“We went to the Vintar Dam, Tito. We went up to the guest house on top of the hill. We stood on the veranda and saw a panoramic view of a beautiful landscape of the crystal clear blue river and the background of rugged mountains.”
“It was a spectacular sight.”
Alfredo, a seven-year-old, is the youngest of the boys. Clutching his older brother’s leg, he sheepishly whispered, but loud enough for him to hear, “There’s no Dam.” And in unison, they exclaimed, “There’s no dam at the Vintar Dam!”
“Tito, we did not see any dam.”
“Of course, there is a dam,” he said grudgingly. “You just didn’t look hard enough. You saw the tower, right?”
“Yes,” they replied.
“Well, near it, at its side is a cement plank coming out of the water. Did you see it?”
“That was a remnant of the huge dam. There are more of it, strewn on the bottom of the river. And they stretched all the way up to the other side of the river, to a tower, half buried in the sand and still standing among the groves of damortis. Did you see a silhouette of it?”
“Yes, we saw a shape of a tower.”
“That was the North end of the Dam.”
“What happened to it?” They asked eagerly.
The tragic ending of the Vintar Dam is not very well known. Its demise is not talked about among the folks in Vintar. He is sure it was a devastating loss. Its destruction is being blamed on a natural phenomenon like an earthquake and strong typhoons that cause the river to overflow. Dinupag ti karayan. No one attributes it to the poor craftsmanships and the materials or the design, or the incompetence of the builders. Was it the Americans? Or was it the Spaniards? No one seems to know. One thing is for sure. Everyone is still in deep denial over its collapse. It is a taboo to talk about it, mainly because it is painful. So, everyone still thinks there is a dam and the myth of having a dam in Vintar still persists to this day.
He’d like to tell the children about its collapse, but a part of him hesitates because he would be breaching a taboo. It would be a violation of values held dearly in Vintar. It would be embarrasing to disrespect cultural beliefs. It would be tantamount to accepting the inadequacies of a people and their efforts to better their lives. It would be offending the spirit of barangay.
Instead, he should guide them to see its success in providing irrigation waters to the rice fields of Vintar, Bacarra and Laoag. In fact, there’s actually a small dam just north of Bisaya that catches the water and feed it to the irrigation canal. It can only be seen during the dry season when the water level is but a trickle. That alone should be a reason to feel good about the Vintar Dam.
“We saw the canal below us, and boys were jumping off the edge of a cliff.
“That’s not a cliff,” he explained. “It is a gate that controls the flow of the waters to the irrigation canal.”
“Yes, the boys were so foolish to jump into that narrow canal. From where we were standing, it looked dangerous to us. We were terrified watching them.”
“We wondered, how will they be able to get back up after the jump.”
“Then, Tito Jem pointed out that there is a tunnel underneath the hill that leads to the other side of it.”
“He showed it to us, and there were kids playing at the mouth of the tunnel. We wanted to go in and asked Tito Jem if we can join them. After hesitating, he told us to get to our bathing clothes and took a quick hold of our breaths and dove down into the cold water of the dam.”
“He led us into the tunnel. It was dark at first, but as we waded deeper, we saw the light coming from the side where the boys were jumping.”
“That’s when we saw the writings on the walls of the tunnel. Tito, It was graffiti! How could they?”
You go to any high school toilets in the States, or to any public restroom, in parks, in gas stations, sides of buildings, freeway and roadside walls you’ll see all kinds of graffiti. They all are aware of this and they know it is an act of vandalism and defacement.
They are in imminent danger of being swept away by the belief that somehow, Vintar has sexually charged, intoxicated teenagers intent on vandalizing and trashing this honored place. He must quickly dispel and quickly get rid of this unfounded belief.
“It is not what you think,” he started rather slowly.
He knows that graffiti is as old as civilization or even older. Prehistoric cave drawings and paintings are found all over the world and have left a rich legacy of human artistic expressions. He thought of where they are discovered today. They are in places hard to access. There have to be considerable efforts put into it to make images. They cannot be work of vandals trashing their surroundings. It would be a considerable effort on his part as well to go all through this historical narrative to such young impatient minds. He must think of something that is short and current so it will sink quicker and deeper into their minds.
His thoughts went back to the first moon landing when Neil Armstrong made that “first step” on the surface of the moon and left a footprint that still lingers today. So, what does it mean, that famous “first step?”
He gathered them around the dinner table, and while eating, he told them that it is not without reason we remember that first step on the moon.
He began by saying, “That step is a simple act of grace,” and he followed it by, “It was a miracle of being on the lunar surface announcing that a new age in the life of humanity has commenced.” He told them that as a specie we may now have the ability to foster and nurture life beyond our earth.
