Jesus Christ is looking down upon the scene with that sanguine, reassuring look so many brushes have etched onto his remarkably white face. A black spider is slowly creeping its way up the side of a plywood wall but stops short of scurrying over the poster of our Lord. My sweat matted hair is touching the roof of the 6 foot chicken coop I’ve somehow ended up inhabiting. A solitary blanket covers the narrow wooden bed we’re sat on. A portable TV hisses and crackles in a language I don’t understand and don’t care to. The light dangling from the ceiling illuminates every inch of the tiny home. The previous occupant was hurried out when we arrived and didn’t say a word. He looked half asleep. His bare chest led up to a sullen face covered with stubble and his narrow eyes were framed by thick black dirty hair. His canvas shorts were loosely tied around his thin frame with a piece of string as a belt.
My mind is racing. I keep checking on Jesus who’s checking on me and my companion, Spike. We don’t speak but survey the scene from behind tired and slightly drunk eyes. ‘Gerard’ returns with the goods, or at least that’s the name he’s decided on calling himself tonight. He smiles and reveals a baggie and two small neatly cut pieces of tin foil. I’m surprised at just how neat the sheets are cut. Our host smiles and squats next to me on the wooden bed, expertly rolling the tin foil and preparing the drug for us. He rolls one sheet into a long tube and burns the powder on the other. He sucks up the thin smoke with the alacrity of a hungry newborn, leans back against the plywood wall and exhales. “This is very good” he slowly pronounces the words in his Philippino accent. “Here man, take a hit. Take a few. Hold it in then breathe out, okay?” He passes me the various bits of tin foil and a lighter. My heart speeds up. I look to the tattered poster of the Lord once again and think, ‘what would Jesus do’.
I should probably start from the beginning and chart our route from the comfort of our homes in South Korea to a rough shanty town on the outskirts of Cebu in the Philippines. I had been working as a teacher in Korea for a little over three months when I befriended an Englishman, named Tom. He was a mess of a boy and christened ‘Spike’ because he looked so much like the director Spike Jonze, but thankfully had none of his mannerisms. Spike was not much taller than the middle school students he taught and had only a slightly better grasp of English. He was fired from his first school and struggled to find some private work to hold himself over till Christmas. He was a good guy and always up for mischief. We made drunken plans one weekend to travel together to the Philippines and island hop for the length of our winter holidays. We had 10 days in total and decided to spend it boozing and eating as many drugs as we could lay our hands on. It was mostly drunken talk and after stumbling home and falling into bed I thought little more about it. Two months later, we’re in Seoul’s main airport rushing to make our plane to Cebu.
The plane journey only took about two hours and arrived in Cebu close to midnight on a Friday. The flight was packed but most of our fellow passengers seemed to have beaten us to customs. We breeze through after a tanked security guard gives a cursory look over our passports and waves us through with a meaty paw. The airport is dimly lit and tiny. All the shops and the one restaurant are all closed so we make our escape and arrive out into the thick humid air of Cebu.
A swarm of hands greet us as we try to smoke a cigarette. At least ten men have surrounded us and are promising to bring us to ‘cheap hotels, with girls. Lovely girls’. We wave them off and struggle to make our way past a chain gang of taxis. All promise us girls and cheap hotels but we keep focused and get into an orange registered cab. The driver leans back and asks us where to. We give him the name of our hotel, appropriately called ‘Cebu Hotel’. He nods, pulls out of the airport and drives toward town.
The journey is quiet. A scattering of cars whiz by but otherwise the roads are deserted. Our taciturn driver answers none of our questions, bans us from smoking then chain smokes for the duration of the journey. We arrive at the hotel a little after 1am and the place is dead. A giant, green iron gate prevents us from entering and we ring a bell before the gate slowly cranks into life and opens a sliver for us to slip through. The court inside is littered with cigarette butts and a girl sits alone at a table drinking a San Miguel. Spike notices her first and beams at me with eyebrows raised “Oi, oi, jackpot” he speaks far too loud but the girl hardly notices. We reach the reception and throw down our bags and rest on the comfortable black leather sofa. Spike rings the bell and Mario, the handyman cum receptionist sheepishly turns on a dim light and shuffles to the counter.
