Foreign and familiar.
First things first: many apologies to the lack of blogging in the past month. Hopefully this mega-blog makes up for that.
After being cooped up in a closet-sized kitchen last Winter Term with only a few friends made of clay, my wish for a more active, adventurous Winter Term was granted.
This January, I spent seventeen days with my older sister (Pammi's the name) and mother in the Philippines, where both my parents were born and raised. It was my first time visiting my parents' home, and though I felt alien, I grew connections to this foreign estate through friends, family and food.
My trip took me through the beautiful beaches of Boracay to the sugar cane fields of Bacolod. I came across the laid-back cool of Cebu, as well as the hustle and bustle of Manila. I snorkeled in shallow reefs, climbed mountains to waterfalls (5, to be exact), ogled at the ripples of rice terraces, and ate enough sweets and pastries to ensure a couple trips to the dentist. I met family members whose names I had zero previous knowledge of, and by the end of the trip grew to call them, well... family!
For the record, it was an amazing January.
I love plane rides. It's like entering a time warp, especially long ones crossing multiple time zones. By the time those 16 hours were up and the plane landed in Manila, my body had no idea where it was, and my brain didn't know where to begin comprehending. It was hot. A kind of sticky, sour heat you find near the end of July. The traffic was ungodly, with drivers leapfrogging each other in a nonsensical fight for positioning.
We stayed just one night in Manila before we headed to Boracay to meet all of my mother's relatives. So the trip began. Boracay was beautiful. The sand was soft, the water was a transparent sea-green. It was the kind of place that you'd spot in a travel magazine. A place that surely made someone several hundred years ago say, "Wow. This is something special." Though most of the island has been turned into a tourist spot, there were lots to see around the little scattered islands.
I have a rather large family. My dad's side alone yields 19 first cousins, most of whom I have known for most of my life. However, I had yet to meet a single one of the 12 cousins on my mother's side of the family. This month provided this wonderful opportunity. There was an initial period of awkwardness that comes any time you're meeting new family members. There was a tiny language barrier, where some of my cousins found themselves acting as translators if needed, but all of them spoke good English. But from the first minute we got there, my aunts, uncles and cousins did not cease to be incredibly warm, welcoming and hilarious.
After Boracay, we trekked to Bacolod (located on the island of Negros), but not after a longer-than-intended trip home. Having left at 10 in the morning, my family took 2 vans stuffed like sardine cans intending to catch an afternoon ferry to arrive in Bacolod for dinnertime. However, rather than driving through the island of Boracay, we unfortunately drove around the entire island. The result? A ridiculously long, scenic, beautiful and fun drive through lush greenery, colorful communities and throngs of party-goers. Our drive coincided with the Ati-Atihan, a feast held every January in honor of the Santo Niño (infant Jesus). The route we took cut directly through the town of Kalibo, where Ati-Atihan originated. Hundreds upon hundreds of people swarmed the streets dressed up, faces painted.
Bacolod is where my mother grew up, and where most of my cousins currently reside. They took us everywhere! From mountaintops to waterfalls, food stands to shopping malls, villages to city halls. I was excited over little things, some which they found to be so insignificant, they wondered how anyone would find it interesting. My cousins would tell us about tiny, hole-in-the-wall places to eat and my sister and I would say, "Let's eat there." Laughter followed, probably thinking why we'd want to be taken to places so ordinary to them, but we'd be more than thrilled. They'd ask questions about life in America and be shocked at some of the differences (like prices of random household objects, or differences in driving regulations), or discuss American pop culture with an impressive amount of knowledge. They'd show us this plant with leaves that close at the touch, magically and reflexively. Just your average plant in the Philippines, but a world of fun for the foreigner.
The highlight of Bacolod was Mambucal, a mountain area with 7 waterfalls and gorgeous sights of Negros. We arrived at around 2 PM, right when the bats started to take flight. There were so many bats! Some swooped down pretty close to the bottom of the mountain, but most of them just looked like black birds swarming the sky. My cousins and I saw (and smelled) the sulfur springs, and admired the boiling mud area from afar (I didn't even know mud could boil...). The hike up was nice, with a trail paving our way. We reached the 5th waterfall around 4, took a short swim in the cold, fresh water, then decided to head back down. It was here where we met a couple of boys who lived in one of the small nearby villages, and offered to take us down a more scenic route than the one we took up. Of course, we agreed. However, we failed to recognize that it had been raining hard the day before. It resulted in a muddy, messy trek through mud, streams, rivers, rocks, and mud. In flip flops, naturally (not the finest hiking attire, mind you). But the 10 of us made it safely back to the bottom, and despite all the swearing and sweating that had taken place, I think we all agreed it was worth it.
After Bacolod, my sister and I flew to Cebu to meet up with the lovely Jhanus, a friend of mine from Oberlin! He actually lived in the Philippines up until 4 years ago, when he and his family moved to Chicago. When he found out I was going to the Philippines for Winter Term, he insisted that I come to Cebu and he show me around his home.
