I could see her out of the corner of my eye as I sat at the bamboo bus shelter with my cousins. An old woman peering at me from the window of her adjacent home. Normally I would've been all like, "What you lookin' at, Gladis?" but I was used to the staring by now.
Foreigners quickly get used to being gawked at in the Philippines, especially in this small beach-side town my cousins had taken me on a day trip. I don't know why I noticed this old woman in particular, but I did the usual and I pretended I didn't see. That's what I tend to do nowadays. Three schoolgirls staring wide-eyed at me as I cross the street? Didn't see. Two male grocery store workers pausing conversation and pointing at me as I walk past? Didn't see. Everyone on the jeepney quietly turning and watching me as I climb aboard? Didn't see.
Because if I acknowledge that they are staring, I might have to think about why, and that is something my insane imagination is way too active for. Maybe it's not just because I'm foreign. Maybe they think I'm a big fat white whale. Maybe I stepped in toilet paper. Maybe my dress is tucked into my undies. Maybe a cauliflower is spontaneously growing out of my ear. Maybe my back is covered in an infectious-looking pus.
So I ignored the old woman staring at me from her window, and focused on my cousin's conversation with two other women at the bus stop. I'd fooled myself into thinking that if I tried to follow Cebuano in this way, I might learn it - like people who think watching Telemadrid helps them learn Spanish. I mean, you don't just listen to things, not knowing what the hell is going on, and then suddenly become fluent. Unless you have magic leaf powers like Disney's Pocahontas or something.
Anyway, just like that adorable cat who comes closer without moving video on YouTube, the old lady crept towards me even while I ignored her. I'd blink and she would be standing in the door frame, staring. Blink, and she'd be sitting on her porch chair, staring. Blink, and she'd be on the gravel outside her house, staring. Before I knew it, she was standing right behind me, leaning on the bamboo railing. Staring. It would've been scary if it wasn't for her Starbucks t-shirt.
I felt a hand stroking my back, and thought, "Well, I guess I better stop ignoring her in case this escalates and we throwdown right here at the bus stop." I turned around and she was rubbing the back of my tank top, asking me something I had no chance of understanding. Meanwhile my cousin had sidled over, smiling, and answered the woman on my behalf. My imagination blearily woke up, and started stirring.
"Yo, who's this white girl with the shiny top? I had to touch it, it was so weird-looking."
"This is my cousin from Australia."
"How old is she? She looks about 12."
"She's 27. She's having some sort of late-twenties crisis and decided to travel here alone to learn more about her heritage and, I don't know, find herself or some crap."
"That seems like a silly thing to do. Does she realise everyone here, from street kids to hardened criminals, will eat her for breakfast?"
"We've tried explaining that to her multiple times. She may also be a little addled."
"Her hair is not meant for this humidity, is it?"
My cousin noticed my alarmed look, and switched to English. "You see how she's touching you? She wants you touch her also," she explained, picking up my hand and stroking it down the old woman's arm. It seemed weird but it was better than a bus stop throwdown. I smiled and surreptitiously smoothed my hair with my other hand as the old lady backed away.
It wasn't until a few days later that my cousin explained that was really about.
"It's an old folktale," she began. "I don't really believe it. But the people in the mountains believe that when an old woman touches you, she is casting a spell on you. The only way to deflect the bad magic is by touching her back, so I made you do it. Just in case."
"Why would she want to cast a spell on me?" I asked. "That's not very nice." Extremely rude, one might say.
My cousin grinned. "Because she thinks you're beautiful. She wants to absorb it for herself."
So now I think that everybody is staring at me because they want to cast a spell on me, and cook me for breakfast to absorb my powers. Now I think they're staring because they want my frizzy brown hair or my skin or my shoes, and they're muttering curses or making stabbing motions behind my back.
Well, I guess it isn't as bad as the pus-covered back scenario.