The fruit of a random encounter

Originally published January 23, 2012

‘Hi Laura! Come in, come in! How are you? How have you been? What are you doing in Talisay?’

It was as if two old friends had just reunited after a long time apart. Not like two strangers who were brought together through a set of random moments in a random encounter.

Neneng didn’t even ask me about how I’d met her sister who gave me her number; she handed me slippers, sat me down and asked me about my time in Negros. Some five minutes after my arriving her phone rang, she spoke about two words and handed me the phone ‘It’s my other sister, from Manila, she wants to talk to you.’ And so a friendly voice on the other end of the line greeted me and invited me to stay at her place when I go to Manila.

Lead characters

I was introduced to the lead characters of my weekend. Rosalie, a young girl (my age) who lives with Neneng, and her mother who cooks for Neneng. Another lady whose name I forget helps Neneng during the week. Anyone who is slightly better off has help, there is always someone busying around peoples’ homes cooking and cleaning. This lady’s niece, Sarah, joined us and stayed with us for the rest of my time at the Hacienda.

Neneng is a warm lady, I reckon in her 50’s, she talks slowly and calmly. I had called her the day before, asking if I could come by and she said yes, anytime, and instantly told me what all we were going to do while I was here. She invited me to spend the night and when I said I hadn’t any sleepover gear with me, Rosalie came out and handed me a pair of white shorts and a pink t-shirt to change into.

Just like that.

chapel of cartwheels

Chapel of cartwheels

We set off for our first visit, The Hacienda. First I was shown the probably most prominent tourist attraction on the island, the chapel made out of cartwheels.

Neneng’s cottage is next to it. And literally, the chapel is made out of cartwheels, placed in a circular frame, making it an open round church. The benches inside where made out of robust wood planks, by the community, I was told. The altar was a big stone, from the beach. The candlesticks where parts of a mill that used to grind corn. The mosaic in the cartwheel windows was made out of bits from glass bottles. Very pleasing, quaint, inviting.

the mansion

The Big House

Then we walked across a grass patch, past two horses. Past a pond, in which two carabao (national animal, it’s an ox) were bathing and snorting loudly, to the Monseñor’s house, the ‘big house’.

The big house is a huge old mansion built in 1913 and remained in the Gaston family ever since.

Father Gaston is the head of this community of farmers who all work on the sugar plantation that belongs to and is run by the family. They all speak very dearly of him. We walked around his house and it was impressive, like stepping back in time; massive verandas, high ceilings, dark wood, grand staircase, creaky floors, faded pictures… I half expected to come across house ghosts, and I feel they would have been friendly! It was quite a change of scenery to the other places I’d seen on this trip; one can tell that it used to be very majestic and obviously marked by the Spanish Era – as is the vastly spread Catholicism.

the village

The hacienda is a sugar plantation. Sugar cane is, with rice, a main product of the Philippines. The farming of the two, as well as the logging industry that doesn’t replant trees taken down, are responsible (so some people have been telling me) for the fact that the dense rainforests on the islands have been deforested down to 3% of the mass they had just 100 years ago.

The farm workers and their families live on the plantation. They all have their own houses with little yards, some have animals, all have coal barbecues to cook on and have their washing out on Saturdays. I noticed that, although very basic, these homes all looked very tidy and clean.

Rosalie’s mother weaving for the craftsshop

As we walked past the neighbouring house we met Rosalie’s mother, who was weaving a gorgeous basket in her doorway. Next door, another lady was weaving placemats. At this point Neneng explained that the people, often the women, of the community do a lot of handicrafts to help them be sustainable in the low farming seasons.

The products are sold in their own little gift shop at the entrance of the Hacienda, where Sarah works, and in a larger shop in Bacolod. They even export the goods through a network that the Monsenor’s nephew’s wife has set up.

sugar cane plantation

hanging bridge connecting communities

hanging bridge connecting communities

We walked through the sugar cane plantation on a footpath to the ‘hanging bridge’ which had been built across a stream not all too long ago, connecting this community with the neighbouring community owned and run by the mayor of Manapla. This hanging bridge now enables the kids from Rosalia to walk to the school of this community.

coulourful and bright school rooms

coulourful and bright school rooms

We went to the school, which I will say, was pretty nice and from what I can tell, well equipped. Colourful and with open windows, lots of flowers and, like in all the schools I’ve seen in the world recently, lots of drawings.

I tend to visit schools. Such as the playschool in Bella Vista, Bolivia, for the kids from the mountain communities, the one in Wirrabara, South Australia, for farmer’s kids from far away homesteads and the one in Mission Viejo, Southern California, where my friends Emily and Ethan go to school. I liked the feel of it; again, simple, but complete.

