The next morning Susan and I went down to the lobby to check out. We had a summons from local police, something we hadn’t expected. We asked the clerk about it, since he handed it to us, and he dismissed it. He told us not worry. He said, “The police get a copy of all of our registration slips. It’s law. We follow the letter of the law. Since you’re traveling outside of Manila, I assume your passports are in order.”
We knew we could be into serious trouble, though our passports were in order or appeared to be in order.
“Why would police bother with tourist like us,” I asked, without hesitation.
The clerk said he didn’t know.
“We’ll check out anyway,” I said. “We can ill afford to change our plans, since we want to see as much of the Philippines as possible.”
I felt nervous. I felt I looked nervous. I was certainly glib … perhaps too glib … looked guilty … and gave ourselves away. I always looked guilty. Then to minimize the situation, I said, “I suppose this isn’t unusual.”
“You’re right, sir. I can reassure you that it’s quite routine.”
Routine to him was far from routine to us, while I hoped he was right. So we felt we didn’t have a choice but go to the police station, and said we would.
When Susan and I left the hotel, she suggested that we walk. As we made our way along, it felt like she was trying to delay the inevitable. She wore comfortable, open sandals and was carrying a backpack, and she wasn’t in a hurry. It was how I also felt, as I held her arm to emphasize how I supported her. We were tempted to run. I knew she felt the way I felt. We could easily run, since the police hadn’t detained us at the hotel. The summons seemed more like an invitation than an ultimatum, though it came with an official seal and all of the importance that such a seal implied.
And there was me feeling guilty. I couldn’t hide it. I felt guilty, and it showed on my face … in my complexion and bearing it seemed so obvious. And there was a distinct possibility that I’d confess right off the bat. Susan looked worried, and I knew I looked just as bad.
Without warning, she stopped and seemed so bewildered that she didn’t know which way to turn.
I held onto her. “What’s the matter?”
“We didn’t ask directions. Men never do.”
“I know where we are. It’s hard to get lost on the main street.”
Right there on the main drag, she started crying. Right there on the main drag, she told me that all she wanted was to go home. She told me she didn’t want to be there. She told me that whatever I wanted she always went along with it. And she never said anything and always accepted whatever I said. But she was tired of it … tired of being a caboose.
Caboose? Where did that come from? .
“I don’t like this,” she said. “We should’ve left the country when we were told to, and tell me why we didn’t! It was your decision. Just like this is your decision.”
“My decision! Now whose decision was it?”
“I simply went along with it.”
“No, you seem to forget that you didn’t want to leave.”
“I simply went along with it. You’ve always been the engine, and I’ve always been the caboose.”
It would’ve been one thing for us to have been tourist, (or travelers, as I preferred to be called), with a set itinerary, I thought, but it was quite another thing to get involved in the internal affairs of a foreign country. Now we were fugitives, fugitives in a foreign country, and we really couldn’t go back home. That’s when I found myself saying, “It could be worse. We’re not dead yet.”
I hailed a motorized tricycle. We hadn’t yet grown used to people staring at us. Perhaps we would never get use to it and would never escape from a glass bowl we were in. That morning we wanted to breakout more than ever. Wanted to get away from stares that saw right through us. Wanted to disappear and get out of Tacloban more than anything. Before getting in the tricycle, I looked up and down the street. The coast seemed clear.
While we intended to go the police station, there were many reasons that kept us from it. Most importantly was loss of time and maybe loss of freedom. Our saving grace was that we hadn’t been detained. We could see ourselves detained and turned over to the US Embassy.
There were times when I didn’t think clearly, and this was one of them, and there was no way of knowing whether we would pay for it. This wasn’t easy. Nothing at this point in our lives was easy, and it was why we hesitated. I took responsibility for what we finally did.
We clung to the hope that it meant something that we weren’t arrested. Maybe it was because, as Susan said, we weren’t in our room when the police came by. It wasn’t like we were International criminals or big time crooks. We were small fry in a huge pan. I needed to remember that we were small fry in a huge pan. I told the tricycle driver to take us to the edge of town and then from there to Red Beach. To the driver we hopefully looked like typical American tourists anxious to see where MacArthur landed.
