The road took the route of least resistance. It followed the coast to the nearest sizeable town and then swung inland, following rivers and valleys into the interior. The dropping tide lapped the edge of the asphalt, leaving behind the flotsam of the previous night. This part of the coast was inhabited by Muslim fishermen. There had been a storm (not quite a typhoon) which had taken some of their homes.
They were rebuilding, wading into the waves to retrieve planks and boards. Their pump boats bobbled in the ebb. Beyond them, as our bus gathered distance from Davao City, the gulf had given way to open ocean, the view endless. Beyond the horizon lay Indonesia and in-between, an openness in which the Muslim’s boats could rendezvous with bigger vessels, smuggling anything. I enjoyed the view. It would have been idyllic if it hadn’t been for the wreckage.
Our bus stopped at two oil drums, holding up a plank. Uniformed men with guns chatted with our driver. Their weapons were slung, nozzles pointed to the ground. A row of camouflaged jeeps were on the countryside of the road, parked just off the asphalt.
Sister Anne strained, squinted her eyes and pressed her nose against the window beside her. She was looking for epilates and badges. She muttered the name of a military unit to me, it might have been the thirty-sixth division, or some such. ‘Loyal to General Ramos and Mayor Duterte,’ she reassured me. Then she spoilt the effect by adding, ‘Most of the time.’
The other passengers sat bolt upright. As well as a driver there was a bodyguard, then myself (sat beside Sister Anne) and four other nuns. All had a small pack on their laps. I had my larger blue Berghaus, containing all my worldly goods. I had given up on that damned crate of schoolbooks. Instead, about ten of them were jammed into my pack. They could be shared about as needs be. My gun was tucked in my belt, as was the bodyguard’s in his. There was a ceasefire in the territory to allow travel to Brother Ronnie’s ordination at Bansalan. That didn’t mean that we wouldn’t carry guns, just that we wouldn’t use them. Gears grated, the engine revved, our bus stumbled around the oil drums and then gathered speed away from the roadblock.
A wall rose, enclosing palms and gently rising land. Sister Anne informed me that it was the convent farm of the Holy Mothers. The next enclosure belonged to a local family of influence. After that, the road met a corner and described its inland swing. The countryside was now of small farms and nipa buildings amid paddies and enclosures. Occasionally, a cluster of huts and shacks announced a población. Stray dogs and small children were scattered from the dusty road by our growling engine and honking horn. There were water buffalo (carabao) and tethered pigs.
Another roadblock appeared before another township. More men, in similar uniform, guarded ramshackle buildings, this time guns at the ready. There was a bus station of sorts, just bare earth, passengers were disembarking and wandering in all directions. After that, the roads became a mixture of concrete sets, asphalt and compacted ground. We followed a dried up river. A bridge across it had collapsed. We bounced down improvised ramps where the last rains (impossible to believe because of the now hard-cracked ground), had destroyed the crossing.
Sister Anne explained the drought. The land was irrigated from dams in the mountains. As soon as a field was harvested, its water was diverted to the next, leaving a parched landscape of baked and shrivelled stubble. Our way busied. Trucks now competed with carabao and cart. The next roadblock was manned by goons whose uniforms were jeans, T-shirts and mirrored sunglasses. We all fell silent.
A jeepney in front was being emptied for a search. Some travellers were burdened with sacks of produce. A little girl had terrible skin. She was two-toned. A scaly leaf of dead skin hung from her, showing raw white flesh beneath. After passing through that roadblock, we were in a ‘critical’ area, one not controlled by the government or Mayor Duterte. The ceasefire for Brother Ronnie’s ordination was my opportunity to head inland, meet my contacts the Cortez’s, and make my way to my Utopia community in the jungle.
The next break in the journey was for a road accident. While the other nuns prayed to God and their favourite saints, Sister Anne dug her nails into my leg. Taking the hint, I followed her off the bus and into the heat. A jeepney had tipped into a roadside ditch. Its passengers were still unfolding themselves from its back door. One man was covered in debris and rice husks. Another limped, another rubbed her head. A motorcyclist showed off his gashed arm. His skin was burnt all the way from his wrist to his shoulder. His motor-bike was in the middle of the road, at the end of a long skid.
