by Pauline Lacanilao
I hadn’t slept. So when I rolled out of bed at 4:45 am, I was already exhausted. On any other day, I’d have ignored the alarm, but this was my 27th birthday. And having recently lost my job, opportunity to go to graduate school, and boyfriend, I urged myself to move lest I revert to my routine of moping around my parents’ living room, streaming episodes of The Sopranos in between meals comprised of Cheetos and M&M’s.
It had been stormy, as most October days are, so I wasn’t looking forward to being outdoors. In fact, I was half expecting my day trip to fall through due to the weather. But when I stepped onto the soppy Ortigas asphalt at half-past 5, the clouds began to make way for the rising sun. By the time I got to the Manila Bay pier, the sky behind Makati’s silhouette was gently kindling dawn.
At mid-morning, I and a pack of American vacationers shuffled off the ferry and onto verdant Corregidor Island.
Upon disembarking, a guide pulled me aside. Having opted out of the tour package, I’d be leading myself around the island by foot. He gave me a map and some perfunctory advice, then nodded towards a German gentleman. “He’s alone too, if you want company.” But the stranger hurried away.
I went to the beach, which was more ash and rubble than sand. There I mourned the century-old warship pilings-turned-trashcans, and soaked in the drizzly breeze. Despite the visual clamor, the lush island was quiet; the tourists and their buses were long gone. On the uninhabited ridge between the open sea and densely wooded hills, my solitude weighed heavier than ever.
That is, until I found myself wandering through the jungle without a path.
I had followed the directions drawn in pink highlighter on my map: the guide sketched a shortcut for hikers who wanted to avoid the paved roads. He did not warn me, however, that during rainy season, much of the trail would be washed out or overgrown.
The metaphor wasn’t wasted on me. For 27 years I’d followed directions. And yet here I was, my oldest, wisest self — completely lost.
A year before, I had my life figured out. I was teaching Literature at two renowned universities; I had just aced the Graduate Record Exams, making me eligible for top-tier masters programs; I was spending time with a few boys who, combined, satiated the attention I craved. The future was infinitely hopeful. Yet, in one short year, I managed to lose everything on which my identity rested.
It started when I inconveniently fell in love. I was charging headlong towards my dreams when, on the highest rooftop in Metro Manila, at the turn of a new year, I met a kind, handsome gentleman. He was a real-life superhero: the type of strong that strengthens others. And he wanted to be with me! And I wanted to be with him! It was beautiful. Ever so gladly, my life screeched to a halt.
And then he didn’t want to be with me anymore. What is it about love, that when it leaves, takes all the color in the world with it? When that relationship ended, my plans for the future died too. My career, grad school, getting out of bed — none of it mattered if I had to face each new day without him.
In that jungle, I was lost in more ways than one.
I stood still, knee deep in thorny brush, wondering which way to go. For a second, I considered living in the jungle forever, learning the ways of the long-tailed macaques, and surviving off duhat trees. But hearing a twig crackle behind me, I made the instinctive decision to move in the direction opposite whence I’d come: forward.
Fear can be the best guide. The wilderness spit me onto a clearing adjacent the main road. Surveying the landscape, I nearly fell to my knees when I saw the ruins of the Middleside Barracks. I’d been hiking for hours, hungry and feeling sorry for myself. Then the bomb-pummeled skeleton of the former stronghold overwhelmed my field of vision. On my birthday, Corregidor Island gave me the gift of perspective. Amid the stains of death, I was grateful to be alive.
Granted, I was fighting my own battle, but, win or lose, I would live. I’d been examining Middleside’s destruction for a long time when a bluebird perched itself on the exposed rebar of a fallen wall. Even in utter loss, there is space for what is lovely.
Thirsty and sleep-deprived, I was ready to collapse by early afternoon. I was an hour’s walk away from the hotel’s water cooler, when a tour guide in a passing bus leaned out the window and said, “Get in, you look tired.” Happily obliging, I took the seat closest to him. As he began speaking a language I couldn’t understand, I realized everyone on the bus that so kindly stopped for me was Japanese.
Zipping past graves and cannons, sitting with people who would have — were we alive half a century ago — been my enemies, a sense of clarity washed over me.
World War Two is one of the great tragedies in human history. Seeing the destruction first hand, it is clear that no one actually wins when it comes to war. But despite how deeply wounds run, there is hope for healing.
Look at Corregidor. Who could have imagined, in 1941, when fire and blood seemed eternal, that this little island would be the site where a Filipina, Americans, a German, and a busload of Japanese people would come together to enjoy a pleasant October day in peace?
Certainly, no one in the broken-down Middleside Barracks could have pictured it. Just as I, each brokenhearted morning, can’t imagine getting through the day without the man who left. And yet, bluebirds fly.
When I boarded the ferry back to Manila, the afternoon sun was ablaze.