I don’t know what brought me back here. It certainly wasn’t the smell of soiled diapers from freshly chopped durian fruit. That much I know. But here I am, my feet smacking against the pavement as I hurry towards the barrio once again. It’s as if an invisible tether were strung between me and these people. I needed to know more. I longed to understand their culture. I knew that it was in this place where I would find my answers. Not neck deep in some textbook. This time I came prepared. As the sun beat down fiercely in the morning sky, my pockets jingled full of pesos ready to be spent. “BALUT!” a man shouted and I marched up to him with every bit of courage that I could muster. He blinked at me for a moment before lifting a towel off the basket holding a large bunch of fertilized duck eggs. Placing several coins in his hand, he paused, and watched me suddenly break the top off of the egg, suck the sabaw (or soupy broth) from the egg and then eat it whole without so much as turning a single shade of green. Slowly his lips curled upwards into a grin. “Salamat po! (Thank you!)” I called hurrying off, as he no doubt marveled in witnessing a puti who seemed to love balut.
Onward I went, now blending in more easily with the people hurrying to and from their destinations. The rumble of the traffic just by my side kept me on high alert, but otherwise I was beginning to find the rhythm in the mayhem. There was a certain musical element to the scraping of plastic chairs at the tiny, eatery nooks that dotted the roads. There was a deep chug from the engines of the jeepneys that was unique to this part of the world. I paused for a moment and found myself smiling, as I took it all in. It was then that I noticed an older woman waving at me to come over to her stall. I saw pots cooking with fresh food, and a vat of freshly prepared rice, waiting to be sold. She smiled at me gesturing to her dishes. <Oh what the hell….> I thought, <Let’s do this>. When it comes to food, I’ve always been an adventurous eater. “I’ll have… that one” I pointed. It was a meaty dish, coated in a thin, almost glaze-like sauce. Shredded bits of meat poked up above the surface and I saw a sprinkle of ground black pepper, and Thai red chilies folded throughout the dish. “Dinakdakan” she said, passing me the Styrofoam plate, complete with rice. I handed her the pesos and sat down to have my breakfast.
“You’re brave” a smooth, male voice said. I looked up seeing a man, about my age with a bright grin on his face against the blinding sunlight. Squinting, I watched him sit down at a chair next to me. My eyes trailed over his body, noticing the U.P. shirt he was wearing. “You go to Los banos?” I asked him curiously, and he nodded. “I’m an Engineering student” he quipped, “And you?”. His English was so good and suddenly I blurted out telling him so. He laughed in a mixture of both amusement and affection. “You do realize that the schools here begin teaching us in English, right?” he teased. My cheeks blushed as I smiled, and he waved a hand dismissing my embarrassment. As if taking the lead like a natural dominant he quickly moved the conversation along. “So, what brings you here?” he asked more curiously. I took a deep breath and hesitated. How does one explain their desire to help an entire group of poor people? How do you begin to suggest that somewhere deep inside your core, you know without a shadow of a doubt, that what you’re meant to do with your life is to help people?
Sensing my hesitation, he gave me a tender grin. “Don’t worry about it. My apologies. I shouldn’t pry” he added. “No, no!” I blurted out, a bit more awkwardly then I had hoped, “it’s just… well….”. I recalled to him my moment in the barrio the other day. As I began to talk to him, his dark eyes locked with mine and pulled me with incredible force. I could tell he was observant. He hung onto my every detail. He nodded at the appropriate moments and tilted his head ever so slightly, as if studying not only what I was saying, but the tone in which I was using. He was so…. Strong. As the conversation began to lull, he sat quiet for a moment before smirking. “Do you like pig hearts and brain?” he asked, pointing his plastic spoon at my plate. The entire time I had been eating the red onion and spicy meat dish hungrily. The flavors were fantastic and tasted like a warm plate of fried liver and onions—with more spice, of course. “This is brains?” I asked, watching his eyes twinkle. I think he expected me to gag upon the revelation of what exactly this mystery meat was. “And snout” he grinned and returned his plate. “Masarap! (It’s delicious!)” I teased and grinned to myself, admittedly flirting with my dining companion.
As we neared the end of our meal together, I began to get up to walk away. “Oi!” he called, and I turned around to face him. His eyebrows lifted in recognition and he pointed with his lips. “This way” he said smoothly, “if you want to find out what it’s like here… I’ll show you”. My heart pounded, and my lips felt dry. Licking them nervously, I nodded and began to follow him deeper on the road with anticipation. Down a small alley we went and I marveled watching the children play, without a care in the world, in the streets. Simple pieces of rubbish suddenly became tools for make believe. My hand reached out instinctively about to touch the man’s arm when I blushed realizing that I didn’t know his name (nor did he know mine). “Uh—” I said, my fingers lightly grazing his arm. Catching my eyes, he realized the same social faux pas and we both giggled. “I’m Sara…. By the way” I said blushing and smiling from ear to ear. “Jun” he winked and he followed my gaze over to where a small group of girls were playing. I watched as the girls shrieked with laughter each time one of them was able to knock down a small group of tin cans with their sandal.
Approaching them slowly, Jun said something to the girls gently as they gazed up at me with curious, suspicious eyes. “May I?” I asked, removing my own shoe. My bare feet stepped onto the warm earth and instantly I felt a deeper connection with the place. One of the girls nodded and I hurled my shoe at the cans, just missing the small tower. The girls laughed as one retrieved my shoe. “Let me show you how a pro does it” Jun teased, and threw his sneaker at the bunch. With a loud clang it hit the side of the metal shed just missing the cans. The girls howled with laughter and I couldn’t help but giggle, my fingers touching my lips. Pretending to be annoyed, Jun gazed over at me and smiled, giving a discreet wink as he slipped his shoe back on. Gesturing, I followed him between homes as he called out to seemingly neighbors and friends alike. “Do you know these people?” I asked, walking quickly to keep stride with him. His face lit up with pride as he puffed out his chest. “This is my barangay (neighborhood)” he said opening his arms, “welcome to my home!”…..