(Written 6 January 2010)

It’s Lilo’s third trip to Baguio, the second one that she can remember.  It’s her first trip without her Ate Belinda, who would follow a day later with Lilo’s grandparents.  On this road trip I’m the babysitter.

We left the house at 8am, making good time on the SCTEX (Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway).  A few weeks earlier there had been a multi-car pileup on this fast stretch of road, caused by the smoke of a brush fire obscuring driver visibility.  We took it easy, not exceeding 100kph.  It was a bright, sunny day with clear skies.  We were congratulating ourselves that Lilo had gone to the toilet at the rest stop at the Shell gas station and was unlikely to want to pee for the next few hours.

“Where’s Baguio, is it near?”  Lilo said.  “Are we near now?” she’d ask, every five minutes.  “It’s far, honey,” Joy would say.  We’ll get there after lunch.”  “But why after lunch?” Lilo would say, “Why not in a few minutes?”  “Because we’re still in the car, sweetie.  We’re still riding to get there.  Riding in the car on the way to Baguio will take us about five or six hours.  So that means we’ll get there after lunch.” Tristan very patiently explained.  At four years old, Lilo doesn’t really have a concrete concept of time and its measurement yet. The easiest way to explain travel time would be in terms of meal times.

“But why?”  Yes, she is at that age where every question has a “why” in it.  At times the conversation would get circular, but that’s how road trip conversations with young children go.  When Tristan ran out of answers, he’d say, “Auntie!  Help!”  That’s what aunties are for, it seems, to distract the little ones and keep them in a good humor.  I try to take my role seriously.

“You know what, Lilo? When mommy and I were little girls going up to Baguio, we used to have this game.  We’d count cars!  Mommy would count red cars and I would count blue cars the moment we passed the first toll gate.  The toll gate is that place where we get the road ticket, remember?  Anyway, the first person with the most number of cars counted by the time we reached Baguio would be the winner.”  Lilo looked suitably impressed, but then she can’t count up to a hundred yet without losing her place several times.  You’d have to count with her.  Before she got in another “why” in the conversation, I quickly added, “If we got tired of counting cars, we counted churches instead, because there’s a church in every town and city along the highway.”  These were Iglesia ni Cristo churches, with their gothic spires, very easy to pick out in a bucolic landscape.  “And – oh, look!  White birds in the ricefield!  They’re called herons.”

Occasionally Tristan would say, “Champion auntie!”  Joy was coughing and had a sore throat since the New Year and wanted to conserve her voice, so she let me do most of the storytelling.  At the Tarlac City exit Joy and I switched seats, so she could navigate while Tristan drove.  We also removed Lilo from her car seat, which she was about to outgrow.  She was ready for a regular seatbelt.  On either side of her was Uling (“charcoal”) the toy cat, and Browster (we don’t know where she got that name) the fat yellow pillow cat.

We were driving by ricefields, which, several months earlier, had totally been drowned by typhoons Ondoy (Ketsana) and Pepeng (Parma).  That was an entire harvest lost.  “Where’s the rice?  Isn’t that grass?”  Lilo asked.  She knew rice was a soft white grain, but had no idea what plant it came from.  “Rice is a kind of grass, Lilo.  The plants those men and women are planting is a young rice plant.  When it grows bigger it will bear seeds.  When the seeds are dry and brown ready to be harvested, the farmers cut the seeds from the plant.  See the black nets on the side of the road?  That’s where the farmers put the brown seeds to dry.  Then they take the seeds and pound them and polish them to remove the brown skin and that’s how you get the white rice.”  Auntie’s note to self:  When we get home, try looking for “palay” so Lilo can recognize the rice with the brown husks on.

I took her little hand and put it between my hands, and said, “The white rice is inside the brown husk.  Your hand is the rice, and my hands are the husk.  When the farmer pounds the rice, the husk comes off,” I said, removing my hands and raising up her little hand, “then what is left is the rice grain!”  She loved that part.  She made me do it over and over, until she saw haystacks for the first time, and some white cows, and THEN she wanted to sleep.

I made sure her seatbelt was secure, and she fell asleep on Browster the pillow cat shortly.  In fact, she fell asleep somewhere in Cuyapo, Nueva Ecija and woke up when we were in Binalonan, Pangasinan.  Peace and quiet!  Fortunately we were near a town plaza when she announced she wanted to pee.  Joy and I quickly dressed her in pull-up diapers, cleaned her up and dressed her again with military precision.  Tristan disposed of the diaper in a trash can at a nearby store.  In the back of my mind I remembered when we were little, and had to stop on the side of the highway by a ricefield to pee behind a malong (printed cotton tube skirt) our mother used as a privacy screen.  On all other road trips after that we learned not to drink too much water and to tell our dad we wanted to pee at the next gas station.  In those days gas stations were not as conveniently located as they are now.  We learned how to be roadworthy pretty quickly.

Around 1pm we arrived in Rosario, La Union.  Lilo was hungry, and wanted noodles.  Fortunately, there was a Chow King near the Shell gas station, where she wolfed down her bowl of beef noodle soup. Then she started her “why” questions again.  Tristan said, “Let’s play a game!  The first one who says the word why will have to give up a scoop of her ice cream to all the other members of the family! So you’re not supposed to say the word why, ok?”  She nodded, challenged.  Fifteen minutes later, she forgot she was still playing the game and said, “Why aren’t we in Baguio yet?”  We all laughed, and she got mad and said, “I don’t want you to eat all of my ice cream!”  Then she started to cry, so we had to cancel THAT game. Well, she lasted all of 15 minutes without asking “why”.  It was a record on this drive.

Then she asked where Baguio was.  “It’s a city in the mountains where your grandpa grew up, sweetheart. You remember the first time you rode a horse?  That’s where Baguio is.  We went there last year with your cousins.”  That, she remembered. Tristan thought he’d try a game again. “Ok!  Let’s play another game!  The person who says the word Baguio will lose!”  This time Lilo kept asking me where we were going.  I realized she was trying to get me to say the word “Baguio”! Sneaky little thing.  This time she lasted for 30 minutes, before blurting out, “When are we getting to Baguio?”  But this time she realized we really didn’t want to get all her ice cream, we just wanted to see if she could keep her mind on the game.  So she covered her mouth in surprise and started laughing.

We got to our hotel around 230pm.  Everyone was tired from the long drive.  She saw all the cars and jeeps and traffic.  I suddenly saw Baguio through her eyes.  If it weren’t for the pine trees and the cold weather, it would be just like any crowded city in Metro Manila. When we were growing up, going to Baguio was a special, magical trip.  So many things to do, to eat, to see, while bundled up in a thick jacket!  It was almost like travelling to a different country!

She looked at us and said, “Ok, that was fun.  Now let’s go back home!”

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