My Trip to the Bottom of the World--Don Carlos, Philippines
My sister emailed the family from Calgary a while back and casually mentioned a canoe trip she has planned down the Yukon River in July with a big group of women. I emailed back and jokingly threatened to fly up there to go on the trip with her. Her enthusiastic reply got me really considering the trip. It seemed so far away. So risky. So way out of my comfort zone. Should I go? Then I got to thinking about another trip I took to an out-of-the-way place that really changed me. It was dangerous, it was risky. It was heaven.
It was an afternoon in the autumn of 1982. I rubbed my eyes and tried to clean out some of the dust that had settled in the creases of my face. I attempted to run my fingers through my hair, but this proved impossible. My hair had mutated into a matted, coarse mop that wouldn’t be clean and brushed for another three days. I was riding in an old 11-passenger van with broken windows.
I was fourteen, but felt grownup. My father was a minister who was revisiting the Philippines to meet old friends and places. He and my mother had lived in Manila and started some churches there in the late 60’s and early 70’s. I was born in 1967, a preemie, only surviving twin and the fourth girl to be born to my parents in 4 ½ years. My life started out as an adventure and hasn’t changed much since. Everyone lavished attention on us and it kind of went to my head. People assumed I was 18 or 19, so I tried to be sophisticated and mature. We were bumping our way on an eleven-hour trip to Don Carlos, a remote village on the Southern island of Mindanao.
Actually, the trip began with an airplane ride from Baguio in the north to Davao, a beautiful resort in the south. We were to be driven to Don Carolos by a couple of men from the church we were visiting. The van that we rode in had open, nonworking windows, hard bench seats, and no air conditioning. The trip was to take seven hours with few stops. My family has always taken long trips in airplanes and cars. Seven hours is nothing, I thought. After all, on an adventure, who counts the hours? I loved the attention I received. I was stared at with obvious lust by every male over the age of twelve. It was very good for my ego. We stopped in one town to rent a movie projector and my mother, sister, brother and I waited in the van while the men went into the store. There were some men standing on the street, and when they saw my sister and I they began gesturing to us. We just giggled and didn’t say anything. My mother didn’t notice. Or did and pretended not to.
The first three or four hours passed uneventfully. We passed fields of mango groves, pineapple farms, lush jungles and numerous tiny villages that consisted of three or four bamboo huts. The views were unbelievably breathtaking. It’s hard to describe just how dense and green a tropical rainforest is. We stopped once to buy fruit that looked like it was from Mars. We could peel it so it was safe to eat. We couldn’t eat anything that had to be washed. We drank bottled soda the entire trip to avoid contaminated water. The air was humid, but since the driver never took his foot off the gas pedal, we always had a good breeze. Unfortunately, most of the dirt roads we drove on were under construction.
“Funny” my dad commented, “These same roads were under construction when I
came through here 11 years ago. I guess they haven’t finished yet.”
Every gravel truck and grader we drove behind poured tons of dust into our open windows. We coughed and choked and kept bandanas on our faces to block out the worst of it. Just as the sun was beginning to go down, our driver pulled off the road, an ominous thump thump thump coming from the underside of the van. He, his companion and my dad jumped out and jabbered in Togaleg and English. There was a spare tire bolted under the van, but after much effort to release it, the tire was flat, too.
They finally decided the driver and his friend would flag down a passing vehicle to take them back to the town we had driven through an hour before and try to find someone to fix it. It took two hours to get anyone to stop for them. This was when we learned that Mindanao is a very bandit-ridden area and making a habit of stopping for stranded motorists is literally hazardous to your health. Our friends were risking their lives hitchhiking at midnight to fix a flat. In fact, as every car that passed us approached, our guide hissed at my sister and I had to duck down between the seats. He explained that their headlights would catch our white faces and blond hair, a dead giveaway that Americans were stranded. Stranded people, especially Americans are sitting ducks for bandits who will slit throats and dump the bodies into the jungle for the few dollars they might be carrying. It is common to find vehicles completely overgrown by the jungle. Occasionally a decomposed body is found, with no clue as to the identity of the victim. Betsy and I looked at each other, wondering if we should be scared. Around 11 p.m. as we ducked for yet another car, I quipped,
“Well, at least this didn’t happen in the middle of nowhere.”