The signatures in the tunnel is also an act of becoming, he explained. It is a rite of passage, of bonding, of belonging, of acceptance to one’s own self, friends, and community. It is to announce that in their lives, a new stage of being has been reached.
The challenge to become is shown by jumping the Dam and its completion fosters a sense of belonging and being a part of a bigger community. And no matter how foolish it looks, and some have drowned doing it, the fear of rejection and the need for acceptance and belonging to one’s ‘barkada’ outweighed the fear of jumping.
He told them about his first jump. He was in 6th grade, summer time, out of school, and all the boys in his barkada went up to the dam. They have been there several times before and watched the bigger boys do the feat. It was an awesome feat. Someday, they’ll do the same and garner the support of their friends and people around them. That day has now arrived!
As they walked the mile to the Dam, they were pumping themselves that today they will jump and for once, be the “big” man! The day of becoming has arrived! It was noon, and they were sweating a lot because of the walk. They rested for a while just outside the gate leading to the jump. As he walked towards the jumping point, his legs started to shake. He was getting the jitters. Other groups of older boys were already jumping off. He heard the sound of the big splash as their bodies hit the water and accompanied by yelling, screaming, and laughter. Others were showboating. The bigger boys even attempted to jump off the tower above a staircase leading down the river.
As a young boy, the height of the jump is frighteningly high. He did not know yet about footages, yardages or meters. To his young self, if it is a house, it appeared to be 3 to 4 houses stack on top of each other. But, what frightened him the most was the narrow channel of the canal where they landed after the jump. What if he overestimates his jump, he could hit the canal wall and God knows, that would be the end of his young life! There’s still time to back out. He did not have to do it that day. Maybe next year, when he is older and bigger.
But, what if everyone has jumped already, and he was left alone without jumping, will he have the courage to go back home with them? He heard the bigger boys saying that you should not hesitate at all. Hesitation, they said, makes you commit mistakes. And the other thing they were pointing out clearly was the way how to jump. He noticed, they were jumping sideways and not facing the canal wall at all. Their bodies were facing the water flow as they descended.
He summoned enough courage to get near the rim of the jump to see the water down below. He saw how they landed with their feet first and found out later on that it was a technique to minimize the hurt of the jump when your body hit the water.
With this new fresh knowledge, he began to consider jumping off. He heard his friends on the ground screaming for him to jump. Then he heard his best buddy, Noli who has already jumped and down below screaming and waving for him to jump already. “Go for it!’ he yelled quite a few times.
He walked to the edge on top of the gate, close enough to see the water. Noli pointed the spot where he would land. He took a deep breath, in fact, a few times and stared at the spot. All he remembered was a mixture of fear, thrill, excitement, and anxiety. Was that how it feels when the adrenaline starts rushing in? He felt his heart was also rushing and as he looked down, it felt much higher than it had seemed a few yards away. But, no more turning back, he murmured.
He jumped and in an instance, he felt gravity pulling him down. Soon, he would hit the water. But not too soon. It felt like an eternity. Where was the water? Am I suspended in mid air? He closed his eyes, then suddenly he felt the splash of water on his face. Atlas, he got in. It was a strong experience. He was a little shaken but happy. Once inside the water, he quickly built back his confidence. Among the boys, he was the best swimmer. He came up for air and started swimming up the canal. Then he floated back down to where Noli was waiting on the ledge just in front of the gate of the tunnel.
He wanted to do it again. They dove under the gate and started swimming a few yards downstream. They were now inside the tunnel. They stopped. They have to do the only thing that can prove they have done the challenge, as many of the other boys before them have done. They sank to the bottom of the tunnel and came up with a piece of rock on their hands. They swam to the edge and etched their initials on the walls of the tunnel. They are now celebrating. They are splashing and pushing water to their faces, yelling and hollering deafening their ears with the echo inside the tunnel. The rite of passage has been completed, successfully.
He is telling them now, that this rite of passage is an experience that helps them take responsibility for the decisions that set the course of their lives. It tells a story of who they are and the kind of life they want to build based on the exploration of their own personal values. This connects and binds them to Vintar.
He is telling them now, that this has helped them gather a stronger sense of personal responsibility to all aspects of their lives – stretching all the way out to the larger world of which they are now a part of Vintar diaspora.
He is telling them now, that in this way both them and Vintar benefit from this rite of passage because it provides a channel for which the community is able to transmit its core values and confer roles of responsibilities appropriate to the young stage of their lives. And, therefore, ensuring cultural continuity, a sort of knitting together of the generations of Vintarinians.
He is telling them now, that the initials they found on the tunnel walls are signs that refer to their life’s transition from one phase to the other. Just like the way the footprint on the moon in a bigger scale signifies the transition of “ one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”