The House that Was

By Fe C. Abogadie, September 2001

The year was 1972. I remember clearly. It was the same year that Marcos declared martial law in the Philippines. Just a few months before the proclamation of martial law, my parents, after years of deliberating and planning and saving, finally decided to replace our old nipa-and-bamboo house. They decided to replace it with one made of concrete and hardwood, with galvanized iron for roofing. This decision was to have a great impact on our lives.

Almost 30 years later, and on the other side of the world, I now remember that old house so vividly and with so much nostalgia. I don’t know why. Perhaps because I am afraid that the rapid urbanization of the Philippines is causing the disappearance of these traditional houses, and with it, a whole way of life. Practical reasons of course dictate that if you can afford it, it is better to build a concrete house. It is cheaper in the long term because it can withstand the heavy rains and typhoons so common in the Philippines. In many small villages in the countryside of course there are still these nipa-and-bamboo houses, but they are fast disappearing. Part of me is afraid that they are becoming "extinct". Part of me wants to remember happy memories of life spent in just such a house. Better put them in writing before memory fails.

The old house

The old house was the first house my parents owned after they got married. I remember it as a big house, but maybe it was "big" because I was just a child when I lived in it. To a child less than three feet tall, perhaps every house is big. Apparently there was a religious ceremony performed before the first shovel of soil was dug to construct the new house that was to replace it. Or there should have been, as it is believed to be bad luck if you do not have this blessing done before building a house. In any case, I was not there to witness it. I was at school. I don’t particularly remember my parents explaining to my siblings and me that the old house was going to be demolished that day. Maybe they did not want us to worry ourselves about it. I just remember that one day I went to school, just a 10-minute walk away, and when I came home for lunch there it was, the huge hole in the ground where the workers had erected the first pillar for the new house.

I learned later that in the process of constructing the new house, a few coconut trees had to be cut because they were in the way. I remember eating some of the "ubod", the fleshy topmost part that is the heart of the coconut palm. The "ubod" is rare, for a coconut tree is considered so valuable and is therefore not cut down unless for a very good reason. So the only time one can have "ubod" is when a typhoon has felled down some coconut trees, and yes, when coconut trees are felled down in the course of building a house.

The old house was supported off the ground by a few main pillars made of wood from locally grown hardwood trees. On to these pillars were attached the framework of wood and bamboo that would support the floors, walls and roof. The flooring all throughout the house was made of polished bamboo slats strung close together with rattan strips. The walls and roof were made with nipa palms in thatched layers. The slat design of the flooring meant that the mountain and sea breezes were free to come and go through the floor, so the house interior was naturally cool. I have no memories of it being so hot back then. But then, many coconut and other fruit trees surrounded the house so there was much shade around.

The "pantaw" or front porch

The front entrance was through some bamboo stairs, perhaps 4 or 5 rungs, into a front porch called "pantaw" in Cebuano. The "pantaw" was spacious, certainly big enough for the laundry woman to do her ironing there. That was when ironing was done with the black flat iron using hot coals made from coconut shells (locally known as "uling"). The iron had a heavy bottom and a less heavy top to which a wooden handle was attached. The top part had a zigzagged edge so that when brought down over the bottom part, it formed several holes. The holes were important to let out the smoke. Ironing was much heavier work then, for every piece of clothing was made of cotton and made stiff with cassava starch. My mother, Nanay, told me that starching helped extend the longevity of the clothes. This was well and good but meant more work. For proper ironing, each item had to be sprayed with water first to make them pliant. Thus our laundry woman, Manang Nacia, whenever she had her ironing day, would have piles of clothes around her and the ironing board. Three piles of clothes: one pile for the starched clothes that still needed to be sprayed with water, another pile for the rolled clothes that had been wetted already, and a third pile for the freshly ironed ones. I should know, because Manang Nacia used to allow me to help her with the job as long as I did the piles correctly. I enjoyed very much the ritual of dipping my hands in the bowl of water, sprinkling the water evenly over each item, and then folding and rolling each item into a compact shape.

