Finally settled in at home again after a 1-week trip back to the Philippines, made possible by TV5 International’s newest reality show, Ganito Na Kami Ngayon. My episode lasted all of 30 minutes, but we spent 3 whole days covering a lot of ground and meeting people, visiting significant places, and then some hours more to shoot narrative.
It turned out to be much more than the production group or I expected it to be. While the expected format was a simple “surprise return home food travelogue,” the circumstances of my trip transformed it into a soul-searching episode that tied together a multitude of experiences that become part of a writer’s life, a well-spring for writing.
During the planning, I was told not to inform anyone in the Philippines of my return, so that it would be a surprise, because that element of surprise was essential to the underlying mood of the series. The production manager/researcher was supposed to have contacted specific people I knew from different groups and coordinate events where people I knew would gather and then be surprised. Somewhere along the way, communication broke down and not everyone who should have been contacted was contacted until practically the last minute. Up to the last minute, as we were leaving the airport, text messages and phone calls were flying back and forth trying to set something up for my first big reunion. I learned that shooting a big reunion with family on the morning of my arrival would not be possible as everyone was off somewhere and, because of the recent death in the family, those who might be available were not open to having the reunion filmed and televised for all the world to see. That made staying at the home of immediate family members highly unlikely, so we took the second option, which was to settle me in the home of one of my very best friends from teaching at SSC high school over 20 years ago, Evelyn Marasigan.
Once settled, we went out for lunch to get a taste of classic Filipino cuisine at the Archipelago Restaurant in Ortigas Center, which turned out to be an upscale branch of Barrio Fiesta, hence excellent kare-kare, green mango salad, and crispy pata. The best first meal a returning Filipino could have. Well, second meal–the first one was breakfast at IHOP in Global City, which had been transformed in the last 6+ years from vacant lots with about 2% of the land developed, to a sprawling super-urban development with skyscrapers and high-rise apartment buildings, dozens of restaurants and commercial establishments, and foot and vehicle traffic everywhere. Many compare it to bustling Singapore and, indeed, the new skyline is comparable to Singapore and Hong Kong and the new Shanghai.
A drive around the block brought us to a building where, lo and behold, I met an old friend, Dean Francis Alfar, whom I had not seen in very many years. I knew he was busy writing and had meant to eventually contact him regarding the annual anthology he has edited for the last 8 years or thereabouts, Philippine Speculative Fiction. Surprisingly, he hadn’t known about my Palanca award, and more surprising was the act that we both were awardees in the same year! Unfortunately, it was the year I had migrated to Canada, and I learned of my award less than a month after I had settled in Canada, so there was no way I could be back to receive my award. He has made me swear on camera to submit to the anthology this year. I learned from him how much publishing and writing has changed in the Philippines, particularly in the area of Speculative Fiction, which includes the genres of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. That was totally welcome and completely heartening news. That your writing is welcome anywhere is music to a writer’s ear!
Much of the three days was spent nourishing the body through food, but the next couple of experiences included caring for the body and challenging it as well. A friend of mine shared photos sometime last year of his whole family trying out archery in an indoor practice range, and didn’t I end up there myself? I got to shoot a few rounds–pretty much like riding a bicycle–apparently, you don’t forget how to do it! Just need practice to get back in shape.
The first evening was a heart and soul time, planned to celebrate my book, with a bit of a reunion with my son Kitt and a first meeting with his fiancee. It was a wonderful evening, even if people we were hoping would show up didn’t because of lack of communication. Still, I got to meet another old and good friend, Marisyll Pengson and her husband Joey. Of course Evelyn was with me. A couple of former students had shown up as well, so that was nice, since we got to chat quite a bit and compare notes–Magnolia had lived in California for several years and had recently relocated to the Philippines again. And then, another delicious meal compliments of high school classmate Sandie Romulo Squillantini’s Romulo Cafe.
The next day, Saturday morning, we drove to the Manila North Cemetery where the Lapeña family crypt was, where a portion of my mother’s ashes was laid to rest with my father’s remains. I know her spirit was still lingering–I could feel it, somehow, but it was not anything bad. Just incomplete. After lunch, we dropped in on the dance rehearsal of SSC HS89 as they practiced for their big homecoming number for the 9th of February. That was a really nice surprise! Only Aggie Bontia-Dasig knew about it, and she had told Pia Garcia-Moranda, who was their choreographer/rehearsal mistress, so when I entered the door, everyone just froze and stared at me, and when I took my sunglasses off and they realized it was me, it was such a jaw-dropping moment! One of the most fulfilling moments was learning that one of the girls there had chosen to become a writer and had used what I had taught her and shared with her to pursue a writing career! Nothing fills a teacher’s heart and soul more than to know your lessons have helped to shape a student’s life, their career and life choices. More fulfilling yet, is the knowledge that I was able to share a part of my soul with my students and that they do still value the lessons I taught and use them in their adult lives.
