It was one of those evenings when you travel when you have no plans. I had just finished a tiring day of snorkeling, my first ever. In the port city of Dumaguete, I sit by the promenade. The sun is just about to set, as I listen to music and watch a steady stream of people go by.
There’s the runner. There’s the couple, who is sitting a little ahead on a concrete stair of sorts. There are the kids playing basketball. I sit there, looking as touristy as I can with my bag and camera next to me. I briefly think of heading back to my hotel, the beautifully named Bethel Guest House, which is right behind me, overlooking the promenade, to keep the camera. But I squash the idea. There are moments to be captured, I think. As usual, I am wrong. The camera didn’t help.
Dusk settles in when a group of kids eyes me curiously. I smile at them, and they take that as an invitation to sit next to me. I am squashed in the middle with a kid on either side. Gloria, Angelina, and Veronika.
I have my earphones on, the music playing from my phone. “What are you listening to?” asks Veronika. “The Fight Song,” I say, looking out at the sea where there is really a white boat at sea. “Do you know?” I ask. But she is faster than me. She is maybe 12 or 13, but already beautiful, long hair and now, as she reveals to me, a beautiful voice. It’s a voice that is singing Rachel Platten’s Fight Song. I remove the earphones and listen as she syncs perfectly with Rachel Platten’s voice from the teeny speaker on my phone. “What other songs do you know?” asks Angelina on my right. “I don’t know any songs,” I stutter. Gloria is the youngest, around eight years old. She is too shy to sit with me and instead prefers to stand on the sidewalk and observe me. “That’s my Mom!” squeals Angelina as a shy woman in her 30s nods to me. “Which school do you all go to?” I ask Veronika. The mother waves vaguely in the direction I had just walked from in answer. Veronika wouldn’t have answered anyway because she is already singing again. This is a Filipino song, perhaps. Angelina also joins in while Gloria continues to watch in fascination. And then it’s the Cheerleader song. It’s the first time I am hearing the song. (I know, I am awful with music). This mini concert is over all too soon. That’s when I realize. I pray. I tell myself, don’t. Please don’t ruin this with the ugly face of tourism. My prayers have no effect. “Do you have something? asks Veronika. “What do you mean something?” I ask, my heart a million miles away into the Philippine sea. “Do you have money? Chocolates?” I shake my head, clutch my bag closer, which has all the money. The songs are already fading into the background. “Ok, then your bottle!” says Veronika. I turn to her. “Don’t do this,” I say. “Please do not ask money. Ever.” I get up. “Do you understand me?” I ask Veronika. “Don’t ask. Don’t ask money or anything.” She nods but I know she is disappointed she wasted all that effort on a non-paying foreigner. I turn and walk away to where Bethel Guest House waits.
Now, every time I hear of the Cheerleader song, I think of a bunch of girls singing by the promenade. I want to forget they might have sung for money. I want to forget they were singing because some tourist ‘rewarded’ them with money or chocolates for their songs. I want to forget that they might do this hundred times more. I want to remember the sunset. The little white boat bobbing in the sea. I want to remember there was a time when kids shared a song. And I know time isn’t lost.
This moment, scarred and imperfect as it was, isn’t lost. I remember it more because it made a mess of my expectations and belied my hopes. Much like everything in my life, I realize that the beauty of the mess is in my head.