Payatas

By Michelle Peñaloza

Poem

for Ate Susan

Rizal forever
gazes at the passing Pasig,
donning his bronzed bowler hat. He rivals
Niobe, seeing—smelling—this river reduced
to runnel, following its scent
past Malacañang to Quezon.
A place once ravine, now a city
built along tributaries of trash: Payatas,
a steaming cordillera, supporting life
atop the refuse that shapes its peak; a dumpsite
fertile with plastic bags
roiling in the mount’s current of hot wind.

In 2006 I was going through some identity issues. My upbringing was decidedly American, but my habits were infused with Filipino sensibilities. I had a lot of tension between by East/West selves. My solution was a summer in the Philippines to resolve the conflict.

When I mentioned the idea to my parents their immediate reaction was horror. They used their best tactics to talk me out of it. My father used terror: “You know they kidnap Americans over there? If you get kidnapped, I can’t come get you. ” My mother appealed to my fastidious nature: “Did you know not all the bathrooms have toilet paper? Some are pit toilets. It’s gross. You won’t like it.” Thing is, my folks walked away from their families to create a life for my siblings and me in the U.S. We weren’t the type of immigrants that returned for visits. Their split had been decisive. I wondered if they were afraid that I would rewrite the romantic narrative they authored. It didn’t have anything to do with that. I just needed to understand more about where I was born.

Because of my parents’ warnings, I was suitably paranoid and expected to be constipated for the duration of the visit. I lucked upon a great program, Tagalog-On-Site, that encompassed language, literature, history, and politics. It was geared towards students who wanted to understand the American influence in the Philippines. The classes covered topics from the American colonial period, the U.S. military presence from World War 2 and beyond, and the continued affects of globalization on the islands. I thought it a socially progressive program, my Dad called it leftist.

An added incentive to the Tagalog-On-Site program was its location near the University of Philippines, Los Banos campus. If Manila was equivalent to New York City than Los Banos was like Stamford, Connecticut, a low-key city with not a lot going on. It was the perfect, easygoing place to learn about Filipino me.

When I got to the Philippines, I saw that my classes were held in the middle of a suburban-style housing development that reminded me a bit of a neighborhood where I grew up in New Jersey, save for the tropical foliage. At the time, I had been very athletic and since there was no gym nearby, I decided I would wake up early and run in the mornings.

No one in the dorm was awake as I put on my sneakers and walked out. At home I ran or hiked in the woods of upstate New York and took the trails in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, so I thought the easiest thing to do was to run in the nearby Boy Scout preserve.

The plan sounded benign, boring even, except in the Philippines there are wild dogs that roam the streets. In the U.S. that wasn’t a hazard I thought about. I had done some hiking in Yosemite, so bears I feared. And in my head I played out that if any wild dogs were to chase me, I’d punch them in the nose like a bear. Or just figure it out.

Since this is my loopy longwinded story, now is the time I disabuse people of the notion that Filipinos eat dogs. We don’t. That’s a myth created at the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis, Missouri. At the time the fair organizers thought it a great idea to have a pavilion that showed the savages of the Pacific. They flew in a bunch of Igarot tribesmen in their traditional loincloths to populate the village. In a stroke of idiocy, xenophobic organizers killed and captured dogs to give the tribesmen to eat. Hence the legend persists.

It wasn’t lost on me that morning of my maiden run that I might be the food, rather than the dogs. Would the dogs avenge the memories of those St. Louis pups? I immediately dismissed the thought because the dogs barely looked up as I ran by them. Perhaps they realized my scrawny body wouldn’t be as tasty as the leftovers from the suburban homes. They couldn’t be bothered to chase me.

So to the Boy Scout preserve I made my way. The heat of the day hadn’t yet settled in but I could feel the warmth of the sun through the treetops.

I should have been startled by the gentleman wearing a diaper. He appeared about 10 minutes into my run. About sixty or older, he was also carrying a naked baby. Visually, there was something off.

From what I could tell, the diapered man came from a grouping of shacks within the park. It isn’t uncommon for the poor in the Philippines to do without shoes or a change of clothes. In the slums, the shanties are made of wood, cardboard or metal. And some of the homes have no roofs. Basic amenities like electricity, water, and sewage are not taken for granted. Without a doubt, the poverty is desperate.

In the moment, I didn’t feel unsafe but I wasn’t going to linger. I acknowledged him with my eyebrows to which he responded in kind. It’s a Filipino style of greeting that I only lapse into when I’m around other Pinoys. And then I was off.

