One motorcycle, two helmets, three people.
An ode to Cebu, the first city of my solo travels: where my camera memory stick glitched and wiped itself clean, and of which only Instagram story snippets remain.
Ryan wore one. A laminated picture of him and a polished young woman hung from his bike gauge, and as we dodged in and out of Cebu traffic, I thought that girlfriend or wife must be so glad her man wears a helmet to work every day.
Ryan handed me the other helmet which I accepted without hesitation on my mother’s behalf.
Mark rode between Ryan and I, sans helmet, allowing me to hug his middle as I figured out How to Ride on the Back of a Motorcycle on Busy Philippino Streets Without Flying Off for the first time.
(May I just say:
Back in suburban San Diego senior year, I never would have guessed that in 5 years, I would be riding through Cebu mountain clouds, eating corn on the cob with one hand while the other holds close the Filipino boyfriend of my dear, dear high school friend, Ross, who has apparently come out of the closet.)
Ryan and Mark chatted and laughed in Bisaya, and I watched people’s eyes widen with playfulness and their mouths open to shout when they saw a brawny blonde weighing down the back of a bike as it groaned up steep inclines. We shuddered and halted through traffic, catching glimpses of the swaths of sheet metal, the informal residences below the bridges we crossed.
I will never stop kicking myself for losing my portrait of Ryan.
This face, that had abrasively appeared in the back of our jeepney a few hours earlier to shout destinations and prices at Mark and I, became so intimately safe over the course of a few hours. My experience of Ryan’s face was emblematic of how my own lack of knowledge about another culture prohibited me from enjoying its richness—which I would be granted, whether or not I appreciated it.
It all started when Ryan agreed to take us to three different out-of-the-way destinations for one lump discounted price. Even Mark, a lifetime local, was surprised by the quote.
So when we arrived to destination #1—the Taoist Temple—and walked off to leave Ryan to wait on the bike, I remarked to Mark for the second time that day:
Just as strangers in a jeepney trust and help each other to pass their payment to the front and pass the change back again, hand by hand by hand,
And just as the driver and the money counter in the front trust people to pay and get off at the agreed location,
There is a lot of trust here.
There are rules that everyone agrees to follow, and that is why they work. Despite a global image of lawlessness and anarchy in the Philippines, the population itself has still agreed, socially almost, that beneficial processes will be followed. The population trusts the population to follow through. And if the population didn’t follow through, there couldn’t be that trust.
Ryan drove us all the way to the temple, and trusted that we would come back, continue riding, and eventually pay him.
On the ride back down the mountain, when it started to pour torrential rain and the crowded, downhill streets began to flood with water—at the most dangerous point of the trip—Ryan handed Mark his helmet. Rain cemented my eyes shut as Ryan drove us back into the city, one hand steering and the other shielding his eyes from the rain so he could see.
Ryan’s eyelashes are darker than his eyes, and torrential warmth floods from his eyes. After the first destination, he began to join us on our sightseeing, and let me take his picture.
This I want to emphasize:
Arriving to the Philippines was scary. I had never been to eastern Asia before, and I didn’t recognize the rhythm. Therefore, without any evidence to the point that I should be afraid of the people in front of me, the rainy Cebu night scene scared me merely because it was different. The people scared me merely because they looked, and spoke, and behaved in a way that I could not categorize within my former interpretation of the world.
I had been heavily discouraged from traveling to the Philippines for a million and one safety reasons, but felt no fear until I arrived.
When I stood at the entry to the youth hostel, tried to push open the door, and found it locked?
I was by myself in a new city with no where to go, no one to protect me, and no way to contact help. At night. In the rain. With my life for 3.5 months on my back. And the taxi had already driven away.
Pro tip: ring the damn buzzer.
New York trained me to shut down anyone who tries to talk to me, beg from me, or ask for an iota of my attention.
Sitting in the back of a jeepney with Mark, I thought Ryan and his bike buddies were heckling us (or me, the only non-local in the vicinity). It happened very quickly that I found myself out of the jeepney, putting on a helmet, and hopping on the back of the bike behind Mark, without whom I never in a million years would have trusted this young motorcycle man.
I didn’t understand what was happening, and so I assumed it was dangerous and wrong.
It is not anyone’s responsibility to explain and defend their social norms to me. It is up to me to release my way of life from the “normal” standard.
At destination #3, the Temple of Leah, I asked Ryan to use my Canon Rebel to take a picture of Mark and I.
“You look through the viewfinder here, and press the button here,” I explained to someone who doesn’t speak English.
