Dinner with a Total Stranger

Exotic Filipinos
Exotic Filipinos at Fort Santiago, Intramuros on one summer eve.

One evening, a middle-aged German guy stopped me on the street and asked if I could spare 20 pesos(40 cents). I was taken aback. He was obviously embarrassed but desperate. Normally, I would have disregarded such pleas, but when a German guy asks for money, something’s up. Yes, it’s racist to judge someone by color or ethnicity. Yet in the Philippines, a middle-aged European asking a local for change is very unusual.

I chatted with him a while, gauging his character and subtly asking him questions to probe his background. He claimed to be a logistical economist. I probed a bit more and he proceeded to discuss about utilization of resources and balancing costs. He claimed to have his cards and papers stolen from him and that he was having a hard time getting people back in Germany to work on his papers. He also said the German embassy was not of much help.

I asked him if he had eaten. He said not really so I invited him to join me. He expressed his frustration with his situation. I was cautious, always keeping in mind that this could be a con. From what I’ve gathered in our conversation, he was a very intelligent man but had no grasp of the practical things in life or human nature.

I was having a hard time deciding if he was truly naive or putting up an act. He has been staying in the barangay hall(community center) since September 2017. He never really got to explain how he ended up here(although he has a Philippine resident visa and had spent more time scouting mountains for manganese or lead).

I tried to probe but he was very guarded.

Instead, our conversation focused on his son that he had with a local girl. How local girls seem to be more interested in money. How lonely he has been and thinks it would be okay if he finally got a wife. And how he likes our brown color and how exotic we are.I suggested he go for the educated or affluent girls. I pointed out that he’s been hanging out with the wrong crowd and there’s actually an industry out there where local girls latch on to gullible, rich, old white men and bleed them dry. Although, there are instances of true love.

I told him about what happened to another German guy I chatted with in 2016. He had to relinquish his condo and car to a local girl he married, whom he met on the internet. That German guy discovered that the girl he married was getting violent and threatened him every time he refused to give money. He ended up staying in a five-star hotel for a month. He looked truly terrified after he heard my story. Hopefully, he’ll be more circumspect with the girls he’ll meet.

I still don’t know what he told me were true but at least I had good conversation during dinner. Also, the people at the restaurant I usually eat at would now probably think I’m not some weird loner who eats the same thing every time. The staff smiled more widely at me than usual when we left.

He asked for my number. I gave it. Europeans have helped me many times in Europe despite the language barrier(Germans have been especially nice). But, I’ll still be wary although I could not help thinking he’s some guy who has somehow lost his way in life.

Instead of Lovers, I had Books

Whenever I feel down or am going through something rough, I turn to stories. Though I know most of them are fiction, I still believe that they contain truths about the human experience. Let’s face it, not all of them end on a happy note. Yet, in the most trying times I somehow take comfort in what I learned from them. The last novel I read was in 2015, “A Little Life”, and I never got to finish it – I enjoyed it but at the same time I felt my heart was going to be crushed as I progressed through the pages. And I recently read that it is going to be adapted into a Broadway play. I decided to give up on reading fiction for some time so that I could give room for more “practical” pursuits.

Eyes of the DragonI learned to read because of my sisters. At age four, I pestered them to read me stories from our library and from their textbooks. The first skill I ever worked hard on learning was reading, because I did not want to depend on my sisters for long. The trick was to read a book over and over until I was familiar with the material. I was particularly fond of our twenty-volume Walt Disney encyclopedia, hence, the nerdiness. I never did well in school because I did not care for the other subjects. I just wanted to read stories. I borrowed books from the library, even those meant for sixth graders, and read them for fun.

My teenage years were primarily Stephen King fare and “Eyes of the Dragon” will always be the best work of his for me. Incidentally, it was the first Stephen King novel I’ve ever read. Talk about losing your virginity. In a way, books – and by extension the authors – were my mentors in life. I may have been more intimate with them – the books not the authors – than I am with most people. Wait, being intimate with your mentors … that sounds kinky and a tad incestuous.

Sophie's World“Sophie’s World” by Jostein Gaarder was introduced to me at a time when I was having teenage angst. It’s a clever novelization of all philosophical thought. Through it, I learned there is no single way of looking at things and one must always question everything. Though I was not as arrogant as Philosophy majors, I did turn into a little prick. My philosophy professors loved me for it though because I wrote angst-ridden essays on the futility of everything. We were already dying the minute we were born. But that book did give me license to explore lines of thinking, even the darker ones. Though it has been almost two decades since I read it, I am still under its influence. It may be responsible for my receptivity to radical ideas and may be the reason why I like discussing ideas for the sake of it(Yes, I really do need to get a life). “Sophie’s World” taught me promiscuity.

