A closely cropped man walked on a dirt road. He carried a blue hiking bag supported by his waist and shoulders. The bag was filled to the brim with survival gear, clothes, canned food and bottled water. He stopped by a wooden shed and pulled out his guide book. He compared the wooden hut to a picture on the guide book. It described the wooden hug as a bahay kubo.
A family congregated and ate on a makeshift dining area, made of lumber and nails. They were eating a huge feast of multicoloured vegetables in soup and some chicken and pork with plenty of steaming rice stacked in the middle of the table.
The man approached the group and flipped to the chapter of quick local phrase words. ‘Kamusta?’ He spoke with a twang.
At the end of the table sat an elderly man in his fifties. He was interrupted in his conversation. He sized up the young man.
The sun has turned the foreigner toasty. His cargo pants were dragged low below his waist and his feet were dirty. No doubt he had been walking for a while now. ‘Pwede po..’ The young man tried to ask for some help in the local language. He looked closely at the words on the guide book and spoke the words phonetically and ended up stuttering the first syllable approximately twenty-one times.
‘We speak English Mr.?’
‘Oh thank god!’ The young man unzips his bag and shoves the guide book inside. ‘Shane. Please call me Shane.’
‘Ok Mr. Shane.’ The older man extended his hand across the table. ‘‘lease take a seat and join us.’
‘Oh no! I don’t want to intrude.’ Shane raised his hands, palm faced outwards.
‘Please it would be our pleasure.’ The old man smiled. ‘It is my little girl’s birthday.’ The man patted the hand of a little girl seated to his left.
The girl took a big spoonful of food and stuck the spoon in her mouth.
‘Cryssa!’ An older lady sat across Cryssa and waved her hand at the little girl.
A young man about the same age as Shane grabbed Cryssa’s spoon. ‘Eat properly.’ He turned towards Shane and tsked.
Shane placed his bag down behind a wooden bench and sat on the empty space at the right of the older woman.
‘I am Martin dela Cruz.’ The old man pointed to his right. ‘This is my wife.’ And then he pointed to his left. ‘This is my daughter Cryssa and my son Reggie.’
Shane nodded and smiled at every introduction. He removed his sunglasses and placed it on the table.
Cryssa giggled in laughter and pointed at the big circles around Shane’s eyes.
The sunglasses had retained Shane’s fair complexion despite the obvious tanning of his skin elsewhere. The big white circles around Shane’s eyes made him look like a lost owl.
‘Cryssa it is not nice to laugh at other people.’ Mrs. dela Cruz wagged her finger at the little girl. She turned towards Shane. ‘I am sorry. She did not mean to hurt your feelings.’
Shane rubbed his head and laughed. ‘Oh no problem at all ma’am.’ He looked at his reflection from his sunglasses and turned to Mrs. dela Cruz. ‘I know I look like a cartoon character.’ He smiled at Cryssa.
Reggie sat close to Cryssa and tsked at Shane.
Mrs. dela Cruz excused herself and stood up from the table.
‘Mr. Shane what brings you to our country?’ Martin leaned close to the table and rested his elbows on the table, supporting his drooping chin.
‘Please just call me Shane. I heard a lot about Philippines and so I decided to come for a visit. It is not too far for a short vacation.’
‘And where are you from? Your accent is very peculiar.’
‘I come from Sydney.’ Shane paused. ‘Sydney, Australia.’
Everyone in the table nodded their heads.
‘So what are you doing here?’ Reggie asked curtly.
‘Reggie.’ Martin looked at his son, his eyes conveyed his pleasure.
‘I am sorry. What I meant was… what have you seen here?’
Shane smiled. Filipinos were renowned for their hospitality and strict family discipline. He waved his hand to suggest that it was not a problem. ‘I have been around the mountains. I camped for a little bit then I went to Palawan to see the beaches and I must say it is absolutely beautiful.’