There was commotion in the village. Little kids were playing on the sports field next to the school, women were sitting around them, many tricycles and mopeds were parked at the entrance of the village and loud men voices and rooster cries were to be heard.

cockfights

Saturday is cockfight day

Saturday is cockfight day

Saturday is the day of cockfights, I learned; I had earlier learned of this “sport” in The Philippines when we went to the cottage in the North Negros forest.

Men and boys were perched on bleachers made of bamboo, around them there were many drink and barbeque booths like at any fair.

I chose not to go any further. A choice I already regret as it would have been such a unique tradition to experience, but at that moment I had no desire to see a cockfight. Also, I was kinda the talk of the town, a woman, and blonde… I just didn’t fancy that kind of attraction while watching something quite as cruel as roosters made to kill each other.

My hosts were relieved, neither Neneng nor Rosalie enjoy cockfights.

Village road and traffic 🙂

As we walked back, from the houses of the village I could hear the unmistakable sound of karaoke – little did I know that just about everyone has a karaoke machine (of all the things you chose to have) and little did I know that, just a few hours later, I would be blaring ‘Never been to me’ into a crackling microphone myself.

We had lunch at the house; it had been miraculously prepared while we were about. A lush cooked meal of Filipino delicacies. I had been pretty steady on a raw food diet for about a week and Neneng was out to treat me to the real local cooking.

to the beach

Now I’d been on this island for almost two weeks. Talisay and Bacolod appear to be seaside towns, when looking at a map, but I had not yet seen the sea (Simone told me they were horrible harbour fronts).

Literally, in the plane I sat on an aisle seat so I didn’t even see the sea through the window. So yay, I was going to see the beach, finally!

I came across these pretty creatures at the beach

We took our own tricycle; I was introduced to ‘boy’, our driver. He also lives next door. Everybody lives ‘next door’. I like it, it is that omni-present sense of community, the sense of ‘next door’. And everybody knows each other. He drove us to another next village (villages are also ‘next’ door, or ‘next-down-the-road’) five minutes down the dirt road.

This village lives off fishing, seafood. Again, this little community was out and about, boys were playing basketball on the central ‘place’, everybody else was sat around, watching. Watching me as we appeared. There were now four of us, Neneng, Rosalie, Sarah and me, and we were joined on our walk by a gentleman I forget the name of. He still plays baseball, I was told by Neneng, ‘at his age’ – he was in his 70s, so why not!?

the beach was a dump

paradise beach touched by man

paradise beach touched by man

oh puhlease!

oh puhlease, people, we can do better than this!?

The beach was AWFUL! Awful! Now I like to look away from things I don’t like, I will not glorify the bad. But this just needs to be said. The beach was a tip. A dump. Full of plastics and papers, wrappings, containers, fishing nets and tools, flip flops (it’s the national shoe and apparently it retires here).

A LOT of education on household trash needs to happen. That said, I am not entirely sure if trash IS collected at all… I must research it.

But c’mon, surely anyone can see that the beach doesn’t look nice like that!?

the evening

dusk, that golden time of day

dusk, that golden time of day

 

‘Boy’ then took us to the next town, Victorias, on the tricycle. I’d only taken the tricycle to very close destinations, here we went about 10km. On the main road. Hairy. Loud. And gosh, the pollution! I must think to pack my scarf to put around my nose and mouth in these situations.

buying dinner

buying dinner

We shopped for dinner at the main market, for everything but the crabs that we’d selected at the village earlier in the day. So far I had paid nothing. I was being treated like a princess, like a very important visitor for no apparent reason except spontaneous generosity.

 

buying dinner

buying dinner

I was happy to be allowed to pay for some of the food…

Back home, we karaoke’d, as mentioned above, until dinner was ready.

The cottage was made of concrete walls and a tin roof, that weren’t connected to each other. So it was, in effect, an open cottage. At one point I counted 10 geckos of all sizes crawling on the walls. Interestingly, I didn’t mind so much, I must be getting used to them…

After our meal of crabs that we brought along from the beachside community, I was presented with pristine pink silky pijamas to wear and a fluffy towel.

The shower, like the one I described in the mountains, was a big bucket of water. But either I had acclimatised or it wasn’t so much the bucket itself as the mud brought in from the rain around it in Patag that had disturbed me, but taking a ‘shower’ here, out of a bucket, was the lushest of moments. And how good it felt to wash off the pollution, the dust, the sunscreen and the mosquito repellent before going to bed. BED! I got to sleep in a proper bed. Granted, it was still a piece of foam, but it was on a frame; it was the first time in two weeks that I wasn’t on the floor.

