We stumble out into the wet, warm night in Manila. The sky is dark and the Arrivals area is a chaotic jumble of cars, taxis, motorbikes and people. I can barely keep my eyes open. It’s past 3:00 a.m. our time, although already 9:00 p.m. Manila time.
We hail a taxi. It soon becomes clear that the taxi driver has no idea where he’s going. He stops at every security checkpoint and asks the guards for directions in rapid fire Tagalog. Although I am tired in my bones, my eyelids don’t begin to close while watching the world slide by outside the taxi. I would not describe the structures here as buildings, so much as shacks. Homes and businesses are constructed out of corrugated metal, planks of wood, and sheer determination. There are ads everywhere on waterproof fabric, ripped, dirty, and used as roofing material. I spot graffiti. A stray dog runs in front of the taxi, and the driver casually honks.
After a dizzying hour of circling the same neighborhood near the airport, the taxi pulls in front of the hostel. The check-in process is a blur. Finally, I collapse gratefully into my bed. My flat mattress is wrapped in a Hello Kitty sheet, with a plaid, fleece pillow.
It is now past 4:00 a.m. our time. My movements feel slow and clumsy. The room is stifling, with temperatures warmer than outside. I feel the sweat bead on my body and hair sticks to my damp forehead. My eyelids, heavy with exhaustion, begin to close.
Some time later, the door bangs open and four people pile into the room. A shaft of light from the hallway lands across my face and it makes me hate them a little. They climb into their bunks and chat in low voices. I can tell from their accents that they’re Australian.
The Australians have commandeered the only fan. The stagnant air and crushing heat makes it nearly impossible to sleep. When I do sleep, the dreams I have are fragmented and unsettling.
I wake up before anyone else. The communal bathroom is a messy. There is a bucket of icy water under the shower. The showerhead drips methodically. Drip, drip, drip. There is no soap or toilet paper, only air freshener.
When I come out, the Australians are up and getting dressed. They all have tanned, athletic bodies and blonde hair. One of the woman brushes her sea salt tousled hair aggressively with a plastic brush. “Ugh, I look so gross,” she says.
I look down at the same clothes I wore yesterday. My hair is pulled back into a ponytail, but it’s already coming undone. Clumps of hair lay against my neck. My stomach pouches out and I suck it in for a moment wondering what it would be like to look like one of these girls instead.
Downstairs, we ask the front desk to call us a taxi. Although we have only seen a small portion of Manila, none of it really, I am glad we are getting out of here as quickly as possible. The taxi marinates in traffic for over an hour to go the one kilometer to the airport. We stress about making our flight. The taxi driver cheerfully tells us that some people have four-hour commutes in the morning. Metro Manila traffic is nothing short of soul crushing.
A garishly painted jeepney keeps pace with us. A woman leaning out of the window applies foundation. I try to imagine having a life here and I can’t.
Our flight takes us east to the island of Palawan. When we land in Puerto Princessa, it’s mid-afternoon and we stop for food at a small mini-mart-cum-restaurant. We share adobo chicken (a Filipino staple) and macaroni soup. A short trike ride later takes us to the Fanta Lodge.
The manager, a woman with kind eyes and a shy smile, shows us our room. A bed outfitted with a plastic mattress and one sheet, a desk, a chair, two towels, a roll of toilet paper, and a wall fan. The room is claustrophobic. Barely large enough to fit the bed, we can’t both stand in the room at the same time.
We abandon our things and the Fanta Lodge in search of food. We stumble across a sari-sari store two blocks away. I have to duck to fit under the awning. We survey the offerings through bars, with an unsmiling proprietor surveying us from inside. Pointing to different items got our point across, pesos change hands, and we walk back to our room, swinging the bag of snacks.
The pile of food spread across the bed. Kelly opens a bag of corn curls that look similar to Fritos. She eats one, crunching loudly. Her face scrunches up.
“What? Not good?” I ask.
“What is that?” she exclaims.
I pull the bag from her hands and start laughing. “They’re cheese-lemon flavored!”
A look of disgust dawns on Kelly’s face. “They taste like Pledge!”
I try one. They really, really do.
Welcome to the Philippines.