By Dawn Parks
June 25, 2009
Journeying through the Philippines on my first backpacking trip in two years, I discovered a nightmare which every hardcore traveler believes he’ll avoid – awaking drugged and penniless.
I didn’t wake up. Nor did I regain consciousness. Even “awareness” would have been an exaggeration. If I had the words – which I most certainly did not – I would have explained the best description was a slothlike incoming fogginess. The slothlike fogginess entered onto my previously complete blankness, eventually suggesting murkily that somewhere, far far away, there existed something. That something was, in fact, Existence.
A slit appeared in the bottom of my left eyelid. Harsh sunlight entered without permission. With amphetamines worth of energy, I could have groaned. Instead, I saw blobs. Blobs that made up the side of the bed next to me. Bad blobs. I waited a few minutes. Then my head started to rotate. It checked the clothing between my legs. Also bad.
I shouldn’t have had that beer last night.
For the second time, I would have groaned if I had the energy. I would have formed a worry, too.
Instead, the slit shut. The fog whispering of existence receded. I slept.
I checked the side of my bed. Still empty. Only a minute later, I again checked my underwear. Also still empty. Only my body was contained inside. Passport, too. In my underwear, where I had hid it. But the money hidden in the passport? Gone.
Purse. Must check purse. Across the room.
My leg twitched. A good sign. Could it move more? Swing off the bed?
Semi-complete sentences. Also a good sign.
My legs didn’t swing. They collapsed off the bed. My body hoisted up. Took a step. Hand on the bed, left foot forward. Hand on the dresser, right foot forward. Open purse. Open wallet. Both empty.
Bed empty. Passport empty. Wallet empty. Need to see… other room. I began my trek.
My legs were gluesticks – not fully solid, yet adhering to every surface. I pushed them along. One wobbly-glide. Two wobbly-glides. Stop. They were stuck.
My torso swayed. Crumbled against the wall. My hand. It held onto the wall enough to keep me upright.
Man, how much did I have last night?
A hand inched forward, a foot shuffled.
Another inch, another shuffle.
I know how much beer I had.
Inch, shuffle. Pause. Steady self. Inch, shuffle.
Inch, shuffle. Inch, shuffle. Pause. Steady. Inch…
How many drugs?
At the door now. Nothing to cling to. Two steps to get across the hallway. Could I walk two steps? Or would the fog interfere?
Push off of doorframe. Shuffle, shuffle, fall. Catch self on room #2’s doorframe.
How many drugs could get into a single bottle of beer?
Room #2 – also empty.
I sat-fell onto the bed.
Time to fight the fog. Money gone, companions gone = plan needed.
I collapsed, my head missing the pillow. No plan was made.
No incoming fog this time. One minute, blankness. The next, a ceiling. My eyes had opened.
Awake in a strange bed, in an entirely empty room. Not as confusing as I’d expect. An entirely empty room. For the first time, I realized that even my rechargeable batteries – bought just yesterday, for my camera – were gone. Bastards.
A plan had formed. When, I wasn’t sure. But it was there, nestled inside my head, peaking out from the murkiness – go, find someone, get to the police, file a report. Money for the day’s food? Bed? Not part of this plan. In plan #2, maybe. Focus on one step at a time.
Literally. My legs upgraded from gluesticks to nearly-frozen sillyputty – not as wobbly, not as sticky. But still far from easy to move. Ten feet, fifteen feet, twenty. Thirty. A lifetime.
Ahead. I heard noise. A TV. I saw a door. Shuffled closer. Closer. More. I could see inside. Three people, seated comfortably in front of a tiny TV. Laughing. Boy, girl, woman. Boy and girl, young. Twenties. Woman, older. A mom? A family? Did they live here?
Were they owners?
I got to the door. Leaned against it. If this were Hollywood, I’d faint into the room. The quintessential damsel in distress.
I held on. Swayed, not swooned. Before I could clear my throat, I was noticed. Shuffling isn’t quiet.
The boy looked up, smiling eagerly. Help incarnate.
I spoke. “My companions left.” No preamble. Perhaps I should have used a “hi”?
“My companions”, I tried. Stopped. Re-thought. Tried again. “I came… with four people. Two men. Two women.” My voice was low. Why?
“Yes,” the boy agreed, his hair bouncing with each head nod. Now I knew why my voice was low. Words boom. Hyenas stampede along my amigdalya. “They left. Did you enjoy your nap?”
My brows furrowed. Consider that later. “Where?”
The boy looked confused.
“Where… went?” I asked. Frowned. No, that wasn’t right. I searched. “Where… go?” Still not right. “”Where-“
The boy interrupted me. “They didn’t say. They’d just said you were tired and they’d come back for you after your nap. Did you enjoy your nap?”
This couldn’t be. My head shook, denying. The boy’s confusion grew. Words were needed. “They took. Money. My money. Left. Need… police.”
A woman appeared by the boy’s side. The older woman. She hovered. “Honey, you should sit down.” Sympathy in her eyes.
I shook my head again. They weren’t understanding. I wanted to sit. To not worry. But.... “No. Need police.” That was important. Everything else was static.
“Honey…” Sympathy. “The nearest police are three hours away.”
A glass of water appeared. From the girl. Not a talkative one. I nodded my thanks. Put the glass down. Couldn’t get distracted. Plan one not available. Skip to plan two.
