Sunday, October 31, 2010


Manila, Philippines. Santol Mansion.  

"Typhoon! Typhoon! Rain! Rain! Go Away. Come again another day." We would utter this in a sing song voice as we jumped up and down.

Above us, his wings glided, almost touching the ceiling. That was our 140 year old cockatoo Fray Paco. He out screeched us all by reciting the same words.

"You are a Divo. Yes you are," my Grandmother Esperanza chided him gently. "Now come down, let's say the rosary," she said sweetly but with her inevitable imperial air.

We would sit in the vast Sala -Salon. Fray Paco. as usual, stood on a cushion on her lap. He always said the Sign of the Cross in mangled Latin. We had no choice. A stream of the most horrifying oaths and curses would follow if he could not lead his family in prayer.

"In nomin Patre, Filio, et Spiritu Sanctus," begun Fray Paco  In nomine Patris et  Figlio et Spirito Sanctis.

When I was a child in the Philippines, Halloween or Hallows Eve was sometimes fearsome and sinister. A typhoon, packing winds of 200 kilometers an hour would hurtle down over Manila. That meant that the masked party for 300 people  my grandmother would be hosting in bejeweled splendor was canceled. But we did our best to enjoy ourselves despite the winds bombarding us.
My grandmother used to lead us in reciting the Rosary.

"If it saved the day for the Christians at the Battle of Lepanto, against the Ottoman fleet, praying the rosary to the Blessed Virgin Mary will certainly protect us."

It was a clever way to get our minds of the hurling winds which never seemed to stop.  We would be plunged into darkness because the first thing the force of the winds did was knock out the power lines. Hence, we found ourselves without electricity. 

That was when my Uncle Michael and my Mother Camilla who both had operatic voices would break out into song. Almost all the members of the domestic staff had guitars and mandolins and they did not need to be asked to play the Rondalla. (a Castilian word for  rounds of Music) Then we would all join in the songs. We sang in Spanish, Italian,  Filipino, Hakka, Waray, English, Visayan and Ilocano.

We had our own generator but one never knew how long we would be without electricity so candles  twenty centimeters in circumference and over six feet tall mounted on 16th century candle holders were lit. The force of nature would sometimes be so overpowering that even with all the shutters and the strong mansion hunkered down, the wind blew into any and every little crack. 

We sang in darkness, but we seemed to be in the Light. I shall never forget that sensation of total blackness but being surrounded by light in the outer fringes of our gathering. The Music did that, I think. It had a transcendental power of overcoming anything negative.

We couldn't use the telephones. Dona Esperanza had walkie talkies to dialogue with our Security -Sikhs who had come to the Philippines  after the Sepoy Rebellion in India against the English. Don Cesar, the Tycoon trusted them more than any other ethnic group and Bashir and Kabir headed our Security and private Army.

Our Hakka amahs held our hands and always reminded us, "In China we all dead. Houses built bad and poor."

Nothing has changed. The world is as dangerous as ever. The deadly typhoons seem to turn ever more lethal with the years. Apart from that, much has changed. Santol Mansion no longer stands. The vast land was sold to make way for a shopping mall in Santa Mesa.  

Dona Esperanza, our parents, some of our cousins, Bashir, Kabir, and most of those who made up out private army have all died. Idem for our domestic staff that constituted our extended family. In particular, our Beloved Fray Paco died a few years after the Matriarch. Experts calculate that he must have been about 150 years old. What a glorious and adventurous life he led. few men and women except the members of our clan could rival him in that.

Thousands died in that savage typhoon. The lowland areas of Manila turned into Venice and Huangzhou. Except for our nude acacia, balete (similar to the baobab), avocado, mango and guava trees which still stood majestically tall in spite of  everything the typhoon had put them through, all of us had lived through that fearsome Halloween Night unscathed.


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