I don’t remember what it feels like to have tears on my face. But I remember an hour ago when I started to write this what my eyes felt like. I remember my throat filled up with wind, my voice was steam, and my hands shook like a wood stove. They shake. Sometimes I point them towards the sky towards the clouds towards god, I make my hands strong and shake them like I’m an insane father shaking a baby that just won’t stop crying. Sometimes my hands split from earthquakes that can’t be held or heard. Lava flows through my fingertips and sometimes I get to see what earth lives in my bones.
We started at the hotel, drove through the deep water, and arrived near the fish market. There were no streetlights, there were only dark streets that looked like they freely offered safe haven to people with malicious intent. It occurred to me that I should have worn different shoes. All the locals had those plastic and foam thongs and they were walking straight through the water instead of going around. The women in our group were wearing sandals too, but not the right kind. We followed our noses to the fish market, which was about 100 feet wide and 300 feet long, all on a concrete slab raised about a foot up from the ground. To the east and west were vegetable shops that supplied raw ingredients to restaurants to the north.
To the south were the same clothing shops you can find anywhere in the world.
How am I going to be an optimist about this?
Rounding the corner I was knocked speechless. There are 30,000 square feet of vendors who each get four to six horizontal feet of space facing an aisle. There are three aisles going down the middle north-south with vendors on either side. The whole thing was lit by bald free-swinging sometimes-flickering bulbs. I don’t remember if there was a roof or not. What I do remember was stepping up onto the platform and into anxiety. Immediately a man on my right shoved a lobster towards me, trying to get me to see and possibly remark upon whatever qualities make a lobster good. In an ideal world, a fair bargaining platform, we would be operating under the same system of symbols and values, values I assumed were known to everybody but me.
No, that lobster looks scared, I can’t eat him. That one looks resigned. That one is already dead.
Whatever characteristics I could imagine would result with me not being able to eat that animal. It takes me a while to look at a thing. There are always little details that I want to be sure to notice, to see if I can learn from them or in case somebody asks, “did you see ___?” I can respond, “Why yes, I did. What is the function of ___?” Do you know why there are little rubber threads on brand new bicycle tires? It’s from the way they inject the mold with rubber. It’s no longer unavoidable to produce rubber tires with the little nibs, but we’re so accustomed to them as a symbol of newness that even if the tire were brand new, if it didn’t have the little guys the tire wouldn’t bear the symbols of newness that we associate with the relative use of a thing and it would “look used.” None of that helps you ride a bike, but it’s interesting anyway. It’s the same reason images from Mars are colorized to make them seem more red. The images conform to the expectation of the viewer.
This was not the way of things in this market. Sink or swim. I have never gotten to see a lobster up close. Maybe if I could spend time with one, familiarize myself with it, with the way the antenna joints link up, or how little bits of it spike out, then I could eventually arrive at the end of the road, at a place where I eat the thing. The point is, I have to build that road though, and I have to undergo the journey to get there. I can’t just arrive.
I sure tried though. I looked at the crabs getting thrown around in their twine straitjackets. They’re alive, I thought. This is weird, I thought. Look natural, I thought. And so I furrowed my brow. The vendor saw this and he thought, “now here’s a fella knows what a crab should look like. I can bargain with this guy.” So he grabbed a big-buttoned calculator waterproofed in a zip-loc bag. He typed in a number and offered me a chance to counter. The character I was playing was a seasoned bargainer for crabs. My character knew this price was too high to even be a reasonable first offer, so I waved myself away and went on to the next vendor, on the other side of the aisle. As soon as I turned around though, the shouting blew me away, sucking more vitality. A drop of water from a slimy sea creature landed on my mouth. Don’t you fucking break character. Whoa, that was strange. Maybe this is a stressful situation. Unsure, I continued deeper. There were sea urchins, shrimp, lobster, and crab. There were unrecognizable monsters as well. I started to give them all names. For some reason I named them after schoolmates from elementary school. Christian. Mark. Jorge. Chris. Anthony. Andrew. Andrew is dead, you went to his funeral. I re-named the thing Kelly, ashamed I had forgotten. I don’t know if the monsters were male or female. I don’t think it mattered.
The shouting took up my entire ability to perceive the world around me. I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t feel my wet socks. I couldn’t even smell the fish. Everything was shouting and bright lights. This market could have satirized itself. I had to leave. You’re weak. Whatever, I can recognize that I don’t want to be here, and I’m an adult so I’m going to leave. First, I went back the way I came, to stand next to an elderly Chinese man who was smoking the same kind of cigarettes I used to smoke whenever I was in Shanghai. It was too thin a connection, and my Mandarin is horrible, so I didn’t reach out. I breathed deep his second-hand smoke. I like the smell of cigarettes. It’s an intrusion I know how to deal with, and it knocked out the smell. It’s not healthy though so I left and walked around the corner, careful to keep an eye on my compatriots through the hanging lights, the shouting vendors, and the sad monsters that everyone came for. If I still smoked, I’d have been lit up like a crematorium the whole time. I don’t smoke though, I sit very still, and so that’s what I did.
As my people made their way through the mad aisle I followed their pace on the outside. I stood near a pile of some broccoli and bok choy and took refuge in the way the bored, idle woman at the till looked up at me. There wasn’t anything she wanted from me, and I didn’t want anything from her. It felt like the first time since I arrived here that there were people who didn’t want something from me. I don’t mean money, but a lot of people stare. What do they want? They want to conceptualize the other, and I fit the other-ness pretty well here in several measurable traits.
My people kept progressing, ever northward. As I drew comfort from the fact the broccoli wasn’t waving anything at me, I also became aware of a man sitting just in front of me eating balut with a syrupy orange sauce the color of Fanta and the texture of olive oil. I looked away.
I walked up closer to my friends, who were nearing the northern edge of the market to see one of them expertly negotiating two crabs and a lobster for the group. I was impressed at how well her method of being meshed with the madness of the market. Later, I found she was not only efficient, but in fact had been able to negotiate a very good deal on some delicious food.
I was prepared to go hungry if this was the only source of food for me. Exhausted, wound up, and wearing wet socks, I noticed one of the group had sauntered over to where dead things were being sold, back down to the southwest corner of the market. The fishmongers were still shouting, but their product was no longer alive and looking at you. I followed him and watched him negotiate for a sea bass. As soon as he was done I walked up and asked for the same thing for the same price. A strategic move that allowed me to get food without having to participate in the madness. He got his fish, I got my fish, and immediately the two vendors began to talk shit about each other’s fish supply. We laughed and left.
My fish wasn’t fantastic by itself, but the ecstasy of completion and the relief of escape made up for whatever might have been missing, and the meal was a good one, with many napkins used, and several bowls filled with cracked shells, claws, heads, and other extra body parts.
If you ever get the chance to go to the island of Boracay, be sure to go to this fish market. It wasn’t fun like a bike ride is fun. It was fun like a rickety roller coaster is fun—you end up alive and with all your fingers and toes and that’s worth celebrating.