the philippines: a different kind of home


wednesday, may 5th to wednesday, may 25th
these isles are fair teeming with fam

Upon arriving at Ninoy Aquino International Airport, I felt my flat little nose collide with the wall of warm, humid air.  It was a smell as easily remembered as it is forgotten – one that seems to elude memory unless it is currently being experienced.  It was Manila, and it stank.  Still, once, it was home.

I marched off the plane with something resembling competence, hoping that my resolute demeanour would compel others to step aside and let me take an earlier place in queue.  The queue for customs and baggage claim is typically gargantuan, and I expected it to be no different this visit.  I spotted the escalator leading down and was about to turn for it when I noticed an airport security goon giving me the eagle eye.

The man in the uniform straightened and in a decidedly authoritative voice, pronounced the nine syllables that comprise my proper name.  I halted.  Nodded.  I did put the blanket back.  I knew I put both the blanket and the pillow on the seat before leaving the plane.  So what the crap was this?

“Come with me.”

The security guard took me aside, leading me further down the hall to the next set of escalators and a line of customs kiosks that as yet were still in the process of being opened;  the other side already had long, sprawling queues.

“Your father said to take care of you,” the security guard offered up eventually.  “I escorted you last time, too.”

Oh, I get it.  I’m just an ass for forgetting.

The man I didn’t have the decency to recognize took me to an empty kiosk, which suddenly sprouted the appropriate personnel.  Before I knew it, I was the first in a queue of a few dozen people, and was helping the porter set my bags onto my cart.  Fast forward another half hour and I was at the Duty Free, watching my dad drop well over a grand on alcohol.  Did I mention I was visiting for his birthday?  If I were turning sixty years old, I’d be stocking up on booze, too.

If you took all your family, friends, and acquaintances accumulated over the course of sixty years, gave them wine and made them line up at a buffet table, you would have a good idea as to what my dad’s party was like.  Or if math isn’t your thing, picture Bilbo Baggins’ eleventy-first birthday, but with shorter Hobbits.  Food was fantastic.

The next several weeks were spent hanging out at home without WiFi, hanging out at malls with spotty WiFi, and hanging out at the country club purely for WiFi.  Food was fantastic.  Of course, I wasn’t alone in all this.  My brother and sister were there, plus attachments.  So were three of my dad’s siblings, plus attachments.  At some point, my mum’s siblings paid us a brief visit as well.  Now, this may not sound like much if you’ve never seen a typical Catholic Filipino family.  Suffice it to say that Filipinos are fond of the simple things in life:  food, drink, and making families.

I spent a great deal of time reconnecting with my cousins.  I hadn’t seen this branch of my family since I was eight, when we first moved to Canada.  It was easier than I thought it would be.  I historically feel quite detached from my relatives, having been generally cut off from them at an early age while they all stayed clustered together.  In common Filipino fashion, my cousins grew up to be very close.  They shared dinners, outings, trips.  It’s a whimsical sort of bond that brings cousins together.  I’ve always marveled at it, and missed it.  Before moving to Canada, Christmas was without a doubt the best holiday of the year because our house would be filled with family.  A minimum of five sets of parents, each with a minimum of three kids.  Love, laughter, wailing toddlers – the works.  Like the smell of the air in Manila, I never really realize how much I miss it until I’m breathing it all in again.

At some point, we went on a family trip – Dad, myself, Cat, Mr. Cat, Owen, Mrs. Owen, Baby Girl Owen, over a dozen cousins/aunts/uncles – to Boracay.  Sure, it’s a popular tourist spot now.  Boutique hotels line the beach.  Fire dancers dominate the night sand.  Henna tattoo artists, hair braiders, live bands, all ready to cater to the herds of tourists.  Boracay is a destination now, and one that a lot of folks worldwide seem to know about.  But long before all this, this white-sand island was empty, serene. In those days, my parents used to run a little hobby resort called Paraiso, making the island the site for most of our family vacations.  It was a ritual to go swimming in the turquoise water with my cousins.  It was standard to run around catching little fish with our hands.  It was habit to watch the sun set over Willy’s Rock.  And here I was, eighteen years since the last time we’d done all those things together.  It wasn’t just nostalgic.  It was magical.

Floating on the water with my arms wide, I watched the sky go from blue to purple to red.  The very notion of reality seemed completely bogus.

Oh, and the food was fantastic.

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