by Callan Bentley
In June and July of 2001, I traveled to the Philippine islands, of Southeast Asia. This was my first summer of being a teacher, and this trip was the main thing I was doing with my summer off. I live in the District of Columbia, and do not own a car. I took the subway to the airport. Everyone else on the Metro train that day was a commuter, on their way to Thursday at the office. I stepped aboard with a tiny backpack, on my way to a jungled archipelago, on my way to the Philippine Islands. The backpack wasnt actually that tiny, it was a decent-sized daypack, but it seemed tiny in my mind because I knew that that one small pack alone was the sum total of my luggage. Gone for a month to Southeast Asia, and all I took would fit in a small pillowcase. I had never packed this light before, and I hoped that it would be enough. The Metro took me to National, where I took a Northwest flight, through their hub in Detroit, and then up and over the frozen territories of Canada. Looking out the window of the plane, I saw glaciers spreading out from a Yukon mountaintop like tentacles from an immense icy octopus. There were two wizened Japanese women who also wanted to look out the window. We had to share a window; all the other passengers had obeyed the flight attendants?edict to draw down the window blinds (so that the crappy in-flight movie would be more visible to everyone). We were stuck like junkies, taking visual hits off the small half-open porthole in the rear emergency exit door, pitiful addicts of the landscape below. These ancient Japanese women and I were not actually talking, but gesturing and repeating the few words we had in common that could describe the scene we were seeing below. Snow, one of them kept saying to me. She had wrinkles that stretched back from the corners of her eyes into her graying hair. Snow. Her companion asked me Where? I ventured to guess, Alaska, maybe. I shrugged my shoulders and smiled. The first one smiled back and said to me again, Snow.
There was a layover in Nagoya, Japan, and I strained to see Mount Fuji as we landed and took off again. The sun set again after we left Japan, and the plane landed in Manila well into the night. Stepping off the plane after a long flight is a terrific relief. Entering the airport (named after Filipino patriot Ninoy Aquino, who was assassinated on its own very runway), I began taking in the new country, began making impressions. I was amused to notice industrial-sized bug zappers in the departure lounge for international flights. My flight arrived at 11pm, and no one else was waiting in the area. The blue glow surged and crackled as it electrocuted mosquitoes. There was a prominent sign that welcomed back Filipino nationals who had been working abroad. Apparently this is a prominent source of income for the country. They have a robust national program to match up eligible workers with employment outside the Philippines. I cleared customs without a hitch, and turned over the form that declared in red ink, WARNING DEATH TO DRUG TRAFFICKERS UNDER PHILIPPINE LAW. A dire threat, it seemed to me, even though all I was guilty of ìtrafficking?were cassette tapes and a pair of binoculars. I changed a little money, and then stepped outside to find Noah.
Background about Noah
The man I was going to visit was my friend Noah Jackson, a compadre from my days of working in California as an outdoor educator. Noah was the sterling example of a workhorse on our staff. His roots in New Hampshire and Maine have imbued him with a sturdy dose of the Puritan work ethic. On more than one occasion, he inspired us all by continuing to do his job even when sick and laryngitic. Noah takes his moral sense of duty and ecological responsibility to new lengths. He works incredibly hard, putting lazier naturalists on my staff to shame. Noah was our collective exemplar of generosity and creativity. He had a blossoming romance with another staffer, Kara, at the same time that I was falling for another, Scarlett. I remember, the four of us went to Death Valley one weekend, and had a terrific adventure among the arid wastes, the canyons, Badwater, and the empty streambeds. We dipped our arms into a hypersaline pool in the Devils Golf Course, and came away with crystals of salt studded from fingertips to elbows. Another weekend, we drove to Big Sur. I had been training for months to run the Big Sur Marathon, a tortuous and beautiful 26-mile run along Californias Route 1. Noah joined me with a few days notice, signed up for the race when we arrived, and ended up winning his age category for the entire race! He beat my arduously-trained-for time by a good 45 minutes. This is not your average human being. This is Superman.
There was a mild thunderstorm in Manila when I stepped out of the airport. Noah was there, precisely where he said he would be. We walked out of the airport parking lot in the drizzle, and hailed a cab. The ride was lengthy due to intense traffic on Roxas Boulevard, the main road north along Manila Bay.
