It’s been two and a half months since my twenty year reunion in the Philippines. It had been a long time coming, and yet, I find myself struggling to write about my experiences overseas.
In short, it was centering, heartbreaking, and viscerally beautiful.
The night I got there, I was panicking and unsure if I could last the nearly three weeks abroad. The airport in Manila was completely chaotic—it has to be one of the worst airports in the world. Minimal parking, disorganization and long lines, heat and humidity, and people everywhere trying to hustle you to earn a fast buck. My mother told me to watch my purse and belongings because people were desperate and would try to take my things if I wasn’t paying attention. Anyone who truly knows me knows that the noise and mayhem of crowded areas overwhelms me and I get really anxious. I personally didn’t mind the heat and humidity, but I was beyond happy to finally leave the airport. When my mother and I walked out of the baggage claim area, we heard our names shouted across the bustle and traffic. My aunts and a number of my younger cousins were waiting outside next to the van and driver who they had hired to pick us up. After exchanging hugs and kisses with my family, we packed into the van and took off for my mother’s house. The van ride was quiet—hushed whispers from my little cousins who were insecure about their english and too shy to say anything. I asked them why they were hesitating to say anything to me, and they joked that they didn’t want to use up all of their english. A few minutes from my mother’s house, we stopped at a gas station to get snacks. Upon exiting the van, I heard cat calls from men hanging around outside, and two small children covered in dirt spotted me and ran up to me. They grabbed onto my clothes and hung on for dear life while begging me for money and food. That was a first for me, and it was painful to pry them off and make my way into the store. Once inside, I sat down and all of my doubts and fears crept up.
When we had finally gotten to my mother’s house, I was taken off guard by its size. Although the two-story house was very clean and kept up nicely, I was surprised by the size of the doors and appliances… and of the rooms in general. I already towered over my mother and all of my family there, and being in that house made me feel even bigger—a true Alice in Wonderland moment. I immediately went upstairs and I remember drifting off to sleep wondering if I’d be able to handle the rest of my stay. I was completely out of my comfort zone, and I knew it.
I awoke early the next morning to roosters crowing and people getting around outside to start a day of work and activity, I was overcome with peace and appreciation. It was already sunny and very warm out, and people were outside hand washing their laundry or hanging their clothes up to dry in the sun. Lots of neighbors spent the morning sitting on their front porches visiting or people watching, and some who were lucky enough, went off to work. Nearly everyone owned at least one dog, and nearly every dog was confined to a large cage in front of the house’s entrance. Being a dog lover, it crushed me to see the dogs locked up all day baking in the island sun, but their owners did at least make sure to feed them and give them water and clean out their cages throughout the day. I just couldn’t get used to how miserable they looked, and some of them had the mange. I concluded that they were kept for purely cosmetic or security reasons. My mother’s “village” was gated and had a 24-hour security guard at the entrance gate. Because of this, I never did see any beggars or the frequent stray dogs that seemed to populate everywhere else outside of the gated village. Vendors rode through the streets on their bicycle carts selling fresh fruits and vegetables, warm fresh bread, or my favorite, a silkened tofu drink called Taho. I actually grew to love hearing the vendors come around shouting out what they were selling. So much fresh, healthy food available right at your doorstep. And it didn’t matter if it was 100 degrees out or raining… they would come around regardless.
My first shower in my mother’s house was memorable. I had let out a little scream not realizing the warm direction on the knob still yielded cool water. Houses were built with no water heaters, and having one was a luxury. To be honest with you, after my first two showers, I learned to love the cooler water. The temperature where we lived was always very warm, if not hot and humid, and so the water temperature was never an intolerable cold. It actually felt satisfying rinsing off the day’s sweat and heat under that cooling spout—my hair appreciated it, as well. That’s another thing, my hair and skin really took to the air and moisture there. Upon returning to Arkansas just after a snow storm, my hair had shriveled up and dried out basically overnight. But the novelty of taking cool showers lasted not even one week before my mom had a portable water heater installed. That thing cranked out hot water forever. Even after its installation, I continued using a lukewarm temperature at the most, and it sufficed.
My first week in the Philippines was spent doing “normal” activities—grocery shopping, hopping an air conditioned bus to Tagaytay to see the island volcano, Taal. We visited shopping centers and markets in the area, and we took a family trip to Manila to visit the ocean park there. We went somewhere almost every day and since my family didn’t own a vehicle, my mother had hired our driver, Wilson, and we would just take his SUV wherever we needed to go. Restaurants and shopping centers were nice, but there were armed guards in any public place we visited. Banks, malls, grocery stores… they all had an armed guard at the entrance. They didn’t try to intimidate you in any sort of way, but they were a presence. They mostly did things like open doors for you, or in my case, stare at you. The obvious foreigner effect. I’m not sure what I imagined, but I thought I would fit in more visiting the Philippines. I stuck out everywhere.
