Revisiting MacArthur Highway
By Virginia Jasmin Pasalo
FOR three weeks now, I made the distance from my urban dwelling to our ancestral house in Palacpalac. The quinine tree has grown taller and wider at the base, and local tales about it grew more fantastic, with a “bantay” (elemental) protecting its existence. All the trees in the backyard I used to climb had grown branches so high I could no longer reach. I tried and made it halfway through the lower limbs, but will not attempt again, per advice of a friend whose counsel I value, “Don’t tempt the mischievous shadows attached to the tree.”
Going back to Quezon City has become problematic for commuters because all the buses are taking the Tarlac–Pangasinan–La Union Expressway (TPLEX), an 88.85-kilometer four-lane expressway, built almost simultaneously with the road-widening project of MacArthur Highway that infamously massacred old trees to expand the capacity to accommodate the projected “increase of vehicles”. The environmentalists were right, there was no need to expand the MacArthur Highway which required the cutting of the trees. The TPLEX, as argued, had drawn most of the traffic anticipated. But the budget has to be spent, as it was already allocated, and the trees, 1,849 old trees, were felled.
Commuters bound for Manila had to wait for hours to get a ride under the scorching heat of the sun. As there were so few, they were almost full at some point, and one could be accommodated only if she is willing to sit on small stools placed on the aisles, or if her legs were strong enough to stand up all the way to the final destination. Most of the buses passing were bound for Carmen, Tarlac, Isabela, Tuguegarao, and some other destinations I was unfamiliar with before the expansion of the road. Three times, I had to take a bus to Dagupan, and my sister had to go to Baguio, to get a ride back to Metro Manila.
Speeding vehicles are the norm, and the rate of accidents in the area had increased since then, as the expanded portion were also used to overtake less-speeding vehicles. Some residents had claimed back the spaces in front of their houses, and used them as parking spaces, or to pile sand and dry palay (rice grains). The old sidewalks were gone, and commuters face the risk of being sideswiped while standing to wait for buses, as they can only stand on the expanded road, where vehicles were given the “right” to pass. Others also drive on the opposite direction using the expanded road, so that a commuter had to be aware on all sides. Twice, while signaling for a bus ride, a bicycle suddenly sped from behind. I could have been hit if I moved an inch backward.
These are inconveniences commuters face in their “waiting” lives. They would have been more bearable if they waited under the canopy of old trees.
On some nights/ a whisper comes/ and my heart beats fast/ faster than the clip-clops of galloping wild horses/ on an old road/ to the farm/ of a medicine man/ where leaves are warmed by oils/ and eggs stand on their steepest end/ needles in protest.
An old road paved with jasmines/ where lovers stroll in the moonlight/ on some nights/ paved with blood/ of wild horses escaping captivity/ and drunk men kissing bottles/ escaping pain/ embracing the speed of flying buses/ blown by the liberating wind/ with the scent of flowers.
The road is hungry/ it has eaten the sidewalk/ as it was thirsty/ it gulped the blood/ of young children/ old women/ crossing the extended distance/ once crossed with a few strides.
The jasmines are gone/ the horses too/ the canopy of trees/ are but a shadow.
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