The single light bulb in my room flickered on, and the hum of my fan clicked into motion. During the 48 hours of an electricity brownout on an island paradise, my room had been converted into a sweat lodge. It had all of the annoyances of overheating without the cool visions and spiritual conversions.
“Well worth it,” I reminded myself, “to learn to scuba dive with thresher sharks in the Philippines.”
This was a big move. It would require a ferry, a public van, a budget airline, and a cab to arrive at an all-expenses paid 68th floor penthouse overlooking the city.
People who know me well constantly see my “alternative” travel decisions as some ill-advised commitment to a Jack Kerouac book I read as a teenager. Get over it, you’re almost 30. And I admit part of my “rustic” travel decisions can be attributed to a mixture of romanticism and pride, but mostly, I am of the belief that one must earn a destination, an arrival into the promised land, wherever that may be.
The cruel twists of fate along the journey are work. They are icy, exhilarating plunges into the cold waters of reality. There’s truly nothing more invigorating than releasing food poisoning in a crowded Nairobi airport bathroom.
No matter the struggle, if you embrace the work, the resulting state of elevated awareness and accomplishment is well worth it.
I envisioned what lay ahead as I lugged my backpacks a half mile from an overpriced sweat lodge to where I could catch a banca. A few mosquitos, probably riled up from a morning downpour and the sight of exposed legs, plunged into my ankles like pubescent boys into a stash of cheap pornography. Unfortunately, the banca I needed would not leave until it had a critical mass of travelers. The mosquitos would be free to have their way with me for quite a while.
The other two passengers waiting patiently were a Filipino woman on what seemed to be an uneventful errand, and a Spanish man who spoke in the strangest mix of Catalonian-accented Spanish and piss-poor English. His futile attempts at English were tough to stomach, but not nearly as tough as his pungent hippie odor. This mangy, 50-something Mario Batali look-alike was looking for bullshit romanticized work as a boat captain or a park ranger or something.
As I did the Stanky Leg to keep the mosquitoes from completely draining me of blood, a tag-team couple strolled to the port, donning matching blue t-shirts with sharks on them that they clearly just proudly purchased from a souvenir shop. They wore shirts reading “Malapascua Island” in fancy cursive, to inform us where they’d once stood, as if we weren’t with them in that exact spot.
They spoke to each other in a harsh Germanic language that ironically had me pining for whatever romance language the smelly Catalan man had concocted a few moments earlier. And as to be expected from travelers with matching shirts, they immediately point-and-shot a lifetime’s worth of photography of anything passing through their camera’s viewfinder. Like starved dogs plowing through a bowl of kibble.
Some of the photos focused on an industrial stretch of shoreline that seemed unworthy of swimming in, while others were portraits of each other at uncomfortably close distances. A wave of sadness splashed over me when I thought of their poor, unsuspecting friends who will be forced to look through these photos with their earsplitting Germanic narration.
The boatman finally pushed off the dock with a few more passengers on board and carried us over choppy waters and under rainbows to arrive on another island, Cebu.
But before I could start a negotiation, the Germanic couple, who I pegged as the lowliest of travel amateurs, proved to be an expert negotiating duo. They had perfected the walkaway maneuver: reacting horridly to any price the driver offered and aggressively storming off towards nowhere in particular. I watched the spectacle for a few minutes until I found myself the passive beneficiary of a good negotiation. In retrospect, I did not thank them for their wonderfully efficient Germanic talents, most likely due to my woefully American superiority complex.
The noxious Spaniard also hopped into the 15-passenger van in a seat close to the front. Next in line, I froze awkwardly at the door of the van, forced to pick my poison. I could move to the back seat, where every bump, swerve, and stop would inevitably make me suicidally carsick, or I could sit in a middle section to avoid the car sick nausea only to induce it through this man’s stench. I plopped down in the back with a sigh. If I was going to be sick, it would not be from the stench of shattered sueños.
My subconscious conjured up a quote from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “But to arrive after days of hard travel… would be to see them in another way, as a goal, a promised land.” I hung to it as hard as I hung to the backseat.
This requires tying yourself to the back seat in a web of seat belts, which have never been used for their intended purpose anyway. It’s also advisable to then jam your head into a nook between the speaker and the seat cushion.
The engine kicked into gear, and the speakers vibrated against my unshaven, sunburnt cheeks with subtly remixed 80s music. I found it to be a surprisingly enjoyable distraction from the feeling of my stomach crawling up through my esophagus. It amazes me that so many countries still choose the worst of American music as the soundtrack of their daily lives. Try as I might, I did not hear one Filipino song in the month I was there.
The wheelman is Pinky, silent and sullen, glued to the front seat and non-responsive to general stimuli. His brain is a binary computer, “We go fast” or “We stop.”
The Brain behind the operation is the watchman, who hovers near the sliding door, vigilantly scanning the roadside for random pedestrians that have the look of being in transit. When he locks onto a target, he yanks the door open and yells the destination twice in a robotic cadence:
This particular watchman had on ankle-length jean shorts, a military buzz cut, and some form of a limp. He negotiated deals that were both way better and way worse than my own and made all sorts of terrifying promises to take people halfway across the Philippines.
Just this once, let it happen I thought, secretly hoping the travel gods had blessed me with room to sprawl out.
Of course, two tired, older parents with two infants were promptly sold on the idea of piling into the back seat of the suicidal sardine can for just a few extra pesos, bringing the grand total to eighteen people who all suddenly got very intimate with each other.
Personal space is a very American idea that seems ridiculous when an extra hundred pesos can completely change someone’s week.
I drifted into a brief, ten minute
nap nausea coma and awoke to find the mother had nestled her head quite nicely into the crook between my head and my left shoulder. We both slept away whatever was exhausting us: infants, carsickness, the man.
So much so that I put my head back down on top of hers and fell back asleep. The Filipina woman was not as much a fan as I dozed in and out and back in again. For how long is hard to tell, the hellacious sardine can is not confined by Einstein’s Law of Relativity.
After arriving at airport lobby in Cebu. I survived the syrupy “pork adobo” in the lobby without any intestinal pushback and waited in the terminal through no less than five delays.
Novice travelers take note: the “budget airline” moniker is synonymous for “airline abiding by Murphy’s Law.”
I boarded an aircraft that smelled as if air had not left the cabin since its first flight many years ago. For just a moment, I reveled in my window seat, planning on a bird’s eye sunset view over the Philippines, until odd stomach lurches emanated from my neighbor’s waistline. He was unquestionably in a pre-vomit phase due to nerves, a hangover, or the bubonic plague. Despite having been in similar situations — including just hours before this flight — I showed no sympathy for him. My face froze into a scowl, painted with revulsion.
I criss-crossed my legs awkwardly to fit in legroom that must have been designed by a team of waist-down amputees. Meanwhile, the Filipina flight attendants started a trivia game show at the front of the plane as if they had a captive audience paying to see them. The staff’s attempts to sell random products like alcohol or watches or kids’ toys were even more confounding, as they had nothing to do with flying a large metal cage from point A to point B without falling from the sky.
The plane’s engines jolted into motion, drowning out the worst of the flight staff’s quiz questions and sales pitches and some of my neighbor’s quieter stomach convulsions. Looking down from my window seat, the view could have given the most hardened atheist a religious experience. With just a few hours left before my arrival at the Manila penthouse, I smiled.
I thought I was earning my ticket to the promised land, but I realized I had been there the whole time.