Helen Litrada and I had known each other since a chance meeting in September 2004 in a Christian chat room on Yahoo IM. Things evolved to the point that we became engaged, and a trip to visit her in the Philippines was arranged. It was delayed until the summer of 2007 mainly because I had to save money while sending copious amounts to pay for her schooling, an emergency appendectomy, expansion of her family’s rather rustic home and other worthy purposes. It should be noted that Helen never asked, she did not take advantage of my generosity, and she was always deeply grateful for that help.
Pelham Swift, a Dallas friend and travel agent who had married a Filipina, set up the various flights and advised me on a number of issues. I felt no hesitation about this trip, not even when my neighbor Mark Ahern came over three days before I was to leave. Mark, who had done a fair amount of international travel himself, thought I was putting myself in too much danger and should consider calling off the trip. Was Helen on the up and up? (Yes.) What if I were a victim of street crime? (It could happen.) Had I taken anti-malaria pills? (No, I hadn’t, but I did purchase some spray-on stuff.) I appreciated his concern, but I was going.
Early on July 24, Jill Montgomery took me to the Austin airport, gave me a hug and wished me good luck. I flew to Los Angeles and then had a 13-hour flight to Hong Kong. I and my fellow passengers crossed the international date line as a “day” passed although the sun never went down. As usual, I did not sleep a wink. After a short layover in the futuristic Hong Kong airport, it was on to Manila. This was the one moment about which I had some anxiety—showing up at midnight in this big, bad city and dealing with its sometimes crooked taxi drivers. As it turned out, there was no problem at all getting from the airport to the Copacabana Hotel other than my driver who took it upon himself to avail me of the city’s sex trade. Did I want a 17-year-old girl? He could arrange it. I declined, telling him I had come there to meet my fiancée. By no means was that the last time such an offer would be made.
Tired though I was, I had to get up very early that morning and be at the U.S. Embassy on Roxas Boulevard in order to apply for an “affidavit of intention to marry.” To say the place was heavily guarded would be understating it somewhat, but I got in and after a fair amount of waiting and moving from Window C to Window L to the cashier and back to Window C, I received the treasured document and went on outside. With most of the day at my disposal, I was in no hurry to return to the hotel so I meandered down the seawall overlooking Manila Bay. The waters looked to be kind of nasty, but I saw a man washing his daughter’s bottom there and other people picking through what had washed up on the shore. As I already knew, there were a lot of poor people in the Philippines.
As I walked along, I realized what an oddity I was to them. Just as Pelham had predicted, I heard many people call out, “hey, Joe!” To them, any American-looking male is Joe. I didn’t mind at all. Throughout the trip, I would keep my eyes open but I would not be afraid to get out among the locals. I realized that a man was following close behind, and he soon started trying to engage me in conversation. With no shortage of come-ons all around, I gave short answers, ignored him and kept on going. But the man was persistent, and we sat down and talked. Lorenzo was his name, and he had a proposal: For 500 pesos (just over $10), he would be my tour guide that morning. Since I had no fear of him whatsoever, I agreed. We hopped on a jeepney—a form of mass transit unique to the Philippines, combining a taxi and a bus—and went off to see Intramuros. This is the forbidding spot from which the Spaniards had held sway for more than 300 years. Lorenzo showed me where Dr. Jose Rizal, the great Philippine historical figure, had been executed in 1896. We went to several other spots in central Manila. It was very crowded, and the pollution was awful but I was thrilled to be there. It was a long way from Austin, Texas, that’s for sure.
Of course, Lorenzo was hoping I would like him and give him more than the initial 500 pesos. I was willing to buy us a delicious, multi-course meal at a restaurant in Chinatown, but it ended up costing me nearly $40. He also gave me a sob story about how he couldn’t afford to pay for medicine to treat what I admit was a bad-looking infection on his ankle. We were sitting in a taxi when he really leaned on me. I gave him 500 more pesos and told him to hit the road, as the taxi driver watched with some amusement via the rearview mirror.
