When I first travelled around West Africa, I was on a mission to prove myself Intrepid, Resourceful, and, rather like the Chief Scout of the World B-P, Able to Take on Life’s Shit. As a result I would often find myself on my own in some godforsaken location, usually in a place with only one bus a week and at the whim of a group of suspicious, predominantly male villagers. Such enormous fun!
Obviously I’m a lot older now, and perhaps haven’t wrestled any crocodiles yet, but can certainly handle the cultist housemates, egomaniacal publishers and passive aggressives that life can throw at One. But it was a cold bucket of déjà vu tossed over my stenchy cadaver when I rolled up to the hotel. I had stayed there before, it was just on the other side of the globe.
Isolated from Quezon by a length of beach, two tiny fishing villages and a stream you had to wade through up to your crotch, the Tabon Village Resort was quiet, eerie and completely cut off from anywhere. I would perch on the restaurant balcony looking out over the islands of the Tabon Caves while the thin struts underneath groaned and sagged, threatening to burst down to the sea below. If I was lucky, a gang of mildly drunk locals (relatives of the Belgian guy who owned the hotel) would drink brandy, make obnoxious comments and play cards until it was too windy to continue. A gang of houseboys would scuff about with a giant menu (of which there was only one dish available, the tanguigue, a kind of giant sardine) bringing me beers as I wrote, and gaze at me hotly from the kitchen.
On the first day there I heard a milky, slopping sound by my feet and noticed that the winding stairs down to the first level finished in a pool of seawater that sparkled and reflected the sun onto the roof. I scuttled downstairs with both cameras bristling, and discovered a whole first floor that was flooded by the tide. A yellowing plastic chair washed up in one corner, some forlorn washing hung above my head and driftwood bobbed about in the shafts of sunlight. A woman leaned through one window to throw a bucket of dirty water in, and clucked with surprise at the sight of me wading about with my pants rolled up. According to the owner, the first floor was entirely useable, but flooded every full moon.
The Tabon Village Resort would have employed over 15 people: some houseboys for the guest(s), handymen to fix the place as it fell down around everyone’s ears, some small boys to sweep the paths every morning and afternoon, and the kitchen staff. Apart from their daily tasks, it was the job of all male staff to take deliberate detours past my perch on the balcony, beach or hut, constructing reasons to use the tap outside my room, rearrange the chairs on my decking, switch on my porch light after I’d turned it off at night or energetically prune the vine hanging near my drying undies whilst craning and rubbernecking in a manner that would dislocate the neck of most healthy people. I know, I know. They were just curious, and didn’t know what to do with the idea of an unmarried woman hanging out with her cameras, well-chewed drawing pencils and pens teeming behind each ear. But…my god…I love my space.
As I walked up the beach, the kids collecting cockles could be heard far in the distance with a kind of half-hearted chant: “Ma’m…ma’m…I’m hungry….give me money…give me food….ma’m…ma’m…” I would plop on a ruined bench, emitting a long sigh, looking out to the flat browny-grey sea dotted with fishing boats, and only get up at the behest of the hundreds of mosquitoes alighting on my toes.
The day after my attempt at a glamorous bathe, I made off early for the Tabon Caves, and after the aforementioned hike, wade and hitchhike back into town, found a boatman to take me there. In this part of the world, there are dozens of tribes who wear bark, forage for food and live in caves during the rainy season. The original inhabitants of this area lived in a complex of 200 limestone caves that date back to 47,000 years ago, that are full of tiny wee burial jars and strange tunnels. I spent a wonderful morning clambering about caves and jungle, imagining myself all loinclothed and Paleolithic (in the low season you don’t get any guides, but I found the boatman more than willing to point at the signs and grunt encouragingly). I’ll let the pictures tell the story – the caves were well worth the wacky accommodation to see them.