The evening was spent getting a free traditional medicine session with a bit of acupuncture, heated acupuncture needles, cupping, and oiled cupping on my back to help the chronic pain from the accident…wow, did the last one help! And to show you just how small a world it is, Dr. Philip Tan-gatue turned out to know my older brother from the same hospital they both worked in, and had my sister-in-law for his boss as well!
Sunday was hometown day. They picked me up at 6:30 in the morning–which turned out to be nearly 7 a.m.–and we made the long road trip to Pagsanjan, taking the old road through several small towns by Laguna Bay. It was my first visit to Pagsanjan and we sought relatives whom I had met only through Facebook and some, not at all. I met cousins who were from the “other” side of the family–apparently the two sides were estranged for some old forgotten reason or another–just as cousins on the “same” side were also estranged–methinks there was too much pride and too much sensitivity and sentimentality among the siblings and cousins of my mother’s generation. Meeting my contemporaries–even if they were mostly older than me, since my mother was the youngest of 8 siblings–was completing. Here was family that had always been there, that welcomed me with open arms, that knew of me and read about me and followed me online. That wanted to know me and be with me. Knowing that, I wonder what was so horrible that my mother thought we would be better off not knowing our relatives on her side of the family. Knowing that, I wonder if any parent has the right to deprive their children of knowing their relations. My mother decided who we would know of her relatives because of how she felt about them. I regret the absence of how enriching it could have been to know you had a huge clan of blood relations and even relations by marriage. It gives one a sense of heritage, a sense of rootedness in a place to know your relatives from your parents’ hometowns. It is something that authors can take and weave into the very fabric of their writing that makes their voices unique. Traveling through Laguna province and the town of Pagsanjan has given me a place that I can trace my roots back to, a place where I can say my family came from. It colours my backstory and gives depth to my history. It is where a part of my soul was born and a part that will complete my soul.
For the first time, I got to sleep in on Monday morning, then spent the afternoon shooting narrative and audio clips for the episode. In the evening, another bff Marichu Aculado, a classmate from college, picked me up and we met with Dina and Doc, Divine and Ric, for another sumptuous supper, this time at Ayala Triangle where there is a cluster of upscale restaurants in a space that used to be a football field and a preferred gathering spot for protesters and rallyists, particularly against the government. After supper, Chu dropped me off at Greenbelt where I finally met my sister and her family and we had a nightcap in one of the restaurants there. The last time we met was at a layover in Hong Kong on the way to Canada. My final reunion was at breakfast, with sister-in-law Maeyet, brother Elmer and his wife Agnes, at Resort World, which is another new development in the airport complex.
There have been so many new developments in the Philippines since I left over 6 years ago, I know I would get lost from not recognizing any of the old landmarks. The traffic is incredibly congested and unbelievable chaotic, especially after driving around Canada where drivers are so disciplined, and PEI where drivers are actually tame! There are underpasses, overpasses, and bypasses that I don’t recognize. There is hardly any open space anymore! And some places are filthier and seedier than ever. There seems to be more people than ever, more cars than ever. So many new restaurants and commercial establishments everywhere I turned. It may be a sign that the economy is growing, but so is inflation. The prices of a lot of things seem to be about ten times what they were when I left–we could still get burger meals for way under 20 pesos then–now, that standard meal will be over 100 pesos. A fancy cooler spritzer-type drink at IHOP cost 95 pesos. A can of coke costs 25 pesos at the airport. The cheapest roast chicken dish at Kenny Rogers is about 200 pesos–that was about as much, maybe even more, as four people would spend when I was last there. Movie tickets are also around 200 pesos on the average, depending on the theater–when I left, the fanciest movie houses had tickets at about 60 to 80 pesos. I used to be able to go around for a week with only a couple of hundred pesos in my wallet, which was more than enough–and if I had a five hundred, that was a lot to walk around with. Now, people walk around with thousand peso bills in their wallets. It seems so surreal.
The trip back felt like I was stepping into another world, a totally different world. In reality, it is another world, not totally different, but certainly greatly different. It was a time of re-experiencing, a time of re-opening and revisiting people, places, experiences I had in the past. At the same time, it was a chance to complete another loop in the spiral of life. And it was a chance to open new doors for further exploration, because that is what a writer needs. An infinite number of doors and windows and corridors to explore. An infinite number of chances to integrate myriad experiences to bring together all aspects of being into a single creative work, a work of art, a literary piece.
I am renewed and refreshed. I am a writer.