I had read many stories about the dangers of Manila—people being robbed, whacked or kidnapped—and, of course, wished to avoid such things but I was not going to sit in my room and look at the TV. I chose to go out walking. My hotel, on Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, was a base from which I went in all directions. There were many interesting things to see, so why be wimpy about it? Although I do not lack compassion, I was willing to say “no” to the inevitable beggars, some of whom were quite young. (One girl—while carrying her baby sister—gave me a mournful look and the hand-to-mouth gesture that indicates hunger. When that did not work, she tried the same with little sis. Again, no go.) Late that night, though, as I came back toward the hotel, I saw an old woman sitting alone in a dark corner. I pulled a 50-peso note from my pocket, walked over and handed it to her. She said not a word, but her eyes conveyed gratitude. And a bedraggled, one-legged man also drew my attention. What did the Lord say? “When you help the least of my brothers and sisters, you help me.” I helped him.
The next morning, Friday, July 27, I had a bit of time to kill before my flight to Cebu, so I found some new streets to explore. With the sun coming in at an angle, I wandered through a kaleidoscopic array of ad hoc markets and stores. I stopped at a Catholic church, and bought a San Antonio Spurs jersey (Tim Duncan’s number 21) and a couple of gifts for Helen’s siblings and parents before it was time to check out of the Copacabana and get to the airport. During my three hours there, the popular TV show Wowowee was playing. This game show, which combines dancing and singing, was frenetic and quite entertaining.
I arrived in the Queen City of the South around 3 p.m., and a car was waiting there to take me to the Cebu Midtown Hotel. I checked in, called Helen, and she arrived in the lobby within half an hour. It was a happy and presumably historic meeting for us both. It was also the first time she had ever stayed in a hotel, so she may have been a bit dazzled by her surroundings. We went out to dinner, and it was raining as we ended up in a generic, American-style pizza joint on Fuente Osmena Circle. An armed guard let us in. Yes, an armed guard at a restaurant. This is something I had seen in Manila, too—security guards anywhere money might be inside. Some banks had two, three or even four uniformed personnel carrying rather large firearms to deter anyone from busting in and grabbing the goods. Helen and I were not able to finish the pizza, so we took the rest with us. I knew what I would do. Almost as soon as we got outside, we were pounced upon by some of Cebu’s aggressive street urchins. I hardly even looked at them, just handing them the box and saying, “here.” Delighted with their prize, they took it and ran.
Part of the time we were together, I helped Helen study for her upcoming board exam in elementary education She was in Cebu only due to my urging (and $$$), having graduated from Negros Oriental State University in March. Cebu Normal University had the country’s best prep course, and I thought it would be good for her to take it and help her chance of passing the exam on August 26. But I had duties of my own. I spent a fair amount of time at the Netopia internet café on Maxilom Avenue, doing a copyedit review of my upcoming book on University of Texas football history for Maple Street Press. The conditions were not ideal for that work, but I was able to go through the chapters, three at a time, make editorial decisions and send it on. Oh, the wonders of e-mail!
One time, I was there with Helen. I showed her a few things (such as the web sites I have helped write at my law firm job back in Austin) and she was fiddling with her cell phone, sending text messages to friends and family. Given that I had paid for it and come 10,000 miles to see her, I told her to put that thing up or I would take it away. We then went to her boarding house near the CNU campus, and let me tell you there were no frills. But it was clean, as she and her roomie, Annicita, took good care of the place. The three of us went to Metro, a seven-floor department store in downtown Cebu, to buy a fan. Neither of them asked or would even admit it was needed, but their room was swelteringly hot. They needed a fan, and I made the purchase willingly. While there, I asked more questions and learned that their rice cooker had recently gone on the blink. Given that rice is the one staple of their diet, they simply had to have a rice cooker, so we got them a good one. Both young women were shy in accepting these gifts but quite thankful. I was happy to do it.
All the time I was with her, Helen was hurting. Pregnant after being drugged and raped by the friend of a friend on June 10, she had all sorts of first-trimester symptoms—headaches, dizziness, anemia, throwing up and pain. She had not yet been to a doctor and didn’t even plan to see one until she was out of Cebu, but I knew that would not work. There was a large women’s clinic close to my hotel, and I took her there. She went on in, met with a female doctor and got a sonogram which showed a live and growing fetus in her belly. However, it also showed a subchorionic hemorrhage. As a result, the doctor urged her to have nothing but bed rest for the next two weeks—as if that were possible!
