Geography and memory

Sunday last week found me on a fast ferry to Bataan.  Like most natives of Central Luzon, I am totally unaccustomed to approaching Bataan from the sea.  It was therefore exhilarating to discover that the boat trip from Manila to Limay takes only an hour, whereas it normally takes at least 3 hours by land.  How foolish it is, I thought, that we have allowed the motorcar to define our geography, and how ironic that we, an archipelagic people, have forgotten that the sea is our first natural link to one another.

In Limay, I was met by a Channel 7 crew, who left very early in the morning and took the usual land route.  Our mission was to retrace the path of the Death March in the company of a sprightly 81-year-old USAFFE veteran, Cmdr. Elias Manlapas, who was captured in Limay by the Japanese and forced to walk, together with thousands of others, the infamous death trail.  It is the first time for Mang Ely to visit the place since his capture on that fateful day in April 1942.

The landmark we were looking for was kilometer post 141 somewhere in Limay.  It was here that a Japanese tank had caught up with Mang Ely and his group as they emerged on the scorching highway at around noontime of that summer day.  The Japanese who intercepted them did not harm them, he recounts.  They assured them that the Filipinos were not their enemies.  At the elementary school building in Limay, where they were herded, the exhausted soldiers thought that maybe the Japanese would just decide to send all of them home.  The Death March was farthest from their minds.

My crew told me that they had already found Km.141, but that the old man was insisting it was in the wrong place.   “You should be able to see the sea clearly from that spot,” Mang Elias explained. “There should be an airstrip nearby,” he declared with absolute certainty.  I tried to tell him that the airstrip would have been completely covered by trees or houses by now.  “But where is the sea?” he protested.  “It is impossible for the sea to vanish.”

Our veteran would not be appeased.  The pictures in his mind were fresh and vivid, and there was no way we could inject any doubt into his recollection.  The truth, as we later found out, is that a portion of the old highway with a lovely view of the sea, where the original Km. post 141 may have stood, is now occupied by a power plant.  We could pretend that Km. post 141 on the new highway is the same spot where he was taken prisoner.

No one would know the difference, and Mang Ely himself was quite prepared to submit to the license of TV dramatization.  But his grave uneasiness bothered me.  It was that of a man trying to reconcile his memory to the imperatives of geography.  Seeing him fix his gaze upon the open field where the sea should have been, I suddenly understood what Simon Schama meant by landscape being “a text on which generations write their recurring obsessions.”

The private images of the war that haunt Mang Ely’s generation are inescapably associated with specific places.  The whole idea behind our own expedition on this bright Sunday morning was precisely to summon these images from the past in the very places where they were formed.  Mang Ely was to be, in a manner of speaking, our medium.

“I looked at my Waltham: it was 5 o’clock in the afternoon when we arrived in Limay elementary school.  The school grounds were already bursting with the remnants of a vanquished army. When darkness fell, I decided to forage for food and luckily I found a singkamas patch just behind the school.”  Where is that school? I asked a Limay resident who kindly offered to guide us.

The central school has been relocated to another part of town.  At the former site, a portion of the old building remains, and is used as an annex.  I thought it was the perfect site in which to hold my conversation on camera with the old man.  But once more, geography and memory could not agree.  “The place is too small to hold thousands,” the old soldier protested.  “The stairs of the old school faced the highway; not like this, where the stairs are hidden from the road.”

All we needed was to film a conversation with a pre-war school building serving as a backdrop.  Not everything needs to be authentic, the crew reminded me.  But Mang Ely’s disaffection with the setting was not due to a stubborn commitment to authenticity; it was coming rather from  an unflinching defense of the integrity of his own experience.  I realized that we could not validate that experience by simply attempting to frame its recollection in the places where it happened.

“There is a beautiful place here called Rodriguez Park, beside a river,” Mang Ely told our guide.  The guide knew where Rodriguez was, except that there is no longer a park there.  The river and the bridge were still there, but the tall ancient trees that made that place deserve the name of a park were nowhere to be found.  “We camped here for a few days before the Japanese took us.  This is where I was attacked in the face by an army of vicious wasps,” the old man continued as if he was recounting an event that happened yesterday.

Walking through the slum community that had settled in Rodriguez, I asked the children who had followed us if they knew where the park was.  There is no park here, they said.  Indeed, the river that bounds the place looked more like an estero, and the huge trees in Mang Ely’s unfading memory were no longer visible there or anywhere in overlogged Bataan.  The pre-war landscape of lush mountains and wild rivers has been dismally effaced by neglect, greed, and indifference. Our search for the landmarks of one man’s memory led us instead to a depressing discovery of what we have lost.


Reference:  Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory, Vintage Books, 1996, p. 12.