We are standing in the dirt on the side of the highway and the sun is starting to sink in a yellow-orange haze of exhaust and dust. “How will we know which one is our bus?” I ask, peering out into the darkening roadway. Large trucks, jeepneys, and buses seemed indistinguishable.
“The buses have a sign in front that is lit,” Eva* patiently explains. She is a community development worker (com dev) at My Refuge House, coordinating home visits, making referrals and procuring resources for the families of the girls in the center. Today, she also has had to explain all sorts of basic daily operational information to me, the clueless foreigner. Still, I find myself hailing every vehicle that could possibly be our ride back to Cebu city –looming shapes that turn out to be semi-trucks, utility vans, and sadly, buses that are going our way but don’t stop. “They are full,” she shrugs. There is no officially marked bus stop; the drivers just pull over when someone waves. Except when they don’t, like tonight.
I am feeling slightly desperate. It’s nearing 7 pm and our day started before 6 am, when I took a cab to the bus terminal to meet Eva. Unhungry but girding myself for the day, I had bought a hard-boiled egg and a siopao –a steamed bun stuffed with reddened bits of pork and fat – at a kiosk where men stared at me as they ate piles of rice. Eva arrived and together we boarded a bus –an aircon bus, which I found out later is not a comfort that she usually indulges in. At $1.20 US it costs three times more than the non-aircon -- a vehicle that leaves one vulnerable not just to the heat, but to the relentless fumes of the road. This time, we made the hourlong journey in relative comfort, calling out our stop at a seemingly random street corner on the side of the highway, with a bakery and a sari-sari (convenience) store crammed with single-use packs of shampoo and jujube-hued glass bottles of soda.
Without designated bus stops, one simply tells the driver where you want to get off, but I am always anxious I will somehow miss my corner and hurtle unknowingly into the far reaches of the island. But the driver knows the name of this and every street corner on his two-hour route, and of course Eva has made the trip countless times. We alight and are instantly set upon by scrawny men with world-wariness in their eyes offering us motorbike rides. In spite of my better judgment and the lack of helmets I have almost gotten used to jumping on the back of these sputtering habal-habal, all my camera gear strapped to my back with a monopod poking skyward, grabbing onto this stranger’s waist just in time as he takes off up the hill.
This time, the motorbikes wait for Eva to buy her breakfast at the bakery, an assortment of white bread rolls. Whole grains are almost never on offer, but bread is baked daily into soft and fluffy pan de sal, bumpy “corn” bread that is shaped like cobs but contains no cornmeal, and sweetened rolls with melted cheese on top. The low-carb craze has yet to hit Cebu’s shores, and I can’t imagine it being very popular here.
Rolls bought, I gingerly straddle the back of habal-habal. This time, the driver is shirtless, and I don’t know where I should hold on, uncomfortable with his bare torso under my hands. I grab the waistband of his jeans, hardly better, but he has already started up the hill, making the hot, steep, 20 minute walk into a 5-minute, panicky adventure ride. My husband has told me the death and injury statistics of the motorbikes, but once again, with very little reflection or trepidation, convenience has trumped prudence.
We make it unscathed and ready for the next phase of our day, a two-hour trip in the back of a truck. Most shooting days are long, and usually I know only the barest outline of what is planned for the day. Though I usually plan shoots down to the hour in the US, things in Cebu almost never unfold as expected for me anyway, so I have tried to adopt a looser, follow-the-current sort of attitude on this trip. It's a stretch for me, no lie, but I'm learning. maybe.
One of the biggest events for me to film is when the girls go home to visit their families. It usually happens once a quarter for the younger girls and it is awaited with great anticipation and longing. The girls bring gifts for their family members, they wear their best clothes, they bring the video cameras to document the occasion.
Today is Cindy's* big day. Her family visit is complicated -- her visit is not to the mother who raised her, whom she refers to as her stepmother. (Her stepmother was actually an ersatz foster mother, who physically and emotionally abused her.) The “auntie” she now visits is her stepmother’s sister-in-law, who took Cindy in for brief periods over the years.
As our truck leaves the industrial flatlands and heads into verdant foothills, Cindy turns all smiles. "I love this place. The air smells clean, it’s so beautiful.” It is true. Green rice paddies stretch between stands of tropical overgrowth, and for the first time in weeks I am breathing air that smells not of exhaust but of fresh greenness and the sea. We stop in a small town to pick up a rotisserie chicken for lunch.
Cindy's aunt literally lives on the beach. Faded fishing boats line the rocky shore, and a small community of wood and concrete structures lies just above the high tide line. Her aunt’s home has not just electricity but karaoke(!) in a small but sturdy cinderblock-and-stucco home.
Cindy plays it casual when she greets her aunt, but she’s wearing her best outfit –fluorescent orange circle skirt, royal blue top, and a huge bow tied on her head, creating a Minnie-Mouse effect. She makes a circuit through the nearby homes, holding babies, greeting mothers and grandmothers, exclaiming at the new acquisition of a grunting piglet. She introduces me to cousins -- everyone seems to be a cousin, or an in-law, or an auntie.
Cindy presents the gifts she has brought for her auntie – a flowery blouse and a t-shirt. The auntie sends
Cindy to retrieve her gift – a pair of wedge sandals. Cindy tries on one, they fit perfectly.
