Up North

Do you know what’s really annoying about Ilocos Sur? It’s long. Very, very long. Stupidly long, almost.

Now, it’s 11pm and we just pulled into the San Juan stop. We’ll end up in Sebay in another two maybe three-hours. A little more, then a little more still, and maybe just a little more after that, we’ll pull into Laoag, where Nay and Tats are gonna pick us up in a few hours. I think there are at least three other provinces we’ll pass through…perhaps a lot more than that. Again, Ilocos Sur is long. I’ve been on this trip more times than I can remember, and I still can’t quite recall all the areas I go through when I take this bus.

I shouldn’t be thinking out too loud. I might wake you up. God, I envy how you just go out like a light. You’ve been sleeping very soundly ever since we pulled into San Fernando. When you wake up, maybe I’ll say something about how lovely you look in the blue lights they put up when they notice people are sleeping. I can’t help but wonder though: why are they blue? I remember, back when we were still in high school, how you would often complain about your constant headaches.

“Blue light is the most harmful kind of light,” I’d say to you during our nightly Messenger voice calls as I scrolled through my Twitter feed. “I don’t quite remember why, but I think it’s something to do with how light waves work.”

“Yeah,” you grumbled at me, and I winced at the roughness in your voice, “I wish blue light didn’t work like that.”

Two weeks after that conversation, you sent me a picture of yourself, looking very grumpy, wearing a pair of glasses. I thought for a moment that you had finally gotten out of your wearing- glasses-to-correct-my-vision-is-gonna-make-me-look-like a nerd mindset… but they were only anti-radiation glasses. Even to this very day, you still refuse to wear vision-correcting glasses. Well, little do you know, my parents are friends with an optician in Santo Nicolas. I think I told you about her before, she’s my Tita Jace, the surfer lady who sent you a picture of Sammy, the little Pom you’re so smitten with. We’re gonna get a proper pair of glasses on you whether you like it or not!

Actually, she messaged me a few hours ago. Sammy is a proud momma now, she says. Maybe we can talk her into letting us adopt one of her pups?

Or… maybe I should sleep now. It’s not like I’m doing much except switching between looking out of the window and then back to you. I don’t really know why I look out of the window either; there’s nothing out there anyway, except for a few loiterers and a bunch of signs lit up.

They poke out of the dark this weird way, like they’re sprouting out of the sides of the buildings like the neon monstrosities they are. At least I can figure out where we are if I can read them.

Oh… we’re still in San Juan. Grr, this is what I mean when I say Ilocos Sur is too darn long.

Maybe I’m just impatient though. The entirety of this region is bigger than Qatar, where I grew up. The longest trip I ever took there was from my school in Mesaieed in the south, all the way up north to the school in Al-Khor. That trip took only an hour, maybe two, at the most. Compare that to the seven hours and counting we’ve been on the road.

Though, I suppose this is a standard affair for you. Your parents’ old Honda could barely go above 50 miles an hour, and you lived far away. We never really got to go on dates because your parents would whine about having to drive you all the way to Laguna, where I was. Everything changed when they hired a driver though, they’d complain about wasted gas money and time instead. Ironic, considering how they’d leave you alone to watch your younger brothers for days on end to attend religious retreats as far as Cebu.

That was even before they accused me of being malandi because someone saw us sitting together after school. Then they started saying, “We don’t want you leaving the house and meeting up with ‘that’ person.” Down the line, it became, “We don’t want you associating with people like her,” and then the bombshell that got you into a screaming match with your dad, “Why do you love her so much anyway, wala naman siyang itsura.” Remember when they told you to “Stop crying over a whore” when my WiFi was down for a whole week after the night we argued over whether or not one of your friends was trying to sabotage our relationship? Any satisfaction I might’ve felt from finding out I was right felt like nothing compared to the guilt after hearing you vent about how you thought I wasn’t going to come back.

“You always said we were a team, so when I couldn’t reach you… I started thinking maybe you quit.”

We never turned on our cameras during that call, but the thought of you on the other side of the screen, eyes dull, eyebrows furrowed—was enough to make me burst into tears. That made me realize there was more to us, y’know? We were barely three months into our relationship when that happened, but…oh.

Sorry, sorry. I’m tearing up again. I can’t help but think about how far we’ve come since then. It’s nothing short of a miracle that we even lasted this long. We used to spend hours on end whining about how badly we wanted to see each other through something more than our phones. And now here we are, holding hands just like we used to. It’s nice.

You’re nice.

Oh, we stopped over. Wait, we’re in Candon now? Goodness! I should save my energy and spare these people any thought.

