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Growing up happy by clean Pasig River

By Maurice Arcache
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 03:46:00 04/26/2009

Filed Under: Environmental Issues

AHHH, WHAT fond and fun memories my brothers, sisters, father, mother, friends and our househelp had of the beautiful Pasig River.

It was my mother Mary who fell in love with the house; my father Joseph had yet to decide whether to purchase it or not. But more than the house, they loved where it was situated?right along the Pasig River. According to family lore, my mom told my dad: ?This is where I want my children to grow up.?

The original owners were the Dy Buncios who had formed a corporation. My father bought a share from one of the heirs. Eventually, he bought them all out and it became our home for a long, long time.

The house was on Lamayan Street in Sta. Ana, Manila. It had stood there since 1898 on a 5,200-square meter lot along the Pasig. It was a 2-story structure with 15 bedrooms and a huge dining area on the second floor with a view of the river. It was not just my mom who fell in love with the house, the whole family fell in love with it as well.

There was a marble stairway at the back of the garden leading down to the river. There, we boarded a motorboat, a yacht or even a banca, which we did from time to time. We rode it all the way to Manila Bay or to Laguna de Bay in the opposite direction.

The Pasig River then was cool, clean and clear. Although she looked calm on the surface, she had a dangerous undercurrent, depending on the time of year?usually during the rainy season.

On some weekends, when we were not out of town, we went swimming. Yes, people, we swam in the Pasig River?that?s how clean it was. We raced from the backyard and swam across the river to the other side.

River views

Our dining room was on the second floor. It had no windows and was completely open. It had marble pillars and Spanish-style iron grills. It was not even screened as there were no flies or mosquitoes. The fresh air coming from the Pasig River was that fresh.

The dining room had one art déco style narra table which sat 26 people and another which sat 8, also narra. From here, we watched tiny crabs and fishes nibble on the green fungi which grew on the rocks at the river?s edge.

At the time, there were vegetable plots across the river. Farmers came in the early mornings and late afternoons to water the vegetables. The breeze brought the scent of greens across the river to our house.

At night, we saw the lights of the cars on Highway 54 or what we now know as horrific Edsa! That?s how picture-perfect the view was from the homes in the area facing the Pasig River.

Haircut, swim

Twice a week, a personal barber came to the house. On Saturdays, my brothers and I had our haircut. When the barber was done?and before you could bat an eyelash?the three of us would jump into the river and swim until my grandmother came and told us to get out of the water, shower and get ready for dinner.

Once, we had a raft made. From the raft, we would jump into the river, swim and enjoy ourselves?my sisters Queenie and Olivia, my brother Charlie and me.

But on one occasion, the undercurrent was stronger than usual. We noticed that Queenie was floating faster and away from the raft. Charlie and I rushed to the side and pulled Queenie by her hair out of the water.

?You almost drowned you know,? we told her. She smiled and answered, ?I was trying to swim under the raft and surprise you all at the other side. But the current was too strong.?

We laughed it off but not for long. When my dad found out he said if that happened again, we would not be allowed to swim in the river.

Needless to say, that was the last time anyone played a prank.

Our neighbors

At the time, during heavy rains or typhoons, the river rose but it hardly ever overflowed into our garden.

During other times of the year, the Pasig flowed upstream from Manila Bay to Laguna de Bay and vice versa. We saw fishes of different varieties swimming with water lilies on the river.

Our next-door neighbors at the time included the American ambassador, the Avecillas and the Ocampos. At the river bend lived the actor Juancho Gutierrez and his family.

The Lichaucos, the Sanzs and the Redemptorists, were on the same side where our house was, but facing another part of the city.

There was a boat club not far from our house. On weekends, tons of rowers, mostly expats, went all the way to Manila Bay or up toward Laguna de Bay.

Dead fish, oil slick

Then all hell broke loose. Urban life exploded. The vegetable plots disappeared, factories mushroomed and wastes were thrown by the tons into the Pasig River. Chemicals, garbage and what-have-you, changed the beautiful face of my river to that of an ugly woman?s.

The clean, green river turned murky and gray. It was dirty, dirty, dirty!
Dead fishes floated. The rocks and stones turned black with oil. Gone were the tiny fishes and crabs nibbling on the fungi which grew on the rocks. Dead dogs, dead pigs and trash took the place of living nature we used to love and enjoy.

When the rainy season came, the river banks rose 80 percent higher compared to previous years.

Those of us who had our rooms on the first floor of the house were roused by the househelp in the middle of the night because the water was rising so fast.

We waded to the stairs and stayed on the second level of the house. By daybreak, my mom was hysterical, afraid that water would reach the second floor. We tried to calm her down by cracking jokes: ?Don?t worry Mama. Papa can always ask some of his friends who have helicopters to pick us up on the roof of the house.?

Seriously, it was not a pretty sight.

6 inches of mud

The water soon subsided but only after reaching a height of 5 feet. It left behind 6 inches of mud on the first floor, and made a mess of the living room, the ante-living room and four bedrooms. Thank goodness, the five cars had been safely driven out of the garage by our three drivers, my brother and my father, to the Sta. Ana churchyard which was located on a small hill.

It took all our househelp and the men who worked at my father?s stable of race horses close to the Sta. Ana Race Track three days to clean up the mud on the floor and oil stains on the walls of the ground floor. But the stench remained for almost a week.

It?s sad what urban modernization, factories and the lack of zoning laws had done to the Pasig River. People simply did not care and threw loads of unimaginable trash into the once beautiful river that generations before mine had enjoyed.

Hope for the river

There was a time when former first lady Imelda Marcos had this fabulous idea to build a promenade from Fort Santiago all the way to the Guadalupe bridge. It was similar to the baywalk on Roxas Boulevard, but this one would be along the banks of the Pasig River with turn-of-the-century lampposts every few feet and benches where one could sit. Sadly, it never materialized.

When Amelita ?Ming? Ramos was first lady, she had a campaign to rehabilitate the river with ?Piso Para sa Pasig? (a peso for the Pasig River). It started in 1994 but unfortunately, it never quite took off.

Now, it?s Gina Lopez?s turn to do something for our beloved Pasig River. According to Gina, Mrs. Ramos had turned over all the funds she raised to her.

I pray that this time, the plan will take off. The future of the river depends on it. I hope that one day, the Pasig will again be the beautiful lady that I once knew when the world was young.

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