This story first appeared in the literary journal Pilgrimage—volume 35, issue 2.
“I hung a quarter moon above the house for you,” I say. “Hope you like it.” My wife takes a moment to admire the Western night and then goes back in to finish packing.
I am sitting behind our house in northern Arizona, beneath a starlit infinity. A breeze is blowing in, stirring me to action, and that’s too bad. I want to be still. I want to memorize this expanse of the Mojave Desert, this mountain range, the jagged darkness against that black backdrop.
Yeah, I’ve been all flowery and poetic lately, and here’s why. We leave tomorrow. We’ll drive to Las Vegas, fly to L.A., and then Hong Kong before landing in Manila. It’s a twenty-four-hour trip, plus a fifteen-hour time change, meaning we’ll take off Monday evening and collect our luggage Wednesday morning. Unless our luggage goes to Singapore.
We’re going back to the Philippines, because that’s where my wife is from, because we want to visit her family. That’s not all though; for me, there is something more. It’s been three years since my first trip, and when I look back, I can’t help but feel that the place beat me. I arrived in Manila as a rugged westerner, a self-styled veteran of the American road, but the Pinoy road broke me. I need to try again.
When we land on the other side of the planet, at Ninoy Aquino International, my wife’s entire family will be waiting for us. They will greet us with hugs and laughter—and tears, because it’s been too long and everyone’s changed, and life moves on, especially when you’re apart. We’ll share that bittersweet moment. Then the madness will begin.
Ten of us will pile into an SUV that seats six, a little Mitsubishi designed for people six inches shorter than I am. We’ll pull into traffic. Oh, traffic. Everywhere the cars and trucks and bikes and jeepneys and calesas and jaywalkers and goats and street vendors and dogs and roosters. Here, a pedicab driver asleep in his passenger seat. There, little naked children sitting in a circle, the rearview mirrors of passing cars flying by, inches from their heads. Motorcyclists in flip-flops dart in and out, inured to the constant blaring of horns. Tricked-out traysikels careen down sidewalks, the drivers with T-shirts wrapped around their faces for protection against the black, noxious air. They tear across six lanes, looking like crazed Moros on suicide missions.
Four policemen stand in the intersection of EDSA and Roxas Boulevard, in the equatorial heat, trying to untangle the morning gnarl. They wear shorts, sandals, and old six-shooters. One holds up a hand to stop the cars. The drivers pull around him and keep going.
If we can ever get out of the city, we’ll head north, toward Pangasinan. In the country the congestion clears—and people drive a lot faster. You reach the top of a hill and find a jeep coming at you at 120 kilometers an hour. The driver may swerve back into his lane, or he might cut the wheel the other way, veering off the road and flying past on your right. Or maybe he’ll just park in a pothole in the middle of the road. It’s hard to say. There seem to be some general guidelines governing all this, but I can’t tell what they are.
The first time I experienced Filipino traffic, I asked God to forgive my sins and I prepared to die. I don’t know what I’d expected to see there, but that wasn’t it. I looked to my wife for some explanation.
“What about the wisdom of the East?” I said. “What about balance and serenity? I want Confucius and Lao Tzu.”
“They’re working Filipinos,” she said, “not Buddhist monks.”
My sister-in-law was surprised that an American man would have such a delicate constitution, but she was polite enough not to mention it. She just told me not to worry.
“Filipinos are good drivers, actually,” she said. “If they can get through this without getting killed, they must be doing something right.”
Forty-five minutes later we saw a pedestrian get pounded by a box truck. He went down in a heap. He pulled himself to the sidewalk, dragging his legs behind him. Then he smiled and waved to the driver as if to say, I’m fine. No need to stop. The driver was gone anyway.
Well, he did get through without getting killed. He must have done something right.
We spent a lot of time on the road because my father-in-law was determined to show me every conceivable point of interest on all 7,107 Philippine islands. I endured five days of ten-hour drives. I tried to decipher Tagalog conversations by picking out the English and Spanish words. My wife’s family does speak English, just not out of habit. When they switched to Fujian and Pangalatok, I got nothing. I looked out at the rice paddies, at the farmers in conical hats and the carabao planted in fifteen centimeters of muck.
Then I lost my mind. It happened during a harrowing all-night journey as our driver struggled to stay awake. I watched in the rearview mirror while her eyes got heavier … and heavier. Her head nodded. She pressed the pedal to the floor, hoping the adrenaline would help her remain conscious. It didn’t.
I threw a fit. It was two in the morning and I woke everyone in the vehicle. We pulled off the side of the road as my in-laws tried to figure out why the weird foreigner was so angry. I couldn’t take any more. I wanted out of that cramped backseat and off of that crumbling highway. When we finally got home at daybreak, I locked myself in my room. My good humor was gone.
My wife tried to coax me out later that afternoon, but I refused. I wasn’t getting in the Mitsubishi again.
“But don’t you want some fresh air?” she said. “Aren’t you hungry?”
“Well, what should I tell my family? They’re going to be looking for you.”
“I don’t care. Tell them I’m sick. Tell them whatever you want. I’m not coming out.”
It was pouty and juvenile, but it was the only way to take control again. I had to be alone, to be still. Who was I kidding? I was no traveler. I had lost. The Pinoy road had defeated me.
Three years later I am 7,415 miles away, about to leave the desert and try again. I’ll head into that world I do not understand, and I’ll do better this time. Somehow I will. And here’s hoping that once we’ve found our way, once we’ve passed through the heat and the chaos, there will be quiet. We’ll forget about the hardship in getting there, and think instead of how good it is to have arrived. We’ll step outside, beneath that Eastern night, and we’ll look up at the moon and stars.