He looked. He scooted us over a foot. He took the picture. He put us in front of a statue. He took the picture. He moved us across the plaza in front of the large gilt lions. He took the picture. He pushed us to sit down on the floor while he ran upstairs and pointed my camera down at us. He took the picture.
Every time, he would bring the camera to me with this look of giddy pride on his face. The three of us would check the photo, I would say “Good job!”, he would repeat “Good job!”, and then he would excitedly suggest another photo set up.
I lost all those photos. The one of Mark and I pulling our arms back to release an arrow, mimicking the statue that gazed steely off the mountain face, down at Cebu city. The one of me standing next to an angel and just . . . poking it. The totally black ones where the settings were all wrong.
And I lost the photo of his beautiful face, beaming childlike love into my soul. It’s easy to romanticize an artwork lost as the greatest piece ever created, and I almost wish it wasn’t so good a shot, so properly focused, so once-in-a-lifetime perfect. Then it wouldn’t be such a loss to lose it.
So here’s the practice:
The photo did not fall from the heavens by the grace of God. I created it. I can create another, and another and another.
This was a day that must live in memory, and never on a hard drive. How do I honor it? A picture is worth a thousand words. I’m at 1,258.
One last countdown.
1) I thought an oxen was an elephant.
2) By the end of the day I could sit back and not grip Mark’s middle, like a pro.
3) Here’s what Cebu was like:
A 90 degree 100% humidity outdoor market with the pungent smells of raw eels, fresh fish, and dried fish roasting into the cement-locked air. A pig’s eye leers at me from a flayed-out face hanging above thick slabs of raw meat. People are sleeping on operating banana stands, on bicycles, on sidewalks—even though it’s loud, and the sunlight ricochets off of bright yellow signs. “They wake up early to work,” Mark explains.
I stand out and can’t seem to stop. There are not a lot of tourists in Cebu City, and even fewer white tourists. “Your height, your nose, and the color of your skin.” Mark explains things I cannot change, and why no one who looks like me is a true local, ever. This is the first place I’ve visited where my features can’t “pass” as local—only, maybe, half-Filipino.
The malls are pristine white clean air-conditioning with Zara and Gap. The department stores are five floors of everything-under-the-sun, everyone-under-the-sun, and every-fast-food-under-the-sun. The sidewalks are chickens and metal skillets of home-cooked dishes, and the windows and doors are dusty black shadows which luxury has forgotten (or blithely skipped). The children know what they’re doing no matter who they are, and the beggars are persistent. The street food is scalding hot and tastes like the leaf on which it was baked, and the fruit market warehouse smells like bananas—but in a good way.
I dipped green mangos in salt, and peeled a pink fruit called something I forget.
I turned my face inward on the ride up the mountain, because people were looking at me and knowing I didn’t belong. With Mark, and with Ryan, I was entering spaces I never could have on my own, but I heard my mother’s voice repeating “low profile” in the back of my ear. I wanted to gaze out at the informal dwellings that loomed out of the mist as we got further and further from the city center, and 30, 40, 50 minutes passed. Instead I looked inward to hide my face. I thought of Filipino authorities admitting that they didn’t have control in certain areas, and I thought of kidnappings. I felt safe on our bike-ride of three, but I thought engaging with my eyes was tempting fate.
On the way back down the mountain, I looked where I pleased. I also burned my calf on the exhaust pipe twice.
I inhaled bottle after bottle of water in the sweltering summer temp, and didn’t have to pee. When we finally broke the heat and started cruising up the misty mountain, my neck had become sandpaper with salt.
I may not have the portrait of Mark, either—the one with the glow of the streets kissing his left cheek as he smiled at me inside the Jeepney, head melting backward—but he gifted me his home, his time, his eagerness to please. He will forever go down in my memory as the tour guide whose mind-blowing compassion revolutionized my understanding of the Philippines. I cannot thank him enough, and I am honored to have spent a day with him.
This is what I want to do. I want to meet people, stop being scared, and then share these stories so that we can all stop being scared, even if we can’t leave our jobs and travel Asia for 3.5 months.
I cracked up all morning the first day I was there, because the roosters crow every 30 seconds. Every 30 seconds. With enthusiasm. “It’s like, I hear you, we all heard you, we’re up! We’re up! It’s 4 pm!” I laughed to Mark.
“Maybe they’re waking up the night people,” Mark said.
“Yeah, like, ‘Time to go to the club!’” I joked.
“Time to go to work,” Mark said, not joking.
So for one final parable, maybe I’m the idiot—not the rooster. Maybe the rooster knows what it’s doing, and maybe beyond the world of suburban America children’s literature, roosters don’t only crow once per day, in the morning.
More to come. Join me.