Catcher in the RyeA nod to my strong psychopathic tendencies, “Catcher in the Rye” came at a time when I was totally lost at what I should do with my life. I thought everyone was phony and dull. But the part that I like about it was Mr. Antolini’s advice “Something else an academic education will do for you. If you go along with it any considerable distance, it’ll begin to give you an idea what size mind you have. What’ll fit and, maybe, what won’t. After a while, you’ll have an idea what kind of thoughts your particular size mind should be wearing. For one thing, it may save you an extraordinary amount of time trying on ideas that don’t suit you, aren’t becoming to you. You’ll begin to know your true measurements and dress your mind accordingly.” And studied I did and I got to narrow down the measurements. But, I must admit I’m a crossdresser and I like going into full costume. “Catcher in the Rye” was very naughty, even nasty, but satisfying and memorable.

LOTRBecause I like drama and epic stories on a large scale “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy was the theme of my life throughout my twenties. I read the books many times and watched the extended version of LOTR, maybe ten times – over and above the theater version. Until now I can still recite Galadriel’s narration at the start of the first movie “The world has changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. For what was once was is lost, for none now live who remember it”. I felt I was Frodo, slugging it through law school, battling my personal demons, and all I felt at that time was despair. Looking back, I was going through a deep depression and it is only now that I acknowledge it. I’m quite surprised I made it through. Whenever I felt very down, I’d watch my movie collection or reread the books. “The Lord of the Rings” was a regular and reliable romp during times of loneliness.

The Once and Future KingWhen I was wondering in what direction I should take my career, copies of T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King” appeared in the local bookstores. To me, the book spoke about growing up and that whatever naivete we may have must be shed. Merlin, by transforming Arthur into a fish, hawk, ant, goose, and badger, taught him lessons on how to be a good king. At that time. I was discerning what lessons I’ve learned from all the things I’ve been through. I was forming the guiding principles of how I should live my life and what I should prioritize. “The Once and Future King” was wise and full of fun. At the end, it was bittersweet and left me with a sense of melancholia.

Of more interest to me was the discussion in the book about justice, particularly in the sphere of armed conflict. I recognized in it the rudimentary principles on the international rules of war. Serendipitously, an acquaintance asked whether I was interested in graduate studies. I eventually found myself taking classes and going abroad for special trainings and seminars.

I guess my pursuit of more “practical” knowledge – reading scholarly essays and treatises – and involvement in more “practical” things – active participation in professional organizations and shameless networking, was my way of shedding my naivete. I must say I went through different transformations throughout the six years I dedicated to advanced studies, travels, and networking. Along the way, I lost a certain degree of idealism and loosened my absolutist beliefs about people and life in general. I have somehow been preparing for something but what that exactly it is I have yet to know.

Hundred YearsFor now, I am content with watching Cartoon Network and Disney Channel while I work at home or do my laundry. Maybe, I should pick up “A Little Life” from where I left off. Somehow other obligations keep me from picking up a book. I am more interested in going through the daily motions of life. Could this mean I’m at the point of doing something repetitive as a form of solitude like the characters in “A Hundred Years of Solitude”? Doing something for the sake of routine and familiarity just to endure the passage of time until a hurricane comes to destroy all of existence? Hmmmmnnn… “One Hundred Years of Solitude” may have been that book that I’ve never really gotten to move on from because it told me an uncomfortable human truth: we will all live a life of solitude.

It’s Not Just About Words

ArielThe most important take away I had from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”, which left quite an impression on me as a little boy, was that one should never underestimate the importance of body language. More importantly, you can hit on someone hard without uttering a single word – what is idle prattle for anyway? Yes, the fact that I point to the “Little Mermaid” as a major influence in my life gives you license to judge and make assumptions, which may be valid, about me.

Yet, truth reveals itself in a myriad of ways so don’t you dare diss the “Little Mermaid”! Body language, and a lot of smiling, saved me from getting stranded in countries where English is not widely spoken or, more specifically, where locals do not know it.

I discovered my body language reading skills during my second visit to Hong Kong. I was staying somewhere on Nathan Road and I did not want to eat at McDonald’s, KFC, or 7/11. I wanted something warm and flavorful. During my first visit a few months earlier, I was wandering somewhere on Mody Road when I stumbled into a noodle shop. It was filled with locals. As in most noodle shops in Hong Kong, the proprietors do not speak English but they have an English menu. Pointing will usually suffice as long as you do not have questions.

