By the Sulu Sea — Chapter Two — His Blue Eyes
Huge acacia trees spread shade over the sidewalks. Everywhere she looked, there was someone. Kids in school uniforms of white shirts and navy-blue shorts or skirts smiling at her. Swarms of tricycles. Lots and lots of people. Ahead, across a busy street, a huge red sign said Edwin’s Chinese Food Palace and Disco. And not far from that, she could see the Mercury Drug she was looking for.
OK, now, how do I get across this crazy street? Shelby stepped up to the curb and took her cue from others on the corner. When there was a slight gap between a jeep and a trike, the people started across. She joined the throng. Miraculously, somehow, the trike stopped long enough for them to get halfway across the street. And now they were all standing right in the middle of a busy street. This is scary. But somehow the traffic coming the opposite direction stopped, and Shelby and the group walked safely to the other curb. Whew. That was nerve-wracking. Shelby took a deep breath and turned toward the drug store.
Once inside, she wandered up and down the aisles, looking for skin ointments. Shampoo and conditioner, face cleansers, skin whiteners, huge cans of powdered milk and baby formula, little boxes of ‘plasters’ – those looked like Band-Aids – but no anti-biotic or anti-fungal ointments. She asked another customer about where to find them, and the woman pointed to the counter in the back.
At the back of the store, the counter was crowded with people waiting to be served, clustered two- or three-deep. The rest of the customers were so much shorter than her, Shelby felt like a giant. And they were standing much closer to her than felt comfortable. But if she kept her space and kept standing back, she realized she would never get waited on. Everyone was just making their way around and in front of her.
The other customers held little pieces of cut-up cardboard they’d written their orders on. Shelby stretched her long arm out toward the counter and got one for herself, and wrote her order on it. Then she held out her arm again, this time with her little piece of cardboard in it.
Yes. It worked. Shelby was delighted when one of the counter personnel took her slip, asked her a few questions and filled her order. Whew. Another victory.
As Shelby headed back outside, she realized she’d have to cross that busy street again. Oh well. She took another deep breath and positioned herself in the middle of a group of people waiting to cross. OK, here we go. Venturing out, the group crossed one lane at a time. Again, miraculously, the traffic paused long enough for them all to get across. Shelby stepped up onto the opposite curb in triumph. I did it. So now I’ve crossed the street and bought some medicine. Why does that feel like such an accomplishment?
The street and sidewalks had filled with even more people while she was in the store. Shelby was drawn to the sound of a band booming through loudspeakers somewhere ahead of her. I have some time to kill before dinner time. I guess I’ll go check it out. Shelby followed the crowd down the street a little way, and up some steps. At to the top of the steps, she saw a park with a bandstand. Shelby wandered into the crowd gathering there. What is going on? Is this a normal event? Do they always have concerts here?
Shelby eased her way through a group of teenagers toward the bandstand. The music stopped, and now a Filipino man’s voice blared through the speakers. He was speaking English, but the scratchy sound system made Shelby struggle to understand what he said. He was obviously impassioned, but she could only make out a few words. She glanced around at the crowd. Some were listening intently. One woman put her hand over her mouth. Another woman bounced a baby on her hip. A man nodded. Little kids climbed up and jumped off the metal bar fence encircling the grandstand area.
Shelby’s eyes were drawn to a tall young guy surrounded by people. He was talking and waving his hands around. Hmmm. Who is that? He is some kind of foreigner. Is he American, Australian, British, German? Nice looking. She gravitated to him. Getting closer, she caught his voice. He was speaking English loudly and had an American accent. He looked over the heads of the little crowd around him and shot a grin at her. “Hey,” he said, then went on talking to his little group.
“The accusations are piling up. Some say the current governor is behind it. Others say he is being framed by his rival, and his rival organized it to make it look like the governor did it.” Shelby eased herself into the little group. The guy beamed a hello. Then, to the others, “Many people here are angry. They want justice. Doc Gerry was still young. He had five daughters. He shouldn’t have been killed for speaking his mind.”
Shelby waited a minute while some of the group expressed their agreement. Then she jumped in, “Hi. I just arrived a few hours ago. Can you tell me what is going on here? What is that guy on the stage talking about?”
“Hey there. I’m Jesse. Jesse Sestone.” He stuck out his hand, and as Shelby shook it, she was startled by his blue eyes. Turquoise. Like the sea. Sparkling yet deep. Wow.