The "pantaw" was not only a work area. It was also the informal receiving room. When people dropped by for a chat, as was so commonly done then, they would be welcomed into the "pantaw". There were only a couple of chairs as far as I can remember. Most of the time, people would just sit on the floor or on the steps, with their feet extended out in a very relaxed manner. The "pantaw" too was a playroom, especially for my sister Lina and me. (My sister Lina and I were close playmates, for I was only 14 months older than she. In our family she was called Baby Lina. Nanay used to dress us in similar clothes and people would often ask if we were twins). We would lay out our toys in the "pantaw" and play house with our friends, who were also our neighbours. When it was raining, we had fun wetting our hair with the water dripping from the eaves of the nipa roofing.

The "sala" or the living room

From the "pantaw" there was a door leading to the "sala" or the main living room. Perhaps the "sala" was the biggest room in the house. As one enters it, immediately one would be in front of the altar, where one is confronted with images of the crucified Christ or the weeping Virgin Mary and, invariably, of scenes of hell and purgatory. Every house in those days had an altar like ours. It must have given young kids the scare of their lives to imagine themselves being banished to hell, just like those fallen angels, if they did so much as disobey their parents or do something really naughty. At least that was how the old folks back then would get the children to be obedient.

The "sala" was the scene of many incidents of my siblings and I kneeling before the altar. It was mostly my brother Dodong, my sister Baby Lina and myself. (Manoy Ne, our eldest, was already in high school two towns away so we would only see him on weekends, while our youngest, Dayon, was still a baby). Kneeling before the altar was our punishment for misdeeds – we were supposed to ask forgiveness for our sins. But we would just be quiet for the first few minutes and when Nanay went to another part of the house, we would end up poking and teasing each other again or end up either giggling or arguing again. As soon as we hear Nanay’s footsteps coming back, we would pretend again to be solemn before the altar. I wonder if today’s parents still discipline their kids this way.

In the evenings, the "sala" became our bedroom. There was a proper bedroom, just next to the "sala", but that was where my parents slept, together with our baby sister Dayon. Manoy Ne, Dodong, Baby Lina and I slept on the "sala" floor. We had a huge woven mat called "banig" that we would unroll on the floor for sleeping. The "banig" covered most of the "sala" area and on it we would spread our pillows and blankets before hanging the huge mosquito net. We hung the mosquito net by hooking its four corners, the "ears", on to nails hammered into the walls at appropriate locations. Hanging the mosquito net was a huge task, or so it seemed, for we would always argue as to whose turn it was to do it that night. Under the mosquito net, my siblings and I slept right next to each other, my brothers on one side, and my sister Lina and I on the other.

I remember this arrangement as great fun. In modern terms, this is like having a pajama party every night. In those days (and maybe still true nowadays) it was a real luxury to have separate bedrooms for each child so it was perfectly acceptable for several people to sleep together in one room. From a child’s perspective, this was the ultimate in security, for one did not sleep alone. My siblings and I used to play games even when we were already under the mosquito netting, ready for bed. What we loved the most of course was when my mother would read us bedtime stories, usually of fairy tales and of valiant heroes, or stories of good kids being rewarded great riches. There were also nights when our father would challenge us with riddles and we would always try ever so hard to guess the answers.

The "sala" had a wide window on one side, on the east side, to welcome the morning sun. Extending out from this window was a bamboo ledge about a foot wide, enclosed with some kind of a bamboo railing. One stormy day, in the early seventies, when typhoon Asiang was causing havoc and devastation throughout the islands, our baby sister Dayon was put outside on this ledge, in the rain, because she would not stop crying. She was having one of her notorious tantrums and she kept screaming even more while on the ledge. Her cries became mixed with the noise of the heavy rain and the howling winds, and I felt powerless to help her. To this day we still talk about this event, and still tease Dayon for her notorious temper.

