Peculiar contraptions coated with rust, a procession of monstrous metal frames mounted on tiny motorbikes, they maneuvered through swirling clouds of dust. The loud screeching of tires and honking of wheels clang like church bells in a cemetery. Their knells ringing through the air in heavy timbres, the engine roaring, screaming, gasping for air in short intervals, they sliced the calm of the country to awaken the sleepy town of San Pablo.
It was homecoming day.
It was also the year of the worst draught in the history of the region. I, clinging to a rusty metal grip for dear life, squinted my eyes to lean out from the metal monster. I was hoping to catch some of the breeze but, in hindsight, that was probably one of the worst decisions I have ever made. Because in the middle of June, the scorching hot sun could sting my eyes- - - -and it did.
It wasn't my first time in San Pablo, the town where my grandfather, was born. But it was my first visit in years. I could faintly remember the siestas under the shade of the guava trees, the games of pantintero and bato-lata and the cool afternoons spread over banig mats. I could have let my thoughts wonder but Manong Trycicad came to a stop at a blue iron gate, that rose to just about his waist. It opened up to a small dirt road which lead us to the Valez family home, my family home.
The villa was a two-story structure, half-stone, half-wood. It was built during the time of the Spanish colonization, but what had once been a magnificent edifice, surrounded by sprawling crop fields and rice paddies, had dwindled into a shadow of what it had once been. The house, much like the people who lived in it, was old. The walls, cracked and chipped, desperately needed a fresh coat of paint. The rusty iron gate, with a slight nudge, creaked and groaned, requiring a hard rattling to open. The stone pavement, layered with moss and what-not, had a sickly iridescent green.
Much of the house has been renovated. The roof was replaced by corrugated iron sheets and flat red tiles. Bathrooms, a second kitchen and a phone line were installed. A small structure by the side of the house was constructed to function as a makeshift garage for the family's ancient pick-up truck. I called it the Blue Car. The vast fields that had once surrounded the house had been sold in strips during times of hardship. Today, large mansions side-by-side small shanties dominate the seaside. The house was built near a cliff and a small stairwell, at the back, was cut into the earth, so the family could go swimming. They told us that from the volada, the second floor balcony surrounding the exterior of the house, you used to be able to overlook a beautiful horizon of sea until a port, the same one we used to get to the island, had been built in the distance. What's left is a large silhouette of ships leaving and entering the harbor and a sea littered with plastic bottles and trash. We choose not to go swimming there anymore.
"Luna, nan-dito na kayo?" a familiar voice cried out.
"You're already here?" a second voice boomed from the second floor balcony. I looked up and could see both of my grand-aunts, Tiya Leta and beside her, Nanay Maring. Tiya Leta was a short but stout woman. She had cropped black hair and soft round eyes. She adorned herself with colorful bracelets and childish necklaces which I don't think she ever takes off. Partially deaf in one ear, she spoke in a loud booming voice, much like shouting, but I'm told she always did even if she could hear. One thing I knew was Tiya Leta never really grew up. Mom told me that she was born different and that it was a medical problem but the villagers always insist that she had been taken by the enkangtos, mystical beings that live in trees. But our family never believed that story.
Unlike her sister, Nanay Maring was less outgoing and bold. She was tiny woman, thin-framed but bony. She appeared frail and she was actually quite sickly. But despite that, she was an excellent storyteller. I can still remember the nights when my cousins and I would gather up on the banig floor and listen to her cuento which were always about fantastical creatures and mythical folklore. She used to try and scare me but now I'm old enough to know they aren't real.