The Return of the Native: Coming Back to Tagoloan after 30 years

Dec 28, 2011

by Fred Casino

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My recent trip to the Philippines left me with a sense of nostalgia and a revelation of the new Philippines after a 30-year absence.

My wife and I arrived in Ninoy Aquino International Airport on January 25th, at 11PM. After struggling to retrieve our luggage, we got out of the terminal and proceeded to the area in which my niece instructed me to wait and to look for her in a throng of people who were probably waiting for Balikbayans. After a few minutes of viewing the crowd, I caught a glimpse of a sign with my name on it and recognizing my niece waving, I waved back. After the usual pleasantries, we packed our luggage in her SUV and headed for the hotel.

We stayed in Manila for 3 days before proceeding to Cagayan de Oro. Our time was spent reuniting with my relatives, shopping and a little sightseeing. After learning about my relatives who have reached the pinnacle of their careers, I began to realize how much I have missed. To name a few – niece, a PhD, University of the Philippines Professor and Dept. Director; cousin, Dean School of Music, St. Scholasticas College; cousin, retired lawyer and former Government Counsel and Presidential Assistant on Government Corporation; cousin, retired PAL pilot. It brings back memories, how we used to hang out – carefree, happy and unbeknownst of what the future had in store for us. Now, here we are – retired. I regret not coming back more often than once in 30 years.

Manila is a dichotomy of the modern and the old. Driving around the elite areas, I can’t help but notice squalor next to a mansion or a modern condominium. Having driven in the states for over 30 years, driving in Manila is an art. Traffic is synonymous to chaos. Where can you find a car driving in the extreme right lane (in a 2-lane on-going traffic) making a U-turn in front of several lanes of heavy traffic and 35 yards down the street was a cop? As confusing and chaotic as it was, surprisingly enough, there was not a single accident.

Security in Manila is prevalent, so much so that practically every business establishment has posted a security guard armed with a gun. One day, as we were walking down the street from the hotel, I whispered to my wife to glance at a bank on my left and to look at a security guard leaning against what looked like a bazooka.

Old House Circa 1967 Courtesy Fred Casino Copyright � 2007 Fred Casino All Rights Reserved

The house where Author Fred Casino grew up.

January 29th. Our flight to Cagayan de Oro started with confusion. Flying in the US with an E-Ticket is fast and simple. Not with PAL. As I normally do in the states, after leaving the cab, we proceeded to check-in our luggage only to be told that we don’t have the tickets. I explained to the clerk that I have an E-Ticket and he responded smilingly, “Sir, you have to go to the next building to get your tickets.” One would think that in this day and age of computers, getting the tickets is only a matter of a couple of clicks in the computer. Again, not with PAL. I can’t understand why so much time is done (writing up to 9 or more digit numbers) in order to come up with a ticket. And to top it all, the clerk handed me Singapore tickets instead of Cagayan. Back to square one. By this time, I was really getting annoyed, not knowing what was happening to our luggage which was left with the clerk at the check-in counter. After 25 minutes of exasperation, we returned to complete our check-in and off we went, bound for Lumbia Airport.

After flying 12-l/2 hours non-stop (between St Paul MN and Tokyo), the flight to Cagayan was a ‘piece of cake’. As I expected, Cagayan de Oro was a totally different city, except for 3 things that were in my memory. As we were driving from the airport, I recalled the bridge, the cathedral up the hill and Divisoria. After passing Divisoria, I could not recognize the streets. The landmarks with which I was so familiar were gone. With people and traffic congestion I lost my bearing. I was so lost, but before I knew it, we were in front of Harbor Lights Hotel.

Hotels were unheard of 50 years ago. When I was searching the internet for hotels, I found several hotels listed. Cagayan de Oro has grown by leaps and bounds. Our accommodation at Harbor Lights was lovely. The hotel is owned by my cousin who is a medical doctor, and whose brothers are some of the prominent politicians in the city and the province.

Day 3 started my journey back to Tagoloan. As we were driving, I noticed that alongside the highway were fruit stands, sari-sari stores, houses, factories, all the way from Cagayan to Tagoloan. In the old days, small towns ( Gusa, Lapasan, Agusan, etc…) were easily recognizable while driving the highway but now it’s hard to tell which town is which without looking at the sign.

Before coming to Tagoloan, I was informed by my cousin who is a retired PAL pilot that the town has a population
of 65,000, (not a far cry from the PI increase of population to 89.5 million – 13th in the world), almost 2200% increase from approximately 3,000 around the time when I was in high school (early 50’s). I was shocked upon entering Tagoloan. I thought I was in some strange town until I arrived at my sister’s house. Arriving three days before the fiesta, the town was over-crowded. The plaza was full of vendors, I thought I was in Tijuana, Mexico. I used to be able to recognize every house in town. Now, either the house was torn down and replaced or renovated. It’s like a new town has emerged. What was once a sleepy little town is now bursting with people, cars, jeepneys, motorela, (motosekad? – new invention), stores and roadside vendors.

