The string of activities that made up my morning routine was no longer causing the hostile dissonance that beleaguered me since I became stranded in this mountain community. Maybe because of the resignation or maybe because of the capability for adaptation, the alienation vanished into thin air. Exposing my vulnerability, I already released the negative feeling that dammed up over the past few weeks as I broke down and wept about my despair the previous day.
In a refreshed state, I veered serenely to my bicycle as I knew that I had to wait another three weeks before I can use it to return to Manila.
Looking at it reminded me of the string of events from three weeks ago that led me into being remotely stranded. Those events were supposed to be a part of my odyssey to the north, parallel to that when I travelled all the way to Tarlac from Quezon City using the same bicycle last October 2019. The purpose though was much different. In this recent endeavor, I was motivated by the string of activities that awaited me in Tarlac. On the other hand, the past endeavor of October 2019 was my avenue into opening up the gates of the dam that retained my sadness, grief, and anguish over the lost of that girl from San Jose Del Monte who suddenly left (ghosted) me without saying a word.
Wanting to circumvent Marikina, which was under quarantine that time, I tried to find a way around. The hilly feature of Antipolo reminded me of the same feature of San Jose del Monte which brought me to near exhaustion that time. The hilly feature of San Jose del Monte, particularly in Sapang Palay, brought me to the great plains of Central Luzon, the Rice Bowl of the Philippines. On the other hand, the hilly feature of Antipolo and San Mateo were already giving me ominous warnings as I ended up deeper into the mountains.
Although seemingly disconnected from the rest of San Mateo, Barangay Pintong Bukawe comprised almost half of the land area of the municipality. Given its large land area and its mountainous setting, I still haven’t explored much of it, having abandoned most attempts to go downhill as returning back up would be too much for a man manning a bicycle. Staying still at one place all the time was not my thing, as attested on how I treated this as an exile all over again. Afterall, my bicycle was my testament of wanting to not stay still. I began to understand the dog who was always excited to have a chance to go outside, even though Digong was lurking in wait for a chance to get better of him.
The joyful barks of the dog woke me up from my nap as I also knew that those barks of familiarity were for the person who was about to give a chance to explore the rest of Pintong Bukawe. Kagawad Ryan has just returned from the Provincial Capitol, having also done my favor of withdrawing some cash from my savings account.
Carrying a large and empty backpack and a bottle of water, I went onboard Kagawad Ryan’s motorcycle on its journey down the mountain road to visit the downhill puroks. We made some initial stopovers: first on the grocery store to buy some pastries and bread, and second on a pitstop to fill the motorcycle some gas and to meet Kuya Eric, who was a barangay police (tanod).
Continuing on downhill, we then went past the welcome arc of the Sitio Watershed, the point that I went furthest on onboard my bicycle when I last attempted to go downhill. The dissuading factor that deterred me from continuing on that time laid visible on the unpaved road made of compacted clay. Apart from fearing that the slope of the road would get steeper past that point, the pebbles that were everywhere on that road posed some risks of tipping my bicycle over.
And boy, I was right. The motorcycles had to maintain going at low speeds and low gears on slopes that sometimes went beyond 45 degrees as we descended down the road. With the pebbles being popped sideways by the squeezing action between the wheels and the road, I knew for sure that I might get into an accident if I continued biking my way downhill.
And the difference in height of the barangay proper and the downhill sitios can be felt physically as the altitude change brought that popping sensation in our ears. We may have descended over 600 meters, just as about high as the mountains of Hapunang Banoi, Pamintinan, and Binacayan, which were already closely visible in the background.
Apart from the spectacular view of those three mountains, the view of the mountains that acted as gorges for the two tributaries for the Marikina River with its mix of green – which represented the preservation of the area unblemished by human interruption – and brown – which indicated the peak of heat of the summer sun – brought tingling senses of joy as I got to see Mother Nature in its pure. Complimenting the scenery were the wooden houses that symbolized how well the humans have inhabited here without being intrusive, the most special being the two-storey shed that served as the place of temporary rest of some folks from downhill who were bringing their goods uphill.