On Sunday morning, she stayed in the hotel and studied while I visited Netopia and a local open-air church. Afterward, the pastor came up and welcomed me—an obvious stranger. Later that day, I stopped at a stall to buy a sliced mango. The lady who took my 20 pesos made a rather bold proposition. When I declined, her only response was disappointment that the deal did not go through.
Later that night, Helen was in serious pain. She asked me to go to the nearby Mercury Drug Store and get her some kind of ointment to relieve it. Glad to comply, I went out on the street. It was a short excursion, but an interesting one. First of all, a taxi driver saw me and inquired whether I was in need of female companionship. I rolled my eyes and kept on moving. In the median separating traffic, I was accosted by a woman I had seen and ignored before. She simply refused to believe I was not interested in her services—or more specifically those of the ladies she represented. She pointed to four of them, sitting on a doorstep near the pharmacy. All gazed at me with big eyes. I asked her, “Why are you doing this?” By that, I meant—why do you keep bothering me, and why are you pimping these girls? I forget what she said in response. That was not all! As I made my way to the pharmacy, I looked down and beheld four or five or six of the dirtiest, most hopeless people lying on the ground, wriggling almost like animals or insects. It was an awful scene, the most disturbing moment of the whole trip, and I had to struggle not to judge or play the Ugly American.
Helen mentioned in passing that she had not been to a dentist in six years. Six years! During one of my walks, I dropped by a one-woman dental office. She was sitting there, just waiting for business. I told her I would be bringing my fiancée there in the early afternoon. As it turned out, Helen had 14 cavities—seven of which were filled that day and seven the next. While she was with the dentist, I read Lonely Planet Guide to the Philippines, a book I had purchased in Austin. While it was informative, I thought it was targeted primarily to people looking for resorts, white-sand beaches and diving among coral reefs. Me, I was out among the commoners and actually preferring it. I also read in the Philippine Star about the recent beheading of 14 Army soldiers by Mohammedan infidels in the south.
Poor Helen. She was doing her best to get ready for the board exam, but her teeth were hurting and those pregnancy symptoms were severe. The circumstances were not ideal for my visit, but we both did what we could. I went back to Netopia, walked to downtown Cebu and marveled at the density of the city. People everywhere, chaos, traffic, noise—it was all a bit much. Not many foreigners here. In fact, I spent 30 minutes at a five-street intersection and did not see one other person of European descent. I was an object of curiosity for many of them, as well. On my way back to the hotel, I stopped at CNU and walked around the four-columned main building which had a dark history. This is where the Japanese secret service, the kempetai, had set up shop during World War II. While there, they tortured and killed many Filipinos right there on the grounds of the college. It was eerie.
There was a nameless eatery I stopped in several times, and the lady who ran it was always happy to see her American friend. Each time, it was rice and this or rice and that. The food was good, as was the spirit of the place. I believe that was the excursion when I met Rachel. I had stopped by the hotel pool and was surprised to see this young (18, she said) woman staring me in the face. She appeared to have followed me there. Her English was pretty good, and she was quite intelligent, telling me about her hopes and dreams of marrying an American and becoming “rich.” I was not entirely sure how to characterize Rachel. She was not one of Cebu’s many prostitutes, but she made it clear she wished to accompany me to my hotel room and then back to the United States. I informed her that I was in the Philippines to meet my fiancée.
I did in Cebu as I had done in Manila—walking the streets incessantly. I found it so very interesting to be among these people, in this culture, just seeing how they lived. It’s true that I might have been accosted, but I never was. In three instances, maybe I was close. In Manila one night, I was walking and a man followed me and did as Lorenzo had done, trying to chat me up. I showed no interest in whatever he had in mind and indicated that. He persisted, and I eventually made a 180-degree turn, said a negative word and went on my way. One woman in Cebu propositioned me, got politely turned down and tried the next day. She gently grabbed my arm and spoke; again I said no. And a male teenager followed me a ways, begging and begging. He put his hand on me—not menacingly, but that was enough. I turned toward him, and my combination of facial expression, words and body language indicated I was willing to deal with him forcefully. He backed away.
