"Why, nothing has changed! It is still the same as it was the day I left it!"
This is a common observation made by many balikbayans originally from Lianga but who have lived somewhere else for years, even decades, and have come back to visit the town after their long absence. And every time I hear the words I always wonder how much of that impression is actually true and how much is due to a sudden and understandable excess of nostalgic sentimentalism.
You see, I have lived in Lianga for many years, almost two decades now, and to say off hand that the place has not changed over those years cannot obviously be true. The changes may have come at a slow and gradual pace but they are there and are, mostly and fairly obvious.
The fact that I can blog and surf on the Internet, casually use a cellular phone, watch cable or satellite television and do all these while staying in Lianga is ample proof that this is not the same town I knew eighteen years ago. Much has indeed changed since then.
But it is also true that if much has changed in Lianga, the change has also come like layers of thin icing on a cake, superficial and largely trivial. As a long time resident here, I often get the feeling that if one can shake or peel off the thin veneer of what passes for modernity and 21st century progress in this town, the real Lianga that has remained stolidly the same underneath for ages will emerge unaltered and unadulterated.
In the many years I have been in this town, I have gradually come to see her as having the character and personality of an elderly woman of old, landed wealth and good breeding fallen somewhat on hard times and desperately trying to keep up the show and pretense of prosperity and affluence. As such, she is intensely traditional, firmly (some say even fanatically) religious and deeply socially conservative, jealous of her prerogatives and warily suspicious of outsiders and outside influences that tend to challenge her myopic view of the world.
Thus change and advancement in Lianga tends to proceed in fits and starts, often coming grudgingly and reluctantly in the face of great social inertia. The deity of progress, if there is one, has to make like Sisyphus, the hapless Greek mythological figure, in this town, willing to take two steps backward to make a step forward. Not exactly a nurturing environment for what many local residents hope to be the next resurgent and progressive urban center in this part of eastern Mindanao.
This ambivalence about progress and moving forward can be seen as well as felt when one goes on a stroll around town. Here and there, cellular phone shops, digital photcopying outlets and internet cafes have popped up. In the skyline, the dark outlines of telecommunication towers can be seen where there was once only blue skies and the dark green of distant mountains.
Yet very little has actually changed in the ambiance and atmosphere of the town. It is, in many ways, the sleepy, drowsy, languorous town of my youth. As one moves past the many aged and weathered houses, the old shops and family-owned retail stores that seem to have stood there for ages, the familiar landmarks like the parish church and the municipal park that somehow persist looking old and venerable despite their new coats of paint, one gets the sense of being caught in a time warp.
And if conditions are right and the mood is there, the colors slowly fade and melt in the mind, the street noise evanesce into a low, distant murmur and one suddenly sees the streets and houses in the sepia-toned, black and white of old photographs of the 1960's and 70's. A overpowering wave of nostalgia takes hold and you shake as if seized by a sudden fit of fever or the ague.
It is during these occasions when I realize that the old witch that is Lianga is simply having her way with me. I have fallen once more under the spell of the voices and echoes of this town's rich and glorious past, a rich trove of memories always relevant and palpable in its living and experiencing of a vastly diminished present.
So in the end, many balikbayans are, from that perspective, right on the money. Lianga has paradoxically changed and yet remains unchanged. It flirts with and seemingly embraces change when it has to, yet spurns, rejects and corrupts it when it can. Despite the trimmings of progress it manages to retain its insular, whimsical and provincial character.
It is, in the final sense, simply contradictory, maddeningly confusing and, most of all, infuriatingly perverse.