Not everyone sees life as being a series of stories. Some travel and write and it sounds like this: I went and saw this farm and it was really cool and chilled out with this guy and he was like all tattooed and like there was this chick with a red shirt who kept on saying crazy things and and and….
And I love it, that’s perfect, that doesn’t have to change. It’s a sort of chaotic unordered mess of pretty lights and colours punctuated by periods of the mundane.
If however, you’ve broken that line in your mind, when everything becomes a story or series of stories, everything is doing something. Sometimes we write the story. I don’t mean rewriting the story, that is, remembering it in a way that comforts us. I mean that sometimes we pull the strings, affect. Sometimes someone else is writing it. And for those gaps, those moments where no one can be said to be writing it, I think there’s still a writer.
A story never starts, though. We are continually in media res. But we must start somewhere, so this story starts with me, hungover and underslept…
I’m in Cebu with Jina, Nohyun, Nuna, Koon Hyung and three little darlings, Myungji, Jiyun and Hiyun. Nohyun is a year older than me, and the rest are about ten years older than me. Myungji is Jina’s daughter, the youngest, and Jiyun and Hiyun are five and six. We all woke up together, had breakfast and decided to look around the area. We found ourselves caught in a mall.
I abandoned the party in a corner of the mall where they were getting fantastic deals on swimming shorts and ran into Koon Hyung and Nohyun. I told them we should get going, but Nohyun got this look in his eyes and said more or less, but I want to shop!
I look at Koon Hyung. Here’s the weird thing about me and my older brother. We speak some of each other’s language, but not enough for a rolling conversation or to be clear about what we want from each other. But we seem to want exactly the same things at the same time. I just can’t explain it. Always he pats my back and tells me he wants to have deep conversations with me. It’s odd. He should have a deeper connection with Nohyun. But no matter how many respectful Korean things Nohyun does, I always end up being the one who connects with Koon Hyung for the important stuff. We’ll spend long periods of time with strong silence punctuated by snippets of dialogue in either language.
So he’s down with splitting, and we do just that. We get out onto the muddy road as the wind is dancing around and droplets of rain sporadically spit onto our faces. I suggest we eat mangoes and he tells me Nuna has all his money. But I insist, and at some point and I buy us a couple of perfectly ripe mangoes, which we open easily and let dribble down our chins and over our fingers. We learn our first word of Cebuano tagalog. Salamat: thank you.
We walk past an inner city farm which we encounter again on the way back. Here skinny dogs and goats race around, nibbling scraps of mushy melon skins littered around the farm. We walk past to a point where we can see through a tiny hole in a concrete divider a big family at rest. Obscuring the vision somewhat is smoke coming from a giant coal pit. Farmers ride their bicycles back and forth on the property. The smell of the smoke is deep and rich; it smells like the colour black, or darkest brown. The big Filipino mama catches my eye. She looks healthy and vivacious. She lifts up her hand and beckons me to come in. I am mesmerized. Of course I will come in, past the rotting fruit peels and scurrying goats. Of course I will sit with your family. I hesitate and she motions again, come, come in, foreigner. Koon Hyung sees what is happening. He breaks the trance. Ka ja! He calls, and he is pulling me out as I notice that without thinking I have walked through the entrance and into the field, and now I am being looked at nonchalantly by goats, skinny dogs, chickens and farmers. Ka ja! I shake my head and walk with him, looking back once. Looking back: the thing people do when they want to think once more about that person or experience. It’s a tell.
We come back to our little on-the-cheap hotel called San Francisco Inn. Oh, how I love traveling cheaply. I get the feeling there would be no inner city farms minutes away from a five-star. We wait as the bus driver gets antsy because the rest of our party is still shopping. They’re half an hour late for the bus because they were busy waiting in line to bring back burgers for lunch. I realize that we have been in two totally different Philippines.
We bus to the ferry terminal where we learn that due to big waves, the 2pm sail will be cancelled. Nohyun is looking very nervous, sort of shaky the way he gets when something isn’t going the way he thought it would. I take his arm and look him deeply in the eye to try and dispel his anxiety, hoping he will understand my message.
“Nohyun, listen. There’s nothing we can do. Someone else is writing this story. Maybe we need to wait for a reason.”
In trying to trigger something in him, I trigger something in myself. There must be a reason. While I am changing the tickets, I ask the teller, who looks like she’s twelve years old (all the girls in the office do) if there’s anything fun around here. “Fort San Pedro,” she replies.
I tell our group we can either wait in this dark, sweaty room worrying about the boat, or we can go to a fortress. There isn’t another sailing for an hour and half, so after much deliberation, we reach a decision. We walk about five minutes and discover this groovy old fortress used during the time of the Spanish Occupation in Cebu. It’s beautiful now, decorated with flowers and adorned with freshly-painted signs in the old script labeling different rooms with different functions. One of these rooms has been converted into a very small exhibit area with four glass cases, with all but one empty. There we learn about the vestidor, a white vest worn by Hipolito Labra, a Katipunero who served from 1913-1967, the longest term during Cebu’s opposition to the Spaniards. He believed the vest made him invulnerable to attacks. Considering how long he hung in there, maybe he was onto something.
We return with ten minutes to board. I sit with Koon Hyung on the rear deck of the ferry and we enjoy silence punctuated with small conversations in either language. He points out at the water and says: Flying fish! Flying fish! I look out and sure enough, there they are, these brilliantly-coloured fish jumping as far out of the white stream of the boat as they possibly can and dropping back in. Every time he sees one, he just yells, flying fish!