The Early Bus To Baguio

Monday, December 13, 2010

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

[Comfort Stop by Arnis Dzedins/Flickr; Between Baguio and Sagada by Liza Pratt/Flickr]

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  • Sasha Raskin

    great peice jude, and can totally see ken doing bribing the driver to do that just to fake you out!

  • Michele Moran

    So glad that Ken made the bus….I can imagine what kind of a look you gave him!!!! LOL

  • brokenrecordbaby

    Intense story. My heart was really beating faster as the bus was about to leave Ken behind!

  • jon

    Jude- I had a similar, although not as intense, bus trip south of Manila. Your story brings back wonderful memories.

  • Can totally relate to the whole bus-pulling-off-while-companion-not-on-it wig out! Glad it turned out okay.

    Nice story!

  • Great article Jude, told brilliantly. It sounds like you and Ken had quite the adventure. It sounds like you have some fun in-laws.

  • Jimmy Roa

    May I add though that most Filipinos speak english, albeit "broken" english at times.

    • Jude Polotan


      Of course It's true that most Filipinos speak English, but my experience was that outside Manila it was not the "default" language, and the vendors, fellow bus passengers at least didn't choose to speak it with me! :-P

  • Jude, interesting and very well written. As a Filipino who's witnessed these events first hand at one time or another, I wouldn't be able to narrate it any better… it's like reliving a bus ride to Baguio.

  • alicia Faatz

    Jude, your highly candid description of The Filipino ways and weird customs were clearly articulated in your article. Go on, continue on your literary and artistic pursuit, an obssession, your dream which I know is just right there. Move on, baby! Alice

    • Jude Polotan

      Ha! I'm not saying the customs are "weird," just different–and I always say, vive la difference! Maraming salamat for the comment.

  • morganpolotan

    This was an easy read Jude! You really are a great writer; the Expeditioner was smart to pick you up. I look forward to more travel writing from you.

    P.S. I'm still glad I stayed behind on this trip :-)

  • You really have a gift for prose. Your description of the bus, the Filipino passengers, even the scent of the pork BBQ, really made me feel I was actually there traveling with you on this trip. Whoa, wait…. I was actually there with you! Seriously, this post made me reminisce all the fun we had in the land they used to call "Pearl of the Orient." Nice job and keep writing.

  • Stephen St. Germain

    Thanks for bringing a world far away to our desktops. Informative and fun, with the inevitable charms, obstacles and drama that all of us travelers experience in exotic places. Only one thing: what happens next?!

    • Jude Polotan

      Ah, what happens next!? Thanks for asking!

      We arrive in Baguio, where it is quite chilly and rainy…Ken loses his digital camera in the men's room at the bus depot…we check into a hotel with no heat and drink delicious native grown coffee…we get in-room massages from blind massage therapists…that evening we go to a "club" with a warning painted on the wall: NO MAN-TO-MAN DANCING…next day, shopping in a market, I thwart a pickpocket and eat crab kamayan style–with my hands.

      What fun memories!

  • carl brush

    Neat, Jude,
    I forwarded this to my Filipino-American son-in-law. I'm sure he and his folks will enjoy it as much as I did and will identify with it much more.

    carl Brush

  • Great travel essay! I can relate to your experience of anxiety as you have no idea what is going on! Guess the local custom is to dart to the moving bus at the last minute… thankfully Ken knew the drill :)

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