On my trip back to the dorm, I ran the same pathways, through the woods, and up on the sidewalk. I showered and made my way to breakfast where I sat with classmates.

Immediately a rash appeared on my legs, my arms, my body. Ged, one of the coordinators of the program, looked at me and asked what had happened. We were only supposed to speak in the Filipino language, and mine was somewhat rudimentary, so in a terrible pantomime I explained.

Ged turned to the others. Their faces, once happy and animated, turned grave. I wasn’t quite sure what they were saying but I could tell it wasn’t good.

“You’ll need to show me the route. We need to go back and you need to apologize to the dwarves, the wood spirits,” she told me in English for emphasis. At this point in my Philippine experience I didn’t know Ged very well. Her official Tagalog-on-Site biography informed she was well educated and was involved in some indigenous music groups. My interactions with her at that point had been pleasant. I had no reason to be suspicious of the resolution she proposed.

The Philippines is a faith-based country. The main religion practiced is Catholicism. Other forms of Christianity pervade and there is a strong Muslim contingent in the south. Many of the religious customs combine animistic concepts that date back around 1565, the pre-Spanish colonial period.

Growing up, my parents only told me about certain Filipino superstitions like repeating the Hail Mary prayer when driving next to a cemetery. They never mentioned wood spirits. But could it hurt to make the apology? At the time I was participating in many healing modalities, experiencing many spiritual/new-age activities, so I thought – why not?

At various locations in the preserve, Ged and I stopped. We placed rice and money on the ground as an offering of appeasement and I’d apologize. She told me, in the future, to avoid any mishaps to say, “step aside little dwarf” because they protected the forests. If I saw a little dirt-pile, that’s where they were. I didn’t say it aloud but thought, isn’t that an anthill? Yet, Ged’s conviction made me take it seriously.

We finally came upon the spot where I ran into the gentleman with the diaper. I recounted events. “Oh, did he look at you?” she asked. A worried look came over her face. ” Yes,” I responded and repeated the eyebrow salutation.

Ged asked everyone in the vicinity about the guy. “If we find him, let me do the talking,” she said. I wasn’t quite sure of her concern. Turns out, Ged thought the guy put a love spell on me! And she needed to reverse the magic.

Filipinos have a lot romantic, dramatic and not especially realistic notions about love. Ill-fated lovers often reunite in heaven after stormy relationships in their lifetimes. It hadn’t occurred to me that the old man put a spell on me. Why? Was it because I was passing through his neighborhood? I didn’t look especially glamorous. And he was carrying a baby so somewhere there was a woman, the mother of the baby, in his life. I suppressed my inclination to laugh at Ged’s suggestion.

Then there he was. This time he wore shorts and a tee shirt. I didn’t see the baby. And I noticed he had bad teeth but a big grin as they talked. I think Ged said,” She’s a student from America. She doesn’t understand. She’s sorry. It won’t ever happen again.” The only word I understood was “po,” which adds formality to the Filipino language.

Confident that we had accounted for my running route, Ged and I headed back to the dorm and a day of classes. Although I was mentally calm, my body was on fire. The rash had spread all over. When was my repentance going to stick? Didn’t the money and food help? And it was clear, at least to me, I wasn’t under a love spell.

Despite all the effort, Ged took me to the university infirmary for an allergy shot. I couldn’t handle the itching. As much as I tried to embrace the superstitions in the moment, I just needed the medication. It was the Western antidote to my Eastern ills.

 

Burnings

By Ocean Vuong

Poem

            photograph (circa 1989)

Refugee camp in the Philippines.
I sit, flanked by mother and aunt: my saviors.
Here, they are young again,
their bodies smooth and unscarred
beneath the white garments illuminating
from the shack’s interior.
No. This is not a metaphor
for angels—but there are halo shards
locked in their mouths. Do not believe
the light in their eyes, the grins stretched
so wide, there is no room for joy.
Do not say our names. These faces
cannot belong to the ruin they became.
Do not say our names as this flame grows
from the edge of the photo, the women’s smiles
peeling into grimaces, the boy spreading
into black smudge, filaments of fire
dissolving into wind. No, do not say our names.
Let us burn quietly into the lives
                                                                 we never were.

 

Not long ago, on a frigid December morning in the heart of Korea, I was walking to work while in front of me an old woman pushed her cart. She looked indistinguishable from any other old Korean woman – wearing mismatched baggy floral garments, a visor in spite of the complete absence of any sunlight, a face mask to protect her from invisible germs that fly over from foreign countries, and a pair of dirty white gloves.

