In mid-sentence, Arline suddenly crouches down on the ground, picks up a twig, and starts digging in the soil, “When I was a kid, we used to play with a kutong lupa,” she says, before I get a chance to question what she’s doing.
“Kutong lupa?” I repeat, thinking about the figurative term that Filipinos use to refer to a pesky, low-life person. But Arline, I realize, is referring to an actual insect, the larvae of an ant-lion.
After a while, Arline is back on her feet and reports that the insect is gone. We then continue our walk in a place that holds memories of her childhood. Whenever she remembers something she shares them with me, like the time she hurriedly climbs down a tree upon seeing a snake on a branch, how they used to descend the hill to this small falls for their bath time, and how she used to dig for sweet potato in their own front yard.
Listening to Arline’s childhood stories is one of the best things that I can remember from our two-day vacation in her hometown in Mambog, Cuenca, Batangas. Cuenca is only an hour and a half away from Manila but looks every bit like a province. Arline’s parents own 12,250 square meter of land at the foot of the hill, approximately 15 minutes away from the town proper.
The land is covered with trees, most of which are fruit-bearing. The place is off the beaten path, it takes about 3 to 5 minutes of walking to get to the rest of the village. At first glance, the house looks like a bahay kubo but a closer inspection reveals that it is merely designed to look like one. The ground is made of concrete covered in tiles, the walls are made of sawali and bamboo sticks, the roof is of galvanized iron sheets, but the ceiling is built with wood and coconut husks.
It’s my first own-of-town trip this year and it’s exactly how I pictured it; simple, refreshing, and quiet. Though it’s not my first time to go to a rural area, it’s the only time I’m able to truly experience the life in the province. My former travels are all about being a tourist; sightseeing, photographing tourist spots, island hopping, mountain climbing, and other adventures made for a day tripper. In my two days in Cuenca, I did none of those things, instead, I lived like a local. I’m up from the bed as early as 7AM and sit outside with a cup of kapeng barako. I watch the chickens go about their day, forever pecking something off the ground, I see the goats bleating as they hopped across the yard, I peek inside the coop that houses the chicks and the quails.
In the afternoon, Arline takes me for a tour around the neighborhood. We visit this chapel that doubles as a school for preschoolers, we pass by a group of young men playing basketball, and we walk through this grass-covered clearing where kids fly their kites. In the early part of the evening, I anticipate the clucking of a gecko, eat an early dinner with Arline’s family, and then go to bed as early 9PM.
I forget all thoughts of dieting and eat whatever they serve on the table. Arline introduces me to some of her favorites, such as putong puti and tamales. My most favorite though is the authentic Batangas lomi. Twice, we visit this lomi house nearby that serves what I consider to be the best lomi version I’ve ever had. Moreover, I’m able to enjoy freshly picked fruits from their yard.
The trip may be short, but it exceeds my every expectation. As a girl who is born and raised in the city, I didn’t have memories of watching fireflies, swimming in the river, picking and eating fruits from the trees, and running in the field. It’s a kind of childhood I can never have so I am more than grateful to Arline and her family for allowing me to have this experience.
And I miss it already, those mornings I sit in front of the house with a cup of coffee. It’s the best Holy Week in my memory.