It was mid-June last year and I was meeting the librarian for the first time. She learned from her son, MJ, one of my treasured students, that I had taught in Manila schools before moving here in Ilocos.
“Many want to work in Manila,” she added, in an attempt to put her question in the proper perspective.
I had long wanted to stay in the province and it did not begin as an act of altruism. Nurturing no illusions of self-importance, it was not the “I want to go home to Ilocos and share my talents with my province-mates” sort of thing.
I first imagined working in Ilocos during one of those mornings in Manila when I was getting late for work and I still had to press my clothes (one of the things I do not enjoy doing). That morning, I was yet to eat breakfast, and my tummy was already rebelling. Food was usually something fried, something instant — something I was beginning to take with revulsion.
I was walking briskly to school when a decent-looking man approached and showed me something. “Bilhin mo na itong necklace, mura lang” [“Buy this necklace, the price is cheap”], he said. The piece of jewelry looked real and expensive, but it was broken. “Mamahalin ’to, kasi ’nung hinablot ko ’to, umiyak ’yung nurse” [“This is an expensive kind, because the nurse cried after I snatched it from her”], he added with pride.
That was the straw that broke the weary camel’s back. On the same day, I typed an application letter to the Mariano Marcos State University (MMSU), the best university in the North. That was in March last year.
Only a few days were left before the start of the semester and a reply had yet to come. One more year of Manila then, I thought. That meant another year of missing the birthdays (including that of my Kuya Henry on Sept. 11 and of my Grandniece Ananda on Sept. 21), anniversaries and other special occasions of family and friends. Another year of bad food and bad air, of ironing my clothes (and losing them in the laundry shop), and of receiving frantic messages from my Mom each time the metropolis was stricken by terrorist attacks.
But the call for a demonstration teaching and panel interview came, and I was thrilled.
“Aside from teaching, what else can you contribute to the university?” I was asked in the interview.
Honestly, I wanted to just teach. In schools where I had taught, I contributed more than I should, and I wanted to be more relaxed this time. That’s what I told the panel members who, judging by their facial expressions, were unhappy with my answer. So I added that writing and debate are areas where I might contribute.
The most memorable question came from a senior faculty member: “For how long do you intend to stay here?”
“I can stay here forever,” I replied without batting an eyelash. If my 20/20 vision did not betray me, I thought I saw the professor’s eyebrows rise a bit and her academic forehead crumple a little. She was doubtful. No one knows for sure what Mother Destiny holds in the future, but I was sincere when I said that I could imagine myself working in the university until my hair is gray.
Shortly after, I was called in to work. I met my dean, and then I was led to my department on June 12, Independence Day. I was all smiles.
It has been fifteen months from that memorable day, and the smiles have not faded. I have even purchased a desk mirror so I can marvel at my face when I am smiling, which is a hundred times more often now than when I was working in the big city.
And, why not? Here, I live very comfortably. “Manang” Glory, our well-loved “kasambahay” [househelp], is so kind to pamper me. From food to clothes to cleanliness in my room, she makes sure that everything is A-OK.
Aside from our home in Laoag, which is better than my living quarters in Manila, I got a room at Coed’s, the university dormitory. My room in Manila was enough only for a bed and a table, had no window, and, if not for an exhaust fan, I could not breathe. In contrast, the well-ventilated and spacious Coed’s dorm gives me a fantastic view of the fields, which I could only imagine in Manila when I was stuck in traffic.
On top of material comforts is the immense joy that family life gives me. I have friends, and I have had friends who came and went and forgot, but my family has stood by me at all times, high and low. And, no, I would never exchange for anything the joy of coming home to my grandniece Ananda’s kisses and embrace after a long day at work, and finding out what new words or new tricks she has learned.
In the university, I am blessed to work with dreamy academics whose cognitive brilliance is matched by youthful idealism and cheerful dispositions. Our students, most of them children of farmers, are as competitive, even better, than many of their counterparts in Manila.
I had wished to just teach and relax and veer away from added responsibility but, when you are surrounded by people who breathe excellence, it’s difficult not to get infected and do your share. People might find fault in government for a number of things, but outstanding state-run universities such as ours are not among them.
Growing up with the belief that the only tourist attraction we have in Ilocos is the late strongman’s mausoleum, I used to find my province boring. But when my colleagues in Manila regaled me with stories of how they experienced a piece of paradise in Ilocos, my pride for my place was unmatched.
This is not to say Ilocos is heaven, and that I will forever be in bliss. I know that this is just the honeymoon phase. Difficulties and crises will come in my career and personal life, but given the inner joy and energy I bear, I will get by.
There are times when I miss the city, especially when I need something I cannot find in stores here. There are times when I long for the malls, their artificiality and the empty lifestyle they propagate. And, oh, yes, I miss the surprises of living in the nation’s capital, such as watching a movie and finding out after the lights are turned on, that seated just a meter away is Madam President and the First Gentleman.
At my young age, I have had the opportunity to work in various set-ups, from the seat of power in Malacañang to the corporate jungle of Ortigas and Libis to the marginalized communities in Metro Manila to the glistening world of show biz and mass media, and to the universities of the bourgeoisie. I have been blessed to travel to many parts of the country, from Aparri to Dumaguete to Cotabato, and have had the chance to visit other countries, too.
But I have never been happier than now, working in my province and in the university that captured my heart.
DONNA RIETVELD of The Netherlands writes via email: Hi, hope you are well.
Just want to say that I LOVE reading your column. Basta, nakaka-relate ako. The way you wrote about the 2 Glorias is really a work of art.
I am accessing Ilocos Times via the web so medyo late lagi ang column but I am going to check out your blog regularly from now on.
I am from Pasuquin but I have now adopted The Netherlands as my country. Thanks to you and the staff of Ilocos Times, I still get to update myself with what’s happening up north.
Regards and God Bless.
Herdy’s Riknakem: Thank you, Donna. You are one more important reason to burn the midnight oil to meet the every-Wednesday deadline in this publication. The consuming loneliness in writing is briefly punctuated by kind messages such as yours.
“Hindi mo makapa ang iyong nararamdaman; hindi lungkot, hindi saya, hindi bagot, hindi din naman balisa. isipin mo na lang na lahat ng nilalang, nahihimlay, nahihimbing at nananaginip nang nag-iisa. walang nagsusulat, dahil walang nagbabasa, walang bumabagsak dahil walang pumapasa. sa bawat bagong iyong natutuklasan, ika’y natututong kay rami-rami pa palang di mo alam.” – gary granada.