I WENT back to Sibonga this week.
The last time I was there, the pier was not yet finished; Ferdinand Marcos was recruiting schoolgirls to regreen the countryside; and there was a shark making swimmers disappear off Sibonga’s unfinished pier.
Let me scratch out those lines and begin again.
The last time I was at Sibonga was over a week ago. On my way to the southeast, I turned the curve, speeded past old houses and the 140-year-old church of the Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Zaragoza, and, due to a sharp vision of pork lard-laced torta, got off at Chitang’s in the next stop, Argao.
Perhaps it’s the same with other travelers. On our way to somewhere, we pass by Sibonga.
As disappearing acts go, Sibonga doesn’t do a bad job at all.
If you’re coming from Cebu City, the town crops up after a sharp curve in the highway. So the plaza peels away with the rest of the landscape before you realize, oh, that’s Sibonga outside my window, and count the minutes till you can be in Argao for torta, suncake, tostados (kind of cookie) and tableya (dark chocolate from roasted cacao).
Hurtling back to the city, you again notice Sibonga, still drowsing by the roadside, catching the last light of the day. Oh good, you perk up, Carcar in a few minutes and some chicharon de carajay (deep-fried pork skin garlanded with fat) or lechon with inagos (meat dripping) from the market.
Sibonga has no such gastronomic wiles.
But it does have that pier.
In the 1970s, I was a schoolgirl, out on an excursion to reforest the hills of Sibonga with her classmates and teachers. But the stony ground broke my spade and the ipil-ipil saplings were wilting, early victims of New Society propaganda.
So, after lunch, I escaped to the pier, expecting to see the shark that my mother said had pulled many swimmers to a watery grave.
My friends and I only saw a narrow cemented walkway that extended less than half a kilometer to the sea. There was no quay, no stall, not even a boat. A few men were standing around at the pier end. They were hard at work doing nothing. They didn’t even spare us a glance when we ran to catch our bus.
Over the years, most piers I’ve seen look like the finger a town crooks to beckon ships or points to command merchants to dock and trade.
But I’ve never forgotten the pier that ended in a pile of lichen-covered rocks. Thin and narrow, it reminded me of a finger raised to make a point and then paused in mid-air, its tip nibbled by the owner, concentrating to recall the thought inspiring the original move.
Thirty years later, I stood on the same shore.
By the quay, a rusty, listing ship was receiving sacks unloaded by a crane. The old men were gone but groups from the local high school were drifting towards the pier end. A few motorbikes hummed past them.
I watch this crowd watch the crane unload the sacks.
If not for the crabs skittering on the rocks below me, I would have gone on to count how many sacks a crane can move at one time, or how long one cycle of loading and unloading sacks can mesmerize an audience.
But the crabs were very distracting, armored Machiavellis spotting my schemes even before a thought formed in my head.
When the trisikad driver drew up beside me, I knew exactly what he was doing: watching me watch the crowd watch the ship’s loading.
To insert some variety, I asked him what the sacks were. Dolomite from Dalaguete, he said before launching a calm, bitter tirade against the town dads for doing nothing to invite industries. He also blamed his town mates for blocking business interests that would have employed Sibonganons in manufacturing cement and ceramic plates.
Even just one factory producing rubber slippers is better than this, my fellow watcher said, pursing his lips to point to the pier. There were no more sacks to load and the people were walking away. When I inhaled, I smelled only brine and perhaps the ageless cunning of the crabs.
An ancient one, large, green and mossy, sidled up the wet rocks. I asked my fellow watcher if there was truly a shark that ravaged swimmers in the ‘70s.
It’s still doing it, was the answer. Some months back, a group took a dip at the pier’s head. One of them failed to bob back to the surface. When they found the boy, he was covered all over with fish scales.
The shark spat him out? I was mystified by the manner of death. When men disappeared while fishing in the shallows, the locals blamed the “pahak nga iho,” the shark whose tail was half missing.
After the last student left, the trisikad driver drove away. Then I walked back to work. When I glanced back, the pier was just waiting.
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* First published as “Matamata” column in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 8, 2009 issue