Traveling to Caraga feels like you’re on a graveyard shift. You know the feeling. You struggle to keep awake at 12:30 in the morning and watch your seven year old son march off to bed, drowsy after the last show on television, you dial up the taxi that will fetch you from home in Nova Tierra, near the mosque, you say; and then, when everybody is snuggling comfortably to bed you brave the cold slap of the early November breeze on your face as you board the taxi to the terminal. You found a convivial listener on the taxi driver, suddenly a companion in this dead hours of the night, when all the living are asleep and you are headed for the terminal to catch the first trip to the town you only knew by name from some old travel brochures that featured the oldest church in Mindanao, built here in the 1660s, as an outpost of the Spanish forces who failed to conquer the interior parts.
Inside the Ecoland terminal, people sleep on their folding beds (for rent, at P15 to P20), with their bags on their heads. It takes quite a few pages of Milan Kundera’s “Slowness” before the bus for Cateel (which will pass by Caraga) arrives at one o’clock. You go to the Bachelor bus driver bound for Mati, just to check and counter check. I’ve never been to Caraga before. I never knew where Cateel was. It’s a strange place for me. I wonder, what will greet you when you get there? I stared at the Cesar Montano’s face on the bright huge TM posters above the signs overboard. Mati, Cateel, etc. I glanced sideways at the vendor selling cold eggs, cigarettes by my side. I wiped and blew my stuffy nose and wondered how long can I bear this—not the stuffy nose—but this, being treated like this, a worker without right, without voice. I kept wondering what this—this being yanked out of your sleep at the most unholy hour of the night—had anything to do with writing??! Or, book editing for that matter? When the Cateel bus arrived, I asked the driver again, I asked everyone I could talk to. I was excited (and tired) to go to that old place, that old Spanish bastion, the only one they were able to hold in Mindanao. Then, somebody turned off the bus lights. Everyone claimed the seat as bed. The woman across my seat stretched her legs on the bus aisle even as she asked her companion (a male) where he had parked the car. Park where?! Aren’t they riding this bus? Then, I claimed another seat too, and lay down listening to The Campaign Trail on The NewYorker, for this was the time when Barrack Obama was still running for President. Then, a woman-a hefty one—came aboard grumbling because everyone has been making every bus seat his bed. I got up, asked the woman if she wanted my seat because I wanted the old seat across, but seeing that somebody had already occupied the seat I wanted, I returned to where I was sleeping.
A brief talk with the conductor, telling him I had a companion waiting at the terminal in Tagum, the first stop. Then, in Tagum, seeing Allan coming up the bus aisle in the dawning hours before the bus moved on again; and a few hours later, a drowsy glimpse of Mati, where they fix something of the bus engine. Snaking around the sneaky mountains of Caraga, I was reminded yet again that the place where nothing happens is also a place where everything happens. Away from the newspaper headlines, everything happens in Caraga. You knew all about it during breakfast of nilagang baka and fried talong in a rundown torotoro along the highway, people lining up the weather-beaten dirty counter, waiting for the steaming rice, grabbing a greasy table across a woman in her late fifties, her hair unkempt, her old printed duster had seen better days. She, too, would have been beautiful when she was young. I wonder what she’d seen in these places. Everyone was talking about some encounter between soldiers and the NPAs somewhere beyond the mountains. We will pass by Tarragona, the one included in the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE), Allan kept saying. Later, what I saw of Tarragona was an abandoned wooden shed and an empty public market, I wonder where the people are, what they’re doing at that time of the day. Maybe, sleeping??
When we reached Caraga terminal, I was already dead tired. All I wanted to do was plop down somewhere, bed or no bed at all, but everybody kept talking. Then, I realized sleep was still out of question. We still had a far way to go. We boarded a crazy motorcycle to a village called Pantuyan and waited and waited for the people who never arrived. They were trying to settle some dispute somewhere, trying to avert a “pangayao,” what do they call it, a tribal conflict? I slept on a bench. Somebody handed me a pillow. I slept until my stuffy nose was gone. When it was five o’clock, they said, it was time to go. We boarded a motorcycle that climbed up a newly scraped road. The soil was rocky and limey, like what I used to know in Argao, Cebu, my mother’s hometown. But when I glanced over my shoulder, I discovered we were already on top of the world, the ravines were the deepest I’ve ever seen, I’ve never been in a mountain as high as that and I did not even know its name. We were still climbing higher and higher to I don’t know where: Pluto, perhaps, Mercury or Mars? The motorcycle ahead of us went overboard, its passengers laughing. How could they laugh?! All around us were forest; a weather-beaten shack would appear once in a while, with people staring back at us. Except for that and the jungle, I saw nothing else. Later, much, much later, we followed another rugged, abandoned road. I thought, we were already close to the place where we were supposed to go. But later, I learned, we were still very far. The skylab climbed down and up the mountainous incline as high as 85 degrees. I was bowling over. It was a journey that never ends.
But later, I was struck as soon as I saw the place: a thriving Mandaya community surrounded by forests. Looking down the bluish haze of mountains and outlines of rivers far below, I said, this is heaven, this is the place where I belong, I’m not going out anymore.
But as it happens, I still did.