MANILA, JUNE 19, 2006 (STARweek) By Eden E. Estopace - Seven big blue crabs, each the size of a plate, for one peso, the tindera offers. Too expensive, make it ten pieces, the customer haggles.

"Suki, that would be too much, but I’ll throw in some prawns for the little girl, "the vendor says, bending over a pail of fish, carefully selecting the best ones for this regular customer.

It was not yet six o’clock in the morning and her suki, the maestra, is already dressed for school. From a side pocket she fishes out a big one peso coin bearing the face of Rizal.

"Bring me baloko (scallops) tomorrow, the girl likes it better," she says before handing over a tin can to receive the crabs and some giant prawns.

The vendor wears a hand-woven anahaw hat and smells of seaweed and salt water. She comes to that old house by the roadside fenced by a Chinese bamboo almost everyday, bringing her husband’s catch for the day.

Before the sun sneaks over the horizon, the vendor would have all her sukis in the neighborhood lined with old houses and big front yards by the national highway. From the fresh catch dispensed from her pail full of goodies from the sea, you could almost surmise what the entire neighborhood is having for lunch– pinangat na sapsap, sauteed seashells in malunggay or camote leaves, inihaw na buraw, inadobong baloko sa gata, almost always paired with vegetables cooked in coconut milk.

Descended from an unbroken line of fishermen and fish vendors down the ages, they live by the sea, of the sea and because of the sea in a seaside town that was fabled to be a shipbuilding facility during the peak of the galleon trade in the Spanish era.

But where are the ships? In the early ’70s when the little girl who lived in the old house with the Chinese bamboo fence was five years old, there were no more ships. The Sorsogon port itself was officially closed to commercial sea vessels even before the girl went to school. What is left is an old pier, around a kilometer or two of concrete walkway jutting out of the tip of Sorsogon Bay.

Rempiyolas, they call it in the local dialect and across many generations of Sorsogueños, it is the favorite place for watching the sunset.

In another part of the province, in the town of Donsol, some 66 kilometers from the capital city, people are coming to the sea in droves to watch a more exotic vista–butanding or whale sharks swimming side by side with the tourist boats.

It is always the sea. Of Sorsogon province’s 16 towns, only one is inland and has no coastline. Water is, thus, a recurring backdrop of every child’s memory of the old town, now a city.

To a girl of five, the wide expanse of sea and sky in the old harbor is the world. The afternoon walks to the pier is a treat, like going to a mall these days, brandished by adults like candy for a good deed done.

As one walks farther into the edge of the wharf, the town looks smaller and smaller until the town cathedral that overlooks the sea is reduced to matchbox size. Up ahead, the distant mountains and slow motorboats on their way to San Bernardino Strait look like sketches against the blue sky. But as day turns to dusk, the distant church bells ring for the evening Angelus, the Roman Catholic prayer in honor of the Incarnation. It is the signal of the end of day.

"The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary," booms a unison of old women’s voices (broadcast from the parish office). Then, church bells–three tolls for each of the invocations and nine for the concluding prayer. Everybody on the pier and elsewhere within hearing distance of the tolling bells pauses and faces the far away church to join in the prayers. Past the sunset and the Angelus darkness descends fast on the bay and it is time to go home.

Fast forward twenty years and a lifetime later. The old port is still the place to be if you want to feel the beat of the city and watch the sunset. The crowd at twilight is the same as before–young parents with their children, students enjoying the few remaining days of the school break, office workers on their way home, and old people stretching stiff joints and muscles. But instead of the lonely stretch of concrete where small boats anchor, there is now a park with tile-roofed cottages, chairs and benches, lampposts and even a one-man band playing old hits. The improvements, obviously the pride of the city, are built (according to the large billboards) under the auspices of Mayor Sally Lee.

Strangely, Sorsogon is a coastal city with no beach. The beaches are somewhere else–a jeepney ride away–in other parts of the province. On the east, a long seawall rigidly divides land and water. On the west, there is a narrow beachfront that used to be a garbage dump, but is now occupied by fishermen’s stilt houses, crowding out the view of the bay.

