My boat is sliding through dirty brown water towards the port of Cebu. It is early and the air is already hot; smog hangs over the city, smudging the distant cars traversing the bridge to Mactan Island. I’m wide awake after fourteen hours of sea breezes and rocking waves. We are leaning on the railing, a hundred Filipinos and I, watching the people below. They are begging from their little bangkas, their outrigger boats. They hold out their hands, asking for food or money; women with tangled wild hair leave their children sleeping in the prows and dive smoothly for the coins shining in the morning sun. It is a small flotilla assaulting our ferry; the boats carve out their territory and the men and women banter back and forth, all the while keeping an eye out for the glint of metal. They pick out my white face at once, though we are thirty feet above the ocean.
And this: I’m sitting on a rocky outcropping in Palawan. I’ve been here for hours, staring out at the islands, watching the angry clouds gather and disperse and gather again. It rains and rains. The ledge I’m sitting under only protects me partly from the storm. I was supposed to take a boat out to those islands today, but I’m here instead, waiting out the sun. On the mainland I know there are expatriates and travelers exploring the shores, but nobody disturbs my offshore rock except a lone Filipino fisherman, and I can believe there is no El Nido town, no Palawan, nothing except the volcanic hills sprouting out of the ocean in front of me.
And this, a memory repeated and layered, blurred at the margins, vague and variable but essentially true: warm darkness, the smell of smoke. Voices flying into one another, clamoring, jabbering, laughing. Someone has an out-of-tune guitar and half the words to a Bob Marley song. Our lights are stars and the burning ends of cigarettes. Nothing is distinct, nothing is solid, and the tropical night weighs on my eyes.I have the quick images, the snapshots: an old woman’s beautiful toothless smile, sugarcane burning, ten thousand floating tsinelas in Manila Bay. Yellow mango, green mango. Roadside sari-saris, ten in a row, identical: Norma Store, Nonong Store, Stela Store. Slum kids diving into oil-strewn wharf water. Rattling rusty buses. A trisikel driver with one eye and hunchbacked children begging for pesos. Scars. Brown skin, dark eyes, startled looks.