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The Hitchhiker who Gets on at the Zigzag in Cuenca Batangas

The stretch of road leading to Cuenca that people refer to offhandedly as “paliko” or “zigzag.”
The stretch of road leading to Cuenca that people refer to offhandedly as “paliko” or “zigzag.”
There was this one time in the late seventies when I was still in college when the parting words of the conductor of the BLTBCo bus that I took on the way home one weekend was, “Nakilala mo kami tuloy…” No, it did not get to the point that I formally introduced myself to the driver and the conductor. But because I was the only passenger left, and I had positioned myself right behind the driver, it was inevitable that I got involved in their conversation.

It was a strange trip, this; particularly for a weekend. There must have been only 30 or so passengers when the bus left the Pasay terminal. There was this unwritten rule that if you were bound only for Alabang, you did not take the provincial buses. Thus, the nearest that passengers got off was when the buses left the SLEX at the Canlubang exit and headed for the stop at Mayapâ in Calambâ.

Then, there were the stops in Sto. Tomas, Tanauan, Malvar and, finally, Lipa before the buses headed on to either Batangas City or Lemery. Of course, there were always passengers who asked the drivers to stop right in front of homes conveniently built roadside.

For this particular trip, after disembarkation at the Tanauan stop, there were less than a dozen passengers left on the bus. After Lipa, I was the only one left. That was when the conductor turned to me to verify my destination. They had excellent recall capabilities, these bus conductors of the old days. Even with a bus full of passengers, a few of them had this strange ability to remember where each and every one was headed.

As soon as the conductor was able to confirm that I would not be riding all the way to Lemery with them, he gave the driver a wry smile and warned, “Mamatyag-matyagan mo ang rearview mirror…”

The driver smiled knowingly, and left it to the conductor to explain. According to the latter, there were a few drivers of the same company who dreaded driving along the palikô road at the foot of Maculot on the way to the Municipality of Cuenca in the dead of the night if there were many rows of vacant seats at the back of the bus.

For those not from these parts, there is this folklore regarding the palikô not dissimilar to the stories of Baletê Road in Manila or Loakan in Baguio. The folklore has had it for the longest time that an uninvited hitchhiker may suddenly board along this stretch of road from out of nowhere especially if the trip is in the dead of the night – yes, without you having to stop to pick the hitchhiker up.

This, I immediately knew, was what the conductor was trying to tell me. Some drivers, the conductor related, had seen this strange pasahero seated at the back of their buses through their rear-view mirrors. They just seemed to have appeared from out of nowhere. When the conductors were asked to check, there would – naturally – be nobody there.

I just listened to the conductor, of course. That was all it was to me – folklore. Albeit, both the conductor and the driver were convinced that what their colleagues experienced were all for real. From what I could surmise from the conductor’s story, the hitchhiker frequently got on just as the bus passed this waiting shed going into the palikô; then got off when it got to the other waiting shed at the end of the zigzag.

There are a few theories about the mysterious hitchhiker. Some say it is a white lady. Who knows what white ladies are and why they choose to be where they are frequently said to be seen? At the palikô, I reckon it is because it is an unpopulated stretch of the road and that the quiet is perfect for building ghostly abodes. Why the hitchhiker even has to get on a vehicle to get from point A to point B – when it has no apparent physical body and can manifest itself only in the briefest of moments – you will have to ask it when you drive along that stretch yourself and it decides you are too lonely to drive alone.

There are also those who say the hitchhiker is none other than Mariang Pula, a lovely diwatâ with long flowing hair and appointed guardian of the Maculot. Just as Mariang Makiling is guardian of this dormant volcano in Laguna, Mariang Pula is supposed to be the protector of this mountain that overlooks Taal Lake.

I could have made the rest of the trip a little easier for both the driver and conductor by theorizing that their tired colleagues were probably “just seeing things.” On the other hand, stories about the palikô do emanate from not only jaded bus drivers with lively imaginations.

I personally know somebody, for instance, who drove along that stretch of road with friends in a jeep one time long ago to attend some affair in Cuenca. There were four of them inside the jeep; two were seated in front and the other two were at the back. Midway through, the small jeep suddenly felt heavier, like it had taken on an additional passenger.

“Bumigat ‘ata,” somebody nervously tried to make light of the situation. There was nervous laughter in response. One of the four gentlemen was sutil, and said to whoever that unknown passenger might have been, “Kung tunay ka ngang nakikisunô, patugtugin mo ngâ ang radyo…”

So the jeep’s FM radio suddenly came to life without anyone ostensibly touching it. I believe the rest of the drive was spent in nervous silence.

I have no way, of course, of knowing whether that story really happened or if it was a mere tall tale of four gentlemen who had had just a wee bit too much to drink before they went on their way. I myself have only passed that stretch of road but once in recent times in the dead of the night. We attended an employees’ dinner and had to take some of them home to as far as Cuenca. The ride there was no problem. There were many of us still in the van and nobody even mentioned anything about the hitchhiker.

On the way back to Lipa, however, there were just three of us seated at the front of the van. And nobody dared to look behind us while we drove past the palikô

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