He says absolutely nothing but stares at Spike. “A’right, we wanna check in mate. Booking made under Lock. Tom Lock.” Mario’s eyes narrow and he concentrates hard on the book in front of him. His finger scrolls through the page and stops. He’s a small heavy set man with thick arms and a cropped haircut. His narrow eyes lend him an air of aggression but from the little time we knew him he was nothing but direct and loved sleeping.
Mario asks for our passports and the full amount of the bill in advance. We try to negotiate but Mario is having none of it. We each fork out £90 and get one set of room keys. “Don’t lose it. You lose you pay”. We gather our bags and before we leave the reception Mario has the light turned off and is breathing deeply once again.
Our room is one of sixteen according to the numbers on the doors. The room is small and tidy with two single beds and a bathroom. Better than what we expected. We throw down our bags, stuff some money into our pockets and hit the strip. Mario had told us to ring the buzzer (a big bell) and he’d let us in. When asked where to go to find the strip he looked at us both and smiled and said we’d know as soon as left the compound.
Once on the street we navigated our way through broken pavements in total darkness. We passed a group of young girls who offered us sex. Both Spike and I exchanged a shocked look with one another and continued on. Ever so slowly, with each passing step, the mood of the city turned sour. The palm trees that decorated the road quickly receded once you first hit ‘the strip’. The strip resembled a large courtyard with every single building selling some sort of cheap alcohol. It was brightly lit and packed with people. Most were tourists, drunk and very loud. Local guys stood next to their brightly coloured motorbikes and smoked. Local girls scurried from bar to bar looking for customers. I noticed two girls who couldn’t have been more than 13 walk into the blackness with a rotund German man. He must have been 6 foot tall and had a silly handlebar moustache. A dead ringer for a sex tourist. I voiced my concern about the two young girls to Spike but he didn’t pay me any attention. “This is not Korea mate. They live in shit over here and need to make money somehow. Anyway, he might be lovely. Don’t worry. I’ll get some beers in shall I”.
The rest of the evening flew by over bottles of San Miguel. We spoke about Korea, about friends, and Cebu. Neither of us were entirely happy with our surroundings but decided against talking openly about it and running the other’s experience. Everywhere you looked there was a cluster of girls dressed in an array of brightly coloured tight fitting outfits. Men of all ages cruised around the strip as if window shopping and speak a few words to the girls. Then they would slink off into the blackness that surrounded the strip and conduct their business. It was horrible. Most of the girls were too young to be here and some were looking after children who begged for money and collected bottle caps. The booze was not having its desired effect and something a lot stronger was required.
A gangly thin man approached our table and asked for a light. He couldn’t have been more than 22 and was certainly local. He was dressed in the native uniform of jeans, sandals and a lose fitting shirt with a satchel slung over his right shoulder. He had a youthful face and hadn’t begun shaving yet. His slick black hair was combed back over his bronzed face. We asked him to join us and without hesitation sat down, introduced himself as ‘Gerard’ and asked us if we heard of ‘shaboo’. “It’s the local drug man, very cheap and very good. How much do you have? We can get some right now. You guys want to party right?” Yes. Yes we did.
Gerard explained it all very simply. We each cough up 20 quid and get a taxi to his beach house. It seems ridiculous now but at the time anything was better than hanging around the strip. We agreed, gave him and the money and hailed a cab on the street expecting to travel to this beach house and enjoy some treats on our first night in Cebu.
His ‘beach house’ was a five minute taxi ride from the strip. Tin shacks were heaped upon one another. We got out of the cab and passed by a half naked man laughing hysterically. Gerard led us through a back alley way maze and into the chicken coop where he left us and went to procure the treats. “Mate, I’m not too sure about this. What you thinking, should we stay or just leave and get some beers in. The strip wasn’t so bad”. I re-assured Spike we weren’t likely to get raped or robbed and besides we already paid him so we might as well try out this ‘shaboo’.
As soon as you inhale, the hit is instant. A warm buzz of euphoria rushes through your body and you feel a slight tickle all over your body. The tiny shack seemed to expand in size and with Jesus looking reassuringly down on me I lay back against the wall and left my mind drift. It was bliss. Like waking up on a Sunday morning to the smell of fresh sheets knowing you can sleep all day without a care in the world. It’s just a pity all of Cebu couldn’t be like this. We sobered up and trekked back to the hotel. Mario greeted us at the door and nodded sullenly at us. “This place is absolutely bonkers man. Everyone’s on the shaboo and kids run around pestering you for change or offering you sex. Bonkers”. He laughed. “Yea man, welcome to Cebu”.