After twenty minutes of nervy ride along the slippery slope, we finally made it to Sitio Watershed. But we won’t be having our stop there, for our destination was much further than that. The criss-crossing boundaries between San Mateo and Rodriguez led us into passing through the checkpoint indicating the jurisdiction of the Rodriguez, which I kept referring to as Montalban. I didn’t know if I was already old or not, but my mind insisted of acknowledging its former name due to my fascination for antiquity and history. I had nothing against the statesman Eulogio “Amang” Rodriguez who was the longest serving senate president in Philippine History (1954-1964). That trivia just passed thru the ears of Kagawad Ryan and Kuya Eric as we went past the checkpoint, still manned by the barangay officers.
We parked our motorcycles at the designated parking lot by the locals who imposed 10-pesos parking fees as that area – which was near the junction between the Kasili River and the Boso-boso River – was frequented by local tourists albeit being deep in the mountains. Kagawad Ryan, being in-charge of the tourism of Pintong Bukawe, wondered whether paving the rough road we traveled on earlier would encourage more tourists to visit the place. Having learned some rules-of-thumb from my friends in the public works and highways, I responded that it was a chicken-and-egg question: the tourism would improve the feasibility for the road improvement while, on the other hand, the tourism would improve if the road was improved.
My knowledge as a civil engineer was then continuously tested by both Kagawad Ryan and Kuya Eric. Questions upon questions were then asked as we carefully threaded, step by step, the rocky outcrop of the Kasili River.
With dam projects looming for the river, the two then asked me on why the rivers were suited to have dams built upon them. Fingers of mine directing the attention to the river canyons and the gorges around us enlightened them of the answer. The canyons were deep enough to retain volumes of water and the gorges were narrow enough to reduce the surface area which was exposed to the sunlight, hence reducing the rate of evaporation.
Astonished, they then delved deeper into asking the how: how the dams were designed and built. Thankfully, sitting upon the undergraduate research project presentations of the Water Resources and Coastal Engineering Group proved to be helpful in providing a succinct answer. I took out my can of Pringles and nibbled on the chips as I detailed both the hydrology – which involved assessing the rain on the area that drained water to the rivers – and the hydraulics – which involved evaluating river flows, erosion, and sediment transport. In a nutshell, I explained to them those processes would lead the designer into knowing the river.
Just like how the person who taught me dam design when I was an undergraduate student, I then unconsciously detailed the dam design procedure the same way, too technical and inaccessible for the consumption of common man, as if it was meant for bragging. Reminded of those days and that person, some stinging feeling resurfaced. A similar stinging feeling from my submerged foot revealed a resurfaced river crab (talangka) pinching my skin. Kagawad Ryan picked it up, then returned it underwater as those crabs were the source of livelihood of some of the river folks.
It was the same livelihood that would be stripped away if those dams were to be built, along with the settlement that prospered from the tourism and the cottages. Every house and every shed that were built along the river were made of lightweight and readily available materials like bamboo and nipa. The people there had their culture of letting the deluge wash away those structures if the rivers swelled up every time it rained heavily. The culture stemmed from the way of living of the semi-nomadic Dumagat tribe residing along the river.
The Dumagat people were the ones we would be visiting. We trekked across the silty riverbanks while also made numerous crossings across the river. The river dried up that it became too shallow for the bamboo rafts to navigate through. However, that, in turn, exposed some shallow rapids for us to cross.
The afternoon sun began to bear upon us as the searing heat gave this near uncontrollable urge to take a dip on the turquoise deep waters of the river. Bathing on the river were some kids who were astonishingly buck naked. We dispelled the urge to bathe in the river for relief from the summer heat with the reminder that we have to deliver the relief packs first.
