Balikbayan, pt. 2

The first three days in Metro Manila were an exercise in privilege. A big city, with American franchises, air conditioning and pavement. The next week or so would be a few steps towards the other end of the spectrum. This was Angeles City in Pampanga. We had experienced what the successful in capitalism had to offer. Now it was time to see the rest.

Angeles, and the surrounding areas like Dau, are not minor villages full of living-off-the-land types. It is still a city by every means, but not a major, highly developed, nicely planned out one. They don't build their structures to the sky, they don't put lines on their roads, they don't paint over every cement wall. But it's not the province. The air is thicker with smog and nothing looks like it was ever new. It is urban decay bustling with activity, but not wealth.

The kids running in the pebble streets made me feel overdressed. I felt awkward stepping out of the van picking us up, like I was flaunting my privilege by wearing a nice shirt and pants. The house that they live in - they referring to my aunt, three of my cousins, six of their kids, and two wives - is small. The whole thing is probably smaller than my apartment. It has a vaguely familiar tile pattern and I swear I remember the steps leading up to the two rooms. But that's it. It's all alien from there.

Many things occurred to me as I sat in their living room, watching my Mom unpack suitcase upon suitcase, giving away goods to everyone. Part of the Balikbayan journey is the passing out of gifts from America in the form of supplies. Not little magnets with the Hollywood sign, or snow globes with the Statue of Liberty in them. This was the all powerful Pasalubong (gifts), manna from heaven taken the form of Costco goods. It took over an hour to unpack everything, and it must have cost over a thousand dollars in total. But it is completely expected and necessary. This was my Mom's duty as part of her immigration. As I watch the process, the mind wanders, swaggers, and dances. I start thinking about my connection to this country and these people.

I had always planned on being a "good Filipino" when I became an adult. Active in the community, knowledgeable about the history, all of that jazz. It sort of went without saying that I would also visit the Philippines in the future on my own. As I stared at these stacks of Nescafe coffee beans, I realized that I couldn't do that without a connection. Who would I visit? My cousins, whom I don't even know how to contact without going through my parents? Most of whom I don't even know that well? My anchor here in the homeland is something vague at best. What kind of "good Filipino" doesn't even visit the country?

Knowing that this may very well be my parents last intended trip to the Philippines, a sense of urgency came over me. I had to, somehow, make connections here that I can rely on. Not just for myself, but for their sake, too. Although going home is an intense expense, I felt like it was an obligation to continue this charity. My Mom put my cousins through college. I looked at these six crazy little kids and wondered if I would do the same for them.

My cousins here are a close bunch. I remembered most of their names from when I was a little kid, but I didn't remember one face. Four in total, they are all the sons of a sister in the Amigable family. I'm the only son who isn't part of the group. Thus, there was some pressure from all sides to bond and take a place among their group.

So we went out drinking at a club. I mean, beer is a great ice breaker, right? Lowers the freezing point of social awkwardness, I hear. The band was acceptable, with talented singers doing covers of American pop songs. Two of the four are the quiet, shy types, so I really only spoke with two cousins. It was all surface talk, and the language barrier might have had something to do with it.

They knew English, it's required in schools here, but I imagine our conversations could have been more fluid had I known Tagalog. I learned the great, devastating power of language over these days, too. Even in a westernized country like the Philippines, where the signs are all in English, knowing Tagalog is necessary to feel like you are part of something. My frustration with this void in my head came to a boiling point as I sat in their living room wondering what was going to happen next. Everyone has their conversation and moves on, and you're left dragging behind asking what just happened.

That's the devastation of language. It has the power to isolate. I'm surrounded by so much family in a country full of people of my own blood, and I couldn't have felt more alone. You can't even eavesdrop and listen in on a conversation. It's static. You aren't part of the conversation, so you're not part of their group. You can only enter when they specifically invite you in, by asking you a question in English, and then that membership is revoked soon after.

So I could only wonder what kind of things two sisters would say to each other after not seeing each other in over a decade. I was forced to watch the dull movie, "Confessions of a Teenage Bride" while everyone talked. I didn't yearn for home, or for english, or for familiar faces. Just the knowledge to communicate.

