Northern Philippines • The Power of Goodbye
“What did you learn?” is a phrase I used to get asked constantly when I came back from my travels. “What did you see?”, “What did you find?”
This story has no photos or videos, partly because I didn’t take any at the time (Stef couldn’t find any either) and partly because, well, I was too busy learning perhaps the most valuable thing someone ever taught me in my travels.
We’re back at the restaurant in Banaue and everyone who was with us at the hike apparently also decided to check out with us from the restaurant slash hotel. So now we’re a bunch of tired, smelly backpackers in the hallway beneath the restaurant floor, waiting for the only available shower outside the rooms to get free so we can wash off the dirt and sweat.
Also, the lady who runs the place got smart with us and, realizing we were all leaving at the same time, she charged us for using the showers. We reluctantly paid a sum I don’t want to remember right now and I distinctly remember Stefanie being livid with disgust for a moment. Her mood didn’t improve however, because when her turn at the shower came up, she realized there was no hot water running. We all literally paid to have the worst shower ever that day.
Our plan was to leave for the bus stop at the edge of town that same night to board an express bus back to Manila. Stef and Pauline went to get some food for the 10+ hour trip back, so we separated for a while and I was free to do whatever, agreeing to meet back up at the restaurant by 5:30 p.m. to go to the bus.
I stayed in the restaurant working and that’s when the two German girls I met the day before came in asking what I was doing that night. They said they were also leaving and that they would spend their final hours in Banaue drinking and singing at a karaoke bar right by the bus station.
Work kept me from joining them when they left, but I decided to stop by the bar later if I had time. Not long after, I packed my laptop and took it with me to the bar by the bus stop at the edge of town, where I found the crazy pair on the second floor already ahead in their drinking, microphone clasped firmly to their four hands, singing ‘Princess of the Universe’ by Queen at the top of their lungs while surrounded by a bunch of thirsty (in more than one way) local Philippine dudes who were happily sharing their booze with them.
I joined in and while I was looking at the songbook to pick my jam, I started getting a look from one of the German girls. Maybe it was the drinking or maybe I hadn’t noticed the day before that she did seem to stare at me a lot, but right now I was witnessing her move on me.
Not to be rude with the guys waiting on a song, I kept my eyes on the songbook as I felt an arm rising up from behind my left shoulder and the girl’s wristwatch suddenly appearing into view on my right, displaying a time that shot an alarm in my head.
5:19 p.m. was the time on that watch. I’ll never forget it because more than the wristwatch or the hand slowly brushing the back of my head, I remember the fear I had of ending further down The Terminator’s bad side. So I slowly waved goodbye and said I would return, knowing damn well I was lying while darting out of the bar and down the three flights of stairs to the main tuk-tuk terminal by the restaurant.
Pauline and Stef were just entering the place when I saw them, and to my surprise they had got me some sweet bread buns from the bakery by the place we ate the day before. They knew I had ran out of money and couldn’t afford to buy anything, but Stef remembered that I always ate bread to fill my stomach during long bus trips. I now felt really warm on the inside and suddenly it seemed things between The Terminator and I were going to be alright after all.
We grabbed our bags from the pile that was waiting in the entrance for all the people leaving that day. We hurried back to the bottom of the stairs and now I had to haul my two bags and carry one end of Pauline’s huge spinner suitcase as we made our way up to the buses. Turns out the girl had more than one huge book about stocks in her luggage.
After a day trekking and gambling with my life, I could care less about it. There were two buses and as soon as we got up the stairs, Stef went straight for the one in front of us without hesitating. In her rampage I stood in front and told her that wasn’t our bus, which I knew because I asked the number of the buses to one of the drivers who was also at the bar earlier.
For the first time in the past few days, Stef shot a look of disgust at me, like the patience she had was over, but still I insisted and sure enough she was about to get on the wrong bus number to who knows where.
Once we were sitting on the bus, I had two seats to myself while Pauline and Stef sat on the row beside me. As I began to zone out of this world, I could hear Pauline making an argument for me on how much I had learned in the trip and how, even though it seemed I was clueless about what I was doing, I had still managed to help with her bags at the time we agreed and found out the bus we needed to board.
By then I frankly didn’t care much about what The Terminator had to say, but part of me still wished I could gain her approval as a person who sort of knows what he’s doing. More or less.
Two Stories, One Road Back
Two notable things happened on the way back to Manila, which is why I’m writing this part of the trip.
The first happened about halfway through the trip back, when our bus driver made a bathroom stop at a restaurant. A second bus from the same company had joined us on the way to Manila, but unlike our bus, this one had functioning wi-fi on board.
I got out and saw this dude with an army cap texting on his phone outside the second bus. After starting a friendly conversation with him, we both realized that our accents aren’t particularly English-native, so I ask if he speaks Spanish and he goes into full-blown Español Catalán mode.
