While on duty, the security guards play pool at the bars, sing at the karaoke stalls, and sleep on the sidewalks.
An employee from the chicken joint next door sits on the pool table, while the bar workers line up the balls into a tight triangle. Then an Aussie comes, challenges their game, and moves about making purposeful strikes, his limbs as taut as a stage dancer. He makes every pocket; it seems that he actually wants to win the game.
At the karaoke bar an American lieutenant sits with a fat cigar between his lips. He yells at two girls who are sitting with other men: “Why don’t you two come join me? Come on!” I leave to watch a cover band, and when I return the girls are sitting alone, having rejected all the amorous proposals that the lieutenant had to offer. They talk to me sincerely, assuming I’m different perhaps because of my brown skin and youth. We chat through the night. The girls complain about their Filipino boyfriends and I feel like I am one of them, perhaps because of my brown skin and youth. And all the while I wonder if this is all misdirection, some sleight of hand–that I gain some cultural capital here, some pictures there, and if it all goes wrong, I can claim traveler’s innocence to all of it. They treat me like one of them because I look like them, and it is tempting, to play the part.
In Cebu’s Colon slums space begins to collapse. Distinctions fold into one another and borders lose all meaning. There is a group of tanktopped men carving wooden doors, while just near them children dive into drainage gutters like slip and slides. Roosters leap into every workspace, followed my mangy dogs with sagged breasts. Everywhere is the smell of rancid fruit. As a traveler I see only death and decay, yet here is life more full, more real and more fertile than those antiseptic, air-conditioned malls that make the hinterland of the slums.
Basketball courts, industrial work, carpentry, business, retail, and residences all in the same space. No demarcations seem to exist. What is an area for sleeping is also one for cockfights, for stray cats, for jewelry stalls and for paint mixers. There seems to be no ‘place’ for things to be, because nothing has its place. It all seems to flow through each other like cigarette smoke dissipating into a heavy fog.
Here, with the ‘terrorists’ of Mindanao still making front-page news, so many travelers are paranoid of Muslims. A British man tries to convince me that Obama is part of a world-wide take-over. He wears a cross, and tells me that Islam is the only imperial religion. He tells me this in Cebu, the origin of Catholicism in the Philippines. I tell him that if there is a separation of church and state, it shouldn’t matter what the president subscribes to. “Church and State?” he responds gaily, “you mean church and mosque!”
The homosexuals I meet in Cebu identify with this term, ‘homosexual,’ rather than queer or gay. The one who introduces me to the group spends fifteen minutes ranting about the HIV signs posted around the bars and clubs, which describe the disease as something you can inhale if you go too close to a homosexual. She discloses her participation in nativist groups meant to put an end to HIV ignorance and arrogance. Sitting across from me is Patrick, a bioethicist who was invited to attend Columbia University, but refused to go to the very country that colonized his people. He tells me about his work with Cambodia sex workers, how they have become experimental bodies for medical corporations, and that these corporations refuse to even acknowledge the side-effects of their drugs when these anonymous bodies begin to suffer. Patrick believes in micro-finance, if only for the greater role it grants to women.
In the city’s nightlife I find a constant group of travelers, all in their 30s, all in some mode of escape. Hammond, an ex-British soldier, has come to Cebu to escape credit card debt, taking advantage of a law that erases all debt if the individual is out of reach for six years. He returns to Britain once every year to destroy the piles of letters from collection agencies. Rich is from the United States, and his wife died of brain cancer after the insurance companies refused to pay for the MRIs that would have proven she had a serious illness, which would have been bad news for the companies. He left the U.S. in bitterness. John, the third of the group, is half-Japanese, and lost his job in the recession. Unable to live in L.A. on the meager unemployment, he moved to Mexico where his dollars were valuable enough to survive on. Now he runs a pearl business, makes a great deal of money, and refuses to ever go back to a country that abandoned him when he was in need.
Rich’s girlfriend starts a polemic against the cover band’s version of a Lady Gaga song. I ask if she likes Beyonce, and she says “she is good, but I don’t like her. I don’t like black.”
The crowd of westerners peer in, someone finally asks: “Why?”
“I don’t like,” she says, perhaps oblivious to the sudden interest of the group. “I don’t know, just Filipina, don’t like black.”
This sets off a grand inquisition. Suddenly we want to know all of her prejudices, all those primitive vices that burden the pinays. Perhaps we ask too zealously, waiting for her to reveal how backwards and racist her people are, waiting for her to insist on her own prejudices, waiting for her to confirm our own prejudices about her. When it is over we feel justified and spend the rest of the night trying to quiet down the noisome voices that declare, as always, that she might just be telling us what we want to hear.