The more I fought sleep, the harder it became to remain awake. I’d raise my head in my seat, only for my head to be bobbing by my shoulder five minutes later. At least my sporadic naps made the flight pass faster.
It was my first trip to Iloilo – my first trip away from Luzon – but for Jen, it was her first visit ‘home’ in over three years. A lot had changed in the interim: she had left behind a toxic relationship, left her family’s home in Kent to live on her own in Bristol, found a full-time job, and of course, met me. Now she was returning with a new boyfriend, nervous about meeting new nephews, about being a Tita, and whether I would have a good time. On the latter, we were both a little anxious.
After over two years of being together, I still hadn’t (and still haven’t, at the time of writing) met Jen’s parents in person. And yet, as we exited Iloilo airport, here was what seemed like the rest of her family in it’s entirety, there to greet us. She may have been nervous before the journey, but I knew all of Jen’s smiles, and she wore her happiest as fifteen others beamed back at her, the homecoming queen, before holding her in an embrace. I stood in the background while she took it all in, a stranger in their midst. Jen introduced me, and curiosity and awkwardness simultaneously entered the group’s eyes. I exchanged quick hellos with her Kuya and his wife, and Jen’s grandparents, before we were shepherded into the mini van, eight of us and three babies, the other half of the group getting into Jen’s Tito’s car.
Half an hour later we entered the city proper, my first taste of Iloilo. The sign at the city border declares it the ‘most liveable city in the Philippines’, and on first look I saw nothing that would disagree with that claim. The streets were wide and largely quiet, the traffic of Manila a distant nightmare. It seemed less busy and less polluted, and being there reminded me of being in Legazpi, another small but lovely city.
Who knew Jollibee closed so early? The one we tried when we’d reached the city told us they didn’t have any food left. Strange.
We ended up in a small entertainment district called Smallville. As we walked, I stuck near Jenny, who was carrying one of her nephews whilst talking to her sister. It felt a little lonely at the back of the pack, but Jen’s Lolo walked next to me, and did his best to communicate in English, which surprised me, but also reassured me that I wasn’t completely segregated by language.
Our tribe packed into a restaurant; three tables were pushed together to accommodate us. Jen sat at the head of the table, with me on her right, her uncle on her shoulder pointing at items on the menu. Everything was on her tonight: everyone expected a treat from the one from the West, and though she knew her wallet would take a heavy dent, she seemed happy to oblige.
I was famished, and when the food came I didn’t need to be told twice to dig in. Food and energetic words were passed up and down the table. I accepted the food readily, but the words went over my head. Since Hiligaynon is the primary language of the region, it’s nearly impossible for me to understand the banter between Jen’s family members. In Manila, even with my limited knowledge of Tagalog, I’m able to get the gist of a conversation. Here though, I truly felt alien.
Jen was in her element. Her smile beamed between mouthfuls; I could see the delight she enjoyed by being back, and the delight she brought her family. At times she went to the other end of the table to hold crying babies, performing her ‘Tita’ duties like she’d been doing it for years, and though I saw her smile falter slightly when presented with the bill (nearly 4000 pesos/£60), she refused my offers to help and dutifully paid for the table.
It was nearly 11pm when we reached Jen’s family home in Oton province. Her mother had been reluctant for us to stay there for too long, telling Jen she was embarrassed by the state it was in, with the toilets flush being broken, though on arrival I saw no reason why she should be. That evening, Jen’s Lola also made a comment, which Jen translated for me, about how it was good for me to ‘see how they live’.
“You know how it is, because you’re half-white and live in the West, Filipinos think you live some kind of lavish lifestyle”, Jen told me in private, later that night.
Westernised as I am, I’m not unfamiliar with an old house with a less than reliable toilet, since I live in one. Nor am I unfamiliar with provincial Filipino homes; no stranger to using the tabo for bathing or flushing, or having to collect water from the rain or a well, and drinking water from shops. I had experienced this at my Lola’s in the Bicol provinces, and would experience it again later in the trip. There was no surprise for me, in how the family ‘lived’, and I have always found these facets of Filipino life nostalgic and charming, in their own way. To me, the tabo is a symbol of the little time I spent in the Philippines as a child, the memories that may be genuine or dreamt; too much time has passed to accurately tell. Either way, holding those little plastic pans make me feel more connected to my Filipino heritage.
It was nearly midnight before we head to bed. We were both worn out; our suitcases lay on the floor, unopened. We lay in our underwear in the second floor bedroom under a blanket of night-time humidity, falling asleep almost instantly.