Mao, a kind of Jesus in China, I didn’t know much about him. Maoism, except for generalities, I didn’t know much about it. I knew it was a breed of communism, and we were fighting communism. That was what Vietnam was all about … stopping communism. And there was the Domino Theory. And there was an Iron Curtain and people behind the Iron Curtain weren’t free, and we weren’t free to go to China, Red China. And there was always the question of who lost China. There was no redemption, no remission, communism was a sin, and there was no redemption or remission in China, and the world was divided into two camps and China, Red China was in the wrong camp. It was black and white. Nick was on the wrong side, but since I was Nick’s friend what did it make me?
The next day we got an early start. First we drank fresh pomegranate juice and ate breakfast: Susan and I ordered scrambled eggs; I added onions and tomatoes and tried fried fish. Nick relished lumpia, loganessa, fried eggs and fried fish and from time to time said something about the food. He seemed nervous. After we finished our meal, Susan and I ordered coffee, and our friend excused himself and went back to his room.
“What’s wrong with Nick?” Susan asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Sometimes I feel like we’re intruding. I know that it is true sometimes with…”
I smiled. “Now be honest. We all sometimes wish we weren’t tied to someone else’s schedule.”
“Are you saying you wish I’d stayed home?” she asked.
“No, no,” I said. “I like being with you.” I smiled again, a fake smile, and she recognized it. There was a form of communication that Susan and I had that didn’t involve words (most married people have it), but with us there was no malice, since we really cared for each other. And enjoyed each other’s company. This meant that I was glad she hadn’t stayed home … in spite of our needing a break from each other, and so possibly my faked smile came from habit. Susan later told me that the reason she traipsed halfway around the world with me…if it hadn’t been for the draft…was because it had been my dream, which strangely disappointed me.
“My dear Ted,” she said, “I have gone along with your adventurousness to my astonishment because I didn’t want to lose you and thus far it’s been worth it. We’ve made friends here. We’ve made a life. Friends have made the difference. But let’s take it a day at a time. You’re undoubtedly more adventurous than I am, and undoubtedly at some point I’ll say I’ve had enough. But for now let’s take it a day at time. Some day I’m sure I’ll want to set down roots.”
And then I said, “People are not trees.” I shouldn’t have said people are not trees.
When Nick returned I told him that that didn’t take him long, and he said “daily cleansing” was a beautiful thing, and then asked if we were ready to go. Susan had to excuse herself first.
After a day in Zamboanga, we planned to go for a day over to Basilan, unless there was a kidnapping, a bombing, or some other form of violence over there. Nick said his father always stressed the importance of paying attention and the use of common sense, but he’d also been a risk taker. Nick wasn’t afraid of getting kidnapped, getting killed, and wasn’t particularly afraid of anything, while we could see he was nervous. Then what did he know that we didn’t know?
I think Nick also thought he could talk himself out of any dangerous situation. He had the right credentials … though his experience in Marawi didn’t reassure him. As far as he was concerned, he never made the right connections and was surprised that he wasn’t welcomed as a “brother.” Now Nick was determined to sell himself as a “brother” and not emphasize his religion and simply learn as much as he could. Didn’t they have a common enemy or enemies?
And the timing seemed right. With the demonstrations on campus, the timing seemed right. With the demonstrations on campus and the unrest in the south, the timing seemed right, but he said, “I have to remember that they have been struggling longer than we have. We’ll have to see. We’ll have to see.”
Nick had Moro friends back in Manila, and they treated each other with respect, and he could fall back on that. But Mao (as a model) hadn’t impressed the Moros like he had Nick and hadn’t caused them to change tactics that they used for more than three centuries. “I have no allusions,” Nick said, ‘but I think we’ll be okay.” Nick hadn’t come all this way to be deterred. So when Susan came back, we were all set.
That evening, the three of us had dinner on a hotel patio over looking the Basilian Strait, and it had tables right next to the water. When we arrived there was a group of gypsy boys diving for coins. They were standing on the water’s edge and on the edge of a small praus. A waiter steered us to a table near the water but not too far away from a bar. There was a Caucasian (later identified as Tom, an American), with an attractive Filipina, sitting at a table next to ours. “Why don’t you join us!” the stranger said, standing up and indicating to the waiter to make room for us. “It isn’t often that I get to dine with fellow Americans. I know Americans when I see them. I also notice that you’re not typical tourists. My companion and I here have just ordered. Let me recommend the prawns. They’re fresh, huge, and, as a fisherman, I know my prawns.” He pulled out a chair for Susan. Nick and I brought over a couple of chairs.
