IOWA CITY — Thinking back, more than a month ago, I thought it would be hard to leave the City I had grown up in. I’ve known Dumaguete most of my life, interrupted only by the occasional forays into foreign shores. A year in Japan, for example, and trips to India, Singapore, Thailand.
How do you exactly say goodbye to home? Dumaguete has defined who I am, or so I had thought. And so, on my last day there, before I boarded the first of my many flights to middle America, I strained to look at it as if I was about to see it for the last time.
I thought that embedding it perfectly in memory would last me the considerable span of time that I would be gone from it. I thought that it would keep at bay the cold, unfortunate fingers of homesickness. (When I lived in Tokyo, for example, I would regularly race to this secluded teahouse adjacent a magnificent woods, and there, on a rock in the middle of a garden, I cry for home. Also, on Saturday midnights, I would bring to my bed a portable radio, where I snuggled away the wintry nights and tune in to the only show in Tagalog in a Tokyo FM station, listening to songs by Sharon Cuneta and Imelda Papin. Then I’d cry myself to sleep. Thinking back now, I laugh at the entire drama. But homesickness was no laughing matter then. It was a disease that kept me from enjoying, wholeheartedly, the strange and unfamiliar culture I found myself surrounded then.)’
I thought that I could just close my eyes, and conjure from the figments of thought that create our sense of place the details of what I knew as home and be transported back, so easily, to the old smells, the old textures of familiar things, the old sights that constituted a cartography of where I come from.
When I was ruminating on this, I was riding a tricycle from Robinson’s Place on a late Sunday afternoon. I just had coffee at Bo’s where I had tried to get some reading done — but succeeded only by one chapter, haphazardly processed, interrupted by a constant flow of friends and familiar faces all saying hello.
When the tricycle made the right turn where the mall jutted at a much-trafficked intersection towards downtown, I could already hear, because of the intimate proximity of the City’s game cockpit, the cacophony of voices placing bets on various colored fighting cocks.
It struck me that this intersection painted the perfect face for Dumaguete — a place slowly crawling into cosmopolitan modernity, yet stuck for the most part in barriotic old-fashionedness. Some people call this charming.
It’s not hard to set a place to memory, like etches on a stone tablet, although it may take some form of practice. The trick is to look at the familiar with the full weight of curiosity. Only then does it come across to you in a new way, since blindness is the usual side-effect of familiarity.
For example, passing by Hibbard Ave., I looked at the laundromat beside the fairy tale kitsch of architecture that is known around town as the Christmas House, and nitpicked at the name. Wishy Washy it’s called. How witty. How cute and seemingly apt. But does the owner know “wishy washy” also means “indecisive”? Perhaps not. (In San Francisco, I stumbled upon a similarly named laundromat along Powell Street, and smiled.)
Then I considered that bricked corner that has Silliman Ave. bending over to Hibbard Avenue, and asked myself, how does one make that one last lingering look at a beloved? By taking in the strangeness of that corner’s traffic of vehicles, and how the chaotic seems to be the sense of order that makes things flow.
By taking in the new intrusion of a pharmacy where once we played “observing sidewalk life in an aquarium” known as Scooby’s. By taking in the ancient presence of the acacia trees; how they tower above us, and yet how we completely ignore them, we don’t even see anymore the glaring wounds they suffer as puny city officials have allowed the cutting of their limbs in the name of infrastructure maintenance.
What else? There are other corners of the City I went to and committed to memory.
And then I leave the place. “Why do you have to leave?” somebody close to me asked me. “It’s just for a while,” I told her. “I need the break. I need to leave all this familiarity behind.”
What I didn’t tell her was that it was suffocating me, it was making me less human, less productive. What I didn’t tell her was that I was trying to escape old ghosts and miserable people who can’t be too happy unless they make everyone else around them as miserable as they are. What I didn’t tell her was that to learn to love the place we have grown in, it is sometimes necessary to leave it for some span of time. Distance makes you more objective, makes you forget old hurts, makes you more philosophical (and accepting) of the place that holds the key to so much of who we are.
Days later, I also realized that so many of my friends were leaving it, we were like an exodus — Karl Villarmea to Chicago, Bing Valbuena to Sydney, Likko Tiongson to Tokyo, Hope Tinambacan to Germany, and many others — and we seemed to echo the same sentiment.
It is necessary to leave sometimes, even for a short while.
But I remember something Timothy Montes once wrote about Dumaguete, and our relationship with it. “Nothing happens [here]. The [newspapers] can’t find enough dogs bitten by men, everybody knows everybody, and one resorts to gossip in the face of the uneventfulness of leaves falling to the ground. Still, when one says goodbye, one never really leaves the place. The mild sadness grows within you and when you ask yourself what makes you hang around this place transfixed in time, you realize the irony of leaves falling to the ground. I love [Dumaguete]; that’s why I hate it. Like leaves falling to the ground, we are suspended in mid-air and never quite reach the ground until we learn to despise it.”