I could see her out of the corner of my eye as I sat at the bamboo bus shelter with my cousins. An old woman peering at me from the window of her adjacent home. Normally I would've been all like, "What you lookin' at, Gladis?" but I was used to the staring by now.
Foreigners quickly get used to being gawked at in the Philippines, especially in this small beach-side town my cousins had taken me on a day trip. I don't know why I noticed this old woman in particular, but I did the usual and I pretended I didn't see. That's what I tend to do nowadays. Three schoolgirls staring wide-eyed at me as I cross the street? Didn't see. Two male grocery store workers pausing conversation and pointing at me as I walk past? Didn't see. Everyone on the jeepney quietly turning and watching me as I climb aboard? Didn't see.
Because if I acknowledge that they are staring, I might have to think about why, and that is something my insane imagination is way too active for. Maybe it's not just because I'm foreign. Maybe they think I'm a big fat white whale. Maybe I stepped in toilet paper. Maybe my dress is tucked into my undies. Maybe a cauliflower is spontaneously growing out of my ear. Maybe my back is covered in an infectious-looking pus.
So I ignored the old woman staring at me from her window, and focused on my cousin's conversation with two other women at the bus stop. I'd fooled myself into thinking that if I tried to follow Cebuano in this way, I might learn it - like people who think watching Telemadrid helps them learn Spanish. I mean, you don't just listen to things, not knowing what the hell is going on, and then suddenly become fluent. Unless you have magic leaf powers like Disney's Pocahontas or something.
Anyway, just like that adorable cat who comes closer without moving video on YouTube, the old lady crept towards me even while I ignored her. I'd blink and she would be standing in the door frame, staring. Blink, and she'd be sitting on her porch chair, staring. Blink, and she'd be on the gravel outside her house, staring. Before I knew it, she was standing right behind me, leaning on the bamboo railing. Staring. It would've been scary if it wasn't for her Starbucks t-shirt.
I felt a hand stroking my back, and thought, "Well, I guess I better stop ignoring her in case this escalates and we throwdown right here at the bus stop." I turned around and she was rubbing the back of my tank top, asking me something I had no chance of understanding. Meanwhile my cousin had sidled over, smiling, and answered the woman on my behalf. My imagination blearily woke up, and started stirring.
"Yo, who's this white girl with the shiny top? I had to touch it, it was so weird-looking."
"This is my cousin from Australia."
"How old is she? She looks about 12."
"She's 27. She's having some sort of late-twenties crisis and decided to travel here alone to learn more about her heritage and, I don't know, find herself or some crap."
"That seems like a silly thing to do. Does she realise everyone here, from street kids to hardened criminals, will eat her for breakfast?"
"We've tried explaining that to her multiple times. She may also be a little addled."
"Her hair is not meant for this humidity, is it?"
My cousin noticed my alarmed look, and switched to English. "You see how she's touching you? She wants you touch her also," she explained, picking up my hand and stroking it down the old woman's arm. It seemed weird but it was better than a bus stop throwdown. I smiled and surreptitiously smoothed my hair with my other hand as the old lady backed away.
It wasn't until a few days later that my cousin explained that was really about.
"It's an old folktale," she began. "I don't really believe it. But the people in the mountains believe that when an old woman touches you, she is casting a spell on you. The only way to deflect the bad magic is by touching her back, so I made you do it. Just in case."
"Why would she want to cast a spell on me?" I asked. "That's not very nice." Extremely rude, one might say.
My cousin grinned. "Because she thinks you're beautiful. She wants to absorb it for herself."
So now I think that everybody is staring at me because they want to cast a spell on me, and cook me for breakfast to absorb my powers. Now I think they're staring because they want my frizzy brown hair or my skin or my shoes, and they're muttering curses or making stabbing motions behind my back.
Well, I guess it isn't as bad as the pus-covered back scenario.
