It is 4.30am and still dark. Only the crowing cocks can sense the coming dawn for the sky is black, star-studded and moonless and the air is chill. Nearby, a handpump squeaks and thuds as it brings water up from an aquifer deep below and there is a splash as a woman dressed in a print cotton shift pours it over herself from a dipper, wetting the cloth which clings to her body as she bathes.
Soon she will dry herself and dress and go out to a tiny bakery a street away and queue up to buy a bag of still-hot pan de sal, sweetish bread rolls, for her breakfast.
She steps into the street outside, paying no attention to the undulating kohl-dark sea at the southern end and does not hear the waves swish onto the beach where the fishermen will soon bring in their catch, the lucky ones with silver-blue solisugue sailfin to sell in the market.
The town is waking. At the coffeeshack on the corner of Valeriano Abanador Street minibus drivers sit on a rough wooden bench to sip their favourite flavour of three-in-one and smoke sticks of Marlboro bought one by one from a plastic container on the counter, while passengers select snacks displayed beneath a single fluorescent light as they prepare for the early morning trips to Tacloban on Leyte, Guiuan to the East and Borongan to the North.
Hopper’s Nighhawks made Visayan flesh.
Lining the street between the sea and the coffeeshack is a timeline of the town’s recent past – smart solid brick two storey homes in tropical colours of sand, blue, cream and orange from which, during frequent power cuts, come the putter of generators, then smaller, more modest houses, some of brick, others of ancient sun-bleached wood, with shattered windows and doors and missing roofs replaced by now-ragged tarpaulins bearing the word ‘USAID’ on them in faded grey letters, the ever-present scars of the super-typhoon that came roaring into Leyte Gulf six years ago and viciously tore the town apart.
Here and there are the cubic shapes of two metre square Bahay Cubo, with walls of woven sawali and floors of split bamboo.
Now, a minute or so after 5am, from the church that dominates the brightly-lit town plaza and its heroic golden statuary, comes the sound of a bell, calling people to the first Mass of the day.
Soon, women move towards the sound of that bell, some clothed in brown outfits tied with a single white cord, carrying the chapel veils they will wear as the priest of St Lawrence Martyr gives his benedictions.
Above the mountains to the east is the dull, matt silver sky of the coming dawn.
The bell rings again.
And in its peal comes a story, a legend, of courage and sacrifice bordering on myth, half remembered and distorted, seen through the uneven mirrors and prisms of fading memories.
It has a remarkable tale to tell, of a journey of anger and forgiveness, of hatred and peace, of town whose own story has been hijacked so often for the purposes of others.
For a quarter of a century it was my journey, too.
This is the journey of the Balangiga Bells.