In the cool darkness before a Sunday morning dawn, Marivic Valencia stood beside the coastal road that ran beside Leyte Gulf and waited for the Manila-bound bus that would carry her away from her family. She was eighteen years old, slim and pretty and demure, with long black hair bound in a ponytail behind her head. She used no makeup. She wore denim jeans and a loose T-shirt.
A large duffel, stuffed full, sat in the gravel beside the road. Marivic had never been more than an hour away from home; now she was beginning a journey that would take her to a job thousands of miles away, and she didn’t expect to return for at least a year.
Her family huddled around her. Lorna, her mother, held her tight. The five little ones, arrayed from fourteen to two years old, clung to her. They attached themselves wherever they could find a handhold: one at each elbow, one at a shoulder, the two smallest wrapping their arms around her legs. Her twin brother, Ronnie, stood a couple of steps away, looking perplexed and helpless.
She and Ronnie had always been close. Each understood the other like nobody else. They hardly needed words. Marivic met his eyes and shot him a smile that was supposed to say It’ll be all right, and Ronnie nodded and smiled back weakly.
Now others were appearing, aunts and uncles and cousins wandering over from the small village across the road where she had grown up, the place called San Felipe. They gathered around Marivic and her family, murmuring low, sad words. Marivic felt dampness at her cheek: her mother was weeping. A couple of aunties began to sob too.
Marivic wished the bus would hurry and get there. She wasn’t eager to leave, but she wanted this to end. It felt too much like a funeral, and it was all too familiar.
Departures were a way of life for San Felipe, as for all other small towns and villages in the rural Philippines. People left all the time. They left to find work, to make money. Some headed for Manila. Others, more adventurous and more fortunate, were hired for jobs abroad. At least a dozen of the sons and daughters of the village worked overseas, sending home remittances that sustained their families. Marivic’s father had been one of those. The duffel was his old sea bag.
Until his sudden death two years earlier, he had been a seaman, a chief mate who spent nearly a year at a time on a Norwegian freighter, returning home for only a few weeks before going out to sea again. Each time he left, the family had gathered here beside the road, just like now, weeping and clinging as they waited for the northbound bus.
Marivic could remember each of those departures. Until this moment, she had never realized what an ordeal it must have been for him.
Now twin lights appeared down the road, growing bigger and brighter. A breeze from the south carried up the rumble of a diesel engine. “Here it is,” somebody said, and Lorna wailed.
The bus loomed up, slowed, and chuffed to a stop. The door swung open, and the crowd parted and made a path for Marivic to the open door and the steps beyond. But Marivic couldn’t move. Lorna had tightened her embrace, and the little ones were clinging even harder.
The driver ended it. “We have a long way to go,” he said, in a tone that was stern but not unkind.
Lorna squeezed her once more, kissed her, released her. Marivic kissed each of the younger children, then Ronnie. She picked up the duffel. Her ten-year-old brother, Ernie, was carrying a string sack with bananas and snacks for the long trip ahead. He held it up to her; she took it and climbed up, and the driver shut the door behind her.
She walked about halfway down the aisle, lifted the duffel onto a rack overhead, and dropped down into an open seat. The engine rumbled, the bus pulled away. Marivic got just a glimpse out the window of her family and the others, and then they slid out of view.
She was on her way.
As the bus rolled up the coastal road, with dawn lifting over the gulf to the east, Marivic felt lonely, excited, scared—and very lucky. Manila was just a stopover. After a couple of weeks of processing her passport and paperwork, she was headed abroad to help care for the children of a wealthy Arab family in Dubai. She would be paid the equivalent of eight hundred dollars a month, plus room and board. The Philippines had millions of unemployed college graduates who gladly would have left home and family to earn that kind of money, doing even the most menial labor.
And Marivic didn’t even have a high school diploma. After their father died, she and Ronnie had left school and gone to work. Ronnie harvested copra from coconut trees on the steep mountainside behind the village. Marivic got a job as a waitress at a roadside restaurant near the village. Long hours, hard work, and awful pay didn’t add up to much: in the past year, she had earned the peso equivalent of $750. Now she would be making more than that every month, and sending most of it home to support her family.
It was miraculous.
The opportunity had presented itself when a customer left behind a newspaper at one of her tables. She brought the paper home and read it by the light of the single dim electric bulb that her mother allowed to burn after dark. At the back of the newspaper were ads for overseas employment agencies. One caught her attention: OPTIMO. She liked the name; it sounded bright and cheerful. And she saw that Optimo had a branch office in Tacloban City, the provincial capital, about an hour up the highway.
She went there on her next day off. The address was a shabby three-story office building, a single small room at the top floor. As Marivic entered, she found half a dozen metal chairs along walls with flaked and peeling paint. Five of the chairs were occupied by people filling out forms on clipboards. At the front wall, a plump middle-aged woman sat at a desk. A nameplate on the desk read: REGIONAL MANAGER. She impatiently motioned Marivic inside and gave Marivic a clipboard and a form—BIOGRAPHICAL DATA AND APPLICATION FOR REPRESENTATION, the form said—and Marivic took it to the last empty chair and began to fill it out, balancing the clipboard on her knees.
