I was born and raised all my life in a city that promised springs and waterfalls but which existed alongside blackouts and power outages. I remember growing up to candle-lit dinners and going to bed early in their warm, incandescent glow (the candles, I mean). Sometimes the power would go out in the middle of the day. Sometimes it would go out in the middle of class, when the teacher would end up having to open the blinds, the windows, and the door, with everyone in the room ending up drenched in sweat by the end of the day. They would happen suddenly, especially when we were off-guard and have not done our “researching” on Encarta early enough (we did not have Internet until I was in high school). In their wake, the expensive electricity bills would come trailing. The sound of Mama’s plaintive sighs would reverberate through the house.
Daytimes were akin to spending eight hours in an oven with windows. The creaking sound of the long metal handle of the neighbor’s poso going up and down became an inevitable drudgery on the weekends. My hands would end up smelling like rust – pale, distant, and cold. Hauling water in containers to meet wasteful bathing habits rinsed and repeated until they became insufferable. At home, the faucets only start working at four or five in the morning and end at around six. For the first thirty minutes, the water must be left running because it smells like sewage. It eventually came to the point when we dug our own deep well at home.
Ironically, the name of the city itself comes from the term ilig, which means “to flow”. Two main rivers run between the city: Mandulog River farther to the north and Tubod River just south of the city proper. The two main river systems come from uphill streams in mountainous places like Tipanoy and Puga-an, thus exposing the city to Iligan Bay in a gray delta of buildings and roads. The towering structures built along the shoreline stifle and mix the incoming sea breeze with smoke from exhausts.
The city proper of Iligan is nothing to gawk at or marvel about. Quaint, square, practical buildings line the streets and main highways left and right, a lot of them being commercial buildings renting out space for offices, shops, and stores. There is hardly any elegance of design or any semblances of beauty – except for a few, almost all of them had been built with practicality and pragmatism in mind. Most of the buildings are gray, with their five or so stories towering over pedestrians with an antiquated feel. (Others with glaringly bright colors resemble Greek statues – better off dull gray and plain than any color at all, if you ask me.) Gibiyaan sila sa panahon – the times have left them, but they almost never fail to give a certain air that takes one ten or twenty years back into their heyday.
Shopping centers – not really “malls” – take precedence in the row of commercial buildings on almost every other street. UniCity and UniTop are both top examples of bright-hued establishments that, once you step inside and greet the cold blast of the air-conditioning, smell like dry, packaged air and plastic.
Beside them are the glaring appearances of newer commercial buildings that look more “modern” and “minimalist” compared to their older counterparts. Most of them look whitewashed, with slanting walls instead of ordinary straight ones and wide window panels, such as the new Desmark building along the main highway near Saint Michael’s Cathedral, or the new building of Crown Paper and Stationery along Aguinaldo Street facing the refurbished Jollibee branch.
Sometimes old buildings have to go to make way for new ones, but these rarely happen. Iligan is a kind of place where at one given moment you are at the heart of the city’s hustle and bustle, but turn a corner and suddenly you find yourself where the past meets the present. Here, shiny new Hondas drive by dilapidated buildings and wooden doors with faces of politicians from elections past stapled onto them, fluttering in the wind.
Iligan may be the product of industrialization, but it is a quiet city, even during festivals, with an alienating coldness to it. Even though the streets and highways often seem packed with people and vehicles – especially during rush hour – they rarely seem lively.
Much of the coastline is dotted with the presence of companies whose storage and/or processing structures and pipelines stand out and cast shadows over passing vehicles, such as Holcim Cement, or even the gargantuan storage drums of Shell along the highway to Suarez, just beside the vine-overtaken refinery of Global Steel Corporation. Yet despite this, many Iliganons are jobless, or have to seek employment elsewhere. Small wonder, then, that everyone always looks like he/she is in a hurry. Their footsteps are quick-paced, ranging from brisk walking to almost sprinting. They can be quite hot-tempered: the look on their eyes almost never fails to give away their insistence on being right when they are not. (Small wonder, then, that the roads congest every other week because of vehicular accidents.)
I never had the chance to give the city a first impression, mostly because I thought that everything I saw there was normal. If being a bit too quiet and quite unlively for a city of three hundred thousand people were normal, then I guess Iligan is so. The best microcosm for the whole city would be the refineries of Global Steel Corporation, which saw near-zero activity from 2005 onwards. The grove of trees seems to grow taller and taller. The gates are rusted shut. The pipelines and roofs sit there, unfazed as the heat gives way to rain and heat again. Vines have taken over the walls, and even the infirmary.
There are people still working there, even just for maintenance. Security guards sit in the shade of a dilapidated guard post. Janitors clean the worn-down hallways of a workspace that has not heard even the faintest of footsteps of any other employee. In the remaining office cubicles, the white-collar office workers still wait for someone to buy out the whole refinery, for the place to start again, to live and breathe again as it once did up to the late nineties. Iligan is a lot like this place: dormant, waiting for someone to take the reins, like a child growing older waiting for a father to come home.
When Global Steel no longer became profitable as an enterprise, many of its workers began looking for opportunities abroad. My father was one of them, having left for abroad for the first time when I was in high school. He came home for the third time last 2013, just as I was about to enter UP as an incoming freshman.
We are a normal family, if normal meant the distance between us family members has been steadily growing over the year; if normal meant the increasing number of times that we have been fighting and giving each other the cold shoulder. If normal meant that home is no longer home but an eerie juncture where the past meets the present. If normal meant that the past still mingles with the present, and we could still see it in little things, like the Internet router, or the various tools for home and car maintenance, or the cracks on the walls. We are normal.
So too is Iligan, if not for the past summers and Christmas breaks I had stayed there while I’ve been away for college, then perhaps it has been that way my whole life: a failing city.
John Oliver Ladaga is a 3rd year BA English-Creative Writing student of the University of the Philippines Mindanao.