Cebu: The City of Eyes

by Hannah Hughes

Two female backpackers in the Philippines realize the danger they’ve walked into as they wander through the streets of a city that sees few tourists.

“I’m starving,” I asked, making pleading eye contact with my two resting friends. We were in a dorm of eight but were the only three people occupying the dark room – it seemed the only three people occupying the Filipino man’s homestay, for that matter. For two pounds a night, I couldn’t expect more: bunk beds that heighted to my elbow (the only pieces of furniture), an outside toilet with cockroach bouncers, a flimsy wooden door with a flimsy bent bolt, and one small window. When we arrived I had bee-lined for that window to draw back its green and yellow striped curtains but was greeted by the interior of a motorbike garage with ceiling spotlights that looked like they belonged in a surgery room. I had drawn them back over.

“Fine,” my friend sighed and rolled off her bottom bunk, all the way over until she hit the brown tiles two inches below. The outside world sat on the immediate side of the dorm door; no reception or lounge or hallway buffered the two. Protecting the flimsy dorm door from the noisy back-alley street was a seven-foot, barb wired wall with a gate that didn’t lock. Tired and hungry, I stuffed some pesos into my backpack and we headed out into the city for noodles, leaving our other friend to continue battling with the intermittent – yet surprising it existed at all – Wi-Fi.

This would forever be remembered as The Night We Went Out for Noodles. 

That morning we had investigated the city. I was a beginner backpacker who had done little research on Cebu – a south-central island in the Philippines – other than scroll through Google images and drool over its sugary beaches and gemstone-colored reefs. We had arrived in the early hours of the morning and, needing sleep, had booked into accommodation near the airport. My naïve arrival in Cebu City produced the exact opposite of my castaway island fantasy haloed with glimmering turquoise and explosions of emerald vegetation.

It was a place of shabby buildings and abnormally high street curbs and heckling traffic. Littered pavements were crowded with street sellers and people seemingly not up to much except hanging out, and crowds meant trouble – a theory supported by our taxi driver’s parting warning: “Stop, put backpack on front.”

The sun’s rays felt like lasers burning through markets’ plastic shelters, and as I side-stepped through the people, greasy limbs brushing past mine felt like slimed fish. Although, the scolding heat had its advantages: it distracted me from the farty potion of fermented eggs and boiled urine that stained the air, the invisible green clouds that ambushed me in a sinister smother strong enough to make my eyes water and appetite vanish.

As we three white girls boldly walked the streets – backpacks clutched to fronts like baby koala bears – all eyes were on us. Granted, this was typical of most less-visited Asian cities, but what was atypical was the look behind the eyes, the look that said this is going to be fun.

Packs of men gathered against crumbled plastered walls – sheltered under tangles of hissing electrical wires strung like Christmas tinsel – and their gaze made me feel like a stuffed pig centerpiece about to be carved. I focused my eyes on anything other than the people, playing oblivious to my zoo animal aura. This meant studying walls and lampposts and telephone poles that were decorated like new canvases, but instead of art or political messages, citizens had graffitied detailed scenes of unproportionate women being abused and sexualized. Perhaps this was their political message.

We had hurried through the eyes towards the multi-storied glass building, hopeful that a shopping center would relieve the shock with a dose of Westernization. The automatic doors glided open, icy air conditioning slapped me across my sweaty tomato face, and I breathed a sigh of gratitude. A Burger King glistened across the white tiled floor, and I swooned at the sight of patties so greasy the toxic-yellow cheese practically slid straight off them. I was transported into a world of nail salons and bakery chains and mothers with prams and the garbled chatter of normal people.

I advanced, barely suppressing my desire to twirl and leap and jump for joy, when a stark BEEP sliced the air above. I had stumbled under a security gate. The catapult to reality exposed the armed guards that over-ornamented the ground floor like a collection of prowling china cats on the mantelpiece of an unmarried aunt. The guards watched gravely, their squinty eyes brimming with I dare you as they guarded plastic boxes spilling with confiscated contraband; their scowling faces never moved a muscle, but their biceps twitched. The walls were bright with signs screaming “NO GUNS” circled in bold red and struck with a diagonal cross. Onlookers began to stare at us like a red velvet curtain had dropped to unveil our grand entrance. I retreated to hugging the squashed backpack on my front.

Illuminated galleries in Cebu City, Philippines
Photo Credit: Fritz Gabriel Carilo

It was confirmed: nowhere felt safe in the city of eyes.

Perhaps this should have warned me. Perhaps it did. For on The Night We Went Out for Noodles, the threat of the day had not fully died as we scurried along on a mission to retreat to the dorm in record time. The delicate cloudy wisps of the day had morphed into mobs of gray growths that threatened to burst, like cartoon speech bubbles snarling danger and warning. I poked my head out of the gate and tentatively glanced left then right. We headed left and turned the corner onto the poverty-ridden street, the air jumping with shouts and revving and beeping and… was that a gunshot?

