“You’re on the wrong bus, love,” the driver said, his eyes on the road.
They put sweet talk like that at the end of sentences here, down under. It made the heat more bearable. The other day, I made a move to sit through coffee with a homeless man because it felt nice how he said, “Do you have a dollar for coffee, love?”. He didn’t say much else and I walked away. Maybe coffee was not always a group activity. I sat the next hour out waiting for my first class as an international student feeling like I’ve stepped into The Matrix.
Not that I didn’t know casual expression. In the cluster of islands where I’m from, people consumed so much import, we spoke in tongues and dressed like the world most days. But sleeping on the floor at the foot of somebody’s bed for a week now made me feel different, new, and not in a shiny way.
The bus driver dropped me off at the next stop. I looked at the map app on my phone and for the first time really looked at where I was and where I should have been headed. I never paid much heed for geography as a child. I thought East was the sun rising from the back-lit head of a boy yelling, “Pan de saaaal” at the crack of dawn. The world only used to be out there. It felt strange to be somehow, out here.
It was unfortunate to be lost on a high noon.
There were half-moons growing under my arms and I doubted I could make it look like part of the pattern. I doubted I’ll ever make it to the lecture in this other campus even with an hour’s margin. If I were home in small town Santa Ana, the elder folks would have told me to put my clothes on inside-out, like some preternatural GPS, and soon I’ll find my way. It felt like only yesterday when, at the airport before my flight to Melbourne, I went to the restroom to put my camisole on in reverse. The lace trim scratched at my chest as my heart flew over the Pacific for eight hours.
There was a patch of wood between my house and the school that my childhood friend Lenlen and I used as a short-cut walking home from Elementary School. We always started talking in hushed tones as we drew near the huge caimito tree, careful not to disturb the engkantadas living in it. We had never seen engkantos before but there were stories told of bright white fairy folk, paler than clouds with bodies so feather-light, their feet never touched the ground. There too were stories about children not making it home, losing their way past the wood because they disturbed the forest folk. We always announced our presence and said, “Tabi, apo. Labay ‘mi”.
We also heard stories about kidnap rings and organ harvesting.
“Are you alright?” the man in the neon yellow vest asked me, the walking puddle. He pointed me to the next bus stop, from where I should count 14 more stops before my destination. I thanked him and said I have a map app on my phone and that I was better off walking anyway. I assured him how I had the sense of where and where to of socks going into the wash. It did not seem clear to him that I was joking. I laughed to make him laugh like they always did in American TV shows with the canned laughter. Or in cooking shows where the presenter rendered grease off the meat by putting … well, grease on, “to help it a little bit”.
Fourteen stops just like the via crucis. There were always puto and sikoate at the end of this Holy Week ritual back home. This was a good sign. I started walking.
I was not better off walking. I was rendering. I could feel my shoes falling apart. I was wearing my most broken-in ones for comfort, not for trail hikes like how the last half-hour had become. These were red ones and my sister’s, the flight attendant, who arguably had the better handle of things when it came to getting places. She worked for an airline in the Middle East. In pictures, her first week on the job was of her smiling face, her back against golden dunes. I told her she looked like she was standing on polvoron, the toasted powder milk and sugar treat mama always made when we were children. We used to play the game of who can whistle the loudest with a mouthful of dry milk. I told her to try it with a mouthful of desert sand. She said, I was the crazy one, not her.
I thought I had it together though, yesterday. A week on my roommate’s floor and I was ready to move out. I found a house online, something I could afford with what little pocket money I had. It had little windows and steps that led up to charming grey walls. I didn’t know why my roommate discouraged me from getting it or why the realtor on the phone called it a granny shed. I asked why it was called that and he said, “because it’s where you put the grannies”. I asked, “What about the grandpas? Where do you put the grandpas?” but he already hung up.
I thought about my two lolas back home. One was 97 and the other 88. They both outlived their husbands and I thought the granny shed made a lot of sense.
But my lolas didn’t have their own charming little houses in the backyard. They lived with us and my aunts and uncles, for different periods of time. This was how I learned to crochet and look forward to stories. And patience. When I was four, I sat on the steps outside the porch of the little beach house my grandparents used to live in. Lola picked every stone from the rice she had on the shallow woven basket. Every dirt, every bit of husk she picked from grain. Every day at the same hour, she was bent over the nigo and later, over fire in the wood stove making supper.