As the tide was nice and high when I returned to the Tabon Village Resort, well past the ominous stripe I now knew to be the Bog of Eternal Stench, I thought the time was ripe for another dip. I splashed in confidently up until the dark patch then flopped forward onto my belly, pulling myself through the mud with splayed hands like a particularly fetching axolotl. I squelched through handfuls of silt and thick forests of seaweed, finally coming to some firmer rock. I discovered than that the rock was ridged with hundreds of fine seams as sharp as razor blades, which tore my palms to shreds.
I kept going – the water had to get deep at some stage. My bloodied hands kept prowling over rock – then mud – then some more rock and finally a slight dip indicated that the mud was hollowing out to some sort of silty bottom. I rolled over, hippo-like, to stretch out on my back. I was reminded of a hungover Withnail in Uncle Monty’s darkened house, soaked to the skin, freezing, with half a sodden cigarette, turning to Marwood and saying, “I’m enjoying. My. Holiday.” It actually gets worse – I then noticed a minute stinging all over my body – like thousands of tiny pinpricks and pinches. Millions of infinitesimal jellyfish stingers had invaded my cozzie, roaming up and down my back, sides and all parts south. I did an about turn, and raced back to shore as the stinging intensified, my torn palms sang and I was lashed with muddy seaweed. Such relaxation!
I was actually quite fond of the room – made of woven palm strips, creaking bamboo slats with huge gaps to the outside and wood offcuts, it had a bleak charm, like the picture below describes. For some reason I’ve always liked these little vignettes: the rusty fan that works intermittently; the checked tablecloth; the smooth shell; the dirty ashtray and the 1950s green paint in the bathroom with the old mirror. Although I can’t explain it, it’s always been something I’ve found oddly pleasing, and this is one of my favourite shots from the whole trip.
There was a huge lizard scampering about the bathroom, which is an absolute prerequisite for this kind of place. The maid’s inventory is all like ‘1 x thin stripy sheet, suspicious stain on upper right-hand corner, 2 x rickety beds, homemade, 2 x mosquito nets, jagged holes compulsory and 1 x fuckoff outsized reptile, tail optional.’ This monster would lurk behind my washing bucket and only emerge once all my clothes were off and I was too soapy to do anything about it.
After a wash I sat for a while on my unstable decking to watch the sun disappear behind a Talisay tree, thinking the kind of expansive thoughts you get in moments of complete quiet. You know, those ones where you reckon you sort out the lot and take on humanity in one fell swoop. A quiet cig helps this process I find. What’s that? Smoking kills babies and keeps people voting Liberal? But when was the last time you travelled alone, my friend. You do realise there’s jack all else to do by yourself. After you’ve written in your journal, drawn the local wildlife, taken pictures of everything and puffed and circled your arms about like windmills, you fire up a sweet sweet stick of fire. I stand by my holiday fags. They are $1 a packet, after all.
When it was almost dark, two houseboys shyly approached my ramshackle stoop. Sam was the cool kid with spiky hair, white jeans and neon lights on his mobile phone. Romel was bashful and gawky, with an oversized t-shirt and shuffling toes. Neither of them had enough English for a proper conversation, and I had about two words of Tagalog. We bumbled along, and I found that they were only 20 years old, enjoyed the oevre of Snoop Dogg, wouldn’t mind a cigarette, and perhaps if it were possible if Romel could have my cell number, if I had a phone if I wouldn’t mind awfully. After much chuckling I told them I didn’t have a cell, and sent them on their way. Ah, little chap I thought fondly. What on earth did he think he would do with my number if he had it?
That night I had trouble getting off to sleep. The beachfront was full of sounds – giant reptiles slithered through matchstick forests, vampire bats played their sinister coconut bongos in the trees and armies of stink badgers readied their weapons of mass destruction in their underground lairs. At midnight I heard something grunting and snuffling on my porch, and with pounding heart peered out the window (through a fist-sized hole in the flywire) to find one of the village dogs rousting through my bin. I picked up the scattered rubbish, put the bin indoors and shooed him away. Hopping back into bed I tucked the mosquito netting about me, remembering from sorry experience in Senegal – where I had someone break into my room and leer over my bed – to put my torch and glasses by my pillow.
