Every time I return from a deployment, I don’t stay home for very long. I stay home just long enough to drop off my gear, say my hellos to friends and family, and then I leave again for about a month. Usually, I’ll fly to Germany, Hannover in particular, to blow off steam and decompress. Anyone who says that they have returned from serving in Iraq or Afghanistan and claims that they don’t need to blow off steam and decompress has never served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
After my last tour of duty in Iraq, however, I decided to change things up a bit. Instead of flying to Hannover I decided to take a trip to my family’s native country of the Philippines. I don’t know why. I guess it was just something different to do. My mother’s family comes from a place in the northern Philippine Island of Luzon called Baguio City. For those who have never been there, Baguio is a remarkable place. It is a city built high in the mountains and only four roads lead to and from the sprawling city, although during typhoon season, only two roads lead to and from the city as the other two roads usually get washed out.
Starting from sea level, it usually takes between forty minutes to one hour to drive the narrow roads that oftentimes doubles back on itself as it snakes around steep gorges, lush green rice terraces, in order to reach the city in the mountains. Amazingly, entire communities and villages are built into the sides of the mountain with houses, shops, and farms literally constructed on top of each other. There is almost no flat place in Baguio City. A tourist will find that they are either walking up a crowded street or they are walking down a crowded street. The giant SM Mall, located in the bustling shopping district is also unique in that you can walk in at the ground floor, go up three stories, and step off on the ground floor as the mall is built into the side of a mountain. Narrow streets jam packed with busses, taxis, jeepneys, and scooters go every which way in the city, leading up and down and around the various schools, restaurants, parks, and markets.
Being so high in the mountains, the city of Baguio always enjoys relatively pleasant temperatures all year around and, when the rest of the Philippines is baking in the tropical heat of the summer, the moderate temperatures in Baguio has earned it the unofficial title of the Philippine’s Summer Capital. But it also has its draw backs as well as almost every day during the afternoon between 2 pm and 6 pm, a visitor can expect it to rain. During typhoon season, the rains could last for days and days on end leaving everything from the hard wood floors to the towels in your closet feeling cold and moist.
My mother’s family owns a rather tall house atop the tallest hill which overlooks the city. Her three story, nine bedroom home is built literally on the side of a cliff with a narrow road running down the small driveway. Again, in this community, homes were built so close together that your next door neighbor to your left could be in a house situated on ground ten feet above your house, while your neighbor to your right could be situated on ground twenty feet below you. On the top floor of my mother’s home is a balcony which gives one a breathtaking view of the entire city and surrounding countryside as well as the home of our neighbors, who live on a narrow cross street at least 100 feet below us. I don’t stand out on the balcony for long periods of time because I am scared of heights and tend to get a touch of the vertigo if I look out at the panorama for too long.
And so it was at my mother’s home on top of this hill on top of this mountain was where I found myself after my last tour of Iraq and, boy, did I need to decompress. Being trapped and surrounded by 12,000 screaming ISIS fighters and being constantly rocketed every day was no picnic. I had been napping in one of the upstairs bedrooms for most of the afternoon. It had started raining at around 3pm and didn’t start to peter off until around 7 pm. I was feeling restless and closed in since there wasn’t any reliable internet and there wasn’t much in the way of channels to watch on television, as if I could understand what they were saying anyway. I was all alone in this big house and with nothing to do, I threw on a pair of jeans and a black t-shirt that I bought from the PX at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait and stepped outside.
To get to the street, you had to walk down a narrow flight of stone steps, then get on the second landing, then walk down another flight of narrow stone steps which wound its way down to the driveway. There was a bright red metal gate which enclosed the driveway and opened up directly into the narrow street in front of the house. Once outside the gate, I turned left to where the road literally drops another fifty feet to another road below. The angle of the road is so steep, that vehicles don’t drive down this road, but more fall to the street below. Like I said earlier, the houses, shops, and little stores on this hill were built very close to one another, and as it had turned out to be a clear and pleasant evening, I had expected to see more people running about. But aside from a few stray cats and dogs, and the occasional crowing of a family rooster, I appeared to be alone on the well lit, cobblestone streets.
At the base of the hill was another crowded and bustling street. During the daytime, it was filled with automotive shops, market places, restaurants, and places to purchase farming tools and equipment. However, at night, as if by magic this is all replaced by lounges, karaoke bars, gentlemen’s clubs, and places where people can dance and mingle. Feeling in the mood for a nice bourbon and live music, I decided to walk the mile and some change down the hill to one of the nicer lounges at the base of the hill. As I said, the streets were rather narrow and the sidewalks, where there were sidewalks, were only about two feet wide. It was unusually quiet and the air was still as I began walking down one of the narrow streets which led down to the main road leading down the hill. I was enjoying the peace and tranquility of it all and the fact that I didn’t have to worry about incoming rocket attacks. I looked around and marveled at how everything here seemed to look like it was frozen in time, and that everything looked exactly like it did when it was first built back before World War Two. With the constant rains, lichen, moss, flowers and vines grew out of the stone retaining walls which lined the streets, as if they were a lost city somewhere deep in the Amazon rain forest.
