The bench

While most lowland tourists pick the best places to have their pictures taken, I heave a sigh as I sit on a bench overlooking the mountains. I take a deep breath, sucking in like vacuum all the pine-scented air I could gather. Ah, Baguio. The last time I've been here was four years ago, but the city still evokes the same age-old feelings--of contemplation, of peace, of serenity.

Alone and with no one else to talk to, I flip through the pages of a book I had brought with me. Better catch up on my reading before classes start again, I tell myself. Then I find that it's hard to concentrate because the words in my head are drowned in the innocent laughter of children playing nearby and the uncontrollable chatter of friends reunited after all these years. So I set the book aside for later. For a while I pause, look around, and stand amazed at the beauty of God's creation.

The cold is already making me drowsy when an old lady, probably in her late sixties, asks me, "Is there someone sitting here?" referring to the vacant part of the bench.

"Oh, that's vacant. Do have a seat, Ma'am."

"Is there anybody with you?" she asks and I say no, not for the meantime because they've all left to buy pasalubongs in the nearby stores. She tells me how the city has changed throughout all these years. "There used to be fewer people and no traffic." I learn that she and her husband both hail from Iloilo and Bacolod, but that they've been living in Manila for years. I tell her we have many relatives in that part of Panay. She asks me what my family name is, and I say, "Catedral."

"Catedral--yes, I had a classmate once--but I'm afraid I can't remember his name anymore. Pedro Catedral, I think," she says, and I tell her he must be a distant relative. From then on, we begin talking in Ilonggo, the sweetest language ever to be spoken in the face of the earth. There and then I realize that she sounds just like my Lola.

Minutes later, an old man wearing a cap, polo, and black slacks, approaches the bench where we sit. "I get dizzy with all the walking, and there's just a lot of people," she tells him. Her husband is a lawyer who has come all the way here to meet with a client for consultation. I tell him to have a sit, but he says, no thank you.

"Are you still studying?" he asks me.

"Yes," I say, "molecular biology."

"You want to be a doctor?"

"Yes, I'm praying for that."

"Our daughter's a doctor now. You really should study hard. All your efforts will pay off in the end." They beam with pride as they tell me this.

"How about you? Do you have a girlfriend?" he asks me.

Dumbfounded, I meekly reply, "No, sir. I'll have to finish schooling first before that." They smile at me.

With the topic of romance at hand, the old lady was quick to tell me that when she was young, she didn't want to marry a lawyer because lawyers are the last persons she'd want to argue with. Upon hearing this, he breaks in a hearty laughter, and we all join in seconds later.

Minutes later, my aunt, cousins and my brother arrive. I introduce my family to them, and they politely greet each other. The old man and my brother talk about law--he gives manong pieces of advice, mainly to take schooling seriosly, especially now that he's on his sophomore year. Auntie Net talks to the old lady: how Baguio has changed, about the last time she had visited Iloilo, and if Manny Pacquiao has a good chance of winning in the elections.

The midday sun is just on its way to its throne at the center of the sky when we all say our goodbyes, but the heat is not obtrusive nor irritating, but heartwarming and cozy. They're on their way to eat lunch with a client, while we buy snacks to take with us as we go home. This is why I like Baguio: you can meet complete strangers without the feeling that they might just be the cellphone snatchers everyone is talking about.

I walk past the clean alleys, with the cold breeze caressing my cheeks. In my mind, the question lingers, "When will I be back again?"

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