We arrived at the Pension Natividad, a great lodging that would become my home away from home in Manila. The Pension is situated a block away from the Bay, in the shadow of an immense high rise, the Diamond Hotel. On the other side is a raucous karaoke bar. It is situated on the boundary between the neighborhoods of Ermita and Malate, both relatively well off and directed towards tourism and merchandise. Out in front of its cement wall, the Pension advertises Clean Guest Rooms for Individuals, Married Couples, and Families. It is made of concrete and stucco, with bars over the windows. It was at the Pension that I was first shown what a Catholic culture prevails in the Philippines. Tile portraits of Jesus and the Virgin Mary beamed benevolently at Pension guests. Each of the religious figures were fitted with a Sacred Heart which was startlingly anatomically accurate, and spouting flame like a Zippo, to boot.
The damp Philippine air penetrates most buildings, as they lack the climate control that pervades Western architecture. The rain imbued everything with a wet smell, including the concrete walls of our room. Still, it was a room, and not Seat 13C.
Upon arrival, I showered and reclaimed my sense of hygiene. I was in a zone between jet lag and exhilaration at being in a new country, and was ready to go out and experience something. Noah recommended that out first stop be the Hobbit House, a bar not far from our lodging. We passed another Peace Corps Volunteer in the lobby of the Pension, and Noah introduced us. When he mentioned that we were on our way to the Hobbit House, a look of intense amusement came over the womans face. Noah refused to explain, telling me that I would understand soon enough. I realized the source of her bemusement as soon as we ducked into the bar: the Hobbit House is staffed entirely by dwarves and midgets. I am no Wilt Chamberlain, and I measure a modest 6 feet in height. As such, it was surreal to enter a place where everyone else was less than four feet tall. The set-up for a bar like this seems incredibly un-P.C. Im sure it would never fly in the United States, but I guess it works for what it is here in the seedy capital of the Philippines. We ordered San Miguel, the Filipino version of Budweiser.
Not everyone was a midget; a talented band of ordinary-sized Filipino men was playing covers of American pop tunes. An attractive Filipina ascended to the stage and sang Korn in perfect imitation while gyrating her bare stomach and showing off the top several inches of her thong underwear. Though we were enjoying the (ahem) unique vibe offered by the Hobbit House, it was too loud to talk. Since Noah and I had been years without seeing each other in person, we decided that catching up was going to take priority over bopping with the little people.
Outside, the sewage smell was rank and fetid and distinctly third world. We wandered through alleys, and along a maze of dripping streets, taking shelter where possible under awnings. Many of them were so low that I was forced to duck, lest I stay dry only at the expense of knocking myself cold. We searched out another place, helped along by Noah asking directions in Tagalog, and the restaurant delivery boys looking amused to see a white man talking their language. It turns out that Noah speaks Kinaraya, the dialect of the central Phillipine island group known as the Visayas. He was using his rural accent here in the height of Philippine urbanity. To these locals, it must have seemed comical. A comparable situation might be found as New Yorkers deal with a Japanese man asking for directions in a pronounced Creole drawl.
The Cafe Adriatico: We found a small table by a rain-streaked window overlooking the street. When our beers came, the waiter brandished a small towel and wiped clean the lip of the bottles. This was new to me: why would he do that? Noah explained that in the Philippines, a glass bottle is a commodity not to be wasted. Each bottle would be reused again and again. Indeed, I inspected the bottle and found two parallel rings of scratches around the outsides, and a faint rim of rust around the lip, where liquid beer had oxidized the metal bottle-cap. This rust was the offensive material wiped off by the waiters towel.
Noah conducted a ranging monologue about his life in the Philippines, his village, his girlfriend, his work life. I was listening and drinking beer, gazing out the second story window into the rain, lit by a string of bulbs burning above Adriatico Street. We stayed up late into the night, sitting and talking at that table.
I had not seen Noah in over two years, and though I had kept in touch with him by means of e-mail and writing letters, there was one aspect of his physical presence that I had forgotten. I refer to his laugh, which is a braying guffaw. In fact, it stretches the limits of the definition, to merely refer to his noise as laughter. Noah expresses mirth with a gasping honk, like an asthmatic donkey. It had not been my fortune to hear this laugh for 2 years, and judging from the reactions of the other patrons in the restaurant, no one there had ever heard anything like this before. Heads turned. I sipped some more from my bottle of beer, smiling at the scene.
Back to pension, sleep on dampish sheets in a dampish room. I woke up early in spite of only 3 hours sleep and whatever jet lag I was harboring. As Noah slept in, I engaged myself with a novel and by attempting to bird-watch from the barred window of the room. There was mystery out there in the morning Manila air, I thought. As I listened to sounds, I hypothesized what strange feathered creature might be making them.