I tripped in my slip-on sandals as I hurriedly marched, faking the confidence of a woman who couldn’t be intimidated, pretending men’s eyes weren’t drilling into my body as they congregated on those abnormally high street curbs. Backpack on front was not only a smart safety precaution: it also gave me something to hide behind.

For a second, the nighttime buzz and sleepless citizens made it feel like I could have been anywhere in Asia, but the sleeping menace that I tiptoed over reminded otherwise.

I imagined I was back in Singapore – the destination I had arrived from – heading for fresh food in one of the cleanest cities in the world, the temperature perfecting in the evening golden hour, on my way to demolish fat noodles and deep-fried sweet potato and greasy greens smothered in tangy sauce and –

We were being followed.

Over a dozen men had picked up our scent and were trailing about twenty feet behind, some walking, others steering slowly beside them on motorbikes. To lose our gathering, I darted inside a mini mart with my friend, her exotic blonde hair swinging left and right down her back like tantalizing ribbons. Ten minutes later, we exited the mini mart to find the pack slouched across the street, watching the shop entrance like gambling addicts on a slot machine. A man faced his motorbike at us and revved loudly; he had a square face and was short but muscly, wearing cropped cargo pants and a black tank top with Mohammad Ali on the front.

We rushed under a sheltered slab of tin where a large lady dished out plastic plates of watery noodles and soggy vegetables. The wall-less restaurant meant the dirty air had no trouble cosying up to the plated food; petrol and fumes accompanied my meal like a side order of fries. I practically drank my meal, coughing on the unidentifiable chunks while dining locals on plastic stools gawped like families at the circus.

Our clan of fans waited across the street as we ate, maintaining their distance, but incorporating incomprehensible shouts on top of their menacing sniggers and motorbike noise. There was nothing friendly about them: their rising nerve and growing recklessness luminated from them like a flashing warning sign in a nuclear power plant. As we stood up to leave, my plastic stool stuck to my legs, and when I peeled it away in a sharp sucking sound – sssst – it left white lines imprinted in my tan. I was glistening in sweat.

Cannonballing down the rowdy streets one pace below running, I attempted to lose our predators but seem calm while trying. Citizens watched, probably recognizing the fear but too habituated with the hierarchy and violence to do anything about it. A roaring motorbike sounded close enough to crash into my ankles, and when I checked over my shoulder, I nearly fainted under a tidal wave of alarm because the men were six feet away, smiling daringly, tauntingly, intimidatingly.

They were so close I could smell their beer and hair gel, hear the smick smack of their flip flops on the concrete. I was dimly aware that midges were feasting on my skin so retrieved the insect repellent from the backpack pressed to my front and sprayed myself in a mist of poison, unsure whether I was trying to repel the bites or the stalkers. The chemical stench ambushed my lungs, and my body turned into one giant pulsing sensation of punching adrenaline. Midges still nibbled my skin. Colorful beer bottles skidded past my feet and clanged against buildings, kicked by the men to remind me that they were there, to remind me that they were coming, to remind me that I was vulnerable and they would tease me how they pleased.

We skidded onto the back-alley with no choice but to enter our homestay and inform the hungry stalkers where we were staying that night. I may as well have waved goodnight and called over, “The front gate doesn’t lock, and the dorm door is pathetic, so you boys will have absolutely no trouble breaking in, ciao!” I rammed the flimsy bolt shut. The men’s shouts should have been muffled but – could it be possible? – they sounded closer, like they were pushed up against the wood getting high off our body odors.

The outside disruption never settled. Slaps and bangs tormented the night, and laughter and clamor grew with the darkness. The Filipino man who owned the homestay growled motorbikes continuously from the garage our dorm bordered, conferring with muffled voices, feeding my mind to the sharks: Is the motorbike racket an attempt to scare us? Has the man let our predators inside? Did they pay him, persuade him, bribe him…do they know him? Is he in on it with them? Will they enter our dorm in the night and do as they please? My night was spent watching the inch-high crack under our dorm door, holding my breath as I waited for movement and shadows and sets of feet to block the light.

At three a.m. we fled. I packed my bag like a wife silently rushing to leave before her abusive husband returns home, working under my phone torch rather than the naked ceiling bulb. We booked a taxi and slid through the ajar gate onto the back-alley and waited. My heart pulsed in my throat at the uncharacterized emptiness; all I could hear was the distant rumble of prowling vehicles.

As if on cue, a small man shadowed by the night turned the corner. A large metal rod in his hand glinted off the reflected light from a nearby wing mirror. As I was trying to jog my lifeless body into immediate action, a taxi’s headlights suddenly turned the corner and drove towards us. We crammed inside, our bare arms stuck together with moisture, my heart racing at the near miss. As we trawled past, I eyed the man with the metal rod, and his Mohammad Ali tank top flashed under a streetlamp.

Cover photo credit

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