By Hazel Aspera
It’s always hard to tell the story of a journey. It’s not that I don’t know what to say, but I don’t know how to say it or where to start. After all, there are many ways in which a story can be told, and we both might have time to hear one of them. But I always feel that telling only one story does much injustice to the places I’ve been to.
Say, for instance, I wanted to tell you about the last time I traveled. I’d quickly recall my experience in the town of Glan in Sarangani Province to say this:
Somewhere on the southern edge of the Mindanao mainland, there is a road that leads to nowhere. That is, as a humble dirt road, it passes through the village of Batulaki, past coconut trees and through a stream, past the elementary school, shortly after which it transforms into a paved road, past houses and shops, and on until it ends abruptly onto soft, weathered coconut husks and sand. After that brief stretch of beach, there is only water as far as the eye can see.
At the dormitory, our all-women team of medical students joked that once we got there, we’d hire a boat to take us all the way to Indonesia, just so we could say that we had finally set foot on foreign land. When we jovially asked the fishermen about that, however, they said that the trip would be long and the weather and waves would not be on our side.
While this hypothetical trip to Indonesia was a running joke throughout our trip, I have no doubt that if someone had offered a ride, we would have emptied our pockets and hopped on the boat immediately just for the thrill of it.
We would ride that stretch of water that was grey near the shore, and onto that which was sea green, then onto the ultramarine waters near the horizon. But since nobody tempted us with a ride abroad, I will have to take my story back to the road that leads to nowhere, back to the shores of Mindanao.
Rising from either side of that road, just before it becomes beach, are mountains that reach the clouds. At least that is what it seemed like when we rode through the fog, up and down, left and right, through roads that were at once steep and winding.
An introduction like that, I hope, will impress upon your imagination the wild beauty of the place, and the enormity of the sea, the sky, and the mountains around us.
But even that is not enough. Because there is another way to begin this story:
The bamboo floors creaked with each step. Ma’am Sal and I had to watch our step, lest a foot shot through either a weak portion of the floor or one of the big gaps between the bamboo slats. The difference was that Ma’am Sal paced the room quicker and surer, while I fell behind trying to make sure I didn’t get injured. The inside of the house was dark, the noon light only barely seeping through the door and windows since the sun was directly overhead. I don’t remember seeing any lightbulbs, though it is possible that we came during a blackout. (You see, I am less attentive to my surroundings when I have work to do.)
As we approached the bedroom, the grandfather showed us the boy who, like him, was wearing a worn T-shirt and shorts. The upper left side of his face was almost completely caked in a dark, mottled-looking thing that appeared, to me, as a mass of gritty blood clots.
The grandfather asked if we wanted to clean his wound in the house or if we needed to go out. “It’s still bleeding,” he said in a hoarse and worried voice. Normally, I would insist that the patient stay where he was so that he wouldn’t need to exert any effort. But since I wasn’t able to determine the extent of the damage in this dim light, I told him to bring the boy out.
He carried the surprisingly calm three-year-old outside. In the light, the scab on his face looked unlike anything I had ever seen before. It had only been less than an hour, said his grandmother, since he jumped around the house, fell down, and hit his face hard against a wooden bench. Now I knew from anatomy class that face wounds tend to bleed a lot and infamously don’t clot very fast, especially not this much. What’s more, blood was still trickling sideways over the arch of his eyebrows, downward just beside his left eye and onto his cheek, implying that all that clotting wasn’t doing its job.
“By the way,” the grandfather said, “we put coffee all over the wound so it wouldn’t bleed out.”
Good Lord. Coffee. So this grainy, clot-like thing caked on his face was blood mixed with coffee. Nowhere close to the standard first aid for open wounds which was simply to clean the wound and apply pressure until the bleeding stopped.
Ma’am Sal said something as she pulled on the collar of her green and white barangay health worker uniform. I don’t remember what it was, but I do know it was filled with veiled disapproval.
I looked at the boy’s face again. I realized that we had no idea where, exactly, the wound was or how big it was. Still, there was enough bleeding that I told Ma’am Sal I thought we’d definitely need to send the boy to town to get the wound stitched up and maybe get a tetanus shot.
“We’ll have to clean the coffee off that wound first,” said Ma’am Sal. “Or else they’ll say back in town that us BHWs aren’t doing our jobs.”
* * *
In short, I could start this story writing like a tourist or writing like a health worker. But you see, “tourist destinations” bother me. While I have enjoyed my fair share of them for years since I started earning my own income, there was always something bothersome, something insincere, about them. I am wary of these things, sold like snake oil: white sand with clear waters and coral reefs, or mountain views, gardens, and fresh fruit, which may come with the most hospitable people you have ever known.
