Although I grew up in Sorsogon, Albay is a place I am equally fond of because I spent two of the happiest years of my life in Legaspi City, its capital. I finished the last two years of my Philosophy course in Aquinas University, a Dominican-run school located in Rawis, only a few miles away from the foot of Mayon Volcano. Dumaguete's Silliman is the university by the sea, Aquinas is the university by a volcano--the most beautiful in the world. Beat that.
The campus lay on flat, sprawling grassland, so imagine going to school every morning and catching a glimpse of that majestic perfect cone from your classroom window. At night, whenever it acted up, Mayon's crater glowed like a giant firefly against the black sky. Those are sights that would stay with you forever.
Legaspi City was where I became an adult--or at least where I learned grown-up stuff. I was coming from six years of sheltered life in the seminary, and I moved to this city from my small-town roots freighted with dire warnings from everyone--parents, formators and neighbors alike. Be on guard always. Never trust anyone. Stay away from barkada. Hold on to your values (whatever that meant).
My first time in a large co-ed campus, and I was to be a wallflower? No way, Qu-say. We were many "ex-cons" from various seminaries in that batch ("Why is there an exodus?!," exclaimed the dean), so before long, we'd gone to Mr. Peanut, the city's most notorious girly joint, where the dancers did amazing stuff with a chair. We held all-night drinking binges in my rented place, checked out the nocturnal habitues of Penaranda Park, spent many afternoons horsing around in LCC (the equivalent of SM Department Store, but without air-conditioning), cut classes to watch "Ghost" (the Demi Moore-Patrick Swayze weepie) at the dingy La Trinidad theater.
It wasn't all rule-breaking for me. In my first year in Aquinas I took the qualifying exams for the campus paper and became its associate editor. Wow, now I could impress a bigger crowd with my writing skills. I was in my Teodoro Benigno phase then, so my first published piece was titled "Whither the Hope of the Fatherland?" Everybody, including teachers whose judgment I trusted, told me it was unreadable. Now I read it again, and I shudder in agreement with them.
Albay was only an hour-and-a-half away by bus from Sorsogon, but it meant an entire new planet for me, one where I could be on my own, free to test my limits and grow out of my juvenile skin. Every single snapshot in my mind of those exciting, exhilarating years in Legaspi City where I got to do things that would make my mother and our bishop disown me includes the shadow of that magnificent, temperamental mountain dancing in the margins. There was Mayon, a presence both a comfort and a rebuke--its dominance inspiring strength, its violence arousing insecurity.
I look at Linuz's pictures and feel indescribable sadness for Mayon, for Albay and for my region. One of the poorest in the country--but not for lack of trying--Bicol has endured the worst, from endless typhoons to bad politicians (a worse plague by any measure). Sorsogon just got back power recently after Milenyo's battering; Reming huffed and puffed and blew it right back to the Dark Ages. My father came on the phone after days of terrifying silence to tell me he and the house were okay, but that everything the province had repaired since the last typhoon had gone to waste--smashed to bits by the new one.
But, with the devastating mudslides from Mayon's slopes burying many of its towns (including streets and places I know by heart), Albay had it much worse this time. And so did Catanduanes and the Camarines provinces, to a lesser but no less painful degree.
Back to square one for the Bicol of my youth. Life as we know it.
[More pics in Linus Escandor's Flickr account and in his blog.]