Manila was not my favourite destination. I’d been ripped off, followed, given an awful hotel room and felt bruised and culture shocked.
Lacking the will for much solo exploration, I accepted a ride with a caleche driver around the city. He seemed personable and not pushy. When we arrived back at my hotel he asked my plans for the next day. I told him there were none and he offered to collect me and take me to meet his family. I was 23, bored and alone and so I agreed.
The next day, looking like someone from a bad American tourist video, I hopped into the caleche expecting a 15 minute trot to a suburban house. What I got was an odyssey into the jungle.
The driver, whose name I don’t even remember, returned the horse and caleche to a stable in a slum filled with dwellings made of cardboard, plywood, metal sidings and tarpaulin. Nerves kicked in watching kids pick over items from the nearby garbage dump while I stood in pastel shorts and shirt complete with camera around my neck, blonde hair and jaunty flowery hat.
No one knows I’m here thought I. No one even knows I’ve left Australia. There are turning points in your life when you travel as a solo woman, where you weigh up your situation quickly and then shrug internally and commit to the inevitable fact that the consequences of your route may lead to loneliness at best, disappearance and death at worst. I shrugged and decided it was my time or it wasn’t and relaxed into the experience.
We walked to a train station and took a train into the countryside. Green, everything green. We talked about life and the accident of birth. At length we alighted and got into a jeepney – the jeeps left by departing American troops after the war, which now serve as pimped up taxis – and bumped and rocked out over stony roads until my driver yelled at the jeepney to stop. Down a lane we came to a wooden house surrounded by chickens, children and dripping trees. The children took me to a large dam where hundreds of them swam and played and leaped off the banks. They swarmed around me touching my long blonde hair, and chattering in Tagalog. I’ve never felt more alive than in those moments in a brown water dam.
The driver’s children walked me to their house and a meal was served. A cauldron of soup with fish heads bobbing on top. As guest of honour fish heads came my way and too terrified to offend them, I crunched and chewed through bone and eyeball and skin.
Hours past talking and playing with children and then my driver took me home. Back along the lane, into a jeepney, back on the train and walking, walking to my hotel.
Could I pay him I asked?
Absolutely not he replied.
Could I send anything to his family?
Maybe shoes, and pencils he replied.
I flew onto England the next day, and then back to Australia eventually and I gathered flip flops and pens and notebooks and packaged them up and sent them. I’ll never know if they reached the family and I’ve never returned to Manila. The day will stay in my memory forever though. To travel alone is to trust in human good and I always will.