I am a traveler of the road that connects Surigao del Sur and Davao City. I have lived most of my life in the city, but occasionally visit Surigao, particularly on Christmas breaks, summer vacations, and when the family decides to have a reunion. Sometimes the death anniversary of my great grandmother was reason eough to visit Surigao.
The first trip that I remember making was upon the request of my grandmother, who was longing to see me. I was accompanied by my aunt, whom I called “Mommy.” I had to sleep the whole day to prepare for the trip, which was scheduled at night.
The people at the Ecoland terminal were in a rampage. When the bus finally arrived. It was as if everybody was waiting for the same bus. Passengers, instead of forming a line, pushed each other to clear a path and put their bags on a seat. Once someone had thrown a bag on a seat, it was considered reserved. Pretty ironic that at the end of the hard pushing and bumping, the bus was not even filled with passengers, and the only prize for the bruises was an uncomfortable seat.
The bus was not the type that could give what we call a luxury ride, but offered almost detachable (because of the loose screws) seats, a floor with scattered egg shells and nut shells, and some windows that do not open. The seats were so dusty that some of the passengers had to painstakingly clean them with bare hands. Outside, the body paint of the bus was faded and damaged; the sign barely readable.
It was about midnight when our bus finally left the terminal. Mommy said we should arrive in Tandag at around ten in the morning and I should try to get some sleep meanwhile.
At around six in the morning, I woke up inhaling dust. We were traveling the roads of Barobo at the time. My clothes, my hair, and my face were covered with dust. It was like baby powder, only it was brown and smelled bad. The windshield was a bit wet because of the morning dew. I could hardly see the fields outside my window because of the thick fog that covered the area.
I noticed the loud creaking of the bus every time it hit a pothole. The seats seemed to shriek as the bus swayed to avoid a pothole, only to fall into two larger potholes. But I didn’t pay much attention to the creaking. I was more interested in the vast rice fields and the people plowing them. I saw a boy riding a “karas” pulled by a carabao over the mud field. He was probably just a few years older than I was but he was already working heavy chores. The “karas” is a tool with nails or metal rods used to pulverize the soil. When the boy saw our bus raging on the road, he stopped his carabao and covered his face with his shirt. I could only watch him being engulfed by the clouds of dust.
A few bus stops from Barobo, an old lady got on. She had a basket and an old bag. I was sitting at the very back of the bus and watched her struggle her way in. The bus was full; she was fortunate that a kind man offered her his seat. I could not take my eyes off her. She gripped her hand bar hard throughout the trip. Her body was slumped. Her eyes were closed and she seemed to be in pain because of the lurching of the bus.
At the next bus stop, the man who had offered her a seat gave her some water. He asked her where she was going. “Aras-asan,” she said. It was still a few municipalities away, a few hours more of traveling through the damaged roads of Surigao del Sur. I could imagine the old lady in tears. But it was more than tears that I saw in her after.
Her left arm was almost embracing the bar of the chair and her right hand was at the back of the chair in front of her. She had to let go of her bag and basket and just let her things slide up and down the floor. Her head almost kissed her knees. She was trying hard to keep herself steady. She seemed to be praying for a miracle. She bit her lower lip with her eyes closed.
I felt sorry for the old lady. There was a passenger with a crying baby in her arms; another passenger with five children all seated in a place that could only accommodate two persons; another was still in deep sleep and the swaying of the bus almost threw him out of his seat— but they were not even close to the struggle of the old lady. I even hated myself because I liked the swaying of the bus; it gave my stomach a tickling sensation. I couldn’t help thinking of how many times she has ridden a bus in the same state.
When the bus stopped at Aras-asan, the old lady struggled as she walked over the luggage that blocked her way. There was nothing I could do but watch her. I was just a little boy, and there was only a mute desire to help. She reminded me of my great grandmother, who was still alive at the time. She would only shove me away if I tried to help her, I told myself.
Passing through the large concrete bridge of Gamut meant the near end of our journey. We brushed the dust off our clothes, relieved that we were about to be delivered from the old bus.
After stepping out, I looked back at it and thought of the achievement of the bus. Its decrepit state could have made the trip impossible. But there we were, looking like human mud cakes, but walking the streets of Tandag nonetheless. The bus had made it through the harsh roads of Surigao. I thought of the old lady. She was battered during the trip, but still made it through.
A few years later, when I had to go to Surigao again, I noticed that some roads had been repaired. There were even delivery trucks traversing the road. The population had increased and a few groceries had opened. But still, some places were not reached by improvement. Our bus hit a deep pothole and I accidentally bit my lip. Not only did I pay almost 400 pesos, I also had to bleed a little for the trouble of coming home.
Wiping my lip, I suddenly remembered the old lady. It was as if her life depended on the bus rides. She sacrificed her comfort and endured every moment with a willpower I would probably never know.
As a young boy, I cursed the road for being the way it is. Today I understand that it is the true price of a bus ride from the city to my province. And I know I will always be willing to pay it.
Maxuel Sacala is completing his Creative Writing degree in UP Mindanao while working the night shift.