in between islands Travel

An Unkindness of Ravens

Sometimes, expectations shatter unceremoniously.

A woman with a young child she looks too young to have delivered got to me first.

She had her hand out, asking for money. I took in her clean clothes and the baby, well-dressed in a brightly colored jumper, and shook my head. She moved on to another person.

The encounter reminds me of a hot day in Myanmar when a woman at a temple calls to me.

 “Give money for blood for baby,” the woman carrying the child said to me at the Schwezigon Pagoda. Bare feet hurting from small pebbles on the ground as I walked, I turned away from her hoping she will mirror my gesture, naively hoping that if I hide my face, maybe she’ll turn away, too.

She follows me. “Give money for blood for baby.” The stone path around the main pagoda stung my feet with heat. I walked around pretending to be completely engaged in taking cliché shots of the golden spires of the pagoda in bad noontime lighting, ignoring the woman and the baby she holds in her arms.

“Blood for baby.” She blocked my path, and has put down the child. The child was in a bright lime green outfit, complete with hat, and her face had been beautifully brushed with tanaka in butterfly swirls. The child looked up at me, smiled. She did not look sick.

Then I realized the mother was saying “food,” not blood. I sighed relief but the soles of my feet were baking, and by now she had thrust aside the personal space I assume was always around me. I could rub noses with her with just a slight inclination.

The mother put down the child and said something to her, and the child says, “Hello, hello,” following me. I smiled at her but tried to engross myself in the architecture. The mother coaching her, the child came closer to me, in her lime green sandals, tugged at my jeans, “Hello, hello.”

“Money,” her mother chanted. “Money, money.”

I felt like a pimp, and the camera hanging on my neck has made a whore of them.

I remember my strong reaction in Myanmar to the begging mother at the Schwezigon Pagoda because when the same thing happens to me in Cebu City, I no longer react so strongly. 

As soon as I stepped into the gate of the courtyard leading to Magellan’s Cross and the Santo Niño Basilica, a swarm of vendors rush at me, and I calmly shake my head and say “No, thank you,” to each of them, and walk on.

Magellan’s Cross, Cebu City.

They are imploring tourists to buy a small range of things. Candles, fridge magnets, cold water, balloons. They’re just trying to make a living, trying to survive in this city. As I walked to the Magellan’s Cross, a man in a bright blue polo shirt with TOURIST POLICE written on it came out of the entrance to the Basilica grounds. The vendors and beggars started running away from him. “Don’t run!” he yells at them, sweeping his hand in wide arcs. He chases them out of the grounds; they scatter like startled birds.

My walk takes me from the Summit Circle on Osmeña Boulevard down toward Colon Street. Clustered around Colon street are a number of sights in Cebu City. I started the sightseeing at Magellan’s Cross, a cross erected by Ferdinand Magellan upon his arrival in 1521, and is a marker of the first Spanish landing in the Philippines which led to 333 years of Spanish rule and a staunchly Roman Catholic population.

The walk, on a map by, a Japanese language guide to Cebu for tourists.

I spend time in the Basilica Santo Niño where Filipinos light candles and pray in the special areas flanking the Basilica entrance. Inside, a Mass is in process. I tiptoe outside to the inner courtyard where a feeble fountain spouts water, coins people had thrown in to its shallow but clear pond glinting in the bright sunlight.

Courtyard at Santo Niño Basilica.

A few people rest on benches, scrolling through their phones. A line snakes around the inner hallway to the original Santo Niño statue, a religious icon which had been presented to the local Queen Juana when she and King Rajah Humabon had converted to Catholicism in Magellan’s day before he was killed in battle by another chieftain, Lapu Lapu.

After the Basilica, I head toward the seaport, walking four blocks to Fort San Pedro. Along the way, the smell of old urine is sharp in my nostrils. A candle seller rests on the sidewalk, clutching her handful of candles in one hand and shielding her eyes from the sun with the other. When I walk past, she glances up at me, and I catch the a glimpse of defeat in her eyes.

Fort San Pedro is a small portside fortification built by Miguel López de Legazpi, first governor of the Captaincy General. Inside the upper level of the fort’s main building are photographs of past life on the island.

Fort San Pedro and couple attempting selfie.

There is a large plaza fronting the fort where locals hang out. A group of teens rehearse a dance, and a young couple waltzes to music only they can hear, in a shaded area.

I turn back toward the direction of the Basilica, crossing MJ Cuenco road, and take the other side of Osmeña Boulevard toward Colon. There are more shops and offices, including the Election Commission offices on this side of the road, and less urine smell.

Turning into a side street heading toward the Cebu Cathedral, I pass a street where stalls sell flowers, candles and small versions of the Santo Niño. It’s almost noon, and the heat is intense.

I quickly duck under the shade of a tree in the courtyard beside the entrance to the cathedral. A Mass is going on, in English. A homeless man, his telltale long hair and unshaved face and the muddy dark condition of his raggedy clothing tells me he’s been through tough times for a long time. No one shoos him away from the bench where he is sleeping.

As the mass goers give each other the sign of peace, I walk out of the cathedral courtyard, past a family of foreign tourists, and follow MJ Cuenco road toward the Museo Sugbo, a museum that the LP guide describes as the best curated exhibits in the city.

Teeth with gold filling decor, circa 14th century, amid other indications of trade with China.