Neneng and Rosalie shared a bed that night; I slept in Rosalie’s bed in the same room.

family of the moment - Rosalie, her niece, her mom, me, Neneng and Sarah

family of the moment – Rosalie, her niece, her mom, me, Neneng and Sarah

 

 

Mass is at eight. ‘We leave the house when we hear the opening song being sung’.

I like going to masses in different places, and of different religions, too. The vibrating gospel mass with my godmother Sally in LA two weeks ago and this one semi-open air with guitar and song just show how a catholic mass can be quite uplifting, too. I can’t get over how dreary and sad they are at home. What’s different?
Maybe our sense of community as a whole…

meeting the Gastons

Keeping up with the massive spontaneous generosity I was receiving, we were invited to brunch, together with the padre, to his nephew’s house after mass. I don’t know how I hadn’t seen their house when I arrived; it is a big farmhouse revealing that these people are of a different social calibre.

I am happy I got to meet Joey and Ina. He’s the business man, the head of the plantation; she is a designer and runs the arts & crafts business.

I enjoyed talking to him, he explained how sugar was ‘made’, which I didn’t know yet (so, the juice is extracted from the cane, the juice is boiled and boiled and boiled in four different containers, until it turns to syrup. This again is heated and constantly stirred as last liquid evaporates and crystals form. This leaves raw brown sugar. In a nutshell.).

He told me about the farm, the sugar industry, and the tragedy of the deforestation (because I asked).

All in all I got a lot of basic information a visitor wants know about, it was a very good exchange, a kind I had actually been missing so far. Simone and Ramke have been telling me their own stories; they are both so passionate about earth and what Western economy does to it that it was hard to get a bigger picture from them. I like their picture, don’t get me wrong, I definitely share it, too – and it surely has a great part in my view that has now been completed a bit more.

They all want to meet Simone; I told her about her community projects and interest in helping them produce and sell their crafts for an income. I think this contact would be a great one, if they do get together and find agreements. I will certainly promote their meeting while I am here.

The padre gave me a ride back to Talisay in the evening; he was going to the Archbishop’s birthday party.

Back at Chyd’s, the band was rehearsing in the living room for their concert. And I felt home again.

What a weekend. My weekend!

What an experience, I can’t describe how grateful I am to have made that one random encounter in a random moment.

‘This is the one! Take it, quick!’

A few years later, I was having a meal with my yoga teacher and endless inspiration, Wenche, in Sri Lanka, and we talked about how ‘travelling’ really teaches us everything we need to know about ourselves and getting through life (in a nutshell) and she mentioned that she met an HR boss who would make a point of asking people how much they’d travelled versus what academics they have to present.
Yes, it is all part of the learning, and the situations we find ourselves in on our journeys never fail to impress and teach me, about myself, about the differences in cultures, about people.

Originally published January 23, 2012

This is the one! Take it, quick!

And so, in a somewhat frantic moment following Ramke’s urging tone, I grabbed the outside handle of the yellow bus and leapt onto the already moving step.

Off I went.

This was the moment, the moment I had previously mentioned, the scary moment of taking the public transport by myself for the first time.

What I have learned so far is that the busses have designated stops, as opposed to Jeepneys who stop when there are customers to get off or on. But they don’t have timetables; you just go to the road and wait for yours to drive by. Which is why it all happened so fast; I had asked Ramke to just get me on the right bus in the right direction – and it just happened to roll by as we turned the corner.

I was headed for Gaston, via Manapla.

And once again, the ‘directions‘ and ‘address’ I had been given hardly made sense – until I got there.

I sat down by an open window, paid the conductor/steward/boy 35 pesos for my journey, and asked him to let me know when we get to ‘Gaston’… ‘yeah yeah yeah’, he said with a smirk.
He was with some other lads and they were downright laughing at my request – or me! I notice that a lot, then again, I have hardly noticed any other foreigners in the Talisay area, apart from Simone and me, so maybe it’s funny to see me.

you are never alone when you travel alone – watching others and engaging in conversation with strangers is great company

2012 take the journeyExhaust polluted wind blew into my face, mussing up my hair, drying out my eyes… I loved it. I was on my own. I was enjoying being with Simone and Ramke, but this little weekend ‘getaway’ was ALL MINE!

 

 

What a great feeling! This is me, on my way, on my own adventure in a foreign country.