One time, Helen and I were at the mall in the basement of the hotel; it was always jam-packed with humanity. That’s where we met Ian Lamb. Or, I should say, he met us. It seemed a bit concocted, but he claimed that she resembled a friend. At any rate, we talked with him. He had married a Filipina and moved there for good. Ian was a big-mouthed Brit who had some advice on how to proceed if we were going to be together in the Philippines or the USA.
On Saturday, August 4, we had one final breakfast in the Cebu Midtown Hotel. Our favorite waiter was Bobby, who for some reason thought I might be interested in purchasing some of his commercial real estate. He gave me his card, I looked up his webby and gave him some feedback. We checked out of the hotel and were going to ride a bus south and then across the island, but our taxi driver convinced Helen it would be “safer” to ride the whole way with him. Safer and more expensive, but I was willing to do this because it would be more comfy for my preggers wife-to-be. It was one heck of a ride down to Tangil. The taxi had no seat belts, and this guy drove like a madman, taking what seemed like an awful lot of chances with traffic, going around curves, and up and down hills. But he got us there without incident or accident.
Helen had done this many times, as we took a ferry across the Strait of Tañon to the island of Negros. There on the pier waiting for us in Guihulngan were her sister Elsa, her brother Marlo and her cousin Retchel. They were happy to see her and to get a look at me. All nice, sweet people, pleased to host the light-skinned foreigner who had stated a desire to marry Helen. Marlo, riding a motor scooter, took me to the Villagarcia Hotel, the only such place in the city of 10,000. It had beautiful, manicured grounds less than 100 yards from the water and lots of chickens roaming around. The room in which I would stay was spartan, but the air conditioning worked and the bed was soft.
Guihulngan had a much slower pace and was not as chaotic as Manila or Cebu. People got around town on foot and on motorized and pedaled cabs. No mining or big industry meant much cleaner air, too. Marlo returned two hours later to fetch me. We rode to an unpaved path, through a large grove of palm trees and halfway up a mountain before arriving at the Litrada home, the front of which had a big banner reading, “Welcome / Bro. Richard Pennington / We Proud of You.” I remember a bunch of kids out front, staring at this visitor from far away. Helen came out of the house with her mother, Phebe, and Elsa. It was not long before I met the others—father Francisco, who had built the house with his own hands, starting back in 1992 (the family had lost everything in a typhoon two years earlier), Yurisa, Lorevic, Agnes, Mary Ann, Francis and a few cousins along with Phebe’s sister. Oh, and let’s not forget Lovely, Elsa’s two-year-old daughter. What a kid! Bright-eyed, always laughing, always in the middle of the action. She and Francis got miniature Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers uniforms. I might as well add that Lovely’s dad, Roland, was working in Manila. He was there for his own safety because on December 26, 2005, he had been in a drunken fight with a neighbor and killed the guy. Roland was in custody and looking at 12 to 25 years in prison, so I paid $400 for a lawyer and to “persuade” the deceased man’s live-in partner to drop the charges. But the wheels of injustice turn slowly in the Philippines, and the judge needed some encouragement. He got it, and then he asked for more encouragement. Roland’s freedom cost me $1K.
Since one of the purposes of the trip was to document that Helen and I had met, we took numerous photographs there. We gathered big and small groups inside and outside the house, and did just that. Everybody was smiling and happy—I know I was. The next morning, I took a walk in the vicinity of the hotel. To my great surprise a lady at an outdoor food stand called out, asking whether I was Helen’s friend. How in the world had she known, and who was she? The answer to the second question is that Letty was one of Helen’s many cousins, and when she saw me ambling down the street it was obvious I was from elsewhere.
On Sunday morning, Marlo picked me up on his rented scooter and took me to Guihulngan United Community Church of Christ, a place where the Litrada family members were in frequent attendance, none more than Helen. The service was done in Cebuano, so I understood little of it, but at one point I heard the words “Texas University,” and “Richard Pennington.” Helen told me to stand up and be acknowledged. After the service, I met many of the parishioners and the pastor, Mr. Delarita. Helen informed me that he would be at the house for lunch at 2 p.m. And indeed he was there, along with some others—friends? church members? neighbors? I am not entirely sure. As we sat in the living room, he stood and gave another sermon, holding a Bible in his hand. He was a good speaker, and there was a lady in attendance who sometimes spoke in almost a call-and-response fashion. She, too, was very knowledgeable and spoke passionately (in English) about the Christian gospel. It concluded with another pass-the-plate deal, so I put in 150 pesos.