Pampanga was mostly a family ordeal. The one bit of sight-seeing we did was visit the land nearby the giant volcano, Mt. Pinotubo. This was Bacalor, where the lands, including an old church, was devastated by the eruption of the volcano in 1991. The second biggest eruption of the century, Mt. Pinotubo spread ash all the way to Indonesia and lowered the global temperature by one degree fahrenheit. We were visiting the Bacalor church, which provided a nice contrast to the grandeur of Manila's San Agustin.

In a way, it was a nice parallel to the difference between a place like Manila and a place like Pampanga. San Agustin was gigantic with extraordinary detail and a sense that you were walking in an epic monument. Bacalor Church was more practical, less decorated, more worn and real. It wasn't a grand, screaming, structure built by the Spanish, but a homely building built by Filipinos of their own accord. What made it much more unique was the damage caused by the lahar, a mix of ash and rain and mud, flooding the surrounding area for miles. It elevated the ground by at least 7 feet.

Tall windows were little vents on the floor. What was once an appropriately high ceiling was turned into a very reachable roof. As we walked in, you could hear your footsteps echo to the front and back. Here, the windows were open, and the birds & bats were flying from the rafters. They chirped at a without ceasing as they danced from beam to beam above us, filling the hall with their noise. Like San Agustin, it was empty and respected. A great atmosphere to kneel, with a sense of destruction and resurrection to make it all the more cooler.

One of the last people we visited was my late Lola's sister. It was a subtle remarkable experience. She resembles her sister a lot, and it was like discovering this whole branch of the family tree that I didn't know existed. The tree's reach goes far and wide. What also hit me was that this was the most unfortunate of the houses yet. Although it was decorated with beautiful, antique religious items that could be of any age, it was tragically small. The kitchen had a single candle for light and there were about a dozen people living in there. But they work with it. Nothing like a trip to the third world to put your privilege into perspective.

After a short break in Manila, which was quickly becoming our "home base" of sorts, it was time for the long drive to my Dad's home town of Mauban. Mauban is a seaside municipality in the province of Quezon. It's a series of tightly packed in dingy buildings among a straight up jungle. To get there, my uncle drove us at high speeds around winding, mountain-side roads, absolutely immersed in a rainforest. You're really a long way from Kansas out here.

Mauban is a little harder to describe. It too was urban, a little more upscale than Angeles, but still not the lap of luxury. The streets are packed and tiny. It didn't seem like they had any building standards or regulations, everything is just sort of constructed wherever there is room, awkwardly in all it's asymmetry. It was also in the middle of a festival - every town has a festival at some point in the year. For Mauban, they have marching bands playing at random hours of the day & night. They are markets put up where there usually are none, and a stage of performances when the big day comes.

Over the few days spent here, all kinds of cousins and titas and titos came to spend at least a day. I came to realize that I had a closer connection to my Dad's side of the family. Possibly because I identified more with them. They were Pansacola's, and that would always be my last name according to current gender roles. Another part is that since they were certainly more well-to-do than my mother's side, they had the ability to travel and visit us more. So I was lucky enough to have memories of some of these people from when I was 12.

The overall theme of the time spent here was personal history. The house of my grandparents contained many family artifacts and documentations. Diplomas of my Lolo; Albums of strangers that came before me; Real sepia-toned photographs. Best of all, a family tree dating back over a century. Although it has not been updated and had a lot of illegible names, it served to show that two of my nephews and I are currently the ones responsible for carrying on the Pansacola name.

The highlight of the Mauban trip was the visit to Cagbalete, an island just off the coast. You might find it misspelled on a map as Cabalete. It's an island that my family has owned for at least a century. Though undeveloped, it's got some nice huts with white sand and the clearest water I've ever seen. The peace and serenity of the trip was ruined by the loudest, worst, karaoke singers in the hemisphere. I believe that's why they came to the island, to sing where no one in the mainland could hear and judge them.

Oh, we also watched a cockfight. For those not in the know, a cockfight is defined as bladed roosters letting loose on each other in a small octagon. Interesting, bloody, and not something I would go out of my way to see again. I understand how it can be such a popular past time.

I wasn't sure how to mark this section of the trip, but it's become clear that it was about family. It's the typical aspect of the Balikbayan trip. Everyone expects to see family when they go home. Sometimes it's all they see. I feel fortunate to both do that, as well as try and experience what else the country has to offer.

Next time: Cebu, the world's smallest primate, Bohol, and wrapping up.