We had originally planned to hike Mt. Tagapo in Talim island but just the previous day, had changed our minds and decided to do Mt. Batulao instead.
About a quarter of the way to one of Mt Batulao’s campsites, in one of several stops where fresh coconuts were sold, we met an old lady who invited us to their, as she enthusiastically put it, “house by the stream”. When it comes to side-trips, I invariably do not need much convincing. We went and happily disregarded our original itinerary. We were welcomed by an excited white mutt and the somewhat reserved old husband of our new friend.
We walked towards a swimming hole 5 minutes away and I took a dip in the ice-cold water while my friends took in the surrounding woods and scenery and chatted with our young guide who was the old couple’s niece (or was he their grandchild?)
For lunch we laid out banana leaves on the grass in front of their house and dumped the rice and gatang manok (chicken cooked in coconut milk) we bought from a sari sari store earlier over it and ate with our hands while listening to the old man’s small transistor radio playing oldies music from an AM station. We kept a close watch over their white dog who kept licking his snout, eyes wide and alert in giddy anticipation for our left overs.
I had brought a flask of brandy with me and the mention of this seemed to breath life and enthusiasm into the old man of around 80 or so years. We passed a glass around and tried to make my 8 ounces of liquor last as long as possible by pouring just enough to wet our throats with each shot. We chased our brandy with fresh coconut water. Now that we had a lot of.
The old man told us he grew up in batangas and one night a long, long time ago, they were having a drinking session with his friends and a dayo (guest). And for some reason he and his friends were suddenly seized with curiosity on what a couple of hundred feet of rolling down a steep cliff would do to a person. And so they proceeded to carry their drunk and semi-conscious guest over a nice cliff nearby and tossed him to his bumpy, bouncy death. The only problem was although their ‘friend’ was practically naked once he made his 2,212th and last somersault, he actually survived to tell the tale (Old man: ay nung hinagis namin e naka long sleeves, bihis na bihis. Pag dating nya sa baba, hubo’t hubad na). Wanted and hunted by the Philippine Constabulary (PC) as the police were called in the olden days, he was convinced by the mayor to just leave town and return once the heat died down. It took decades before he was able to return. I asked him why they did that to the poor fellow, and he replied, Wala, trip lang (We were just fooling around), flashing a shy, near-toothless smile.
One of my companions suddenly felt hungry and thought of requesting our hosts to dig up some Camoteng Kahoy (Cassava), so off they went and returned with 2 uprooted camote trees with their big, bulby roots, still holding on to clumps of earth.
We took turns pounding on the boiled harvest which they mixed with sugar and coconut meat on a really big wooden mortar and pestle until it became Nilupak (gummy, pasty Cassava cake). We helped ourselves to heaping plates of the gummy goo before leaving for the campsite.
Our shadows already grew long over the grasses and the warm melancholy smell of the waning afternoon and impending dusk cast a gloomy spell on my heart and exposed me to wave upon wave of memories of childhood sadness and grief over another day hopelessly giving in to the night. I had always wished there were more hours in a day to play and explore as a kid. I hoped for the same miraculous extension now.
I looked over my shoulder and bade a reluctant farewell to the house by the stream with the white dog (his head questioningly tilted to one side and sadness and devastation writ all over his eyes to see us go), and the animated, old lady, and the old man who tried to kill a guy and now had just 3 teeth left and liked to chase brandy with buko juice while listening to Nat King Cole sing There Goes My Heart on AM radio.
(To be continued)
Listen to There Goes My Heart by Nat King Cole