Helen of Troy is in my taxi

Rolf Potts discovers the ambiguity of language and love in the Philippines.

Published March 19, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

The most distinctive thing about a taxi ride through central Manila is that the traffic moves with the same mind-numbing tedium usually reserved for imperceptible acts of nature. Noting one's progress through the smog-browned streets around Rizal Park carries all the hair-raising thrill of watching the Big Dipper move around the North Star, or observing the growth-rate of Zoysia grass.

Thus, I was nearly asleep in the sweetly rotten, sticky-cool narcotic haze of my taxi's rattling air-conditioning when the driver jolted me to my senses by speaking to me for the first time in our 20-minute ride.

"Perhaps, sir, you would like a beautiful girl to ride in this taxi with you."

Having spent the previous day walking around Manila's international Ermita district, I knew that Philippine English is rarely meant to be taken at face value. In Ermita, "Would you like to buy a newspaper?" actually means "I found this newspaper in the gutter, and I am going to use it to cover my hands while I fish around for your wallet." In Ermita, "I want to be your friend and show you my city" actually means "I want to spend 20 minutes taking you to a cash machine you could have found in two, then demand a $5 tip." Similarly, "Would you like to meet a beautiful girl?" generally means "You look like someone who might pay money to have sex with a drug addict."

My mind fumbled for the best way to shoot down my driver's proposition. "Um, I'm really in a hurry to get to the airport," I told him.

"I think she is going to the airport also," he said. Before I could reply, the driver threw open his door and jumped out of the taxi. Baffled, I sat in the cab for a full 20 seconds, nervously cataloging in my mind all the horrible, tiresome things that were about to happen. When the driver came back and opened up the back-seat door across from me, I barely had the courage to look at him. "Rosalia is a nice computer student from San Jose University," he said, grinning. "She is very happy you want to pay for her ride to the airport."

I was an instant from slipping out the other door and escaping into the hot Manila morning when a shy-eyed young Filipina stepped into the cab, her arms full of bags and packages. I stopped short. Rosalia was an angelic vision of gentle dark eyes, pale smooth arms, long curved eyelashes and straight-backed poise. My skepticism wavered. This girl was too demure, too refined to be on the make. Suddenly chivalrous, I helped Rosalia arrange her bags. She wordlessly offered me a stick of gum, and I accepted it with meek reverence. I could just make out that her hair smelled like flowers.

I sat speechless as the driver got back in behind the wheel and we resumed our standstill. For the first time since arriving in Manila, a "beautiful girl" was actually a beautiful girl.

Since even the most grizzled atheist would have no choice but to take this scenario as proof of God's providence, I resolved to charm Rosalia. Unfortunately, I have always been much better at being interesting than being charming. Where, for instance, a charm-savvy guy would take the opportunity to tell a girl that she has beautiful eyes, I always manage to ask a girl about her hobbies, make droll observations about disco music or point out the house where Doc Holliday slept in 1871.

Gathering my wits, I wooed Rosalia for the entirety of our 30-minute creep to the airport. Reasoning that this might be my last chance at sharing a cab with a beautiful stranger in a foreign country, I flattered her and told her jokes and demanded her opinion on everything. I made her blush on three separate occasions, which I took to be a good sign. When we got out of the cab, I gave the driver a generous tip, then helped Rosalia with her bags. She thanked me for my kindness and told me to call her if I ever visited her hometown.

At this point, all I really knew about her was that she lived on the central Visayan island of Cebu, liked Carpenters' songs and didn't know how to swim. Nonetheless, I suddenly found myself saying, "I'm headed for Cebu City right now!" -- which actually meant "I'm headed to Boracay right now, but how hard can it be to change a plane ticket!"

I went up to the Philippines Airlines office and had things squared away in 10 minutes. My flight to Cebu was later than Rosalia's, but I figured this would allow me some time alone to let things sink in. Wanting to be somewhat levelheaded about what I was doing, I resolved to put all romantic scenarios out of my mind until I landed in Cebu and got my bearings. Complimentary copies of the Philippine Star were available in the waiting lounge, so I grabbed a newspaper and took a seat.

Over the years, countless facets of American pop culture have insinuated themselves into Philippine life. Irony is not one of them. The lead story in the airport-issued newspaper was about a horrific plane crash in the Visayas. "Civilian searchers recounted seeing identifiable body parts," the article read, "including arms, legs, pieces of brain, eyeballs and severed heads, hanging from branches and scattered on the ground ..." Abandoning the Philippine Star in mid-sentence, I returned to obsessing on my impending romance with lovely Rosalia.

By the time I had landed in Cebu and took a jeepney to the Osmena Boulevard hotel district, I'd marked up my Cebu City tourist map like it was a Pittsburgh Steelers playbook, circling parks and markets, restaurants and beaches, plazas and scenic overlooks. I was completely ready for a day of classical romance in the crowded humidity of this strange new city. I checked into a pension house overlooking the circular Old World streets of Fuente Osmena, called Rosalia at her home, proposed a grand picnic date the following afternoon and went to bed early.

The next day, I elected to walk the two miles from Feunte Osmena to downtown Cebu City. Though crowded and urban, Cebu is a remarkably slow-paced city of crumbling buildings, peeling paint, thatch huts, pollution, friendly strangers, worn-down cathedrals, jeepneys, free-roaming chickens and cats without tails. Every bank and business of any size had uniformed guards with pump shotguns patrolling the front doors. Every square-inch of outdoor wall-space was covered with Catholic images or political posters. I made my way into the Carbon Market -- which on the tourist map looks like a quaint place to barter, but in reality is a dank, filthy conglomeration of rotting fruit, garbage, insects and rickety vending stands. I ultimately gave up looking for picnic supplies amid the swarms of flies and stocked up on food at a convenience store. I proceeded to Independence Plaza, cleared out a picnic space under a tree and waited for Rosalia to show up.

