Naga by train
I AM not a Nagueño. This makes all the difference. Because this will be all about going to Naga, passing by and through this city and even leaving this place, over and over again.
I grew up along the railroad tracks of sleepy Lupi, in the province of Camarines Sur, under the shadows of its hilly, rugged contours that are lush all throughout the year. From my town by the train, it takes around two hours to Naga.
In the 80s, when the train station of Lupi was at its grandest constitution, the structure of red brick roof and log-paneled exteriors was the gateway of the town. Its elevated platform greeted as much as it bid farewell to so many individuals, families, visitors—names who have touched the place and whom the place had touched in return.
There were only two probable destinations when one leaves Lupi: the far, full of uncertainty that is Manila, and Naga, someplace I am so sure that’s so close to my town’s heart. My first and only travel from Lupi to Manila was when I was eight and the story wasn’t so pleasing to share. But my travels to Naga from my town were many and most were filled with good tales; many too were my travels through Naga my father’s town of Nabua.
The famed train Mayon Limited would pass by Lupi at around four in the morning when the town was still, at sleep and blanketed in chill of early morning. We would board the train, disturbing passengers in deep sleep and asking for spare seats for a more comfortable ride to—or through—Naga. I was a curious kid, everything outside the window of the train mattered. But we were left with the rhythm of iron wheels smiting rail cuts, the uphill grunts of the diesel locomotive, and the occasional rumblings underneath suggesting that we were traversing a bridge to give us the idea as to where most probably were we. Outside, darkness gave no difference between the coconut groves and the heavens. The early morning ride wouldn’t allow the chance to sightsee while until an hour and a half into the trip, when far through the rolling rice fields of Libmanan and Pamplona everyone would catch the first faint sight of Naga City—a mere speck in the thinning fog, hinted by the spires of the Cathedral, the Basilica, the PNB Building and the transmitter towers of radio stations. There’s still thirty minutes left; so near yet still far.
I knew very well what would come next.
After a very long stretch of very straight tracks from Pamplona station, the train would negotiate a rather broad curve. Outside, rice paddies get freckled with talisay trees. Inside the coaches, Naga-bound passengers were awake though many eyes still bore a bit of sleep. Slowly, luggage secured on overhead racks are retrieved with care—traveling bags and plastic sacks of this and that, many were simply pasalubong from elsewhere—until everything is counted and set for detraining.
Mayon Limited, after ten hours or more from Manila and almost two hours from my town Lupi, would come to a slow down until the familiar welcoming sound of reverberating iron beams underneath us announce that we were crossing Mabolo Bridge, over the Naga River, allowing us the entrance to the heart of the Heart of Bikol.
Train personnel in uniforms that looked military would remind everyone in loud, rousing voice that we were already in Naga. The train would come to a halt along a ground-level platform of a station which signage until now continues to bear the city’s legend-filled name with the figure 377km underneath—its distance from Tutuban. Perhaps it has been like that since the first time trains arrived in Naga in the 1930s when the south-bound line of the Manila Railroad Company was finally completed to permanently change the face of Bikol, the railroad region of the Philippines. The railroad was the first efficient long distance mass transport system that had served Naga, and for this, she may even be tagged as a railroad city. Like my hometown of Lupi, the face of Naga has been shaped and reshaped by trains ferrying people and produces in and out of its boundaries.
Passengers disembark along with the burdens of their luggage, hoping that the city, with its genial and pious disposition, would unburden them. After all, travels to Naga are always either a homecoming or a pilgrimage. For a station in between stations, Naga possesses the feel of a terminal, of a place where journeys end, and because of this, when trains leave Naga for Legazpi City down south, it is always a new journey, one from Naga City.
When my family would travel to Iriga, our drop off point to my father’s hometown of Nabua, Naga meant breakfast of goto (rice porridge) with tripe and boiled egg which my folks would get from stalls just outside the station. It was a breakfast that was always consumed with gusto as Mayon Limited slowly pulled away from the city, while houses outside the window went scarcer and scarcer, accompanied by the bizarre cadence of the sound of wheels on unwielded rail segments along Naga-Legazpi section. It was noisier but lilting and it made everything seem a bit faster. As for the goto, itwas just so good so that years after as a college student boarding in the city, I once went to the Naga station one morning for it only to find out all the food stalls and stores gone.
And gone too was Mayon Limited that time.
I was in high school the last time I left Naga for Lupi by train. It moved away from the platform around five in the afternoon, hesitantly at first, then gingerly coming to quickness until I found myself again staring at the expanse of rice fields that separated me farther and farther from a city that was significantly larger and bigger than the city in my childhood. It was turning once more into a speck. Against the dusk, it flickered and signaled it was there.