He was six feet long and wrinkly when I first met him, and his name was Ay-Ay (short for buwaya). Spending time with him was the highlight of my summers in Cebu as a child.
Ay-Ay lived under the stairs of my grandmother’s house in Cebu. I met him in 1969, when I was five years old. It was my very first time to visit mom’s relatives in Mandaue. His home was a huge wooden crate, positioned strategically underneath the stairs that lead to the dining area. Instead of a guard dog, the family home had a 15 year old crocodile to keep the bad guys away.
Every time we would visit, I would be most excited to spend time with Ay-Ay. After the perfunctory beso-beso and mano with the elders, I would run down the stairs, as fast as my little legs could carry me, and I would position myself right in front of the crate where Ay-Ay lived. I never felt any fear even I was standing just two feet away. I would watch him sleep quietly. Sometimes the helpers would give me small chair to sit on. I felt sad that he couldn’t move around too much. Once or twice he would open his eyes to acknowledge my presence, or so I thought.
Ay-Ay arrived in our family sometime in the mid-1950s. He came from somewhere in Mindanao. A hunter had brought him to my uncle, Papa Baristo because he knew that my uncle loved to take care of animals and reptiles. Papa B was a university scholar at the UP in the 1930s. He graduated with a double degree in Chemistry and Pharmacy. He was the original Crocodile Dundee and Dr. Doolittle in one. He took good care of the eagles, snakes, and monkeys under his wing.
Ay-Ay was a baby croc when he was given to Papa B. According to his daughter, my cousin Mildred, he was only as long as a ruler when he arrived. He was placed in an open box at first, and as he grew, the box, and then the crate grew with him. Everyday, he was fed some kind of fish, and his whole body would be watered using a rigadera.
One time, sometime in the early 60s, when he was about three feet long, the caretaker forgot to close his crate, and Ay-Ay slipped out during the night. You can imagine how frayed everyone’s nerves were when the following day Ay-Ay was nowhere to be found! Word went around Mandaue and an unofficial curfew was imposed. No children could be seen roaming the streets by 5PM for fear of being eaten by Ay-Ay. Finally, after several days, they found Ay-Ay swimming in a nearby crater that had filled with water. The poor thing must have felt so hot and bored at home that he took the opportunity to get out when he saw that he could escape. My uncles helpers had to lasso Ay-Ay in order to lift him out of the crater. By this time he must have been a hundred pounds.
Every summer from 1969 to 1971 whenever I was in Mandaue, I would stand for an hour or so watching Ay-Ay. The highlight of my visit would always be my time with him, and hanging out in my Aunt Pepang’s sari-sari store, eating all the candy and bubble gum that I could get my little hands on. I would sit beside the tindera and soak in all the sights, smells, and more importantly, the sounds. This is where I first learned how to speak Cebuano which I speak fluently to this very day. Mom and my relatives always knew where to find me – I would either be with Ay-Ay or at my aunt’s store.
When Martial Law broke out in 1972, we stopped visiting Mandaue for a while. We returned two years later, in 1974. Ay-Ay was still in his old crate but it seemed to my then 10 year old eyes that he had grown so much older and weaker. I would still pass by his crate to say hello and goodbye, but I felt that my interest in crocodiles had waned. I become more interested in hanging out at the beach, and watching Miss Mandaue, the annual town beauty pageant during fiesta season.
Ay-Ay passed away sometime in the 1980s from what they suspected was a prostate condition. He was probably about 30 years old, half the life span of a Philippine crocodile which can live up to 60-70 years old. Perhaps if he was placed back in his natural habitat, he might have lived longer.
My grandmother’s house which we called the green house, simply because it was green, is now long gone. On the land where it used to stand are market stalls, and an inihaw (grill) place. I really don’t remember much about the house anymore, but my memories of Ay-Ay, and my aunt’s store around the corner remain as vivid as they were more than 50 years ago.