And waited.

After an hour of sitting and peering at everyone who walked past, I had received countless propositions of friendship, discount offers on shell jewelry and chances to meet "beautiful girls" -- but no sign of Rosalia. I went to a phone booth and called her number. Her brother Luis answered.

"Rosalia says she is sorry she cannot meet you," he said.

"Why? What happened?"

"She had to go and talk to Joseph. But she says you are very handsome and kind."

"Can she meet me later?" I asked, wondering who this Joseph character was.

"Are you a rich man?"

The question seemed irrelevant, but -- not up for explaining the social intricacies of the American middle class -- I decided to keep things simple and lie. "Of course."

"Well then, why do you want to meet Rosalia at the Plaza Independencia? That place is for poor people."

I made a mental note to burn my tourist map of Cebu once I got a free moment. "What place is better?"

"Many places are better. Where is your hotel?"

"Near the Fuente Osmena."

"Rich people don't stay near the Fuente Osmena."

This was getting me nowhere, so I decided to press the issue before Luis asked me to fax him a bank statement. "Does Rosalia want to meet me later?"

"Of course. You are very handsome and kind. And rich. She said she wants to meet you tomorrow."

I ate the entire picnic lunch by myself, spent a couple of uninspired tourist hours downtown, then headed back to my pension house. As I was letting myself into my room, a Canadian in his 40s who introduced himself as Dale informed me that there was a sky-lounge on the roof of the pension house. "It's where everyone goes to get oiled up before they hit the bars," he said.

Dale was plenty oiled by the time I'd showered and gone up to join him in the sky-lounge. "Why do they always say, 'Hey Joe?'" he demanded of me, alluding to the Philippine tradition of informally calling all white men "Joe." "Don't they know there's more Aussies and Norwegians coming here than Americans? This country needs to get its white people straight."

From the top of the pension house I could see the sun setting in shades of orange over the rooftops of Cebu. Tiny lizards raced around on the sky-lounge walls. Dale took a bottle of Tanduay from a sports bag and filled up half a tall glass with the purplish rum. "I'm the bartender up here, and you look like a strong young guy who doesn't need to be sober right now." Dale pushed the glass over toward me. "What brings you to Cebu?"

"A woman."

"Just one?" he laughed. "About a thousand women brought me here." Dale looked down at my rum, then over at my notebook. "Why aren't you drinking? You doing homework or something?"

"No, this is my journal. I write down things that happen to me."

Dale swayed in his chair and grabbed me by the arm. "I want you to write about me. Do it now!"

I opened my journal.

"Say I made good money. Say that ambition isn't worth the trouble because the only thing that happens is you get successful at something nobody else cares about."

I started to write this down.

"No, shut up!" Dale yelled. "Don't write about me. I'm drunk. Write down that we need a war, so everyone can have jobs."

I wrote this down.

"Do you know Anna?" he asked. "Because she's hot."

"I don't live here. I've only been here for a day."

"Do you know Laura? She doesn't live here, either. She's hot."

"I don't think I know her."

"You don't want to; she's a bitch." Dale leaned in toward me. "Women want to be lied to. That makes them feel good, because they'd rather feel good than know the truth. Then they find out the truth -- and it isn't a problem that you lied because they just get mad, and that makes them feel good, too. They don't care what they feel as long as they feel something."

Dale left the table to make the rounds among the other expatriates in the sky-lounge. None of them looked younger than 40, and they all talked about their impending trip to the neighborhood go-go bars. Still under the transcendent spell of my Manila taxi ride, I declined the offer to join them and went to bed early for the second night in a row.

The following morning, I took a jeepney to Mactan Island, where Ferdinand Magellan met his death in 1521 at the hands of a Cebuano chieftain. Still smarting from my own credulous assessment of the locals, I spent a good part of the day scouring the beach-side avenues for something that looked upscale. At dusk, I settled for a swanky hotel lounge near the airport. After drinking a $3 cup of instant coffee, I gathered up my courage and went to the phone booths. Luis answered again.

"Rosalia will meet you later," he said.

"How much later?"

"After she is done talking to Joseph."

I decided to clarify. "Who's this Joseph?"

"He is the man that Rosalia will marry." I must have been silent for a full 10 beats before Luis spoke again. "He is very rich, but he is not handsome."

Two hours later, I found myself back up on the roof of my pension house. Dale was just as drunk as the night before, only this time he was sitting with a gray-haired fellow who wore a mesh ballcap and flip-flop sandals. "Leo here is from Texas," Dale told me. "He's 67 years old, and he's here in the Philippines waiting to die."

Leo guffawed and slugged Dale in the shoulder. "We'll see who's dead when I kick your Canuck ass from here to breakfast, and you have to call my room in the morning to talk to your girlfriend."

"Leo spends all his time at the bars," Dale said. "The only thing he knows about Filipino culture is how to take a miniskirt off a bar girl. The old bastard may as well be living in Texas."

"What's wrong with Texas?!" Leo exclaimed.

After an hour of this, I felt like I, too, was waiting there to die.

I was on the first plane for Boracay the next day.

By Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts' Vagabonding column appears every other Tuesday in Salon Travel. For more columns by Potts, visit his column archive.

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