The Early Bus To Baguio
By Jude Polotan
Barely seven in the morning, the Victory Liner bus jolts to a stop and the child-sized driver announces in an accent I can barely make out, “Five minutes!”
Ken wakes and shifts in his seat. He laughs at the sight of me huddled beneath clothes I retrieved from our bag and have draped around my shoulders and over my legs. In the Philippines, they like their air-conditioning set at meat locker.
“Stay here,” he says. “I’m going to use the bathroom.”
I nod, teeth chattering.
We’ve been underway two hours, having boarded the bus before dawn. In an attempt to distract me from both the early hour and the artificially-induced cold, Ken had bought us a bag of macapuno donuts. Imagine a Bavarian cream, then replace the sickly yellow custard with a naturally sweet, velvety glob of young coconut. “Nice try,” I teased, wiping a blot of the gooey elixir from my chin, but he knew I was looking forward to this trip almost as much as he was.
Baguio was the place where in his childhood Ken had escaped the brutal summers of Manila. In the highlands several hours north of the capital, Baguio got cool enough to grow strawberries. Ken was excited to visit again — it had been many years — and I was thrilled we’d finally have some time alone.
Coming from a small family, the vastness of Ken’s clan overwhelmed me. In one week I’d already met dozens of aunts and uncles and cousins and there hadn’t been a day yet when we weren’t setting off to another relative’s house for a reunion.
His parents pronounced us crazy to undertake this trip. For days the newspaper had carried nothing but sensational headlines and incomprehensible pictures of submerged villages and landslides due to the monsoon rains. Ken’s mother wondered aloud why we had this death wish.
On the bus, as a couple, we attracted a lot of attention. Just as in the Manila traffic, where young men in the backs of jeepneys stared and pointed, here, too, we were conspicuous. I wanted to believe this was because there weren’t many white people in the Philippines at the time — in addition to it being the rainy season, the U.S. State Department had issued a travelers alert due to the recent kidnappings by a local terrorist cell — but I knew it was more because they were unaccustomed to seeing a Filipino man with a white woman. Back home in New York, I didn’t think of us as an interracial couple; since arriving here, I was reminded at every turn. Of course, plenty of Filipinas were with white men, but that was different.
The moment Ken is off the bus at the rest stop, several barefooted peasants jump aboard. They wave newspapers and rice cakes and long sticks of barbecued chicken and pork. The fatty aroma of grilled meat floods the bus and a smell that would make me salivate at noon makes me want to puke now. I check my watch again. Yes, just 7 a.m. The macapuno roils in my stomach.
Because I’m a foreigner, the only one on the bus, because I am white, I’m singled out. A man with a ragged t-shirt, leathered brown skin and precious few teeth tilts toward me, dangling the pork beneath my nose. He barks at me in dialect while I try to affect a smile that balances kindness with a clear message: go away. The other passengers watch, rapt.
Then suddenly the hawkers are scurrying back down the aisle. The bus driver is back in his seat. The peasants jump off the bus, the driver pulls his lever, shuts the door. I stare out the window. Have the police come perhaps? Are the vendors not supposed to be harassing the bus passengers? Fully awake now, I’m excited by the promise of a juicy story to tell Ken when he returns.
Except now there’s the loud grind and catch of the bus engine starting up, the driver revving the gas. I shoot up straight in my seat and press my face to the fogged window, peering desperately through the torrents of rain for Ken. At the front of the bus, the driver is putting on his seat belt and adjusting his cap. His hands take the wheel at ten and two. Surely we won’t leave before all the passengers have returned? I feel the bus jerk as it shifts into gear. I’ve stopped breathing, though my heart is off at a gallop.
I strive to remain calm, quickly sifting through my options — the last thing I want is to come across as the hysterical American woman. But the next stop is hours away and the deeper we go into the province, the less English is spoken. Will there be a police station there, someone who can reunite us? No one on the bus seems to speak English, so I rely on my eyes to implore my fellow passengers who must certainly remember I had a companion and he’s not back. I imagine them intervening on the poor white woman’s behalf. Somehow, though, those who earlier had been so acutely interested in me, in us, are now oblivious, nibbling on their BBQ pork, the fat glistening on their chins.
Finally, there’s nothing else to do. I rise from my seat, start down the aisle toward the driver. Wait!, I’ll shout, wait!, not knowing if he’ll understand me, but I’m angry now, I will make him understand me.
Just as I’m about to reach the front of the bus, though, here comes Ken running alongside, knocking amiably on the windows and then, as he catches up with us, on the door. The driver opens up, Ken hops on. No sigh of relief, not a wrinkle of concern creasing his forehead.
He holds out a skewer of BBQ pork. “Want some?” he says.
About the Author
Jude Polotan is a novelist and fledgling travel writer. You can learn more about her fiction at judepolotan.com.