Manpower, including myself, pouring with sweat, righted the vehicle and put it back on all four tyres, out of the ditch and onto the road. Little groups of people appeared from the countryside and chattered.
‘The jeepney was going too fast.’
‘The motorcycle was on the wrong side of the road.’
‘The cycle was going too fast.’
‘The jeepney was on the wrong side of the road.’
‘There was a mystery car which sped off.’
‘A wheel had been tampered with.’
‘It was just an accident.’
‘It was God’s will.’
‘Everybody was lucky.’
‘Everybody was unlucky.’
‘It was the will of the devil.’
Myself and Sister Anne retired to the shaded side of our bus. We had a little breather and a conflab. Sister drank from a mineral water bottle and did a few simple stretches and exercises. She took deep breaths. Despite the accident, she was relieved to be out in the fresh air.
‘Was this how the Gospels were written, Sister? Little snippets of gossip connected?’
‘It is the word of God, my friend.’ Was she agreeing with me or disagreeing with me?
‘What will you do, mister?’ she asked.
‘I will visit my Utopia, the ideal community that I’ve funded in the jungle. It should be reachable from Bansalan with the help of the Cortez’s. It goes from strength to strength. With the latest batch of monies, they should have built the generators by now. Then the phone masts. I’ll work on the IT side for a while, it’ll be ‘wired up’ to the rest of the world. I’m going to filter the content so that only the right messages can be seen.’
She was nodding, but weather in acknowledgement or agreement, I couldn’t tell.
‘Have you heard from that place recently?’ she asked.
‘Of course not, they’ll be too busy. As things calm down here,’ I continued, ‘on the low land and the coast, Utopia will be a great example to all. It will spread, people will copy it. Propagate. Like the propaganda we spoke of the other day.’
Sister Anne nodded again.
‘We will win over Mayor Duterte,’ I said out loud.
Or even replace him, I was hoping.
‘What do you think?’ I asked her.
Sister was silent. When she spoke she sounded resolute rather than enthusiastic.
‘You must go to your Utopia,’ she said, ‘God wills it. We all pray for you. The next step will become clear. As with the Jesus of the Gospels. He was not going to be with us forever. We must learn to do for ourselves.’
She squeezed my forearm. By now the little crowds had lost interest in the road accident. Some of them were staring at myself and Sister Anne. If they hadn’t been, I think I might have got a hug.
‘Have we been followed?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know, I haven’t been checking,’ I replied nonchalantly.
She hissed, walked to the end of the bus and looked down the line of traffic stacked up behind us because of the accident. She couldn’t see anything suspicious.
‘Could you contact those girls’ parents to say that they’re safe?’ she asked.
‘Johanna and Matilde? The communications are poor. I had to send faxes.’
The communications were very poor. Sending faxes meant going to the post office, writing out a message on fax paper, the staff trying their best to fax them but then posting the leftover ‘faxes’ by Air Mail to the recipients postal address.
‘I hope they get through, mister, or you’ll be for the firing squad,’ she noted.
The mood of the scene changed. People were drifting back into the countryside. The travellers resumed their places in the jeepney, myself and Anne back in our bus.
Not all of the day had passed before our arrival at Bansalan. Our destination seemed to be one long street, built up on either side. We were greeted at the bus station, another area of flat earth with no buildings, by a breaker’s yard of old jalopies.
There was a row of pedicars to hire. We needed a few. Myself and one of the nuns went in the first. I squeezed myself into the sidecar, the nun sat behind the motorcyclist. She was given a crash helmet. Off we thundered. She held the motor-cyclist’s waist in terror as we ran through the potholes and un made-up roads.
The convent was more of a compound than a building. One side was described by the convent itself plus a dormitory for the novice nuns.
A high wall encircled the other buildings. Unarmed guards were about the gates. A school, another Holy Cross Academy (as per Agdao), defined another side. Beside that was the church, which was being decorated for the ordination of Brother Ronnie. Step ladders and bunting were at the ready. The church had concrete walls in place of marble, lead roof deferred to aluminium sheeting. Rows of pews could seat thousands, before a raised altar and pulpit, above which were the open arms of Christ. A slogan spelt out, in the mock 3D writing of the cola adverts, a familiar message:
‘The stone that was rejected turned out to be the cornerstone’
As this was the home town of his clan, I assumed that we’d left the critical area and were now safely in the care of my associate Mr Gangster-Gangster Cortez.
