THE ART of sitting by the road is alive and well in the south.
In the past, rivers and other major bodies of water gave rise to settlements.
In modern times, highways and roads attract development: eateries, gas stations, advertisements, lodging places and department stores that shout the local demand for more than the once-a-week tabo or fiesta displays.
Commerce is served best by the directness and ease of the roadside exposure. Most travelers regard highways as the safety cord connecting two knowns—the point of departure and the destination—separated by the unpredictable and the unknown.
It was axiomatic, when I was a child, to go to the comfort room before leaving on a long trip. Among the women, it was protocol to prepare food or bring grills, pots, charcoal—a slightly reduced version of the dirty kitchen to ensure food on the road or at the beach was plentiful, home-cooked and safe.
Thirty years ago, it was impossible to find a clean restroom or eatery along the road.
Times have changed. Shopping and fastfood joints have encroached on the towns. Even gas stations are now one-stop miracles: gas up, use a restroom with running water (but hardly toilet paper yet), and buy ice-cold blended coffee.
In their private cars, travelers can believe the illusion they’re not too far from the city, lulled by the absence of traffic snarls.
Those yearning for local color can still take the bus. Even then, not all buses are created equal. Fleets with many units leave and arrive on schedule. If a tire gets busted, there’s another unit to pick you up minutes later, not an hour after or the next day.
All this efficiency though whets the nostalgia for the old coffins on wheels. Some are still on the road, fighting extinction, with seats for three that sit 2 1/4. Aisles were for standing in, windows for clambering in to grab a seat. Those who wanted to arrive on time took the bus a day early. Indulgent drivers were known to wait or return for town regulars still finishing their breakfast or toilet.
Where is the roadside spectator in all this modern upheaval?
They’re still there but never outside an internet cafe. (Is there an online junkie that sees the light of day, let alone watches life pass by? Does a chicken look to the right and left before crossing?)
If there is just a road, a bench, and an innate sense of having nothing to do but interested in everything, there you’ll find a watcher.
One dusk found us looking for a landmark near a town square. A boarded up house by the highway had two little ladies seated on an outside bench. Slight of frame and dressed in floral dresses, they were smiling at no one in particular.
A side street away was an old couple sitting outside their house. Beside their roadside bench was a pile of leaves blowing a thin thread of smoke. He was telling a story; she was looking at him.
When we missed a turn and went back the same route, another little old lady had joined the other two. The couple was giggling, looking at each other.
We found the landmark and did not pass that way again. But I like to think they’re still there: the little ladies, now permitted by the years to cross their legs in their short shifts and flick their foot at the road; those two conspiring to keep their joke, that life is best when one’s neither waiting nor going but merely watching.
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* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 6, 2007 issue