TRAVEL puts you in the mood for the unexpected.
I chant this to myself when, at the end of the road, is not a bath and a book but a “No Vacancy” sign.
This mantra usually works unless there’s a triple whammy of the unanticipated: a frustrating chase for a fact that might be camouflaged as fiction, a favorite room found to be taken, mosquitoes that end up as surprise roommates.
To be fair, the mosquitoes—long-legged beauties with hungry whines—were as taken aback as I was when I opened the tiny bathroom attached to our room. It was too late to fuss then about the in-house bloodsuckers: notebooks used in the fieldwork had to be sorted out; Juan demanded to swim.
At the pool, we found the staff applying chlorine. Best to wait for one more hour, they advised.
As my son’s grumbling was beginning to sound as maddening as the creatures we left in the room, I told him we could walk along the shore and look for mermaid’s tears.
A National Geographic article read some time ago ran a photo essay about sea glass. These are the small, frosted remnants of bottles and other glass items that end up in the sea. Sand and sea water break them down, smoothen and mold them, even etch patterns on the surfaces.
While looking for sea glass is as popular as and even more politically correct than taking seashells and corals, collectors covet the colors of red and black, which are more unusual since present-day beer bottles are usually green, brown or colorless.
But even the most common shard of sea glass, when it is slick with the sea or glinting with reflected fire, is not difficult to imagine as pearls of a weeping sea maiden or, found once on a beach in Dalaguete, a glass slipper just waiting for a royal foot.
A beachcomber’s dream, this coastline is a trifle treacherous for swimming because of the white-capped waves that slap and curl around the slabs of stone. Juan and I took a close look at the undisturbed hoard strewn along the coast. It is nearly beyond human capacity to fully appreciate even just a square inch of the shore. Just when one thinks the shade of this stone is unlike any hue seen before, the sifting of sand will reveal a tiny periwinkle with a shell design more intricate than any pattern woven by human hands.
Yet, sea glass remains my favorite as a showcase of nature. Where is the maestro to rival sand and sea in creating art from the meanness of garbage and negligence?
If only life’s surprises were all as delightful: a few hours before retreating to this place, my husband and I listened to a resident recount stories of a war I only read about, even grudgingly, from course-required references.
To reach the beach after the interview, we drove past a patch of trees. It looked the same as always: canopy shadows dappling the ground, a sleepy breeze ruffling the overgrown grass. Passing by this place countless times, I’ve never really seen it.
I could not now look at it, remembering the source’s stories of children tossed in the air while soldiers made a bet to see whose bayonet could impale the most number of bodies. Whole families were executed once fingered by the hooded informer, star and sole witness in the town’s juez de cuchillo (justice of the knife).
It is said that something nameless still flits across the faces of oldtimers when the name of the war collaborator is mentioned.
When a name was finally given in answer to our question, I was slow to react. Perhaps the hours of listening played tricks on my mind. Maybe I had been asleep in actuality, dreaming only that I was interviewing. It is hard to wake up when you are working so hard to convince yourself that you are awake.
Like a pretty glass washed ashore, memory can become anything. Increments can compress to bear down, reduce bottle into shards into a fairytale slipper or pearls rolling from a sea maiden.
When a name was uttered that afternoon, I remembered the stern face of a senior who said, write as if you are chasing the truth, while another recalled bodies transfixed on the lance of an unforgetting, unforgiving memory.
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* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug. 31, 2008 issue