The Philippines: Steam and Ghosts, Part III

The zoo is an hour’s drive in the rain, through soupy fields of rice paddies. Occasionally we pass a farmhouse that seems to float in the water around it. A family sits on the porch: a grandmother,  a mother, and a small boy watching a teenaged boy steering their water buffalo through the muddy furrows.

Next week in class, our last, we will cover obscene imagery. The class is no longer shocked, or if they never really were, no longer embarrassed to speak it aloud.  They make jokes, stretching obscenity to oblivion. We are nearly finished here.


I love my class and am humbled by them, but I’m glad this trip will end soon. Travel is fracturing, it challenges every aspect of the way you’ve chosen to live your life. I love it. It’s exhausting. More exhausting than usual here in the Philippines, where the air is crowded with ghosts of nativity, of usurpation, very real ghosts of little boys that seem to follow me and spill powder cases on my classroom desks. I haven’t been sleeping well.  The gravity of this place is so heavy. In the air you can always smell the plants and their timeless cycle of decay, layer upon layer upon layer.

As we get closer to the zoo, the land becomes green and dense again. The car slows for families of long-tailed macaques, who gaze flatly as we drive around them. On the sides of the road, in the foliage, are tucked dilapidated old buildings that were once part of the U.S.’s Clark Air Base. Some are  hospital buildings whose emergency doors hang on their hinges and dare you to enter their black interiors. At this point, I would not go into one of these places for all of the money in the world.

When we arrive at the parking lot you can see the zoo sprawling away into the undergrowth. Animal Garden! Crooked trails lead away from the reception area. Circus show!  They are marked by signs for the attractions that wait at the ends of the trails. Alligator Pit! Tiger Train!

On the backdrop of the circus stage, little wooden doors open and shut, ejecting cats, dogs, pigs, and rats who run on a catwalk from one door to the next door.

pigsAs a door opens and an animal comes out, I catch a glimpse of the trainers and their flitting hands before the door shuts again. I listen for harsh words but hear none. Instead, they interact with the animals in a language of chirrups. On stage, the animals are chirruped to, and they jump, or roll over, or run up the trainer’s leg, and they are given treats and a soft pat, and scooted backstage again. A pig named Dora. A dog named Nikolai. Volunteer children from the audience hold an albino ball python. They are each given a stuffed toy for their courage.

In the animal garden there is a walking trail through a large enclosed canopy. Of all the animals, the water buffalo and the mouse deer are native to the Philippines. Exotic birds cry overhead, or rap their beaks on the roots of trees. The buffalo is balding and the ostriches are plucking their feathers out. The animals here are prized showpieces. Unlike the cats, dogs, and pigs, it is harder to domesticate them. Though the animals’ areas have been constructed with care, there is a palpable sadness here.

balding buffalo

And in this maze of exploitation, (this word hits me over the head again and again in every zoo), in which the people who are exploiting the animals have have also been exploited, and must create quaint parodies of lush ecosystems to entertain we who contribute to destroying the real ecosystems, so that they start these businesses out of good capitalism and out of necessity,  in all of this sad webbing, there are always, inexplicably, bright spots.


The nun is on a tour with other nuns from Bataan. She has done nothing to attract the birds, they just come to her.

Now someone in red jeans is teasing our tour guide. I don’t have a gender. I believe in gender hegemony, the person says into the guide’s ear.

Our tour guide isn’t listening. He’s annoyed that we’re beginning to mingle with the other groups, and now it’s much more difficult to keep us on the brisk schedule he’s been allotted.

I stop to look at a pale yellow parrot. I have an idea that I’d like to tell him I’m sorry, but he begins to fall off of his perch, playing dead.

In the alligator pit there is a sign that reads Please Don’t Tease the Animals, but they are selling sticks strung with raw chicken. You dangle the stick down to the waiting group of alligators in their concrete pool. The temptation to yank the chicken up and down, just out of reach of the snapping jaws, is too much for some.


On the tiger train, we pass tigers panting in the sun, reclining in the shade of a thin tree.

The parrot isn’t playing dead, he’s playing acrobat on the Olympian high bars. He starts to swing around the branch, faster and faster.

When the trainer lowers the stick, one tiger gets up lazily and jumps onto the transparent fiberglass roof of our Jeep. We drive for 100 meters and gaze at the fur of his underbelly. We stop, and he jumps down.

As the bird swings upright he peek-a-boos, spreading his neck feathers in a fan. People stop to watch him, but he’s only looking at me.

If you pay extra, another tiger will stand on his hind legs with his paws on your window grate. He will take the piece of raw chicken gently in his teeth, like a kitten.

He’s preening for you, my friend says.

At the end of the tour, tigers in steel cages are ready to be taken out for photo opportunities. On one side of the entrance are two cubs in a cage. In the catwalk on the other side, their mother. She is full of rage.

It hurts to walk away from that bird, while he’s still dancing for me, just walk away from him.

We purchased the photo opportunity. My friends had been silent throughout the tour. I guessed that they never came here except with visitors. This tiger was different, tame. The trainer petted him like a dog and fed him from a bottle. He thundered onto the bench in front of us. My friends and I put our hands on his back. His fur was so rough it hurt.

As I walk away the bird is still calling.  I realize that although this place seethes with many kinds of ghosts, I have never been haunted. The swollen hands, the sleeplessness, the feeling of a companion–I am pregnant, and the bird is dancing not for me but for the innocence of my baby.

On the last day in class we have pastillas, milk sweets with condensed milk and no preservatives, coated with sugar and wrapped in little twists of paper. There are no more strange occurrences, no counting the class aloud and coming up with an extra person, no white faces in the window.

The woman who brings the milk sweets has seven children. Six are hers and one was left at her door soon after her baby girl was born. He got into her heart and now they’re the twins that aren’t really twins. I think about that as I fly back to Europe.

When I get home I take a test, not willing to trust entirely a vision I had in front of a dancing bird. The Luxembourg air in our apartment is light and air-conditioned, no longer heavy as it was in the Philippines. There is no poverty in Luxembourg. Prostitutes are discrete, and, from what I’ve seen at the train station, are older than high school graduates. We have no exotic animals to worry about exploiting. Gender identity is not as dialectic here. Its history of invasion, because every country has one, is of Western countries on another Western country, and is somehow less conflicting to me than the forces I felt at work in the Philippines.

I feel silly for ever having felt haunted. The Philippines fade. But I am pregnant, and I will later discover that the baby is a boy, just as the figure sitting on my chest in my dream was a boy. David and I celebrate the baby, calling our friends and family. We will fly to Argentina the very same day I get home.

A few weeks later, someone emails me the results of the shemale pageant Gisele told me about during my first week, the one she knew she wouldn’t win. To everyone’s surprise, the blue-eyed girl went home empty-handed. It was  Gisele with her self-consciousness, her deep presence, Gisele who wants someday to be a singer, who swept them all away.



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