It was in the van and away we go, though again, I didn’t know where. Jen was doing an uncharacteristically bad job of keeping me up to date with plans, presumably preoccupied with her family, which I could understand. I knew she was nervous – “I haven’t shown a partner this part of my life” – though she seemed calmer when I reassured her that I was genuinely interested. Still, as not many of her family would, or could, talk to me, due to my inability to speak Hiligaynon and lack of Tagalog, I couldn’t help but feel like an extra piece of baggage, silently tucked into the corner, transported from one location to the next.
“Where are we?”, I asked, as we pulled over to the side of a wide main road.
“We’re visiting my Lola.” The Lola on her father’s side.
We darted across the dusty main road and into a narrow alley of old, (mostly) single-story concrete buildings,with corrugated tin roofs, shaded from the harsh afternoon sun by verdant trees. A group of elderly women stood in a semi-circle, hands together, mouths praying, eyes gazing up at a two-foot tall statue of Christ on a pedestal. We slipped through their group, their chanting undisturbed. ‘Holy week’ was less than a week away.
Neighbourhood kids who were playing outside their houses stared at our group as we passed through, Jen’s blue hair seemingly catching their attention. At the end of the lane, a couple of Jen’s relatives stood outside the house waiting to greet us, some of whom I recognised from the night we arrived. We walked in single file down a narrow alley and into the house, dim in the shade of the tightly packed houses. Jen’s Lola sat on a seat near the door; her metal walking stick stood beside her. Jen sat next to her, and I sat next to Jen who briefly introduced me to her Lola, and I observed proper politeness by ‘blessing’ her – raising the back of her hand to my forehead. Outside, the chanting of the worshippers began to grow closer.
Jen’s Lola made a comment in Hiligaynon about her hair. “What? It’s blue!”, Jen exclaimed through a wide smile. This was about all of the conversation I understood. The family sat in a circle talking excitedly, Jen the centre of attention; I sat to her side, smiling politely and occasionally making awkward eye contact with people I didn’t yet know the names of. In many ways I related to the babies in the room. They didn’t understand what what was being said, either, and were dependent on someone for comfort.
I listened outside. The chanted prayers sounded like they were right outside, then they came to a halt. Moments later, Jen’s cousin brought one of the statues of Christ into the house.
After fifteen minutes of listening to merry chatter, we decided to sit outside. Jen’s Lola needed assistance walking. She was frail, having suffered a stroke, and Jen helped her along while I opened the doors. Once outside, the three of us sat on a wooden bench, Jen in the middle.
Many of her relatives were gathered one house down, outside her Tita’s sari sari store. The babies ran around, minded by Jen’s brother; her tubby one year old nephew a constant source of noise and energy, his slightly elder cousin more contemplative. Her sister and sister-in-law looked at pirated DVDs in a sari sari across the lane. The local kids up the lane seemed to be having a disagreement, the boys and girls separated, staring and pouting at each other from across the way. I sat next to Jen as she caught up with her Lola, the shade and slight breeze a relief, chilling the sweat on my skin.
Jen’s cousin offered me a piece of Maja Blanca, which I accepted, and she returned from the sari sari with a piece on a paper plate with a plastic fork. It was warm, but still good.
Ten minutes later, a caucasian man in his late forties or early fifties appeared and parked a blue Honda motorcycle a few doors down. The local kids gathered around him, jumping and shouting, their feud seemingly forgotten. He smiled down, and humoured them, before heading inside. I was surprised: a white man living in the provinces is a rare sight. It seemed that he was surprised to see us, too, as when he noticed us upon exiting his house he stood about eight feet away and watched us talking on the bench for a solid minute. Seems like, in some places, whether it’s Filipino or foreigner, I can’t avoid being stared at. I pretended to be listening to Jen and her Lola speak.
Dusk descended; the golden highlights on the verdant trees disappeared, their leaves grew dull. A group of Tita’s came down the lane, laughing loudly together. Jen’s tubby nephew looked tired from running and jumping around. Everyone went inside. We helped her Lola back inside, so we could eat a simple dinner together. She looked happy, but I saw melancholy behind Jen’s eyes, worrying for her Lola’s health and feeling a little guilty that this short visit would be the first and last time in years she’d seen her. “I love spending time with my family,” she had often told me on this trip. And I could see it, though I couldn’t entirely empathise. I can’t remember the last time my sisters and I did something together with our parents, though it’s not something I’d complain about. I did my best to discard my feelings of loneliness, of feeling left out, for her sake. I was happy for her. And even though she was nervous, and a little peeved at some relatives always asking for things, she was enjoying being back, and they enjoyed her.
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