Bicol Express: A storied ride back in time
The storied Bicol Express resumed its daily run last week to the typhoon-lashed, flood-ravaged southern peninsula, bringing back memories of days gone by, “when life was slow and oh so mellow,” as the old song from the Broadway hit musical “The Fantasticks” goes.
Daily service was cut five years ago when a strong typhoon devastated the region.
The trips are served by a dining coach and offer private sleeper beds and reclining seats, among other amenities—a quantum leap from those in 1938, when the first trains rolled off the historic Tutuban station in Manila. The run to Naga City, home of the miraculous Virgin of Peñafrancia, would take a shade below 10 hours.
Apart from the expected economic benefits, the resumption of the railroad link also brings back memories of postwar rebirth and reconstruction.
As my graduation gift for finishing grade school, my father gave me a round trip ticket to the family roots in Albay province via the Bicol Express, which connected the peninsula to Manila’s trade and commerce, its economic lifeline after World War II.
With me on the trip were my mother and elder sister, who looked more excited than I was over the chance to meet relatives and friends on familiar grounds. The family had moved to Manila when I was barely two years old, and I had but vague memories of my hometown.
We boarded the train at San Lazaro station, the first stop after Tutuban, which has now been restored as a national relic. San Lazaro served the Rizal Avenue and Blumentritt area and was less of a hassle than the main terminal at Tutuban.
My uncles Romeo and Sergio, who had moved to the city with us and were in high school, begged to be on this trip. But they unfortunately were the designated housekeepers and had to stay behind.
The pain in their eyes I cannot forget to this day as they lifted us to the cabin.
The Orient Express
I had browsed my father’s yellowed copy of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” and had visions of memorable scenes dancing in my head as we settled down on our wooden benches. The amenities were nowhere near those described in the mystery thriller, but that did not dampen my sense of adventure.
I remember the stop at Paco station, which lasted longer than usual because of a large number of passengers and cargo going on board. It was past seven in the evening as we hurtled down minor stations in Laguna, taking on new passengers and disgorging them several stations onward.
The next major stop was in Lucena, Quezon province, and I remember being roused from sleep by the cackling of chickens in cages being hauled on board. The smell assaults you in a way you will remember all its nuances for the rest of your life.
Luckily for me, the chickens disembarked at the next major station in Daet, Camarines Norte. Used to the sounds of Manila, I could now detect a strange mixture of Tagalog and Bicolano being spoken by the people.
The gold rush in the nearby town of Paracale was still fresh in my memory, and I overheard two miners telling stories of nuggets they found in rivers near the mines.
The next stop would be Naga, the first big town considered as the real Bicol in the province of Camarines Sur. I took the time to sleep—when it was possible to do so above all the clatter of the railroad.
Out of breath
My adrenalin was still flowing from the perilous zigzag in Quezon, scene of many train wrecks and now of fatal bus accidents. But we navigated that without incident, even if at times the steam locomotive sounded like it was huffing and puffing and would never make it to the top of the hill.
The stop in Naga, like the stops in Lucena and Daet, gave passengers time to stretch and buy delicacies offered by hawkers. I had my first taste of suman boiled in coconut milk, and it was a delight.
Soon we were chugging along again. The train conductor said the next stop would be Iriga, but he advised passengers to go back to sleep, for at dawn we would be near the base of world-famous Mayon Volcano, the one with the near-perfect cone.
I requested the conductor to rouse me at the first sign of the mountain, but I soon found out there was no need for that.
An ear for engines
After hours on the train, you develop an ear for the various sounds the steam engine makes. The locomotive sounds differently when it decelerates for a bend or struggles uphill. Downhill, the engine sings, freed from its heavy load by the tug of gravity.
I sensed we were near the base of the volcano for I could hear the train struggling. Apart from the uphill climb, there was also the slight pull of centrifugal force. Dawn was breaking and the volcano loomed large in our windows.
Seeing the volcano up close, you get a sense of just how immensely beautiful it is. The name Mayon is a contraction of the Bicol word “magayon,” meaning beautiful. But it means more than that, for as always something gets lost in the translation: It evokes the image a beautiful maiden of a Bicolano’s dreams.
Above the shrill screech of steel wheels struggling to keep a grip on the rails boomed the conductor’s urgent yell: “Dapa! Dapa!” No translation needed; it means the same thing in Tagalog and Bicolano.
In a blink, everyone was on the floor.
When the all-clear signal was given, some passengers who were obviously on their first train ride like me asked what that was all about. I could hear the conductor explain: Apparently it was standard practice when rounding a perilous bend around the volcano. The belief was that lowering the train’s center of gravity made the turn safer.
Live physics lesson
I could not believe my ears, for it seemed to make no sense. But I decided to look it up in high school physics class as soon as school opened.
Soon the stations flashed names of familiar places. “Camalig,” my father’s hometown. “Daraga,” with its church built on a hill, the older one having been buried in lava. Daraga is maiden in English. Daragang magayon was mother’s hometown.
A welcoming party of friends and kin was waiting for us at the stop in Albay, where we were to disembark, for it was closest to our temporary quarters. A short hop away was the end of the line, Legazpi City, named for the Spanish conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, where the volcano’s slopes meet the sea in the picturesque Gulf of Albay.
We had a whale of a feast for breakfast, which lasted till lunch, which in turn lasted till the afternoon. It seemed like the day would never end.
There were endless stories to tell, but what I remembered most above the babel of tongues were the warm hugs that only people in a Manila boy’s hometown could give.
Gift of memory
The succeeding trips to Calayucay beach, the trek up Mayon’s slopes that had boulders the size of buildings, and the eerie sight of the Cagsawa church belfry sticking out from a bed of lava, left indelible imprints in the mind. But the warm memories left in the boy’s heart could linger to last a man’s lifetime.
In Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited,” the narrator reflects on his life. “These memories, which are my life—for we possess certainly nothing except the past—were always with me.”
The trip back to Manila was like an old film being played backward and in slow motion. I lingered in the memories of that summer vacation frame by poignant frame, hoping that somehow I could extend my stay in my hometown just a little bit longer.
But knowing how way leads on to way, I wondered how a 12-year-old boy, having come of age that summer, shall ever come back.
Editor’s Note: The author is chief executive of a think-tank specializing in transforming social and political trends into public policy and business strategy.
(DzIQ Radyo Inquirer 990 and Inquirer Libre are exclusive partners of Philippine National Railways.)
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