Mrs. dela Cruz returned and placed a plate and set of utensils in front of Shane. ‘Please have something to eat.’
Shane grabbed the empty plate from the table and stacked up some rice.
Mrs. dela Cruz pointed at the vegetable dish. ‘This is paksiw. It is a little bit sour.’
Shane poured some soup on his plate and placed some vegetables to the side. He then turned to the chicken dish beside the paksiw. It had some potatoes swimming with legs of chicken in a brown semi-viscous sauce. ‘Adobo right?’
Martin nodded. ‘Very good. I see you have been trying the local cuisine.’
Shane smiled and moved to the third dish. It was a deep color which seemed to be a mixture of red and brown. Little pieces of meat with fat floated in the thick liquid. Shane moved the serving spoon around. ‘What is this?’
‘dinuguan’ Reggie replied.
‘It is the innards of the pig.’
‘The…the innards?’ Shane looked at Reggie. ‘You mean the guts?’
‘Hmph! You don’t have to take it.’ Reggie thumped the table with his hand.
‘Reggie.’ Martin looked disappointingly at his son once more.
Reggie rolled his eyes and mumbled to himself. ‘You don’t even know him.’
Shane sensed some tension and placed a small serving on his plate. ‘I will try it.’ He looked at the mixture of food on his plate. He decided to start with the chicken adobo, the dish that he was most familiar with. ‘It is very good Mrs. dela Cruz.’
‘Oh don’t thank me. Thank our chef Reggie. He runs this carinderia.’
‘Compliments to the chef.’ Shane turned to Reggie and raised a spoonful of rice and chicken adobo.
‘Tito Shane where is Australia?’ Cryssa asked.
‘Hmmm…well, it is not far from here.’
‘Can we walk there?’
Shane laughed. ‘Not drive but maybe swim.’
‘Is there a lot of water? Here we have a lot of water and we go to the beach to swim.’ Cryssa turned to Martin. ‘Tatay when are we going to the beach?’
Martin smiled and patted the hand of Cryssa. ‘When the rain stops anak.’
‘When will it stop tatay?’
Martin laughed. ‘Soon. We will go soon.’
Cryssa smiled and turned to Shane. ‘Tito Shane what else is there in Australia?’
Shane forced to swallow a big piece of dinuguan. The taste was interesting, quite savory but he could not help think that he was eating pig gut. He coughed and pounded lightly on his chest.
Mrs. dela Cruz rubbed Shane’s back. ‘Shane are you ok?’
Shane coughed. ‘Yes, yes I am ok.’
‘You don’t like it?’ Reggie noticed his father glaring at him, but Reggie ignored the stern glare.
Shane composed himself. ‘Sorry to worry everyone.’ Shane took a deep breath. ‘It was rather interesting.’
Cryssa laughed. ‘I don’t like dinuguan.’
Shane turned to Cryssa. ‘You don’t?’
‘NO!’ Crysaa shook her head.
‘Well you were asking me about Australia right?’
‘Yes! Please tell us about Australia.’
‘Oh what is there to say? There are a lot of beaches. Most people spend time relaxing and surfing and of course there is the opera house.’
Cryssa tilted her head. ‘Surfing? Oprah? What is Oprah?’
‘It is a kind of music. Uhmmm…’ Shane scratched his head. ‘Well you sit in this big hall and people sing and…’
Cryssa interrupted Shane. ‘Do they dance?’
‘Well…Yes I guess you could say that.’
Cryssa jumped in her seat and rocked Martin’s arm. ‘Tatay! Can we see Oprah Tatay?’
Mr. dela Cruz laughed. ‘I don’t know where they have opera here.’
Cryssa frowned and crossed her arms.
‘I can take you to Sydney Opera if you want.’ Shane winked at Cryssa.
‘Oh can you?’ The light returned to Cryssa’s eyes. ‘Tatay can we go to Australia and see Oprah?’
‘It’s Opera not Oprah. And Tito Shane was just joking with you.’ Reggie shook his head and tsked at Shane.