My parents started laughing and couldn’t stop. I now realize that they had put their children at risk for rape and murder. Although they have always trusted God completely, they were probably at the end of their nerves. Besides, we were as far out in the middle of nowhere as a body could get.
Finally, our rescuers returned with the repaired tire. They told us they found a tire shop, but had to pound on the door and shout for an hour before anyone ventured to open it. They replaced the tire and we were on the road again. At least at night there is no road construction.
Maybe I fell asleep, but the next thing I knew we were pulling in front of the only motel in Don Carlos. It consisted of concrete block walls, and bare concrete floors. There were four regular rooms and our room was the bridal suite. We walked down the hallway that reminded me of a prison and we could hear the other occupants snoring loudly. The doors each had a screen transom and the concrete echoed with their sleeping noises. At the end of the hall was a metal door covered with chipping green paint. Inside was a large room with no less than 10 metal cots scattered around. There was a small room to the left that had a toilet that was about six inches off the ground (you had to squat). The shower was a dirty bucket under a spigot in the wall of the main room. One filled the bucket and dumped it over one’s head. There was a drain in the floor next to the rusty dripping sink. The water was sure to be contaminated and my mother urged us to wait until we got back to an American hotel to shower. She didn’t have to ask twice.
My father left for a while. I wondered where he could be going at two midnight in a village without so much as a street light. My mother noticed a very large, menacing-looking spider on the floor and casually pointed it out to the proprietor. He graciously nodded and bowed and left. He returned with a pump pesticide sprayer. He pointed it at the giant arachnid and sprayed poison directly into the spider’s face. The spider didn’t flinch. I actually think I saw it chuckle and wave, but by this time I may have been delirious from dehydration and lack of sleep. Since the poison didn’t work, the man left and returned with a magazine and he proceeded to beat that spider to death. He then left the room and didn’t take the spider with him. My mother piled our trash on top of the dead spider for the next two days so she didn’t have to look at it.
My father returned with a six-pack of warm San Miguel beer. I was 14, my sister was 15 and my brother was 5. I don’t remember if he gave any beer to my brother. All I
know is, that beer tasted better than anything I’ve ever had. We were very dehydrated and there was no bottled water or soda available. It was just what I needed and I slept like a rock and woke up feeling great.
We woke at 5 a.m. by what sounded like pigs trying to kill each other under our window and a loud speaker that blasted military music. No sleeping through that!
The rest of the visit was glorious for me. I felt sorry for my brother who ran a fever through the entire trip. I don’t know why my dad made him take the trip, except that it was a matter of pride for him to have his whole family there. I don’t think my brother has good memories of the trip. But it was a unique experience that many people in that village had never seen white women or children before. I felt like a celebrity!
The people put on a native show for us and my father had a translator for his sermon since so many of the people didn’t speak English. He brought a cassette tape recorder and the huge group of smiling people sand a beautiful song for us. When my father played the song back to them, the children laughed at the sounds. Listening to the voices, in the middle of the jungle, at the bottom of the world, surrounded by banana trees, mud streets and grass hut was almost magical. What a privilege it was to be there! The villagers joy was contagious. They had very few material things, but they shared everything with us.
I don’t remember the van ride back to Davao. I do know we didn’t break down again. I suspect I slept the whole way back. I probably dreamed of a hot shower. But we arrived safely back.
I think of that experience from time to time. Would I ever go back? Hell, no! It was a tremendously dangerous situation to be in. As an adult, I don’t think I’d have the guts to venture into the jungle again, let alone take my children. Am I glad I went? Absolutely. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip and I’m glad my parents took me. They left me a legacy of exploring all the possibilities of life. To try something unthinkable just for the experience.
I went back to my computer and looked up flights to Canada. What? You think I’m going to pass up this chance?
Post script: I booked a three week trip to Canada and two weeks before I was to leave, the canoe trip was cancelled. But, in the spirit of adventure and spontenaiety, I went anyway and had a glorious time with my two sisters and two nephews.