Most days people went back and forth, to and from the beach in jeepneys and tricycles. There were so many people that there was always someone waiting to be brought back to town. This worked to our advantage because by then we didn’t intend to return to Tacloban..
We bought our meals as we went along. Everywhere there were coffee shops and sari-sari stores from which we could purchase food. It was one less thing we had to worry about as we took one last look at where MacArthur waded ashore. I couldn’t resist the temptation of reenacting the event.
From then on we had to be on guard, blending in as much as possible. Whenever I think of close calls, I think of Tacloban and one phrase comes to mind: Hindi aco patay or I’m not dead yet.
While on the road in Leyte, we traveled with a Christian family migrating to Mindanao. We left Red Beach without knowing where we would spend the night. We thought we would hitchhike, do anything to avoid public transportation. We followed the coast from Tacloban to MacAuthur and on to Panlot in southern Leyte, on foot with our host family.
I had never spent a week walking in my life, and I couldn’t get over how this family from Tondo had packed all their belongings in and on a homemade rig and were pushing and pulling it down a highway. It was amazing. It was amazing they weren’t run over. It was amazing to me that they chose this simple but ostentatious way to move from Manila to the promise land in Mindanao. It was amazing to me that they went as far as they had without a major accident. And no one tried to stop them. Yet with a third of the effort and much less grief, they could’ve all gone to Mindanao by ferry.
It was as if they valued their belongings more than their lives. They were forever holding up traffic. More times than I could count I saw buses, cars, and trucks almost run over them, and I knew what it would’ve cost them. I can only imagine what it cost them. It seemed strange that the police hadn’t stopped them, regardless whether they were breaking laws or not. I was to learn that as Christian migrants they had support and encouragement from the government, just as a backlash from Moros was developing. We could never imagine living and moving like they did.
The whole time we were with them, we walked by the side of the road, a safe distance away from traffic, hoping that people were paying attention to them and not to us.
“Imagine,” Susan said.
“We’re saving money and getting in shape to walk across Borneo.”
“You’ll thank me later.” And we both laughed. “I wish we had a camera.”
We finally got into a groove and that alone helped us along.
Benito and Clara left Tondo with their family for Mindanao with a vision of a land of promise. They started making plans way before they left. They dreamed of cultivating their own land and leaving the slums of Manila behind them forever. They found the idea of a typhoon free island very agreeable. This idea had great significance because after every typhoon they virtually had to start over. They were assured they would be given land in Mindanao where mangoes, pineapples, and other tropical fruit grew in abundance. So Benito constructed a rig that rolled quite easily and held all of their belongings. He never hesitated. He always thought with a little endurance and patience and a little luck they could reach their destination. But now, as they approached the end of their journey, they seemed to get cold feet. As they got closer and closer, they heard rumors that disturbed them.
When we joined them, the youngest girl was riding a tricycle on the highway in front of the rig, and in that way, I suppose, her parents thought she was safe and they could keep track of her. When Susan saw this, she lost it. When she saw how close the child came to getting hit, she lost it but somehow kept from screaming.
“No!” she said. She was obviously very upset with these parents. “What the hell are they doing? What are they thinking?” The rest of the family, including the little girl’s siblings, was needed to push and pull the rig
But seeing this motivated us to help this family as much as we could. Susan “steered” the little girl and “shielded” her as much as possible. It wasn’t long before she became a big sister.
“What kind of world is this, where a kid leads the charge on a tricycle?” Susan asked. “Still I can’t get over it. Luckily we’re on a coastal road and not the main highway.”
Yes, lucky for them and lucky for us. Ordinarily, we would’ve been mobbed, but here we’re just a sideshow.”
“It feels good to sort of fit in. Can you believe we’ve joined a band of gypsies?” Susan laughed. Even when she felt irritated with these parents, she laughed.
With villages close together, distances seemed short.
“What a wonderful life! Why do people live in cities? Here they grow rice for starch. Here they fish for protein. They have all they need right here.”
“There are a lot of people living close together like they do in cities. But there’s no grime or pollution.”
At the end of each day, we always came to a place were we could pull off the road, and for the first time we got away with camping. Asians didn’t understand camping. We usually slept near the family, usually on a beach, and felt very brave. Fresh air and plenty of exercise! No wonder we felt exhilarated!