ModiRemembering exactly where the noodle shop was, I went there for breakfast. An old lady was wiping the formica tables and plastic chairs. She shook her head and said something in Cantonese. I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders. She nodded. She pointed to the wall clock, which said it was 10 a.m., and put her index fingers together. It took me a couple of seconds to understand what she was communicating. To confirm if I understood it correctly, I pointed to the clock, held up my ten fingers while shaking my head and she also shook her head. I held up my index fingers and she nodded. She meant to say that they will start serving at 11 a.m..

Macau proved to be difficult. Good thing my hotel reservation spelled out my hotel’s address in Cantonese. My cab driver was a woman and she spoke to me in Cantonese. I shook my head. Portuguese? I shook my head. She spoke in Cantonese again and gestured at her face while looking at me. She was saying I looked Chinese. I shook my head and smiled. She dropped me off at Senado Square and said something in Cantonese while making a walking gesture with her fingers, meaning I had to look for my hotel. Based on previous research, I knew that cabs have designated drop-off and pick-up points in old Macau. She also gestured to what direction I should go.

I realized that old Macau did not have a grid lay-out but had meandering and narrow streets. I would later learn that this was how old European towns and cities are laid out. Smiling so broadly, I approached a woman who seemed nice. I had also learned that by looking totally helpless, sheepish, and adorable, older women will take pity on you and help you out.

ManvaI showed her my hotel reservation. “Manva!(the name of my hotel)” she knew where it was. “No English. Portuguese?” I shook my head. She looked down the street to our right and stretched her hand in that direction. Then she made two chopping gestures. She held up two fingers and made a swooping gesture. All throughout, she was speaking in Cantonese. I understood what she meant. To make sure, I copied all of her gestures. She nodded. We both smiled brightly at each other. What she meant was I should walk straight and at the second corner, go down the road until I saw the hotel. She was right.

English is not an issue in Salzburg but there are some people who hardly know it. At a hostel, I was eating breakfast in the dining hall when a member of the housekeeping staff approached me. Everyone else had gone away, and she caught me scooping up the last two slices of cheese. She spoke to me in German, apparently asking a question. After a few gestures, I understood that she was asking if I wanted more cheese. I said, no.

She later asked if I was Indian. I said “Philippine” and she was very surprised. She spoke while gesturing around her face, expressing that she was trying to figure out my nationality when she saw me. After I handed to her my plates, she asked for my “nom”. I said “Lloyd Nicholas” and she was “Vera”. She asked me “Tomorrow?”. I said “Prague”.
She picked up a plate and gestured like she was eating.”Czech. Kendall”. She was saying that I should try Czech kendall. Judging how wide her smile was, I guess kendall must be a must-try. I said goodbye and we shook hands.

MozartFrom Salzburg, I headed to Prague. European friends were concerned when I said I was going to take the train. “How about by plane? It’s just a few minutes!”. I said I wanted to try it the old-fashioned way. They politely did not push their point but there was a look of consternation on their faces.

From Salzburg, I changed trains at Linz. A couple of hours later I found myself as the last passenger. The conductor, who was already wearing his suit and carrying his suitcase, gestured at me to follow him while speaking German. When we got off the train, I saw that we were in the middle of nowhere surrounded by heaps of rusting train parts and other machinery. He called out to a woman who was waiting behind a shed and spoke a language unfamiliar to my ears – it was Czech. I was already in the Czech Republic, possibly near its border with Austria. The woman gave me a very curious look, I must have been the first brown person she had ever seen in her life. She was also polite.

I was in a one-street town and the central district was comprised of Soviet-era architecture. At a bus stop, a police officer came on board. “Passport” he said through a very thick accent. I gave my passport. He and the woman looked at my photo and the Philippine symbols. The man shook his head: they did not know where my country was. He flipped through the pages and took note of the stamps. He examined my Schengen visa and said “France”. He looked at me and gave me a respectful nod.

After the police officer got off, we spent an hour going around the town and its outskirts. We passed through woods of pine trees and other conifers. We coasted on a single-lane road through a valley dotted with tiny houses, with smoke coming out of their chimneys. There were flocks of sheep grazing on the grasslands. If it were not for the paved road, our bus, and some very old tractors scattered around the valley, I would have thought we were back in the medieval ages. I’ve only seen such scenery in indie European movies about coming-of-age stories where the young characters discover the delights of physical intimacy somewhere in the woods or beside brooks.

We made stops at houses and street corners, and every passenger would give a look of very polite curiosity. We got back to the train tracks eventually. The woman gestured at the tracks and said “Praha”. I nodded but looked very confused. Everyone was getting off and a man tapped me on the shoulder and said “Let’s go!” in a very Hollywood manner. I got off the bus and followed everyone. We got on a yellow single-car train that also looked very much from the Soviet-era. It was six in the evening and getting very cold, it was autumn, but at least the heating worked.

