“Pray for all who died without happiness…
And when at night the graveyard is wrapped in darkness,
and only the dead remain there keeping watch,
Disturb not its peace, disturb not the mystery…”
-Jose Rizal, The Last Farewell-
I myself loved the Hardy Boys series. The mysteries unfolded in those books captivated me- a young man reading about other young men solving capers. The Hardy Boys were dogged and smart and vulnerable. They sometimes took false turns, gave too much attention to red herrings and broken leads. But in the end, author Frank Dixon always made things right. The Hardy Boys figured it out, happy endings flowered.
If only the father of the Philippines: doctor, poet, and propagandista Jose Rizal could have written a better ending for himself. On a sweltering day in Manilla, May and I venture toward Rizal Park to pay our respects to this mountain of a man. The first thing you see at Rizal’s memorial are his written words- his Last Farewell- etched in marble with three different translations. May elects to take on the Spanish version; I cross my hands behind my back and stare into in the English. Moments later we are both openly weeping.
Rizal’s final prose found their way to the young Filipino independence movement when he hid them in a lamp that he handed to his mother a few hours before the Spanish executed him for treason. The poem weaves together a great love of place, nationalist pride, and the struggle with death by martyrdom. Think Jesus in the garden. It is both hopeful and defiant; it recognizes nature and nation and one’s relationship with fate. I highly recommend you read it in the first light of the morning.
Rizal had the kind of stuff inside him that inspires worship, and many churches near Mount Banahaw in central Luzon assert Rizal was the second coming of Christ. Rizalistas– they call themselves. Instead of ten commandments they have three: LOVE–God, people, and society. They believe that three angels picked up the Holy Land and started moving it. The story goes that one of the angels got tired and decided to let his end touch down, right in the Philippines, and a new Holy Land was born.
Fast forward to a bus stop outside of the new Zion. After being moved by Rizal’s words to visit the holy Mt. Banahaw, May and I stand in the black of night watching our tricycle driver trying to hail us a bus bound for somewhere else, anywhere else. We are leaving this weird holy place after getting stonewalled by park “authorities” and, more dishearteningly, local citizens when trying to hike the mountain. Two days of bureaucratic hoop jumping for a permit that never came and an outright stupidity by locals to accept a bribe has zapped all previous enthusiasm for our pilgrimage. I guess I don’t blame the Filipinos, it is kind of odd that the best thing we have left of Washington is the one dollar bill and a phallus the size of a skyscraper. (Better Lincoln, the five dollar bill and a permanent seat to rest…)
But we have learned things. Namely, I am struck by the gallows humor of the Filipino people. They laugh out loud when you scrape your Birkenstock on the cracked sidewalk and have to steady yourself to avoid a costly fall with a backpack. I sense in them a joy in other’s misfortune. Category 5 typhoons for three months of every year will do that. You’d have a bit of a twisted sense of irony if a storm took your entire village and redeposited it in the South China Sea once a generation. #thanksYolanda. Plus the Pinoy are Catholic, VERY Catholic. I have yet to see a jeepney or neckline of a basketball jersey without the image of Christ on the cross. The rosary is a tired, sagging image of execution and yet somehow Catholics keep hanging Him. Every hour of every day. Hanging Him. Even on Easter. Hanging and pointing to the crown of thorns.
May and I point ourselves eastward at ten in the evening, haphazardly boarding the bus with a headful of frazzled nerves. Caffeine and frustration are coursing through us and we have not even begun our night of travel. The driver does not acknowledge us but I see his hands grip and re-grip the steering wheel through leather gloves. A true driver. I can hardly get the pack off and nearly decapitate myself lunging through the aisles. May searches for a temporary home for our beloved ukulele, and, finding none, tosses it at a seat in the very back. A comic book twang emits from the light strings. The Americans have boarded.
So many people boarded this bus that May and I will not sit together. I remain standing for a few long moments waiting for one woman, who sprawls between two seats pretending not to see me. I cough loudly. Nothing. I flag down the ticket man. He makes the necessary introductions. The woman looks at me through one stinking eye and moves to the aisle seat. I look down the length of my six-foot frame, stare into her eye, and cram myself next to the window.
The next four hours are the epitome of traveling. In lieu of air conditioning this bus has uninstalled the vents so one continuous polar blast lands on top of my head. I have on my basketball jersey, shorts and Birkenstocks. I have spent ten days in the White Clouds and not been this cold. I try and turn my head to find May and receive an emphatic elbow to the ribs from my saintly seatmate who still feels I am ruining her nap. I improvise and tie the window curtain to the top of my seat, deflecting the polar vent and walling off the unruly neighbor. Then I wrap my trusty Biff scarf into a beanie and try to settle in.
The driver must think this all some video game where he can earn extra lives through swerving for imaginary coins. How else to explain his erratic behavior? The blind passes at seventy miles an hour. The brakes he stands on only to swerve back onto the shoulder. He’s piloting our bus like a Masarati with a trailer attached. I’ve ridden badly driven buses in third world countries before. But never like this. I feel him grinding through second gear as he climbs the hills, I feel him reaching for third. It’s like I have stepped onto the high wire between two tall buildings, and I’ve forgotten the pole, and the wind has picked up. And then I look down.
When a hard rain begins hitting the window I become completely terrified. The brakes begin to sound like the bleating of an innocent lamb. I cannot bury my head anywhere. All I see are blurred headlights and wraith-like dogs sprinting out of our path. I really wish May sat next to me. I bow and interlace my fingers, but there is no peace. The night envelopes me. I stare into Rizal’s great mystery and the mystery
Many people have asked May and I when we plan to return from this trip. It’s the perfectly reasonable question of concerned parents, coworkers and friends (hers especially!). To be sure, we have designs on the future. We have plans and schemes, jobs to apply for and places we would like to end up. As we sit here safe in the light of a beach sunset our discussion leans toward car seats and what to cook on Sunday evenings when we have guests.
I am proud of us. I think we have witnessed some great dawn because we left everything for this moment in time. Traveling, like religion, teaches us that we know not what really lies ahead. That the path to the Divine includes corners that you just can’t see around . And none of us…not me, or May, or even you dear reader can say for certain how this all ends.
And that realization makes each land all the more holy,
each moment all the more sacred.