EXCEPT for several swanky villas hugging the coastline and giving southern Cebu a Mediterranean makeover, I figured the countryside still idled, the equivalent of standing still to the city-born.
Until we had to chase little old ladies.
To interview a former barangay kapitana for a town history assignment, my partner and I left the city at dawn and bridged the southeastern and southwestern mountain ranges by traversing a clamorous, rain-drenched Nug-as Forest.
Looking for the source’s green-and-yellow residence, we must have passed by this house twice before it occurred to us that the source may have described the house as it was first painted, nearly half a century ago.
When the small face appeared at the corner of a curtained window, our guess was confirmed—sunlight and damp can create an indeterminate shade that’s never been sold in a tube—but also our fears: Nang Sebia’s grandchild said her lola left some time ago to carry out some business in the weekly market held near the highway.
It added to my fears when the child said that her lola was returning “dili na madugay (not long).” When one lives attuned to nature’s rhythms—rains coming after the drought, towering trees springing from tiny, shrunken seeds—“not long” can mean anything, from tomorrow till forever.
My partner took the child’s prognosis with stoicism and dozed off.
I counted the mahogany seeds dropping on the windshield and wondered why I ever thought old women were like stuck stones, lichen-catchers.
Then I brightened up.
Unlike men, who will drink, shoot each other, whore and gamble their hard-earned money before sheepishly trudging back to their stolid life in the uplands, women use the cash to buy for the household and immediately go back home before the meat and fish spoil.
Besides, how many 80-year-old women are fearless enough to mount a habal-habal and be squashed by other bodies for the hair-rising ride up these cliffs?
Just then, something ran out of the house. The figure was small like a child’s, fleet on the foot as a mountain goat, and had a head full of pure white hair.
It was also noisy as a bird nearly deprived of its worm, scolding the habal-habal driver that was roaring past the house.
Perching on the seat like a monkey, the figure took out orange flowery slippers from its skirt’s pockets and placed them on her feet.
Only then did I realize I was looking at a little old lady.
After the habal-habal blasted off, I shook my partner awake and said the quarry had escaped and we must give chase.
He said that was not the mother but only a daughter or sister.
But, of course, he started the car because there is nothing that scares men more than the mouths of women.
In the next barangay, we asked for information from an old woman waiting outside a roadside store. We waited for her to first tell us her theories on where the person tending the store was most likely to be.
Then we in turn told her who we were looking for and our reason for seeking her.
Meanwhile, she had rolled a tobacco leaf, found a match and lit it.
Now convinced that Nang Sebia was still down in the tabo, I kept my eyes peeled for a little old lady roaring up these slopes.
Minutes later, three habal-habal bikes did indeed blast past us, all loaded down with all sizes and shapes of little old ladies clutching on to bags and dear life.
Only by averting his ears from perilous proximity with my mouth was my husband finally able to coast into the crowded tabo near the highway.
I was certain that searching for Nang Sebia was a lost cause, that she was as elusive as the legendary Maria Cacao, fairy queen disgruntled with an ungrateful world.
Suddenly, my partner braked, threw open the door, and ran out, shouting.
I wondered if he, too, was going to do a Maria Cacao on me. But it turned out he finally saw the kapitana.
After the usual interminable explanations, Nang Sebia stepped down from behind the habal-habal driver that was leaving for the uplands. We found an eatery with a spare table.
I was dying to ask her if the women of Montpeller had discovered the elixir of eternal life, when she looked behind her and asked, in a little old ladyish kind of tone: My packages? I suppose they will be arriving before I do?
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* First published in Sun.Star Cebu's May 3, 2009 issue