam (witch) or aswang (evil ghosts or demons also known regionally as wak-wak or tiktik) will always come up in conversation.

In the province of Capiz, there would be the manananggal, a woman whose upper half separates from the rest of her body and flies around at night looking for humans to feast on.

Finally in Antique, there would be more or less these same characters plus the mambabarang (sorcerer), babaylan (native priestesses that can conjure spells, heal the sick, or foretell the future), and finally the good albularyo (herb doctor).

No wonder these three provinces remain uncrowded in spite of its superb beaches. Not only that. Their environmental resources have remained largely pristine. For example, Bugang River in Antique has been awarded the cleanest in the country many times over. Siquijor’s forests are still lush and pretty much intact while illegal logging is a huge problem elsewhere.

Ancient beliefs and traditions have become Mother Nature’s mantle of protection. Even well into the 21st century, many Filipinos are still afraid to venture where the possibility of getting hexed by anyone they come across is greater in these islands.

It isn’t true, of course. As with most superstitions, it depends on whether you believe it or not. I don’t.

Of the three provinces, Siquijor is reputedly the scariest place of all but I’ve never encountered the faintest hint of any of these supernatural characters in action. In fact, it remains one of those gorgeous islands that I wish I could always go back to.

It is often said that when one visits Antique for the first time to always expect the unexpected. Whether they meant supernatural things were going to happen, good or bad, remains to be seen. All I knew was that I looked forward to writing by the beach for a week as well as researching my mother’s line in her ancestral hometown.

My maternal roots are found in Tibiao, a scenic town in the northernmost tip of Antique. When my mom was eleven, her parents uprooted their family down to southern Philippines in the big island of Mindanao due to an inheritance spat, and my mom’s parents never looked back. As far as I know, my grandmother never again returned to the land of her birth.

Which was why I had never met that branch of my family. Yet they were always the subject of my mom’s most animated stories from her childhood. Along with countless Antiquenyo myths and legends – I could fill countless pages of the stories my mom used to tell me – I grew up thinking Antique was that sacred home of my forebears, magical and fantastic in every way.

It is not one of the country’s richer provinces, though, so it has no commercial airport. From Manila, one would have to fly to the neighboring province of Aklan then ride a bus or van into Antique. I finally settled on staying at a nice beachfront resort in the coastal town of Pandan, one and a half hours away from Kalibo International Airport.

From Kalibo I arrived in Pandan, Antique at about eight o’clock in the evening. The bus dropped me off at the center of town that didn’t have working lights. I worried if tricycles still plied at that hour. Had this been in Manila, I’d have been very afraid. But this was the province where the pace of life was slower and there really wasn’t much to be gained by robbing anyone in a place where everyone knew everybody else. I needn’t have worried, either. Within five minutes, a tricycle came along and I was off to the resort.

Pandan Beach Resort turned out to be charming and perfect for my purposes. The family that own it were very accommodating. Ms. Gigi, the owner, graciously offered me an upgrade. Through Agoda, I had initially booked a fan room with a shared bathroom and a partial view of the sea for PhP 448 (USD 8.44) per night for 1 week. Instead Ms. Gigi offered me the PhP 2,500-a-night family cottage for only PhP 1000/night (USD 18.83) minus the full price I had paid through Agoda. It had its own airconditioned bedroom, a kitchen, bathroom, and best of all, a balcony that faced the beach. Who could say no to such a generous offer?

On the other hand, it was the wrong season to come visiting. Monsoon season had arrived. Ninety percent of the time I was there, it rained and when it didn’t the clouds just hung low and dark. The waves were scary, rushing to shore like angry giants. The wind howled just as if there was a storm. Debris littered the beach.

I told myself I didn’t mind as I was there not as a tourist but as a writer. Period. Here was my writer’s fantasy come to life so write I did in utter peace and quiet with only the crashing of the waves and the falling rain on the roof for company.

On my last full day in Antique, I decided to go for the secondary reason I went there for. As the commuter van sped through endless miles of rice fields along the coast, I imagined that this was the same landscape my long-dead ancestors had gazed upon. I doubted the scenery had changed much in a century.

Forty-five minutes later, I stepped off the van in Tibiao. Just like all Filipino towns established during the Spanish colonial era, the plaza was located in the center of town, flanked to the southwest by the Catholic Church and the municipal hall to the northeast.