We travelled for an hour and I looked at the small train stations that we passed by that may have been constructed in the early part of the twentieth century. When we got to a slightly bigger station, everyone got off except me. Then three men with mops and buckets barged in and started splashing around. That was definitely my cue to get off the train. The woman, who was on the bus, was also the train conductor. She pointed to a blue single-car train on another platform and said “Praha”. I went down the stairs and under the platforms and I met the guy who said “Let’s go” to me earlier. He smiled at me and gestured down the corridor and said “Praha”.

The train to Prague made a stop at every station along the way. I realized that if I was not good at reading body language and making deductions, I could have spent the night freezing to death on a bench at a train station in the middle of nowhere.

The Fuel for My Travels

DisneyWhen people ask me why I have been travelling a lot for the past five years, I always say that I am on a quest for Looove. To paraphrase someone in the movie, Warcraft, if love is important to you, you must go to the ends of the earth to find it. But, I would say to those who’d listen, love is an elusive and deceptive thing. You think you have it, then it’s gone. Maybe you are not really looking for it or wanting it, some friends say. That may be true, but that is another topic for another time.

It was rage that caused me to travel. “Rage fuels me” is more dramatic than saying “I’m on a quest for love”. By the way, neither rage nor love(or infatuation) can fill your stomach. Both can cause hypoglycemia if you’re not careful.

Rage at friends who betrayed me. Rage at the pressures and expectations laid on me, Rage at the people went out of their way just to prove that I did not deserve what I was working so hard for. Rage at people who tried to take advantage of my weaknesses just so they could advance themselves. Rage at people who frustrated my efforts just because they think they could. Rage at people who attempted to manipulate me to suit their purposes. Rage at people who disregarded who I really was and tried to impose on me their idea of who I should be. Rage at people who measured themselves against me. Rage at people who blame me for their faults and shortcomings. Rage at assuming responsibilities and burdens because of other people’s incompetence. Rage at being obliged to give so much for things that were given virtually for free to other people. Rage at myself for putting up with all these things at great emotional and psychological cost. Rage at slowly giving up pieces of my sense of self for the sake of advancement.

For a long period of time – too long – I could only feel rage and contempt. All I could ever think about was how to survive. I was vengeful and vindictive. It felt like everything was closing in. I just had to will myself to withstand them all. I knew that it was only a matter of choice: to let the rage burn me out and become a husk of a person or hold on to who I was and survive.

During that time, I also cut off a lot of people from my life because I knew they were not good for me.

I went to Hong Kong to visit Ocean Park and Disneyland. I wanted to feel other things. I did do a lot of therapeutic screaming while being spun in the air on the adult rides at Ocean Park. Fear, excitement, and adrenaline make a great combination. At DIsneyland, I did get teary-eyed on seeing the Disney Princesses. The Disney mind-conditioning was  at work when I again got teary-eyed while watching the fireworks.

MacauI visited old Macau and spent hours just walking round and round, looking for the heritage sites. I enjoyed getting lost and finding my way back again. I hopped over the graves of Protestant Dutchmen who died over a hundred years ago. I walked up and down winding stairways, filled with graffiti.

Walking in the sun without any particular destination, looking at famous monuments and landmarks, trudging on unfamiliar streets, and listening to unfamiliar languages, made me feel better. At every step, I could feel my rage ebb just a little. The new sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures reminded me that the world is big and has so much to offer.

Siem ReapI found myself clambering over large stone monuments, going through dark tunnels, climbing very narrow steps, and joking and laughing with total strangers in Siem Reap. I fulfilled a childhood promise to see Angkor Wat – there was a time I wanted to be an archeologist. I experienced wonder once again. I felt great sadness while the audio guide walked me through the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, and watched other people suddenly burst into tears for they too felt the great despair and suffering in that place. I felt rage, but it was righteous.

HueA friend and I rode bicycles in Hoi An. We checked into a five-star hotel in Hue and spent New Year’s Eve in a club with white people dancing to 80’s music while the proprietor, who was wearing a suit, gave us drinks on the house. I walked, in full costume, the halls of the Imperial Palace of the Nguyen Dynasty, while other tourists took photos of me. I ate as much as I could in the labyrinthine streets of the French Quarter in Hanoi and got addicted to Vietnamese coffee.

I spent my birthday at Genting Highlands Park – cheesy but I had fun with my friend. We spent most of our time riding buses in Malaysia and looking for places to eat nasi goreng. We did a lot of walking in Georgetown and Melaka. I was even surprised to see two young men holding hands, as they crossed a football field in Melaka – in a Muslim country at that! Simply sitting inside a hop-on-hop-off bus in Kuala Lumpur while stuck in traffic, in the middle of pouring rain, was fun for me. Hey, I was stuck in traffic in a foreign country and in one of the most important cities of the world!

