“You will be chance passengers to Buhi tonight.” I stared at the bus conductor, not wanting to believe what I just heard. “You. Chance passenger,” he repeated, staring my friend and I down. I shuddered. ‘chance passenger’ simply meant that: fat chance of getting to the right bus that is waiting in their other terminal; and fatter chance of getting a seat in the bus. I’m on my way to Buhi, Bicol, a province South-East of Luzon to give relief goods to families stricken by the recent storm. Buhi is a town nestled between the world-famous Mayon volcano and the serene Buhi Lake, but, like most of Bicol, the town was devastated with houses either demolished or drowned by the overflowing water of the lake.
My mind raced back to years before when I became a ‘chance passenger’ on a bus to Vigan, a small province in northern Luzon. The bus conductor told another friend and I that we were ‘chance passengers’. Back then, I thought that term was only used for airline passengers. How in heavens could you be a ‘chance passenger’ on a bus? Not knowing any better, we gamely agreed. Two hours into the trip to Vigan and we were wishing we weren’t as adventurous. Sitting on the bus aisle clutching my back-pack, I was entertained by puppies whining and yelping in a box beside me and native chickens cackling behind; I was dreading the next 6 hours of the trip. But we survived the trip and enjoyed Vigan. ‘Chance passenger’ was soon forgotten and removed from my memory until today.
I bristled at the thought of camping on a bus aisle for the 10-hour trip to Buhi. But with Bicol devastated by a recent storm, who would want to go there? Isn’t it expected that people would want to leave Bicol than go to Bicol? We took our chance. By God’s grace, a bus took us to the next station where we boarded the bus bound for Buhi. As I expected, there were more than enough seats for those who waited. “It isn’t so bad then”, I thought. With nothing else to do but sleep until we reach Buhi, my friend and I prepared to settle in. I pulled out my thick, heavy woolen sweater and ski bonnet. For foreigners, it might seem strange that locals don winter clothing for a bus trip. But for local bus riders, we know better: aircon systems in buses only have one setting —high.
The ride seemed endless. Then, with 2 hours to go before reaching Buhi, in the soft morning light, I could make out the silhouette of the mountains of Bicol. As the sun parted the gray curtains, I saw a ghastly view. Once imposing mountains lush with trees and green foliage, these are now bare with scraggly stumps and branches. Trees that once draped their boughs and leaves to cover secret recesses of the mountains now lay bare the mountain’s bellies. It was a pitiful sight, like mistakenly stepping into a dressing room whose occupant is barely dressed. There is something vulgar about seeing mountains and trees undressed. Regal mountains with its proud trees that looked down on Bicol, are now all bent and broken. It’s as if a giant wantonly pulled-out branches and messed-up the thick green tresses. This is the effect of a super-typhoon. Yet, this is only seen a fragment of its effect.
The most attractive natural scene of Buhi is Buhi Lake. Tender and quiet it seems, but for several days previously, the lake intruded into people’s homes, entering its rooms uninvited and unexpectedly. But for now, she is content to stay within her borders and give the people an abundant harvest of fish. Fishermen up and working even before dawn, sit along the shore, huddled in skimpy windbreakers. Gazing out into the lake, they seem to be expectantly waiting for something. They share a secret, these two — the great lake and the fishermen. The Lake with its hidden treasures whisper times and tales only to her fishermen.
North-East of Buhi is Mt Sarog (or more commonly called Mt Isarog) with its gaping crater. Dormant for years, it still looks imposing, quietly reminding people of its possible burst of anger. As with the mountains that we saw along the way, Mt. Sarog is as bare and wind-swept.
Riding through the town, we see the effects of the storm. Houses made of nipa and bamboo are leveled to the ground and sturdier structures have lost their roofs. Everywhere, people are busy cleaning their surroundings and salvaging what they could. On the outskirts of town are water damaged fields with yellow, sodden crops.
But beyond the fields, just past the trees, live a quiet, simple, peace-loving people called Aetas. Mostly uneducated, they keep to themselves and prefer remote areas. These are the people we came to help. Setting our ‘relief office’ at the back of a local van, the Aetas look at us and smile. They observe from a distance, not approaching even when they see clothes and food laid out. The more curious children approach and ask questions. When we explain that the goods are for them, they run back to their father or mother and pull them over. Soon, we have a line formed and as I ask the usual questions, they timidly answer. For the Aetas, their age are not counted in years, rather they are determined by the number of harvests they have had. Some women, as young as 15 ‘harvests’ have suckling babes in their arms. Their elders, slim and sinewy from hunting and working the fields, also come. They are closely knit, with elders looking after the community’s children and mothers helping each other.
They smile with bright eyes. Some come with a string of newly caught field frogs, a staple of their daily diet. As they receive modest packs of food, rice and clothes, they beam as they see the dull glitter of canned sardines. Alongside their daily staple of root crops and frogs, the sardines are a welcome change. These are simple folks with not much; most without shoes or slippers with old scanty, hand-me-down clothes. Their huts have been damaged by the storm and so with the small fields they till. Yet, they smile, they share stories and they laugh. They sing and play tunes with their hand-made flutes. They are happy. They are resilient and optimistic.
As the relief goods dwindle, the Aetas return beyond the fields. Children running and the elders assisted by younger people. They disappear as they enter the tree line. My friends and I look at each other. We brought gifts to these simple folks, but it seems they gave a greater gift to us — that of great gratitude and joy of life.