Manila, 1998

The second thing you notice, when you walk out of the Manila airport into the rain-slick night, is that you apparently don't need to breathe any more.

You grew up in the high mountain deserts of Idaho, and now that you're here, a full mile closer to the ocean, the air is thick and so oxygenated that you seem to be absorbing oxygen through your skin. One breath every five minutes seems to fit the bill. In three years you will return to the high mountain deserts where you were born and wonder how anyone can breathe when there is clearly no air up there.

But for now you're more concerned with the first thing you noticed. The first thing you noticed was that any form of motion is far too much. It's simply not possible to be this hot. Lifting your arm is an activity that drenches you in sweat, and since the air is already at 100% humidity sweating is useless.

This will get better over time. In twelve months you will stop pointing a fan at yourself while you sleep, if there is any air moving in the room you'll be fine. In eighteen months you will buy a fleece blanket because you are too cold at night.

But that is all still in your unimaginable future. You have just walked into a personal singularity, a moment for which nothing in your past has prepared you. There are four others with you, all walking into the same unimaginable future. In twenty-two years you will meet up with them on Zoom and in text threads, in the midst of a pandemic, and reminisce.

For the past ten weeks you have been trying to learn Filipino, or Pilipino, or Tagalog, a language that seems to have many names, and is only one of many languages that cluster around these islands. Your study of Tagalog will feed into your lifelong fascination with languages and spur you to start an educational career in linguistics, which will translate into your study of computer languages, which will land you a career.

For now you're trying to remember how to say “thank you” to the person who just tried to take your bags to a cab, a cab you aren't meant to ride in and don't have the right kind of money to pay for anyway.

In four days a sweet little Filipina grandma will approach you and start speaking to you. In desperation and fear you will turn to the Canadian next to you and ask “what did she say?” and he will respond “um, that was English” and you will realize—yet again—how totally out of your depth you are.

You will spend the next six months in the province of Bataan, a coincidence that will amuse you because “Bataan” literally means “place of children” and you will definitely feel like a child in this place. Everyone around you will try to speak Tagalog to you, see your panicked look, and, because the vast majority of them are well educated, they will then switch to English no matter how much you ask them not to.

Ah, yes. “Salamat po” you say to the child half your age, showing respect in a way that marks you as an outsider almost as much as six-foot-four stature and pale white skin. But you wrest your bag back and mercifully the van you were told would come to pick you up has come to pick you up.

In forty minutes, after a drive through Manila traffic, where the drivers don't even seem to obey the laws of physics, you will arrive at a large house that is designed to help scared outsiders like yourself get to where they are meant to be. Because yours is one of several planes that have landed today, you will “sleep” on a cold tile floor, staring at the ceiling all night, wondering what tomorrow will bring and having no ability to picture it.

In six months you will be back in this house, spending three weeks recuperating from having your gall bladder removed due to gall stones. Those stones are already forming silently inside you, and will be exacerbated by the diet and dehydration because you aren't accustomed to drinking five liters of water a day. Don't worry, in a year you will be used to drinking that much water.

Your adventure is beginning. You are unprepared, scared, a little homesick, possibly a little food poisoned from whatever they gave you on the plane, and—you are convinced—literally dying of the heat.

You're going to love it.

I’m publishing this as part of 100 Days To Offload. You can join in yourself by visiting 100 Days To Offload.

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