Nick seemed disappointed that he didn’t receive a warm reception in cool Marawi. “You know,” he said, sitting across from Susan and me on the bus, “I thought I’d have more in common with them, because of our common enemy. Except the Moros have been resisting longer than we have…they’re always going to be defiant.”
Nick made friends with a Muslim sitting next to him and asked him what he thought. Looking out the window, he said, “We used to have all of this.” All this? He was trying to say that we were still in Moro-land, but we clearly were not.
We had gone less than twenty kilometers and could see that the people along the way no longer wore colorful Maranao garb. When I pointed it out, Nick said, “We must be almost to Iligan.” It was a quick-change … a cultural change. It was like we crossed a border, but we hadn’t. There were no signs, no line. It defied explanation, when in fact it was quite simple. Within a few kilometers we came down from the highlands. Within a few kilometers, the beauty of the lake, the mountains, and the trees was replaced by industry: an integrated steel mill, alloy plants, a hydroelectric plant, a tinplate mill, and fertilizer and cement factories. Almost to town we saw rather large metal buildings lining the highway, and that was how the bucolic setting of Marawi gave way to signs of progress, and it was only possible because of capital coming in for the outside. “To develop the region, they harnessed a waterfall, destroyed its beauty, and with power came factories, plants, and mills. Of course, it meant jobs,” Nick explained. “I like to think everyone won, but I know it wasn’t the case. Somebody got filthy rich.”
We changed buses in Iligan, and for once we didn’t have to wait. When it happened so smoothly, Susan said, “Good Lord, what’s the world coming to? A bus, and on schedule.”
We followed the coast the rest of the day. We ate snacks we bought from venders who came on the bus each time we stopped. They were mostly children and women and their trade was as much part of the scene as anything else. The conductor and driver tolerated it by allowing them on the bus. Nick negotiated for us, mostly in Tagalog, though they didn’t speak Tagalog but some other dialect. By now we were used to all of this.
I bought mango and pineapple in a cup, and for some time I enjoyed the treat.
It seemed like Nick’s mood changed. “What’s wrong with you?” I asked.
“I’m lucky. My parents own a sari-sari story, which placed me above these kids … which allowed me to go to school. Here I am … on a vacation.”
“So why aren’t you enjoying yourself.”
“You look depressed to me.”
“Marawi was what was depressing,”
“What was depressing about Marawi?”
“Why were you depressed in Marawi?” I asked.
He thought for a moment, while he took a bite of jackfruit and said, “I thought we had more in common. How would you feel if you were told you were part of the problem? I see that we just as well could be Muslim as Catholic. We were all Muslims once and before that practiced something else. We were all subjugated and converted; before that we were subjugated and converted by Muslims. We have a common origin, yet we speak a different language. I kept looking for something, or expected something, and there was something, but I didn’t recognize it. It had something to do with my expectations. I said, ‘I want to fight with you.’ But they were leery … suspicious. And I understand why they would be.”
Susan and I had gotten into a rhythm, and her attention was now directed toward absorbing as much of the sights as she could, or absorbing as much as she could without knowing the people or the history. She was enjoying the smells and the tastes of the tropics. She was now the first to explore a new fruit. She also never rejected children and always had one or two of them hanging onto her, but dirt bothered her. In the Sulus, where they were less likely to have seen a white woman, she was frequently touched on an arm, her face or her hair.
I spent most of the time staring out the window, staring out the window and allowing the wind hit my face, and whenever the bus stopped, children and women came up to the window and stared at me. I could’ve reached out and touched them. Now and again, they reached out to me or held a hand out for money, but I never gave into the urge to give them something.
“My father was no fluke,” Nick said, “He could write well, and no one could phrase things better. And he had a grasp of ideas that shaped our country and read people as divergent as Joaquin and Rizal. “Guardia de Honor” was my father’s favorite story. I guarded the first book he gave me with my life. Reading has been a big part of my life.”
Susan wasn’t listening. She wasn’t listening because she was so absorbed in the scenery.
“My mother gave me something more important. Through her work in rural health she set an example. For her it was all about Mother Teresa of Calcutta, or “to give until it hurts.” The concluding chapters of Nick’s education were more secular. “Of course,” Nick said, “my trip to China greatly influenced me. But what’s the good of any of it?” he sighed. “Without justice.”
We raced through Manukan, Sindangan, and Liloy, with the bus honking at chickens and chickens fluttering and flying to get away (roosters were more prized, groomed, and hand-fed). Susan said, “God help them. God protected chickens. But no! They’re just chickens. God, what I’m saying. I thought we’d slow down for chickens and towns. What if they were people. Chickens!” She said she couldn’t look.
And she never expected to find God again after the ride between Iligan and Zamboanga. We flew all the way as if we were trying to outrun bandits. “Isn’t it lucky I can close my eyes,” she said, as she gritted her teeth. “Otherwise, I’d jump ship.” At the edge of Zamboanga, the bus finally slowed down. I looked for the cops, which might’ve been the reason the bus slowed down and strained to see what I could see. I didn’t stop looking out the window until we entered the bus station. “Good Lord, what a ride!” Susan declared, glaring at me.