Along the way to the museum, I pass a broken house. The roof is still intact, but all the walls are gone. A mattress is laid out in one room, its partition to other sections of the building long gone on which, a girl in an undershirt and shorts, sleeps. Her back is to the road. To the left of her head is another mattress, where a woman sits, rubbing her eyes and yawning. A man sits on the floor beside the yawning woman’s mattress, clutching a bottle half-filled with water.

I walk past them and fight the urge to stare. I also fight the urge to walk faster. Hearing myself thinking, I am thrust back to Myanmar, another memory.

I walk fast out of the pagoda grounds, out onto the unpaved parking lot, pebbles biting into my feet. Flanking the parking lot is a row of shops. Myanmar Lager Beer, a large sign announces. Outside the compound, under a tamarind tree, a dead dog lay; split open from whatever cruelty it met last night. An unkindness of ravens pecks at the carcass, making sharp sounds as they feast.

I walk back to the temple compound, still barefoot. Again I steel my shoulders for the swarm of postcard sellers. In the parking lot’s dust, there is one of me and three Spanish tourists, bright in their blondeness. Thankfully, they stand out. The assault of postcard sellers chooses them. I am left alone, to walk to the car I’ve hired, to get away.

I cannot get away. In Bagan, I stop beside one of the city’s ubiquitous peanut fields, to watch a man climb the toddy palm trees lining the field, to gather toddy nuts. The purple nuts the size of half a head yield sugar, which the locals boil into syrup and when hardened, form jaggery, a kind of after-meal candy. The jaggery is also fermented with the nut’s juice to make jaggery juice, a thick, sweet drink in the morning, and in the afternoon, fermented in the heat, becomes jaggery beer, a local favorite.

The man climbs the palm tree using a rope truss, a net hanging from his belt. He cuts the nuts and holds them in his net, so he looks like a strange spider with bulbous legs from where I observe below. He smiles at me while climbing another tree, and I receive this as a sign to take his photo. He plays to the camera, stopping on his descent to give me his smile, and flex his strong and limber leg muscles.

Ten minutes later, the matriarch of the family shows me her torn shirt. Her breast shows through a gash in her shirt. She is saying something to me, and although I do not own any language here, I understand she is telling me how poor they are.

I have a few kyats in my pocket. I hand them to her, then I walk away, telling myself I am not creating beggars. I am merely helping someone buy some better clothes.

Maybe it’s too late, now, to change from the change that has already happened. In Minggun, the boat I am on approaches the shore where broken lies the giant lion built to guard the pagoda that was never finished, a giant square block of red brick on a hill. The shore looks deserted until the boat is about a hundred meters away, then I see them.

Women with postcards dangling from their hands. Bead necklaces. Fabric. There are six of them, waiting by one of the jetties. “We are not landing there,” Kyaw Myint says to me. As if they heard, the women clamber, run, away from the jetty toward another, near a broken wall shaded by a large rain tree.

When I get off the boat, six voices chant, “Buy from me, buy from me, not expensive, later OK?” I am trotting now, away from their voices, toward the broken pagoda. At the base of the hill, a couple of shops scream color. Cold Drink, one of them implores in crooked letters hand-painted on cardboard.

A young teen approaches me, three dollar bills clutched like an open poker hand. “Help me change to kyat,” he says. “In Mingun is very difficult.” I know this trick already. The little girl across from the Buddhist University, with tanaka on her face and flowers in her hair, asked me to change 700 kyats to a dollar, the exchange rate back then. I shook my head then, I shake my head at the young man.

 “Please help me change,” the boy says again more insistently, thrusting the three dollar bills to me. By Minggun my soul is frayed. I had spent five days listening to the mantra of “Money, buy from me, hello, buy from me” and walking through assaults of postcards sellers. I am tired of it. So when the boy continues his chant, I snap back. “I am not a bank,” I say. My face turns to stone. I put the lens cap on my camera, shutting its sensor in darkness.

In Cebu, I pass the homeless people in the broken house and they do not even glance my way as I walk by.

At the Museo Sugbo, I try to read all the captions, eavesdropping on the narratives of a guide as she takes a group of high school students around the exhibits.

Samurai with worn handle, Museo Sugbo.

The last exhibit plays a video of the Japanese occupation during World War II. The video narrates the ways the Imperial Army ravaged Manila, killing Filipino civilians and foreign civilians alike. I am intrigued by the tone of the word choice; I hear, in the story underneath the story, resentment. I remember how ravens, like humans, may hold grudges for past slights.

I try to summon a focus on learning about each artifact, but I am distracted by the suffering of the people I’ve encountered today. For a large city with a substantial tourism interest, Cebu City is surprisingly –it seems— indifferent to the market.

Was it a matter of capital? Inability or unwillingness of people to veer away from selling what they always sold for a day’s food on the table? I think of the hawker’s market where I went in search of dinner the other day. Cold food for sale, vegetable dishes that had crusted where the ingredients touched the air, speaking of how long they’d been on display.

I walked into the supermarket instead after making three rounds around the food stalls, and settled for fresh mangoes and pomelo, a relative of the grapefruit but with a sweeter pulp.

I remember that I have choices. We purchase things and add to the economy and the living of the local people, and we make decisions for our own well-being. I am grateful for this choice.

Travel sometimes teaches the stark, the harsh, the things that might make us look away. The postcards screaming beauty, abundance and carefree days bombard us with expectations that each day of our itineraries will be filled with remarkable peace and delight, feasts of plenty, and unbound beauty echoing the freedom we feel untethered to the confines of our other roles, our other life somewhere else.

Some days, it’s a postcard. Other days, it’s real life.

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