After introducing himself, Tom asked us what brought us to Zamboaga. He then explained that he ran a fishing operation off of Basilian and how it was getting more expensive and tougher for him. But for an American in Sulu he was apparently very successful. From the way he dressed you could tell he had money … something he never mentioned. He didn’t have to mention it. You could also tell his companion had expensive taste. Her clothes were expensive. You could tell she loved clothes. She hung onto his arm whenever they weren’t eating. Whenever they were relaxing, she clung to him. In Nick’s opinion, he was an interloper and she was his “jungle bride.” He told us that afterwards.
According to Nick, Tom’s time had passed. No matter how much he helped the economy or how many people he hired, Tom’s time had passed. He was a thief, a robber, and it didn’t matter if what he did was legal, he was robbing what rightfully belonged to the Philippine people. He was an interloper. Gypsies lived and depended on these waters. They depended on fish and fishing and should benefit from fishing. Instead they weren’t treated fairly by anyone.
Speaking of gypsies, the boys were hard to ignore but were one of the reasons tourists came to the restaurant. They had become an attraction and earned enough money from diving for coins to make it worth their while. So Susan for a few minutes tossed coins in the water and watch them dive and retrieve the money. The crystal clear water made it possible. If they had been anywhere else, begging or selling trinkets or gum, Susan would’ve ignored them. But here she rewarded them generously.
Then I told Tom that we were planning to go to Basilian.
Tom invited us to stay with him. When I saw Nick’s face, I realized that it might not be a good idea to accept Tom’s invitation. I saw Nick’s face and saw him squirm, while I thought Tom missed it. Why not? You may ask why not. I knew why. Nick traveled all the way from Manila to specifically spend time on Basilian and then to stay with an American … I could see why he wouldn’t want to stay with an American. He traveled all the way from Manila to spend time on Basilian with Moros and not an American. He couldn’t have been too happy. It could mean he could lose his chance with the Moros, and what if the Moros were plotting to throw the American off the island and hadn’t gotten around to it yet? What if? Then I had one of my conciliatory moments and said that we already booked our passages on a ship that would take us to Sitankai and back, which, with our schedule, left us with only one day for Basilian.
This pleased Nick. Now he could look for his rebels.
Tom offered the invitation again, and added that he wasn’t home that much; his fishing required it. “Requires an army, imagine it?”
Nick was happy now. I would’ve enjoyed staying with Tom.
“My darling here,” Tom said, looking at his companion. “Cecelia will be disappointed. You know Filipinos. But aren’t we all beneficiaries? With a woman like Cecelia I ought to know. I couldn’t be luckier. She knows my every need and is surprisingly free. I thought I knew everything about women until I met her…here in Zamboanga, Miss Cecelia. She comes along, seduces me, and begins my education. Now she runs my house. But someday she’ll run my business. Legitimacy is always an issue. The idea is for me to continue to expand. Sabah is close by; Malaysia; and here I am now; and if things go south…well, I have a speed boat.”
Tom carried on about Cecelia, about his fairy-tale life and not a word came from her. “Even if you can’t spend the night, you three can certainly come to dinner…that would be after the ferry has left the island for the day so it’ll be a bonus. I can bring you back to Zamboanga in my speed boat.”
Nick refused to comment.
“How about some prawns?” he asked. “They also have the best wines. I’ve ordered the best of the best.”
“This is all quite nice,” Nick finally said.
Our waiter brought us all wine. He took our menus and our orders. “I’m surprise they serve wine. In deference to Muslims, I thought they wouldn’t,” Nick said.
“One of the reasons I come here is because they cater to Western tourists. When I’m home I observe all of the dietary restrictions of my neighbors and stay away from pork. I observe all of their holidays and give my employees the time off. They’re also able to be with their families for Christmas and Easter. I don’t discriminate. That’s why I’m tolerated. Now let me hear about you.”
Nick bit his lip and said, “I’m all about change…in the way we view each other, in the way we think…and I’m always focused on tomorrow, and optimistic that the world will change for the better.”
Tom didn’t respond, and then Nick said to Tom, “I suppose you’re satisfied with the way things are.”
We enjoyed our prawn meal. Afterward Tom excused himself, walked a ways away from us, and lit a cigarette. Tom said it was a nasty habit that he enjoyed very much…enjoyed all his vices from smoking to drinking. “But I can modify my behavior,” he added with a smile. “Over time I’ve learned. You might say I’ve learned to adapt. Happily I can afford a private life.” When we said goodnight to Cecelia and Tom, they were heading to a room in the hotel, but they weren’t in a hurry.