A Wonderful Night in Viriato
I was cycling at a pretty good pace (good for me, that is), and some rough calculations told me that I could make it to Calbayog before dark if I wanted to. However, the land had other ideas about that and it suddenly became much hillier and I was reduced to my usual stately crawl up long steep slopes. At that pace, reaching Calbyog seemed less and less likely. I had slept in my tent for the previous five nights, and it didn’t feel like it would be a hardship to do that again. In fact, the more I slept in my tent in the countryside, the more advantages I began to see in it over staying in cheap hotels in town. Whatever beautiful scenery the Philippines offers, its towns are not going to win any beauty contests.
Around four or four thirty, a man passed me on a motorcycle and gave me a friendly greeting. A short distance later, I saw that same man at the side of the road adjusting the huge bag of pig feed he had strapped to the back. I stopped to chat with him, and that is how I met Michael, my host for the night in the wonderful barangay of Viriato.
Michael told me right off the bat that he was a member of a cycling club. Some time ago, he had met two Filipino cyclists in the same way that he met me – just on the road in late afternoon and looking for a place to stay. He told these Filipinos just what he told me – that they probably couldn’t make it to Calbayog before dark and that there was no lodging in any of the nearby barangays. However, he had an extra room and he invited the Filipino cyclists to stay at his house.
This story had an amusing side to it in that he described one of these cyclists as depressed. This seemed to be a problem, and I resolved to be cheerful and upbeat around Michael. I didn’t want to make him feel that he was dealing with another depressed cyclist. Then, Michael said that this man was a Catholic and he was “oppressed.” Ah! I thought. That made more sense. He was oppressed, not depressed. I tried to get somer some details about just how this Catholic cyclist was oppressed on account of his relegion. It seemed an unusual thing to happen in the Philippines. Finally, the truth came out. We were dealing with a pronunciation problem. This Filipino cyclist was not depressed or oppressed. He was “a priest.” A Catholic priest. Michael pronounced the word priest with a short e, like “prest” instead of a long E. That led to the confusion.
I asked Michael about the possibility of camping somewhere in his barangay. He said that was possible and that I should look for him when I reached Viriato. I could just look for his motorcycle. Viriato was just a short distance away as it turned out, and Michael had not even unloaded his bag of pig feed by the time I caught up to him across the street from his house.
We chatted for a while. I think both of us were caught a little bit in the confines of a guest/host relationship. As a potential guest of his barangay and possibly in his home, I did not want to presume too much. As a potential host, Michael did not want to force anything on me and wanted me to feel at home and able to do anything I wanted. As such, we danced around the issue. I asked about the possibility of camping in Viriato. In fact, I thought I would prefer that as opposed to staying in Michael’s home. I had no idea what his home was like and once committed, I would have to deal with the consequences. If there was some empty land on which I could camp – preferably near the water – then I would still have options and a bit of freedom. Michael kept insisting that there was a place to camp. However, no matter how much I asked about this, he never managed to come up with any details about this place. He also kept using the expression “take a rest.” I assumed, therefore, that we were talking about my just taking a break in Viriato and then moving on to Calbayog. It was confusing, though, because Michael then insisted that it was impossible to get to Calbayog before dark. He had cycled there with his cycling group, and it taken them three hours – and that was with no touring gear or weight on the bike. I eventually figured out that when Michael said “take a rest” he meant spend the night. And when he said that there was a place to camp, he didn’t really mean it. There was no place to camp. The barangay was far too crowded and confined for that, as were most places, and what he was really saying was that I was free to stay the night in Viriato in his home. He just didn’t want to come right out and say that. It took a while, but we eventually got to that point. Michael, in response to my insisting on camping, said that I could put up my tent in his garage. That seemed ideal to me, but a closer inspection of this “garage” revealed that it wasn’t ideal. The garage was really just a lean-to type of shelter and it was occupied by a truck that looked like it wasn’t about to go anywhere, though Michael said it would have to be moved to make room for my tent. And the ground was littered with junk. Finally, it was about one foot away from the main road and would be exposed to heavy traffic all night long. We both looked at the depressing garage, and Michael found the courage to offer his home again. I then took him up on that, and I was very glad that I did. I pictured myself jammed into a small room with five other people and a few animals and that sort of thing. However, Michael’s house was quite spacious with a large living room, a dining room, a kitchen, a small office area, a bedroom and a bathroom all on the main floor. Then up a short flight of stairs, there was a large landing with some bookshelves with a bedroom on either side. One of the bedrooms was unoccupied, and that is what Michael was offering to me.
