Faces of the PI – Part 1
• Peace Hotel
• Radisson Plaza Hotel Shanghai
• Salvo Hotel Shanghai
• Swan Hotel
“Akulka, may I please ask you something else?” she inquired politely for the umpteenth time within the past twenty minutes, her eyes yet consistently glaring with seemingly insatiable curiosity. I’m thinking she knows very well I won’t turn her request down. Too intrigued am I by this inquisitive little girl’s wits and her thirst for knowledge.
“Akulka, do you know Zeus?” she asks with a somewhat quizzical yet strangely indefinable look on her face.
“Of course I do”, I reply, already eager to learn what kind of trivia will undoubtedly splutter out of her in response to my stinted words of affirmation.
“So what do you actually know about him?” she asks hastily.
Without even giving me a chance to serve her with an answer, she proceeds as anticipated…
“He was the king of the gods, the ruler of Mount Olympus, and god of the sky and thunder, in Greek mythology! His symbols are the thunderbolt and the eagle, and he was married to Hera, his older sister. Don’t you think this is odd?”
“I sure do”, I reply satirically, “but who am I to pass moral judgment on such a prominent and omnipotent personality.
“He was a playboy, that Zeus! Didn’t you know that?” she retorts swiftly.
“Hmmm, I’m not so sure what you mean”, I say, my shamefully meager knowledge of Greek mythology failing me.
“He had many ladies! He was a playboy, that Zeus! Tell me Akulka, are you a playboy too???”
Mary is only thirteen. I ran into her and her three little siblings while leisurely strolling past their house on the outskirts of the small township of Donsol in Sorsogon province, South East Luzon, short after having enjoyed yet another glorious sunset over the bay from the nearby beach area. It had been her two little twin brothers hollering a ubiquitous “Hey Joe” from the porch of their parents’ on rickety stilts constructed cottage at me, the outlandish passer-by, that had initially gotten my attention. But it was Mary’s cheerful and surprisingly forthright and articulate “Where are you going Sir? Do you have any idea?” that eventually stopped me in my tracks.
“I am going where the wind will take me”, I replied lyrically, realizing instantly that my feeble attempt at being original had failed miserably even before I finished the sentence. Mercifully Mary was a forgiving conversationalist and my indirect yet not entirely imprecise answer earned me nothing but a big grin. A few minutes of light bantering later the three of them unanimously classified me as a joker. I was in luck they were an easy audience to entertain.
Having already become the main attraction of the evening it didn’t take long until parts of the extended family showed up and I found myself surrounded by a cluster of kids aged between as young as two to fourteen, Mary being among the eldest ones, and certainly the one with the best English. The scope of her vocabulary never ceased to amaze me throughout the evening.
And so it came that her mum who was feeding the family’s poultry close by took also note of me, as well as the kids’ totally plastered and therefore very talkative uncle. Before I knew it I was invited into their simple home and found myself sitting at the family’s dinner table, being served with a generous selection of fresh fried fish and squid with soy-calamansi dip, honey-cured pork, fried noodles, and rice. While the hospitality they offered to a complete stranger in their modest home aroused feelings of embarrassment within me, I counted myself very lucky all the same to have eluded the abominable cooking of the extremely welcoming and also very gay male couple who ran my resort’s cafeteria, the only one in walking distance.
And so I found myself humbly munching away the delicious treats in front of me while being eyeballed curiously by the two families’ kids who had all gathered around me to watch the long nosed stranger eat, with their three dogs chasing each other around the table, a tame pigeon hysterically flapping around the hut with one of the little boys in hot pursuit, and the very drunk old uncle who made a strong point in constantly reminding me “Never to forget the Philippines”, repeatedly lisping the words through the couple of teeth he was left with. Beyond any doubt, it was the best meal I had in days.
And then there was Mary of course, always delighting me with her inquiring nature. The height of the Eiffel Tower, the size of the Pyramids of Ghizeh, Italian Opera, Astrology, the findings of Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein…there’s seemingly nothing this girl was not either interested in and wanted to learn more about. During the course of the evening she eventually revealed the main source of her knowledge to me, and showed me her notebook come diary.
She is in the habit of spending hours at the small town library after school almost every day of the week, except Sundays, when she’s attending bible school. There she does what she likes best: Read. And as if that didn’t suffice, she also makes a point in jotting down a myriad number of diverse trivia, fragments of popular wisdom and general knowledge into her little notebook, devotedly adorning its pages with ornate squiggles and occasionally the odd Barbie sticker in between.
While showing me she peers over at her fatigued mother and her also drunk father who are busy with her younger siblings, and tells me she wants to go to Metro Manila one day and study to become a lawyer, so she can support her hard-working parents when they get old. She’s fiercely determined not to end up assembling laptop parts in a Taiwanese factory just like both her parents did, where they consequently met and fell in love with each other many years ago. Neither does she want to follow in the footsteps of many of the family’s relatives, who are spread out all over the world, serving Big Macs in Dubai, cleaning offices in Amsterdam, or nursing old-timers in Milan.
When it’s finally time for me to return to my room after hours of friendly chat and light-hearted laughter I’m leaving with a heavy heart in the face of the realization of how hard it will be for this little girl and her siblings to fulfill her dreams and ambitions. Hard for them, and hard for millions others just like them across the nation in quite possibly much more forlorn situations. I’m silently walking away with abashing memories of me complaining about not being able to decide between the many great opportunities I’ve had in my life, a realization subtly gnawing at my conscience.