Both sides of the pier are actually enclaves of poverty where the town’s poorest live. The big waves regularly wash away the heaps of garbage thrown about carelessly by the townspeople, but nothing–not even the valiant efforts of the local government to turn this space into a tourist spot–washes away the reality that in this city with fantastic seascapes, beauty and ugliness, bounty and deprivation co-exist on the same plane.

It’s true, in Sorsogon you can live like royalty. Here one can drink all the tuba and lambanog (local wines made from coconut flower and sap, respectively) you want, loll about in fine white sand beaches scattered across the different towns to your heart’s content, feast on seafood and the exotic coconut cuisine that only true blue Bicolanos can properly cook, but a majority of the people need jobs, more livelihood opportunities, education, health care and peace, without which all of nature’s bounty mean little.

A quick drive from the city to the nearby towns under the scorching heat of late summer gives travelers an alternating vista of seashores, rice paddies and coconut farms. The air is fresh and the place tranquil. But beneath this idyllic charm, Sorsogueños ache for deliverance–from poverty, from insurgency and from vicious politics that fail to deliver a better life for the common people.

Twenty years passed quickly but life as the people knew it then–blanketed by sun, rain, wind (the province is located within the country’s typhoon belt) and sunsets–is little changed.

The city proper not far from the pier is a bit busier, more crowded and hurried. New buildings, fastfood chains, offices and amenities have sprouted, giving the old town an updated look. During rush hour, just before dusk, the city convulses with the heaves of tricycles and jeepneys ferrying people home. But what else do visitors and old residents see?

For one, a deep history etched in stone.

There is the church in the town of Barcelona, built in 1874, whose façade still survives and has become a tourist attraction. The town itself is so named because, according to lore, a Spanish official saw the similarity between the town’s panoramic views and that of Barcelona, Spain, his hometown, in the 19th century.

History books at the municipal library recount how the ancient church was built by indio labor. As the stone church is facing the provincial road and the seashore, big coral rocks were reportedly hauled from the sea and passed from hand to hand to the site of the present church. Each family was then asked to carve the boulders into uniform sizes and later piled one on top of the other to form the core structure of the St. Joseph Church.

Fronting this ancient relic are two ruins built from the same coral rocks –the old municipio and the school where the children of the ilustrados were educated.

Not far from Barcelona is the town of Gubat which hosts Bicolandia’s version of Boracay– pearly white sand but few tourists. In the town of Bacon, now a district of Sorsogon City and where the city council holds office, beach resorts are a dime a dozen–Fisherman’s Hut, Dioneda’s Resort, Tolongapo Beach Resort, New Sea Breeze...the list is longer now that the provincial government is reportedly actively promoting the province as a tourist site.

Attention is now focused on the Mount Bulusan Natural Park and the Bulusan Mountain Lake in Bulusan town, as the volcano spews ash and lava. Now may thus not be the best time for a visit–unless you’re a volcanologist.

Somewhere in between Barangay Balogo and Bibincahan in Sorsogon City, a diversion road to Legaspi City is being completed, a project, as billboards proclaim, of Minority Floor Leader and Sorsogon Rep. Francis Escudero. It is also here in the middle of this emerging avenue that the Sorsogon City Hall and many other landmarks will rise.

But until then, the city has a lot of catching up to do in the development department. Old-time residents will always cross their fingers and hope that much of the old town’s deeply ingrained values will remain intact with the march of time and progress.

As it is now, the occasional need to remember one’s formative years in the old town does not come at a steep price, at least not as prohibitive as tour packages to other parts of the country. One only has to board an airconditioned bus in Cubao, bear the 12-hour ride, and descend onto the warmth and welcoming arms of a whole army of relatives and friends.

In a brief visit a few days before Pentecost Sunday, the little girl, now grown-up, was escorted around town by a former Barcelona town mayor, a brother-in-law, childhood playmates and acquaintances and the remarkable hospitality of native Sorsogueños. Nothing has changed.

But the Sorsogon cathedral is no longer visible from the pier, dwarfed years ago by the roof of a school building and rows of concrete houses near the seawall. At least the belfry is still there, towering above the protruding structures. But do the people still listen to the church bells and pause to pray when they toll?

For one who refuses to see the old town through adult, world-weary eyes, it would hurt too much to admit that the church bells may now be drowned out by louder voices and modern noises in a newly minted city.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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