I was able to familiarize myself with the sounds and smells that I could recall from my childhood. I took countless jeepney and motorcycle buggy rides (tricycles they called them) to get around the city, and luckily, I never got sick from eating anything. I did, however, get sick eating different things upon returning to the U.S. What does that say? But during my second week overseas, we took a domestic flight to Puerto Princesa. When we were landing in the airport there, the absolutely rich greens of the mountains and forests, and the sparkling blue ocean and white sand beaches took my breath away. I spent my first day in a bikini island hopping. We took a boat to Cowrie Island which is where we spent the majority of our time. I sunbathed before we had our island picnic. We ate fresh fish, shrimp, bananas and mangos, eggs, rice, and a few other dishes before heading into the ocean to swim. From living in San Diego and spending a vacation in Florida once, I’m always apprehensive about entering the water—I always expect the water to be cold. From the moment I took my first step into the rippling clear coast, the water was so incredibly warm. I dove in and the water’s warmth surrounded me, and I remember swimming out until I could feel the bank drop below my feet, and then I swam out a little further and just floated on my back staring up at the cloudy yet brilliantly sunlit sky. The beach wasn’t crowded at all. I could look off in the distance all around me and there was nothing but lush, beautiful mountains before me, and the island and open water everywhere else. It was absolutely amazing, and I felt so connected to everything around me. After a little while, I brought myself in closer to the beach and in the distance, I could see dark clouds which poured rain and lightning and thunder down onto the mountain and forests below them. My family decided to take photos of us frolicking on the beach before we decided to continue our island hopping adventure in spite of the impending rain storm. It was an incredible experience at that moment—to be on this happy and vibrant island staring at an approaching storm in the distance. Like true adventurers, we decided to continue on to Luli Island, and then it was over a half hour boat ride to Starfish Island. That boat ride was an experience I’ll never forget. We had finally met up with the rain and thunder, and it fell so hard that the rain was hitting the ocean and ricocheting back into our faces.
We were completely soaked and it was dark, and the wind had really picked up making the air feel cold. All I had was a wet towel and a life jacket on over my two-piece, but I enjoyed every second. Approaching the third island, we saw a rainbow stretched out before us, and it made the moment feel that much more special. When we arrived, I decided to grab my snorkel gear and I headed off into the ocean again. I can’t get over how warm the water was. At the time, it was warmer to be submerged in the ocean then to be sitting beneath shelter on the island. I saw so much beautiful coral and fish and sponge life, and this is going to sound really silly, but I was able to live out my childhood fantasy of pretending to be a mermaid again. It was wonderful, and I’ll always remember it.
On the second day, we took a nearly two hour van ride to the Underground River of Palawan. That was the most frightening drive of my entire life. The forests around the road dipped and rose in sharp cliffs which overlooked the sea. The road itself was two lanes, albeit very thin, and our driver seemed to be pushing his luck seeing how fast he could get us to our destination. I typically love roller coasters and flying… and boat rides, but his driving made me sick and I was terrified he’d lose control of the van and send us rolling down the hillside into the ocean… or tumbling down through some village belonging to the nude natives. Halfway through the ride, we stopped at a shop of sorts, and I immediately jumped out and found myself a toilet to throw up in. I have never vomited from a car ride, and I felt like a complete bitch not being able to control my stomach, but at least I let it out. The second half of the ride was as terrible as the first. By the time we reached the port to the underground river, I was excited to take another gorgeous boat ride around to the side of the island where we would walk through a forest path to find canoes and tour guides for the underground river. It’s one of the seven wonders of nature in the world, and it was stunning. Taking pictures in the complete darkness of the caves was useless, so it was one of those rare moments where I could truly feel in the moment with the whole experience. I had a few laughs, too. This girl sitting in the second row of our canoe had a bat fly right near her face and she freaked out and knocked her hard hat into the river. I shouldn’t have chuckled, but I did. LOL. But after the tour, we walked through the forest again where we took last-minute pictures of the little monkeys wandering around, and we headed back to the beach to hop in our boats back to the main dock. From there, we had another sunny picnic filled with tasty and healthy dishes, and unfortunately, when I was about to head over to go zip lining down the lush and hilly coast, we had to return to the van and begin another stomach-turning ride back to the city.
Our final day there was spent driving around the town and seeing about any shopping centers before catching a flight back
to Manila. I think I ended up sleeping the rest of that day after all the activities we had, and my final days at my mother’s house were spent visiting with family, and getting to see my Lola’s house in Cavite once again. When I saw her house, the house I used to stay in during the summers when I was in elementary school, my eyes teared up. Her house had always been a series of boards and sheet metal nailed together or tied down to create a floor and ceiling, so most of the house sat directly on top of Manila Bay. When I was a little girl, my uncle would take me out on banca boat rides and even now, I can remember dipping my hand into the sea as he steered us around the bamboo. When I overlooked Manila Bay now, where there was once bamboo and kids playing in the water, there was now garbage floating around and all kinds of trash that lined the bottom of the ocean floor. It made me helplessly sad. I was grateful to be reunited with those beautiful faces wrinkled over the past twenty years, but I left my grandmother’s house with a hole in my heart and yet another reminder of the dispassion of time.
The rest of my time in the Philippines was spent in quiet love and appreciation for my younger cousins. I really gravitated towards being around the children when I was overseas, and in a way, the bright-eyed youthful Sandra had come to life again. They would teach me little songs for different Tagalog words and they loved being in my company—I loved being in theirs. I tried absorbing as much love and innocence as I could, and on Friday the 13th of December, I started my journey back to the States. I traveled alone this time without my mother, and the journey back felt so empty and sad. During my flight from South Korea to Dallas, I tried to sleep, but my mind was wide awake. I ended up writing a couple of poems and jotting down some notes that would remind me of different experiences I had. In a way, I felt like I was leaving my home, and I knew I’d be returning to a world where every second was measured, and corporatism and consumerism were supreme. I didn’t ever want to forget the realizations I had during my island life.
It was for nearly two weeks after returning from the Philippines that I was depressed, sleepless, and even sick after eating foods here and trying to get readjusted. I really struggled with feeling like I had a purpose, and it was challenging to accept my return to the “norm.” I spent many quiet nights in a sort of catatonic state, unable to bring myself into the here and now of being back in my 28-year old, corporate pauper self.
On days like today, when it’s the second day of March and the sky is so cold and forlorn that you can almost see it cracking open—cracking open to expose this vast unknown—I sit in the dark and peer out my balcony door wondering if there’s a universe some place where I’m lying in warm sands bathed in sunlight, not giving a second thought to myself here.