You have to remember we were in the tropics, but Filipinos didn’t seem to sweat much. Not as much as we did anyway. I don’t know how they stayed clean. I remember it cooling off in the evening. Whenever I could, I took a dip in the ocean, though it wasn’t something people around us often did. At least no one could say we smelled.
I’m told meat eaters have a particular odor about them. This wasn’t a problem yet. Needless to say Filipinos bathe and bathed frequently. Leyte was hot and humid, and we needed to bathe. But as I said, Filipinos rarely sweated, and they bathed without using much water. They were used to having limited water. At least people we were with were used to it. They were from slums in Manila and were used to having limited water.
Women kept their clothes on while they bathe. Maybe we would be better off if we bathe with less water and with our clothes on. Filipinos had to work to work up a sweat. We Americans thought sweating was a virtue. And we weren’t afraid to get our hands dirty. We didn’t allow our fingernails to grow until they curled. But not all Filipinos were the same. Not all Filipinos allowed their fingernails to grow until they curled. It was our perceptions that didn’t change.
Susan looked skeptical.
I tried to make it make sense to her. “Filipino men tend to be macho. To them long fingernails are symbols of power and virility.”
“Now I know what your problem is. You cut your fingernails,” she declared, laughing. “Why, you’d be destroyed. I love you anyway.”
I laughed, too.
Breakfasts in coffee shops, and we ate ravenously, but it didn’t satisfy our hunger…or keep us from snacking along the way. I had never seen so many varieties of bananas. We learned that poor people often made a meal out of a banana. We talked about such things. As we walked along, we talked about such things, knowing fair well that there were people around us who spoke and understood English. And we always knew the first question they would ask us.
Why then didn’t we start out with an answer? We sometimes did. Many Filipinos didn’t understand why we didn’t have children. They often became sympathetic when we told them we didn’t have any. “Why not?” they then often asked. “Do you have children” and “why not” were the first questions most often asked. They were direct, and would ask it, and we knew we would be asked. Susan and I often discussed these things, and I’m not sure why it was such a big deal, when we knew there were going to be misunderstandings.
We didn’t ask for “pride” chicken that was fried for us, however, we made a big to-do about it. They brought with them chickens, in pens, and a couple of prized roosters they groomed as much as they could. To kill a chicken for us was unnecessary when we intended and had money to eat in restaurants. They called the chicken we ate a pullet, I’m sure, because it was tender and good. And why did they do that for us? We couldn’t believe it, and considering how poor they were. They were generous people who enjoyed sharing…enjoyed food, enjoyed conversation, and enjoyed singing. It was one of our fondest memories: sitting around a campfire on a beach eating “pride” chicken.
Here we were experiencing Philippine hospitality, or was it something else? Regardless, it made a lasting impression. And it brought to mind the hospitality of every Filipino we knew, of Nick and Vincente in particular, and how they would never allow us to go Dutch. They always paid for things, and we always thought we would insult them if we didn’t let them. Maybe it wasn’t true. Who knew? I’m sure it was something in them that made them so generous, something that made their world work. It was who they were, and there was no way we could change it. As Americans we were always treated as guest and never as equals, and we never wanted to offend them. So we didn’t see how we could ever fit in.
Susan was placed in charge of the little girl on the tricycle. Anything we did for the family was met with swift reciprocity. When we did something for them, they had to do something for us. They were always giving us something, and we couldn’t afford to turn it down. We couldn’t run a risk of offending them. We ran the risk of offending them if we turned down whatever was offered us. And the more we tried to end it, the more complicated it became, and the more generous they were.
Susan felt that too much of their energy was diverted to us. I agreed and told her that I thought that they’d give us their last cup of rice. Back in Texas, that would never have been the case. I couldn’t’ think of a circumstance when it would’ve been. Now we found ourselves in an awkward position … one that was foreign to us … so much so that we didn’t know how to respond. We were caught. Our resentment took us by surprise.
We wished they weren’t so generous. And that was mainly why out of the blue one morning we walked off and left them. They never allowed us to go Dutch or accept us as equals. They always treated us like honored guests. We were always guests and they acted like we were in their home, even though we were on the road, living outside. We could never be ourselves. We felt we always had to weigh what we said before we said it. We never got beyond it.
“We have this land waiting for us,” they would say. They were moving to Mindanao without ever having seen it. They pushed and pulled their rig with all of their belongings all the way from Manila. They were promised land but what they didn’t know was that the land they were promised belonged to someone else. It was part of Morolandia.
They planned to spend only a few months on the road, but they had no idea how big the Philippines was, since they spent their entire lives in Manila. It was their big chance, they said. But the closer they got to Mindanao the more doubts they had. They wondered what kind of reception they would receive. They wondered about their new neighbors who they knew didn’t worship God in the same way as they did. So they were going to a foreign land … just as foreign as the Philippines was to us … and didn’t know what to expect.
They told us they wanted to live in peace with their neighbors, if possible without any conflict, so when they heard rumors of trouble they questioned the wisdom of their decision. They prayed to the Virgin for guidance and safety. With Her help, they thought they would get there without a hitch and so far remarkably it had worked out as planned. They told us, “We know from the way things are going we have Her blessing.”
They knew by then that they had no choice but to continue. And they tried to remain optimistic, as they became more aware of difficulties they faced in Mindanao. Don’t forget we’d been to Mindanao and the Sulus and knew how Moros resented Christian “rats.” In due course, there was fighting over land both sides claimed, so migrating to Mindanao didn’t turn out to be such a good idea. But they didn’t know it then. They just heard rumors.