Shane kept his mouth shut and took another spoon of his food, this time he made sure that he did not take any of the dinuguan.
‘Shane where are you off to now?’ Reggie asked.
‘Oh I wanted to go to the next village and stay there for a few days.’
‘Just to experience the local culture. I have enjoyed my stay so far but I feel like I have been a tourist. I want to stay with a family for a few days live like the locals. You know talk with the elders, eat with the community, work with the men, chat with the women…’
‘Play with the children?’ Interrupted Reggie
‘Uhmm… yes that too.’
‘You like to play with children don’t you Shane?’
‘I guess so… everybody loves to play with children don’t they? I am sure you like to play with children too.’
Reggie mumbled under his breath. ‘I am not like you.’
‘Do you play with boys only or girls also?’ Cryssa asked.
‘I also play with girls. Especially one as cute as you.’
‘Yaaay! Tito Shane will play with me.’
Reggie stared at Shane and shook his head.
Shane felt the stern message from Shane and reached for his bag. ‘I think I should go. Thank you very much for your hospitality.’
Mrs. dela Cruz stopped Shane. ‘Why don’t you stay with us for a few days.’
‘Inay!’ Reggie screamed.
‘What’s wrong anak?’ She raised her forehead. ‘He is a guest in our country and we have some space. Anyways what are a few days?’
‘But Inay…’ Reggie checked his thoughts before continuing his sentence. Hospitality was one of the values his father had taught him. But he did not trust Shane.
‘You and tatay are always out working anyways. I am left to take care of the housework and Cryssa all by myself. It will be nice to have some company.’
‘You have the other women to keep you company.’
‘They only talk about the same gossip. I want to learn more about his country and Oprah.’
‘Opera.’ Corrected Reggie.
‘Ok it’s settled. Shane once you are done come with us. Reggie can clean up here.’
Reggie stood up and collected the dishes.
‘Maybe I should stay and help?’ Shane asked.
‘Nonsense you come with us.’ Replied Mr. dela Cruz.
Shane strappe his bag and wore his sunglasses. ‘Ok I am ready.’ He followed the family towards their village. Cryssa held his hand and Shane smiled.
‘Perverted bastard!’ Reggie threw the utensils in the sink. The clanging of steel exclaimed the anger in Reggie’s head.
The house of the dela Cruz’s was made of hollow blocks set in place by cement. The inside was very cozy filled rattan furniture arranged in a circular pattern and water paintings hung everywhere.
Shane walked in the house and lingered under the staircase. There he saw a small colorful painting that had little brown figures playing under a large rainbow. The painting was signed ‘Cryssa.’
‘That is mine!’ Cryssa pointed at the colorful painting.
‘It is very beautiful.’
‘Come let me show you to your room.’ Mr. dela Cruz waved his hand toward the second floor. The two men climb a flight of stairs. The flooring changed from of cement to wood. The corridor was adorned with pictures religious scenes and a small altar with a statue of the Virgin Mary. Turning right past the small altar three doors were lined up. The two men walked past the first two doors and walked into the third.
‘This is Reggie’s room. You can sleep with him.’
Shane dropped his bag.
‘Why don’t you freshen up and join us downstairs. Reggie will be home soon and he can take you around.’ Mr. dela Cruz handed Shane a towel and walked out of the room.
Shane washed his face and looked at the circles around his eyes. He could not stop laughing. He rubbed his hand across his cropped hair and grimaced at the little bald patches around his crown. He dried his face and walked out of the room and down the stairwell.
Like clockwork Reggie arrived through the living room.
‘Anak!’ Screamed Mrs. dela Cruz. ‘Why don’t you take Shane around for a little while? We are going to take our siesta.’
Reggie sighed. He was quite tired and wanted to have a siesta. Instead he had to play nanny to a perverted foreigner. He did not know why he was the only person who saw it.
