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Las Piñas and Palanyag —A tale of two towns

LIVING WATER Salt beds used to dominate the landscape in Las Piñas. (Photo by Jojo Riñoza) Inset: Oyster farms continue to line the shallow Manila Bay shoreline (Photo by Mark Balmores)

LIVING WATER Salt beds used to dominate the landscape in Las Piñas. (Photo by Jojo Riñoza) Inset: Oyster farms continue to line the shallow Manila Bay shoreline (Photo by Mark Balmores)

The outskirts of Metro Manila were a patchwork of bucolic postcard scenes while I was growing up from the mid-1940s to 1960, when I had to leave for college in Diliman.

There were, then, only six barrios in Las Piñas. Ours, Pulanglupa, was beautiful. We played everywhere. The clear blue waters of Manila Bay beckoned from the west while fishponds, salt beds, and rice fields sparkled in the east. Between them, the emerald Zapote River meandered through clusters of nipa-and-bamboo huts.

 

Free for the Taking

Floating gently in the middle of the river were several salambaw, giant fishnets attached to crossed bamboo poles that were set atop giant bamboo rafts. Depending on the season and the time of day, the catch included blue swimming crabs (alimasag), milkfish (bangus), grey mullet (banak), saltwater catfish (kanduli), tiger prawns (sugpo), and tarpon (buwan-buwan).

The raft itself was thick with oysters that fell into the river bottom when hit hard by a solid object. We spent many afternoons eating raw oysters shaken loose from the salambaw floor.

Along the shores, clinging to snake-like mangrove (bakawan) roots, were mussels (tahong), oysters, and sea snails (suso), all free for the taking.

Mussels (tahong) still grow profusely in Parañaque (Photo by Jojo Riñoza)

Mussels (tahong) still grow profusely in Parañaque (Photo by Jojo Riñoza)

 

Rainy Bounty

Even when it rained, we had fun-filled productive days. The rice fields became shallow ponds teeming with snails (kuhol), mudfish (dalag), and catfish (hito) while vegetables like malunggay, camote, kang kong, and alugbati mushroomed along the paths. We gathered snails, caught fish with bamboo traps (bubo), and picked vegetable shoots for simple meals that nobody ever got tired of.

 

Self-Sufficient Clusters

Houses in our barrio were built in clusters of eight to 10, each with an orchard of fruit trees, herbs, vegetables, and medicinal plants. When grandma cooked tinola, we knew which neighbors grew papaya and malunggay. Sinigang called for sampalok or kamias, which grew everywhere.

The mini orchards were very productive. One patola (silk gourd) vine supplied enough fruit for 30 homes. A row of siling labuyo bushes gave us all bottles of hot peppers for months. There was never any need to buy condiments. This was before powdered mixes were invented.

 

Natural Perfume

Once a year, we gathered roots of moras planted on the beach property of my paternal grandfather Pedro Jose in Palanyag, now called Parañaque. Known in the international cosmetics world as “vetiver,” the grass-like plant was grown for its long aromatic roots, which were bought by two French perfumeries in Palanyag’s Barrio Tambo. The French plants extracted oils from moras, ylang ylang, jasmine, and sampaguita, which were shipped to Paris for incorporation into very expensive perfumes bearing famous brands.

Moras, for years, provided a very profitable, low maintenance, low-capital industry for the coastal community. There were good years when moras crept almost to the Manila Bay water level at high tide, resulting in roots that were several feet long. The sweet-smelling grass was a more profitable crop than rice.

Enterprising Palanyag housewives soon fashioned moras roots into fans from which wafted delicate vetiver scent for months. Other products they developed for extra income were moras sachets to keep clothes cabinets fresh and small moras-filled pillows to scatter around the house.

 

Almost two centuries old, the bamboo organ at St. Joseph Parish Church in Las Piñas stars in the annual International Bamboo Organ Festival in the city. (Photo by Ali Vicoy)

Almost two centuries old, the bamboo organ at St. Joseph Parish Church in Las Piñas stars in the annual International Bamboo Organ Festival in the city. (Photo by Ali Vicoy)

Cosmopolitan Neighbor

Although it has been more than 200 years since Las Piñas was created from a barrio of Palanyag, the older town continues to carry on with a patronizing big brother attitude, with good reason.

In my youth, my town only had elementary public schools and one parochial elementary school. For high school, we had to be sent to St. Paul’s in Palanyag or to inexpensive private high schools in Pasay.

Las Piñas had only one doctor until 1954, when my Auntie Amor graduated from University of Santo Tomas. We bought all our medicine from a very old pharmacist who sometimes ground up herbs, minerals, and stuff using a mortar and pestle and mixed them all himself like a mysterious Merlin from the dark ages.

While our public market consisted of six vendors in an empty building, Parañaque boasted of the best seafood market in the metropolis. Cavite, Laguna, and Batangas fishermen took their best catch to the public market beside St. Andrews Church to sell to buyers from other towns and cities.

Palanyag had generations of professionals. Las Piñas had salt makers and farmers. To Palanyag’s stone houses, we could only counter with bahay kubo and a concrete kumbento.

 

The best jeepneys are made by Sarao in Las Piñas.

The best jeepneys are made by Sarao in Las Piñas.

Gain Some, Lose Some

My town finally redeemed itself around the 1960s, when the Sarao jeepney factory, the Bamboo Organ, and traditional salt beds became regular stops of Manila-Tagaytay tours. My town was finally famous, more famous than its neighbor.

Today, the two towns are both cities and were absorbed by Metropolitan Manila. Gone are the salt beds, replaced by high-rise condos. The government keeps threatening to phase out jeepneys. Tourists on the way to Tagaytay use new routes that bypass both Palanyag and Las Piñas.

The rivers are all murky, with hardly any trace of life. Housing subdivisions have sprouted where rice fields used to be. Very few even remember what a salambaw looks like. For fresh seafood, residents now flock to the Baclaran Seaside Market.

Both towns have gained hundreds of thousands of taxpayers and voters, but lost their souls.