Elbi that was once home

“Kuya Mark! Isa pang extra rice!”

Sans the context, this would seem like a plain and innocent request for another cup of rice in any carinderia would be heard. But not in the context known to the constituents of Los Baños, at least during my time as a student.

I had only known Kuya Mark by word of mouth, hearing his name being called on by customers as they ask for the menu or the total bill.

Back in college, the resto-bar where Kuya Mark worked was one of the frequent watering holes of students inside a complex known to locals as “LB Square.” Although not really a square in shape, LB Square has been known as a place to unwind to sing, eat, laugh, drink, have fun, and sometimes brawl. 

Like any other restaurant-cum-bar, patrons usually go to LB Square at night, most likely after 7 p.m. by which time classes are already finished unless a night exam is being conducted. Exams usually last up to 10 p.m. or even as late as 11 p.m. Either way, after a stressful exam, a hectic week, or even after a boring and ordinary day, there will always be a reason to take a quick stop at any of the bars in LB Square.

While not as posh as their counterparts in Metro Manila or in any uptown city, resto-bars in LB Square are not amiss in serving their clients, good food, and catering to special requests especially from regular customers who have been part of the night out culture.

On any other day, LB Square is not without customers. But the complex because so much alive on Thursday night more than any other night of the week. Thursday night has been known as the gimik night, where more customers would take the night out to chill—and even attend rave parties hosted by different organizations inside and outside of UP campus.

To be sure, LB Square is not only the place of its kind in Los Baños, in particular, the area near the UP campus, colloquially known as “College.” There are other places, too, elsewhere, which have, at times, been at odds with barangay officials because of the loud noises in the middle of the night. Each has its own specialties, whether it is food (like sinigang or a bowl of free extra rice), scenery (like rooftop), private videoed booths, pool tables, and provisions for beer pong or exclusive gatherings.

Before the pandemic, these establishments, along with many restaurants that cater to a spectrum of customers, were thriving. As long as there are students who will eat and drink, there was no reason not to continue doing business.

The UP Los Banos Oblation in Laguna | Photo from the UPLB website

The changing preferences, however, played a role as well as the demography of students coming in. One could argue about gentrification. Old establishments whose prices were affordable have given way to local iterations of big brands, which, of course, comes at a heftier price.

The displacement is obvious when one takes a quick glance at the signboards flanking the streets. Instead of local mainstays that have served generations, these more established brands have been sprouting left and right.

On the other, there will be some who will argue that this is good as it signifies development is underway, making way for more employment opportunities. Some even go farther to take this to the concept of development aggression—which of course is something we are all familiar with.

But then the pandemic happened. Without the richness of campus life that once dotted the busy streets surrounding the campus—people hurriedly eating a meal before being late or taking out for a later time, establishments struggled.

Worse, as the restrictions tightened banning gatherings and the sale of alcoholic drinks, some were left with no choice but to close for good. Painful as it may seem, without even the benefit of a proper goodbye from loyal customers who have mostly gone home, these establishments had to flip the close sign and silently fade into memory captured in anecdotes and a few snaps stored in smartphones.

At different points during this ongoing “quarantine,” we have heard of appeals to buy local and buy from friends to support small business owners. But we Filipinos are mostly social beings. We eat food not only for its nutritional value but to communicate—dates, business deals, group meetings, group reviews, birthdays, anniversaries… We could go on. Without these gatherings which the virus prohibits us from doing, takeouts remain bland. I do not mean to downplay the other growing delivery economy we have (and this should be alongside demanding better pay and benefits for delivery drivers and protection from being scammed). That the open-ended question of when things will return to a better (not exactly as before the pandemic) normal has yet to be answered given a lot of things to consider such as the government’s deplorable response to the health and economic crisis.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.com

It would indeed take quite a time before we can fully eat out again without fear of the virus. And establishments we used to go to may not even open anymore once that time comes. We only have good memories of these places, which have not only been part of our personal memories, but of a whole culture and generations they thrived with. For sure, there will be new ones where the future generations will, too, claim as part of their own, as we have done in the not-so-distant past of our lifetime. It will be a different world from the one we had known.

I am sure that I will still ask for an extra cup of rice in a restaurant once this crisis is over. But Kuya Mark will not be there anymore to crack a corny joke before giving it to me once I go back. 

To all the restaurants, shops, eatery, stores, and everything in between that we’ve lost before and during this pandemic, I hope we see you again after braving this plunge. 

About the Author

Edward Joseph H. Maguindayao is a graduate of UP Los Baños.

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