Upon arrival at the Cebu airport, amid warnings of this-vs.-that taxi service being the legitimate one, we secured a ride to the hotel we had reserved before we arrived, a place called Elegant Circle Inn. The Elegant Circle, not too surprisingly, turned out to be quite inelegant, but was indeed stationed on a circular roundabout of a street, in between a bootleg DVD store and a McDonald’s.
We walked around that first night, looking for something to eat, and maybe a place to drink a little bit. The places that we found weren’t the types of places we wanted to hang out at. Maybe we were in a bad part of town, but we found mostly invitations to shady strip clubs or offers to purchase streetside Viagra substitutes. We did, however, find some good eats at a place called Chowabungga (that’s a real establishment – and I think it’s a chain). The area buzzed with neon; it felt like there was more supply of shady, ex-pat gratifying goods & services than there was demand for it (although maybe I just wasn’t the target market). When we didn’t find much, we resigned to a six-pack of San Miguel in the hotel room.
The next day we set out to see a bit of the city. I’d done a little bit of wiki-travel reading and decided I knew which direction we ought to head, but that was about it. We set out in the general direction that I knew the ocean was.
I’ll take the big sordid dirty crooked city.
I don’t even remember what exactly I had read about on wiki-travel, but we didn’t find it. It didn’t matter though. We hiked, and kept going, through dirty streets, crisscrossed with canopies of wires, like vines connecting decades-old dirt on the sides of buildings. The streets were clouded with the stench of gasoline and packed with vendors of shitty electronics and clothes that didn’t make sense. When fake Ray-Bans that are $3 in Thailand are $0.50 in Cebu, you know you’ve found the real manufacturing margin on cheap Chinese plastic goods.
We continued on and emerged onto a wider boulevard teeming with vendors of all types of foodstuffs. A foot taller than anyone around, and markedly less Filipino, Franklin and I didn’t exactly fit in. The sun was starting to set, and the place was an absolute zoo: exposed light bulbs were strung above stalls displaying piles of freshly-caught fish, dudes trudged through the crowd with big-ass wooden carts carrying who-knows-what, naked children darted between smoking piles of garbage… It was the strangest place I’ve ever been. As out of place as we were, the momentum of the commotion was so great that we could have been giraffes and not attracted too much attention. It was like a giant, post-apocalyptic farmer’s market.
We reached the outskirts of this insane bazaar, only to move further into unfamiliarity. Continuing straight, towards where we believed to be the ocean, we happened into some sort of slum community. The first area we encountered was a somewhat open courtyard with much ruckus; a piazza of squalor. There were (again) naked children darting about. Lots and lots of children. Two men played chess, women milled about, kids kicked balls around. As two tall white dudes, we were definitely a spectacle; this is not a place tourists frequent. But again, we weren’t weird enough to disrupt centrifugal life. We were noticed, and welcomed, but somewhat surprisingly, it didn’t feel like we altered the pulse of things. Further on, our path narrowed considerably, funneling into an alleyway whose damp floor probably never dried under the canopy of plywood, tarps, and makeshift structures above it. Halved over, we ducked further down this alley with no idea where we would end up. A few video games and computers lit up one side of the alley. Mothers welcomed us, leaning out of windows that might have been shops. There was a shambled sense of self-sustainability here. It seemed like there was probably everything that a city would have, but nothing “to code.”
It wasn’t until we reached the end that we figured out where we were. We did reach the ocean. We hit the water under a freeway overpass, at the mouth of this slum that ended in a dock and platform of concrete that jutted out over the water. It was gorgeous and calm. A mob of kids and a few young mothers welcomed us, in surprisingly good English. They led us through a stilted living room of plywood, where a few older men watched an old CRT television glowing in the corner. The backdoor of that living room opened onto a horizontal ladder that bridged a gap (with a dozen foot fall to the ocean) to a concrete platform that was the base of a pillar for the freeway above. Maybe the acoustics were right, or there wasn’t any traffic, but out on the platform overlooking the still water I don’t recall hearing a sound.
Franklin and I oohed and ahhed while our motherly chaperon insistently downplayed its beauty. I had a genuine, albeit conflicting, sense of envy for this place they had. I have much more than them, but what’s that worth? Here I am – The American Minimalist – with a blog about trying to reduce my worldly possessions (wealth), how perverse is this? My lifestyle is fucking royal in comparison to theirs. How does that make sense? Can I help them? Do they need help? Who am I to be helping anyone? Do I need help? (probably, but that’s a different blog post…) Should I not be here? I don’t know the best answers to the socioeconomic quandaries of the world, nor is this the platform, but a thinking person can’t help but think a little.
These thoughts all came about after. At the time I was just moved by their unabashed hospitality and friendliness. The kids loved taking pictures with us, they asked our names, they excitedly showed us across the dock; the adults just laughed and watched. The way they reacted to our visit was so warm, so very basically human, that in the moment I wasn’t considering our wealth disparity or assessing the economic repercussions of colonization and industrialization. These are things to think about, and let’s have those discussions, but I think it’s okay to have fun too.