Arito, Near to Bayombong, Luzon Philippines
The first time we left Manila at around 5 am. I don’t remember eating anything, just crawling out out of bed In the Manila guest house and loading into a big white van full of supplies. Most of it wasn’t ours. The air was thick with humidity, smog, and the smell of cooking fish. The concrete was still warm from the day before. I managed to stuff myself in a back seat surrounded by bags and a blanket.
We drove for hours. Not the nice driving most people imagine where you cruise down a highway listening to some music. But a mad stop and go with swerving and honking and huge potholes and jars that often sent my head into the roof above me. We went hours without stopping. When we did stop it was to get gas and some snack food. I ate an ice-cream. Not mango ice-cream though, a plain nestle cone with vanilla and chocolate. Of course it wasn’t real ice-cream. I doubted if there was even dairy in it. Mostly likely it was just gelatin and whipped something with some chocolate on top. It was cold though, and it tasted alright. We all felt sick. It was hard not to when you were on a rollercoaster for five hours without stopping. We all begrudgingly got back in the van and started driving again.
This was before the days of GPS, and there were no real road signs the Philippines, and the maps were all out of date. I don’t know how dad managed his way from one little road to the next through the mountains and through tiny towns. But he did, and we drove onto the Arito grounds sometime in the afternoon.
Arito was a huge dead missionary school base. full of cute little non filipino houses made of boards and covered in oil to chase away the termites. The whole place was built on a hill, and covered in huge trees and buffalo grass. The hanger was on the top of the hill, and the school at the bottom. Between the Pilot house and Mechanics house there was a huge rope swing and a trampoline.
This was the kind of place MK’s are made for. In my mind I imagined strong barefoot boys swinging from the highest branches of the tree and running shirtless down the runway after some lizard. I could see soccer matches played on the semi flat field between the supply buyer’s house and the pilot house.
I never even thought of putting my flip flops on. I was right away out the door and letting the mud squish between my toes. The place smelled so fresh and and clean compared to Manila. I started to run, but remembered I needed to help unpack the van first. I dropped three boxes on my toes, and stepped on a thorn of some kind, but refused to wear shoes.
It didn’t take long for mom to get stuff unpacked and begin to cook. The hunger hit as soon as I smelled the chicken cooking. The sun went down just as we began to eat. It all felt very exciting. Eating in a new house, and eating chicken tacos none the less, with semi real cheese from Manila. The musty smell of old houses, and being on real wood floors. No more bare concrete or bamboo slats. These were real wood floors. Looking back they were full of holes, and not even close to smooth, but at the time I thought they were the real thing. Outside I could hear bugs buzzing and birds and other animals. It’s strange, because though Lada was in the middle of nowhere we really didn’t get much wildlife. Stray dogs maybe, snakes of course, and lizards, but nothing else. It was really exciting.
I slept that night without the sounds of traffic or horns and nothing but dogs and chickens and the wind to play into my dreams. For the first time since I could remember it actually cooled off slightly and I found myself chilly underneath the sheets.
Arito was the greatest adventure for me. I have written about it before, and I recognize all the terrible conflict that happened during our time there. The consequences of those conflicts came up later when were were back in Manila, or Palawan, or Mindanao, but not while were actually in Arito. At least for me. Arito was filled with old books from the library, bb guns, climbing trees, doing footwork in the grass, hitting a shuttlecock against the brick wall at the supply buyer house, and working in the shop with Dad.
I read a few books there that really impacted me. The first was “The Book Of Three” and the rest of the series by Lloyd Alexander, and the second was a book on big game hunting. The book on big game hunting really gave me motivation to perfect my skills at whatever I did because it taught decision making and the art of doing something so many times that you become a master. Lloyd somehow had a way of changing the atmosphere of my whole day with his books, and to this day that sticks with me. A nobody boy who goes on a grand adventure only to learn that it is better to be a grower of turnips than a great war hero.
I read a few other things as well that impacted me but, but have yet to change the fate of my life. I read books upon books about flying and instruments, techniques, weather, and finding your way using a map and time and and heading. I would often try these techniques on the ground, traveling from tree to tree with my eyes covered with my cap except one little piece that could look down and see my compass. I never got particularly good- I once ran straight into the tree. Apparently my step size varied.
I also learned to whittle fishhooks. This skill never got fully tested till we reached Mindanao, but I did perfect my technique in Arito. I tried to make snares and traps outsides of the mowed area of the base. The only thing I caught was a chicken, which I freed as quickly as I could because I assumed it belonged to somebody.
There were various trips to Arito. Each one blurred in the with others for some reason. No matter what was going on in Manila, or wherever we were, it all got left behind when we got to Arito. It was like I could pick up the book again and continue the story I had been reading.
My best memories are exhausting myself training, or working, or doing whatever I did outside, and coming to the porch in the afternoon tired and sweaty just as it began to rain. I would pick up a book and lay in the hammock and for the first five minutes I wouldn’t read a thing, I would just sit there and listen to the rain on the tin roof. Then with my muddy feet sticking out of the hammock I would start to read. Every ten minutes or so I would stop reading and look out into the rain and imagine that we got to live in this house for the rest of our time, and I could build a tree house to study in, maybe learn to fly, and help dad rebuild the 180. Then I would laugh at myself and start to read again. The sound of the rain seemed to drown out my doubts. When I finally went inside to help mom cook or clean I did so with a hop in my step. I put some punk rock on the little speaker and sped around the kitchen inhaling the sweet smell of real food. We would eat under dim white florescent lights, and by seven pm it felt late and I would already want to go to bed. We had hot showers if I remember correctly, and the mud from the day always washed off too easily.