Let’s see… well, I know the next stop is in Vigan. I know I’m probably going to sound really basic for saying this, but it’s really one of my favourite places in Ilocos. The first time I went there, I was ten. We stayed at the Villa Angela, a heritage house. Big place, it was. Guests had free roam of the place, and I’d do nothing but wander around that area. My favourite part was the bottom floor though, because that’s where breakfast was served. There was this long table under a pair of these large cloths hanging down from the ceiling. I wasn’t quite sure what they were for until we were seated and they started moving side to side! Nay later told me that those were the old-timey equivalent of electric fans. There’d be a rope attached somewhere and the attendants would tug on them to make them move. Then, after we ate, Tats took me around the place and he showed me more old-timey things. Goodness, they were so beautiful… there was this old piano, and a record player, and we even went down to the little side pantry they had on display. He laughed when I asked there was no refrigerator, too.

The only other time I was laughed at that hard was when we went to Tagaytay together; our first trip, remember? We went ziplining, and you nearly popped a lung wheezing at me while I screamed profanities and general nonsense. I barely remember what I was saying… but it was something about being so scared all our future generations would feel the same fear if they did something even remotely as dangerous as this.

By that time, we weren’t hiding our relationship from your parents anymore. Why would we need to, we reasoned? They disowned you, and you moved in with me during your first year of college. Inang, my grandma, was staying with me at the time. I still remember when you came in, she took your hands in hers and asked you, “kamusta ba biyahe mo, anak?” She was so happy too when we told her we were dating. Told me I chose good, and that she felt safe in the knowledge you had me. I miss her, even if it’s been two years since she… ah, I’d rather not think of it. I know she’d be chuffed to see us here, though.

Hm? I felt your hand tense around mine. I hope you’re not dreaming of anything bad. I know you don’t want me to worry, but I still see and hear things happening in the background. Your kuya Juno and Floren are working to keep you hidden from your parents: they’re going as far to give them fake addresses to keep us hidden. I shouldn’t’ve read those messages in the first place, but now I better understand why you had me delete that Instagram picture I posted on your birthday. You should’ve told me though, you know I would’ve understood. I’m glad you decided to come with me instead of trying to survive through another one of those disastrous yelling matches you call “Christmas family dinner.” Who knows, maybe this is what you need to pull your grades back up? If we had it our way, you wouldn’t be stuck in an accounting degree. I digress though.

It’s barely four in the morning, I finally got a good look at the clock up front. We just entered Vigan. In another thirty minutes, we’ll probably be at the bus station. The stopover always lasts fifteen minutes, and then after that we’ll be off again. When the bus pulls into the Laoag station around two hours later, our first order of business will be to visit the nearby McDonald’s. We’ll get coffee, and hash browns if we can afford them. I dunno what you’ll be in the mood for by then, but I’m gonna order that Sausage Platter…I need some rice in me, nevermind the fact the damn meat isn’t actually sausage. We’ll sit in the booth tucked into the corner, hidden from everyone else. Plenty of space too, so we won’t be squeezed in like we are now. We can stretch out, and we won’t have to worry about the pasalubong from civilization taking up our leg space. Fingers crossed that the bottle of truffle oil we found at SM didn’t break, or that the tawilis that Nay likes so much hasn’t gone rancid. The Maltesers are probably long melted, but we can stick those in the freezer when we arrive at Adams. We’ll have to wait three hours before they can come and fetch us though, and they’ll probably arrive by noon. Maybe we’ll have lunch at the Hap-Chan in the nearby Robinsons mall before we go grocery shopping, since that’s the default family bonding activity for us.

Once we’re done, we’ll have to settle in and make the rest of the trip up north to Adams, where the farm is. I wonder what we’ll do there once we’re settled in, hm? There are nineteen documented waterfalls there,wouldn’t it be nice if we could hike to one of those? They’re a popular tourist spot, which says a lot for the sleepy little barely-province that Adams is. There’s also the old hanging bridge, Lovers’ Peak, and the viewdeck. Or maybe you’d prefer to just stay in? Well, it’s the Ber months now and it can get pretty cold there, so I wouldn’t mind that either. I suppose we’ll know when we get there, hmm?

Getting there… isn’t that what life is? A road? Multiple stopovers, the occasional flat tire… traffic? Where is “there” anyway? I’ve always been the “wherever life leads” kinda gal, so I’ve never really thought about most of the stuff I’m thinking of now. Should it even matter in the first place? Well, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it does?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that I’m with you, and maybe that’s all I should be thinking about.

Laya Rebustillo

A recent high school grad, Laya plans to fill her gap year with clay sculptures, homebaked goods…and writing, of course! If you can’t find her hunched over her laptop retyping those three sentences for the tenth time, you’ll probably find her in the lush hunting grounds of Robinsons Supermarket or Daiso.

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