The "sunog" or bedroom

The "sala" and the bedroom, which we called "sunog", were right next to each other, separated only by a thin wall of woven canvas made from a bamboo-like material. There was a "door" on each end of this dividing wall, and it was so easy to go in one door and come out the other. They were not really proper doors though, as there were no panels to open and close them. There were just floor-length curtains hanging on them which one pushed to the side to go through into the next room. In the bedroom was our only stand-alone wardrobe called "aparador". This was where my parents kept their valuables. This also contained the nice clothes and linens and towels, together with the necessary mothballs. The "aparador" had a mirror attached to the front side of its main door. Baby Lina and I used to admire ourselves before this mirror with our pretend long hair made from a towel draped over our heads. As little girls, we were never allowed long hair, because long hair would just be an invitation for head lice, according to Nanay. She said that Baby Lina and I could have long hair when we are big enough to make sure our hair was always clean. Of course this did not happen until much later so as little girls, we were always envious of other girls with long hair.

The connecting room

In effect, the "sala" was the centre of the house. On one side it led to the "pantaw", on another side was the front window while on a third side it led to the bedroom. On its fourth side, it led to some kind of a connecting room. We did not really call it a particular name; it was just the room between the "sala" and the kitchen. To one side of this room was a "lantay", probably the Filipino equivalent of a divan, except that ours was made of bamboo, quite wide, and was multi-purpose. The "lantay" was big enough to serve as a double bed for guests. During the day, it also served as a lounger for the adults or as another play area for us kids and our friends. On one wall of this room was a wide opening that led into some kind of a bay window, except that this one was permanently closed. This served as a storage area for all sorts of things, such as the big laundry basket, the big tin containers for rice, the boxes of shoes and Nanay’s sewing paraphernalia. This utility enclosure was hidden from public view by a pair of hanging curtains, and was therefore a favourite hiding place when we played hide-and-seek.

On the other side of the room was the true window, one that could be properly opened and closed with a bamboo panel locally called "sasa". It was propped open with a bamboo pole during the day and was pulled shut at night. From this window one could have a view overlooking the front yard, on which were a number of coconut, citrus and guava trees. One day I was sweeping this yard, being a helpful girl, when one of the young coconuts fell on my head. It was a coconut that had been partially eaten, most probably by a rat, and so had a hole on one end. From this hole poured out the coconut water that drenched me that fateful day. People in the neighbourhood said that the reason I’m smart is because something in my head fell in place just right when that coconut fell on top of my head. They claim it’s true – survivors of falling coconuts are smart people. As far as Nanay was concerned, I think she was just glad that I survived that incident. I, on the other hand, was totally shocked and just cried.

The "kusina" or the kitchen

The "kusina" or kitchen was on the other end of the connecting room, opposite the "sala". As a room it was fairly big, was rectangular in shape, and was really a combined dining room and kitchen. On one end of it was the dining table and on the other end was the cooking area called the "abu". I remember the "abu" as big and tall, for I had to stand on tiptoe to be on eye-level with its top surface. It was a 4-legged wooden structure a few feet tall and its surface was packed hard with ash. Evenly spaced on the top of the packed surface were two clay stoves. I think two stoves was a minimum; one stove for cooking the rice, and the other for cooking the fish, if one were to cook them simultaneously. We used dried coconut palms called "palwa" as firewood back then. This material gave a lot of soot so this meant that all of our pots were black on the outside. It didn’t matter, for most of our pots were made of clay anyway. No need to clean them on the outside, like we do now for iron or aluminium pots.

My parents, Nanay and Tatay, were true believers in the superiority of cooking in clay pots. They said the food cooked better and tasted better. Maybe they were right. I do remember the very pleasant smell of banana leaves cooking. These leaves were used to layer the bottom of the pot for cooking rice or fish, and protected them from burning. Sort of. How it really worked was that if the rice or the fish were on the point of being overcooked, one would smell the burnt banana leaves first. So the cook would rush to the pot to lower the fire before damage could be done to the rice or fish. It worked!

