The rule was to march in pairs, the better to keep safe from careening buses and sixteen-wheel trucks along the provincial highway. I found myself positioned beside him right at the front of the march. He bore on his shoulders the big flag that told the world what he and his group of farmers wanted; and on his ruddy and weatherbeaten face, a shy, thoughtful smile. Ambo, that was his name. Ka Ambo. The stretch of road from Balagtas to San Jose to Lipa was a long and dusty one, he warned. He looked at my puny Chuck Taylors and gave a good-natured snort. We both laughed.
He sang songs while walking. Sometimes I would join him; sometimes I would just listen. He sang along with the music from the escort-jeepney, the plaintive notes of “Buhay at Bukid” never slowing down the staccato in his step.
Then, all of a sudden, he stopped singing. He uttered, as though to no one in particular, “iiwanan na ako ng asawa ko.” I asked him to repeat what he said, and he did.
He then told me the story in detail. She is an OFW in Singapore, and he brought her to the airport only a few days before. Her contract had been renewed and the Singaporean employer had already sent the tickets. They had a big argument before she left.
“Hindi niya naiintindihan kung bakit ko ito ginagawa. Bakit hindi nalang ako sumama sa kanya sa Singapore, o di kaya mag OFW din sa anumang lugar. Siya nalang daw lagi nagtatrabaho. Ang pangkain ng anak namin ay sa kanya nanggagaling. Wala akong inaambag sa pamilya.”
And under the scorching heat of the 2pm sun, these words scorched more:
“Kailan daw ba ako susuko sa pakikipaglaban dito, at ipaglaban naman ang karapatan ng aming mga anak?”
“Ano ang sagot mo,” I asked.
The silence was long. He took a deep breath. “Ang sabi ko sasama pa din ako sa martsa, at itetext ko siya ng madalas.”
And then there was silence again. An awkward silence at first, as we both thought about those words and how grossly, abysmally inadequate they were to a wife who bathes other people’s children thousands of miles away and cannot understand why her husband has decided to make the walk from Batangas to Manila when he can get a headstart on the future by applying as a welder in Saudi Arabia.
He forced a joke: “kaso lagi ako walang load.”
And I a response: “minsan text, minsan email.”
We smiled and walked some more, this time marginally more jauntily. Him and me, side by side, walking in companionable silence. Sometimes, he would crack another joke and make me laugh. Sometimes, he would point something out, a famous Batangas landmark or a beaten road leading to another town. Sometimes, he would ask about developments in the case, and legal questions on their land claim. At one point, he said I reminded him of his sister, his favorite sister, who now works as a nurse abroad. Each time, I would respond, and we would have a pleasant and lighthearted exchange.
Mostly though, I was perfectly content just walking beside the man with the ruddy and weatherbeaten face, watching him as he waves the flag of their cause, taking on the long and dusty stretch of road from Balagtas to San Jose to Lipa to the rest of his life.