But after I enjoy a coffee in a French-inspired coffee shop (at least one exists in practically every tourist destination nowadays), I only need to walk a few paces past a narrow alleyway to find something that is in complete contrast to the paradise that is sold to us. Perhaps a family of four who spends just about as much for one day’s worth of food as I do on a single cappuccino. Or scruffy children who mistake us for foreigners. Everyone knows that foreigners always bring a lot of money.
This happened on a summer trip to Bohol, and our guide caught the children asking my boyfriend and me, in broken English, for money. “Don’t bother them,” she said, shooing them away. “Go back home to your mother, and don’t show yourselves to tourists.” I daresay this is a very Filipino way of solving the problem: hide it and forget about it. Kind of like how my parents used to avoid going to the doctor because they “might find out what’s wrong” with them. (You know, even if you don’t know there’s something wrong with you doesn’t mean it isn’t there. And the later you find out about it, the later you can fix it.)
On a larger scale, it means making the beaches, the resorts, the highways palatable for tourists by hiding poverty well in the back. But I know that just because they have been removed from my sight does not mean that they do not exist. It does not make whole the tatters on their shirts, nor does it put brand-new slippers on their bare feet, nor does it fill their empty stomachs.
It’s disconcerting, to say the least, to see abundance and poverty lying side by side like this. Which was why this trip to Sarangani was a little more special than the others. See, when I travel during the summer, it is typically to be a tourist first and only have glimpses of other stories behind the façade of paradise by accident. This time, my intentions were different: learn more about the community’s health situation through an immersion program for medical students organized by the Alliance for Improvement of Health Outcomes (AIHO), a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the Philippine public health system.
The more I saw, the more my perspective on travel changed. Is it right, after all, to separate the place from the people, to choose to see paradise and not the things which had to be pushed away to make it thus?
I don’t think so. I do it anyway.
I do it anyway. It makes me feel guilty that I can.
* * *
Ma’am Sal and I cleaned the coffee off the boy, slowly, for what seemed like hours. At first, we tried wiping it off with cotton balls soaked in alcohol, but the mixture of blood and coffee had dried on his face, making it difficult to wipe off without causing additional trauma to the wound, wherever it was. Then we tried warm water. The coffee dissolved better.
We began to make out the edges of the wound. It wasn’t as big as we had thought, spanning just a little more than halfway above the boy’s eyebrow. It was, however, deep enough that we knew that the boy definitely needed stitches, and probably a tetanus shot to boot.
“We can’t,” said the boy’s grandmother, who had been all nerves since she had run all the way to fetch us. “We don’t have any money.”
“You’ll need to find a way,” Ma’am Sal replied. “The boy needs to get to town as soon as we’re done cleaning the wound.”
The grandmother hesitated. Then she said that she’d try to borrow some from the neighbors.
I thought of how easy it was for me to get treatment of any sort back in the city, how I didn’t have to travel for an hour to get to the nearest clinic, nor did I have to deal with flooded pathways, unpaved roads, and extremely steep slopes to get there.
I wished I could help, but in the rush to collect whatever wound dressing supplies were available, I had left my bag and my wallet at the elementary school classroom that served as the barangay’s temporary health center.
The best thing I could do right now was wait. And pray that this family had generous neighbors.
* * *
One story later, we found ourselves at the parts of the southernmost mountains of Mindanao that ended abruptly in the water. We stepped off the white beach, climbing some of the looming grey rocks that seemed to fall in a static cascade from the mountain and then disappearing into the sea. Some of them were smooth, others were covered with moss, and yet some were rough, like thousands of daggers assaulting my bare feet.
Finally, we stood at what my companions and I called “the edge of the Philippines.” That wasn’t technically true, though. Somewhere just before Indonesia, Sarangani Island and Balut Island still stood as the last strongholds of Philippine land in the south. But calling it the “edge of the Mindanao mainland” didn’t have the same ring to it.
There, we were face-to-face with the raging sea, wind, and grey clouds brought by a low-pressure area that was approaching at the time. I thought that these mountains-that-reach-the-clouds must be the fort that guards Glan, perhaps even the rest of the island, from the fury of nature.
We soon realized, as the wind grew stronger and the tide rose higher, that we might have to spend the stormy night on these rocks if we stayed any longer. So after a few hasty photographs, we made our way back down. By the time we made it to the beach, the wind was literally pushing against my body so hard that each step took twice the effort, while the rain felt like cold stones slapping against my face.
Wary, mostly of the potential risk of coconuts falling on us from overhead, we sought shelter at the home of a shrimp farmer until the wind subsided.
“It’s a good thing we didn’t go to Indonesia on a boat,” someone quipped.
Any laughter was lost in the howl of the wind.