There was a fork on the road and I stood there figuring out where the floating red arrow on the map app was pointing at. I waited for the light to turn green. Here, the light turned colours with harried clicking sounds. The first time I heard it, I thought it was meant to rouse panic so people would cross faster. I had a silly thought of trained woodpeckers inside those traffic poles. Later I learned the pecking sounds aided the visually impaired. The Government took care of its own people here and that feeling of being in The Matrix started up again, but in a good way. In the islands, the Government took care of itself so that people took care of each other. I have had the same best friends since I was 8 and the same family lunches on birthdays and Sundays for as long I can remember. Everybody chipped in to send me off to my dream, the same way I was with them when at different points everybody went somewhere else to do what they had to do as well.
I had been walking for over an hour and may have missed the lecture altogether. I would have been far readier for it, had I not taken the wrong bus and actually attended. This would have been my second meeting and I was prepared. My professor was easily the most intelligent person I had ever met on my first week. He sounded like his books and dressed younger than his age. Everybody called him ‘Peter’, which was his name, not Sir, Doctor, or Professor. Like every other professor I met that day, he wanted to be addressed by his first name. This to me was like calling my father, ‘Bobby’. Or God by one of his many names. I settled for a long ‘Uhmmm’, when I raised my hand and asked permission to “go to the toilet”. Somehow, the whole lecture hall thought it was the funniest thing and I walked to the exit while everyone laughed in the background. I would not have done that this time around. I felt ready to call Peter, ‘Pete’ even. That was how prepared I was.
I chose the fork in the road that led to a park a few metres on. I assumed there should be a bench there somewhere, or shade. My head was on fire and there had to be a water fountain to dunk it into.
When we were young, my sister and I used to have heads full of lice. I remember one summer, when in the afternoon light mama wet our hair with kerosene and wrapped it in plastic. After a while, she took off the plastic, put our heads on her ample lap and raked through the strands with a fine tooth comb, all the while scolding and telling us how there were so many of these pests on our heads that every strand looked like a rosary. My sister squirmed and whined. To keep her still, mama warned about these head crabs flying us out the window in our sleep. The little pink bedroom we shared with the blue stand fan and double-decker beds had grilled windows and glass jalousies like all the other houses in the ‘90s and we were both chubby from the arroz caldo she kept a full pot of everyday. It would have been highly unlikely for these creatures to fly us out the window. Both deloused, we were hosed and soaped down in front of our mother’s little orchid garden lined with spiny aloe vera and lemon grass until our skins squeaked and our fingers wrinkled like old tomatoes at the bottom of the vegetable drawer.
Maybe it was the smell of kerosene or the heat of those balmy summers frying my nine-year old brain, but I believed her. I went to sleep and had wild dreams of vampire crabs flying me off by the hair. I always woke up half expecting to be up on top of a coconut tree, woozy from having lice suck blood through my scalp all night. There was also a sensation of falling, which was scary considering how I slept on the upper deck.
I must have rolled off the bench I was resting on at the park. When I came to, someone’s face was hovering above mine. Her eyes were a light blue-grey and her hair platinum. Her vest was a glowing yellow. The sun made a halo around her head.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
Bisaya (regional language) words in Cagayan de Oro, Northern Mindanao usage
“Tabi, apo. Labay ‘mi”. – expression from folk belief in otherworldly creatures, roughly translates to: ‘Excuse us, old one. Passing through.’
Arroz caldo – Filipino ginger-chicken-rice porridge dish popular as snack
Engkantada (fem.) – fairy from Filipino lore
Engkanto – masculine for engkantada
Lola - grandmother
Nigo – shallow woven basket for picking stones off rice grains
Pan de sal – breakfast roll
Polvoron – popular Filipino dessert made with toasted powder milk, flour, margarine, and sugar
Puto – Filipino rice cakes
Sikoate – Filipino hot cocoa
Via crucis – way of the cross
Zola Gonzalez-Macarambon is a writer from Mindanao in the Philippines. Her poetry, fiction, and essays have been published in various national and international publications. In 2019 her poem, 'Winter Landscapes' placed third at the Melbourne Poets Union International Poetry Competition. Another work, ‘Shapeshifters’ was long-listed at the 2019 University of Canberra Vice Chancellor's International Poetry Prize.