in between islands Travel

Banana, Coconut, Chameleons and Fat Laughing Buddha

There are more stories we don't tell than ones we do.

There are more stories I don’t tell than the ones I do.

On the road, I meet other travelers. When you’re traveling alone, often at meal times or in times of waiting for ferries or buses to leave, some other travelers will strike up a conversation. The initial questions are telling of how they travel.

Tourists will ask where you’re from, where are you going next, and other questions that someone who lives in the same city might ask you as you wait on the metro platform for the next train, like What do you do?

Other travelers, who are not on holiday but may be temporary residents in the place you’re in, might ask, Where have you been? And they might turn helpful, telling you about the places that they’ve been, in which they found some form of superlative.

Long-term travelers ask, How long are you here? Have you been to [insert place they have been nearby]?

No matter the questions, if you happen to share a meal space or a drinking space, travelers might exchange stories.

Sitting under the shade of a tamarind tree, in the Andaman Sea.
Island in the Andaman Sea off Thailand, circa 2009.

In the early morning after I’d been up for hours writing under the tamarind tree at the beach house I’m staying, Dave (not his real name) strikes up a conversation saying, “I saw you earlier when you started. Didn’t want to disturb you.” He sees my coffee cup and says, “There’s coffee?”

I tell him it’s in a small plastic jar with the orange lid in the outdoor kitchen. “There’s a water heater,” I add. He lopes off to make himself a cup.

Then he comes back with his hot cup of coffee and stands in front of my writing bench, so I know he wants to talk more.

I close the laptop lid and turn my face to him.

He tells me about his inner dialog of whether to stay or go back to the US. He’s ready to quit work and settle in a stress-free place, but his wife still enjoys her job. His stories stream one after another like the waves that rush from the islands east of this coast, to lap at the low cement seawalls of the properties lining this Cabalangan beach.

I paraphrase him because that’s how I know how to listen. I ask him questions. That’s all I offer, until he asks me if I have a family. His questions suggest other questions which might be in his mind but he doesn’t ask out loud, like Why is she traveling alone? Where is her family? Is she married? What is she doing, up at 4.40am pounding away on her laptop under a tamarind tree, outside?

I pause.

To many Filipinos, being past your late 30s and not having a family or at least not being married is unconventional. That I am alone, at my age, often connotes the need for a label. Spinster is a common one. That I have chosen to be alone, perhaps warrants some soap opera of a context. A heartbreak, the death of a fiancé who was my one true love and I could never love again, etcetera etcetera. Perhaps it is difficult to understand that it is simply a choice. Is choice enough drama? I don’t know.

So I am glib with my answers. I try to frame them as lightly as I can, and craft the statement so that it is understood and discarded as uninteresting and trite.

Beach in Genoa, Italy with red and white striped umbrellas.
Sometimes a conversation about conventions can feel like a game of Where’s Waldo?

Genoa, June 2015.

“I was so busy with my career, that it just passed me by,” is something I say. It’s only a fraction of the truth.

I know if I launch into the history of why I am still unmarried, it will take us hours, maybe weeks, to tell all the stories. So I tell just one sentence of the whole epic.

Andrew Pham in his brilliant book Catfish and Mandala offers this explanation of the stories we don’t tell.

I smile at her from my anonymity, refusing to answer in our common tongue. I don’t want to disappoint her with my commonality, to remind her of our shared history. So I let her interpret my half-truths. At this I am good, for I am a mover of in-betweens. I slip among classifications like water in cupped palms, leaving bits of myself behind. I am quick and deft, for there is no greater fear than the fear of wanting to belong. I am a chameleon. And the best chameleon has no center, no truer sense of self than what he is in an instant.

Andrew X. Pham, Catfish and Mandala

In temperate climates I become a banana, yellow on the outside and white inside. Schooled in the US, born of Asian heritage and raised in more countries than a military brat, when I am in the tropics I become a coconut. Not the green kind that holds sweet water for a refreshing drink but the older coconut, its brown husk encasing the hardened meat good for shaving into fine pulp, to squeeze for cream and used in cooking things like the popular mango and sticky rice in Thailand.

Banana or coconut, what’s inside of me is comfortable in groups of people who find themselves gathered in a destination like the hub of a bicycle wheel, traveling to a common place from many different spokes from around the globe.

Some of my best friends are Thai, Norwegian, Indian, Mexican, French and Croatian. Once, when jammed into a car together in Bangkok on our way to a party, we got pulled over for merging into a bus lane, and as we tried to figure out whether to slip a bribe into the driver’s hands, I counted swearing in as many languages as there were people in the car. Another time, we were in Indonesia and got momentarily confused when the waiter asked if we wanted susu because we’d just been to India and the word susu in Hindi means urine.

So when Dave asks me the personal question, I give him the equivalent of a brush of a hand, a kind of verbal wave that signals the topic is quite trivial and not worth much discussion.

He lets it go, and I am relieved.

Yvon and I exchange stories after dinner at her beach house, and we get to the topic of transitions and displacement. Yvon has spent time in Australia, the US, many places in Europe before she found her place and her center of balance in Guimaras. She transplanted her life with her husband Libor and is happy running a cozy beach house hotel, meeting guests from all over the world.

“They all have interesting stories,” she says, her eyes twinkling and the now-familiar smile lighting up her face. “But when I go home, I don’t talk about things much to just any one. Maybe to my friends, close family. But how do you tell the stories so people will understand something they’re never going to be able to imagine?”

So like me, she listens, she asks questions. She lets others talk.

I have a theory that formed when I was younger, that I might help people understand what I mean by speaking the way they listen.

If someone was listening in a hierarchical culture, for example, it’s very important to them that you fit in into the hierarchy that they have inside their heads. Otherwise, it might make them very uncomfortable if you can’t be classified or categorized.

So the other day, when a woman my mother’s age whom I met with her family on Guimaras asked me what I did, I told her, “I write and take photographs and I share these stories with other people so they can enjoy what I experience, too.”

An old woman's hands in Xi'an, China. 2012.
A person is more than what we expect from what we see. Xi’an, China 2012.

She mulls this over. It couldn’t have sounded like a very good job description to her, because she asked immediately after my response, “Do you have a byline?”

Because it was very important to her, I give her a smile and silence, and let her think what she will. In her question, I learn that for most people we meet, it’s the consistency of place that matters. Not place as in geography, but place as in where you belong in their mental model of the world. If I had a byline, it meant I had steady employment. That would make me somewhat normal.

On the road, the stories swarm at you, racing for your attention. You collect them, and you reflect on what they mean to this, your quest. It’s a never-ending enquiry, and you soak in the insights and they infuse with the marinade of beautiful endeavors of people you’ve met. You stir them into stories that rest on your tongue like bites of freshly peeled mango, sweet and complex. You savor each time you partake of this banquet because sometime, perhaps, you will be able to tell someone, someone who will pluck from the stories their own delight in a human commonality.

In between islands, in between lives, you have conversations with people who may find it discomforting that you have no permanent address, no car, no kids, no husband and no dog.

You sit in your place and smile like the fat ceramic Buddha you used to have to save coins, as a child. Smiling, smiling, holding treasures within.

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