I remember more than 6 years ago, I was very excited when I learned that I got the job at a government agency here in Negros Occidental. Even more exciting was the fact that I have to relocate to Bacolod from Iloilo. My job entails me to do a lot of field work assisting farmers’ cooperatives. I grew up in a farm so that won’t be hard. I was so naive to think that sugarcane farming would not be any different to rice farming.
There’s this unforgettable experience I had when we visited a cooperative in Sitio Patag Diotay in Guimbala-on, Silay City. We don’t usually use the office vehicle during field work, unless we are ready to push every time it got stalled. The area is far from the city proper so I went with a partner NGO for transportation and also for my safety since we have to stay overnight in order to get the data we needed. There were three of us, the NGO’s Executive Director, his Agriculture Technician and myself.
The place is located in the upland area of Silay City and the dirt road still passable to vehicles does not yet reach the place we’re going to so we have to walk several kilometers. It was my first time to visit the area and I was excited. I know my companions could have walked faster if I was not with them. I took a lot of rests since I’m not used to walking that far and the terrain has rolling hills thus the hike was more difficult. Even though I’m tired I can’t help but admire the breathtaking scenery. My companions pointed a mountain nearby and they said that’s where Patag is.
There’s no electricity yet in the village but I saw a basketball court turned into a bailehan along the way. Houses are hills apart so I asked my companions who would go there to dance. They told me I’d be surprised at the number of people who would turn up at these events. News of a baile can reach several villages away.
We reached the coop Chairman’s house way past lunchtime. We brought some rice and fish so the couple no longer have to worry for our food. The couple were nice and very apologetic to the state of their house. No need to worry, I said. I wasn’t born rich I can sleep on a mat quite easily. I am already very hungry but I tried very hard not to show it.
I learned from Mr. Chairman that his grandparents were from Antique. They came to Negros to work in sugarcane plantations. Mr. Chairman was born in Negros and he has never set foot in Antique and never met their relatives there. Unfortunately, the NGO’s Executive Director has to return to Bacolod with the vehicle, leaving his staff and me after our lunch.
I interviewed Mr. Chairman and some of the coop officers. Most of them are beneficiaries of the Agrarian Reform Program and their only source of income is their farm. Off-season was really a challenge since work is scarce and some go to the city to find contractual jobs. Do the children go to school? Yes, school is several kilometers away and some kids had to leave their house at 4 am in order to attend class at 7am. Classes end earlier than regular to let the children in far flung areas go home early. I wonder if the children weren’t too tired to study after all the walking they do everyday.
We visited some of the coop memebers’ farms. The partner NGO introduced organic farming technologies to them and gave carabaos to the coop. Politics has already shown its ugly face even in this small cooperative. Trouble was brewing among the members as to who should get the next carabao and who gets the sales from the communal farm. I’m observing and absorbing all the inforamtion I can get. Whatever assistance we can give will depend on their needs.
We prepared to leave the next morning and I washed my face, changed into clean clothes and did not take a bath. I do not want to bother my host to fetch water for me and I’m not prepared to take a bath by the river. I would not die of it anyway. This little discomfort I’m prepared but the walk back to the main road, I’m not.
It seems we’ve been walking for hours. I was having trouble keeping pace with my companion but everytime he asked how I was, I would always reply I’m ok. I don’t want to be a bother and the faster we get home, the better. At last, we reached the main road aftar about two hours walk but there were no jeepneys on sight. We walked towards where there are houses and waited at a sari-sari store.
At last, a private pick-up passed by and we signaled to hitch a ride. There were only two passengers. I recognized the face of the one driving the pick-up but couldn’t remember his name so I did not hesitate in boarding the vehicle. My companion sat at the back of the pick-up while I sat at the backseat where I have to move some stuff to find space. I prayed I do not smell as bad as I feel.
I learned that the good samaritans were installing solar panels at a hacienda near the dead end of the main road. The one driving was an engineer from a company selling solar panels and the passenger was the owner of the hacienda. I now remember the driver from his visit to the previous agency I worked with. From their line of questioning I gathered they thought of us as some kind of leftist organizing the folks at the area. So I told them where I worked and the reason why we’re there. It was kind of them to have stopped for us despite what they thought of our identity.
Mr. Hacendero was kind enough to take us to his home in Silay City for some cold drinks and snacks. My companion did not go with us but I really needed something to eat so I went with the good samaritans. We talked for a while mostly about sugarcane, his family and some politics. He gave me his card and told me to contact him should we have projects that can help their sugarcane workers. Mr. Engineer dropped me off at the apartment I’m sharing with a friend since he also lives in Bacolod.
I have never been that happy to take a bath. When my housemate came home early evening from the hospital (she’s a second courser nursing student), she found me on the sofa, already snoring. She asked me how I was since she noticed I was too tired to get up and go to bed. I replied, I climbed several mountains and I don’t think I can walk again. I was joking of course. After a few days, my right thumb toenail got purplish in color. It died from having uncomfortably squeezed in my rubber shoes from all the hike I did.
Mr. Hacendero may not remember me but I will always remember him with respect. I met Mr. Engineer in few occasions after but I don’t hink he remembered me. I must have looked so bad after several hours of walking under the heat of the sun.
I never went back to the cooperative. The reason of which I have also discussed with our partner NGO. Our assistance is not what they need yet and I am not going to give them false hopes. They need help in order to be the best farmers they can be. They need assistance to be productive in their farms. They also need the basic social services from the government. They don’t need to be confused and told that they can be involved in business and become successful like the hacenderos. Not now, but probably someday.