Jesse smiled at her, then turned serious. “A radio broadcaster was assassinated here in town a few months ago. He had been very vocal about environmental issues. He was against the mining being done here. And he was about to show evidence of corruption of some high officials. It’s bad enough that anyone should be killed for speaking their mind. But it is worse because he has five kids. His wife is the town veterinarian. Everybody in town knows them. The killing happened right out on the street next to their vet clinic in the middle of the day.”
“Oh, that’s awful,” Shelby said.
As Jesse and his group continued their discussion, Shelby studied him. Nice and tall. Broad shoulders. Fit. Tan. Hmmm. Not bad. Not bad at all. Wonder what his story is? Probably taken. He’s obviously not the shy type.
Shelby let the conversation swirl around her and looked over the crowd at the bandstand. The atmosphere felt more street party than political rally. Young teen girls in baggy plaid uniforms giggled together. Young guys, in their navy slacks and white shirts, with hair in every possible array of gel and mousse, hovered in groups of three and four near the girls.
Shelby took it all in. I have so much to learn about this place. And I just learned one new fact: speaking out against environmental abuse can get you killed.
She shook her head and blew out a deep breath. It all seemed overwhelming. The heat. The crowds. The mystery of the little grave she saw north of Manila. And now add political intrigue and danger. Tomorrow she was to head out to the place of her assignment. So much depended on her success with her project. And now she wasn’t sure she was up to it. What had she been thinking, coming half-way around the world? Surely, she could have found a project to work on in California or maybe across the border, down in Baja, Mexico. What did she think she was doing flying all the way across the Pacific to a country she knew so little about?
“Hey, you didn’t tell me your name.” Jesse was there, right by her side, studying her with those blue, blue eyes. She snapped back into the present.
“I’m Shelby.” She had a hard time thinking of what else to say, with those eyes looking down at her.
“Well, Shelby, you said you just arrived a few hours ago. From where? And where are you staying?”
“Um. From Manila. But really from California. San Diego. And I’m staying at The Backpacker Inn.”
“OK, Shelby-from-San-Diego. I’m staying at The Backpacker too. And I need to get back there. Want to walk with me?”
“Sure. Thanks. That would be great.” Shelby felt stupidly tongue-tied. Say something witty, dummy.
“So, how long are you going to be on Palawan, Shelby-from-San-Diego?” Jesse asked.
Shelby smirked. What a goofy guy. “I’m here all summer, two months.”
“Wow. That will be great. You’ll be able to see a lot during that time. Are you heading up to the Underground River, and El Nido, and Coron?”
“Um. No. I’m going to be in a little fishing village down south, near Brooke’s Point. Out on a tiny island, actually. I’ll be on a research project,” Shelby said.
Jesse was leading them through the crowd and across the park to the other side. They veered toward the sidewalk Shelby had walked earlier. “Wow. Cool. I thought you were a tourist. I’m on a little research project of my own.” As they headed up the street, Jesse nodded and greeted to each person they passed.
“Oh, interesting. What’s yours?” Shelby asked.
“Well, I’m biking all over the Philippines looking for World War II sites. There are even some sites right here in Puerto Princesa.”
Shelby tipped her head up to him, squinting her eyes questioningly. “Really?”
“Yep. I was a Poli-Sci major. History buff. My grandpa fought in the Philippines in World War II, and all my life I heard his stories and wanted to see the places for myself. My grandpa is, well was, my hero. He’s gone now. So, I’m taking a year off school. I finished my MA and needed a break from papers and libraries. I can tell you, my dad isn’t too happy about that.”
Shelby chuckled. “You know, my grandparents spent some time in here in the Philippines, too. But it was after the war.”
“That’s cool,” Jesse said.
“Yeah, my granddad was in the Navy, stationed at a Navy base. So, my mom was here when she was a little girl. They are thrilled I’m here. Well, my grandparents are, I mean,” Shelby corrected herself.
They continued chatting as they walked along. As they entered The Backpacker, Jesse turned his head and looked twinkling into Shelby’s eyes. “Hey, a bunch of us usually meet for dinner out here around 7:30. See you then?”
“Uh. Yeah. Uh. That sounds good.” Shelby met Jesse’s eyes, pressed her lips together, then looked down. “I guess I’ll go catch up on my emails. OK. See you then.” She turned and headed off to her room. Man, this guy throws me. There was something powerful about him. Those eyes. Interesting guy. Cyclist. Friendly. And apparently smart, too. What’s not to like? Slow down, watch it, girl. You know a guy like that has a girlfriend already. Or two. Or three.
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