Perhaps, the essence of travel lies in its unpredictability, where experiences are in constant flux, endings shifting to adapt to choices made whilst on the road. Can curiousity really kill a cat? A fulltime backpacker narrates his tale.
*Names have been changed. The author was given creative license to write the narrative in her own adaptation.
Manila is alive and she moves as she damn well pleases. The city is dark, jagged, chaotic. She reeks of danger, the fetid stench settling around you in the city’s squalor: a jumbled mass of alleys littered with trash and half-clad human bodies reposing in slumber. Hoards of children with grimy faces raise a ruckus on streets, oblivious to the dangers of speeding cars. Everywhere, a barrage of goods is furiously peddled. Hawkers beckon you closer to examine their wares and you see despair lurking behind their bright smiles, a mask they wear to hide the exhaustion that permeates their being. This is what abject poverty does: reduce a population to a cowering mass that rabidly scavenge for any scrap that will allow them to survive just a little bit longer.
Curiosity has brought me to this mayhem, a 32-year old Caucasian armed with a camera and two backpacks. Manila isn’t beautiful: she antagonizes the uninitiated with her anarchy. But, she is morbidly fascinating, hinting at strange experiences, odder things. Best to take it all in with clinical detachment. Steady nerves and watchful eyes will get you past the countless mousetraps lain carefully for the unwary. Dismiss what rules you know. In this wasteland, it’s every man for himself.
The city is throbbing in the afternoon sun, its oppressive heat pressing on my back. I could feel drops of sweat gathering all over my body. I pass two women on the street who called out a greeting. They stand out from the rest, their clean clothes a stark contrast from the raggedy ensembles of people I encountered previously. They seem harmless enough. I lower my guard enough to return their greeting. Stella and Jean, as they are called, are headed to Rizal Park. Do I want to go with them? The idea is intriguing. Perhaps it's best that these locals show me around. Perhaps they can show me a different side of Manila, revealing hidden facets that I may or may not appreciate.
I agree to their invitation.
The next day, I wake up in a room full of Hello Kitty paraphernalia staring maniacally at me. I am in a couch, shirtless and shoeless, with Stella asleep on my side. Muted sunlight streams lazily from a nearby window, casting an eerie glow to the already unsettling, macabre scene. What is really going on?
I desperately clutch at the images that flit through my head. I remember the walk in the park morphing into an impromptu decision to take a bus ride with my new friends to Taal Volcano where we were joined by Tita, a comical old woman who had more wrinkles on her face than teeth on her mouth. I remember cutting the hike to the volcano crater short, the ensuing twilight casting shadows on the trail we were about to take. I remember the hours we wasted, wandering around Tagaytay, searching for a restaurant that never materialized. I remember the disappointment of settling for a lackluster dinner of grilled chicken from a fast food joint, with Tita plying me with more rice that I can finish. I remember the boisterous gaiety of our karaoke jaunt where a girl named Lani seemed determined to challenge me to a beer skulling showdown to which I kept declining.
After that, nothing.
The first tremors of panic set in and I will myself to remain calm. Wait for your head to spinning, I tell myself, the shock is bound to settle sooner or later. It’ll all make sense in a minute. I take in the rest of my surroundings to get my bearings. There is another man sleeping on the couch next to mine. On the floor, Jean and Tita are sleeping in a jumbled heap. People start waking up. Lani the skuller offers everyone coffee and tea. I search for my things, finding my phone on the couch. They bring me the rest of it. A quick check of my wallet reveals that it was tampered with and some money is missing from the last time I checked. And, more sinisterly, they have somehow deleted all their photos on my phone.
Realization falls bitter, cold, hard: I have been drugged. How else to explain the gaping chasm in my recollection of yesterday’s shenanigans? My entire body is in a vague kind of stasis; my movements sluggish, my speech slurred. I am drifting in and out of consciousness, frantically clutching at the lucidity that hovers slightly out of my reach. Make it stop, I silently plead to anyone listening. I’m frightened that the white static will seep into everything that I remember, crowding my other memories out.
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Hazily, I understand that they want me to go back to my hostel, gather some things and join them on an overnight trip to another resort. I nod drowsily, the sanctuary of the hostel infinitely more appealing than this bizarre situation I found myself in. Stella and Jean take me back to my hostel and I stumble inside, determined to drown away the confusion with a hot shower. The water washes away the fog enough to pack some things to take with me. I head out to meet the girls but they are gone.
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I trudge back inside and crash into my bed. I feel a curious kinship with blankness of my mind. Perhaps, the pilfered memories of that bizarre night in Tagaytay lay dormant, reposing somewhere within the cerebral recesses of my unconscious. And, I realize something else: despite all the turmoil swirling within, I have escaped, relatively unscathed. Since I left my passport and credit back at the guesthouse, there was little of mine that they have stolen. I have no missing organs, no broken bits to mar my physique. The fog that taints my thoughts will lift and the aftermath of the drugs I involuntarily ingested will eventually fade.
What else does Manila have in store? I fade into oblivion. Tomorrow will be a better day.
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