‘Unless you want to take your siesta too Reggie. In that case I can go around myself.’ Shane pulled his sunglasses above his head.
‘No.’ Reggie rubbed his hands and shrugged his shoulders. ‘Come let us go around.’
The little village was quaint. Old men sat on plastic chairs and played a local card game which plainly was a variant of poker. Some girls skipped rope while others watched the boys play a sort of hackey sack game. This game was called sipa and comprised of kicking about a little toy made out of pierced bottle caps and straw.
Reggie stuffed his hands in the pockets of his rolled up jeans and kicked a loose can. ‘How long have you been here Shane?’
‘Almost three weeks now. I won’t be going back for another month or so.’
Reggie met the can and kicked it again. ‘This is a long trip.’
‘Yes it is.’
‘Are you staying with us for a month?’
‘Just three or four days, I want to find my way to Bohol and then maybe to the rice terraces.’
‘You really are going all over the place aren’t you?’
‘A little bit.’ Shane laughed and scratched one of the bald patches on his crown.
‘How about your work or family?’
‘I quit work.’
‘You must be a rich man.’
‘No not really.’ Shane walked slowly and looked at the dusty ground. ‘I am sick. So I decided to travel around a little bit and see the world.’
‘Sick? What do you mean?’
Reggie kicked the can and it tumbled under the steps of a neighboring house hitting a sleeping cat.
‘Bulls eye!’ Shane patted Reggie on the back. ‘I have cancer and the doctor says that it is progressing quite fast. By the time I go back home it will basically be useless.’
‘I’m sorry.’ Reggie turned and jumped onto a wooden fence. ‘Is there no cure?’
‘I tried many medicines back home.’
‘There is no cure for this, just a painful treatment.’
‘Have you tried a witch doctor?’
‘Witch doctor.’ Reggie stuck out a finger towards the back of the village. ‘We have one in our village and he performs miracles.’
‘I don’t know. I don’t believe in these things.’
Reggie frowned. ‘I thought you want to try everything.’
‘Yes I do.’ Shane kicked the fence. ‘Why are you helping me?’
‘Filipinos are known to be hospitable.’ Reggie grinned and remembered the words that father spoke everyday since he was a boy. ‘But you have to do one thing while you are here.’
‘Stay away from my sister.’ Reggie paused. ‘Or any child for that matter.’
‘I don’t trust you.’
‘I am not a molester or kidnapper you know. I am sick.’
‘I know you are sick.’ Very sick thought Reggie.
‘But you don’t trust me.’
‘But I trust you.’ Shane tapped Reggie’s shoulder.
Reggie and Shane walked towards the back of the village.
‘Shouldn’t we tell your parents?’ Shane asked.
‘No they are sleeping and we will be back in time for dinner.’
They walk through the throngs of children. The scenery of houses thinned away as thick foliage of trees and shrubs appeared. The wide dusty road narrowed into a pebbled winding path.
Shane raced behind Reggie. ‘What will he do to me?’
‘He will pull out the disease.’
‘Trust me.’ Reggie smiled. ‘When he is through you will be perfectly fine.’ The sickness will be gone thought Reggie.
Their pace quickened and they started a light jog.
A small hut appeared on the horizon and there were people seated on the benches. It was a family of four waiting for their turn to be healed.
‘We have to wait.’
‘How long?’ Shane asked.
‘After this family it would be our turn.’
They waited. The next family walked in. An old woman was by helped by two younger men as she took slow steps into the little hut.
‘Does this really work?’
‘All the time.’
Shane frowned. ‘I have cancer.’
Reggie wrapped his arms around Shane’s drooped shoulder. ‘He can cure any sickness.’ Reggie snickered at his last statement.
Moments later the old woman was helped by her family outside the hut and she rubbed her stomach.
‘Wait for a minute.’ Reggie walked into the hut.
Shane danced on the balls of his feet. His heart pumped and excitement filled him. Could it really be true he thought. ‘Could I be finally cured?’
