Gettin’ down with the locals
Anyone that knows me is aware of my keen aversion to hot weather, adventure of any kind and eating meat off the bone. My dear departed Dad was a big fan of venturing down a winding dirt track just to see where it would lead. The risks, like getting stuck in the mud after dark among a herd of cows, never seemed to occur to him. I, on the other hand, value my creature comforts too much to submit myself to such foolish endeavours. Thinks: Hmm….good word that….endeavours.
So there I was on an uncharacteristically cloudy day in Cebu City, Philippines, asking Frank: ‘So what shall we do today? Perhaps we should visit your friends in the countryside.’ I heard myself making the suggestion, but another voice in my head was saying:
‘Ah HELL no! You did NOT just say that! Are you CRAZY? How are you gonna get to the countryside?! You gonna leave your comfortable hotel room and air conditioning behind for the dirty, stinking hot-as-hell countryside? On a bus?!! What about food? What about flies on the food!? What about bacteria on the flies?!’ However, despite the inner tirade, I felt that I needed to challenge myself. Get out of my comfort zone for a change. A wise man once said: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. ” I’m also aware that if you risk nothing then you gain nothing. So, in the interests of broadening my experience and living life more fully, I made the magnanimous and self-sacrificing gesture. I half expected Frank to reject the offer in favour of air conditioning and non-stop HBO movies, but he thought it was a grand idea and so we hatched our plan.
I had recently returned the rental car that I had hired to visit his parents (also in the countryside), and was not able to hire another car on such last-minute timing. This left us with the option of taking a taxi (mercifully air conditioned) to the North Bus terminal where we would catch a yellow bus, going North to the town of Catmon. The yellow buses are known locally as ‘the killer bus’. I was told that this name was due to the reckless devil-may-care attitude of the drivers and that the yellow buses come in two varieties – air conditioned or ‘hell on wheels’.
Having been a Boy Scout in my teen years, I always live by the Scout motto: ‘be prepared’. I therefore made sure that I had packed in my chocolate Oreo’s, dried mango and a bottle of water. To this essential kit I added sunscreen, insect repellant, sunglasses and a cap, spare T-shirt, some bandage and a small pair of scissors. Of course my battery operated travel fan had to be included too. So, with my backpack feeling like a sack filled with rocks, we located a taxi and travelled the fifteen air conditioned minutes to the bus terminal. As we approached the place, the taxi driver asked: ‘Sod?’ Frank confirmed: ‘Sod.’ Apparently the driver was asking if he should drop us inside the bus terminal, as to do so costs 10 pesos, paid to a guard at the gate. We happily paid for this additional luxury.
It was while alighting from the taxi that I began to get an idea of what I had let myself in for. Although the sky was still overcast, the warm humid air covered me like a thick blanket and my sweat glands went to red alert. The throngs of Filipinos milling about the area seemed to stop what they were doing to stare at the foreigner that had appeared like Godzilla in their midst. Numerous open-fronted stores selling awful snacks and cheap tat for a few pesos each lined the open-air waiting area.
Frank went in search of a bus that would take us north to Catmon, leaving me to stare back at the locals. Although the buses leave regularly, there’s no timetable. This probably avoids the annoyance of complaining passengers and having to stick to advertised times. My luck was out as far as the air-conditioned bus was concerned. We had no choice but to take the al fresco version with all windows wide open. In this way we could catch as much of the smog and air pollution as possible. Buying bus tickets, it seems, is not a precise art. The passengers climb onto the bus of their choice, find a shiny red vinyl-covered seat (too narrow for all but those with smaller than a 29-inch waist) and wait for the bus to depart. Then, at some point along the route, the conductor will ask where you are going and issue some officially clipped tickets, but no money changes hands. That process happens only much later in the journey. I still can’t fathom the reason for the protracted negotiation.
As the bus rolled out of the terminal, I was amused to see the conductor lean out of the window and pay a fee to the attendant in a booth at the gate. Everywhere you go in the Philippines there’s someone with a hand outstretched to collect some fee or other, whether officially sanctioned or not.
I was pleased that the bus wasn’t filled to capacity. We had three seats to ourselves, so my broader build could be accommodated in relative comfort. Frank took the window seat and was in charge of the manual air conditioning – raising and lowering of the window. A young kid in front of us stared at me over his mother’s shoulder. His dark eyes examined my pale foreign countenance. I smiled benignly back at him, but life to these children seems to be very serious indeed and few of them will return a smile. I found the same with the kids in Taiwan. Just shy, I suppose. Perhaps what I imagined to be an engaging child-friendly smile looked like a lunatic leer to the child.
My comfort was short-lived. The bus driver tended to stop on a whim as he saw passengers waiting for a ride. No such thing as official bus stops there. The conductor, with a towel wrapped around his head and bank notes between his fingers, would shout a cheeky greeting at the top of his voice and reach down to help them aboard, sometimes even hopping off the bus momentarily to bring their plastic bags on board. One such passenger I dubbed as ‘Granny Smith’, although her real surname would have been Rodriguez, Villamor or something with an equally Spanish flavour. Apparently other seats were already taken, so she squeezed onto the seat next to me. I moved up as best I could, thanking my lucky stars that she was skinny and spry instead of Sumo wrestler proportions. My relief, however, was short-lived as Granny Smith began to nod off with her head lolling against my shoulder. I was faced with the choice of lending my shoulder for the purposes of her siesta or simply sitting forward in my seat. I chose the latter option in the interests of my own comfort and Granny Smith’s wizened head lolled to the left, rolling gently with the movement of the bus. Every now and then the bus would lurch over one of the many potholes in the road and Granny Smith’s head would connect with my elbow, causing her to jolt back to reality, but only momentarily before drifting off again. This was a process that would repeat at regular intervals throughout the next 90 minutes of the journey.
Traffic up the North Road from Cebu is bumper-to-bumper for most of the way….or perhaps I should say ‘end to end’. Many of the vehicles in the Philippines have been without bumpers for a long time or indeed without many of the other basic necessities that make a vehicle roadworthy. There’s no dual-carriageway after exiting Cebu. The road is congested with multi-cabs and tricycles and motorbike riders weave in and out trying to find their own space on the road. Almost all vehicles belch out thick diesel or oil fumes with reckless abandonment. Those working in the midst of the traffic, such as the pseudo traffic police, try to limit exposure to the fumes by covering their mouth with a towel or bandana, which together with the sunglasses and cap makes them look like hijackers at best. The bandana filter is probably woefully ineffectual in reducing the rate of carbon monoxide inhalation.
The bus passed through Consolacion, Liloan, Compostela and reached the sea at Danao City. The view along the coconut palm-clustered coast is breathtaking and took my mind off the hot, humid air blowing in my face and Granny Smith snoring gently next to me. The bus stopped for ten minutes at the terminal north of Carmen while the bus driver went to relieve himself. Granny Smith moved to the seat opposite to allow us to get out of our seats and stretch our legs. I say ‘allow us’, but I doubt she could have stopped us if she tried. She remained in the seat opposite for the rest of the journey to Catmon. Frank said something to the conductor who said something to the driver and the bus came to a screeching halt outside the seaside resort where Frank was to meet up with his friends.
The rest of the afternoon was spent in the company of lovely people at a table on the beach discussing this, that and the other over a few bottles of San Miguel pilsen and a plate of battered vege bites with sweet chilli sauce on the side. I’m always loathe to leave the comforts of home, but usually when I get to where I’m going, I’m glad I ignored the risks and did it anyway
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