Looking back at my earthly origin, I consider my birth special and a unique one. My father, who was a lowlander, was Bontoc born and bred; my mother, on the other hand, who was a pure native of Mountain Province, was city born and bred. To me, my father was more of an “Igorot” than my mother because he spoke the Bontoc dialect while my mother spoke Ilocano. Because of this background, my sisters and I consider ourselves pure Igorots of Bontoc. We also speak the Bontoc dialect fluently.
Our family migrated to Bontoc, Mountain Province in 1952 when I was four years old. Our house was located in the center of town. It was in front of the market near Bontoc Central School, Roman Catholic Church and schools, Anglican Church and All Saints Mission School, and Mountain Provincial High School.
Kindergarten and Elementary School
At the age of four, I attended kindergarten at the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) Kindergarten School. Our teacher was Mrs. Fonseca, the pastor’s wife. Our school was located at the first storey of the pastor’s residence in Loc-ong, Poblacion. The classmates I recall are Edith Cabasa and his brother, Renato. During my first days in school, my father brought me to school. Later on, I walked alone.Sad to say, I have vague memories of what our teacher taught us during my kindergarten days.
When I was five years old, I attended Grade I at Bontoc Central School. I also have vague memories of my early elementary school days. I can proudly say though that we had excellent teachers. Embedded in my memory is Miss Cecilia Calaoa, who was my teacher in Grades I, IV and VI. It was under her that I learned about “Noli Me Tangere” by Jose Rizal. It was also through her I learned my basic music lessons, my first book reports and how to preside in a class meeting. Surprisingly, I graduated top of my class in Grade 6.
Because my parents felt I was too young to go to high school, my Dad enrolled me in Grade 7 at the All Saints Mission School. It was here my knowledge in English was appreciated because my English teacher was an American, Mrs. Over, the wife of the parish priest. I was also introduced to Algebra and that was a great help when I was in first year high school. I was a member of the altar guild in the Anglican Church. We helped in cleaning the church center at our extra time. Our first honor was Leona Binguit, who went to study at Saint Mary’s School (secondary school) in Sagada, Mountain Province.
Finally, I got to high school at the Mountain Provincial High School in Bontoc Poblacion. There was now keen competition among us classmates because some came from nearby towns. There was an Academic section and a Technical. I belonged to the Academic section and we were 35 students. Among my classmates were Mathias Bawayan, Rosemary Chungalao, Francis Floresca, Jaime Gomez, Christine Trinidad, Frederic Villanueva and Alice Wap-Villanueva. We were about 30 students who graduated from high school. Our valedictorian was Frederic and I was the salutatorian. Frederic later became a mining engineer and has passed away. I recall the late Ignacio Afidchao who belonged to the Technical section.
In my fourth year, I was fascinated with Mrs. Dolores Dizon-Bragado, our English Literature teacher. She just arrived from the US and taught us without notes. She gave the background of writers in our English Literature textbook and one writer I recall is Francis Bacon. A teacher I’ll always remember is Mrs. Fe Ruiz-Garcia, a graduate of UST (University of Santo Tomas) and our English teacher in 4th year. She taught us how to paraphrase and write a précis. When I enrolled in my pre-nursing course at the University of the Philippines College Baguio, I was able to apply what she taught us and I appreciate it very much. It was in high school that I learned to read novels like the Nancy Drew suspense series and Perry Mason detective stories. I also learned to knit, crochet, sew with a sewing machine, bake and preserve food. Later in my life, all these would be useful and I’m glad.
I did enjoy my high school days. One Friday during my senior year, our class in World History went to Mainit for a field trip. Mr. Alexander Sumedca, our history teacher and school principal, accompanied us. We assembled in school at 7.30 in the morning and hiked up the mountain towards the east. We passed by Guinaang and at about noontime, reached Mainit and its hot springs. In the afternoon, Mr. Sumedca gave a lecture while showing us the boiling hot springs. He was quite an interesting person and knew his subject matter well. After the lecture, we spent most of our time going around the village. We watched the people go to the hot springs and leave big cans that contained food for the pigs. At around 5:00 o’clock p.m., they would get these cans to feed their pigs. After dinner, we went to the cemented pools filled with lukewarm water and lay there enjoying the warmth of the water. We stayed overnight at one of the school rooms. The next day after breakfast, we hiked back to Bontoc. It’s an excursion I always look back to.
