I’ve been sitting at the side of the road for three hours with a chicken pecking selectively at the ground. She takes no note of the sun slicing up the hard grass our side of the fence. Pekka and his wife with an incomprehensible Finnish name sit separately in their own havens of shade. I hunch against the fence with my mouth gaped open like a trout. A sinus infection has grabbed me by the head and hasn’t stopped squeezing since last night.
We’re waiting for the bus to El Nido, the northern tip of Palawan. The teens in hammocks, selling soft drinks haven’t moved much since we arrived and subsequently reassured each other we were going to the same location. Midday heat and my increasing need to excuse myself to blow snot rockets into a bush extinguished my conversation with the Finnish duo. Occasionally the sound of a bus breaks our congested silence, its human cargo spilling out the windows and clinging to the roof. They come to a screeching, shaky halt and inevitably move on; they are not for El Nido.
So here I am, sitting with my bent knees apart in order to drain the painful consequences of my infection onto the hard grass. The heat expedites liquid from my nostrils and skin, and my head feels like a bowling ball. The infection has settled behind my eyes, cheeks, and forehead, and presses back every time I wipe sweat from my face with the bone of my wrist. I ran out of tissue before we arrived here and water shortly after. The close scent of salty mucus nauseates my stomach. Without tissue and too raw to use leaves, I gently blow onto the ground between my knees; it hurts the bridge between my nose and nasal cavity. A thick bead of sweat disengages from my back and rolls down into the waistband of my shorts. I am disgusting.
A gentle breeze precedes a big green bus -- no one on the roof. A man leans out the side door and Pekka runs toward him yelling, “El Nido?” Pekka turns to flag us on. Finally, our bus.
“No seat,” the teenage boy with a fanny pack tells us. My chest sinks. I dab under my nose with my forearm. “Stand.” We agree, thrilled to be on our way.
We push through the knees and elbows of lanky tourists wearing bathing suits, baggy tank tops and wide-rimmed, neon sunglasses. Fanny pack teen hits the metal door when it closes and the wheels groan into motion. We put our backpacks between our feet in the slim aisle. The bus rocks back and forth with each gear change, side to side with each turn, hard wind hitting us with dust. I’m gripping a railing above my head for support, pressing against it to keep my open armpit away from the mother and her toddler in front of me, pulling toward it when the back of my cold, wet shirt presses against a man’s shoulder.
Weekend top thirty music plays above the seats. The motion seems to aid in the dislodging process happening in my sinuses. I don’t even regard it until two streams dampen my upper lip. I’ve been dabbing at the clear, unstoppable wonder of my infection with the sleeves of my shirt. I take the loud gear change as an opportunity to hide the ugly action of using my neckline as a tissue. It’s supposed to take five hours to reach El Nido. I’m lightheaded and the reachable parts of my shirt are already soaked or slimy with cooling sweat or mucus. I wish I could disappear. I wish I could lie down. I wish I could stop breathing through my mouth.
A touch on my arm as the bus slows for a stop. A young Filipina extends a decorated handkerchief. Her expression is sympathetic, self conscious. Gratitude warms my chest. It hurts to unclench my bloodless fingers from the rail, but I accept it with a tired smile.
Thank you, I lipped. “Thank you.” My voice cracked, my throat tight with emotion.
She and her friend get off and Pekka’s wife and I sit in their warm imprints. I hold that handkerchief against my face -- protection from the wind and embarrassment, a place to put the salty, metallic mucus. I rest my head against the jarring windowsill, press the handkerchief over my nose and mouth and fall asleep. I reach El Nido three short hours later.