I refused to yield to the knuckle in my back. The man behind me had a death grip on the metal frame of my bus seat. His knuckles angled so that whenever I tried to lean back, they ground directly into my spine. Each of the hundreds of times the bus hit a rut in the Philippine road, I bounced back into the sharp, jabbing hand. I felt like screaming — at him, at the driver, at the world — but could barely take a full breath in the stuffy bus. And we were only two hours into the eight-hour trip from Manila to Banaue.
Exhaust seeped through the cracked windows. Dust coated my teeth in a gritty paste. Sweat mixed with the grime covering my face to create a muddy run-off onto my already filthy shirt. My day had been one long battle with both the elements and my fellow travelers. I was in no mood for compromise.
My trip was to the “eighth natural wonder of the world,” the rice terraces of Banaue in the mountains of northern Luzon Island. I planned to relax in this rural retreat, hiking through hills covered with endless seas of rice plants waving in cool mountain breezes.
When I arrived at the central Manila bus terminal, wheezing buses spewed diesel fumes into the sweltering heat and humidity of the city. By the time I purchased a ticket and found the bus, my spit was black from the pollution, and my backpack made me feel as if a 30-pound leech was stuck on my shoulders, sucking out my lifeblood.
To save money, I was riding low-grade Philippine public transport: a bus that looked as though it had been rejected by a number of Third World countries. People shoved their way aboard through a departing crowd dragging bundles, boxes and babies. When I entered, every seat already had at least two people in it. Most of the filthy windows were stuck closed, and the few that were open a crack brought no fresh air. The passengers’ agitation stewed the stale air of the bus into a soup of misery.
When I tried to wedge myself into a small space in the middle of a group of people in the back of the bus, they erupted in a flurry of hissing, muttering and spitting. After a minute, I fled from this futile fight in hostile territory.
I pushed my way to the mid-bus exit door, or at least where the door would have been had it not been torn out in some long-forgotten accident. I hoped to sit on the steps, perhaps catch a breeze once the bus hit the road. But people continued to push aboard, each one trying to knock me from this prized location.
The last man to enter stood in the doorway to force me inward. When I walked up a step, I was too tall to stand erect under the low ceiling. I did not want to spend eight hours hunched into a question mark shape, so I gave up the stoop. If I had stayed, I thought I might have ended the trip like a crooked old farmer bent permanently from a lifetime in the rice fields.
I managed to squeeze onto the edge of a seat filled with two small but surly villagers. Once the bus started, they seemed to use every bounce as an opportunity to slide me off of the seat into the aisle. And then, about 45 minutes into the ride, the man behind me started the knuckle treatment.
I tried to distract myself by sightseeing, watching Manila’s cityscape fade from skyscrapers to suburbs to shantytowns and then to tropical jungle as we headed north. Wooden sari-sari shacks selling “pop cola” and Granny Goose chips dotted the side of the road like mile markers.
As the hours went by, the oppressive heat felt more than just muggy; it was like a mugging. I wilted in my seat, but the knuckles jabbed me back to attention. I was tired of giving in to the elements and to the pushy people around me.
So I neither moved to the side nor leaned forward to avoid the knuckles. I decided to fight and win this bus ride competition of discomfort. I pressed backward with all my weight in the sincere hope I would crush the man’s hand. Another hour passed without either of us giving an inch. The tough knuckles in my back had probably been shaped by decades of hard work in the fields.
As if the heat and noise and bumping weren’t enough, a foul odor began to fill the air. The baby in the seat in front of me had been screaming most of the trip and had now soiled himself. The mother simply removed the diaper and shook it out of the window.
The contents of the diaper caught in the slipstream of the bus and flew directly in the face of the man who had taken my spot in the open doorway. His shrieks of disgust and howls of anger flew back at the woman like the verbal version of human waste. The woman yelled in response. The baby screamed. The people around them argued in a confusion of dialects.
In spite of the furious yelling across the bus, I decided to try a different strategy: I turned to ask the man in the seat behind me if he would mind removing his knuckles from my back. “No problema,” he replied. The middle aged man calmly folded a set of giant, gnarled hands into his lap.
“Banaue?” he asked. I nodded.
Amid all the chaos, and as we bounced toward the eighth wonder of the world, he smiled at me like a dusty Buddha.
“Maganda, ” he said. (“It’s beautiful.”) I wasn’t completely sure if he was referring to the mountains or — somehow — the bus ride. So like him, I leaned back, folded my hands and smiled. And the rest of my ride became just a little bit cooler.
Bill Fink, is currently at work on Dunked in Manila, a basketball-themed book of his misadventures in the Philippines.