Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Photo essay … Retracing roots in ‘high-grade’ Paracale, by ALFREDO P HERNANDEZ

This is the ancient church of Paracale built by the Spaniards in the 1600s. Over the past many, many years, it had undergone various physical changes, especially on its façade. The church’s right belfry was the one which my buddies and I climbed during the 1950s. - More MWBuzzpics by ALFREDO P HERNANDEZ below.

IT WAS in Paracale where I saw my first gold.

It was here where I saw how it was plucked from dirty earth.

It was here where I caught my first fish, as big as my palm, using strong, knitting thread with baited hook at the end and the other end knot-twisted to the tip of a meter-long bamboo stick.

Paracale was the ancient town where I roamed the wild playgrounds of my youth.

I was five years old then when, together with five equally unrestrained, intrepid boys in my neighborhood, I climbed the right bell tower of the four-century old church of the town, through a dusty, rickety wooden stairs that spiraled through the musty dark till its top end connected to the narrow rounded opening leading to the cavity of the belfry.

Our childish goal was simple: to find out from the tower’s lookout window how huge the four ancient bells it babysat were, why the bats loved to live in its darkened nooks and crannies and how the ground 200 feet below looked. 

The town street, which ends just in front of the church and the municipal building, leads to the bay about a kilometer away.

“The people looked and move like ants” was one rare discovery we had.

But more than that: we wanted to know if our mothers would ever find out that we breached the silence of the bell tower. They never did.

Sixty years ago early this month (May), I found myself once more looking at the moss-caressed wall of the ancient church of Paracale, still wondering how I ever got up to the belfry that towers on the right side of its slanted rough stonewalls made from ancient rocks retrieved from the bowels of the earth, and without my mother twisting my ears till they fell off.

Paracale, known for its gold – whether it’s dangling from the ears of young girls, or deeply buried beneath the earth, or submerged under the bottom of its sea-river – had beckoned me again from inside my head.

On this particular afternoon, I drove off in haste from Mambulao and found myself at the end of that asphalt-concrete road which was a witness to my wrangling boyhood days.

This road stopped just a few feet away from where the sea-river flowed wildly.
This road leads to the sea-river bank where we built our home – a stilt house -- in the 50s.

To be exact, this road led to where our ancient house – a stilt house -- stood in 1950s, above the water by the river banks.

On the river’s other side was the ill-fated mining camp of United Paracale (UP) where 56 miners disappeared while chasing thick gold veins that crisscrossed the walls of the tunnels

One old lady, whom I thought was in her 80s, could still remember the names of my parents. She and her family never left this place. Her husband died long time ago and her four children – all in their 60s now -- had left once only to come back later. 

The town hall of Paracale, just opposite the church. Still impoverished-looking despite the big money earned by its residents from gold operations. 

For them, there is no place for a home like Paracale. True, its gold has beckoned to them no end.

Gold has remained bountiful on the earth’s bowels on the other side of the sea-river, an area notoriously referred to as “Palanas”. It used to be where gold tailings from the mine camp – still heavy with gold dust – were being dumped.

When it dried up, it served as a large playground for us where we flew our kites and “saranggola”.

Six decades later these days, it has become an unusual dump – a dump for gold – because it continues to attract gold-panners, illegal small-scale miners, illegal mine operators and those who simply are out for a quick buck – yes from gold.

These river-bank houses stand right on the gold-rich Palanas, a former gold mine tailings dump in the 1950s where a recent accident allegedly claimed the lives of more than 30 illegal gold miners. A gold tunnel snaking under the river collapsed and sucked in seawater and trapped the illegal miners working inside it. Philippine media, however, were told that only two died in the accident. Days later, bodies purportedly from the flooded tunnel, were found floating in the river. At least five of them were said to be gold-miners from Parang, Jose Panganiban.

But tragedy would come once in a while, just like the one that struck not long ago.

More than 30 miners extracting gold illegally perished when the tunnels they were working on below the level of the sea next to it collapsed after blasting its walls with dynamites and sea water flooded the men to thy kingdom come.

But the media reported only two deaths. The incident was cleverly hushed – allegedly – by the illegal mine’s operators, in connivance with the powers-that-be.

But surprise, surprise --- bodies of those who perished in the collapsed tunnels began surfacing in the waters around the bay and in the sea-river several days later. The submerged tunnels opted to free them away so their families could offer them prayers they deserved.

And one thing that was revolting was that more than 30 native Paracalenos including a number of gold-panners from Quezon province never came back to their families.

In Parang, Jose Panganiban, about five gold miners were never seen again. But the last word about them was that they were to do some “high-grading” in Palanas – the site of the recent tragedy – and ended up in the tunnels that collapsed.

In the 50s, our home in Paracale was built on stilt posts similar to these houses standing by the sea-river banks. This area was part of a huge gold mine tailings dump operated by gold miner United Paracale (UP), which shut down sometime in the early 50s after a mine tunnel disaster that claimed the lives of 56 miners.

My mechanic father, who moonlighted as a weekend gold-panner, hauled off in a banca mine tailings from this side of the river which was then a gold mine tailings dump area. Across the river sat our old nipa-and-wood home where we lived from 1950 to 1954 before we migrated to Mambulao.

I asked one old-timer how “high-grading” was going along in Paracale.

“Great,” she said.

“A kerosene can full of dirt from the riverside would normally yield 10 to 20 grams of gold,” she said.

But one amazing thing is that, it has been a daily occurrence for everybody to haul off a canful of earth laden with at least 10 grams of gold.

In Paracale and Mambulao, gold is measured in “bahay” (stress on second “a”) -- where two “bahays” make a gram of raw gold. And the going rate in Batobalane – that ancient highway junction trading center away from Paracale --- these days is P800-P900 per “bahay”.

Just imagine if you have a canful from Palanas everyday!

So the gold virtually flowed – as attested to by new huge houses sprouting along the highway on the way out of Paracale poblacion.

The owners have been referred to as ”high-graders”.

A young Paracaleno tends to his fishing gear. His home lies right on the sea-river bank. He makes a living fishing and hunting for alluvial gold in Palanas.

In Paracale, high-graders are the new generation of wealth-laden individuals who made fortune from gold.

Many have aspired and made it; however, many had also lost their shirt – the financiers -- after failing to find the gold that would make them rich. Others simply lost their lives.

So, coming back to this town of my youth, I relived how life was for our young family --  when my father – a dyed-in-the-wool Paracaleno -- panned for gold in the sea-water that flooded under our house at high tide, and how he hauled off in a paddled banca gold-laden earth from the other side of the sea-river – that gold-rich place called “Palanas”.

But our late father never hit “high-grade”.

But he got us – his seven magnificent children -- and was awed to discover long time ago that around his small coconut farm in Paracale, there’s gold, and you can bet on that: it’s certified high-grade.

Email the blogger:  and

No comments:

Post a Comment