Inconspicuously, we were carrying the relief packs that we would be giving to them inside our backpacks. Envies and strife were to ensue if our intent would slip up. Thankfully, Kagawad Ryan managed to recognize one of the Dumagat people that he intended to go to. As he signaled them to wait for us, the loss of traction due to the mossy rock pathway led into him slipping and losing his balance. Kagawad Ryan landed on his butt as his instincts led him into not letting his phone get wet in expense of him getting wet.
We made our way across the river through the most dangerous and slippery of the rapids that we encountered throughout, and finally, we caught up with the Dumagat people that Kagawad Ryan was calling earlier. They were a family of three: a young father carrying a sack of firewood and a young mother carrying their daughter.
The Dumagat family was about to go uphill towards their community up the mountain. Noting their nomadic nature, they were asked on why they didn’t prefer to make camp near the riverside. Pointing to the seemingly remains of a bonfire, they told us that a funeral pyre just took place the previous night.
A series of ups-and-downs across ravines laid before us on the way up to the settlement. We all began to worry for the mother who was carrying her daughter across the steep trails. The worries were all blown away out of bewilderment as the mother instructed her daughter, who was a toddler, to walk on her own. First-timers in hiking would be put into shame at the sight of that toddler making her way up the trail like it was nothing.
After thirty minutes of trekking, we finally made it to the first house within the settlement. There, we were greeted by the toddler’s grandfather, who then offered to carry some of our cargo. Making our stop there, the searing – brought by the heat from the sun coupled with the heat coming out of the charcoal being charred below the ground near the house – made us parched and the grandmother hurriedly offered us water.
We then trekked for another five minutes and we finally reached the center of the Dumagat settlement. The people warmly welcomed us. The warm welcome was followed by announcement of our arrival to all of the households. The children emerged from their huts as glimmers of hope emanated from their eyes, away from the destitution of their situation.
The lightweight frames made of bamboo or sometimes whatever softwood that they could find constituted the framing of their dwellings. The makeshift assembly composed of nipa and fragments of corrugated galvanized iron were enough to provide the shade from the sun bringing its scorching heat. The woven nipa walls were enough to shield the inhabitants from the chill of the mountain wind at night but not enough to provide cover visually as the holes from the wall revealed the emptiness of what’s inside.
Having no doors, they welcomed us, their visitors. Having open windows, they veered towards the hope of being brought aid to alleviate, for a short while, their hunger. The pastries that we brought filled their tummies for today. The relief packs that we have distributed would keep them from hunger for days. However, they knew for certain that these blessings were for the short term. The long-term situation remained the same and some tried to take their minds of it as they rolled some grass to a piece of paper, lit it, and smoked the burning contents.
With a mix of relief – for their blessing for a few days – and anxiety to the situation after those days, they posed for a photo to commemorate their gratitude for the brief moment of miracle.
Surprisingly, they gave their thanks to God, revealing themselves to be Catholic converts as they prepared themselves for the coming Holy Week. Astonishingly, they also practice their traditional animism. That duality was no surprise at all since many Filipinos were religious and superstitious at the same time. Sadly, the religious bigotry and hypocrisy among Filipinos accentuated another duality: between preaching that religiosity and not practicing the same religiosity that they preach. It was a breath of fresh air to have witnessed people like Kagawad Ryan who practiced what he preached.
The fresh air began to soothe our lungs and our breathing was no longer laborious as we descended back to the river without the cargo that we brought up earlier. As to the descent being compared to the ascent, the craggy trail earlier became more bellicose to us. Even so, we briskly navigated through as the conversant Kagawad Ryan led us to a large shed that was situated beside the river.
Beneath that large shed were dozens of Dumagat family making camp. The families were herded by their tribal chieftain, whom they all called as “Tatay” which meant “father”. Tatay had the same triangular tattoo with numbers at the vertices in his right upper arm like the grandfather we met earlier. Perhaps that tattoo was their Dumagat identification. I mistook it for some prison tattoo earlier. Unlike those tattoos that latched, I finally came in terms of that initial ignorance and misconception, not feeling emasculated but rather feeling enlightened, since I haven’t attached pride to it.