MelakaIt took years of occasional travelling to get me into sorts. In the process, I did feel I’ve become a different person – more confident, less afraid, comfortable with uncertainty, and eager for surprises. Travelling will test your wits and patience, and you will discover how much you are truly capable of. And the most important experience I’ve ever had was kindness from total strangers. Again and again, I was reminded that the world is big and full of wonder. Whatever I was going through was just of the tiniest consequence in the greater scheme of things. Every step I made in a new and strange land took out a little of the rage I had in me. It took thousands of steps just to drain enough rage and make room for other things – joy, wonder, empathy, trust, friendship, hope.

I now feel anger, not rage. And it is a good thing. I keep anger alive, but contained, because anger, like fire, can be good if harnessed properly. I tap into it to give me energy to fight and to stand for what I believe in. It gives me strength to resist bullshit and to demand for what I deserve. It reminds me to never allow anyone to make me go through all that again.

The money I have spent on travel so far would have built me a big house or gotten me a luxurious condo. It was all a small price to pay for saving myself.

Venice, Three Women, and Pandora Bracelets

Venice 6It was summer when I went to Venice with two purple luggage and a back pack. I took the bus from the airport and arrived at Piazzale Roma about three in the afternoon. Of course, the place was crammed with tourists, and I must have stood out among all of them because of my three bags. I looked at the steps of Ponte della Costituzione, forming a high arch over the water. I sighed and dragged my stuff over the pavement towards the steps.

Suddenly, a tanned Italian appeared beside me, acting all friendly and helpful. He offered to carry my luggage for me and kept asking where I was staying. What drew him to me might have been the Emirates business class tags on my bags – I got an upgrade on my Manila-Dubai leg. I was not daft enough to answer his questions and never let go of my bags. I politely refused his offer of assistance. “Don’t worry! We in Venice are very helpful. We like to welcome visitors!”. He never let go of my bag as we traversed the many steps over the bridge. I repeatedly told him that I was fine but he had turned deaf.

Once we got over the bridge, with him panting and me very sweaty – it was very humid – he offered to take me to my hotel. I told him again that I was alright and I knew my way. I tightened my grasp on my luggage handles because he might create a scene. If he was going to take my luggage hostage, there will be bloodshed. I can be as strong as Diana, Princess of Themyscira, if the need arises.

As we neared Stazione Santa Lucia, the man asked for a tip. “But I never asked you to help me”, I said. “But, I still helped you across the bridge! You should give me a reward”, he insisted. “I told you many times I’m fine”, I was unmoved. “People should help each other! You should pay for my service” he pressed. Two people walked past and briefly observed us with a something-is-going-down look. “I never agreed to that. We never had any contract. I told you many times to leave me alone, but you did not listen. You did that on your own”. He gave me a petulant look and acted like I was a horrible and selfish person.

Venice 2I don’t know. It must have been the strain of years of people guilting me into doing things, the long flight, or the humidity, that I could not summon even a trickle of empathy for him. I could only give him a look of indifference. Realizing that he was talking to stone, he turned abruptly and left in a huff. I walked on and clambered over a flight of steps on Ponte del Scalzi, which had a great view of the Grand Canal. Once I had crossed over into Santa Croce island, I dragged my luggage into the labyrinth of tiny streets and alleys and somehow managed to locate my hostel near the Riva de Basio vaporetto stop.

I was put in a six-bed mixed room with wide windows that had good views of the Grand Canal and the buildings on the other bank. I had a much-needed nap but was woken when three women walked in. They were speaking in Tagalog. I said hello to them and they said they thought I was Indian or from somewhere near the Middle-East.

Then the interrogation began.

Venice 5The leader asked most of the questions: No, I’m not in a tour group. I am travelling on my own. I just flew in and will go to Munich and then Budapest to attend a seminar. I’ve been to Europe a number of times. This is a personal trip. I’ll be staying for three days. I don’t have an itinerary. I’m a lawyer.

Mindful about conversation etiquette, I inquired “Did you fly into Venice? What’s your itinerary?” “Oh, we flew in from London into Rome and then took the train through Florence and Bologna. We visited a Filipino friend of mine who is taking his doctorate at the University of Bologna”, she said smugly. I realized that she had interrogated me in a way to assess my background and financial capability. She also did not even bother to ask for my name or introduce herself and her friends. She just asked me a barrage of questions.

“What was your itinerary again?” she asked. “Venice, Munich, and Hungary”. “I thought you said Budapest!” somehow she derived pleasure in pointing out my inconsistent answer. I replied politely “Yes, Hungary”.