Lunch was served, and it included rice and several other side dishes. Since the family’s business was selling dried fish in the local market, I expressed a willingness to try that. Phebe cooked three or four for me. Although they were quite salty, they were good.
Then came what must be the most unforgettable hour of the entire trip. How much of it was planned or spontaneous, I have no idea. Helen said her father had something to tell me. He took my hand in his and spoke some heartfelt words—some in English, others of which Helen translated for me. Francisco was grateful for my visit and happy that I would be marrying his daughter. Nobody seemed to care about the 30-year age gap. Then here comes Phebe from across the room. She, too, had something to say. She shook my hands and said, as best she could, how glad she was to have me there. She appreciated what I had given (expansion of the house, etc.) and was just full of emotion as she spoke. It was obvious she wished to say more, but the language difference limited her.
The music started as Helen’s cousin, Gilberto, played the guitar. There were songs, both Christian and secular, with the entire group taking part. That sort of evolved into something else as Helen called the children together. As the oldest sister, she was used to taking care of kids and guiding them in a variety of endeavors. She had also taught Sunday School for several years. Helen, with some help from Yurisa, showed them what to do in the participatory songs—some of which contained lessons, while others were just fun. These songs had rhythm and life, and were done joyfully, without a hint of self-consciousness. They had multiple verses and sometimes grew a bit loud. It went on and on, although the group got a bit smaller as time passed. This musical session, which seemed to conclude naturally, was just amazing to me. For a time, at least, Helen seemed not to be in physical or emotional pain.
Later that night, I paid a visit to the family’s stall in the local market. It was pretty basic, but there was a steady stream of customers buying one of perhaps 12 varieties of dried fish. Phebe or Lorevic would weigh the fish and make the sale while Francisco stood behind them, weaving palm fronds that would later hold balls of rice. He was a simple man, but he had a beautiful smile and lots of dignity. I liked him very much. The next morning, it was time to go! Helen visited me at the Villagarcia Hotel, where we had 30 minutes together. There were things to discuss, but too little time if we were to catch the ferry. I gave her 5,000 pesos (about $110) and asked her to pass that on to Elsa, who worked in a dental office but could not afford to get 15 cavities filled. As we prepared to leave, Phebe showed up. Once again, she just wanted to thank me for visiting. In her dialect, she expressed herself warmly as Helen translated.
We took the ferry across the strait, and Helen was barfing into a plastic bag most of the way. I could only comfort her with a firm hand on her shoulder. We had to hurry if I were to get on the bus up to Cebu. This was a vehicle that had seen lots of miles. There was hardly time to say goodbye before the diesel engine roared to life and I was gone. I sat next to a man who held a live chicken. Lots of chatter on the bus, and none of it in English but I didn’t care.
As we pulled into town, a man got on the bus, opened a Bible and began to preach to nobody in particular. I did not understand a word he said, but it was interesting to watch. I thought he had a most impressive delivery. Being an adherent of the faith, I made a donation. He put a hand on my shoulder and said, “God bless you, brother.” I took a taxi to the Cebu airport and endured a seven-hour wait. The Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong was delayed, but they held the LA-bound plane for us. Again, I could not sleep at all, regardless of how weary I was. The good part is that I finally got to see Forrest Gump. (How was it that he ran so fast?) In Los Angeles, the customs/immigration area was a huge underground room jam-packed with people of all colors. It was 1 a.m. local time, and I could barely keep my eyes open but I soldiered on through three or four long lines. As always, some airport workers were nice and others were intentionally rude. I flew to Dallas/Fort Worth and after a brief layover was on my way to Austin. Back to the real world, as I made a list of things I would have to attend to soon. A $25 taxi ride into town concluded my ridiculously expensive but unforgettable trip to the Philippines.
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The discerning reader may have noted that something seemed to be missing from the above account, and that is correct. I later learned that Helen had been neither drugged nor raped; she got pregnant in the natural way, without compulsion. She and Eric were married in Guihulgnan barely a month after I departed. Their baby boy, Lenrick, was born on February 28, 2008.