It had been 5 years since I’d visited the Philippines. All this time, I’d had an aversion for my homeland. My last memory of the Philippines was a painful one. I’d gone there with my then boyfriend so we could meet each other’s families. The trip was all a façade and a last ditch effort at a flailing relationship. On the outside we were a picture-perfect couple who was halfway down the aisle. On the inside we were miserable. We’d grown desperate to keep the relationship going and we planned the trip in hopes it would bring us closer together, but instead it drew us further apart. In the last few days of our trip there, his love for home was reinvigorated, so much so that he broke down in tears. He confessed that he had no wish to get married and build a life in California with me. His heart was there in the Philippines, where his family was. I flew back to the States alone.
I love my country. I love my culture. But that memory alone kept me away from visiting the homeland for so long. I summoned all my courage and decided to return there.
I de-boarded the plane at Ninoy Aquino International Airport and walked into a wall of heat. The air was thick with humidity and the smell of home. Although this wasn’t my first time as a balikbayan, I knew it would take me a couple days to get accustomed to certain things; lack of warm water, using a tabo, being careful with the water I drank, these were things that I had to consciously account for.
Our main agenda was to go to a friend’s wedding in Boracay, do some site-seeing around the capital, and visit my family near Manila in Marikina. Little did I know that I would also spontaneously find myself in Pangasinan and Palawan!
Boracay was beautiful and fun. The 100 Islands in Pangasinan were enchanting. The Underground River in Palawan, now the newest wonder of the world, is a feat of nature. I had a great time at these amazing tourist meccas. But what I really want to share are the moments that transformed me- and those were the times I spent with the local people.
From walking by beggars and street vendors, to spending time with my own family, these were the times that affected me the most and reminded me about why it was so very important to come home.
Every time we’d see the shanty houses balanced on stilts over the water, I’d think for a moment and formulate a plan about how to stop the tremendous poverty of my country. Seeing high-rise condominiums literally next to such devastating poverty, would break my heart. Did anyone not see the grave contrast? Maybe people had, but had come to the point of growing indifference or feeling that nothing could be done to change it.
I’d think up various schemes of fixing the country: If we put money into rehabilitating the metropolitan areas then we could pump money into tourism, and in turn the money generated there could go towards bettering the quality of living for the poor. But wait- if we fixed the metropolitan areas, wouldn’t we be displacing all the poor people who lived there?
I’d try again and think- maybe if we developed a better welfare system and educate the impoverished with trade skills, they might be able to find a better life. But wait- what about the corrupt government officials? How could we make sure the money went to the right place?
Every time I’d think of a plan, there was always some factor that I hadn’t thought of and I would get discouraged. My heart ached for my brothers and sisters. But the one thing that I admired most was the uncanny and strictly Filipino ability for joyfulness and laughter. Life is so very hard in the Philippines, but everywhere I looked there was a sense of optimism.
Amidst the shanty towns there are gatherings filled with dancing, food and karaoke. People make do with what they have. They are grateful for the handful of blessings they can call their own. They carry a joy in their hearts that can only come from deep-rooted faith and hope.
We visited a barangay in Pangasinan where the people there prepared lunch for us. I was so touched; they had spent all day preparing the food and spent the very little they had to make a feast for us. They were so very gracious and wanted to wait till we had gotten our fill before beginning to eat their share. We took some members of the barangay on our trip to 100 Islands and they were so happy and grateful to come along.
Towards the end of the trip I went to visit my family. I wasn’t sure how I would feel after not seeing them for 5 years. I hadn’t even gotten off my cousin’s motorcycle when my uncle rushed outside and lifted me off of it and carried me into the house, singing all the while. It made me laugh so hard and made me feel so humbled that I had such a grand welcome.
They put out a whole spread of food in my cousin’s room, which was the only room with AC, just so that we’d be more comfortable. After we ate, we spent the rest of the night, drinking, laughing, doing karaoke and reminiscing on the last time I had visited. Right then, I missed my own immediate family so much, and wished they could be there to share that moment.
Probably the last and most important part of our trip was our visit to the Rizal Museum in Fort Santiago. All this time, I’d been reading up on our national hero, Jose Rizal, and had become fascinated with his life and his role in inspiring Filipinos to revolution.
We saw pages of his diary and various books he’d written and artwork he’d created. How any one person was so gifted, eloquent and brilliant was just beyond me. Most chilling of all was when we stood outside his prison cell, his last testament was illuminated on the wall:
I have always loved my poor country. And I am sure I shall love her until my last moments, should men prove unjust to me. I shall die happy, satisfied with the thought that all I have suffered, my past, my present and my future, my life, my loves, my joys, everything, I have sacrificed for love her.
I admired this man who was prepared to die for love of his country. Like any young imperialist conquest, the Philippines had its flaws, but the ambition to be free from colonial rule was fervent and unstoppable. Rizal had hope for this. He was willing to die for this. And as we walked out of the museum and walked his last steps to his execution – I looked beyond the walls of Fort Santiago to the city and saw his dream realized.
In my short time there, I found myself transformed. My country is born of volcanoes, a shifting and twisting land, ever being re-made. I think back on my last trip here and realized what was once a painful memory had now become a time of wonder and clarity. I marvel at the generosity of spirit amongst family and complete strangers. I see not the shanties and beggars, but a defiant hope. One day I pray my people will no longer be slave to staggering poverty. But no matter the fate of my country, I know that its people will continually adapt and transform to their surroundings. We are a people of change. No matter the circumstances surrounding us, within us is always the fire of hope.