Sitting by the Yulung River, waiting for a late lunch of braised pumpkins and garlic at the Mountain River Retreat and watching the rafts of tourists floating lazily by, I was pricked to wakefulness by the approaching strains of a song coming from upstream. Fellow resident writer Roberto from Mexico had just joined me at the table and was studying the menu. I trained my eyes towards the source of the singing but couldn’t quickly make out which of the passing rafts carried the inspired boatman. Strong singing it was, and confident too. It was the first time I heard someone singing as he poled the raft he was on. Steering a raft forward with a bamboo pole was such a mechanical task that I thought anyone who did so should allow something human to escape from him—a grunt or a fart or a whistle perhaps—to liberate him at least from the mindlessness of gently rotating the pole. But I imagined too that some serenity of mind could be reached from the languor of the rhythm, propelling a vehicle that already has its own motion on moving waters.
It was a kind of serenity, however, that I was not able to achieve several days earlier when our boatman gamely handed the pole over to me to try out, a few minutes after we had moved out of the riverbank station ahead of the others in our group. Egged on by the student translator Wu Zixuan seated beside me, I took it with a smile. A walk in the park, I thought. The mental model I had was pole vaulting—planting the pole diagonally forward and pulling the raft with some effort from that point underwater the way a pole vaulter would use it to get forward momentum and hoist himself up. But after a few attempts at it, I knew I was not doing it right. The plain became obvious: the raft wasn’t flying up over a bar but was staying on the water. And on the water, with me struggling to steer it, the raft floated as aimlessly as if I wasn’t there. The other rafts kept a safe distance from us as they glided past. I could only look helplessly at the deep green color of the water that stayed the same each time I caught up with the pole I had thrust forward.
Stung by the raft’s rebuff of my efforts, I quickly came to terms with my uselessness and failure and handed the stick back to the boatman, who took it calmly and returned the smile on my face. I went back to my seat and was greeted by the quiet smile of Zixuan. I shrugged my shoulders and we laughed my valiant ineffectiveness off.
Then just as suddenly as ideas good and bad flash on the mind—this time as a lesson-learned epitaph to an unhappy experience—the secret of doing it right came to me: I should have planted the pole almost vertically nearest to where I stood, following the rhythm of rotation of lift and dip of both ends of the pole, and just helped the raft move forward of its own accord. I had strained eagerly and vigorously to pull forward something that was already moving forward but slowly. I used muscle when the whole chore was physically effortless—as I found out when I looked back at the boatman and paid attention finally to how he was handling the pole.
Armed with that insight, others would have stood up again and borrowed the pole to confirm the idea. Not me. I was happy, as is my wont, with the simple beauty of the idea—an idea evolved or transformed from one that had proved lesser in real terms. Happy with a new truth in my hand, I lost no time conversing with the boatman. And Zixuan and I learned from him the names of some mountains that surrounded the river like irregular lacy borders made by someone with El Greco eyes. He talked as well of his family, his never-enough income from poling, his relationship with the river. Rafts that went past us had only either conversations between the pair of tourists onboard or the cemented silence of a new tomb. He was quick to reply to my nosiness, and he poled our raft slowly, eager for the next question until we reached the terminal many words exchanged later.
At no other time did I hear music along the river—that is, until that moment some two hours past noon of a cloudless Sunday in October. When the raft bearing the song that seemed to have opened the river up to the sky passed by in front of us on the riverside, I saw the happy pride of the couple on it and the boatman, tall and dark, who was singing his heart out as naturally as bamboo culms growing by the riverbank curve down for a dip in the water. It appeared to me he was singing not for any extra tip he wanted to extract from his riders but from some inner urge to just express himself in song at that very hour. Perhaps only he would know what prompted him to do so. But it warmed the heart to see someone at work joyfully and, being so, gift others with an unexpected pleasure that was an addition to the bristling but unconscious beauty of living the moment. Cheer and attention were on the faces of the other customers on the bank. An old couple was even clapping for him. I saluted him, but he had his back turned to my side of the river as he passed. And he glided away into a bend in the river and slowly disappeared from view with his song whose words I know nothing about except for its strong Yulong river heart.
And that was when I turned finally to Roberto, who had finished telling his order to the waitress, and shared his awe at the scene we had all witnessed with a smile.
The first time, I thought I was hearing a copter ride for tourists who could afford it. It was a whirring choppy sound of a motor—typical of single-engine planes or helicopters—chugging along low in the wide blue sky. It was not unusual for me to hear it back home in Davao, and like a boy I almost always took the time to check it out and see if it was a lost civilian copter carrying a land investor, or a military one searching for a fugitive or enemy.
The copter sound came frequently throughout the day at the Blue Mountain Villa where we were billeted, and I wonder now why I didn’t make much of the fact that it came only from one side of the room—the northern part that faced the road. It wasn’t until I took a walk late one afternoon, when instead of retracing my steps by the Yulong riverbank I had circled back to the villa using the main road, that I discovered the small truth about the sound.
From a bend in the road behind me and not from the skies came the familiar chugging sound. But it was not a helicopter that emerged from the mountainside—it was an old type of pick-up truck that looked welded together in someone’s backyard. It had lost its entire front box and hood, exposing its ancient engine, fan belt, and crankshaft pulley in all their grimy and noisy but still serviceable glory. It was loaded with a pile of around a dozen rafts, on the topmost of which were rows of folding chairs and life rafts and lifesavers in Life Saver candy colors. The rafts extended out and forward of the truck menacingly, making the truck look very much like a medieval knight charging at you with a hundred lances. But they also looked, a blink later, like the pompadour hair of Elvis Presley and Little Richard. Pretty medieval rockabilly picture. The truck must have come from the dock by the highway bridge that marked the terminal station for the rafting tourists. It hauled the rafts there and brought these back to the starting point of the river rafting tour several kilometers away up the road I was walking on. End to end of start and finish was the old truck’s Sisyphean route. Root to crown and back. Alpha and omega.
It was a life cycle that was sounded out to me all day and through the early evening where I had shut myself in my room to write. The reminder was as pleasing to me as the startling sight of the truck moments ago. But at the same time, it also struck me that someone’s soft bed of yuans must be piling up higher than these beautiful mountains could care about.
And neither should I, saith the mountains with tiny colorful flowers at their feet by the roadside.
And so I walked on following the winding carefree ways of mountains, behind some of which—in the far horizon—the sun had gone and set its wild colors free on the stolidly receiving sky.
Poet and translator Ricardo M. de Ungria has published eight books of poetry and edited a number of anthologies, for which he won several National Book Awards. On a Fulbright Grant, he received his MFA in Creative Writing from Washington University in St. Louis. He has served as Chancellor of UP Mindanao (2001-07) and Commissioner for the Arts at the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (2009-11). He teaches writing at UP Mindanao in Davao.