Flicking through my passport in line at immigration, I glanced at the stamp from my previous trip to the Philippines. On the line above ‘date until’ were no numbers, but two letters: bb. Balikbayan. One who has left and has now returned.
I was born in Manila, but it was not so much a homecoming for me as for my mother, or Jen, my girlfriend. They were born and raised in the Philippines, and while they had left, still harboured a deep love for the country, like a child who has flown the nest. They had travelled from half a world away back ‘home’ far more frequently than I had. I love the Philippines too, but that love is mixed with curiosity, confusion, and a tiny bit of fear too.
The flight over was longer than I remembered. The airline we travel with had added a stopover in Taiwan since I last made this journey, and this meant an extension to the eighteen hour journey time. This meant more sitting, even number arses, and sore necks, which did not go down well with Jen who suffers from travel sickness and was not able to get the window seat, which usually alleviates it somewhat. That honour was taken by a nice Dutch girl whose name now escapes me, (who also needed the window seat due to travel sickness) who we made friendly sporadic conversation with during the journey. She had lived in Manila for a year for work, and was revisiting the country for a week to meet friends. I was envious of how well she seemed to sleep, though I had taken the tact of trying to stay up the whole flight to cheat jet lag (in the end, it didn’t work).
When our plane began it’s descent, darkness had already descended on Manila. As we dropped below the clouds the golden lights of the metro shone, casting a golden aura over the city. Headlights shone along the four main highways: Aurora, Edsa, Taft and Roxas. Hardly any traffic showed motion; countless cars stood still along these clogged arteries that run through the heart of the city, the very traffic we’d be sat in an hour hence.
Once off the plane at NAIA, we reunited with my mother, who had been sat apart from us, gathered our suitcases, and headed to the arrival area, searching the sea of faces for my relatives who had braved the journey to collect us. We were met by Tita L, my mother’s older sister, and my cousins kuya A and kuya M who embraced me in short, awkward hugs.
“What do you think of my boy?” my mother asks tita L, smiling.
“He’s so handsome!”, she responds. A typical tita response.
The heat I felt upon stepping out of the airport doors sent a warm wave of nostalgia through me. Like a warm blanket, the evening heat enveloped me as I stood, my sleep-deprived mind becoming drowsy. I was impatient to get to the house.
Half an hour later we were in gridlock, six of us packed into a five seater car, travel Filipino style, Jenny, myself, my mother and my tita, all squished into the back seat.
“You don’t need that,” Jen told me as I strained to put my seatbelt on. “This is the Philippines,” she said, smiling at me like I was a naive child. No one else had buckled up, but the safety-conscious self within protested and I stubbornly stayed strapped in.
It took us two and a half hours to get to my tita’s in Cubao. Along the way, my relatives and Jenny chatted happily in Tagalog, with smatterings of English for my benefit, my mother catching up with her sister and everyone asking Jenny questions. I have limited knowledge of Tagalog, but I can generally understand the gist of a conversation, and followed along as best I could while silently taking in the sights of night-time Manila. Even late at night, there is so much activity on the street. Night markets, food stalls, people hopping off Jeepneys and walking into the night, bright billboards, street dogs, stray cats, large groups of small children playing basketball, pedicabs trying desperately not for get hit by traffic and motorbikes zipping in between it, tricycle drivers catching some shut-eye while lying across their motorcycles. For a country-boy, these initial impressions when returning to the city are fascinating, the windows of the car becoming my television.
Finally, we reached the house. My cousins unloaded the baggage from the car as we greeted and embraced tita G and others who had been waiting outside to meet us. We entered the kitchen to find even more relatives, some of which I had met before, some I hadn’t, but all were introduced to us regardless. When everyone had filed in, eight adults and four children were packed into the room, the ceiling-mounted fan not able to blow the tropical evening heat off my skin. That nostalgic heat, and those nostalgic scenes, are what finally made me feel tired.
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