I forgot to bring a jacket. The air was thick with the distinct smell of an air-conditioned vehicle. A slightly smaller yellow bus, three vans, and some private Pajeros were in front of our bus, the biggest among the rest. I took the number of vehicles as premonitions and folded my arms to fend off the cold.
“So, we are still waiting for three more, and then we can leave,” informed our marshal, whose sentences often started with “so,” much to our amusement at the back. Lianne and Hearty, my roomies, chuckled.
Perhaps we were so used to waiting; nobody said a word about it. Or perhaps, it is an unsaid agreement: waiting is part of the tour.
One of the many reasons I rarely travel with a group: they may wait for me or I for them. It is just the idea of waiting I find revolting. Oddly at the Camotes leg of Suroy-Suroy Sugbo, I found myself fitting into the mold the form of traveling demanded of me. I became more accommodating than I would be in the company of close friends.
I could see everyone’s head from my seat—the middle, at the most rear—the unlikeliest I would pick for myself when I am traveling alone. I usually sit across the driver, the place where I can have the driver’s sweeping periphery sans his responsibilities, the place where I can see everything coming and going, with the wind wreaking havoc on my hair.
But one fact about joining a tour: everything is provided, including one’s seat.
From mine, I could see heads hardly moving from side to side. The air was thick with reluctance to approach someone first, the kind of reluctance of putting strangers in one place like this—a bus.
Then she arrived in her flowing red blouse. And the air by the back changed.
There was no stirring in the sea to Camotes Island. It wore the ironic calmness of May first. On the ship, waves of excitement flooded the participants—those who labored hard to reach where they were now, or those whose fate had long been decided for them. There were 160 of them, I heard Hearty, a tourism office staff member saying. It was the biggest contingent so far.
The ride was as smooth as the sea. People had relaxed a bit. Even the woman in a red blouse charmed her bus seatmate and us, the four people at the back.
There was a live telecast of an NBA game, but only few cared about it. On Sunday morning, however, everyone gathered at three designated areas at Santiago Bay Garden and Resort. Some even wore shirts supporting the pambansang kamao. The three-day tour culminated with a pay-per-view of Pacquiao vs. Mayweather.
I am neither into boxing nor a fan of Manny. But I subjected myself to watching it, not shouting like the rest, but cringing after every successful hit, regardless who had been hit.
“That was bullshit!” someone cursed after the unanimous decision was declared. Storms of disgust and inappropriately gay jokes were hurled towards Mayweather.
Asked about her opinion on the decision, the woman in a red blouse said, “Luto man to! Naa baya tos ilaha! Naa lagi nay rematch!”
Her certainty was as clean as a punch to someone’s face.
“I would do this again with the kids,” said the beautiful woman seated beside the woman in a red blouse. It was Saturday afternoon, and there was a certain satisfying, yet tired cadence in our footsteps.
A backpacker at heart, I asked if she ever considered planning the trip on her own.
“Ay, stressful magplan. Gusto ko, planado na ang lahat para sa akin,” she answered.
Vacationing is less stressful that way. There are certain perks one can only get in government-planned tours like Suroy-Suroy.
Earlier that day, the stout, cloudy-eyed, 60-year-old man guarding Bukilat Cave awkwardly swayed his upper body and head every time a camera was pointed at him. He was too stout, Buddha-like, and I must say cute, to be an agta. But he loved making people happy with the unlikely persona he projected.
If Madame Beautiful had come on a normal day, there would be no agta persona, and certainly no feast waiting outside the cave. There would be no reenactment of the forgotten culture of harana. Listening to men sing an old ballad while drinking tuba from a “paya” was the closest I have experienced of this dead culture.
The woman in a red blouse later on danced with the main actor of the staged harana. For a 63-year-old, she still had the grace of the cogon grass bending to the will of the wind.
“You reminded me of my younger self,” she said under the vibrant canopy set up for us in Lake Danao.
We could never be fuller than we were. But there was a different fullness I felt upon hearing it. It made me think of my old age, which I romanticized at times. To be 63 with the youthfulness of a teenager was not a bad future I could think of for myself.
Indeed, young energy surrounded us: laughter rippled by the lake, horses traipsed around the canopy. A young American was game enough to join the local kids in climbing the pole greased with oil. Nobody reached the tip, but a certain camaraderie was formed.
What I learned about Suroy-Suroy: we are here to be fed and overfed. I indulged like everyone else without the guilt. The tour is like a necessary delusion that we live in the excess.
In Poro, where the first lunch was served, heads bobbed in glee while eating. I feasted on imbaw straight from the freshly-grilled shell: that unmistakable sweet taste of freshness filling my mouth.
Our bountiful lunch was seasoned further with a serenade from a local band and cultural dances from kids.
But the food was more than festive; they demanded one to remember one’s childhood. Seeing putong balanghoy brought back images of our own abuhan and Mama sifting through the cassava grains. It makes me see seafood differently. Imbaw is “un-tungog” tuba’s best friend. This I learned in Boho Rock Resort. Watermelon can be skewered like barbecue. Picking the flesh from aninikad takes a certain pace and patience.
More than indulgence and excess, Suroy-Suroy shows that there are lessons to be learned from food.
Bus rides from Point A to B are peppered with trivia about Camotes. It is like a history lesson with students caught between listening and resting.
Cebuano in Camotes, I have noticed, is tailed with “z.” It has a certain rhythm unique to the island. The first inhabitants were from Samar, then Cebu, and Panay. If one looked on the map, everything made sense.
A place sometimes does not identify itself with the province it belongs to. It resonates more with its neighbors.
I find it hard to answer the question “is this your first time here?” I am caught between saying yes and no. Both are correct. Yes, because another layer of narrative surfaces from revisits. No, because really, Camotes is like one’s backyard of an island. Arriving and departing on the same day has become a profession of some sort.
The recent revisit has unfolded a side of an island I would not have experienced if I had declined this assignment.
The way I see it, joining Suroy-Suroy is more than taking a break from the hurdles of city life: rather, it is seeing someone you thought you knew your whole life in a different light,say, a retired couple relearning the dance steps of their youth; say, a husband seeing how elegant his wife is in a Hawaiin Afghan blouse and flowers crowning her. Say, the woman in a red blouse owning her body more than ever. Say, an old son helping his old father with his footing.
Say, I who would normally veer from group trips enjoying more than I thought I would. It is the people one travels with that can make a place alive.
As we left Camotes, silence settled inside the bus. Some silences are awkward. Some are contented and happy. Like ours