Arm conflict started that year in Mindanao. Unfortunately these people got caught up in it. “It was too good to be true,” I imagine they said. But it had less to do with conflict between Christians and Muslims than a massacre of Muslim young men two years before then on the island of Corregador. Jabidah became a rallying cry much in the same way as the Alamo had in Texas.
Meanwhile on Mindanao, Christians formed paramilitary groups. Then these groups attacked Muslim neighbors. Apparently they wanted more land for more Christians and to rid themselves of people they considered a menace. They tried to evict all Muslims, so Christians like this family could move in.
“The weather was perfect,” Susan said, and we couldn’t ask for more.
We left them one morning before any of them got up. We were still on Leyte, heading for Mindanao, with an eye on crossing by ferry and with enough money to get us to Malaysia and maybe Bangkok where we thought we could work.
Susan and I walked off a ferry almost ahead of everyone else and almost immediately caught the eye of a National Police officer. But on the way over to us, where we stood perfectly still, he asked the head of a Filipino family for identification. They were obviously migrants, obviously because they had their belongings bundled up in burlap sacks.
While we stood perfectly still and the police officer was asking the head of a Filipino family for identification, Susan told me to keep moving. But I wouldn’t move and told her if we did we’d look guilty. As guilty as we were. I always looked guilty. And when he finally reached us, Susan seemed so nervous that I was afraid that she would give us away, so I said, “I hope those poor people have a place to go. You can see they’re poor. They should be given a chance.”
The officer alternately looked at me and then at Susan. He was sizing us up. “There are many of them here,” he said. “Most of them are model citizens. Our job is to make sure they have proper paperwork. Speaking of such, your passports please.”
“That’s easy,” I said … said trying to seem confident. I fished our passports out of a leather pouch that I kept around my neck and under my shirt. “We want to see as much of Mindanao as possible,” I said as confidently as I could. “What hotel here would you recommend?”
He took our passports from me. Only he didn’t inspect them, but looked at Susan, as he tried to size us up.
“Before you think of a hotel, you have to come with me, but it’s only a formality,” he said. “We have rules now that we didn’t have before. Since all the trouble, we’ve had to tighten up our procedures.”
Susan wiped her brow. “I hope this is quick because I’m hungry,” she said.
We were thankful that the officer was friendly. He was indeed simply following procedure and hadn’t been on the lookout for us. He directed us to a small office not that far away.
Susan again said that she was getting hungry. He reassured her that it wouldn’t take long. He was only a private. His commander, he said, liked to meet Americans.
We knew then that there was nothing we could do but play along, so our moods improved. We didn’t enjoy going anywhere with this officer, but our moods improved. What choice did we have? And not given a choice had a calming affect.
Susan simply made a face. I wished she hadn’t made it and hoped he hadn’t seen her make it. The private apparently didn’t notice as much about our demeanor as we feared. He apparently hadn’t been trained very well or else he would’ve noticed. Perhaps officers in Mindanao had more important things to do than train. Perhaps that was why he never looked at our passports. Still, he had procedures to follow. And didn’t his superior express regret over having detained us? To hear this encouraged us.
“How long do you plan to stay in Mindanao?” the commander asked. “He shouldn’t have stopped you,” he added before I could say anything.
“With so many migrants, it must be hard to keep up with everyone. You have your work cut out for you. Anyway, we live in Manila, and I teach at the International School.” Here was Susan giving him more information that she needed to.
I made a face this time, but thank goodness the commander was looking at Susan and not me.
Susan was so honest that it took me aback when she lied with a straight face. She talked about taking students on a picnic and described what it was like spending most of her time in Makati. It was almost impossible to understand her logic. I also knew I couldn’t shut her up, though I felt embarrassed for her. I knew I didn’t have power over her and instinctively knew that if I contradicted her I would jeopardize everything. All I could do was nod my head. “The school vouched for us,” she said. “That was how we got our visas extended. Now we’re on a little vacation.” She pointed at our passports, which he now held in his hands. “Go ahead, look! I’m who I say I am, and my husband, well, he’s my husband. And I trust that you can figure it out.”
“But this is the Philippines,” he said and laughed. “As a Filipino I appreciate your frustration.”
I was silent.
He wanted to stress a point. “We’re very indebted to your country, and we’re grateful.”
“But this remains your country, and as long as we’re here, we have to abide by your laws,” I said confidently.
Since we made a point of having him look at our passports, I guess that was why he handed them back without looking at them.
I took our passports, and spoke of being impressed with Philippine hospitality.
Susan agreed. We were indeed impressed with Philippine hospitality. I couldn’t believe it. How much she lightened up.
We asked where he’d recommend we eat. He said, if he weren’t on duty he’d go with us, and we could eat lunch together. Then he said with a big grin, “What the hell!” And he went to eat with us. He said it was his duty to show us hospitality and give us more information for our trip and so forth. We then got more information for our trip than we could ever us.
During the conversation Susan said that there seemed to be a greater police presence in Mindanao than elsewhere in the Philippines. “Should we be concerned?” she asked.
“No, no, not as long as you stay out of certain places and obey the law. People have to control their inclinations,” the commander added. “It’s our job to make sure that they do.”
“At home, we don’t have to worry about crossing state lines. It seemed like you were randomly stopping people.”
“America has established institutions. The Philippines has a ways to go. Here we have keep a tight lid on things.”
“Well, then, what exactly do you do?” she asked.
“There are those who take advantage of migrants,” he said. “We have to always be on our toes.” Susan stared at him, as if she were going to jump all over him. I couldn’t believe it. “Also, we need to know who is coming to and going from Mindanao,” he said, perhaps trying to explain why we were stopped. “Migrants have waited for years, and now we see them organizing.”
We felt better after our lunch with him. He paid for it; of course, he paid for it.