Ever since my grandfather passed, my Lola has lived alone in their house in Bohol. She turned 79 last October, and the toll of the passing years is undeniable. The strong back is now crooked to an unimaginable angle, the healthy frame has been long undernourished that she can barely walk a mile, and the glowing eyes are now clouded with tears.
I have been traveling to the pristine island of Bohol more or less every year since I was two years old. Friends from Luzon always say they envy me when they hear that I am preparing to go there, and they usually scoff at my apathetic reaction to it. Little do they know that the Bohol I grew up knowing is a house surrounded with coconut trees and rice fields; it is a 150-meter walk away from the national highway, and there is cow poop everywhere.
Because of the wanderlust that I already had as a kid, I remember being really excited about going on a trip to visit my grandparents because it meant riding in airplanes and boats. But I also remember the dread of arriving at their house because it meant that there would be only three working channels on the telly, the Visayan news program would preempt the cartoons and telenovelas that I was faithfully following back home, I wouldn’t be allowed to turn the radio on at night because it would wake my grandparents—and, there being no faucets and running water, I would have to use a hand pump.
Many things were a struggle at my grandparents’ place. Taking a bath was an effort because you had to pump water, store it in pails, and lug these to the 1.5-meter-by-1-meter bathing area. Performing No. 2 was a battle because you could not do it the minute you felt like doing it. You had to pump water and carry the pail from the pump toward the toilet (10 meters away) before you could do your thing. Cooking was hard labor because you had to chop firewood and then endure the smoke while cooking. Going to the market was difficult because you had to cross rice fields and cow/chicken poop fields with tall grasses to get there, and the smells along the way were kind of funky, too.
But although staying there was more of an effort than going, I did look forward to some things that could only be found in my grandparents’ place. The first would have to be the food: I’d always request Lola to cook fresh squid adobo or the mouth-watering humba. Although we could always cook these dishes at home, Lola’s cooking would always be different. I do not know if it was the infused smell of smoke, the expertise that her years of cooking gave her, or the love that simply flowed out of her magic hands, but she’s got to be one of the greatest cooks in my life.
The second is the animal experiences that can only happen in a rural area. A young cow ran after me when I tried to get on his back for a ride. My Lola’s dog almost bit me when I tried to milk her; I got so curious at watching her eager puppies suckling that I wanted to know what dog’s milk tasted like. A swarm of bees flew down on me when I accidentally knocked over their hive while trying to find a comfortable place to read a Nancy Drew in the middle of the rice fields. I also remember the poor chickens that Lola would slaughter because her apo wanted chicken for lunch, and the cow who liked to lick salt off my hands.
I guess I was too young then to realize that the yearly vacations in Bohol had a deeper meaning in them than satisfying my wanderlust or my curiosities. Every year, when I arrived at my grandparents’ place, it always felt like I was trapped in time because the place I left a year ago would be the same place that I returned to a year later. The road, the rice fields, and the house were the way they were. The trees grew taller and a batch of new animals would appear, but practically everything else was the same.
The only obvious change that I saw was the deterioration of my grandparents. They grew old, much older than I did.
Eventually, the trips to Bohol became frequent and more critical. It probably comes with age, too, that I became less critical of the things that were not there. Two years ago, I had to fly to Bohol in the middle of work season because my grandfather had it really bad. It wasn’t necessary, but I just had to say goodbye one last time before he closed his eyes permanently.
A few days later, there was his funeral, and the stories about his passing being caused by losing the land he had worked on all his life to a wealthier businessman in their town. Then there was the year after his death, and just recently, the motorcycle accident that almost killed my aunt.
Lola was there through all of it. More than the back-breaking housework and farm activities, which she refuses to not do, she has endured all the pain, heartaches, joys and victories of the family. I had the privilege of spending Christmas Day with her last year. It sounded fancy when I told friends that I’d be spending Christmas in Bohol. But it is so far from being so. I do not have the usual photos and stories that my friends have from this famous province.
It was a surprise when I arrived on Christmas Eve: There was no party, there was just biko (a sticky and sweet rice cake) for Noche Buena, and there were only three of us (Lola, a cousin, and myself) in the big house. Spending Christmas and the dawn of the new year in her house was boring—and that was an understatement. But seeing the rare glow in Lola’s eyes when I arrived, seeing her pretending to hug my younger cousins through Skype on Christmas Eve, and seeing the years slowly being erased from her face when she laughed was priceless.
I have been in and out of Bohol for 22 years, but I still have to see and enjoy many of the province’s tourist destinations; I hear they are beautiful. But I know Bohol is beautiful because Lola’s there, and it is in Bohol that I learned what spending time with family is all about.
I may be spending more years missing out on the province’s other well-known beauties. But if missing out on them means spending more time with Lola, then I will grab it. God gave me only one like her. The place can wait, but her years will not.
Athena P. Lavega, 24, is an electrical engineer “in a place of naked servitude, shooting stars and flying carabaos.”