I was worried about imposing, particularly when I learned that Michael’s wife had just given birth a few days ago to his third daughter. I couldn’t imagine any woman in the world being overjoyed at such a time to learn that her friendly husband had brought home a giant sweaty stranger and offered him a place for the night. Plus, there was a concern over money. It’s not like I was a lost soul starving on the street. That I was stuck out in the middle of nowhere in an unfamiliar country with the sun going down was entirely by choice. I could have stayed at a beach resort in Allen if I’d chosen to. I could have hired any type of vehicle to whisk me away to Calbayog if I chose. I had the money to do any of those things. So I did not want to impose on Michael’s hospitality and cost him money – money which he probably sorely needed for his growing family.
Michael, however, brushed aside all my concerns. He mentioned the two Filipino cyclists again and how it was his pleasure to offer help to fellow cyclists. The room, I saw, was big and spacious and separate from the other rooms. It also became clear that Michael was cooking all the food for his family and that his wife would not suddenly be saddled with the task of coming up with a meal for the said giant sweaty cyclist. Michael was in charge of the meals, and he was so friendly and generous and open that I saw no problem in staying with him.
Michael’s daughters, to my surprise, also seemed to have no problem with the arrival of this strange guest. One of his daughters was a very pretty teenager. His other was much younger and a regular fireball of curiosity and friendliness. She latched onto me instantly and even held onto me as we walked around the barangay on an impromptu tour. Any shyness and reserve was all on my part, not on theirs, my never being very comfortable around children.
At this point in the day, I really was a sweaty wreck. Simply packing up my gear in Matnog was enough to soak my clothing in sweat and I never dried. I just got wetter and wetter as I fought my way through the ferry trip and then sat over my lunch in the eatery in Allen. The ride to that point had involved some pretty long climbs and the sun had done its work on me. I did not, in fact, at any time ham it up and start screeching, “I’m melting! I’m melting!” but I thought it a lot. Common sense dictated that after I finished unloading my luggage and carrying it up to my room for night, I would take a shower and put on clean, dry clothes. But I knew that it wouldn’t make a bit of difference. I’d feel clean and refreshed for two minutes. By the time I put on the new clothes, I’d be drenched with sweat again, so there was no point even making the attempt. So no sooner had I unloaded my bags than I set off with Michael for a tour of Viriato, my camera in hand.
The tour was actually my idea. I wanted to walk around the barangay while the sun was still up and I could take some pictures. The first stop was the obligatory waterfall. I wasn’t that thrilled when I heard about it. Every second town in the Philippines has a “famous” waterfall, and I imagined a long and tough hike to get there. To my delight, this waterfall was right inside the barangay. We walked just a hundred meters down the road and crossed a bridge. Then we turned right down a trail and the waterfall was right there just another fifty meters or so from the road. It was very picturesque and there was a big and deep pool at its base. Michael said it was high tide and the water might be a bit salty, but I resolved to go in for a dip as soon as possible. It looked too inviting to ignore.
From there, we walked across the main road and then down a small lane into the barangay itself. The barangay, like many that I had seen on Samar so far, was built around a river coming out of the interior. This river was quite small compared to most I had seen. Even at high tide, people were wading across it with the water only coming up to their waist. Rivers – in fact, any body of water – give shape and structure to a settlement, and I love to hang out in places like that. The water opens up the area and gives you perspective on where you are. People had built houses all along the banks of the river and on a spit of land that jutted out into the ocean. Boats were dotted here and there to make it even more interesting to look at.
Being a small barangay, Michael knew everyone we encountered. He seemed to be related to most of them, and I was introduced to a bewildering array of relations – cousins, uncles, and aunts. I took advantage of these times to take pictures of people in the narrow lanes. Michael’s daughters had come with us on the tour, and they laughed with delight when they saw the pictures of their friends on my camera. We walked all through the barangay and saw the municipal buildings and the schools and health clinics. We also met the various town councillors – one of whom had just been elected to his third or fourth term. I congratulated him and took his picture. I was eager to do some small thing for Michael and his daughters and I suggested that we stop for a cold drink somewhere – my treat. This small offering on my part had the unintended consequence of sending us on another complete tour of the barangay as no one had cold drinks. Now that I had voiced a desire for a cold drink, Michael was determined that I have one. The problem was that most of the little shops did not have any cold drinks. Electricity was expensive and they could not afford to run a refrigerator even if one was present. We went to store after store after store and worked our way through the entire barangay and back to the waterfront to a shop run by Michael’s aunt. Michael knew for sure that they had cold drinks – “She is my aunt!” The problem was that there was only one soft drink in the fridge – one small Sprite. The rest were strange health drinks that Michael said would not be suitable for children. Finally, Michael’s aunt produced a 1.5 liter bottle of cold Coke and four glasses. Perfect. There was even some small seating around the back right on the water and I got to play host in a small way by pouring out the Coke. I was worried about offering Coke to the two girls because Michael and I had talked a fair bit about the health problems in the Philippines. He himself had taken up cycling to deal with high blood pressure. I brought up the number of diabetes clinics I’d seen and offered up an opinion that the huge amount of sugar in the Filipino diet might be the cause of it. Michael seemed unconcerned, though, and his daughters gladly tossed back the Coke.
