The Dancing Lady
I landed in Manila a poor man. I carried a water bottle and a few clothes stuffed in a backpack. I did this purposely. I knew that most Filipinos believed Americans to be rich. I wanted to prove differently. I slept on the streets. Abandoned park benches and cardboard boxes were my five star hotels. I moved to a different place every night. Filipinos called me Joe and the tourists looked at me as if I were a lunatic.
It was difficult to sleep because of the stench and the noise. The air smelled of urine and sweat. The rumble of cars and motorbikes were constant. Their exhaust powdered everything black. I took bathes at a hostel. I paid a squatter to do my laundry. I ate my meals from street venders.
I usually slept in the day and walked around in the evening. I didn’t feel so out of place at night in my rugged clothes. Besides, the evenings were more interesting. Prostitutes waved to me from balconies and street corners. Old men offered me Viagra and shabu. Gay men wanted to give me a massage. I turned them all down. I’m not gay, so it was easy enough to turn down the masseuse, but the woman were all of them stunning. There’s just something about olive black eyes and tan skin. But I wanted to do my part to dispel the myth that all Americans come to the Philippines to fuck a Filipino virgin or marry one or traffic one to the Middle East. And walking around Manila I could understand why Filipinos thought this. Almost everywhere I turned I saw Americans, westerners at any rate, patting the butts of women half their age and slipping them into a taxi cab. It took all the will power I had not to drag these old greasy men into a dark ally and beat the living shit out of them.
After two weeks I had all the city life I wanted and decided to head to the provinces.
I walked into the tourist office.
The woman behind the desk looked at me, hesitated. “May I help you, sir?” she finally said.
“Yes,” I said. “May I see a map of the Philippines?”
She handed me a map. “Where do you want to go, sir? Boracay and Palawan are very beautiful.”
“Somewhere with few tourists, so not those places. I want to stay in Luzon, too.” I pointed to Cagayan Valley. What about here? I bet there’s some great camping and hiking up through here. And I read that the American and Filipino Guerilla forces were all over this area during World War Two. Has anybody ever found anything? Sounds like a fascinating place.”
“Sorry, sir, I don’t know what it’s all about there. Maybe.”
“Where do I go to get on the bus?”
“San Polluck, sir.”
“May I take the map?”
On the way to the bus station I scanned the map. I decided to ride as far as the bus would go. It was fifteen long hours. I arrived in the town of Gonzaga hot, tired, and smelling like a cross between a rotten mango and stale beer. Everyone was staring at me when I got off. The men looked suspicious, girls shy and goo goo eyed.
I flagged down a tricycle driver. “Take me to the nearest resort,” I said, and we sped away.
A resort in the Philippines can mean anything. It can be a five star hotel with all the amenities or a loan nipa hut tucked away on the beach. The tricycle driver took me to a place somewhere in between, named Virgie’s Beach Resort.
A young girl was sweeping dog turds off the parking lot. The main building was one level, yellow in color, with a bar off to the side. In bold letters, a sign read: Open 24 hrs.
I walked into the reception area, stood there a minute watching the girl behind the desk watching me. She was like the girl at the tourist office, but more inhibited.
I smiled at her, tried to make her comfortable. I studied the room rates, asked for the cheapest one. “I don’t need a TV, aircon, hot water, anything special,” I said.
“500 pesos a night, sir,” she said. That was about 10 US dollars.
“I can handle that,” I said.
“Yes, sir,” she said. She handed me the key.
A boy appeared, grabbed my bags, escorted me to my room. I flipped him 5 pesos. “You speak English?” I asked.
“Yes, sir,” the boy said. “We speak very good English in the Philippines.”
I smiled. “Is there a market nearby?”
“Well, where is it?”
“What, sir? You want a girl?”
Jesus, I thought. Sex tourism is big business. “No, just the market, I said.
“Filipinas are very beautiful, sir.”
“Yes, I know. The market, please.”
He pointed with his lips. “Der, sir.”
“So, go to the main road and turn left, then straight,” I said.
I headed to the market after a quick nap. A group of women were playing Mahjong in one of the kubo huts near the main road. They stared at me and smiled. I smiled and waved.
The market was bustling. People were hopping about in all directions and searching for the perfect crab and jumbo shrimp. Some settled on a few pieces of squid and a kilo or two of talapia. Most of the talapia were still alive, having recently been deposited on the wet tables, flopping their last minutes of life away and spraying stink water on prospective customers. An old woman with missing teeth held a string of crabs in front of me.
“Hello, sir. You want?”
“No thank you,” I said.
Hundreds of eyes were watching every move I made.
“Hello, sir,” a young girl behind a fruit and vegetable table said. “You like this one?”
I was instantly pulled to her. She looked to be in her mid twenties. She had a strong, yet delicate face, and the yellow T-shirt she wore suggested that if she were a flower, she would be a dancing lady, bright and yellow, delicately strong, having command of nature’s music, the wind and the rain her orchestra, thunder her tempo and lightning her clairvoyant baton.
“Hello,” I said.
“You like something, sir?”
I didn’t want anything, but pretended to look around.
I pointed to a bunch of bananas. “How much are these?”
“30 pesos a kilo.”
I couldn’t resist. She was so beautiful that I would have bought anything from her. “Give me half a kilo,” I said.
She put them in a bag and handed it to me. I lightly grazed her hand as I took my change. Her skin was something milk would feel like if it were solid. I smiled at her as I walked away. She smiled, too, her olive skin whirling into a bright shade of pink, like cotton candy. I studied her face and swore to remember it. I wanted to see her again, but thought of sleazy white guy horrors from Manila. I didn’t want to be labeled as the sex tourist of Cagayan.
The next morning I helped some locals repair a banka. There was a large hole near its stern. A large wave slammed the boat into a wall of coral the day before. Somehow he and his crew were able to tug the boat to shore before it became victim to the wrathful sea and home to a school of fish and ghost crabs. I thought of the girl the whole day. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get her out of my head.
The banka repaired, me, Clifford, and Clifford’s crew settled in a nipa hut. There were 8 cases of Red Horse Beer packed in ice under the bamboo table. On the table were a variety of special Filipino delicacies: Pinapaitan, Kilawen, and Sinanglaw. I wasn’t much of a drinker, but it would have been rude for me to decline the invitation.
Clifford popped a beer open and handed to me.
“Thank you,” I said. I took a sip, then set the bottle down.
As the sun dipped into the sea, the last of the light swallowed up by dark clouds, I watched the fishing boat lights move mysteriously across the water like a fluorescent snake until they were overpowered by the atmosphere, the sky turning from white to orange to yellow to blue. I gazed at the ocean. The sun would be up in a few hours. As a child, I always enjoyed watching the sun rise. It always reminded me of a yellow-orange blister growing out of the sea.
Seeing the party winding down, I excused myself and walked closer to the water. I settled into the sand. I allowed the spirit of the waves to relax my mind. I imaged the dancing lady running towards me. I hoped to see her again tomorrow. This time I would ask her name. Why should I care what people thought? I knew my intentions. And they were good.
Matthew Hamilton is an MFA candidate at Fairfield University. His most recent work can be found at LitSnack. He has forthcoming work at Black Lantern Publishing.