by

AGELESS IN THE SHADOW OF MAYON
by barbara barquez ricafrente

For those of us who grew up in a town as laid back as my own, there are plentiful anecdotes to be told and observations worth exploring.

The propensity for name-calling, for instance, may not be unique to this bucolic town in Albay province but it is a phenomenon that continues to fascinate even one who has been away from Oas for many years. About fifty percent of the families even in a small neighborhood are known not only by their actual birth names but more so by the names or bansag their neighbors or friends choose to tag them with. One’s bansag disparages one’s character in a humorous sort of way and, at the same time, indicates close familiarity with a person. For those who have lived forever in Bicol’s small rural towns, name-calling appears to have become a habit that is deeply ingrained in the local culture. It is perhaps part of a worldview that remains unarticulated, and a way of life that involves minding other people’s personal business.

Such terms as kulalapnit – the local name for the fruit bat, linog or earthquake, ragwak which is a derogatory version of the word rigwâ or vomit, bûtug which means bloated, purgas or dog fleas, bungkukan which is a root crop associated with the katngâ or gabi plant, and baktat or that low-flying black bird with a relatively wide wingspan and an ungainly gait that frequented the ricefields of Oas until the late 1970s are but a handful of these so-called bansag. The reasons for tagging people with unpalatable names can range from the truly superficial to the more meaningful. The man called Bûtug, for instance, earned his moniker from constantly engaging in self-aggrandizement. He praised himself so often and was so engrossed in announcing every one of his little accomplishments or non-accomplishments that he never even noticed when people were already making fun of him. Bûtug, in this case, referred to a bloated ego, but the man did not seem to take offense at the teasing. The one called Ragwak was said to throw up so often at drinking sessions that his drinking buddies told him to switch to carabao milk instead. Bungkukan earned his bansag simply because this gabi fruit was his favorite snack and meal. And finally, the man known as Baktat had a very dark complexion, a somewhat pointed face, and a round-eyed and bewildered look about him that reminded everyone of the general appearance of the bird which today is probably bordering on extinction; that is, if its entire species has not completely died out yet. Stuck to their original owners, these names have been passed on to their immediate families and the generations after them. If anyone of these families have been offended at all by the name-calling, none has showed it.

Oas is also known for the proliferation of family names that begin with the letter R. Although this has been diluted in recent decades by the migration of people from other places, it first came about as a result of the zoning measures enforced by the Spaniards who disembarked from their ships at the Legazpi port in Albay and proceeded to take over the rest of the Bicol region with sword and cross in the early decades of the Spanish colonization of the Philippines. The invaders needed to have a mechanism for determining who lived where, perhaps as a means to keep in check the movements of the indios whom they secretly feared. After all, how could those who had no right to take over another people’s land trust that those they were trying to subjugate (who probably gave them dagger looks, maybe not right away but in subsequent decades) had no criminal intent against them? But that’s another story that probably requires diplomas in History and definitely involves endless hours in sneeze-inducing archives. At any rate, a cursory survey of the tombstones in the town’s Catholic cemetery would show all kinds of R-starters, including such rare names as Reganit, Rapirap, Raro, Riofrio, Resontoc, Restubog, and the like. In the town’s more remote upland areas, these family names are sometimes combined with such unlikely first names as Atorni and Everlasting.

Of course, the Oasnŏn language has its own share of funny terms. This includes the word ispat for flashlight, most likely derived from the bright spot of light emanating from a flashlight when it is focused on a solid area such as a wall or the trunk of a coconut tree especially on pitch-black nights in Bicol in those days when it had no access to electricity and the idea of tapping geothermal power from Mayon Volcano would have been so outlandish as to be lumped together with witchcraft and the concept of human rights. But before one digresses completely, another word is gilyit for blade, obviously taken from the Gilette brand of blades for shaving beards and boil-plagued heads as well as for cutting threads and clearing nails of nail polish when the local stores are out of acetone supply. Words such as these have generated endless bantering and laughter between Oasnŏns and the residents of other Bicol towns.

Not to be left out is the fact that almost every family or clan in Oas, especially in the last century, raised at least one son for the priesthood. Many of these priests were truly celibate, but a number of them were of the pragmatic and worldly sort, engaging in secret love affairs, fathering their own offspring, and even pursuing businesses. These practices were only whispered about and frowned upon in those days, but as the next generation of priests took over and the onset of the Internet age ushered in more new ideas and lifestyles, the line between doctrine and practice significantly blurred.

Still, the town generally continues to resist change. It seems content to trudge along, as if caught in a time warp. The third largest territory in the province of Albay, Oas is like an ageless creature whose feet are irreparably glued to the ground. It has withstood the foul moods of typhoons that have drowned its rice fields and have hurled away or messed up its rooftops, the sudden swirling floods that race from Mount Mayon and have taken lives and have deposited several feet of silt in its homes in their wake, and the unremitting onslaught of time that has left the town progressively faded and much older, reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s town of Macondo as it approached its one hundredth year of solitude. But Bûtug remains so full of himself, Ragwak has not given up his regular dose of gin-bulag despite his advancing age, and the now-hypertensive Baktat looks as bewildered as ever. In some perverse way, thus, this town probably takes pride in its obstinacy in the face of multifarious changes.

Perhaps therein lies its enduring charm.

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