THE ROAD TO LINAO by barbara barquez ricafrente

I was only around five when I made my first visit to Linao, a barangay tucked in the backwoods of Libon town in Albay province. My father’s older sister had settled there with her husband in the early ‘60s, their house just right across the road from the barangay’s lone public elementary school where the couple, then young school teachers, had asked to be reassigned. They had wanted a fresh start for their growing family.

It was a long trip on rough roads that were interrupted in some parts by several small waterways and a winding river, the Bacolòd as I heard my grandfather Cornelio call it. We were accompanied by Jib, a Libon-based American peace corps volunteer of Irish descent whom we were told to call Uncle, even as we were completely unrelated, because he had become a close family friend. I remember riding on someone’s shoulders when we reached the river – where a collapsed wooden bridge had been in a state of disrepair for years – and being deposited at the bottom of a wooden canoe along with my grandmother Constancia who was always nervous about boat rides, my mother and two brothers, Uncle Jib, and the boatman. The rest of our entourage, which included my father and his gleaming red-and-black motorbike, crossed the river in the same manner.

Huge trees, like brooding giants, flanked both sides of the road as we entered Linao. All I could hear then were the sound of cicadas, the occasional chirping of birds, and a soft wind rustling through countless leaves. The cool air and enveloping silence of those woods were most impressive to a child accustomed to the constant noise of radios, neighborhood loudspeakers blaring Bob Dylan, The Beatles and Eddie Peregrina songs, and live combos that played rock-and-roll in my neighborhood all day long in the swinging Sixties.

Across the road from my aunt’s house was the Linao Public Elementary School, which sat on sprawling grounds that ran uphill toward more trees. At the center of its wide lawn stood a huge acacia tree, its long branches and wide canopy of leaves a refuge for wild birds and other creatures in the area. When my uncle’s father – also an educator and a man with a taste for women, fine tobacco, and good food – had founded the school in 1947, that acacia tree was already standing there. It was a key feature in the school’s winning in a nationwide competition on several occasions as one of the country’s cleanest and most beautiful rural campuses during my uncle’s term as school principal.

The rest of that trip is a blur, but for the crossing of the river on our way back and the labored asthmatic breathing of my grandmother, who was bent on making certain she could drag all of herself into the boat without tilting it too far on one side and causing it to capsize.

Less than two decades later, Army trucks plied the Mayao road ferrying soldiers either dead or wounded from Linao, then the scene of battle between the New People’s Army and government troops. The military never admitted to it, but our cousins said the woods at the back of the elementary school which overlooked the school grounds had been a crucial vantage point for rebel fighters, who were able to beat back pursuing Army troops. This incident prompted my older brother to call Linao “Little Nicaragua,” for it was in the same decade the Sandinistas had overtaken the troubled South American nation. This battle lasted days and, after the last gunshots had been fired, was eventually forgotten.

Several dry seasons hence, my younger brother and I decided to go see the back roads again on his motorcycle, and ended up going all the way to Linao. The road was still unpaved and now riddled with potholes along the Mayao-to-Busac stretch of Oas town – especially that area which opens wide into the farmlands where visiting white herons were constantly stabbing the mud with their beaks in search of food. It was a hot and dusty trip on a day in April, and we had to slow down somewhere in Saban, the last barangay of Oas leading to Libon, because a flock of brown ducks was crossing the road. As if on cue, they turned their heads in our direction all at the same time, reminding one of synchronized swimmers, and wagged their exposed bottoms at us as we went by.

The trees of Linao remained silent and imposing, a thin mist caught in their thick canopies even on an April day. At our aunt’s house, we were served fresh and luscious papayas from their backyard garden. The house was now fenced in on all sides by a row of Chinese bamboos, where venomous green snakes thrived whenever the groves had grown too thick. As my uncle preferred to keep his windows and doors wide open to the cool air, unfettered by aluminum screens to keep out mosquitoes at night and flies at daytime, his house became part of the natural landscape. It was visited freely by pythons and other snakes that were sometimes curled up in my cousin’s closet, resting under the couple’s matrimonial bed, or pausing under the dining table before they were picked up with a long stick and flicked over the bamboo fence to disappear into the trees.

Returning to the place just recently to see my aunt – now all of 80 years old and having outlived all her siblings despite her diabetes – only took some thirteen minutes by car. The entire stretch of the road is now paved with concrete, a telltale sign of progress. The once-collapsed wooden bridge over the river in Bacolòd has been replaced by a sturdy concrete structure, while the thick avenue of trees that once greeted the visitor upon arriving there has thinned significantly, with more houses now lining both sides of the road. Even the fireflies that once lighted up those trees at night are said to have markedly declined in number. The woods behind the school have thinned out as well, even as the huge acacia tree still stands like an old sentinel over the school grounds, which have seen better days.

But back in my aunt’s garden, the twin chico trees right by her backdoor are taller than they have ever been, and the cacao plants are once again heavy with fruit which my uncle will soon harvest. He will squash the fruits open with his bare hands to expose the seeds, let them dry in the sun, roast the seeds on a pan, reduce them to granules in a hand-driven grinder, sweeten them with some sugar, and shape them into balls of chocolate. Then he will plop these chocolate balls into a small pot of boiling water for his own homemade chocolate drink, and whip up a serving of sticky rice or pinakŭrŭ and dried fish or tuyô for good measure. This, to him, is pure heaven. Despite his blurring eyesight, he continues to fill the pages of his journal with every little thing that goes on around him and anything that piques his interest. His home, now frayed in many places, will remain his sanctuary until the end of his days and a half-way house for creatures on their way to everywhere.

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