For people who grow up in Manila the New Year comes in with fire.
We don't go to Batangas Street anymore now that Lola Cion has passed away. Today we watch the fireworks from my parents' house in Ayala Heights. There are fewer fireworks and the ones that there are are cleaner and more colorful. My ears no longer ring and only a half hour after midnight the smoke has cleared enough to see the stars. It no longer takes half a jar of cold cream to wipe the soot off my nose.
These days the fireworks light up the sky in every color but back then it was all about the noise.
It would start slow, a few days before Christmas. There were always explosions on Christmas day around noon or dinner time but there real noise wouldn't start until the 31st. Around midmorning on New Year's Eve it would begin in earnest, from one direction or another like an orchestra warming up, growing steadily louder and more frequent.
There was every kind of noise: the shrill whistle and high-pitched bangs of whistle bombs, the sharp cracks of kwitis (sky rockets) overhead, the rapid-fire popcorn of sinturon ni judas and deep-throated booms of bawang that shake the ground.
Just before dinner time we would lock up the house, close all the windows tight against the smoke and drive the two miles to the Illusorios' house. We ate dinner with Lola Jean, the Illusorios and the Petersons. About 9:30 or so we'd wish everyone a Happy New Year and then mom, dad and I would pile into the our old beige lancer for the drive to Lola Cion's house in Sta. Cruz.
The whole of Metro Manila goes up in smoke on New Year's eve, but some parts of the city do it better than others. Sta Cruz was on the border of New Manila, which even back then was not so new. The houses were smaller and closer together; the people were poorer. And the explosions were louder and the smoke was thicker.
The drive from San Juan to Sta Cruz is like crossing into another world. The drive isn't long but is slow. Some of the streets in Sta Cruz had been grand in their day: several lanes each side and a narrow median with trees down the middle. Most days the streets are choked with cars and pedestrians. On New Year's Eve are an obstacle course of a different kind.
Sometime in the late afternoon people roll big truck tires into the middle of the road, stuff them with rags and kindling and set them on fire. By the time our car comes along, rolling slowly along Espana Extension, night has fallen and the fires are burning brightly all the way down the street.
Dad is driving; mom is in the front seat and I am in the back. The car windows are closed. The explosions are muffled by the glass. The road is dark. It's impossible to tell how wide it is anymore. Thick black smoke from the burning tires closes in; we can't see more than a few meters in front of the car.
On either side it's all smoke and hazy figures standing around bonfires and flashes of light in the alleys between houses. Children are running by the side of the road or crouched around little piles of firecrackers. Every so often a triangulo goes off beside the car or a stray baby rocket flies across the road just above the pavement. A steady rain of burnt paper wrappers falls on the roof. When people dart across the street the fire throws their shadows on the smoke.
I always wonder if we will arrive safely or if tomorrow we'll be in the papers as one of hundreds of firecracker casualties every New Year.
Finally the car stops in front of Lola's old green gate. Boy opens the door. The car turning onto the narrow driveway; the gate closes behind us and we are safe in a pool of relative quiet.
Lola Cion is standing at the bottom of the stairs with a smile on her face. Behind her, Hazel the dog greets people in her own way, by standing crosswise across the narrow stairs and forcing everyone to wrestle her aside to get into the house. Tita Mely is in the tiny kitchen all warm and yellow.
We climb up into the house and spill out onto the porch on the other side. Lights are blazing in the sala and the dining room and the big parol hanging over the porch. Outside the night is filled with running kids and relatives moving from house to house with flashlights.
Lolo Arcy has lit a bonfire of coconut leaves beside the basketball court. The older boys, Francis and Laurie and Boy, amuse themselves with throwing triangulo in the fire. The younger kids are given roman candles, sparklers and watusi, little brownish-red sticks the size of matchsticks that you put under your shoes and strike across the paving stones until they dance around crackling. Or, if you are brave, you can start one by hand and throw it on the ground in the general direction of your least-favorite cousins and watch them scream and run.
Roman candles are the best and most frightening of the hand-held fireworks. Light the tapered end off a burning candle and it comes to life with a fizz and a spurt of green fire. Then point it up into the sky, hold on and hope for the best. There's no letting go now; you're committed to the end. You can feel the whump and recoil of each spark under your hand as it streaks up the paper shaft. 6 to 10 balls of flame in the sky and then the fire dies.
By this time the noise is deafening: deep booms and thumps that shake your breastbone. Ear-splitting whistle-bombs that explode with a bang low over the house. Close to midnight, Tito Eddie and Tito Ricky send up flights of kwitis (sky rockets) held upright in glass coke bottles or bamboo tubes pounded into the ground. There is always a fountain or two and a Catherine's wheel that Tito Ricky has pounded into the tall coconut at the back of the yard. At midnight itself Lolo Arcy lights a long sinturon that consumes itself in a rattle like gunfire while everyone hugs and wishes each other a Happy New Year.
Then it is prayers in the sala, kneeling on the hard marble floor under the dark wooden relief of the sacred heart and the light of the cheap chandelier, holding hands and the words of the Ama Namin and the apostles' creed (affirmation of faith) lost in the deafening noise. Then up the stairs to the dining room for the midnight meal. All round things, for luck in the New Year: naranghitas and lansones, toasted cheese pimento rolls and queso de bola. Three generations around the table in the light of the parol. While outside the evils of the old year are cast out by noise and fire.