After an awkward silence, the leader launched into a very loud discussion about the expensive glass souvenirs she bought from Murano island. I pretended to be very busy with my phone while I noted that the kitsch she bought was ready-made and probably imported from China. If it were made on Murano Island, it would cost thousands of euros a piece. The fact that the three of them stayed in a hostel meant that they did not have that kind of money. She also lamented how much money she blew on leather goods and that she had bought her mother a Louis Vuitton wallet. Mercifully, my stomach was growling and I excused myself to look for food.

When I got back, the three women were not there. I was relieved. I took out William Carney’s “Mergers and Acquisitions: Cases and Materials” and started reading the chapter on the responsibilities of directors. After an hour, they came back. To preempt any conversation with them, I said “I hope you don’t mind if I keep my lamp on. I am doing my homework and I have to email this by midnight.” I hid behind my book.

“Have you read the title of his book? He must be a big shot!” the leader said audibly to her friend. After a few minutes of silence, she piped up “Are you into finance? I thought you were a lawyer.” “This is part of the curriculum of the class I’m taking in Budapest.” “Are you taking your masters?” “Yes.” I was determined not to give out more information than what was asked.

She called someone on her phone. She loudly told her mother that she had already made an itinerary for their next European trip, which will be from Prague to Budapest through the Danube River. Someone had oriented herself on the geography of Central Europe. After her phone call, she complained about her condo unit and discussed her plans to rent it out. The three of them also discussed the possibility that they could have been British in their former lives, because the place where they felt most at ease was London.

“By the way, how much did you pay for your Pandora bracelet?” she asked the one with blonde-colored hair. “DIdn’t it cost you about P100,000.00(about USD2,000)? They’re very expensive. If you buy the charms for the bracelet, it will cost you about P20,000(USD400)! I’m thinking about adding more to mine.” Her two sidekicks made concurring noises. Apparently, all of them had Pandora bracelets. A guy suddenly walked into our room and took the bed beside mine. They all fell silent and became very meek and shy. Just as I figured, all that bragging was for my benefit.

Venice 4This is not the first time that I’ve been forcibly made a hapless audience to bragging. I thought about my friends who own decent-sized houses and luxury condos but barely mention it. I thought about people I knew who wear their P200,000(USD4,000) earrings for everyday affairs. I thought of someone who nonchalantly puts cookies in her Prada handbag or a croissant in her limited edition Coach handbag. I observed that despite their material wealth, they did not have good skin and the blonde one should get her hair colored at a good salon.

The following morning, I woke up early and snuck into the pantry for breakfast. I helped myself to some milk, cereal, yogurt, bread, Nutella, and orange juice. Some guests in other rooms joined me and we talked. Suddenly, the leader swept in, and without saying hello to everyone, sat in front of me and introduced herself. I cannot remember her name.

She asked me where I was working and what I was studying. I said I was studying international commercial practice. I was doing it for fun and to upgrade my skills. She said she’s never heard of any lawyer doing international work. I said it’s rare in the Philippine setting. She mentioned that she has lawyer friends but she earns more than them, since she was in the outsourcing industry. “You lawyers don’t have credit cards do you? And if you do, you have low credit limits” I said I did not have any problem in that department because my combined credit limit was sufficient to cover my travel expenses and education costs.

“I have an uncle who is a city prosecutor. We are very close! I’m always welcome at his office!”, she seemed to think that this was a sort of achievement. I thought about my friends who are prosecutors in different parts of the Philippines, my friends who are judges, my friends doing well in private practice, and the people I work with. “Oh, I see” I said politely. Without saying a word, she suddenly stood up and walked out of the pantry. The other guests, who had been silent while she was there, resumed our conversation.

Venice 3As I washed the utensils I used, I talked to a Canadian girl about the Realto Bridge, markets, and good places to buy souvenirs. Our conversation may have been quite audible because the two of us were moving back and forth through the pantry, living area, and the kitchen. When I entered the room, the three of them were huddled over the leader’s phone. “We now have an itinerary! We shall go to the Realto bridge and the markets!”. Why she was talking so loud while her friends were right beside her was a mystery to me. They were already ready to go but seemed to wait around for something. Could they be waiting for me to ask if I could join them? HAH! I pretended to rummage through my bag. After a few minutes of just standing around, they left. I waited fifteen minutes more before stepping out to avoid running into them within the vicinity.

Venice 1By early evening, I was at a restaurant near the hostel. I ordered Spaghetti Al Nero Di Seppia paired with white wine. While I was eating, I overheard a very loud conversation in Tagalog from a group five tables away. So loud that their voices rose over loud Italian voices. After I ate, I walked past their table, because that was the only way back to the hostel. As I walked past, they abruptly fell silent. I acted like I just noticed them and said a curt “Hello!” and walked on.

