This is an excerpt from Tides Ebb as Islands Dream. Obviously inspired by the Iggy Pop song of the same name.
By the time we hit the runway for Mactan the next day, the skies had cleared and the pilot had sobered from our night of drinking Tanduay rum and Coke-a-cola. It was just a short hop over the Bohol Straight. We caught a view of “my site” on the way over. I got to admit, a chill ran through me as we passed over the group of small islands that will forever remain in my mind as “my site”. More embarrassingly to admit; there was actually a flash in my mind that these islands could be one of those Sports Illustrated kind of swimsuit photo-shoot settings with tropical beauties sitting around drinking tropical cocktails. From the plane it looked like a perfect paradise. Parts of the reef were clearly visible from the plane. Then I saw obvious grayish areas that were tell-tale signs of damage to the reef; huge areas of white dead coral and coral rubble. As the plane turned toward Mactan to land, it was still mid morning. Gow and I would have the rest of the day to ready for the following long day of overland travel.
A taxi took Gow and I from the airport to the Mayflower Pension in Cebu. It seemed like an incredibly long ride through an endless urban jungle, stanking of sewage and waste. I couldn’t smell it because the cab was air conditioned, but I could feel the stank in the rippling heat waves rising from the burning ash fault streets and the septic, trash clogged sewers that paralleled the tenements we passed. The cabby’s radio muffled out a Beatles song. Young kids at every intersection trying to sell sunglasses, fruit, jasmine flower necklaces, and whatever else. The cabby actually described his sister to me and said she was looking for an American husband. Did he expect I might really say, “Sure I’ll marry her!” Gow was on his cell phone so he missed the exchange. I said nothing and just kept fumbling with my sunglasses and trying to cope with a morning-after-rum buzz. The Beatles song ended and Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” came on the radio.
“I am the passenger
I stay under glass
I look through my window so bright…”
Traffic had us at a stand-still. A group of children raced from car to car begging for money to buy food. I watched them as if I had been watching a movie. Not feeling any real emotion at first. Just watching as if everything outside the taxi were happening on a silver screen behind a cloud of desert dust. One child approached my car door window and peered through the tinted glass gesturing that he wanted food. When he caught my eye, my movie abruptly stopped. His deep brown eyes were penetrating real and his hair gray with road dirt. The lights in my imaginary theatre flashed me back to reality and the imaginary movie projector clicked off. I turned away trying to ignore the boy. A dozen reasons why not to give him money crossed my mind. Two more scraggily kids showed up with even more penetrating stares. I reached in my pocket for some coins and realized I only had bills. Stealthily pealing one bill away from the rest without taking my hand out of my pocket, I quickly cracked open the window and slide out the bill. The first boy ran off and the other two chased him. Just as two more boys approached, traffic started moving.
The driver shot me a strange look after I closed the window. He had noticed the bill I had given the boy was a 100 peso note. Really only equal to a couple of bucks on the exchange table, but enough to buy a few meals in Cebu. He commented that I shouldn’t give money to children beggars because they are lazy and don’t go to school. He added they worked for local gangsters who take a large percentage of what they make begging. He went on about how giving people money makes them lazy, but I became disinterested and faded back into the Iggy song.
“I see the bright and hollow sky
Over the city’s ripped backside
And everything looks good tonight
Singing lala lala…”
Things made sense for a second. It is so easy to be the passenger, safe behind the glass, watching reality like watching a movie. I reflected back on my hitchhiking days and asked myself why I love to travel. Freedom came to mind, and that day I felt very free and far away from any thoughts or problems I had left back in Ohio. Feeling free in that moment had its irony. First because a passenger is never really free. A passenger is stuck in someone else’s car while another person is doing the driving. Sometimes life is like that. The other reason my momentary elation, or possibly illusion, of freedom was ironic is because that day was not just another road trip to escape the humdrum life back in Cleveland. That day was not supposed to be a vacation. I had made a two-year commitment. And commitment is not freedom. Commitment is the lose of freedom. Apprehension and excitement peaked inside me momentarily when I realized the next day I would begin living with the community to which I had made that commitment.
The cab finally reached the Mayflower. The driver gave me a slight scowl because I only tipped him 50 pesos. It was actually a good tip since the fair was only 300, but I am sure he expected more after seeing me give the money to the begging children.
Gow sorted out our rooms at the check-in desk while I stood near the air conditioner trying hard not to sweat so much. I felt a bit at Gow’s mercy since he was my “community contact” and therefore responsible for making sure I made it to site and was comfortable with any living arrangements. Gow was in the driver’s seat and making the decisions about what we doing and where we were going. I was his passenger. More accurately, Gow was my babysitter and I was like a spoiled child that might need special attention. Although I resented that feeling, I knew Gow was doing his best to make me feel comfortable. After all, I was the fish out of the fishbowl; though I felt as if I were the fish in the fishbowl, behind the glass with everyone looking in at me. I guess sometimes, perception and reality don’t match.