The Filipino side of my family are well aware of the disparity between our ways of living, and often make straightforward references to “our poor way of life” and how their house "isn’t five-star accommodation” which I find completely baffling. They have given me
something infinitely more precious than fresh towels and stupid little soaps:
they welcomed me into their home without question, protected me, loved me. Even
the way they scared the shit out of me with merry tales of women being stabbed
or abducted in Cebu was done with love. They care about me (when I don’t really
know what I’ve done to earn such value besides turn up on their doorstep) and don’t want to see me get hurt. They
rallied an army of friends and relatives to escort and protect me on my
subsequent trip from Maasin to Cebu; these people still turn up whenever I send
confused texts about how to catch a jeepney. These people had never heard of me
a week ago, and now they drop what they’re doing if I need help. I can’t even
comprehend that level of selflessness and devotion.
take that love over any superior king deluxe suite penthouse with complimentary
breakfast in the world. I don’t even like breakfast.
for different people I guess, but at this stage of my life finding pieces of
myself is so much more important than air-con. This
trip isn’t about hiding in hotel rooms and shrieking every time a brown person
comes near my handbag. It’s about jumping off that same rock formation my
cousin just did even though I’m certain the water isn’t deep enough and I’ll
die, it’s about trying that side dish my aunt whisked away from me clucking, “That’s
too spicy!”, it’s about getting mosquito bites and food poisoning and
hopelessly lost and catching glimpses of a fisherman’s silhouette on the ocean
between splashes of palm fronds as my bus trundles down a mountain.
and safety are of course, very real and legit concerns as a white* woman travelling this country solo. I have already experienced the joys of sexual harassment (a bellboy at
this very hotel made fuckwit calls to my room and attempted to gain
entry; he has since been fired but it inspired me to always barricade my door and
scream at every caller to identify themselves). I came into this trip prepared to "pay the cost" for safety, and was pretty much ready to stay in a serviced apartment (read: long-term hotel room) if it meant a secure entrance and staff members around. This is still an option should I crack for whatever reason (a very real possibility).
But a friend of my cousin's has insisted I stay in a "Pension House" (closer to what we know as college dorm rooms) because it's more affordable, closer to public transport (minimises the walks down dark streets), housed with university students, closer to his side of town, and he of course has relatives around the corner because this is the Philippines. He has come with me to inspect other apartments, which I have quite liked, and loudly dismissed them as being too expensive. He practically projectile vomits at any price I consider reasonable. I don't know how to explain that I am prepared to pay a cost in exchange for security without making some unintended reference to how Australians/Filipinos Live Differently. Because honestly, I just want to live somewhere that will repel any ne'er-do-wells that get the notion to follow me home, and armed guards tend to do that. I couldn't care less about mountain views and WiFi.
I was (and am still) a bit sketchy about the security at the Pension House although my friend insists the neighbourhood is safe; I figure I'll give it a month and if I freak out I can fall back on Fancy Serviced Apartment.
Well, if I
wanted to be in my comfort zone, I’d be wrapped in a doona in Melbourne right
now. Which it isn’t all that bad in itself: but I’ve done that a million times.
Time for something new. *Although I "pass" as Caucasian, I am mixed-race and identify as such.
Everything is different here. Things smell weird, look weird, taste weird. The bread is too sweet. The icy-poles not sweet enough. The ham in the supermarket doesn't look right. The jeepneys are like clowns on roller skates, zooming past, honking and laughing at me. I'm terrified of offending people, of getting hit by a car, of running out of money, of not finding a place to live, of not making friends, of being attacked. I'm terrified in general.
Everybody stares at me. I came here trying to piece together the other side of myself, but I feel just as out of place here that I did back home. The only difference is I haven't known this place my entire life.
My life at home wasn't really working for me, so I thought I'd try this. I don't know what's worse: staying here with this constant fear, or going home to regret and frustration.
If all else fails, I can book a flight home and escape. Then I can return to my safe life of waiting tables and paying the rent, while seething inside and yearning for something more.
This is just a test post, really, but I'll take the opportunity to assure you that the title of this blog is true and that I'm alive and well in the Philippines.
I can't believe it's only been just over a week. Today I feel a bit homesick and overwhelmed. I've had quite a few episodes of, "What the fuck am I even doing here, I'm scared, let's just book a flight home."
I am way out of my comfort zone. Sometimes it feels like I'm being pulled along by a string, and I can't even remember making the conscious decisions to leave Australia and book flights and pack. I just woke up under a mosquito net at my cousin's house in Maasin City one day and was like, "Oh... yeah."
I just have to stay positive and remember why I chose to do this in the first place.
At the moment I'm staying at the Diplomat Hotel in Cebu City, and the goal for this week is to find a more permanent abode. I'm hoping for a secure apartment in a condo or something, so security isn't an issue. Cousins and friends of cousins are helping me inspect places, but haven't found anything yet.
Keep you posted. Love you and miss you.