What was plan 2? Find a room and food. Get money. Somehow.
And cure cancer, while you’re at it.
I breathed. Concentrated. “I need… a room. Food. Maybe… I’ll get money from home. My family... will send. But not now. I need… time.” Deep breath. Felt like I’d given a Miss America speech. “What… can I do?”
The older woman responded. “You can stay here. You’ll have money sent from home?”
I nodded. “Western Union.” When had I decided that?
Wish it were easier. ATM cards are easier. A bank account from home would be even easier. But my home bank account was gone, shut down the previous year for overdrawing too often. It was my third year abroad. For this unexpected backpacking trip, I had been carrying my entire backpacking budget with me. $1000. In cash. Gone.
Attention. The woman is speaking. “You can stay here till then. As long as you need.”
I almost laughed. That game, eh? Take advantage of the foreigner. Overcharge - badly. Press any advantage. Foreigners came from wealthy countries. They had money.
And this was a damn good advantage. The foreigner had no money. Who else would take me in? Trust I’d pay?
Well-played, I acknowledged. I almost felt grateful. Back to a territory I knew.
“How much?” I asked, dryly.
The woman was startled by the question. “Why, nothing. You don’t have money.”
Not long after, I was escorted into a room behind the rabbit-eared TV with my bag. I locked the door behind me. I laid in bed, trying to assimilate the day’s events. My eyes closed gently.
How much more sleep will I need?
For once that day, my sleep wasn’t choppy. No self-preservation was telling me to fight unwelcome chemicals. No self-prodding to move. I slept peacefully, secure that the storm had lulled. Still, both my last thought before I drifted off into sleep and the first thought upon waking were the same: This is unreal. There has to be a catch.
There was no catch.
It should have taken a while to adjust to my new surroundings. There should have been days of disbelief, frustration, confusion. There wasn’t. After years abroad, I was accustomed to change happening at a moment’s notice.
It was effortless to slip into the comfort of the place. After all the recent happenings - including leaving behind my beloved life in Korea with little notice - quiet was the one thing I needed. But the solace I felt in the next few days couldn’t be contributed to the quiet alone. It was impossible to be uncomfortable through the effortless acceptance they showed me.
Ann, the “girl” (a woman, really), certainly wasn’t a talker, but in little gestures, she showed her enjoyment of my presence. Whenever I entered the room, she’d smile shyly and gracefully move over, making space for two on the wooden couch. Maria, the “woman”, showed it through practical gestures – checking beforehand if I liked the menu for the homecooked dinners, throwing a tablecloth over the unpretentious plastic table, discovering what my hobbies were and passing the word along.
And Carlo. Ah, Carlo. Though the entire family was a constant support – giving me space when I needed it, a sympathetic ear, entertainment… a home – Carlo was the most outgoing, constantly creating events for me alone. He’d take me to the littered beach – a mere 300 meters from the home – and remain unobtrusively next to me as I quietly listened to the pounding waves. Or he’d explain how the karaoke emanating from the videogame-like machines was part of the culture before proceeding to pluck several pesos into one of them so I could pound out tone-deaf renditions of “Wind Beneath My Wings”. If I mentioned wanting to swim, he’d bypass the dirty surf and sneak me over to his cousin’s dilapidated pool late at night, turning on the rundown waterslide.
I shared my story with them, as loath as I was to admit it. It was a simple story, one that’s happened countless times before, though not usually to such a seasoned traveler. I had ended up traveling along with some people I shouldn’t have trusted. Shouldn’t have trusted, and didn’t, not fully. I hadn’t shared food with them and (usually) didn’t share a room, just in case. Except the previous night. A shared room was cheaper and the beer they had given me had been opened right in front of my eyes.
One drink, one beer. How many drugs?
For a seasoned traveler, the hardest thing to accept is your own foolishness.
Carlo even came along to help me pick up the Western Union check. He turned a simple errand into a day on the town, visiting all the shops, bargaining for travel necessities. It didn’t end there. Even the journey back to the resort involved dalliances, usually with my prized camera – the one valuable untouched in the robbery (hard to fence?). We took “Heidi” shoots of the sheep with the mountain in the background, trampled through a neighbor’s yard to take one of me petting the tethered bull, and even got permission for me to sit in the driver’s seat of a neighbor’s “tricycle” – a motorcycle with a seat attached to carry 4-6 paying customers at a time. Cheaper than a taxi.
Carlo also accompanied me on the four hour journey to the ferry terminal the next day. We were scheduled to leave at 4am. At 3:30 AM, the entire family woke up to see me off. Hugs, pictures, wishes of luck, and addresses were exchanged. They presented me with two goodbye presents – an extra lock for my luggage and a Cebu keychain to put the key on. Cebu? “To remind you of the journeys still ahead.” A week before, the walls were spinning in front of my eyes. Now, they were swimming.
I couldn’t express to the family how much they meant to me – but I knew I would. With the precious address in hand, I would be able to show the family over time how grateful I was for their unpretentious care. Hours later, I waved goodbye to Carlo, the last member of the family, and began the rest of my journey with hope – a journey that wouldn’t have been possible without the family. A hope that only they were special enough to give.
After Carlo disappeared from view, I scurried to the front of the ferry. One week gone, seven to go. What new adventures were waiting to be uncovered?
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