The bus filled up as we made our way north. Where I was headed was one hour up the road, the ‘ring road’ of Negros Island.
At one point, a little boy got onto the bus and sat down. The conductor came to him and spoke to him in a friendly but firm tone; I don’t understand Ilongo, but it was clear he was asking him where he was headed, where his parents were, and if he could pay the fare. As soon as he left him, the boy began to beg and sure enough, e few moments later, I felt a strong tweak at my shoulder. I had a few cookies left and asked the lady next to me if she thought he’d like them, and she said that she thought he would. I gave them to him. They were scoffed in no time at all, and the bag was thrown out of the window – where else? But then again, it was pretty clear this little boy was receiving no education except the rules of the road and copying others.

…and I missed my stop

When we drove into Manapla I started asking about my stop.

The lady next to me looked a bit worried and called the conductor.
Here, as my cousin Marianne had also pointed out to me when we were travelling in Latin America, when you wave people to you, your hand moves in a downward shovelling way.
The conductor didn’t look happy, and the lady explained that we had passed my stop. I was asked to hand him my ticket and he started scribbling onto it.
At the next stop he told me to get out, and gestured something at me, trying to explain but I didn’t get it. I’m sure it was about which bus to take next.

There I was, stranded at a wrong stop and a bit puzzled, truth be said.

Damsel in distress, bus-chasing-bus and travelling strangers helping me get to where I wanted to get

I asked a tricycle driver to take me to ‘Gaston’ and he looked blank, then I said ‘Hacienda Rosalia’ in the hopes he may know it and that it might be closer than ‘Gaston’ itself. Blank.
Then MY bus, the one I had just gotten off of, stopped next to me again, no idea where it came from – I was waved to come back in and immediately we started racing down the rickety streets of Manapla – OMG, I thought, he’s taking me back to my initial stop!
Actually, he was chasing the bus going south that we had just crossed. As it stopped, we stopped, my guy leapt out and instructed me to follow, I was pushed onto the other bus and off I was again, going back. Quite a fast adventure, very heroic, really.
Self-conscious, I now got up every time the bus halted, not going to miss it this time, but all the people on the bus, like a chorus, were waving at me to sit down until they, eventually, all waved at me to get up.

Everybody was on my cause now, quite humbling – I can’t help but wonder what I must have looked like to them, the Western Damsel in Distress, especially considering where it was I was going. They knew, but I didn’t. 

Gaston!

I stepped out.

‘Gaston’ was a tree

It seems that ‘Gaston’ was a tree and a dirt road lined with palm trees leading off the main road in a right angle.

If I didn’t already before, now I felt a tad nervous, to be honest.

I was an unmistakable tourist, a young blonde woman at that, and I was somewhat stranded… on a relatively quiet roadside… on an island… in the Philippines. Far away from anyone I knew.
Yes, things could happen. Things DO happen. One reads about ‘things‘. And when one reads about these ‘things’, one comments on them, from the smug safety of one’s own home, say, ‘how irresponsible it was for a young woman to set off on her own like that, she didn’t even know the people she was going to!

into a village

the path into ‘gaston’

However, these kinds of thoughts never help, I learned that ages ago.
Again, in Chile in 2000, my cousin Marianne and I had decided that it was absolutely unnecessary to sew money bags into one’s bra for safety (as some fellow travellers were doing until late into the night before setting off on a trip). We had decided and agreed that safety was mainly a question of mindset, trust and the way face situations – and also, admittedly, comfort (what a waste of time to sew ones money into ones underwear).

And so I checked in with another perspective:

This is it, this is life! This is where experiences are made.

These unknown, unpredictable situations when we find ourselves way beyond our comfort zone are the situations that spice up our life and our stories!

And situations always clear up, they always do.

And so, as I made one step toward the tree, two tricycles and two men appeared into my vision field, lounging in the shade and jumping up eagerly when they saw me.

I hopped on one and we wobbled down the straight dirt road. Five hundred meters down it, the road made a right turn and just before it made a left, we stopped at the gate of what appeared to be the farm.

I went in, asked for Neneng and a friendly man brought me back out again, put me in yet another tricycle and so the journey down the dirt road continued. The road was now in the shade, little village huts were nestled into them, colourful washing hanging out to dry; it only took about 3 minutes and we stopped outside a stone built cottage with a big porch.

villages are nestled in trees

villages are nestled in trees

 

 

 

 

 

 

The driver yelled out and soon enough, my host appeared at the door with a big smile.

Later on, over a meal, the kitchen help mumbled something with a smile, and everyone laughed. Neneng told me that my little escapade in Manapla had already made the rounds in the community – everyone was talking about how I got off at the wrong place.

As Auntie Pam would say, ‘Fame at last’.