But maybe now they could be even better.
We inched past the dogs and snuck out the gate, careful not to let it slam shut behind us. The narrow streets, full of children playing patintero and langit-lupa during the day, were dark and empty. Our flashlights paved the way for us as we walked in the direction of the church, where you could see the stretch of river on the other side.
It was three in the morning. The river danced with the cold summer air around us, while we made our way down the steps fishermen used to get on their boats. My cousins and I laughed loudly and freely, uninhibited by the illusion that, for the time being, we owned the world. I was 11 years old and I’d never been happier.
For as long as I’d ever known, my family’s summer tradition of driving up to my mother’s province of Sto. Rosario, Hagonoy, Bulacan meant hitting the pause button on the things that kept me occupied in the city. There was no internet, no Disney Channel, no Nickelodeon. To amuse myself, I had to use my Dad’s portable DVD player, read Roald Dahl books, or play Klonoa: Empire of Dreams and Crash Bandicoot: Warped on my GameBoy Advance.
But here’s the thing: I hardly ever needed these things, because I was too busy — gasp! — going outside to play with my cousins. Our favorites were Pepsi 7Up (an intense game of speed and agility) and Lemon-Lime (charades, but with running). When we got tired we would retreat to the terrace of my aunt’s house, where, I sh*t you not, she had a Street Fighter II arcade machine. We would crowd around the giant console with monoblock chairs and battle it out, buttons and joysticks and all. At night, we only ever stayed up because of two things: either we were reading the pasyon, complete with a microphone and a melody of our choice, or we were telling each other scary stories.
Everything was so simple. I always came home talking differently, my tongue having grown accustomed to the distinct punto of the Bulakenyos.
When my cousins from Sto. Rosario and I reached our teenage years, our conversations grew stilted. We’d outgrown our favorite games, and my aunt had long sold her Street Fighter II machine by then. Family trips to the province turned from sacred tradition to sporadic why-nots. I began to identify with the town, and its beautiful robin’s egg-blue church, and that deep, dark river, less and less.
Last week we decided to take a trip to Hagonoy, and to my surprise, we stayed the night. The houses were bigger, their old-world charm lost to layers of cement and paint. I spent the entirety of my time there working, clacking away on my laptop because WiFi was everywhere and I had deadlines to meet. Outside I would hear a whole new generation of children playing takbuhan or pretending to run a supermarket with a discarded bilao and suddenly I’d miss the earnest bickering that would ensue when we did our own playing and pretending back then.
One thing I never saw coming, though? My cousins and I started making an effort to spend time together again and get to know each other better — and we’re getting there. I saw the town in a new light, finding moments and details in every corner that I’d never noticed before. For the first time in a long time, when the time came to head back down NLEX, I didn’t want our stay to be over just yet.
When I think of the summers I spent in Bulacan as a kid, I would think of innocence, and of time. How there was so much of both to go around. It’ll never be the way it was, I know that, but the best thing about change and having grown up is that I appreciate my province more and I’ve stopped taking it for granted. Back then I thought of the few days I spent there as part of a life separate from the one I “normally” lived, but I see now how it all fits together.
Turns out I’ve always been a Sto. Rosario girl all along, and always will be.