Friday, April 20, 2007

Reader of paths

THE thing that first struck me about Buboy was his feet.

They resembled no pair I knew. If they were not found at the base of his person, I could mistake them for a gnarly giant root of ginger freshly dug up, with clods of earth still clinging to them.

Those feet went everywhere with Buboy. They took us up and down paths not known to habal-habal (upland motorcycle), truck or cart. They blended where the desiccated soil lay like dust balls. Their toughness just sloughed off the slimy water pooling in road furrows, as well as the evening chill or dawn fog we wrapped ourselves against with towels and malong (blanket).

Where was Buboy while his feet took us everywhere? The man was even more silent than his feet, if that were possible. He ate with the group but quickly. I never heard him venture a story, a joke, an opinion in a season when even the remotest hole in the southern ranges echoed with the crawling of politicians.

Given the laconic nature of Buboy and his feet, his companions tried to compensate.

Of the stories I heard, I remember this best: no one can see the paths hereabouts better than Buboy.

To a city dweller like me, mountain paths have been an education. A trail that goes steeply up reminds me I don’t need all the stuff I carry around my gut. On the other hand, a footpath etched against eroded slopes, with no bush or root to hold on to, all loose soil and heights, makes me appreciate all the gravity I can command when I hunch, squat and slide down, after warning my companions to get out of the way.

But I’ve usually done my crossing of paths in daylight, which, I gather among my companions, is something anyone with legs is at least expected to do. Crossing by day kilometers of brush and slopes, enough to connect one mohon (boundary marker) to another, is not a matter of skill, only a measure of how well you can take your burden, bringing enough water and provisions to prevent dehydration and fainting.

Walking at night is another thing.

The city slicker’s faith in flashlights is misplaced as an anemic, quivering beam does not diminish but only heightens the anomie of walking in the dark. That insipid pool of yellow can make a root seem to wriggle across the path. Walking is an act of balancing what is within you with what is out there. A battery-illuminated path only singles you out, small, stunned and watched by the night breathing around you.

Buboy and our companions had no such handicap. On the first night, a perfect orb swung in the night sky. I thought this was what gave the dan-ag (brightness) that kept us on the right path.

But they explained that even in the moonless dark, a path remains bright. The passage of many feet cracks a line that runs in the dark. You see that line with each tamak (step). Better than the eye, the feet can read, from flattened grass, broken branches, absence of rocks, roughness worn down, that this is a path people have made, or only animals know, and a few others keep secret.

In the prosaic ritual of cleaning up after breakfast, stories of how some feet are more gifted than others in reading the liquid dark lie cold and inert like last night’s campfire.

But when we all take up our burdens and follow the lead taken by Buboy’s feet, I remember why the need to keep in touch can overwhelm distance, the elements, even the absence of light.

I wish I had stayed to listen to the unspoken, never-before-heard tales of Buboy’s feet, if they could speak. 0197-3226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Apr. 8, 2007 issue

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