Travel: In Baguio City, however, the air is always hot (Part One)
Words: Elisabeth Sherman
In Baguio City, however, the air is always hot. Steamed trapped on the inside of windows, foggy glass. I took a jitney ride down a dirt road with my mother our first time there and she saw a man laying in the road, face down in the mud. She wondered if he was dead. Mom looked away, nausea curling upwards in her stomach and reaching up her throat like the tentacles of an octopus. She told me it was the heat that got him. Not enough water. The jitney drove on without stopping, passed the man in the mud, down the road.
I don’t remember where that crowded bus took us. We were staying in a country house—there were acres of rice patties outside our bedroom window. I slept in the same bed as my mother because I had nightmares. Laying face up in bed I stared at the spinning ceiling fan above me, wide awake.
The drive to airport was always induced excitement and anxiety in me as a child. I can remember only the flights I took at night. Flights to Australia, to New York, watching the black city masked in yellow and orange lights glowing from office buildings and street lamps, slip away behind me as the car swept down the empty highway. Passing the port and the cargo ships, passing Boeing field sitting still and empty, overhead darkness swallowing up the last traces of the day. Sitting in the passenger seat of my dad’s truck as it careened along the concrete toward the airport, both of us silent, while I stared out of the passenger seat window. Watching more of those sick looking yellow and orange lights of the industrial district of my city flicker and fade as we raced toward the airport. The collection of buildings bunched together to turn the Seattle skyline black and jagged against the midnight sky, warehouses and train yards and abandoned apartment buildings towering like teeth jutting up into a cavernous mouth.
The airport felt like purgatory. Each moment inside the white walls is another moment in a place beyond time, in a place that was a not a place. Anticipation makes the air feel stale–not always excitement just anxiety-inducing anticipation, the boredom of waiting for the inevitable, how it must feel to wait to die. Airports are the executioners of flight.
This was a neutral space, where all the objects seemed to take on the same tone–muted variations of primary colors specked with that persistent absence of color, white, off-white, that constant reminder that once inside the airport, you were floating between territories like a migrating bird at the change of the season, without a home. No guarantees you’ll find your way back again, to anywhere.
A layover once left me stranded in France for the better portion of an afternoon. I drank soda and ate french fries from a fast food booth and all around me figures swept past with coffee cups and suitcases on wheels and strollers where children screamed or slept or played. Running toward the sound of an intercom, each second checked and rechecked on a silver watch, each movement of the hands on the clock was a moment to rejoice.
A plastic cup might remind me of the Ovaltine I drank in the orange and brown kitchen of the country house, sitting on the last step of the staircase that emptied into the kitchen while my mother and grandfather argued. Or the sound of a rooster at sunrise might trigger the taste of vomit in my mouth.
I had an attack of heat stroke once that caused to me to throw up for several minutes into a paper bag provided to me by my mother. The two of us were taking the bus from Manila to my grandfather’s house in Baguio City, which is located in the mountains. Like all the buses in that country, this one was over crowded, loud; stale, uncirculated air rested heavily on the passengers like a wool blanket. We sat in the back, with a man who had brought his rooster along for the trip. The animal was in a cage, or perhaps it was loose, both seem likely. I was excited and fascinated by the animal clucking and crowing with agitation on the bus, a wild creature close enough to touch, its owner laughing at his pet and speaking in rapid in Tagalog with his neighbors. My mother sat me down in the window seat, strangers pressing against me, beside, in front, behind me, though she was close by, clutching our bags, and if the chaos of the bus made her anxious she didn’t show it on her bright, smiling face; captured in rays of yellow sun, she looked happy.
As we ascended up into the mountains, I stared out the window at the dark green vegetation and the burnt, dry fields. We passed many outdoor stalls selling granite statues and headstones, to decorate a garden or to mourn the dead. I was sweating and as each statue vendor passed the more nauseous I became, until I began to beg my body to not humiliate us. The vomit rose in my throat slowly, I could feel the slime and ooze slide upwards inside of me and though I tried to force the sick back down, moments after we passed yet another statue vendor, I watched the grey figures slip out of few, and threw up into my lap.
I had given no sign of illness before that point, so the sight of me retching must have jolted my mother. I threw up for at least a minute more, into said bag, which Mom seemed to produce from no where and shove toward me at a superhuman speed. When I was finished, she leaned toward me, our fellow passengers leaning forward or away from us, the white women, there were only two of us, and handed a new shirt from one of our suitcases, yellow, a cartoon animal pattern printed on it with buttons and a collar. I changed my clothes in front of the strangers without hesitation, no need to be a ashamed of my body as an eight-year-old. She cleaned me up with that same bright smile, asked me if I felt better, which I did, very much so, and then I believe I ate an apple. The sunlight caught her tan face so that each of features was lit up and glowing–her laughter filled the space between us, overjoyed that I had been sick and then found a way to solve the problem without much help from her. Happy that I could easily slide between sickness and health like a child should, happy to see the mechanics of my body working as they were meant to, happy to see life’s cycle between death and renewal operating within a creature of her own creation.
There were the motorcycles in the streets of Baguio that had sidecars attached to them. Those were my favorite vehicles to ride in as a child visiting the Philippines. I begged my mother for rides in the sidecar. I never wanted to walk.
Riding in a jitney another day, on the same trip my mother had spotted the heat stroke victim, we passed a fenced in field. I was just barely tall enough to see over the top of the metal railing that held the passengers inside the windowless bus. The field was dotted with tin huts. Walls plastered with discarded newspapers and roofs held up by sticks and floors anchored by stones found in ditches. A woman in a bright yellow sari with a blue basket balanced on her head leaned out of the doorway of one of these one room shacks. I turned my face away.
I try to spread the memories of those trips apart in my mind, but they congeal together like warm honey on toast.
End of Part One