The air in the room was dense and torpid. An electric fan turned lazily overhead. Marivic wiped her damp forehead with the back of one hand to keep the beads of sweat from dripping onto the form. When she was finished, she brought the clipboard to the desk and stood waiting as the plump woman examined the form. Finally the woman sent her to a clinic on the first floor for a physical exam. A doctor took her medical history, examined her eyes and ears and throat, listened to her heart and lungs, and drew a blood sample. Marivic trudged back up to the top-floor office. The woman curtly told her that the application would be sent to the head office. Whatever happened would come out of Manila.
It didn’t sound encouraging.
Marivic felt foolish as she walked out. What chance did she have? Everybody in the Philippines wanted to work abroad. She had wasted a day off.
Three days later, the Manila office called. They had a job for her, but it had to be filled quickly. Could she be in Manila in two days?
Marivic stammered a yes.
She was instructed to return to the Tacloban office, where the regional manager gave her a reserved-seat bus ticket and one thousand pesos—more than a week’s wages at the restaurant—for incidental expenses. The plump woman told her that an agency employee would meet her at the bus terminal in Manila. While Marivic waited for her passport, she would stay free of charge at the agency’s dormitory.
“Be sure that you’re on that bus,” the woman told her.
Marivic hurried home to pack. The next morning she was headed north, stunned by her good fortune.
The journey to Manila was twenty-two hours, nearly a full day and a night.
Marivic stayed awake through the daylight hours, eagerly taking in the countryside she had never seen before. It included a crossing of a spectacular bridge high above the San Juanico Strait, terrifying but thrilling, and a two-hour passage on a large ferry that carried the bus to a landing at the southern tip of the island of Luzon.
Manila was on Luzon, so the rest of the trip was overland. Something about that thrilled Marivic, knowing that there was no more water between her and the big city. MANILA 670 KM said a road sign at the ferry landing. Marivic pulled her cell phone from the pocket and powered it up. It got a signal, three bars.
This didn’t surprise her. In the past ten years, cell service had proliferated throughout the country, with towers appearing even on remote mountaintops. The Philippines was cell crazy. All but the very poorest owned a phone with a prepaid SIM card. Airtime for conversations was relatively expensive, beyond the budgets of most, but a text message cost only a few centavos. For the price of a scoop of steamed rice at an outdoor food stall, you could send dozens of texts. So Filipinos were now a texting nation, universally adept, able to walk, talk, eat, drive—sometimes even make love—while their thumbs danced on the phones’ numeric pads.
Marivic, seeing the three bars, thought about Ronnie. He had always wanted to make the journey to the big city.
She sent him a text:
manila 670 km
Moments later, the reply flashed back:
The bus ground on. Twice more that day, as road signs passed her window, Marivic sent texts to her brother.
And just before dark:
That got no answer at all. Ronnie was pouting, she thought, and was missing her. She would feel the same in his place.
She slept on and off after nightfall, waking when the bus stopped in towns and small cities. Then after midnight the stops were more frequent, the populated areas bigger and closer together, until finally there was no more countryside, just an endless sprawl of streets and homes and shops and buildings, with Manila glowing in the sky ahead.
She didn’t know exactly when they entered the city. But some of the streets became wider, and there were trucks and cars and taxis waiting at traffic signals—even at 3:30 a.m.!—and she knew they must be close. She turned on the phone and tapped out a quick message to Ronnie:
He would be asleep, but he’d find it first thing in the morning.
The bus terminal was on the south side of the metropolitan area, along a broad boulevard. Most of the passengers seemed to know that they were getting close, because they began to gather their bags. Marivic stood, took down her duffel, and sat with it in her lap.
On impulse, she unzipped it and dug down into the clothes. She brought out a small drawstring bag of red velvet with a braided cinch. She looked around, saw that nobody seemed to be paying attention to her, opened the bag and let the contents fall into her palm.
It was her most treasured possession: a gold herringbone bracelet with a centerpiece of red rubies forming the letter “M,” encircled by a ring of small diamonds. Nothing else she owned was even remotely so expensive, but this wasn’t the real significance. The bracelet was a gift from her father, bought in Brazil for her sixteenth birthday. He had always brought thrilling surprises when he returned from his voyages, but this one was really special. It was a grown-up gift. It had made her feel like a woman.
Marivic had intended to keep the bracelet out of sight in Manila. She had heard stories of robbers who stole gold chains and even rings, ripping them free and then running. But she had also heard of bus station thieves who snatched baggage from the hands of unwary travelers, and she could just as well lose the bracelet that way.
Marivic folded her hand around the bracelet. She thought about her father. She imagined him shopping for it and thinking of her and carrying it halfway around the world to place it on her wrist. Just touching it now made her feel confident and secure, as if it carried some of her father’s strength and love.
She draped the bracelet over her left wrist, and fastened the clasp.
Some of the passengers were standing in the aisle now, impatient. Marivic looked to the front and saw that the bus was pulling into the terminal. It rolled to a stop. The front door huffed open.
Marivic waited until most of the passengers had left. Then she grasped the handle of the bag and stepped out into the aisle. She walked up to the front of the bus and into the thick, pungent air of Manila.
© 2010 Phillip Finch