by Angelo Allito
Sometime last month, I learned that a river can change its length. It can feel a whole lot longer, the riverside an endless road. Or it can be so much shorter, a few couple moments at most. And for the Pulangi, my dear Pulangi, the bloodstream that runs its course along Bukidnon and passes by an abandoned backyard in Valencia City, it was both the longest and the shortest riverside expedition I’ve ever embarked on. Sometime last month, I took a stroll back home.
Purok 13 is a small clump of mostly-wooden houses in the city of Valencia, one casually sitting next to the Pulangi. The purok stretches from the national highway down to the loamy riverbed, winding down like the river that has given it so much life and devastation. Up north is a Petron gas station next to some chapels that always seemed haunted. Go a little lower and you’ll find a parlor next to a creek, then a basketball court with hoops placed on trees. Head further south and it will start to smell. Breathe in the Pulangi’s distinct fragrance, the sugar burning from the ampaw factory that belched smoke every morning. A scent so sweet and alluring to the senses, one may even forget to breathe in the odor of sweat dripping down the faces of underpaid factory workers. Bask in this sorry scent and then walk a little longer, following the sound of the river’s stream. See how the buildings shrink smaller and smaller as you head further down, soon you’ll find a wooden house subdivided into three. Smile, you’ve finally made it home. Sometime last month, I made it home after three long years of academic burnouts and personal disappointments.
Five in the morning, the riverside felt new to me. Well, most of the riverside felt new. They called it the Pulangi Riverside Boulevard and it was only a few kilometers ahead. The old and untouched riverbed lay at my feet, the Pulangi still asleep beside me. I grew up on this dirt road, running and swimming and running again with all my now-distant friends. We were happy then. Now, the fragments of my happiness are still there, buried in the loam, inside the vintage pieces of trash floating by, and underneath Mother’s calm surface. For a couple of minutes, I stayed in the same spot on the old riverbed, not moving an inch and just taking it all in. From across the river was an unfamiliar sight, a backhoe parked near the water’s edge and a small wooden shed lit by what I thought was a candle. A quarry, the first image that my eyes captured on my return home was a quarry. Tragic. Back then, the other side looked like an endless field of tall grass, gently placed below the big rocks and boulders that formed the shape of a sleeping woman. Now that woman is nowhere to be found, she had already woken up after all these years, and in her place stood a shed. A lifeless shed and a backhoe. When will she come back? Growing tired of this image and feeling the wind start to grow a gentle bit warmer, I proceeded to take my stroll. I slowly walked along the riverside, my trail following the glow of the faraway lampposts on the Boulevard. From where I was walking, the lampposts shone like passionate fireflies, perfect imitations of the ones that used to illuminate the treetops that once stood tall right here on this very riverside
Pulangi is a lot longer now. I walked and walked, slowly before picking up an awkward pace. It’s a funny feeling, running along somewhere you’ve run across a thousand times before. I tried to keep my jog straight, with no pit stops or little detours to save me some energy and time. But when each tree and rock, each sight and site around you, is begging for you to rediscover them, you take your time in walking. I saw a familiar tree, a mango tree from long ago. It felt like uncovering a relic from sometime back, times when you could just lean into its kind bark with your stomach aching from all that unripe mangoes you ate. Good times. And I liked that feeling of uncovering, an act of our curious minds which I think we often set aside, afraid of what we can uncover or what we will feel once we uncover something. And this sensation of uncovering went on and on as I examined the mango tree and the familiar limestones that skipped so quickly across the river’s surface, looking at them and trying to imagine what they looked like before. It took me what felt like a lifetime to trudge down the riverside and I fell in love with every second I wasted there.
But the same river felt so much shorter at nearly six in the morning. I had already reached the new Pulangi Riverside Boulevard. The lamposts were now dim, outshined by the early sun. The river was also awake, flowing faster in all her exposed beauty. The steps of the Boulevard were set in smooth concrete, so fancy and polished in comparison to the wet loam stuck beneath my shoes. On its sides were railings and fences, with some folks leaning on the railings and jumping over fences. There were many people there with me, walking slowly and admiring the view. But unlike them, I noticed that my steps were the exact opposite of what they used to be when I was strolling down the bare loam. I found myself walking faster. Perhaps it was because of me not wanting to interact with the strangers around me, or maybe it was because of my unfamiliarity with this new structure. But deep down, I knew why that was. It was because I found no reason to pause, wander, and find myself in the image and memory of each lamppost, bench, or iron railing. And so, I just kept on walking.
I walked and walked, heading further along the concrete skin of the boulevard. My quick steps only came to a halt as I sat down to rest on one of the benches there, where I found myself on an island surrounded by lovers who were admiring the view of both the river and whatever they had. As I sat there, looking across the motherly river, my face and all our exposed faces were kissed by the early Bukidnon sun. A kiss that felt all too familiar, though also with a hint of being something new to me. After strolling along the river, one that was both long and short, I reached a place where I’d never been before. Well, that’s not entirely true. I’ve been here before, when there were still fireflies and sleeping stone women, when everything just felt right. Perhaps there were new things there for me to uncover.