I was lost in thought and didn’t even recognize that I was now at a portion of the road where the street lights were getting dim. It soon began to get misty, the results of the moist night air mixing with the warmer temperatures and soon, I could not see where I was stepping. I eventually came to a point where the winding road intersected with another main road. I wasn’t lost, but I also didn’t quite know exactly where I was. I knew, however, that if I kept taking the road that went down, I was going in the right direction. I chose the road going to the right which seemed to lead down off the hill so I followed it for a few minutes. Soon, a couple of taxi cabs appeared out of the mist and passed me going up the hill, so I knew that I was on the right track.
I soon passed a beauty salon which was on the ground floor of a tall hotel called the Mountainside Inn. I seemed to recall that the lounge that I wanted to visit was behind this establishment, but further down the base of the hill. A very narrow side street led off the main road towards the direction of the lounge but it was shrouded in darkness. I could either continue on the main road which would eventually lead to the street at the base of the hill and then turn right and walk towards the lounge, or I could see if this dark, narrow, street was actually a short cut. I decided to go down the dark and narrow street to see where it led because I was an American soldier fresh from war vacationing in a foreign land where I barely recognized any landmarks. So, yeah. No common sense.
I walked in the middle of the street because the mist and fog were now all around me and I didn’t want to step into a ditch or open drain which I knew lined the streets. The road wound down between the Mountainside Inn on the right and a low stone wall to my left and led downwards, so I knew I was still going in the right direction. But instead of turning left towards the main road at the base of the hill like I had expected, the road went right, doubling back on itself and winding back up the hill. The houses next to me were pitch black and there were no working street lights here as the mist seemed to swallow me in its embrace.
I thought about doubling back and walking to the main road but, eh, I really wasn’t in a hurry. Plus, this walk was kind of cool. In fact, it was getting cooler by the second. It was downright chilly. Just as I had the feeling that I wasn’t alone on this dark stretch of road, an icy chill ran up my spine and I could just barely see my shadow in front of me from a faint glow to my back. Thinking that a car was approaching behind me, I turned around to see a young lady in a white dress standing ten feet from me. At first, I thought that the reason I could see her was because of the light from the moon, but I soon realized that she was the one who was actually glowing.
“Huh,” I thought. “That’s cool.”
I stared at her for a second. The air around her seemed to shimmer ever so slightly, so I could not see her in any exact detail. However, from the expression on her face, I could tell that this young lady was not happy to see me. With my knowledge of the traditional Filipino language somewhere between none and zero, I did the only thing that I could do.
“Hi,” I said in English.
The glowing young lady with the angry expression said nothing, but in my head I could hear, “Japanese…”
“I... wait… what?” I said. “How did you do that?”
“You are a soldier. You are Japanese,” came the angry voice in my head in an accusing tone. “You are a Japanese soldier.”
“I… well, yeah. But I’m only about a quarter Japanese. I’m mostly Filipino… and a little Spanish and Chinese if my mom is to be believed. Grandma got around a lot, I guess.”
“You are a Japanese soldier!” she screamed in my head. “You do not belong here! This is our land!”
Somewhere is her rage I could also hear desperation and sadness. During the Japanese invasion of the Philippines in World War Two, the Japanese had done unspeakably cruel and violent things to the Filipino people. The Filipino people were subhuman in the eyes of the Japanese and the Japanese soldiers often took pleasure in tossing Filipino babies into the air so that they could try to impale them with bayonets. In fact, the reason why I am part Japanese was because a Japanese soldier had gotten my grandmother pregnant.
My mother had told me stories of a young lady in a white dress that was savagely raped and brutally murdered by the Japanese. Her ghost was said to haunt these hills, guiding innocent travelers who may have gotten lost and frightening evil men who had wicked intentions.
“I am not frightened of you, miss. I am not an evil man, and I have no wicked intentions.”
“Japanese soldier,” she hissed.
“Yes,” I admitted. “I am part Japanese, and yes, I am a soldier. But I am an American soldier.”
I paused, wondering if she would say anything. She just stared at me, as if waiting.
“We fought side by side with you. We suffered with you. We bled and we died with you. And together, we were defeated by the Japanese with you.”
“But a promise was fulfilled. We returned again, and we threw out the Japanese soldiers. This land belongs to the Filipino people. I am sorry for what had happened to you, but I am not your enemy. I am an American soldier.”
The young lady regarded me for a second, then slowly turned away, seeming to take the mist with her. The air grew warmer and the street lights flickered on as she slowly vanished.
“Go with god,” I said as she finally faded from view.
In my head, I heard one last word. “Salamat.”
Later on, as I was relaxing and enjoying a nice bourbon on the rocks at the crowded Miles Club, I asked the friendly bar tender what the word ‘salamat’ means.
“Wait,” he laughed. “You’re Filipino and you don’t know what ‘salamat’ means?”
“Humor me,” I said.
“Salamat,” said the bartender, “Is Filipino for ‘thank you.”
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