During my high school year in the Philippines, I would take a passenger van to my cousin’s town every other month to hang out with him, his friends (who eventually became my friends), and smoke crystal meth every now and then. I was sent eastward to complete my senior year because I had accumulated multiple criminal and school infractions in Texas, and was on the verge of being expelled from my school.
I was still trying to navigate my way through a turbulent teenage phase and figure out if adulthood was for me. At that point in my life, the Philippines was a place that was both familiar and foreign to me. The province where I resided at the time was known as a hot spot for Maoist guerrilla activities, and military operations in the rural areas were very much active.
My cousin, the Filipino version of James Dean, drove an old-school Honda CBR with a mean skull airbrushed on the gas tank. We used to ride around town on that godforsaken creature, tearing up the quiet seaside villages.
One lazy weekend, I decided to visit him. He picked me up from the station and I hopped on the back of the bike. The roar of the bike’s engine meant one thing: I needed to hang on for dear life. We weaved through traffic at 60 mph, barely missing slower, less-reckless motorists.
The town was situated between a gorgeous bay and the Sierra Madre mountain range, so the roads snaked through different terrains and vistas. The geography provided two things: a high rate of road accidents—which benefited my aunt and uncle’s funeral business—and a perfect hiding place for the insurgents who have been battling the Philippine government for almost four decades.
In between prayers to my god, Jimi Hendrix, I howled in exhilaration as we defied death on every hairpin turn. Since traffic isn’t usually regulated by traffic lights in the provincial towns, driving in the Philippines could be described as controlled chaos at best. You can go from zooming down the freeway to a traffic jam within seconds.
After nearly colliding head on with another motorcyclist, we found ourselves behind a bus that was trying to maneuver its gigantic body on a very sharp turn. I used the change of pace to catch my breath and let the adrenaline disperse throughout my body like soda fizz. I suddenly heard the familiar sound of a diesel engine behind me and watched a military truck overtake us, the driver skillfully dipping into the opposite lane. In the back of the truck were about a dozen teenage boys dressed in green camouflage gear, with automatic rifles casually slung on their shoulders, staring back at us.
Some of the faces were pockmarked with acne and you could tell they spent a lot of time under the sun. They were probably only a couple of years older than me, but their stoic expressions made them look much older, with stress lines etched on their foreheads and bags under their eyes.
I tapped my cousin’s shoulder and asked him who the boys with guns were. He told me they were members of the local militia working with the armed forces in hunting down the guerrillas. Almost all of them came from impoverished families and the meager sum of money that the government pays them for doing the dirty work is practically a gift, especially in a country where even the educated middle-class struggles to find work.
The political situation in the Philippines and in many other poor countries affects the lives of the ordinary people who don’t really care about the war games politicians play; they’re just trying to survive. If it means that boys and young men have to pick up rifles and head out into the jungle, then there’s something seriously wrong with society, and it makes me wonder if we’ll ever see a day when there’s not a single war in the world, because how can you eradicate a social cancer in the next generation if it manifests itself at such a young age?
I could almost catch a glimpse of the violence they’ve seen and were a part of just by studying their gaze. The truck sped off and made a right turn on to a dirt road, into the jungle. I imagined them hopping off the truck, locked and loaded, ready for another round of scrimmage with guerrillas who were probably just as young as they were.
I could’ve been one of them had circumstances been different at the time of my birth. I could’ve been born into a life of poverty and hardship. I’m lucky to have won the cosmic lottery. Fate, or whatever you want to call it, gave me an easy path in life. There are times when I feel guilty for having the opportunities and resources that others could only dream of having access to. But I guess we have our own paths to lead and our own weapons to carry.
Sometimes I wonder if those boys are grown men now, with scars on their tan faces, and pictures of their babies in their wallets. Maybe some of the boys I saw on that road are already dead.