Head to some random town on the map and you might get more than you bargained for.
A few days in Angeles, Philippines had left my 18 year old mind reeling in ways that I couldn’t have imagined. My new-found freedom seemed infinite, the entire world at my disposal, and the sudden realization that I could have just about anything I wanted was not merely novel, but on some level terrifying. I realized that I would need to leave the reeking filth and debauchery of Filipino cities for a more idyllic setting, and given that I had no more information on anything in the Philippines than a single crinkled tourist map, I decided to head for a nearly random point adjacent to the sea and enough distance from Manila to probably be clean.
The town was called San Fernando, and that was all I knew about it. I asked around in the seedy hotel where I was staying, and was told merely to walk to the center of Angeles and catch a jeepney there. It seemed incredibly easy, and it never occurred to me that it could be too simple.
I went to the center of Angeles, a toxic y-shaped road junction with all the beauty of a grease-stained billboard and continued asking the locals for directions, thankful that in the Philippines nearly everyone speaks at least functional English.
Eventually, I found the jeepney headed for San Fernando, a dirty, rusting, decrepit specimen with an unusually heavy coating of floor grease in the rear passenger section. I climbed in the rear troop-carrier compartment near to the front, as I was one of the first passengers, and began to sweat.
The sun baked the steel roof above me and single drops of sweat from my brows and chin turned into a nearly constant flow, leaving my eyes stinging with salt and my clothes thoroughly drenched. More Filipinos slowly filed in, and some stared at me with slackened jaws and wide eyes. I hugged my backpack and tried to imagine an ice bath.
Eventually, we had eighteen souls in the back of the jeepney, and I was sure we were full. In fact, I even told the driver at that point that we should go on, at which he laughed and continued shouting for more passengers. We waited for ten more minutes, then twenty more minutes, eighteen souls piled into a greasy tin can, sweating. I was forced to lean forward awkwardly with my pack between my legs, as my head would hit the roof if I sat back.
Finally, a group of four more people came along intent on riding, though to my untrained eyes there seemed to be no more space at all. The drivers pushed from the rear and in the front we squeezed together as tightly as humanly possible, until there was absolutely no more space to move. The four other passengers squeezed in like misplaced pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, and we were finally off. I had been waiting for nearly an hour and a half.
We cruised down the road at breakneck speed, weaving across lanes and facing oncoming traffic. At one point, we came up beside another jeepney, and I watched as the two young drivers exchanged broad grins. Suddenly, I felt a surge on the accelerator, and we were racing the other jeepney while heading straight into oncoming traffic at top speed.
My heart raced as we swerved back behind our opponent at the last second before an inevitable impact, only to accelerate again in a mad dash to pass him. Our driver was laughing hysterically and gesturing with one hand to the other jeepney while barely keeping track of the road, which in itself had a number of unique obstacles, including long patches of drying rice lying along the side of the road (which is also why typical Filipino rice tends to have random pieces of dirt and sometimes even tarmac for flavoring…).
We soon thereafter passed our competitor and our driver finally slowed down to a safer speed, though he still cut in and out of traffic with typical Filipino recklessness. We traveled for about an hour like this, the ride becoming relatively more comfortable as passengers slowly got off. Eventually, we were in what seemed to be a dense urban area, and I was the only passenger left in the back, much to my confusion and concern. Suddenly, we stopped.
“We are in San Fernando,” the driver told me, holding out his hand for my money.
I stumbled out of the back of the vehicle dragging my pack, and was immediately met by dozens of Filipino eyes. I quickly paid the money and hoisted my pack, but had no idea where to go. What was abundantly clear was that I was not anywhere near the beach and I wasn’t in an idyllic small town. I was in a horrendously poor slum.
“Joe! Joe!” children began shouting, and more people came to stare at me.
I looked around the area and saw the worst filth and destitution that I had ever experienced or imagined. Open sewers ran between ramshackle homes of scrap metal, wood, plastic and cardboard. Small children with swollen stomachs eyed me behind hollow, malnourished faces or painfully rubbed horrid gangrenous infections on their legs and arms. As I floundered cautiously forward, my face almost certainly betraying my sense of utter confusion and wonder, I eyed a weird river of neon green ooze in a deep culvert. More surreal still, a small group of grinning Filipinos was fishing along its banks.
All activity stopped for everyone in the vicinity when they saw me, however, and I was suddenly becoming surrounded by locals who saw me either as a potential savior or a good mark. It finally occurred to me that I had better leave, before the situation took a drastic turn for the worse.
Miraculously, a bicycle rickshaw pulled up beside me and the driver offered his services.
“Where are you go-ing?” he asked me with a broad grin.
“Uhhh…” I muttered as I floundered with my map, trying to find the name of any city in the general direction away from Manila. I quickly settled on a town called San Felipe, and told him to take me there, at which he laughed.
“You have to take jeep-ney,” he said, his white teeth shining in a ridiculously broad grin. The several dozen people now surrounding me were all laughing as well, and I desperately wanted to get away.
“Ok, whatever, let’s just go!” I demanded as I crawled into the rickshaw.
He began to peddle, but before we managed to make any distance a woman jumped into the seat beside me.
“Take me with you,” she pleaded, the wear on her face and the sagginess of her skin indicating to me that she was at least in her 40’s.
“What? What are you talking about? You have to get out of here,” I told her awkwardly.
She put her hand on my thigh and looked into my eyes.
“Take me with you!” she begged.
I laughed out loud and leaned back in my chair, not believing the incredibly surreal turn that my life was taking.
“Ok, ok, you don’t take me… Take my daughter!”
“Take my daughter, she’s very beautiful. Seventeen years old. She’s at school right now, we can go get her and you take her with you.”
“You’re crazy. I’m not taking you, your daughter, or anyone else with me.”
“Take her, please!” she went on, touching my arms and grabbing my thigh. “She’s VERY beautiful! She would take care of you!”
“No,” I said abruptly. “Hey!” I yelled to the driver, who had finally carried us several blocks away from the crowd. “Stop here!”
We pulled to a stop.
“Get out,” I told the woman.
“Go. Get out. You can’t come with me.”
She manufactured a pitiful frown and stepped out of rickshaw, and I instructed the driver to take me to a bus going anywhere away from San Fernando. As I later looked over my map more carefully, I noticed that there were two San Fernando’s, and I had most certainly been to the wrong one.