One foot in front of the other. Should be easy. But I was running through the airport now, with my goliath backpack strapped behind me and my barely zipable daypack buckled in front. The two overburdened bags hopped and clapped in asynchronous time like some leftover machine from the industrial revolution, with me in between doing the work. I lumbered behind Gary, the airport worker who was showing us to our gate, who shuffled lightly on the thin rails of his frame. I looked back, past a cheekful of nylon and girth, and saw Dan in his wheelchair, packs piled from lap to jaw, gliding through knots of would-be passengers at the hands of his attendant. “Hurry, hurry” Gary kept saying and I stepped on the gas but I think I had her maxed out. He pulled ahead and Dan was getting hung up on suitcases and sandaled feet, and I waddled somewhere in the middle. Gary reached the security line and said something to the screener, who pushed aside the entire line and flagged us in. I coasted in on fumes and started to unbuckle and a moment later Dan rolled up and was excavated from his bags. He stood up from his chair and stepped through the metal detector. I slung change and who knows what into the dish and stepped through. No beeps.
For once, the scheme worked. Dan was offered a wheelchair because of his portable oxygen condenser, which he used when his lungs had been particularly taxed by activity. Though he was quite mobile, the unit was a bit heavy and a wheelchair was a ticket to the front of any line. But at check-in, the little device had raised some bureaucratic red flags. We were three supervisors deep and three minutes late for boarding before we got our tickets scribbled on.
Dan’s health problems were paying off at last. We couldn’t check any bags after our delay so we had them all here with us, but we swiftly moved through the line and Gary stacked bags on top of Dan and I started buckling together my bags, except my daypack was hung up over there by a growing ring of screeners and a commotion. Finally someone pushed my bag to me like they were chaperoning it. And finally, I understood that word they all kept repeating. Knife.
But I didn’t have a knife. That was in my…oh, here it is.
Christmas had been a couple weeks ago and my family tried to stock me up on some travel supplies. I got more toiletry kits than made sense to carry (that is, one), and luggage tags and sketchbooks and mosquito nets. And a DeWalt multitool from my sister. It was heavy and solid and I had actually never owned a multitool before but quite happy to join the club. With the amount of painting gear I had the tool would certainly come in handy when some screw loosened or some nut unwound. But I hadn’t used it yet and now I found myself with one more knife than I was allowed to carry on the plane (none).
I looked around, as though there was a sign that would tell me how to solve my problem but all I saw were clocks. So the only answer that sprang to mind was, “well I guess I’ll throw this away.” I started to walk over to a can but Gary read my tizzied dilemma. He offered to hold onto it for me, and gave me his phone number to call him when I flew back into the Manila airport. From where I was under a heap of stress and urgency, like Dan under his stack of bags and machines, I was stunned. I certainly couldn’t imagine any of the people who barked me though O’Hare or LAX doing that. I wrote the number on the back of my sketchbook and we restarted our silly jog to the other end of the airport, running to be the last two sweaty, huffing tourists on the plane.
The plane brought us to another island in the Philippines but it could have been another world. In Palawan the yellow air was static and heavy and full of the sound of beaching waves. The sun was hot and high and touched absolutely everything. Walking through the airport the spaces were smaller and quainter but somehow more open. And leaving the airport we came to a line of waiting vehicles of every shape and wheel tally, ready to take the tourists to their beachside hotels. We took a cab into town and rented a car.
We stayed the first night on the edge of town in a nice little hotel on a beach of mangroves. We drank mango shakes and beer all night, spent dawn wading 600 yards through ankle deep low tide to watch the sun rise over the Sulu Sea. Then we spent another day here just to step on the skirt hem of whatever pace remained from our former lives, just to relax and recalibrate our to rhythms to those pulsing waves.
Dan had met the groundskeeper here years ago. Jules was a quiet, taut man, with an incidental haircut and an unchanging minimum of expression. His shoulders sat too high and too far forward and told you that he didn’t stay still long. He obliged us by climbing a tree and cutting down two coconuts, two boku, and hacked them open, added a straw and some skewered fruit, and served them on a plate. When we drank all the warm, sweet milk, he cut them in half and we scooped and ate the thin white flesh. Dan gave him a tip, 1000 pesos or about $20, which was about a weeks wages for him.
I was struck by how easy it was to make a difference in someone’s life. With just an investment in time and space, and the interest of a favorable exchange rate, I could use a little to affect a lot. While I wrestled with the idea of treating only symptoms, I took comfort in the idea that I had something genuine and valuable to share even with people to whom I was strange.
Next in Part 2: The Tagbanua Tribe