I awoke again at 1am with a jerk, to find the porch lights on all the huts turned off, including mine. The Tabon Village Resort was plunged into blackness. Through the layers of sleep I heard this: “ma’m….ma’m…ma’m…ma’m…ma’m…ma’m…ma’m…ma’m…” I struggled to wake up, and head someone creaking around on my porch. There was a very soft tapping at my door, and a dark shape at the window. I grappled for my glasses while the door handle turned slowly. The voice continued: “ma’m….ma’m…ma’m…ma’m…ma’m…ma’m…ma’m…ma’m…iskuyus…ma’m…” It kept going, like a crazy chant.
Remembering my earlier brag to Annoi that ‘we could take on these dinky Filipino blokes with one hand tied behind our backs,’ I froze on my knees, waiting. The chanting stopped, while I peered through the netting with my heart roaring. The creaking stopped, then the chanting started up again. “Who’s there?” I barked, mentally scanning any available weapons, only coming up with sneakers and a pink Ladyshave. One big creak and the prowler took off into the darkness. I checked each window fearfully, but all I could see was waving palm trees and black hedges.
I palpitated for an hour, turning my position around to face the door and made myself as uncomfortable as I could to stay awake. Being the only person staying in the hotel, there was not much I could do. Every horror movie I’d ever seen told me that to leave the hut would be madness, and that the Final Girl always stayed on to fight. In the distance, a porch light snapped on.
I thought boiling, angry thoughts for a while, and plotted what I was going to do the next day when the sun came up. I looked down to the ground, and instead of feet I had long tree roots, covered in vines, creepers and moss, and when I lifted up both hands they were long veiny branches, stretching out to the sky…ahhh…sleep.
At 3am I woke up.
This time the voice was right by my head! Just on the other side of the thin nipa wall, I heard the chant, this time more urgent: “ma’m..ma’m……ma’m….iskuyus…ma’m…ma’m…..ma’m…please you wake…ma’m….ma’m…..ma’m…”
Bastard must have looked in through the wall and knew where I was sleeping! This time pure anger took over, and I leapt to my feet howling and beating the air like a gorilla: “GET THE FUCKAWAYFROMHERE YOU GODDAMMFREAK!! PIECE OF SHIT!! ARSEHOLE!! PERVERT!! YOU COME NEAR HERE AGAIN AND I’LL KICK YOUR FUCKING HEAD IN, YOU FUCK!!”
A few soft, grassy steps and the prowler took off again. I swept wrathfully to the door and kicked it open to address the night: “AND I’M TELLING YOUR BOSS TOMORROW, MOTHERFUCKER!” I snapped the porch light on, slammed the door shut again and hammered the wall, for good measure.
It’s not a good night when you’ve got your glasses on in bed. I sat up straight to glare at all the windows and checked the time: 3:10am. I figured there’d be another couple of hours until daylight, then I could make good my escape. I thought I’d be OK if only I could stay awake.
An indistinct clunking was happening outside, like someone running up and down, scuffling? Pulling something around? Playing? I’m not much of a screamer, but I sat up and set free a kind of keening cry until the sound stopped.
The next thing I knew, light was pouring in all the cracks in my room, and the new day was upon me. Another sound was outside the front of my hut, this time more of a brisk, officious morning sound, like metal striking something. A small, swarthy man was sharpening his machete on the whetstone next to the tap. If that’s not an omen of ‘get the hell outta here’ then I don’t know what is.
I’m ashamed to say that after such a night, with no sleep, the wind had gone right out of my sails. I had prepared a dramatic scene in the restaurant in front of all the staff, but would you believe there was no-one about. Instead I stomped into the restaurant, plunked my money on the counter and waded off in high dudgeon, thigh-deep through the ocean.