She was about ten paces ahead of me when it happened… All of a sudden she whipped down her baggy floral trousers and giant brown underpants and proceeded to squeeze out a massive shit on the frosty pavement, followed by a splattering, spraying, steaming puddle of piss.

I was utterly horrified, of course, and for the next two hours I taught my children upstairs in a classroom, the window of which overlooked the scene of the crime. That cabbagey behemoth stared up at me until someone was kind enough to step in it and carry it into obscurity on the bottom of their shoe.

 

I’ve always been obsessed with sharks. I think the obsession began around the same time I decided dinosaurs were the coolest thing, and when that dinosaur obsession devolved into a mere interest, and then into a closet interest after the realization that I didn’t possess the requisite science or math abilities to be a paleontologist, my love of sharks stayed strong.

To this day I never miss Shark Week. I never pass up the opportunity to look at pictures of sharks on the internet or in magazines. I read about shark attacks like others read about sports. I always see the newest shitty shark movie on TV and always hate it a little less than anyone else.

 

I couldn’t go home yet. I’d made it this far out into the world—surely I could go a little farther.

The PR woman in charge of the Filippino press trip I was on arranged to have my stay extended, and I eagerly researched methods to get to a small island north of Cebu called Malapascua.

I chose Malapascua because my guidebook listed it as one of the few places in the world to dive with thresher sharks. The common thresher shark ranges in size from 10 to 25 feet and has a tail shaped like a scythe, with which they use to stun their prey. A pelagic species, thresher sharks generally reside at depths too dangerous for divers to reach.

Thresher

Perfect, I thought. No matter that I hadn’t been diving in years. No matter that the thought made my chest tight, my breath short.

According to my guidebook, Monad Shoal, off the coast of Malapascua, is one of the only places in the world known for daily sightings of thresher sharks. It’s here where the thresher sharks convene every morning to have a symbiotic relationship with the small wrasse fish who cleans them of bacteria, eating the dead skin from their bodies and even the insides their mouths.

My diving with sharks, a creature I was deathly afraid of, seemed the perfect antidote to the raging desperation I felt inside. I was 25 years old and my father had just died of cancer two months before, leaving me parentless and quite alone in the world.

On the morning that I was due to return to Los Angeles, I instead waved goodbye to my fellow journalists and watched as they clambered into the air-conditioned van for their ride to the airport. Then I climbed into the backseat of a taxi and asked the driver to take me to the local bus station.

Getting to Malapascua was no easy feat. The journey began with an eight-hour bus ride through the jungle up to the very tip of Cebu where I would then have to find a boat willing to take me out to the island.

I sat by myself in the old un-airconditioned school bus and stared out the window at the passing trees and densely tangled vines. The bus, like most Filipino transport, was decorated with an outrageous assortment of fringe and beads and wildly painted colors. American classic rock blasted from little speakers strategically placed throughout the interior, ensuring that no one could hear anything but ABBA’s finest.

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The other passengers on the bus turned around frequently to stare at me and whenever we stopped, people along the side of the road would grab their companions and point up at me: this wide-eyed white girl traveling alone. I didn’t mind their stares, my lips curving into a slight smile in return. I had a week under my belt of this kind of treatment. I was beginning to get used to it.

I also just didn’t care anymore. At some point during this trip—perhaps walking through the Chinese cemetery in Manila at dusk—I had decided to just give myself up to the world. I had nothing, absolutely nothing, to lose.

And seemingly the world responded in kind. For the rest of my trip I was handed off from person to person. Everyone seemed interested in the young American woman traveling alone. The taxi driver, the bus driver, the young ticket-taker boys all inquired after my journey. Where are you going? Who are you going with? You’re alone? Where are your companions? Where is your husband?

I answered their questions honestly, admitting that I was very much alone and transparently clueless about what I was getting myself into. Each of them took it upon themselves to hand me off to the next. The taxi driver made sure I got onto the correct bus. The young ticket boys on the bus walked me out to the docks at the end of the island. The boat driver assured me that he would see me to his aunt’s resort (a series of ramshackle huts on the beach). And each of them, true to their word, made sure I reached my next destination.

I’ll never forget sitting perched on the edge of that rickety catamaran on my way to Malapascua. I’d been the last passenger on the bus when we reached the end of Cebu and the young ticket boy escorted me over to the docks. Hey, this girl wants to go to Malapascua, he called out to several men lounging around the makeshift port.

