From the beginning we seemed to be comfortable with each other, discovering each other. I’m not sure if she had a plan for discovery but I knew I was searching for more than Discovery Suites Hotel. I had come to Philippines to find her, but I also knew this was an adventure with many dimensions. At a minimum I wanted to know as much as I could about this familiar and yet very foreign country. I wanted to play tourist but also see the real country, the masses, not just the monuments; to experience the culture difference, not just be a voyeur. I wanted to prove Emily wrong.
Carmen had let me know that on Sunday her church in Cavite was having its Christmas Party and she wanted to be there to celebrate. I wanted that for her of course, but I also knew this was an important part of my discovery of her, and of the real Philippines. Suffice it to say the two-hour drive to make a 30 minute trip was an eye-opener, through countryside and congested towns, a two lane highway littered with dogs and tricycles and shops and shanties butted up to the edge of the road. Congestion and culture shock caused this traveler to become uncharacteristically quiet. Carmen must have picked up on my vibes as she held my hand tighter and stopped her chatter, except to give the driver instructions in Tagalog. I had to confess to myself I was completely lost and disoriented; I had to put my trust in this woman and our driver. Is this how kidnapping and ransom demands happen in this part of the world? We arrived at the church, though too late for the actual service. And I was faced with yet another surprise. I knew this was not going to be a Catholic cathedral, as I had first imagined back in Canada. Carmen’s born-again Christian congregation is not defined by soaring spires and flying buttresses; the church building was little more than a long and narrow warehouse squeezed in between the continuous row of small residences. Carmen took me by the hand and led me into the vestibule, and into the small hall. The MC of the event may have stumbled a bit at my arrival; certainly all eyes were on me, the adults discretely, the kids wide-eyed. One young lady kept looking my way and she certainly kept catching my eye. It occurred to me she looked like a young Carmen. I discreetly whispered in Carmen’s ear, inquiring who the girl was: Carmen’s great niece, 17 years old. I couldn’t help wondering what might have been happening in Carmen’s life when she was merely 17, and what was yet to happen to this young reincarnation.
After the community lunch the happy crowd began to disperse. Carmen lead me down a lane and around the block and shortly we arrived at her house. Her neighbours and friends all waved at her, and no doubt examined me closely. Carmen’s house was a small story-and-a-half with an open outdoor kitchen to one side, her cat and some chickens darting amongst laundry pails. We stepped inside and toured the downstairs rooms; Carmen didn’t invite me to her own bedroom. It was dark inside and I soon discovered Carmen did not have any power as she had been disconnected by the local utility. This explained why she spent the nights at her sister’s house. The financial desperation Carmen faced was now taking on a much more dramatic spectre, and sharp contrast to the glamorous woman who emerged each day from that gigantic bag in the hotel was stark.
After we had recovered from our Sunday trip to Cavite[*]I told Carmen I didn’t want to spend my entire visit to Manila in the hotel and shopping at The Podium. She was quite content to do just that but after a day at the Gym/Spa in the hotel, I asked the helpful staff at the Discovery Hotel to locate a tour bus for us. Our driver said he would take us to 3 or 4 historical highlights of Manila – the colonial Spanish quarter (Intramuros) including the President’s Palace, Fort Santiago and Manila Cathedral, and Hotel Manila, home to General MacArthur for half a dozen years – but also to some of the more ‘challenging’ areas of the city. As it turned out, these disturbing discoveries left my mind in more confusion than clarity, much like Ms. Espino herself.