Another treasure brought from My Refuge House -- a guitar. The instrument is just a loaner for the day, but Cindy has been practicing diligently. She brings it down to the beach with her 17-year-old cousin. followed by a crowd of curious children. The cousin plays Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself” through the speaker on his flip phone, while Cindy strums and sings along, practicing cords. She hands the video camera off to one of the younger cousinlings and directs him to film her, which he does steadily and seriously. When she finishes the song, she immediately takes the camera and reviews her performance, laughing and commenting. Then she does it again, same song. And again.
The next hours are spent leisurely. A walk down the hot, rocky beach, Cindy with the video camera in hand. A stint of karaoke with her cousin. A simple lunch in the sari-sari store of the chicken we picked up, stewed dried fish made by auntie, and the requisite mountains of rice. A delicious dip in the ocean with the cousins and Eva, who has finished her monthly report and is celebrating with the splashing children.
We buy airplane-sized bags of peanuts from auntie’s sari-sari store, 5 pesos each, and Cindy has a bottle of Coke. And then it’s time to go. Cindy gathers her gifts, I double-check for charging batteries. Goodbyes are sweet but tinged with melancholy. And then we are back in the truck.
When we arrive back to the center at 5 pm, I am a bit surprised – we are actually on schedule. But there’s a catch –the rest of the house, girls, house parents – are still on their outing to a swimming pool in the city. We can’t leave Cindy by herself, so we settle in. Cindy chases the dogs around the yard as Eva sends in her report. I try to catch the sunset on camera without showing the ocean – I have been told the house could be located if we reveal the shoreline, so I can’t share the beautiful vista the girls enjoy from their front doors every day.
The van, stuffed to bursting with the exhausted swimmers, finally arrives. It’s a flurry of hugs and goodbyes – it’s my last day at the house, so I won’t see the girls again until my trip in the spring. This seems soon enough that dramatic farewells are thankfully unnecessary.
And then the sun has gone down, and yet another bus has passed us by. A “tricycle” pulls up –a motorized, three-wheeled, open-air vehicle, too slow for the long trip back to the city. But suddenly Eva exclaims, “shall we take a tricycle to another place where we can catch a bus?”
“Sure!” I say. We try to squeeze into the back seat together, but the seat is really just big enough for 1.5 people, which means 2 Filipinos or 1 American. My massive gear bag makes me 2 Americans. “I’ll take a different one!” Eva says, and bolts to another tricycle that has happened to stop. It’s all happening so fast and as my driver starts moving I realize I have no idea where to tell the driver to stop.
“Where are we going?” I shout to Eva’s shrinking figure. She doesn’t hear me and disappears behind the vehicle. “Where are we going?” I yell again, starting to panic. Suddenly she reappears and is waving back at me. “STOP! I shriek to the driver.” Eva shouts the name of a bus terminal. I shout it to the driver. He nods casually, but my heart is pounding. Where would I have ended up if Eva hadn't heard me? Note to self: learn the neighborhood, and some Cebuano while you're at it.
In less than ten minutes the driver has deposited me on yet another random street corner. Eva rounds the bend a few minutes later, thank God. We somehow manage to board a bus that is just pulling out of dirt lot that I would never have known was a bus terminal.
The bus is taking a different route today, because the International Eucharistic Congress is taking place and has closed a bunch of roads in the city center. It’s a huge Catholic convention with multiple processions that the college girls have had to attend – for school credit – and which has thrown the city’s usually snarled traffic into even greater disarray. Eva has a long talk with the bus attendant about how I might get back to my hotel. They finally agree I should just go to the end of the line, SM Mall, and catch a cab from there.
Poor Eva is exhausted, I can see it in her face. But she patiently helps me find the queue for the taxi. I balk at its length; it could be hours to get a cab. So she patiently helps me find a jeepney, one that will take me to Ayala Mall, a 4 minute walk to my hotel and my nerve center for this trip. (It has a cheap and tasty food court, Gold’s Gym, and Metro Supermarket, my essential hangouts this trip). Fortunately Ayala is the end of the line, because I won’t know how to get off anywhere else. Eva loads me in and says goodbye. I work on keeping my monopod from stabbing anyone in the eye as more and impossibly more people board. I am sitting directly behind the driver and 10 minutes in, I realize I have an important duty I am neglecting – handing payment up from other passengers to the fare collector. The woman next to me has foreseen my incompetence and is passing cash over me. But I can fulfill my role. After I scrounge up my 7 pesos, I pass the coins back and forth as well.
Safely back at Ayala mall, I find my way back to the food court – it’s on the third floor, near the movie theaters. You can get yourself a nice piece of grilled fish, a vinegary salad of seaweed shaped like tiny grape clusters, or a big eggplant stuffed with pork and deep fried with egg. I get it with a half order of garlic rice, possibly my single favorite Filipino dish, and have a small feast for less than four dollars.
When I stumble home finally, 16 hours after I left, I still have files to download, emails to write, batteries to charge, gear to clean, laundry to wash, a husband to call.
The experts tell you to stay active on social media: blog, tweet, instagram, facebook, all of that. This is my lengthy way of explaining why I was not able to keep in touch during this last trip --because while no day is typical on a shoot, most of the days were long, and many of them were far more stressful. So I am sorry I pretty am terrible at keeping you in the loop -- but until I have a big crew or a social media staffer, I can't promise next time will be any better. I will try to make up for it while I'm home.
*Names have been changed to protect confidentiality of the girls and staff.