We went jogging that first morning. If you care for your lungs, do not attempt to go for a run on your first morning in Manila. We loped across town, breathing gross air, dodging holes in sidewalks, and in places where there werent any sidewalks, we shared the street with jeepneys.
A jeepney is a vehicle unique to the Philippines. Mechanically, they are a cross between a bus and a jeep, but then decorated in hallucinogenic garishness. Images and slogans are plastered over every available surface, including the windshield. They proclaim the drivers sexual prowess to the same significant extent that they exhort God to bless their trip. Each jeepney has a name, emblazoned in letters so extravagantly ornamented that they strain legibility. As we ran, I read the jeepneys:
Gift of God, Scorpio Boy, Virgin Snow, Fine Lover, May God Grant Us A Safe Journey. Images of astrological signs, the Virgin Mary, and plagiarized commercial logos predominated, all rendered in the most eye-popping glossy colors known to science.
There were numerous big hotels in the area, located there for the good view west over Manila Bay. As I ran, I wanted to look in a thousand directions at once: at the street-side spectacle around me, at the skyscrapers overhead, the whirring colors of the umpteen jeepneys, and even occasionally at the pocked street itself, so as to avoid tripping.
We jogged through the mile-long Rizal Park, where practioners of tai chi and homeless men and women could be seen in equal measure. At the end of the park, a large square pool featured a model of the archipelago. Little chunky islands like paiper-mach?demonstrated the diverse sizes and shapes of the 7107 bits of land that are designated as the Filipino nation. My love of maps was excited by this encounter with an acre-sized topography. I stopped my run and studied it for a few minutes. Large cone-like volcanoes rose from several of the islands, painted as if they were snowcapped, which they are certainly not. The islands of Luzon (where Manila is located) and Mindanao are the largest landmasses by a wide margin. Together, they comprise over 65% of the land area. A thousand of the smallest islands do not measure even one square kilometer; a further 2500 even lack names!
When we got back to the Pension, I was raging hungry, and the food was slow to arrive. I had several cups of coffee and a pile of fruit. The mangos and bananas came with a nice local yogurt.
This was to be our day of chores in Manila before venturing out the following morning to Noahs site.For readers not familiar with Peace Corps, each volunteer is assigned for a two-year assignment at a particular job, in a particular town. The combination of address and job description is referred to as the volunteers site. After breakfast, Noah and I went to the Peace Corps offices on Roxas Boulevard. I checked my e-mail, and sent out notification to friends and relatives of my status. I mentioned the Hobbit House. I also amused myself by turning down an electronic party invitation with the unusual excuse that I was in Southeast Asia, sorry, cant make it.
We arranged a flight for the next day.
The next task was to pick up Noahs camera lenses, which had been dropped off for a cleaning several weeks previously. For this, we had to travel to a different part of Manila, the district of Cubao. A train ride was necessary to get to Cubao, some miles from the waterfront.
The presence of terrorist cells in the Philippines have led to bag checks as a fact of life whenever entering a shopping mall, bank, or system of transport. I unpacked my bag to guards?observation hundreds of times in the next month, resenting it every time. Of course, the events of September 11th have softened my resistance to security precautions. This was back in June and July, before the attacks in the US, but after the beheading of an American tourist on the Philippine island of Palawan.
In Cubao, we navigated through a maze of shopping malls inside and out, and found that Noahs camera lenses were not yet cleaned. I was frustrated with the lack of good customer service, not realizing that the behaviors that I deem good service to my American view are not necessarily the same qualities that Filipinos look for in their commercial establishments. Noah handled the poor service with remarkable restraint and aplomb. I felt like hitting the snotty brat who was working behind the counter. Noah negotiated a better deal, and then we adjourned for lunch.
We dined with a fascinating character. Noah knew of this odd place, and led the way past a stagnant lake with large lumpy sculptures of Disney characters rising in the middle. (It is worth noting that all of the water around Manila is hopelessly polluted. Eight rivers run through the city, and Noah informed me grimly that all eight were classified as biologically dead. Past the lake we came to another enormous shopping mall. I had not expected malls and pop commerce itself to be such a prominent part of life in urban regions of the Philippines, but malls proved to be the mainstay of my experiences while in Manila.