Once I was back in the room, I took out my textbook and read about corporate takeovers. They came in about an hour later. There was no bragging this time and the leader talked about her family drama. But, occasionally, she’d say “He’s weird” or “Maybe he’s gay”. By then, I was too preoccupied with answering the essay questions that I barely noticed that they had fallen asleep.

When I woke up the following morning, they were gone.

A Good Day to You and A Good Day for Me

Something I wrote when I was in Salzburg, Austria.

Salzburg 1I’ve been kicked out of my hotel. Nah, I’m just being dramatic. I needed a reservation to extend my stay there and they do not allow on-the-spot extensions. So, I was let out of my room with a view of the center of Salzburg from the second level of an 800-year-old building. During my two-night stay there, I loved tiptoeing towards the toilet with my toes curled as my bare feet felt the cool and roughly-hewn steps. At least the cleaning lady was kind enough to give me a fridge magnet before I left.

I am dragging my plum trolley bag with electric blue zippers on the street parallel to the Salzach river. This is a shorter way than walking through Getreidegasse in the middle of old Salzburg – the route that we took when we were looking for my hotel after first arriving here two days ago. I am making my way towards Staatsbrücke, built out of bricks by the prisoners of war in World War Ii. You found it admirable for the townspeople to put up a sign dedicating the bridge to those who died building it. The street leading from this bridge goes directly to your hostel near St. Sebastiankirche. The brick bridge links our respective parts of the town. You mocked me for staying in the posh area where Montblanc pens have their own shop. I smugly scoffed at your ghetto neighborhood where people shop for bargains. Salzburg 2

You are greatly amused when I showed up at your room and announced my spectacular fall from high society. I had checked into your hostel and am taking your place when you check out later. This is a mere formality for I had spent more time in your hostel yesterday than you. I availed of the facilities and even stole your wifi access

I could not go with you when you explored Salzburg yesterday. Certain points of my feet, a little above the ankles had sustained blisters. Seven days of frenetic walking in leather shoes while in Vienna caused my skin to chafe and even break. The black Converse shoes with outlines of motorcycles etched in white on the sides did not protect my feet from the cold. It rained yesterday and the sky was gloomy all throughout the day. Even the locals kept out of the cold and there was hardly anybody out except for the tourists.

I do not have any problem with cold feet. It is quite tolerable. It was the agony of the blisters that made me walk very slowly. With each step, pain radiated from the spot where the blisters rubbed against my socks and the inside of my shoes. The pain was made worse by the cold. Each step was like having my feet simultaneously bitten by two snakes and their venom flowed through my veins. I had to grit my teeth each time I took a step, fighting off tears.

Since, it was impossible for me to go with you to the hills of Hohensalzburg and Mönch, I decided to do my laundry at your hostel. At Universetatplatz, you told me to buy good shoes and a coat then you set off for the hills. I took the agonizing walk to your hostel as the day gradually got colder. Throughout the afternoon, the hum of the washing machine and the occasional thunk! of the Coca-Cola dispenser kept me company while I cursed the cold, my socks, my shoes, my blisters. I took naps on a stone bench with my back and head leaning on a wall.

It was around early evening yesterday that you asked me where I was. I had gotten back to my hotel, with laundry in tow, after what seemed like an eternity of pain and with cold winds from the river hounding my steps. We met up at the brick bridge and you left me to dine over Salat Greco and Spaghetti Aglia and Olio at a pizzeria. You went back to the hostel. I had figured out that folding my socks down and exposing my blisters to the air considerably lessened the pain. My blisters were free and I was free to walk in stride with you.

Salzburg 3You brought the Austrian wine we bought in our first night in Salzburg and two paper cups. We walked along the river while joggers and cyclists whizzed past us. We sat on a bench and you poured the wine. We watched the gentle flow of the river with the imperfect reflections of the city lights rippling on its surface. Fastung Hohensalzburg was a fortress of light on top of its hill. The spires and domes also glowed in the town below: a city shining steadfastly against the encroaching night.

The wine kept me warm as we talked of things, of places, of people. We also strolled further down along the river, sipping from the paper cups and hiding the bottle in a paper bag. We crossed the foot bridge were people had attached locks as a testament to their undying love for each other. But, the night grew much colder, forcing us to agree to retire.

We went back to the end of the brick bridge on your side of town. We stopped at the food truck that sold sausages that only appeared during night time at the exact same spot. I had a couple of Münchner sausages and you watched me dip sausage slices into some mustard. The food gave me warmth as I listened to your travel plans. It was enough warmth to carry me across the bridge and to my hotel in my side of town.

