“Miss… Bababa ba?” The driver, or ‘manong’ as we would call an older gentleman, asked if I was getting off. His sweat hung on his furrowed eyebrows. Years of driving the Jeepney has darkened the first half of his arm more than the rest of his body. He now uses gloves to cover them, but you can still see the tattoos painted on him. “RIP Mama,” his right biceps showed.
“Ahh, no not yet po.” I replied.
I looked at the dying phone in my hand. It has been a while since I’ve been back, let alone spoken Tagalog or explored the back streets. I sit firmly on the edge of the front seat. Anxious, not for reasons that many travellers of the Philippines have, fearing safety or misunderstanding or cultural barriers… but anxious that I may not find what I am looking for.
What am I even looking for? I sighed.
“Okay ka lang Miss?” He asked me if I am okay, sensing my unease. I nodded and racked my brain to respond in lengthy details in Tagalog, but my throat seemed to only summon a language far from home.
Manong reached into his pocket and showed me a small photo of Mary. Under the Spanish rule, colonisation has forced Catholicism to be the primary religion of the country. He then explained that Mary looks after him during his long drives. I think about how the matriarch in precolonial Philippines is heralded as the core of the community. And I think about, perhaps, the reasoning why there are so many Mary devotees is due to the fact they have had to hide their ‘anitos’ so Mary became the substitute.
Across the front screen of my dimming phone, it stated, 5.51PM. The fairy floss clouds enveloped the skies. Soon, it’ll all be black and the stars will shine.
I booked the trip last minute. As a student and freelance creative, the decision to go on an international trip is one that is not motivated because there’s an abundance of finance to do so (although wouldn’t that be nice), but because there was a calling to.
The past few months have been hard. The holiday season really has a way to confront you with what you desire. For me, growing up in Australia, 5,817 kilometres away from the islands, the looming question is always, how do I get back to my roots?
How do you reclaim an identity that you were never able to fully develop?
I started to write the dates in to my planner. Do I write, ‘flight back home’? Or do I write ‘flight to the Philippines’? My hand itched. I settled with writing the travel details and itinerary instead - Brisbane to Manila, 8AM Australian Eastern Standard Time.
I thought about catching a taxi, then I hear, loud and clear “CAVITE!” coming from the bus bay. And I was summoned.
I jumped in.
It’s 7PM now. The clouds have disappeared to reveal a moonless night. Salt is in the air and I felt my phone vibrate indicating the battery has died.
We’re approaching Cavite. The past hour has been filled with radio chatter in the background, broken by the occasional pointing with his lips and followed by his own stories of the land.
People would get on and off, passing each other their fare.
A sign caught my eye and I looked at my written itinerary.
“Bababa na?” He asked.
“Opo,” I answered yes.
He gave me a nod and signed to one of his conductors to help me with my bags.
In the dark of the night, something glowed from him.
“Ano po yan?” I asked him what it is.
“This is ‘agimat’. You know… ‘anting anting’! Gives me powers.” He chuckled as he pointed to it. It is a traditional golden amulet, ling ling o. It is his ‘back up’ in case he needed a stronger protection.
“Salamat po.” I thanked him, “Take care driving.”
“I’m okay! I got my agimat!”
I still don’t know what it is I am exactly looking for.
But seeing manong with his agimat, I know, my ancestors will guide me either way.
A karenderya is nearby — “Phone Charger Here”.