When the Coke was finished (I greedily drank the extra glass and a half left in the bottle – I could have drunk aother 2 liters all by myself), I asked Michael if it was possible to go for a quick dip at the waterfall. I still had not changed out of my sweaty cycling clothes and longed for a refreshing dunk. Michael was up for it, and we returned to his house to change into shorts. Then all four of us went to the waterfall and went in for a swim. It was beyond glorious and I paddled around happily and swore that I would never get out of that cool, refreshing water.
The time came, of course, when we had to leave. The sun had gone down by this point and it was rapidly getting darker and darker. I had been in the water so long that I was actually feeling chilled – a very strange feeling in the Philippines, I have to say. We walked back to the house, Michael’s youngest daughter still marveling at the white skin of my chest and back as yet rarely touched by the Filipino sun. I had the classic cyclist’s tan with dark brown forearms and legs and a white torso. His daughter was also fascinated by all the hair on my chest and arms and legs. Next to her father, I looked a bit like a gorilla. The hair on my forearms was quite visible as it had been bleached by the sun and stood out strongly against my newly-bronzed skin. She reached out a small hand and lightly brushed the hair on my arms and giggled.
The issue of dinner came up with both guest and host feeling their way along. I did not want to simply assume that I could just move into their home and expect to be served meals. But I didn’t want to separate myself either. I could have gone to a shop and bought some noodles and cooked it up, but that would have just been silly. Michael’s concern was a bit harder to figure out. Much later, when we were all sitting down to dinner at their dining room table, it all came out. Michael was worried that I wouldn’t like rice. This, in fact, was a very common concern that I’d encountered all over Taiwan and then in the Philippines. I actually found it a bit insulting – the assumption that I, as a Westerner, would be so narrow in my tastes as to dislike rice. People assumed that I lived on hamburgers and nothing else. It actually feels a bit silly on my part to insist that I DO like rice. I try to point out that I eat at local Filipino eateries every single day and I enjoy the food very much. The point, though, is that the people in the Philippines have had their reasons to suspect me jof not liking rice. Michael’s wife’s sister is married to a foreigner and he simply won’t eat rice. He doesn’t like it. He will eat only bread. And I’ve heard that story several times in the Philipppines. Many women here are married to American and European and even Canadian men, and I’d heard several times that these men won’t eat rice. It astonished me, but I heard the story often enough to believe that it was true.
Our meal was quite simple that night. Michael had prepared a bowl of a type of chicken soup. This was supposed to be good for his wife, who was nursing their new baby girl. And there was a big bowl of rice. There was a funny moment at the beginning as Michael waited for me to serve myself. The guest should go first. I hesitated, but it wasn’t because I didn’t like rice and chicken soup. I just didn’t know what I was supposed to do with it. There were no soup bowls. Was I supposed to put the rice on my plate and then just pour the soup over it? I wasn’t sure, and I was waiting for them to start so I could see what to do. That was, in fact, how they ate it, though they also used coffee mugs for the soup, and that’s what I did, too. It seemed odd to eat nothing but plain white rice and chicken soup. I had assumed that in homes, the meals would have a bit more variety than I sometimes encountered in the eateries with their often meat/rice offerings. I attributed the simplicity of this meal to Michael preparing it himself. Perhaps if his wife had been in charge, there would have been some kind of vegetable dish as well. Michael, covering all the bases, had actually fried two small pieces of chicken instead of putting them in the soup – just in case his foreign guest didn’t like chicken in soup.
It was a perfectly fine meal and I enjoyed it very much, but I was secretly glad that I had eaten such a huge amount at lunch time. Under normal circumstances this rice and chicken soup would not have been enough for the appetite of a cyclist. I could have eaten the entire giant bowl of rice myself, and I had to really pace my portions so that everyone in the family got enough to eat. I went to bed a bit hungry and wished I had squirreled away some food in my pannier bags.
The first part of the night was a bit trying as I did not put up my mosquito net. I wasn’t sure what the etiquette of that was when you were staying in someone’s home. In a little while, my hands and feet were on fire as quite a few mosquitoes settled in for a feast of sweet Canadian blood. They were the small type of mosquito and they were impossible to kill. At a certain point during the night, I had no choice but to put up the net. I knew I would get no sleep at all otherwise. I strung a piece of rope through the roof beams high above me and then hung the mosquito net from that. Once it was set up over the bed, I settled gratefully under it and went into a deep sleep after a very long day. It was my first night sleeping on a bed in six nights, and it was a nice change.