Now here we are, on our way to a park that you wanted to see. We are walking along the river watching a flock of seagulls screech at each other. The wheels of your trolley are rolling audibly against the pavement. It is still cold but not as cold as yesterday.

We have now reached the park and are walking on its pathways. You have just spotted a statue of a thinking man and are now telling me to go in front of it and pretend I am explaining something to it. I am doing it while you are taking a photo, laughing. I am asking you what time your train is leaving and I am telling you that I plan to go with you to the train station to ask about train schedules for my trip to Prague. Salzburg 6

We are slowly walking up a mound in the middle of the park. You are walking towards a bench while I am standing near a tree enjoying the view from the top. The sun breaks through the clouds and the slowly browning trees and the green grass are bathed in light. Warmth is caressing my face.

“It is a good day today”, you said to me. “You should enjoy this day. You wasted half a day yesterday.”

“Yes, it is a good day. Maybe I will”

We discuss our plans to possibly meet in another city, in another continent, across the Atlantic Sea. That will probably be a year from now. Or maybe it will be years before we see each other face to face again. You are saying goodbye and I am saying goodbye. The sun is shining brightly now.

I walk away without looking back. I go back the way we came from and the sun is glistening on the river. More people are out with their dogs. The tourists have poured into the streets basking in the sunlight. Fastung Hohensalzburg has captured the sunlight on its white walls, glowing amidst a backdrop of green trees.

Salzburg 7I turn right towards your hostel, no, my hostel, and I see a store selling the shoes you suggested I buy. I walk into the store and ask the lady if I could wear them immediately. My feet are warm and the pain that tortured me yesterday is absolutely gone. I go back to the hostel to leave my old shoes. I am excited to see city anew in this bright warm seemingly perpetual morning. I breathe in the air. Everything is as it should be. It is a good day.

 

A Little Panic Here Tonight

My status update on April 2, 2016 while I was in Budapest, Hungary.

Hostel WIndow
View from my hostel room in Budapest, Hungary

So, there was a little panic here tonight.

There was an urgent knocking on my door whilst someone was talking rapidly in the hall. When I opened my door, a group of four – two brunettes, a blonde, and guy – were cramped in the hallway.

“Yes?” I asked patiently because they looked very distraught.

“Did you see an iPhone?” one of the brunettes asked with her hands clasped together.

“No. I just arrived this evening. I came from another city”

They nodded and I closed the door.

The discussion continued. I listened through the door. I learned that one of the brunettes had gone to the bathroom and went back to their room to get something. When she went back to the bathroom her phone was gone. This happened ten minutes before the commotion. Someone was suggesting calling the police.

I stepped out to join in and pretend to ask for more information. It would have made them suspicious that I already knew the details. “When did this happen?” I asked the guy who was inspecting the bathroom. He asked the brunettes. They might have been speaking in Portugese. The brunette retold her story.

“Ten minutes ago?” he exclaimed, putting his hands to his head. I suppressed a smile. Something definitely got lost in translation. He began to pace. “I thought it happened this morning or a little earlier!”

“We should call the police and call the owner” the blonde repeated her suggestion.

“What will the police do to us?” asked the brunette.

“They will ask each of us questions” I replied. Maybe I should tidy up my room a bit, I thought. If I was going to be investigated, dirty socks and underwear should be taken care of. Their paranoia had started to infect me.

“Did you knock on all the doors?” asked the blonde. You seem pretty helpful and concerned, maybe it’s you! I thought. Sometimes, the perpetrator is the one who acts the most concerned.

Meanwhile, the guy was busy containing his panic. Your reaction seem to be very exaggerated, maybe it’s you! Perpetrators can be the ones who exhibit the most exaggerated reactions to incidents of crime.

I looked at the two brunettes. Could this be all just a ploy? Are you two playing some sort of game or con?

There were also other two ladies in the room next to mine. They did not come out despite the hullaballoo. Maybe they were already plotting how to get rid of phone before the police arrived!

“Maybe whoever stole it could have already thrown it out of the window. It could be on the street” the brunette theorized.

“I will go down and take a look for you” volunteered the blonde. I looked at her suspiciously.

The other brunette went inside their room while the discussion was going on. She came out and waved a phone. The phone was in their room all along.

Everyone gave a sigh of relief and had a laugh. Another door opened and a bald man stepped out to use the kitchen sink. He looked at us quizzically and someone said it was fine.

The brunette apologized. I was comforted to know that I was surrounded by strangers who are willing to help and jump into action. I will sleep well tonight.

The brunettes and the guy went back to their rooms while the blonde went out. I went to the toilet. As I was about to go into my room. The door next to mine opened and one of the two ladies went out.

“The thing about the phone, it’s fine. They found it somewhere”

“Super!” she replied.