The place was just as sleepy as I imagined it would be. For a full minute, I took in the view overwhelmed by the thought that I was standing on the same ground where the grandparents I’ve never met and their parents before them had once walked and where my own mother had played as a child. It was a sacred moment knowing that, for once, I was in communion with my ancestors like I never have before.

I made a beeline for the Catholic church. My grandmother was born in 1896 and if there was one thing that could help me find out my ancestors’ names, it was through the church’s baptismal records. The one good thing about the Spanish colonizers was that they were diligent record-keepers. Before the conquistadores came, pre-colonial Filipinos did not have a centralized system of recordkeeping probably because the concept of one nation hadn’t existed yet. Back then the Philippine archipelago was made up of tribes fiercely independent of each other.

At the parish office, I asked the secretary if I could look up my grandmother’s baptismal records with the intent of finding out who my great grandparents were and their parents before them.

Unfortunately, the parish records only went back to 1906, already several years into the American colonial period. The Spanish-era records were gone in accordance with a law that ordered all municipalities around the country to send all Spanish colonial documents to the National Archives back in Manila for safekeeping.

I was disappointed, naturally. I had not come all the way from Manila where I lived only to find that I could’ve completed my genealogical research a long time ago without having to fly the distance.

But I didn’t know so I thought I might as well make the best out of the circumstances. I asked the parish secretary if I could take a picture of the 1908 – 1929 ledger. It was still a historical artifact, after all.

I took a photo of the ledger’s cover, randomly opened a page close to the middle of the book and took a photo of it without even reading the faded contents.

Turns out the secretary was related by marriage to a Flores relative. Did I want to meet them? He could give me a ride to the family compound if I was interested.

I couldn’t believe my luck. What were the odds?

When we arrived at the compound, a group of men were milling by the gate. One of the men towered over the others. I took one look at him and knew instantly he was a relative. There was no mistaking the strong jaw, high cheekbones, wide forehead, long nose, and the sharp gaze that strongly echoed that of my grandmother’s in her photos.

I was right. The secretary introduced me to Uncle Roger who at first couldn’t understand what I was there for and who I was. I called my mom for help and had her talk to Uncle Roger on speaker. His face lightened up in recognition when he realized he was talking to his first cousin, my mom. He knew her alright; Mom had played with him as a kid!

Without further ado, he sent one of the men to spread the word and invited me into the beachfront compound. There I met more of the Flores clan who greeted me with curiosity and so much warmth, it was overwhelming.

For the first time in my life, I knew what it was like to be a member of an extended family. My grandmother’s branch grew up isolated from her relatives in Mindanao and my parents themselves opted to live far from either side of their relatives so that I grew up only with my nuclear family. I never understood the kinship my friends felt for their cousins, aunts and uncles. Sometimes my father’s brothers would come visiting and so would their children, but I’ve never really connected with any of them. As far as I was concerned, relatives outside of my parents, my siblings and their own families were synonymous to strangers. Nothing more.

But not here. I don’t think I will ever understand how being with the Flores clan felt like home. It was a homecoming I cannot fully explain, a feeling akin to how I feel for my own hometown. Even more curious, as a kid we used to visit my father’s birthplace in the island of Cebu and mingle with my father’s relatives and yet I always felt like a stranger. In Tibiao, though, how was it possible to feel that much joy and warmth for people I have never met in a place I have never been before?

Word quickly spread and before long I was surrounded by a crowd of Floreses. ‘Flores’ in Spanish means ‘flowers’ but there were moments I thought it should’ve been Pilares: the Flores men and women surrounded me like pillars, I had to look up. They were all so tall!

Uncle Roger introduced me to every single one of them. There were hugs and a lot of laughter just as if they’d known me all my life.

At some point, a very old woman came up quietly and the crowd parted to let her through.

I looked at her and she seemed familiar. Uncle Roger then said, “And that’s your lola.”

Lola is ‘grandma’ in Filipino.

I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly. “Uh, what?”

“Your Lola Jacinta.”

Confused, I asked, “Lola? How is she my lola?”

Uncle Roger explained, “To be specific, she’s your grandaunt. Your own lola’s younger sister.”

My jaw dropped. I still had a grandrelative alive?

It was unbelievable. My birth order echoes that of my mom: we both came so late into our respective families that anyone “grand-anything” had died out long before I was born!

I looked at the woman shuffling her way to me. My eyes welled up and the crowd grew quiet. I was speechless as she gathered me in a big bear hug.

The kid in me wanted to sob. I have a lola? Is this real?

