Aerial / by Anna Li

We were foreigners, this land and me. The first night, I was struck with claustrophobia of the slow and humid heat, the houses and cars packed so tight they almost climb over one another, and the endless amount of loose questions I brought with me. The faces of strangers and unrecognizable words in the market become suffocating and isolating all at once. I wondered if this foreignness would ever go away, or if I would continue to wear it like a skin wherever I go.

This journey has brought some of the most impossible circumstances. I came to the Philippines without a desire to be here, working on a geography project that I did not want to research, in a place that was distant and isolated from home. There were times I did not think it would ever reach fruition, that I would leave the Philippines as empty-handed as when I arrived. I felt like I was trying to reach a far destination without a map.

And now, six months later, I am on the other side looking back. The geography project dissipated, and in it's place I began a poetry project with my students where they created the first poems in their tribal dialects. I went to the market every Friday until the vendors recognized me and knew me by name, and would speak Kalangoya with them while buying bananas for my host family's lunch that day. I could wash clothes by hand and tribal dance and harvest sayote tops, their green stems curved like the top of a violin. I could pay the jeepney driver and watch him fold the bill, tuck it between his fingers with the other pesos, wearing them like rings. Everything that was once foreign to me and unknown suddenly became mine, one small plot point at a time.

I leave Philippines today with conflicting emotions. There is uncertainty and sadness as I leave this place that I have called home the past six months. There is exhaustion, like the feeling after having run a marathon. And yet in spite of those things--or maybe even because of them--there is impossible hope. I realize now that those successes cannot exist without the hard failures, and vice versa. The two are symbiotic. It's those moments where I was on my knees with no strength left in the beginning, those moments of pure weakness, where strength was being formed. While leaving is bittersweet, it is the hard and the melancholy that enrich hope.

I was once lost in this place, swallowed by the jungle and the cluttered houses and the mountains, not knowing the avenues that will guide me to where I am supposed to be. But now I am aerial with the whole vast world spread below my feet. Today is an unusually clear day, the calm before the coming typhoons. The sun comes through my window in a clear beam and casts blocks of light onto my arms. And below, the ocean and mountains and sky are such a deep and dusty blue, they seem to be one unbroken body. From up here, the cluttered tin roofs I once slept under are tiled next to each other like a mosaic. The ocean is so clear, I can see dark shapes of  algae and coral beneath its skin. All the destinations that were once unknown, I can see them all from this view. These are the things I will carry, this impossible hope.