Kagawad Ryan informed Tatay about the distribution of relief packs that we did earlier. I haven’t listened to the rest of the conversation as my attention was diverted toward a huge boulder.
The boulder had an altar built in front of it. Some of the Dumagat fisher folks carrying their spearguns paid their respects by rubbing their hands against the decolorated section of the boulder and then making sign of the cross, before they went upstream to catch some eels. I scanned the boulder for images of Mary or Jesus being imprinted upon it.
Having noticed my curiosity, Tatay promptly explained that the Dumagat treated the boulder as sacred as part of their tradition animism. Their faith to the boulder was not something out of thin air as they were constantly warned of the curse that befell to those who disrespected the stone. Five days ago, somebody unbelievably threw some phones…yeah, phones… to it, only to drown hours after. My question about the funeral pyre earlier finally had an answer.
More answers to my curiosity followed as Tatay explained that a weir was instead set to be constructed further upstream, instead of the dam downstream that would displace them. The construction of the dam downstream would disrespect the boulder, according to the Dumagats. Tatay further explained that that was the reason why the Wawa Dam was not fully built in the first place. According to him, a lady ghost appeared before the chief implementor of the dam back then, warning him that a curse would fall upon Metro Manila if the boulder was disrespected by putting it underwater.
Such folklore was warmly welcomed in an anthropologic perspective. For a religious perspective, on the other hand, a born-again Christian like Kagawad Ryan would denounce it as mere idolatry. He recalled, on our way back after visiting Tatay, on how some Catholic nuns were so against of him converting into being a born-again Christian to the point that they acted like they were possessed by Mary.
He then narrated his many experiences and hardships throughout his 41 years that led him to reasserting his Faith by converting into a born-again Christian. He recalled as we momentarily took a dip to those deep turquoise waters earlier on how he was deep in trouble of raising his family back then. Communicating through Faith, he pleaded for a moment of miracle. That miracle came and in gratitude, he continuously toiled while adhering to his Christian values.
Understandably, he was personally disappointed to the Dumagats whom he was helping over the years. Seeing their stagnancy over the years, he lamented that contrary to him who proved that one miracle was enough, the Dumagat people grew complacent to the string of miracles, as if God or the Supreme Being was obligated to constantly give them miracles. They just wallowed in that sorry state so that the miracles would keep on coming. Carrying on a deep heritage, they just accepted who they were and they never learned how to mature and grow amidst the changing times.
As chill as the river that we were bathing in, the cheerful nihilism within my banal disposition kept me cool and non-confrontational to Kagawad Ryan’s rants, acknowledging that conflicts arouse from the murky differences on the way humans put values into some things, just like the river that turned out to be murky. The turquoise colors that we saw earlier were in fact moss that grew due to the infrequency of visitors brought by the Enhanced Community Quarantine.
The empty cottages that rested upon the river presented the extent on how the livelihood here were destroyed for the meantime due to the ongoing quarantine. In that short-term dilemma amongst the river folks, the long-term dilemma of them being possibly displaced by the construction of the dams was in-fact no longer there as Kagawad Ryan informed me that the Rizal governor, due to the disdain to the Chinese – not only because of the complacency that brought this outbreak but also because of the corruption that bred among the Chinese and their contractors (rampant in their foreign debt trap projects) – was inclining to cancel all the Chinese dam projects in the area.
Meanwhile, we returned to the steep inclined road as we finished our trek across the river. We stopped by to a sari-sari store there to fetch some refreshments. To tease me, Kagawad Ryan pointed out the billiard table which was situated beside the Sari-sari store, knowing that I longed to play billiards once again, having not played for almost a month. Fearing my game would become rusty while not being allowed to play there, I just swung my lower arm in repetitive cueing motions to prevent my body from forgetting the locomotion.
I wondered what else I have forgotten as we were back in motion into returning uphill. The road meandered left and right as the engines of the motorcycle struggled to power against the demand of the steep road. We went past to that two-storey shed. Some meters from that shed – the place where I saw Hapunang Banoi, Pamintinan, and Binacayan – we saw people using their phones to what presumably was their signalan there. But my eyes were specifically fixated to a girl who seemed like a familiar figure from the past.