Uncharted5

And soon I found myself scudding along the clear blue ocean, my face lifted to the sun, all signs of land disappearing from view as I went farther and farther out into the ocean.

No matter how sad I was, no matter how wrenchingly lonely I felt, no matter how bottomless my pain seemed, there never disappeared a part of me absolutely determined to live my life. I closed my eyes to the warm ocean breeze and I knew this about myself.

Malapascua was incredibly small, maybe one mile by two. The electricity shut off every night at 10 p.m. and the running water only ran twice a day. The entire time I was there I only encountered three other tourists: two American Peace Corps workers and their traveling friend. After I checked into one of the huts on the beach I walked over to the dive place and introduced myself to the dive master, a friendly British guy named Duncan.

I got certified as a diver when I was fourteen. Both of my parents were divers, my mother the more serious of them, and we went every year on our annual trips to Grand Cayman. My mother and I were always dive buddies, checking each other’s gear and swimming alongside each other. She loved to point out anemones and eels, which she’d find hidden in secret little crevasses among the coral. We’d nod at each other, our eyes wide in our masks, mouths smiling around our regulators.

Divers_2

But I hadn’t been diving in years. I didn’t know where my certification was, didn’t know if I even remembered how to read the gauges or adjust my buoyancy level. I didn’t care, though, and I told all of this to Duncan. He assured me that it would all come back easily, that it was a simple dive, and handed me a form on which he jokingly suggested I sign my life away.

I scribbled out my signature as he explained that we would dive Monad Shoal early the next morning. The dive was 80 feet, he described, and we would simply descend and kneel on the sandy bottom to watch the sharks as they went through their morning routine. I looked around the dive hut at the pictures on the wall, those enormous grey fish, their tails almost as long as their bodies. I nodded at Duncan, told him I’d see him in the morning.

I spent the rest of the day exploring the island. I wandered through the tiny village and out into the mangroves, walking from one end of the island to the other, clouds floating across the sky before me and the ocean stretching out for unknowable miles. I thought about my parents and my life and what they would want for me and what I wanted for myself. And I knew that I was doing it, whatever it was.

The next morning I showed up at Duncan’s dive hut at 5:30 a.m. It was still dark out, but just as Duncan had said, the roosters woke me on time. We set about loading up the boat with gear—we would be the only divers, although there was a young Filipino boy who would remain on board the boat while we went down. Monad Shoal was a good half hour out into the wide, open ocean. I could only faintly see land in the distance once we finally reached the buoy that marked our dive spot.

My anxiety mounted as we assembled the gear. I hadn’t been diving in years. I’d hardly ever gone without my mother and never without a large group of people. Dawn was barely beginning to break and the ocean was dark and choppy. I tried to imagine the sharks eighty feet below us. Duncan said there were usually around thirty of them. My heart was pounding as I dropped backwards over the edge of the boat in my mask and fins, my B.C. and regulator.

As soon as we began to descend into the water, my hands tight around the anchor rope, my heart began to pound even harder. My chest was grew tight. I was terrified. Visibility was poor; I could hardly see five feet below me and I could not tamp the rising sense of panic thinking about the school of sharks pooled below us.


I shook my head at Duncan, cut my finger across my neck to call it off; I couldn’t do it.

He was kind about it, pouring me a cup of coffee from a little thermos and wrapping a towel around my shoulders, but sitting on the bow of the boat as we skimmed across the water on our way back to Malapascua, I felt foolish. Tears slipped down my cheeks.

What was it I was so desperately trying to prove to myself?

I’ve told this story a hundred times and it never ceases to be anti-climatic. But the truth is that I didn’t have to dive with those sharks in order to know that I was living my life. The moral of the story is that old adage: it’s not about the destination, it’s what gets you there. It’s the journey itself that matters. I didn’t need to swim with sharks to prove that I could handle the deaths of my parents.

I returned to the Malapascua that morning with Duncan, thanked him one last time, and ran off to meet my new friend Melanie, a Malapascua native and sole bartender at the one of the island’s two bars—the floating one. Melanie and I spent the day snorkeling off the southern tip of the island, pointing to the brightly colored parrot fish and carefully concealed eels.

Uncharted4

Heading back to Cebu a few days later, my back stuck to the pleather seat of that old school bus, Boston blasting through the tinny speakers, I knew I’d found what I’d gone looking for and I was grateful that I didn’t have to dive with sharks to find it.