Arms Wide Open

Something in my mind is missing.

They found me outside Manila Zoo. "I wouldn't go in there if I were you. It's just full of animals in dirty cages" offered one of the two, middle aged Filipino women. I had no intention of going in. I was just walking by. "Where are you from?" they said. "Where are you going to? What's your name? What do you do?" They introduced themselves. As they were going in the same direction as me, they offered to come along. They were tourists just like me and travelling around the Philippines.

As we wandered towards the harbour, scanning for broken pavement and pulling sticky clothes from sweating backs, they quizzed me on my travelling plans. It turned out that they had also been planning a remarkably similar trip with their cousin, a child psychiatrist who was visiting from England. Out came the mobile phones and a meeting was swiftly arranged.

The fans slowly churned damp air across the grimy back street cafe where we waited. By now, I was lost. When the mysterious cousin eventually arrived it turned out that she was of a similar age to the other two and had lived in London for several years. She seemed to be interested in me. They offered to take me into the labyrinthine local market. "Be careful" they warned "there are many thieves. Keep what you value close to you." As darkness fell, we wandered through the maze of stalls and people, ever watchful of thieves who might take what we held close, or the deep, dark cracks that might take our balance and send us crashing down. It was decided that I would join them on a trip to the North. The eldest son of one of them would also be coming. My assent was assumed. They dropped me back at my guest house and arranged to meet me in the nearby square the next morning.

I hadn't known how to say no. I woke earlier than expected and waited in a coffee shop, unsure of what to do. They had seemed so pleased at the thought of me joining them. I hauled up my heavy bag, and made my way to the square. The eldest son rushed out to greet me, easily relieving me of my burden and guiding me towards the waiting ladies. We took a taxi to the bus station and then the bus heading north towards the Hundred Islands National Park. As we passed close to Mount Pinatubo, they told me of how the volcano had erupted in 1991, leaving around 800 dead. The sky had turned to black as 2000 square kilometers were buried under dark volcanic ash. Most had died when the roofs above their heads had collapsed under the weight. They told of the crucifixions in San Fernando; every Easter, willing victims would queue to have nine inch nails hammered through their out stretched palms into towering wooden crosses. Many of the crucified would return year after year to feel again the pain of their saviour.

On arrival, we found a budget hotel room to share, and caught motor bike taxis to the wharf. As darkness fell, we walked out into the water on concrete jetties covered in small, scuttling crabs. Further out lay giant clams, hiding in the depths, closed to the world. We bought still flapping fish and bottles of cheap gin and rum. Back at the room we mixed coke with the rum and tore flesh from the fish with our bare hands. They offered me the eyes. I declined, so they gouged them out expertly, and popped the still staring globes into their own open mouths.

The next morning, we hired a small boat to take us around the Hundred Islands National Park. We spread out under the fierce white light, splashed through shoals of flickering fish and dived down, deep as we could go. After washing away the salt and the grime, we headed out for the evening. I needed money so went in search of an ATM. When we tracked one down they stood too close to me as I entered in my PIN - I didn't feel that I could tell them to move away when they had helped me so much. Again, I was lost as we wandered through the dimly lit back streets in search of bars and entertainment. We stumbled though broken concrete and discarded cans to find our way into a dilapidated warehouse. Cheap plastic chairs and tables lay scattered around. At the far end was a make shift stage hosting the obligatory karaoke machine. Cokes and ice were ordered. When they arrived, they filled up our drinks with the cheap spirits we had bought by the wharf.

I'm not really sure what happened the next day. I remember taking motor bike taxis (with side cars) to another cheap hotel. I don't know where the hotel was or what else happened.

The following day they took me further north to Baguio. We walked up to the view point and paddled around the lake. They tempted me with Balut. I peeled off the shell and bit through the egg and into the embryo. The tiny bones of the sacrificed chick, crunched between my teeth. The chicken merged with the egg. Suddenly, they announced that they must return. I must travel to Sagada on my own, to see the caves and hanging coffins. Our farewells were said. They would never forget.

As the worn and battered bus struggled, side to side, ever upwards through the mountain heights, something once known was found again. A memory hidden but not buried for long.

 

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