Our high school building was near the Chico River. In the afternoons, we could see “Tokpil,” a fisherman, carrying “gadiw” he caught in the river. He would arrange the small fishes in a bamboo-made string, walk around town and wait for anyone to buy his catch. Gadiw is a small fish cooked by boiling these in small amount of water, tomatoes, onions and a little salt. It’s a delicacy.
Every summer, the town which was predominantly Roman Catholic, held a town fiesta or festival in honor of their patron saint. We looked forward to the town fiesta because circus would come to town and there was a beauty pageant followed by dance for all, especially for the older folks. At this time of the year, there was hustle and bustle because visitors from nearby provinces and town would come and join us.
During the Christmas season, especially 16 days before Christmas, the town band would play at 4:00 o’clock in the morning and go around town to wake up the folks to go to “simbang gabi” (morning mass.) During the Holy Week especially on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, the same church would have a procession of the Cross led by Father Leon and Father Gaston. We didn’t participate because we were Protestants.
As for us at home, our father and we three sisters would go to the UCCP chapel every Sunday. From our house, we passed by the Acofo residence that was also the Cherwai Theater, Bontoc Hardware and Lumber, Tio’s Store, Co’s Bakery and Store, Africano’s Bakery, Ganipis store, Aglipay’s store, and other houses like those of the Cofulans, Ramirezes and Belgicas. When we saw the Municipal Hall, we turned left and passed by Bontoc Hotel before we reached the UCCP chapel. The children and adults first had Sunday school at 9:00 a.m. and everybody joined the service at 10.00 a.m. The families I remember are Bandonill, Co, Ramirez, Ruiz, Saavedra and Tio. As for our mother, she went to the Anglican Church. She usually attended the early morning mass at 6:00 o’clock a.m. because she was on morning duty and had to be in the hospital at 7:00 o’clock a.m.
Life in Town
During harvest time, we would see the older native women carry their “labba” (rattan-woven baskets) on their heads. In it would be camote (sweet potatoes), corn, millet, peanuts or palay. The women were half-naked, covered only waist down. No malice in anybody’s mind because we knew they came from the fields in the outskirts of town.
In 1952, there was a generator that provided electricity for the whole town. It was placed in a small house in Chakcakan. My father, who was employed as an electrician by the BDC (Benguet Development Corporation), used to switch on the generator at 6:00 o’clock p.m. and switch it off the same evening at 10:00 o’clock. Many times, we three sisters visited our father so we could take a “shower” with the hot water coming out of the generator and flowing out from the small house into a canal.
Sometimes on a Saturday, we would go for a picnic in Kadchog, a part of the Chico River that’s a bit farther than Chakchakan. After lunch, we swam in the shallow part of the river. I always looked forward to these picnics because we would eat ice cream afterwards. Mrs. Clapp, who lived near the Dangwa station, had a snack bar and one of the food she served was ice cream.
There were no tricycles and everyone walked from their house to any place they wanted to go. The pupils and students walked to and from school. The teachers also walked and so did the government employees, who worked at the Provincial Capitol.
Life in Bontoc, our hometown, was simple then. Most town people lived within their means eating vegetables, meat, dried fish (tuyo or dried anchovies) and whatever was being sold in the market and groceries that were available around town.
There was not much crime. Only those addicted to liquor got drunk and became noisy and unruly.
Until now, I’m fascinated with the location of the cemetery. It’s between the provincial hospital and the Bilibid prison.
In our town, everybody knew almost everyone.
About the Author
Fe Belen was born in San Juan, Rizal, at present part of Metro Manila. Her father was Honesto Carino Belen, a retired government auditor. Her mother was Ana Kay-an Belen, a retired nurse who worked at the Bontoc Provincial Hospital. Fe followed in her mother’s footsteps and also graduated at St. Luke’s Hospital School of Nursing. She belonged to Class ’69, the last batch of the school which a year later became a College of Nursing. After graduation, she proceeded to the University of the Philippines College of Nursing to finish her Bachelor of Science in Nursing.
She went back to St. Luke’s Hospital where she was assigned to the nursery and later to the hospital suites.
She got married to a Baptist pastor and worked in hospitals of places where her husband was assigned, which would be Iloilo City and Odiongan, Romblon. They have five children, who are all working, and eight grandchildren. Fe and her husband are now retired but they are still active in the ministry of the Lord. They are presently in charge of a church, “The Church of Praise” at Kayang Street in Baguio City, Philippines.