On the day of the fiesta (Feb 2nd), our first item in the agenda was to go Mass. Getting out of the car in front of the church, we were greeted by vendors selling trinkets and food. Although the church was rebuilt to almost 3 times its original size, the crowd of people made it almost impossible to get inside, let alone finding a bench in which to sit. Needless to say, I was uncomfortable and hardly able to focus attention on the Mass. I was disturbed by people playing tennis (I’m an avid tennis player) in the back of the church and by a dog napping in one corner. After the Mass, I headed out to the side of the church where my high school was once located only to find a new building with a sign St. Mary’s Academy instead of the old St. Mary’s High School. As in the past, fiesta is all about food. It has not changed much since 1954 (my last fiesta). Fiesta without lechon is like Christmas without Santa Claus.

The celebration continued 3 days after the fiesta because my oldest sister called for a reunion. When a Casino holds a reunion, you can count on a sizeable attendance. Having been gone for 30 years, it was not an easy task to recognize my nieces and nephews. However, with my incredible ability (my wife tells me) to recognize faces, I was able to guess some of them. At one time, I was looking at someone, who for a moment looked like my older brother who died 12 years ago. I approached him and said, “You’ve got to be Nong Mete’s son”. “Yes, Uncle Fred” he replied. At that moment, I had goose bumps. I thought I was talking to my brother.

Old House pictured 2007 Courtesy Fred Casino Copyright � 2007 Fred Casino All Rights Reserved
Where author’s old house used to be. Photo taken 2007

The day before we flew back to Manila, my nephew and his mother drove us to see the farm where we were raised. We went to see Barangay Balacanas, where I was born and lived until I left home for college in Manila. Before my trip, I have been reading on the internet ( about the progress in Villanueva and the neighboring barangays Balacanas and Nabaca-an. I was looking forward to seeing (maybe for the last time) what happened to the place we used to roam looking for something to shoot with our slingshots or climb a mango or coconut tree. Now, all the coconut trees are gone, replaced with corn and banana plants. The river, which I used to cross in my commute to school is now a dry bed of rock and sand. The inlet, which used to get flooded near our house during high tide is now a dry land. The house I grew up in is only a memory, except for what used to be the concrete basement and a flight of stairs. As we headed back to the highway, not too far away was a huge building which I thought to be a factory judging from the bellowing smoke. Next to the building was a parcel of land, which appeared to be ready for construction. All the land in Balacanas is now under the control of PHIVEDIC as part of the area which was declared state of industrialization. Some of the land has been bought out by PHIVEDIC at very minimal price, some (mine included) are still in the process of negotiation. The coconut trees which were once our livelihood are gone. My father who toiled on his land during his lifetime, must be turning over in his grave.

February 6th. We left Cagayan and headed back to Manila. Checking in at Lumbia Airport was an experience. The first X-ray machine was manned by a woman who was busy putting her make-up while talking over her cell phone oblivious to the luggage which was passing through the X-ray machine. The next security check was two women. After nonchalantly going through our carry-on, they offered to sell us some cashews and peanuts. After several minutes of sitting down waiting for our flight, my wife got up to go to the lady’s restroom. She came back complaining that there was no running water to wash up and the toilet would not flush. I followed suit and visited the men’s room. Same. And to top it all, the room stinks from unflushed waste. It was appalling. How do you attract tourists with such airport conditions. After all I have read on the internet about Cagayan de Oro wanting to invite more tourists to come to the city, why hasn’t anyone looked into these conditions in the airport area. An airport is a tourist’s first impression. As the saying goes, first impressions last.

We stayed in Manila for 2 days before leaving for Singapore. It was my time to take some of my relatives out to dinner . I was also able to renew friendship with an old buddy, whom I have not heard of or seen in almost 40 years. What a treat.

February 9th. Left Manila. Singapore is a different world. After the hustle and bustle in the Philippines, Singapore was a respite. We were on our own and had the time to just relax.

February 13th. Returned to Manila.

February 14th. Left for the states. We decided to leave the hotel at 4:30AM, in order to allow ample time for our 8AM departure only to arrive at the airport which was mobbed. 5AM in Manila International Airport is like a central market. It was chaotic. People were moving in every which way. Suddenly, somebody stuck a label on my lapel – NWA. We then proceeded to look for the Northwest Airline counter to check-in our luggage. We were done in 5 minutes and turned around to look for the customs’ entry gate followed by another gate to pay for airport fee. Next, was X-ray machine to check our carry-on. At this time, we were getting hungry. We started to look for a place to eat but there was none. We proceeded to go to the final security check before boarding. This time they went through my carry-on and my wife’s pocketbook and examine every single piece inside. It was exasperating. The only consolation was we felt very safe.

We arrived in St Paul, MN after l6-l/2-hr flight only to be greeted with cancellation of flight to Bradley Airport due to snowstorm on the East coast. St. Paul was zero degree weather and we only have summer clothes. We ended up going to the Mall of America (the biggest mall in North America) to buy sweatpants and sweatshirts.

February 15th. Landed at Bradley International Airport under bright sunlight surrounded by a blanket of snow. HOME SWEET HOME!

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