River children

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By Arnold Alamon

Wrapped in Grey

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

I HAVE often wondered about the soul of places. Streets, buildings, and houses of a City I believe are more than the sum of its parts.

I have a theory that the distinct noises of its market, and the hustle and bustle of its streets, add to these the unique smell of the fruits being sold or the kind of rotting garbage found in its back alleys, all put together and more, pertain to the unique identity that reflects the character of the people that reside within a city’s confines.

I knew Tacloban when I walked her streets a year before the recent deluge and I mourn her destruction like I would if a friend were to unravel in such a violent manner. I believe I also know Dipolog among the city residents converging on her two-kilometer baywalk on a recent travel.

But since my return to my hometown of Cagayan de Oro a couple of years ago, I have found it difficult to come to grips with the identity of this place where I was born and grew up. There was a time when being a resident of this City meant midnight trips to the fruit stand in Divisoria or that the mall was Ororama Cogon with their laborious and elaborate hand-written price tags. The city’s smell was the mixture of motor oil and gasoline that is set afire within the engines of the undisputed king of the road –the motorela. And when ships docked at Macabalan Port, the light and easy chatter of the boarding porters announced to us that we are home.

The fruit stand still exists but many more similar roadside stalls have sprouted near newly established

residential subdivisions. It is not possible anymore to meet your crush and her family at the only stall that caters to the nocturnal craving for marang, mangosteen, or apple mango in our version of malling circa 1980s.

Ororama had long discarded its stock of Jingle Magazine back issues which I religiously collected with savings from my meager high school allowance. And the contemporary smell of the City? Let us say that she emanates the fumes of an overworked-and-underpaid alienated humanity bursting at the seams.

My return to my hometown had been disorienting and I wondered if I was merely idealizing the city of my youth. Like star-crossed lovers, was it me or her who changed? There was a time when the City of Cagayan de Oro was known for its friendly people. But all evidence seem to point that this trait had been lost in the chaos of unfettered urbanization, rural-to-urban migration and congestion, just like the old landmarks that made the City my home.

This smugness toward the new features of the City like the new malls, bars, and restaurants as I pine for the old City also extended toward the fairly recent attraction that has brought many to come and visit Cagayan de Oro.

It had been there for a good several years with many of my Manila-based friends swearing to the fun and exhilaration that the white water rafting experience brings. But for me, it was just a murky river and a deadly one at that proven by her murderous swell just a couple of years ago.

I never had the chance to go white water rafting until this weekend when I had to accompany a visiting scholar-friend. And I realize that my quest for understanding about Cagayan de Oro City, my birthplace, would be given clarity by this ­-- touristic activity.

If there is such a thing as love at first sight, then my white water rafting experience was love at first swell. What could possibly be fun in violent bubbling water with jagged rocks underneath? But going through the rapids, I found out that it is a visceral exhilarating experience when you note the acceleration of the raft, the various G forces that the water applies on your body, and just the sight of the white water up close almost engulfing the entire size of your group.

There is something magical about the manner that the river gently pushes you to the rapids and then violently engulfs you in its white water to be gently pushed out once again by its soft current. The serenity and grandeur of her still waters allows you to take in the beauty and the timelessness of nature but also introduces you to its force and chaos once you hit the rapids. And this game, this on-going acquaintance between you and the river goes on again and again for the next three hours or so as you encounter each of the fourteen rapids.

The river shows her many secrets as you paddle your way her various turns and declines – a grand limestone wall here, a stoic Philippine lizard there, a water-skimming white-collared kingfisher looking for a morning meal. But it is ultimately the sense of awe over the force and beauty of water that wins you over.

Eons ago, the same beauty and abundance of the river system attracted our ancestors to settle along its banks. We are at the tail-end of the chain of human migrations across the centuries that have benefitted from her water giving life. But a couple of years ago, she reminded us that we are mere tenants to her dominion when she unleashed her unbridled power and strength after our kind decimated the forests upstream and mined the mountains for gold.

In my quest to make sense of my hometown, a thought came to mind after my white water rafting adventure.

The markers that create the identity of the City are not the fleeting monuments of the passing generations. The river is its timeless marker. As residents of this city by the mighty tributary, we are all river chidren who need to remember and respect the head waters that gave us life.

And in her wisdom, can give us death as well.

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on December 10, 2013.


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