I will gladly tell the story of Alfredo in Barcelona, but for now I must urge you to visit his Facebook page with amazing photography and to know that he is one of the most amazing, knowledgeable backpackers I have ever met. I will tell his story some other time
His name is Alfredo and he’s a photographer. At the time I didn’t know it, but after only 10 minutes talking we exchanged Facebooks and almost one exact year later he hosted me at his place in Barcelona (that was this year, by the way) and became a savvy friend who guided me like Yoda through a rough patch in my life..
The second thing that happened, sadly, was the realization that The Terminator wasn’t in fact jaded with me personally, but rather just tired of hanging out.
On express night buses, there’s usually always a person riding co-pilot who checks for valid tickets while the bus is on the move. When the guy checking the tickets came by my seat I was passed out from exhaustion. He reached a hand to try and wake me up, but I thought someone was trying to rob me so I began to flail my arms up and down to try and slap the assailant in the face. It must’ve looked pretty dumb and funny, because Stef and Pauline started cracking up really hard.
Stef finally whispered “Luis, just show him the ticket”, I did so and the guy (who took things nicely, by the way) just laughed and moved on down the aisle. The girls kept laughing at this point, but then Pauline said “hey, you know you can push the sit back, right?” and so I started to look for the button or lever to recline my sit, and when I finally found the lever I pulled it so hard I reclined all the way back and nearly killed the guy sitting behind me.
That’s when the girls broke out in laughter and Stef just lost it. Sure, I felt like an idiot, but I couldn’t care cause I was tired and I got a good laugh out of The Terminator. A genuine laugh I hadn’t seen since we sat on the bus on the way to Baguio a week before.
As we got off the bus in Manila, it was clear to me that I might never see either of these two gorgeous ladies in my life again, but as soon as we got off the bus, we were surrounded by a hoard of tuk-tuk drivers waiting to take us anywhere we wanted.
I wanted to say goodbye properly, but we were running out of time, so I walked up to Pauline and said goodbye with a friendly hug and a smile, hoping to see her again someday in Lyon. Pauline didn’t make much of it and just smiled and walked away.
Now the big fish. The moment of truth. Like an eager young padawan seeking his Jedi master’s approval, I turned to Stefanie, awaiting a courteous hug and the promise of future adventures if we ever meet again in the road of life. We had gone through so much together, after all the adventures and craziness we lived in the past week, it would be hard to let go.
HAH. What a dumb fool I was.
Stefanie’s got all her bags ready and she’s about to start hunting for a taxi or a tuk-tuk driver so I quickly stand up to her and watch her as she just sizes me up from my feet to my forehead with her eyes, then she clasps a hand on my shoulder and says with a stern blank face: “Don’t worry. You’ll make it”.
Then she turns around and walks the other way.
Wait? What? We have gone through so much together! After all the adventures and… and the craziness! In the past week! How can you let goooo?! Why? Whyyy? Why are you leaving me? Don’t leave! Who are you?
The Terminator, bitch. That’s who.
Here I was expecting a warm goodbye with a kiss on the cheek or a hug at least, but instead it was the cold cut of a backpacker’s farewell. The one thing I hadn’t yet realized at the time is that I would need to say goodbye in this fashion to lots of other people in the near future. People I would see amazing things with, people I would care enough to cry alongside with, people who would allow me to be in their lives for whatever brief moment they could share and create amazing bonds over close to nothing, forever.
This was just another lesson I couldn’t see coming and now there I was with a tear about to come out of my eye, both out of joy and sadness.
In a way, learning to say goodbye with The Terminator was much like taking off a piece of masking tape from your mouth. It felt like a burn, but ultimately it made things way easier than if we’d spent 15 minutes hugging it out and saying nice things at 4 a.m. in the middle of the street.
What We Learned
I got on a tuk-tuk and I started trying to see behind me as the driver and I rolled away into the darkness, our express bus getting smaller as we moved on. I was dropped off in the corner of a street full of shitty dive bars, neon glowing reflected all over the cold, wet street.
Minutes later I was throwing my luggage in the back seat of a taxi and telling the driver that I couldn’t pay him until we went to an ATM, and once we were there I took out the equivalent of $200 USD in pesos out of the machine. I got on the cab and I told him the directions to my hostel: 1109 JP Rizal Street.
The best part? The driver puts on a CD in the car and it’s playing fucking ’21 Guns’ by Green Day, but that’s not all. This guy knows the lyrics to the song by heart and he can sing. I mean he can fucking sing. He’s hitting every high note out of Billie Joe Armstrong’s windpipe and it feels like my personal soundtrack to the most bittersweet night of my life in 2014. Bless that man.
Back at the gates of the hostel, I ring the bell to the rooftop and I wait for Juan to come down and let me in. I’m back in Manila and the next 2 days are going to be insane. I just got schooled by The Terminator.