After being introduced to Mother Superior, who would walk me to my accommodations, I wasn’t so sure.
Mother Superior was called ‘Presentation’ nicknamed, (yes, mother superiors in rural Philippine war zones have little nicknames), ‘Ory’.
She thanked me for coming and told me that she admired my courage. Never a good sign. Risking my life to come to this place for an ordination? Wasn’t God wonderful and weren’t courage and faith great graces to bestow?
I repeated what I’ve just told you.
‘I thought this place was safely controlled by my sponsor Mr Cortez? It is the home town of his clan.’
Mother Superior gave a very quick, on the spot, strategic situation report. It consisted of a noise, ‘OooO,’ which didn’t inspire much confidence. She elaborated, albeit on a bit of an odd, un-reassuring tangent. She realised that I had much to lose and that I was there voluntarily. Unlike herself, who by accident of birth and calling, had followed family and duty to this point. As a Religious, she was unlikely to be a victim of any violence. Myself however, because of my height, clothing and pale skin, might be thought of as a large slow-moving target. The sisters accompanying me might even be mistaken as Muslims. Their covered heads, from a distance, could look like yashmaks.
‘The white man standing before me,’ she intoned, ‘nearly two meters tall, unmistakably a western Christian, our crusader.’
She was getting carried away. I’m nowhere near six foot six and being a Crusader, in a territory of Muslims, Christians and insurgency, might not be such a good thing.
Did she go on to say I was, ‘Christlike?’. Dear God. They crucified him. Fortunately, we’d reached the guest’s accommodation by this point and she had to stop. She handed me over to a bodyguard with the kind of regret in her voice that Joseph of Arimathea might have displayed when handing over a condemned man to a Roman Soldier.
I declined a meal, pretending a full stomach and too much heat. I simply couldn’t take from these people. The young sisters, although giggling and welcoming, looked emaciated and drawn. Drought and insurgency were having an effect on them.
The guest’s room was its own little building next to the school’s basketball court. It was a small, windowless concrete tomb, not long enough for me to stretch out in. A boy brought me a mosquito net, not quite big enough to cover all of me. The boy attacked a mass of junction box wires and managed to get an electric fan to move the air.
I took a siesta, soothed rather than irritated by the noise of the fan. No matter how I contorted myself, I stuck out of the mosquito net. Everything south of my calves provided a feast for the local insect life. In the cities, the air pollution thinned out the biting insects but not so much so in the countryside.
I slept, slipping deeper and deeper into a release of unconsciousness. I left that place. I was back in England. I felt cold and then refreshingly freezing. Frogs were tiny. Dogs were on leads. Food was dead by the time it reached my plate. I heard singing, it must be ‘Jerusalem’ or an out of tune Debatable Lands dirge to a God of snow-topped hills, icy lakes, sheep roaming free and beasts kept in stalls for the wintertime.
I wasn’t sure whether I was awake or asleep. I held onto the darkness hoping for more dream. By now, my cell was completely black. There weren’t even cracks of light about the door frame. I could feel the hard bed I laid on and the insect net touching me. Drips of sweat confirmed my awake-ness.
Letting myself out, I crept past a dozing guard. The night sky was alive. A sea of diamond stars shimmered within equatorial constellations.
I followed the sound of the singing, passing between wooden posts, holding coloured plastic strips which would keep the sun off the next day’s congregation.
There was no sound of gunfire from any direction. The ceasefire was holding.
Church was busy (rather than packed) for a vigil service. A honky-tonk orchestra of home-made instruments played; percussion oil drums, guitars of odd fitting moulded metal parts, a bass whose strings were insulated cable. I sat unnoticed at the back, next to the eighth station of the cross, which showed Christ knelt before a roman soldier. At the far end, those about the altar, men in coloured sashes, women in lace, were being sworn into their church offices for another year.
I reached into my pocket and took out a crumpled airmail letter. It was from Gisele, my business associate in Manila, her name and address were written in the top left-hand corner of the envelope. I had read it half a dozen times already. But I must read it again, it changed everything.
To be continued …….
For a recap of the story so far, please click here.
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file