Cebu was awesome. Much more developed than Bacolod and Boracay combined, but it still had the calming atmosphere that I found throughout most of my stay. Jhanus took us to a mountaintop where we got to see all of Cebu lit up at night. The trip was much tamer and much more air-conditioned. Cebu was where Magellan first landed several hundred years ago, and we visited several historic sites. There was Magellan's cross, a preserved, large, crucifix symbolizing the gift ("gift," depending on your take on history) of Christianity to the Philippine Islands. There was the Basilica de Santo Niño, the oldest church in the Philippines. There was a memorial of Lapu-Lapu, the warrior who killed Magellan soon after his crew's arrival. There was a Taoist Temple, a site I had a difficult time comprehending how it made its way to the predominantly Catholic Philippines. A lot to see in a two-day span.
Pammi, Jhanus and I visited a Cebuano butterfly sanctuary, which ended up being one of my favorite parts of the whole trip. Inside were dozens upon dozens of butterflies native to Cebu. We got to touch the butterflies and have their feelers press against our shirts - that is, if they liked our smell. Good thing I have great hygiene! The owner of the sanctuary was an incredibly knowledgeable, insightful, and talkative old lady whose family had owned the place for years. Her father, Julian Jumalon, was quite an amazing figure who was interested in both biology and fine art. Many of his artistic subjects were, unsurprisingly, butterflies. In some of his later works, he even used damaged butterfly wings to recreate mosaics (called Lepido mosaics) of some of his older works. These works had an indescribable texture and sheen that showed the extensive amount of work put into them. He was also the first artist to do silkscreening in the Philippines! How neat is that? Her daughter showed us their family's extensive butterfly collection, insect collection, egg collection, doll collection, art collection, and more collections of collections. We ended up staying there a good 2 ½ hours!
I've expressed my love of Filipino food before, and this trip certainly affirmed this admiration. Everything was fresh, and cooked with the same amount of love that my dad and grandmother put into their food. I've got quite the sweet tooth, and Bacolod's desserts certainly did not disappoint. The pastillas, the half moon cakes, the napoleones, the mango pastillas, the chocolate crumble, the dulce de gatas, the butterscotch, the haw haw, the halo halo - need I go on? Jhanus took us to a seafood place in Lapu-Lapu where the fish was so fresh, you could taste the saltwater from whence it came. Filipino food is a comfort cuisine. It's admittedly not the most refined, nor the most nutritious. But goodness, the stews, broths, meats, and sauces are things that feed your big Filipino family and leave you sickeningly satisfied. I've had my fill to probably tide over a semester of food craving. Did I mention that Filipino food contains an awful lot of meat? The first 5 days there, the closest thing to a vegetable (other than the obligatory white rice) I had was a scrambled egg. The inner Oberlin in me was whispering - actually, screaming - in my ear throughout the trip.
We left Cebu wishing we had stayed just one more day. The day we left, Jhanus had planned on going to the chocolate hills of Bohol, a range of hills that turn chocolate-brown during different seasons of the year. Pammi and I flew to Manila and noted a change in atmosphere. A more urban, Americanized vibe, complete with the busy streets, city rush, and taxi drivers employed by Satan. We stayed with my Tito Erik (Uncle Erik, for the Tagalog-impaired) in his house in Cubao, which boasted an impressive collection of movies. My Tito Erik is a well-known movie director in the Philippines, something my mother is proud to say and something that I admire. My family was well-versed in American television, music, and movies, and this huge movie collection embodied that sentiment. There were American influences to be seen everywhere in the Philippines, from the fairly abundant fast food joints, to the American styles emulated on the supersized billboards, to the profusion of NBA jerseys worn by little tikes, aspiring ballers, and everyday villagers. To my delight, I counted a total of one LeBron James jersey.
For a country so obsessed with basketball, Filipinos are a short-sided population. I met my Tito Butch, my dad's older brother, who also played in the Philippine Basketball Association way back when. He was maybe an inch taller than me. That's 5'10", which would rarely cut it in the NBA. I felt quite tall this past month.
Manila has so many malls, and this is coming from a Jersey native where the mall's role is equivalent to a watering hole. My cousin Alexis Victoria said there are upwards of 50 malls in Manila, including the Mall of Asia, the second biggest mall in Asia (was first until Singapore outdid themselves).
My time in Manila was mostly spent visiting various family members. Each visit was coupled with a delicious meal and conversations about life before my mother migrated. Since this trip, I've grown a huge appreciation for my mom and dad. Seeing and learning what it took for them to get out and understanding why they did has left me very grateful.
Let it be known: I am a Filipino American, with an emphasis on the American. I'm proud of both of these halves, and I think everyone should come to love any of their parts to a whole. I missed home at many points throughout the month, but at the same time grew fond of this distant land that I'm inevitably attached to - whether I like it or not. I will indeed miss it. Until next time, that is.
The hard part now is translating these experiences to a printed medium. I don't have anything to show as of yet. But in case you're still here, still reading, here's more pictures I have to show of this trip.