In 2009, I accepted a teaching position in Cebu, the Philippines. My first night there proved to be a harsh lesson, alerting me to the perils of my adopted home. My romantic image of silky sun soaked, sandy beaches quickly squashed by the realities of a place where day-to-day life, is for many, a constant struggle in survival.
Although my introduction to life in Cebu was somewhat bumpy, that I lived in this bustling, chaotic city for three years is testament to the charms of the place. My time was liberally peppered with positive experiences. The vibrant Sinulog festival held in Cebu, the majestic Kawasan waterfall at the tip of the island, the hanging coffins of Sagada and the Banaue Rice terraces, to name a few.
By far, my most cherished memory is the warmth of the Filipino people.
First Night in Cebu, the Philippines.
Weary after a long flight, I ventured from my second-rate hotel in search for something to eat. A drizzling warm rain fell, slapping my thin colourful wrap-around skirt against my thighs. I regretted not having brought an umbrella with me. I tripped often in my flimsy sandals, manoeuvring around people on the narrow, broken side walk, and trying to dodge puddles. Water sprayed from cars speeding past on the crowded road. Surveying my surroundings of dilapidated corrugated iron and board structures, flapping plastic sheeting as make-do windows and doors, filled me with a sense of unease.
Unsavoury odours assaulted my nostrils. Scrawny, sniffing dogs brushed against my legs. Beneath a bridge, bodies wrapped in thin blankets crouched around small fires. A tap on my shoulder. I sprung around. Three bedraggled children, blocked my path. ‘Please ma’am, we’re hungry,’ they pleaded in unison, such sadness in their eyes. One of them imitated eating, another reached towards my orange tote bag slung loosely on my shoulder. I backed away and clutching the bag close to my chest, made a hasty retreat.
Reaching an open mall, I found a supermarket, pharmacy, massage parlours, a kebab stall, a swanky Chinese restaurant, and a pizza place. I chose pizza.
Escaping the bustle of the street into the brightly lit Yellow Cab Pizzeria, I felt calmer and more relaxed. I ordered and paid for my pizza then sat at a small window table, slinging my bag on the back of my chair. Family groups sat munching pizza’s and French Fries, chatting, laughing. Pizza boys in yellow shirts, black caps with a cloth insignia cheerfully greeted and served the customers.
A couple entered and sat behind me, only to hurriedly leave moments later closely followed by a yellow shirted pizza boy. He jumped on his motorbike and sped off. Oddly, he had no pizza boxes. I watched in bemusement as the motorbike returned soon after, screeching to a stop. The pizza boy rushed into the restaurant, had a garbled conversation with his co-workers and then came to my table.
‘Ma’am,’ he said. ‘Where is your bag?’ I swivelled round in my chair checking for my bag. Shocked to find no bag, I desperately looked under the chair. Again nothing. I was horrified.
‘Is your bag an orange cloth bag?’ he asked. Dumbfounded, I nodded.
‘Come with me, I got them…’ the rest of his words were lost as I numbly followed him into the mall.
At the corner under a dim light, stood three security guards pointing antiquated rifles at the couple from the restaurant.
“I got them,” the pizza boy gushed, a beaming smile on his face. “I got the crooks. I ran them down on my motorbike.”
The thin woman, long dark hair, downcast eyes, rambled, “It were him, not me. I’m his escort for the night… I have seven children to feed…need the money.” The man, a frightening expression on his heavy-set face remained silent. Defiant. Reclaiming my bag from the pavement, I frantically checked the contents, relieved to find my phone, wallet and passport intact. A police car entering the mall, parked haphazardly. A garbled exchange between the pizza boy, the security guards and the two policemen ensued.
“We’ll need a statement,” a burly policeman barked.
Squished between the two crooks in the back of the police car, siren blaring, we wove recklessly through the heavy traffic as the bustle of the city flashed by. The street noise of constant horn tooting, squealing car brakes, shouts and laughter invaded the vehicle. My anxiety rose. Where were they taking me? Could I even trust the police? The man, scowling, pressed menacingly against my bare arm and muttered words I did not recognise. Cebuano perhaps, the local dialect. The woman, clinging to my other arm, bleated her litany of innocence, “Please ma’am, seven children to feed. Please, take pity.”