I’m leaving their home with the promise of returning the next evening, and this I do, laden with two big grocery bags full of milk, soft drinks, and a variety of snacks racked up at a nearby street shop. Yet again, I’m welcomed with open arms, and of course bucket loads of questions.
Meet Rose and Danny:
A high pitched “Hey you!” apparently directed at me distracts my attention from the viewfinder of my camera and sends my head spinning in search for the female voice’s origin. My squinting eyes scan the cobblestone plaza that’s drenched in bright evening sunlight in front of landmark Daraga church, situated on small hill in the midst of Legazpi city, South East Luzon. There are not too many people around, so it’s not all too difficult to spot them. A guy and a girl, I later learn he’s in his early twenties, she in her late teens, casually leaning against the side wall of the baroque church that was built entirely of volcanic rock. They both beckon me with raised hands.
They introduce themselves as Danny and Rose. They came to this place for the same reason as me, to watch the sun set over menacingly smoking Mount Mayon from this quaint location.
They strike me as two average youngsters, neatly dressed, friendly in manners. They speak good English, and I readily answer the same set of questions I’ve been asked so many times already on this trip and many of my trips before. We spend twenty
minutes chatting, me repeatedly excusing myself for a short while to snap photos of the volcano in the distance that’s just occasionally free of clouds. They ask if I’d like to hang out with them and talk some more, an offer which
I politely dismiss as it is my last evening in town and I still want to make it to yet another site of interest before dark, the Cagsawa ruins, where 1200 people were buried alive and thereby perished during a violent eruption of Mount Mayon while
they took refuge in a church in the year 1814.
Giving this some thought I decide to offer them my cell phone number, so we have a chance of meeting up later in case they’ll still feel up for it then. They gladly accept it and propose to pick me up near my hotel in two hours.
They arrive on time. I ask where they want to go, but the only response I receive is them shrugging their shoulders. I’m thinking it’s their hometown so they must know best, but they claim they are not in the habit of going out much so they wouldn’t know. So I make the call and suggest we head downtown and grab something to eat there. They agree, admitting to the fact that they haven’t eaten and are actually starving.
After a twenty minute ride with the three of us squeezed into a tricycle we end up in the grotty center of Legazpi city where they quickly opt for a branch of one of the local fast food joints called “Chow King”.
“What are you having?” I ask, hoping for some advice from their side on what of the greasy junk is edible and what’s not.
Danny raises his eyebrows unassertively, and then says quietly without looking at me: “Hmmm…the cheapest I think.”
I swiftly make clear to them that dinner’s on me, as they have been nice enough to give me company on what would have otherwise probably been an uninspiring evening in a less than exciting town. Upon hearing this they visibly lighten up, and Danny goes about ordering a small plate of roast chicken with plain rice for himself, while Rose decides for a small sized bowl of Halu Halo, a Filipino staple desert made of fruit preserves, sweet corn, young coconut and various tropical delights topped with milky crushed ice, a dollop of crème caramel and a hearty scoop of ice cream. Their choice sets me back 90 Pesos, less than two dollars.
Sitting at a table on the upstairs patio overlooking the dimly lit town square below us we pick up our chat where we had broken off in the late afternoon. Rose eats slowly, poking pleasurably in her bowl before spooning up bit after bit of her sweet treat. Danny on the other hand digs into his meal as if there was no tomorrow, ripping the meat greedily with his teeth from the small skinny chicken half in front of him, sucking on its little bones, not missing the tiniest one of them. It’s quite obvious to me they haven’t eaten much for some time. Upon finishing their meals I ask them if they feel like having more, with hindsight a fairly redundant question. They claim they are too full already to have any more, but their eyes speak a different language. I excuse myself for the toilet, but head down to the counter and order a mix of ten different additional dishes from the menu. It’s a delight to watch Danny and Rose all saucer-eyed as the two waiters deliver the new plates and bowls to our table.
In between them enthusiastically tucking in their meals they ask about my life, my family, and my travels. I’m following suit, and what I consequently learn about their lives almost curdles my blood.
Until late November of last year Danny and Rose used to live in small villages at the foot of Mount Mayon in Albay province, not far away from Legazpi city. One day when Rose arrived home from town she found her village swamped by rivers of mud and volcanic ash that reached as high as rooftops as they had poured down from the volcano, triggered by a typhoon’s torrential rains. The mudslides swept in excess of 400 people to their deaths that day, including her parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, and three younger siblings. Of her family she was the only survivor. Danny’s story was similar, yet he was lucky enough to have some of his closer relatives survive the disaster. Rose and Danny hadn’t known each other before their worlds collapsed, but met many weeks later. Fate led them together, they say. And what gruesome fate that was.
We take a stroll through central Legazpi. Having learnt about their terrible recent history their apparent cheerfulness and positive outlook astonishes me. In a way it’s incomprehensible to me from where they take that strength.
At some point during our walk Danny hesitatingly asks me if I would mind them staying in my hotel room over night. I am not sure why he asked me that, and I didn’t ask them for their reasons either. I decline by telling them that guests are against my hotel’s policy, which is the truth actually. Still, telling them leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.
I bid them farewell at the entrance of the hotel and watch them walk away hand in hand into the dark. Later, lying in bed getting ready to sleep I receive a text from Rose: “Huhu, I hope you help me. I want to study again. I want to finish my study…”
Excellent. I really enjoyed this and it thought it had shades of Pothole Research..