By Jessrel E. Gilbuena
“KANING mga bata, kiat lang og pabulhot,” I remember a tricycle driver telling me and two other passengers about a teenage driver in front of us who suddenly turned left without any signal. We were on our way to Poblacion in Santa Fe, a fourth class town, where there are no traffic enforcers to man the streets on weekends or during holidays, and few regulations are ever implemented.
The people of Santa Fe seem to have grown indifferent to these regulations. Children as young as five, following their elders’ orders, can buy cigarettes and liquor from sari-sari stores. For them, these diminished restrictions — lighting a cigar, getting hold of alcoholic drinks — are merely just a few of the perks of being adults. But for the reckless drivers, mostly teenagers, their idea of freedom is something else: it’s either to meander on the road or to pursue the need to move fast, to enjoy the rush of racing against time.
With the locals’ culture of indifference, the tourist themselves freely enjoy such conventions. It is not uncommon to find a tourist, driving like mad, trying to force a conversation at the top of his lungs with the person in the backseat. I’d often hear locals, pointing to a speeding convoy of Koreans on rented scooters, say, “Magpakamatay tingali na sila.” It is hard to pass judgment as to their conduct on the road, but their driving apparently says two things: they find so much elation with the way they drive, and that they’ve escaped from their country’s restrictive street laws and for once can do the things they weren’t allowed to do back home. Santa Fe, perhaps, is an escape from all those restrictions.
One July afternoon, I had my own little tryst with freedom: I decided to walk from home to my workplace, but not for work. It was a holiday and I was to meet my friends for a food trip. I walked despite owning a motorbike, which I bought nearly two years ago. This bike had become my trustworthy companion from home to work. Almost every day, I can be seen driving along the streets of Okoy, Talisay and Poblacion.
“O, naglakat lage?” Dodong Soli, a childhood playmate, said when I walked past him resting on a trisikad in front of a resort. “Hain diay ang motor?”
“Adto, nagpahuway,” I replied.
I did not know what I felt that time, but the question brought me back to my high school days. At times, I felt so giddy spending all my money on homemade waffles, salted peanuts, siopao and iced candies that I was left with nothing for my fare home at day’s end, and I had to walk all the way to Okoy, my home barangay, which was about five kilometers from school (for many, this is hardly walking distance). Every time I walked, most of the time alone, I was stared at. And there was this unusual gravity in people’s stares, as though they were witnessing something strange: that to walk — alone — was a strange thing. I, too, felt strange walking on the main road. It still does even up to now, especially when people — and myself — know that I own a motorbike.
Taking long walks, I realized, is one of the things I do less now. I had forgotten the days when my cousins and I walked for kilometers to reach a grove in a farm where we’d pick wild guavas and atis, then run from the screaming landowner or caretaker, or trail the evening with friends to a disco in the next barangay. Now, the longest walk I can have is from our house to Tatay Lolu’s, three houses away. That long.
Midway through my walk that July afternoon, I left the main road and took a different route, one not taken often. It was part of Talisay. The locals named it Tabunok, a less inhabited part of the barangay. Houses have enough space for a garden, even for a playground. The beauty of the route was its veined paths. One can enjoy the plurality of small passages along plain grey earth margined by wild grass. Faced with this many choices, one can practice the art of decision making. I did not worry about getting lost. I put trust on every path I took. I knew that each one was created by someone else’s feet. And he had arrived somewhere. I too, should do the same.
The route also brought me back to yesteryears. I started to see familiar trails. I reached a path I used to take whenever I had to pick a pulllet from Lolo Wilman’s — my father’s father’s — place. The trail was where my parents took me along to avoid the busier main road (the safest way, they said). The old gravel road is still there, only this time, half of it was paved with concrete, unfinished like a lovers’ informal breakup. Concrete houses, metal fences and lamp posts have sprouted on empty lots where bermuda grass, wild sage and coconut trees once grew. Change had taken place everywhere. Should I be surprised?
Almost two years after a homecoming and deciding to stay for good, I began to live a life of routine: home to work to home, leave early in a rush in the morning, and return home at dusk. I would take the most familiar, singular paths, which in turn made my everyday experience singular. Until that July afternoon, when I picked a different route, familiar but old, a trail seldom visited by motorcycles and spared of cars and buses that have recently crossed the island, leaving the roads narrower by the day. Yet my attempt to be overcome with nostalgia that afternoon had failed somehow, and as I walked along one of these trails — my motorbike left behind — all that was left was to move forward, though I couldn’t help but glance at what I was leaving behind: the abandoned huge house of a former mayor, a condemned cockpit arena, a typhoon-ravaged building.
I arrived at my work place and saw less of my usual sights on the way. It was a holiday. There were no traffic enforcers, no young, reckless motorbike drivers in sight. I noticed Dodong Soli, and for the first time, I realized he has been driving a trisikad, his. Friends who arrived early gave me a warm welcome. I took a rest. I thought of the beach, the place for that foodtrip, then noticed the sea coming out from the pores of my body.