12 Dec 2019

We had been bumping up and down the pot-holed dirt road in our old reconstructed jeep for some time when we approached a break where it became barely wide enough for our jeep to pass through. I looked at the steep embankment anxiously, wondering how the driver could have been so sure of his way, never slowing down, looking neither to his left nor right. As we progressed, however, my attention was drawn to a profusion of cosmos and adelfas now lining both sides of the road, a-bloom with yellow and pink flowers, bright against the cloudless sky.

The wide expanse of fish ponds accessed through narrow roads formed a panoramic grid against a background of coconut trees and high cogon grass. At the distance was a bungalow with several nipa thatch-roofed outbuildings. It sat at the back of a neat lawn, shaded by the trees surrounded by hibiscus flowers, with a couple of rattan hammocks facing one of the ponds. It looked cool and clean, and a refreshing sight after a day of dust and tropical heat.

It was my uncle’s “country” house, only some 20 minutes from his residence in town, but as it was situated in the estuary where it had the breeze from the river and the sea, it provided a peaceful retreat from the din of people going in and out of his house in the centre of town, from where he conducted his myriad businesses. I had heard, though, that in spite of the seeming tranquility which invariably greets every visitor, this place was far from a sanctuary. It was exposed and relatively isolated, and thus vulnerable to the pirates which regularly ply the South China Sea.

Moreover, it was already considered too remote to be serviced with water and electricity from the town. Whenever my uncle used it for himself or his friends—for he frequently entertained crowds of people there—he would have to use a small generator to supply the electricity and would have to call the town mayor to send a fire truck to fill up the water tanks. Needless to say, the mayor would have to be ready with his fire truck at short notice.

The property was fenced off by barbed wires approached through a wooden gate. As we came closer, I saw another jeep of slightly newer vintage waiting in front of the gate. A guard with a rifle casually slung over his shoulder was opening it. We followed the vehicle through the winding driveway leading to the front of the house. The main entrance faced the sea, but was nonetheless partly sheltered by a heavy growth of mangroves, purportedly kept in place for security reasons. Soon, I could see my uncle coming out of the bungalow to approach the first vehicle. I didn’t much remember him as I had left when I was a young girl.

Although I knew from my mother that he was older, he looked about 65, of medium build and rather tall for a Filipino. He had straight, neatly combed hair with black streaks still showing among the grey and white. His face was deeply tanned, possibly from years of spending a great deal of time outdoors. There was not an ounce of flab on him, and he still stood straight and confident, wearing a light t-shirt with a pistol casually pushed down his belt.

As he came closer, I could make out the delicate, regular features which ran in the family, relatively large eyes with the typical Mongoloid slant—for my mother’s family was ethnically of Chinese stock—a straight nose and well-proportioned mouth. Under different circumstances, it could have been the face of an artist. But his eyes had a hard stare, and his jaw was not so much wide as tightly set. Instead of crow’s feet or bags under his eyes, the skin on the upper part of his face was taut when compared to the lower part, as though he hadn’t moved them much in the course of his life. His age showed in the deep lines coming down from the sides of his nose almost reaching his chin, giving him an expression of a permanent scowl. Samson, or Sammy as my mother used to fondly call her kid brother, looked very much like a man in-charge. He didn’t shuffle his feet as most older people do, but he walked like one who was sure of himself. Followed by two younger men who kept their respectful distances, he abruptly stopped by the side of the first jeep, his arms akimbo. I could hear him talk to the other driver in short staccato sentences, again without a hint of the tentativeness of old age. As he listened to the driver’s response, he lifted his chin, locked his jaw, and pulled down the corners of his mouth. Quickly, he gave the necessary instructions before dismissing the driver with a wave of his hand as he sauntered to our vehicle.

He acknowledged my presence with a slight nod of his head and a hint of a smile which I took to be a greeting. Before I could respond, however, he had already diverted his attention to our driver, giving him instructions on where to park and how the other hands at the fishpond would take care of his needs. He then turned his back to face his two companions and resumed what was obviously an animated discussion interrupted by our arrival.

I followed as the other passengers alighted from the jeep, wondering what could possibly be expected from me after this strange encounter in this strange land.