Holy Thursday, 2011, on a motorbike. The road in front of me stretched into the horizon. The wind roared like steady thunder in my ears. The air was warm and thick. Like riding through soothing balm. I can’t get enough of the smell of the air. I keep breathing in lungfuls of the countryside potpourri, trying to make sense out of the pleasant commotion it stirred inside me. Strange and familiar at the same time, it reeked of the ancient and primeval. The mingling sense of recognition and novelty fought one another in a stalemate. Like bumping into a long lost friend I’ve never met before. Like going back to memories that are not my own.
My destination is the Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm in Palawan to make good on a promise.
The previous year while riding south on the roads of Palawan, soaking in the scenery and the local wildlife (The occasional monitor lizard or bayawak crossing the road, a flattened snake roadkill in the shape of an ‘S’, a couple of squirrels darting into hiding, big birds gliding high up in the air), I saw a guy standing by the road with a juvenile python hanging over his neck. I drive past him, but after a couple of blocks I made a u-turn to take a closer look at his pet. The sun was mercilessly beating down on me anyway and he was standing under the welcoming shade of a giant Acacia tree.
He seemed delighted to have someone to talk to and was quite eager to tell me about his pet. It was only half its size when he found it and he fed and grew it to its present size. Nope, it doesn’t bite. It sheds it’s skin after a while, etc. He said that he was one of the many prisoners in the farm who were free to roam about and attend to farming and other kinds of agricultural work. He was in charge of taking care of itik (wild ducks). I didn’t have to say much to him. He carried the conversion all by himself and talked and talked like it was his first time to do so in ages, while the python over his shoulders watched us with its sleepy indifferent eyes. He said he ended up in prison for hacking a trespasser to death in Quezon Province. That it was deadly boring in the farm and that he longed to be free to go home someday.
I asked him if I could take a photo of his pet python and he was quite delighted to see the resulting image in my digicam’s display. He requested me to take a photo of him together with the python and I haven’t seen anybody as happy as he was upon seeing a few simple instant photographs. He wondered aloud if I could send him prints, and I said sure. Perhaps in gratitude for breaking the dreadful monotony of his days, he offered to catch me a ‘sqealer’ when I came back. I asked, what’s a squealer? He replied that they were quick-footed, reddish mice with long puffy tails. (Oh. Squirrels.)
Before leaving , I gave him some cash for graciously photographing me with his python. He lit up and flashed an all-teeth, ear-to-ear smile. He said he was going to use it to buy the nicest pair of footwear there is: Islander brand flip-flops.
A year later, I’m back on the same road carrying photo prints of my homicidal friend with his cold-blooded pal.
(To be continued)