My mind now is full of memories of cooking in the "abu". During the time we lived in the old house, we always had a maid or two, for there were five kids altogether to take care of, and both my parents were working. The maid would usually do the cooking, except when we had "special dishes", when Nanay would take over. It is so funny to remember now that one of our so-called "special dishes" was the plain old pancakes, which we called "hotcakes" at the time. But for us, it really was special, for it was not so easy to find the ingredients then, ingredients like flour and margarine (for butter) and milk (Nanay used powdered milk). It was such a big event for us that we would gather around the "abu" and watch Nanay make the "hotcakes". In our neighbourhood, we were the first kids to taste "hotcakes". We thought we were pretty special.

Another one of our "special dishes" was the misua noodles cooked with canned sardines, usually prepared when there was a typhoon and fresh fish was not available. Back then, anything with canned sardines or canned mackerel was special. Maybe because it was such a rarity, and its taste was so different from the everyday fresh fishes that we took for granted.

In that "abu" in the old house, that was also where I learned to cook "sigay" from my brother Dodong. Although as kids Dodong and I used to fight a lot (for Dodong liked to bully me) we did have happy times together. One of them was getting a kind of small Cowrie shell called "sigay" (pronounced see-guy, with accent on the second syllable) from the local coral reef. The "sigay" shells were used for some games we played in the neighbourhood. Before we could play with them however, the shells had to be cooked properly, or they would smell really bad. Dodong showed me how to cook them using the bottom half of a broken clay pot, on the "abu" that I could barely reach.

Back in those days my family always had a cat. And it was a problem to keep the cat from the leftover food. Since we did not have a refrigerator (there was no electricity in several towns on our side of the province), we used to keep leftover food on top of the dining table, covered with a big woven bamboo contraption with holes. It was like an inverted basket. Normally the cat would not touch the rice and other starchy food, such as the cooked sweet potatoes and bananas. But fish was just irresistible to the cat. Without fail, it would get to any fish left on the table. The clever solution to the problem was a hanging basket over the area between the dining table and the "abu". That was the only safe area for the fish as far as the cat was concerned.

Meal times in the Philippines were, and continue to be, family times. Families eat together around a dining table. In our house, it was the rule that we should not leave food uneaten on our plates. Kids were not allowed to leave the table until they have eaten their portions. As a child, I must have been a picky eater, for I remember a number of occasions being left behind in the dining table. I remember very clearly too the maid pleading with me to finish eating, so she could clear the table. If I continued to delay, she would call Nanay, and Nanay would cajole me into eating what was on my plate. One evening, even Nanay failed at this, and so she called in Tatay. Thus happened my first lesson in the appreciation of fine fish. On this occasion, Tatay took a different approach to teaching me to appreciate food. He told me that the fish on my plate was of the finest kind. It was "first class", for it was caught just earlier that day using the "bobo". He explained to me what a "bobo" is. A "bobo" is a fish trap made of bamboo that the local fishermen would drop with a heavy weight in the deep sea and leave there for "harvesting" a week or so later. Because it was left in the deep sea, the "bobo" trapped only certain kinds of fish – the really big and tasty kind. I was so intrigued by this whole scenario that I could not help but sample this supposedly really fine fish. And indeed, Tatay was right! The fish really tasted fantastic! Since then I would often ask Nanay and Tatay if the fish we were having was from the "bobo". That was how I knew it had to be good. Thinking back now, maybe there were times when they told me it was from the "bobo", even when probably it was not, just so I would finish my portion of fish.