Reggie reappeared. ‘Do you have any money?’
‘How much do you need?’
‘Just a donation’
Shane ruffles through his wallet.
‘A large donation.’
‘How much is a large donation?’
Reggie whistled. ‘Hmmm…I don’t know. If this is a rare sickness, then how much do you really want to get better?’
Shane pulled out all of the large bills from his wallet and handed it to Reggie.
‘Wow! This is a lot.’
‘If he can cure me then I don’t mind.’
Reggie rubbed his fingers along the bills. ‘I pray that you get rid of the sickness.’
The two men walk in and there was a man standing behind a counter. The man wore a loose blanket over his shoulders that were designed with dark stripes. There was a wooden stick leaned against the wall to his right.
A table was propped up in the middle. It was a simple operating table made out of wood. The dark corners gave a sense of foreboding yet the gentle smile on the whimsical man calmed Shane down.
‘Take off your shirt and lie down on the table.’ The old man shook a freshly washed basin and drops of water sprayed on the wooden table.
Shane pulled off his shirt and sat down on the wooden table. He turned and slowly lowered his back on the table. The splinters stuck out and pierced his back. He wriggled around in discomfort until the old man walked into his vision.
‘Shut your eyes.’ Reggie covered the eyes of Shane.
Shane shut his eyes and felt the old wrinkly hands of the witch doctor rub his stomach. The feeling was very light and the fingers were cold. Shane felt the gentle rubbing push hard into his skin. Shane felt the fingers split into ten bony rods. The fingers twisted and churned his insides.
Shane opened his eyes and watched the old man raising his hand and slamming the steel basin on his side. Little firm red spheres clanged in the basin. ‘Ouch! This hurts.’
‘Calm down Shane. The doctor found your sickness and he is removing it.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes. It is deep inside but he is removing them. Close your eyes and relax.’
Shane hears the slamming of the basin again. The third set of churning wrenched Shane’s inside even more and he cannot help but bite his lip as he bore the pain. ‘Is it over?’
‘The sickness has been removed. You may open your eyes now.’
Shane reached down and felt the smooth sticky liquid around his stomach. He looked over to the basin and noticed six round spheres covered in blood.
‘Is that my blood?’
‘Where is the incision?’
‘The cut! There is no wound.’
‘Trust the doctor. He removed your sickness.’
‘Did he really remove my cancer?’
‘Yes he did. He cured your cancer.’ Reggie pushed Shane back on the table. ‘But there is one more sickness he has to cure you of.’
‘Another sickness?’ Shane asked.
The old man passed a knife to Reggie.
‘I don’t have any other sickness!’ Shane tried to push himself up but Reggie and the old man pushed him back down.
‘This is worse than your cancer.’ Reggie waved the knife under the hanging yellow bulb. ‘The doctor found it hidden underneath all of your cancer.’
‘What are you talking about Reggie?’
‘Many western men were cured here of that sickness and the witch doctor has asked me to help him.’
‘What are you doing with that knife Reggie?’
‘You were asking about a cut right Shane?’
‘Ye…yes.’ Shane’s voice trembled as he craned his neck upwards.
‘We can’t pull the sickness out. We have to cut it out.’
‘Cut it out?!? What are you talking about?!? What sickness are you talking about?!?’
‘Your perverted love of children.’
‘What?!? Wait! Wait!’ Shane felt the bony hand of the old man covering his mouth and Shane struggled to pull the bony hand away from his mouth.
‘Goodbye Shane.’ Reggie raised the knife and thrusted it into the diaphragm of Shane.
Shane released a muffled scream and kicked in the air.
Reggie twisted the knife and carved a path down Shane’s navel.
Shane’s body arched his body and the life had left his body. His hands released the grip on the old man and his legs laid flat on the wooden table.
Reggie pulled out the knife and whispered close to Shane’s ear. ‘The sickness is gone.’