Finally, I managed to croak, “Lola…”

The word felt alien to the tongue but a thousand times sweeter than anything in the world. I struggled to come up with the right words. How does one greet a grandmother that you never knew you had, a grandmother that, growing up, you always wished you had just like every other kid in the universe?

“Lola… You really are my lola? This is so unbelievable. I’m so sorry, I didn’t know… I never had a lola before. I’m sorry, what am I saying…” On and on I babbled.

Lola Jacinta looked at me with the kindest eyes I have ever seen and they twinkled with mirth.

She looked almost like my grandmother except that where my lola inherited the Castillian features of her father, Jacinta’s Chinese heritage was more pronounced. But there was no mistaking the resemblance. Looking at Jacinta, I could tell she was once a beauty in her youth, just as my grandmother was reputed to be in her day. At 90, she could still move around without much difficulty and her mental faculties were still sound.

My mom was equally astounded to find out that an aunt was still alive. She had no idea. But then again, her own mother had cut ties with the Flores side of the family. Not to mention the fact – I learned later from my mom – that my own grandma never really considered Jacinta as officially one of the family. Turns out my great grandpa Flores was a handsome playboy in his day, sowing wild oats outside of the marriage bed. Jacinta was the product of one of his extramarital affairs.

Full grandaunt or not, I was thrilled to meet a remnant of my grandma’s generation. It felt like I finally bridged the distance between centuries, filling a gap within myself that I had not known existed.

My visit was short – unplanned, after all – and after about two hours, I had to leave if I was to catch the last trip back to Pandan. My newfound family insisted I stay overnight. Tempted though I was, I declined. I didn’t want to miss my flight back to Manila from Aklan, almost three hours away. With the state of the weather, the chance was great I could get stranded. Best to play safe.

Before I left, one of my many Flores cousins thought to ask what I was doing in Antique alone. I explained I’d always wanted to see where my mother was born and to trace our lineage but that I came to a dead end without the baptismal records.

At that, an aunt exclaimed, “Is that even a problem? Come, let’s get you to the Flores cemetery! The information you need is all there.”

I gaped at her. “We have our own cemetery?”

“Oh, my dear, yes! Generations of Floreses, all the names and dates to your heart’s content!”

I gaped even more. This was astonishing news! At least, for me. I grew up in what used to be a frontier town in homestead country where familial roots that go back generations is an alien concept (In the early 20th century, during the American colonial period, the island of Mindanao – owned by indigenous tribes – was declared up for grabs for Christian pioneers from the north willing to resettle much like the way the American West was taken from the Indians and opened for settlement).

I was eager to go, but Uncle Roger – the clan’s patriarch – put his foot down. I wouldn’t make the last trip back to Pandan if we were to go to the cemetery, he said.

For a brief moment, I toyed with the idea of risking an overnight stay in Tibiao, but had to abandon it. Missing my flight was a real possibility. It just couldn’t be done.

Uncle Roger and several of the Flores men accompanied me to the bus stop. I realized I was truly in Flores country when along the way, he pointed out several whole streets where Floreses still lived on either side and also pointed out my mother’s old home. He said all that land had once been my great grandpa’s property, now divided and subdivided among his heirs. It was mind-boggling. Who knew?

There’s this particular moment that still fills me with warmth and a measure of pride whenever I think of it. We were walking down the street, the Flores men flanking me on all sides, good looking and tall without exception.

Now I happen to have an irrational fear of being surrounded by especially tall people. It’s not exactly a phobia but when it does happen sometimes, I get this particular unease at the pit of my stomach that refuses to go away until I regain my personal space. It’s why I never go to concerts or especially crowded places if I can help it.

But in that moment, I had never felt so safe and comfortable in a crowd. A Flores kind of crowd. The people we met knew them all and moved out of the way. It’s as if these men were the kings of their own little kingdom, and I was a princess. Funny thought but there it is. I’m not ashamed to say I loved every freakin’ minute of it!

It is said that Antique is the land of magic and mystery. Perhaps they’re right. I went there for the writing but went away with a treasure far more valuable than I could ever have imagined. Expect the unexpected.

That night back at the resort, I reviewed the photos I took that day. I found the one I took of the random page from the ledger. Out of curiosity, I zoomed in to skim through its contents, faded by time.

Towards the end of the page, I stopped cold. My breath caught. My eyes widened in shock. I zoomed in closer. There was no mistaking it. There was the name.

A hundred years ago, on Jan. 9, 1918, Santiaga Flores stood in as someone’s godmother.

Santiaga Flores is my long-dead grandmother.

What were the odds?

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