“Do you need a ride?” asked a sun-baked man wearing a faded shirt and jeans. He had suddenly approached me on the ordinary bus bound for Sibonga, a southern municipality in Cebu. I had to ask him to repeat what he said a few times, before, finally, we understood each other, between his limited Tagalog and my even more limited Cebuano. He said he had heard me say my destination to the bus conductor, and would I like a ride when we reach Sibonga? I eyed him warily. I was, after all, a woman traveling alone.
I was on my fourth week of backpacking around Visayas, fulfilling a long-held childhood dream of long-term travel. For my trip’s Cebu leg, I had planned to go to Sibonga to visit Simala Shrine, the church reputed to have granted thousands of prayers, cured illnesses, and facilitated other miracles. I was more interested in the shrine’s unusual architecture, though, which to me looked like a royal palace. On the other hand, petitioning would not hurt. Whether it be in a Catholic church, a Buddhist or Hindu temple, or any sacred place I visit on my travels, I do not hesitate to make prayer requests, especially when encouraged by locals.
But first I had to find a place to stay. An Internet search came up with no budget accommodations near Simala. If I could not find one fit for my backpacker budget, my plan was to go to the next town.
Now I looked at the local who approached me and listened carefully to my gut feel. My suspicion dissolved and I said yes, even mentioning to him my accommodation concern. The local, whose name I found out later was Ben, said he knew just the place. Once we got off at Sibonga’s bus stop, I rode his habal-habal (motorbike) and he took me to a simple white bungalow where I paid P300 for a dorm bed in a clean room.
The caretaker, knowing I was traveling alone, invited me to join her and her family for dinner. I ate a meal of rice and ngohiong (a fried roll of bamboo shoots). And, upon knowing that I did not eat red meat or chicken, the family even took pains to buy fresh fish and cook it the next day.
Being used to eating three meals a day and staying with my family in Manila, during my Visayas trip I slowly began to appreciate those taken-for-granted meals and the guarantee of a place to sleep in. Here (and anywhere, I realized much later), I was not entitled to anything, but I was continuously surprised and humbled by the generosity of locals who welcomed me to their homes and went out of their way in preparing meals for me. When I got home after seven weeks, all food was tastier and my bed softer and warmer.
There were meals during my trip that even moved me to tears – once, when the humble workmen of the mangrove park in Kalibo immediately offered to share their lunch when they saw I had none (I had planned to buy food in the park, only to find out I had to order ahead), and another, when a local I just met in Capiz climbed a coconut tree to get a coconut for me. Few meals tasted as delicious.
During my Sibonga visit, Ben took me to Simala Shrine and to places he said I should see, like the port, with its foaming white waters and ships bound for Zamboanga City. Though we did not talk much because of the language barrier, his silent presence was assuring. At the end of his informal tour, he refused to name his price and insisted that the amount was up to me. I paid more than what he must have expected, based on the surprise in his eyes.
In retrospect, though, I realize that he had given me far more than I had paid for. Jaded and weary from dubious characters like scammers in Manila and in some of my travels, Ben helped me find my faith in people again. Through him – and later, through other people I met during my trip – I became more confident relying on my intuition when interacting with strangers, especially where logic and reasoning could not paint a complete picture. Several months and trips later, even encounters with sketchy characters would not diminish my restored faith in people in general.
My Visayas trip was a humbling journey that changed me forever, in ways that even now I am still coming to understand.
It is difficult to pinpoint which particular moment of the trip changed me; rather, it was a culmination of small moments, like a meal or a kind word from a stranger, that I would only begin to notice their effect towards the end of my trip, and see more clearly months later.
But, when I climbed up Simala Shrine, I had one of my first glimpses.
Indeed, Simala awed me with its wedding cake-tiered towers and winding stairways, and inspired me with its thank you letters and accompanying objects displayed in glass cases: crutches of paralyzed patients who were able to walk again, test results of terminally ill patients who got well, and pictures of students who graduated or passed the board exams against all odds.
What I did not expect, though, was my own miracle. As I got in line for prayer requests, I realized that, for the first time, I had nothing to ask for. I was blessed with the locals’ overwhelming hospitality and the meals they prepare with much love, I had a warm bed to sleep in every day of my trip (even in this place where I did not expect one), a body fit enough to continue my adventure, and a home and a family to return to. What else do I need? And so, I said the only prayer I then felt to be true: “Thank you.”
This is my entry which made it among the Top Ten of the WeGo “Your Life-Changing Travel Story” writing contest. WeGo’s Facebook post on my entry here.