The Philippine Accident

Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their homes and villages. Water and sanitation systems are broken or flooded, increasing the health risk for already vulnerable families. We must act quickly to help provide a strong humanitarian response. Please join me in giving to the the International Rescue Committee: Donate Now.

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Location: Wang Nam Kheow District, Thailand.

October Is Supposed to Be Beautiful.

I booked a flight to Manila. Not exactly by accident, but because the airfare was the same for Beijing to Hong Kong with or without a stop in Manila. I know a lot of Filipino people in the States, so as long as I’m “doing the village thing,” I thought I might as well go see it, smell it, check it out.

Then, I threw money at the Manila problem. (Everyone warned me, “Stay away from Manila!”) So I made Palawan my final destination. Apparently there are over 7,000 (inhabited) islands in The Philippines. A friend recommended visiting one with pristine tropical landscapes, etc. I asked friends what I should read and obtained an electronic copy of Eye of the Fish, a top-notch memoir by Filipino-Manhattanite poet and journalist Luis H. Francia. Then, I packed my gadgets and landed in Palawan. In the dark.

The dark is not really an issue until you consider the possibility of no electricity. Or if it appears that both your phones are dead and you did not print out directions for your hostel. In my case, I was down on those two counts, so when the baggage carousel cleared out and my fellow passengers disappeared into the night, the airport closed up and I found myself in a dimly lit parking lot with thirty five strange men and their tricycles.

Flashback to a sidewalk in Beijing, where I am casually disregarding the warning of an East Indian travel agent (living in Dubai) who cautioned me that a typhoon (Quedan) was now headed toward Hong Kong.

“I think I’ll miss it,” I said. “I’m headed to The Philippines.”

After all, what did I need to know from a high-strung corporate serf who excuses Sharia law (“if you’re married, these laws do not affect you so much”), and can’t put down her Blackberry? Ha. Nothing! Dismissed.

Well, Quedan did set all my flights back. (I almost missed my connection and got stranded in Manila.) But I made it here. I was on the right island, and I knew the name of my hostel and the town: Taytay. How far could it be?

In the parking lot, a man was standing at a table with a Tourist Bureau banner. A green fluorescent light directly above him gave him shadowy eyesockets (reminiscent of horror films), and a large fly crawled around on his face while we spoke. But under command of my faith in an orderly bureaucracy, I flushed panic from my system and assured myself he was a good dude, not a zombie. He said Taytay was four hours away, and the drivers in the parking lot were all headed home for the night, so I should stay in PPS or catch a ride now.)

What can I say? I withdrew a few thousand Philippine pesos from the ATM in the parking lot, and got in a van with three strange men who said that they could drop me off in Taytay on their way to El Nido. The bumpy drive took 5 hours. Palawan is the largest province in The Philippines. For the guys in my van, this was a daily commute.

We made a dozen detours down obscure dirt roads full of lurching potholes and slow-moving dogs. At the end of each detour, someone got off and went home, and the van turned around. The van stopped for dinner. The van hit a dog. More guys climbed in, and one took the wheel. Whose van was this? Were we still going to El Nido?

At one point, we stopped for two foreigners. The American haggled with the driver for ten minutes over a fare difference of 10 US dollars. She and a German guy had been waiting 2 hours since their last driver dumped them at that location (instead of bringing them to El Nido). She was Alaskan, possibly on cocaine. During the ride she would not stop telling me about Taiwan, or the motorbike accident that left her unconscious in a hospital with a giant lump on her leg. She was abrasive, but not insufferable because I was relieved to not be the only foreigner in the car. I apologized and said I did not mean to be rude but I was falling asleep. Rain and consciousness came and went.

* * *

It’s worth noting that everyone you encounter as a solo traveler asks you if you’re traveling alone. I’m sure they ask both men and women. And you’re supposed to lie and say you’re meeting your linebacker friend the very next day, or something. But “Be careful!” means more than “Don’t get raped!” It also means: be careful about the insects, the snakes, the food, your wallet, local law enforcement… Be careful about who you get into a van with. But once you’ve forfeited a certain degree of care, you can only keep moving forward using your best judgment. There is no recuperation. Only situational management. See more on managing the situation.

* * *

After 5 hours, the van dropped me off in a dark parking lot in Taytay. The driver finally gave me my change, and selected a tricycle  to take me to my destination.

The tricycle driver proposed a fare of 10,000 pesos. I offered 100 and we were off. It being 2:30AM, it was not a surprise that the driver and his friend were both drunk. 2:30AM is not a driving hour. It’s an hour for getting smashed on San Miguel or its equivalent, for people all over the world. But, here I was, random American in the middle of the night. So, five muddy kilometers later, we skidded to a two-wheeled stop at the hostel.

* * *

Long story short…I slept in a restaurant. The next morning, the proprietor and his wife offered me a two-week guest stay (room, board, and snorkeling) on their private island, in exchange for SEO optimization on their WordPress website. I defined the scope of work and wrote a contract faster than you can say “webmonkey blues.”

The hostel I had booked? It was no longer a hostel. It was listed erroneously on the Hostelling International website. There never was a reservation. I ate a delicious Filipino breakfast and touched the Internet long enough to tell my loved ones I was going off the grid. Then I climbed aboard a James Bond speedboat to a private island in the Sulu Sea…in many ways very far from The Philippines.

For two weeks on the island, the rain astonished us. Quedan ricocheted back and forth between The Philippines and Hong Kong, and we watched it swirl on satellite imagery. My hosts apologized.

“It never rains like this in October,” they said. “We’re so sorry. October is supposed to be beautiful.”

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Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their homes and villages. Water and sanitation systems are broken or flooded, increasing the health risk for already vulnerable families. We must act quickly to help provide a strong humanitarian response. Please join me in giving to the the International Rescue Committee: Donate Now.


3 thoughts on “The Philippine Accident

  1. Duchess, you are having a helluva adventure. Glad you did not get caught in that super typhoon monster. Take care of yourself, love, Dad

  2. There are no words for who i am as a result of the Philippines. I was trying to explain to two other grad students who i barely know how the worst and weirdest part is that to this day i won’t talk about it. The trauma is a kind of peculiar greed i hold onto, the trauma of privilege made legible in my movements, of insecurity as the mode of existence, of visibility, of improvisation as a command performance rather than a luxury, of sheer exhaustion–every day, every hour. There are no words, but the silence haunts, and i almost cried, even as one of them told me of sleeping with a knife under her pillow for two years of field work, and the silence that, too, haunts her relationship with her partner. So much unsaid, unsayable. Like if we said it, if we let it out of the container of our own interpretations, we could not control it, and it would eat us alive.

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