The back porch and the "banggera"

The kitchen led into the back porch which had an elevated counter called a "banggera" that opened into the outside. The dish washing was done on the "banggera", using water that was fetched from the water pump at ground level. The back porch opened to the back stairs, about 5 or 6 rungs, slightly longer than the stairs in the front of the house. I should know, for I fell from those stairs once. Standing on top of those stairs one day, I had this sensation of falling down. To a little girl, it seemed such a very long distance from where I was standing to the bottom of the stairs. Before I knew it, indeed I was really down on the ground. Nanay and Tatay always told us to stay away from the stairs, but I had a streak of stubbornness in me.

One morning Baby Lina and I were sitting on the back stairs, just tickling each other and generally having fun. Suddenly, we decided to see who had a sweeter tongue. We then decided to taste each other’s tongue to find out for sure. We did so and ended up claiming that the other’s tongue was very bland, that one’s own tongue was much sweeter. Ah, those were fun and innocent times indeed!

The "silong" or under the house

Because the old house was supported off the ground by pillars, this meant that there was an area "under" the house that was not exactly underground. This area was called "silong". It was very useful as a general storage area. This was where Tatay kept the dried coconut palms and coconut husks that we used for firewood to keep them from the rain. Manoy Ne and Dodong kept their "sigay" shells here as well, when the"sigay" were not in season anymore (in those days, there was a seasonality to the games that the kids in the neighbourhood played). Dayon as a child was fed Magnolia brand milk and there was a huge mound of Magnolia milk tins under the house. One day a woman came to say she would buy the tins and we kids were all so happy to make money from such an unexpected source.

Not exactly in the "silong" but in the vicinity of the back yard was the Jetmatic water pump we called the "bomba". This pump gave us the water we drank as well as the water that we used for all our other needs. My parents said we were lucky that the water from our pump tasted nice and was not salty, because in fact we were not that far from the seashore. In our neighbourhood, we were the first one to have this kind of water pump and I was very proud. Many of our neighbours came and fetched water from our pump everyday, to use as their drinking water. We did not mind, for all our neighbours were also our friends. In fact, the "bomba" area was a social scene, where neighbours would gather together and gossip. It was also an open-air bathroom for my family. We would pump water into pails and use dippers made from recycled plastic gasoline containers to pour the water over our bodies. (This is how these dippers came to be called "caltex", from the gasoline brand "Caltex", in the same way that we used to refer to toothpaste as "colgate"). Adults would take a bath fully clothed while kids were totally naked. This made it easier for the grownups to scrub clean the little urchins.

Occasionally, there were people I didn’t know who came to fetch water from our pump. They brought along not the usual plastic or tin pails for the water but the hollowed bamboo poles that were open on one end but closed on the other. For the purpose of containing water, these bamboo poles had to be at least a few inches in diameter and a few feet in length. These people carried the poles on their shoulders, something that to me looked really hard work. I asked Nanay who those people were. She said they were "taga-bukid", literally from the mountains. They used the water from our pump as drinking water but for all their other water needs, they used rainwater. I imagined they lived so far away and had such a hard life, and wondered why. In my young mind, I wanted them to be one with us, in the village. I guess because I felt I had such a carefree life, I wanted everybody to have the same. I would always feel sorry if any one of my playmates could not join us because they had to take care of their younger siblings. Baby Lina and I solved this problem by going over to our playmates’ house and play there, together with the younger brothers and sisters that our friends were supposed to be taking care of. This was my first experience of babysitting.

In those days we had an outhouse, a separate small building for the toilet, on the far corner of the lot that my parents owned. It seemed so long ago now, those days when I could not go to the toilet alone. I had to have someone with me then, usually Nanay. It was only much later, when I was older, that it dawned on me that not every household in the village had a toilet.

New house, new life

So in 1972, when the old house gave way to the new, our lives changed as well, mine and that of my family. It is very tempting now to relate those changes to the political changes that were happening in the country then, with the imposition of martial law. But I was too young then to understand what martial law meant. I was just annoyed that suddenly the radio stations stopped broadcasting my favourite drama programs. Looking back now, maybe it was the case – maybe indeed, the changing of houses also marked the end of an innocent time.