International Writers Magazine:Manila
Manila, Philippines. I wanted to get out of this big, noisy city.
The personable young woman at the travel agency in Ermita gave me
some important and practical advice. "If you want to take the
overnight ship to Palawan," she said, "pay a little more
for a cabin, which will have its own separate bathroom." She
reassured me she was speaking from experience: that only 6-8 people
in a private cabin would have access to the separate CR (comfort
room), whereas common deck passengers (often more than 100), when
they felt the urge, would have to stand in a long line leading to
their deck's single CR.
many years of backpacking through Asia, I had already learned that:
1) A clean, private toilet was one of the fundamental keys to happiness,
and 2) You should always take seriously any advice from fellow travelers--especially
advice from locals.
an hour before departure, I carried my pack over the gangplank of the
200', rusty-hulled, interisland vessel and made my way up to the cabin
and my assigned bunk: the mosquito-net-enshrouded lower bed of a simple
two-person bunkbed. Three other identical bunkbeds presented themselves
as neighbors, but all the beds were now empty. The yellow tiles of the
cabin floor splintered the light of the afternoon sun, and the enclosed
private bathroom, as promoted, sparkled with its promise of separate-from-the
masses hygiene and cold shower euphoria. Currently the only person in
the cabin, I lay down on my stiff bottom bunk, closed up the mosquito
netting, and tried to rest.
I must have drifted briefly off to sleep, amidst haunting motifs and
refrains from the previous night's fitful sleep: what was I doing here,
why was I doing this, where was I going, and what was the point of it
all? The usual traveler's angst--at least for me, a single, white American
male with a lust for traveling solo to out-of-the-way places. This time
I had chosen Palawan--the remote westernmost island of the Philippines--known
for its natural beauty, unspoiled beaches, progressive leadership, and
exotic mix of peoples.
Next, two full-color visions came to me in a dream: a lovely woman in
a red dress and another beauty in blue jeans and a yellow halter top,
both sitting on the lower bunk adjacent to mine. The sweet scent of
jasmine permeated the air. A rapturous smile spread across my face as
I stretched, yawned, and opened my eyes. But this was no dream.
Two beautiful women, both Filipinas, were chattering away just across
from me, and a younger woman was propping up her luggage in the corner
of the cabin. Sweeping aside the mosquito net, I leapt up and apologized
for coming to the wrong cabin--the women's cabin--whereupon they all
burst out laughing. The two women then told me to relax because this
cabin, like all the other cabins, was co-ed. Sure enough, an older couple
filed in next, as did the marine cadet boyfriend of the young woman
standing in the corner.
After the initial shock wore off, it occurred to me that this overnight
throwing together of the sexes was a fine idea, a triumph of creative
voyaging. Congratulations were in order to whoever thought up this one:
it was even better than the private comfort room!
Thanking the two princesses who had miraculously materialized as my
cabin mates, I stepped outside to stand at the rail. Below me, a line
of passengers snaked aboard just in front of the shanty-lined outskirts
of the city; the hazy skyline of downtown Manila rose ghost-like in
the distance. Layers of my loneliness seemed to peel off and dissipate,
in the heat of the late afternoon, as I contemplated the intriguing
prospects of the night ahead. Then, suddenly, the ship shot a warning
blast into the air: we were ready to sail.
Over dinner, and afterwards, I got to know my cabin mates much better--we
developed that special intimacy which strangers often experience on
a shared journey. Vanessa in the red dress, a singer returning home
to Puerto Princesa to see her family, offered to show me around that
city. Moustaffa, a businesswoman in blue jeans, had a long talk with
me about growing up in southern Palawan and about her Muslim heritage.
In a few hours, that evening, they gave me an orientation to Palawan
which far outclassed anything in my guidebook. That night, despite midnight
rustlings and murmurings, my erotic fantasies remained, well, fantasies.
A cold shower in the luxurious private bathroom helped.
Together, as dawn broke, we watched as the lush green island of Palawan
emerged out of the mist. On the deck I danced with Vanessa, in the morning
sunshine, to her favorite Filipino pop songs. During our stopover at
Coron, I ventured off the ship with Moustaffa to visit with her relatives;
we had such a great time that we almost missed the boat. And together,
we three marveled as the spotless city of Puerto Princesa invited our
ship into her harbor--with its red and green channel buoys, black-hulled
cargo ships, and wooden, canvas-sailed schooners. On shore, a motley
group of stevedores stood at dress attention; when someone blew a whistle,
they broke into a wild, joyous welcome dance.
Then, as we all disembarked, Vanessa disappeared in one direction and
Moustaffa in another--flinging me kisses. Later, I attempted to call
them, but both phone numbers were non-working. Perhaps they had been
visions after all. I had lost my two guides, but their angelic ways
stayed with me throughout my further travels. And I felt forever indebted
to my third guide, the young woman at the travel agency, who had made
it all happen.
A.T. Allan September 2007
rakuallan at yahoo.com
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