This was a half empty mall, where the odd restaurant was located. The Cod Building, as it was called, was partially occupied by active retail, but we had to hike up through several empty floors of space before finding the EartHaven cafe Now if I was surprised to find a culture of materialism and shopping in Manila, then I was truly floored to find an organic cafe in the midst of it. Noah knew the owner, Edgard, and he introduced us. We all sat down at a rustic table and had a delicious lunch of pasta and lemongrass tea and little wheat-germ candy bars. Edgard was intense and opinionated. Talking to him, I got the send that he had been forced to explain his beliefs and politics many times before, and he rose to the task with a practiced air and (it seemed to me) a standard and well-worn series of phrases.
Some might think that an Environmentalist Filipino would be an oxymoronic description, but Edgard fit the bill. Besides running this strange little haven of hippie foodstuffs in Manila, he also owned and ran a Geo Farm in the Sierra Madre of north Luzon. His environmental beliefs meshed with my own, but he also had a lot of the so-called New Age influencing his mindset. He mentioned auras, and how he could see them. He waved his hand at the area around my head, as if to indicate like this one here.
Digesting my lunch was just the opportunity that latent jet lag had been awaiting. It overwhelmed me. Back at the Pension, I fell asleep for several hours, and only woke because we had to go run some more time-essential chores. I needed caffeine.
We got it at, of all places, a Starbucks franchise, one of ten in Metro Manila. It was just like an American Starbucks, decorated in that well-designed but canned style that may be found so many places in DC and in America. There were differences: the security guard at the door, searching my bag for bombs, the prices in pesos, and the clientele: no Dupont Circle yuppies here! I ordered in English, but all the conversation around us was in Tagalog. Noah lamented his ability to speak well in the national dialect, and assured me that he would be in command linguistically to a greater degree when we got to Panay the next day.
Noahs friend Carmela and her sister Sophia met us at the coffeehouse. They were cute and animated to me in a phenomenon unique to Asian women and puppies: the smaller they are, the cuter they appear to me, and the more energy they seem to possess.
We talked mostly about disgusting foods, a subject that evidently fascinated us all. They detailed some Filipino dishes for me: dinuguan or chocolate meat,for instance, a dish of cooked offal and blood, and bulalo, a sort of kneecap soup. Most repulsive was balut, an embryonic duck egg, cooked just before it is ready to hatch! Balut adventurers from the Western world (Noah included) can distinguish the beak, feathers, and legs of the developed birds as they crunch them down. I decided then and there not to try it, though in most cases I pride myself on the breadth of foods I consume. I have sampled widely among the species, but Ill leave balut to the macho Filipino men who believe that it jacks up their virility better than Viagra or Spanish Fly.
We also discussed Noahs remarkable propensity for hurting himself. He listed off a terrific series of ailments that have befallen him in this country, and Carmela, Sophia, and I listened in awe. Noah was attacked by a colony of stinging ants while dangling on a rope 40 feet above ground in the rainforest. He writhed in pain on his tether, unable to descend, unable to escape. Another time, he groped his way to an outhouse in the midnight darkness, only to put his hand directly atop a scorpion. A month previously, Noah had been guiding a photographer from National Geographic through the rainforest in search of hornbills. A branch smacked Noah in the face, carrying with it a small leech. Hours later, they noticed that the leech had attached itself to Noahs eyeball. He told us, as he was pulling it off, there was a tremendous pressure. I wasnt sure which was going to go first, the leech, or my eye! Then he got roundworms. Then he fell down a cliff. Then he was in a motorcycle sidecar when the motorcycle flipped over and crashed. All these stories he told in a jocular way, as if it was all happening to someone else in a movie. He grew somber when he related a final tale, of how he became trapped underwater when a bamboo bridge collapsed on top of him. Pinned by its lattice structure, he nearly drowned, and escaped just as he was on the verge of blacking out. He has not told his mother about that one, he told us, which we knew to mean that it really shook him up, and counted as being truly dangerous.
We four went to dinner at a restaurant called Shwarma, which served Indian food. Shwarma was smarmy. We were seated in their lone upstairs room, with a wide low table surrounded by flat cushions. A stray cat had skinnied through a broken windowpane and had deposited a stringy turd on one of the cushions. To my utter shock, the waitress left it there after I pointed it out to her. We ate there anyways; I was hungry. I had eggplant dip and pita bread, which was tasty, though I worried about its level of contaminants.[For the remainder of the story, check out the following website:
Callan's Gypsy Journal]