Those same slanted eyes that mirrored my happiness in the past. Those same thick eyebrows that spelled her ferocity and her curiosity. That same nose that breathed her intimacy. Those thick yet soft lips that melted my worries away back then. Dear goodness, I really hoped that I was wrong this time, clinging on to the weak refutation of that girl not having reddish freckles/pimples unlike the girl that I was seeing in the brief instant.
Struggling to ascend over the road which was getting steeper, the motorcycle slowed down. Struggling against the mixed emotions that dammed up and the memories that retained at the corner of my mind, the time seemingly slowed down too as the expanse of that brief instant expanded.
There’s relief, but not unlike what those who received their relief goods felt. There’s anguish, but not unlike what those who were starving due to the quarantine felt. There’s anger, but not unlike what those who were not given social amelioration felt.
It was like a curse, but not unlike what the Dumagats believed to be casted by their sacred boulder. The walls that retained what happened and how I felt might have been high, so high that it disrespectfully flooded the sacred boulder located upstream, bringing the curse of being haunted by her at that instant. Maybe, the haunting was a manifestation of how she left. Being ghosted by her was probably the greatest curse that I received in my life.
Listlessness put me in a daze for the rest of the return journey. I was caught in the seemingly endless daydream, the daydream that was triggered by seeing her figure on the way back. In that daydream, I caught a glimpse of the past where I merrily walked with her in my arms. I looked up to the sky and asked on why I had to go through this. Why do I have to be reminded of the future that I once wanted the most? The future that was taken away from me?
As the tears blurred those memories that I thought were forgotten, the blurring darkness in the sky announced the dusk, the failing of the twilight, the reminder that it won’t be like in Kimi no Na wa where we would get to see each other. Being reminded of her who was the one who showed me that there were things like a never-returning happiness, I alighted the motorcycle as we have returned to the barangay hall.
The stellar aftercolours of dusk reminded me of the same dusk when I viewed San Jose del Monte from a high point at Kaypian Road. This time, however, having heeded the wishes and the call for help of the people in need, which in this case were the Dumagat people, it was as if I was summoned to be here in this mountain barangay. Greeting my presence that dusk were the smokes from the charred remains of some pile of leaves from the neighborhood which looked like extinguished wicks of candles.
Summarizing the melancholy of the day, this song resonated from my heart:
Through this endless daydream,
I saw you on the way back.
There, I walked with you in my arms.
Through the blurring darkness,
Who’s veiling the twilight,
We’ve been far away…
…which was one of the soundtracks of the Korean drama series Goblin, which was the last series that I watched with that girl from San Jose del Monte. We only managed to finish the first episode as we vowed to watch the rest of the series together at a later time. I remembered that I presented to her of me being her goblin (tokkebi) granting her wishes. Instead, she drew the sword which was impaled to my heart, leaving a void within my heart and disappearing from her life.
I was pained by that void again as I found a copy of that Korean drama series within the tablet which I brought here. I must have really planned back then to watch the rest of the series with her.
So, here, alone in the remoteness of the mountains, I watched the rest of the series, as I knew that I won’t be having my chance to watch it with her, for she won’t be returning. I remembered that last note that she sent to me when we broke up back then:
If you know that you’re in the wrong and that what you’re doing was wrong, change yourself. Do not wallow into self-pity, apologizing for what you did. Sometimes, it was not just right to accept who you were. Learn to be matured and grow, especially if you don’t want to be abandoned by the people you held dear. Change for the better and don’t settle thinking “I am this way. There’s nothing to do.” Quit that mind set. Always be the best version of yourself before that will be for your sake.
From that moment on, it was all for my sake, with the acceptance that she won’t be coming back. I did my best. Have I changed for the better? I wondered.
On the other hand, the weather pattern of the mountain barangay then changed the following day. In the middle of summer, rain began to heavily fall.