Wednesday, July 30, 2008

IX: "Bayan Ko" (My Country)

I've done a lot in the last month... gazed at the squatters from afar and visited my grandmother in Mandaluyong, stayed at the 5-star Shangri-La hotel in Makati, spent a week in the water-sport and white beach splendor of Boracay, rode an elephant in Bangkok during my couple days in Thailand, experienced the "high-class" luxurious life of Eastwood City and made lifelong memories with my family in Quezon City. I also stood atop a rural volcano village in Tagaytay, took an epic ride down a water slide in Antipolo, saw the home of the first Philippine president in Kawit Cavite and went on a horse-and-buggy tour of love at my parents' engineering college in Intramuros.

And when it comes down to this... a not-so-short summary of my time here, it's almost impossible to relay it all in a few straightforward paragraphs. Because it seems that the things that I find most strange, and borderline uncomfortable, about the Philippines in general, are also the things that make it so wonderful.

When I first arrived here, I was choked by the thick humidity and unforgiving heat. It was all I could think about because I was so used to my clean, air-conditioned, convenient, spacious, soft and comfortable life in California. What spoiled American brat wouldn't complain?

The air smells weird, it's always overcast and hot, central air-conditioning is virtually non-existent, the beds are always hard as rock and it's about an 85% chance that a public restroom has puddles of urine on the floor and is equipped with a bucket of water in lieu of toilet paper. The streets are loud from all the honks and yells, pedestrians fear getting hit by jeepneys, cabs and tricycles when they cross the street, most stores have "mega" or "world" attached to the names, and they tend to copy every other country's popular culture instead of creating their own.

And yet, the people here are happy. The concept of depression is an abstract idea to them, even though the minimum wage is 300 pesos (about $7) a day, even though everyone hangs their laundry outside because clothes dryers are too expensive, and even though an average portion at a restaurant is equal to a half-size in America. But when you don't have "too much" staring you in the face around every corner, it doesn't take much to keep you happy. And what you do have, is exactly enough.

People here are happy if they can make a modest living and put some food on the table for their families. They don't need the next, best thing. They'd rather be hospitable to their neighbors than keep everything to themselves. They're not afraid or disgusted by giant flying cockroaches... in fact, if you find one in a restaurant, you just wait for it to fly out the window instead of call the FDA to lower their restaurant rating. They're genuine and caring, and will always make sure you're comfortable before they are.

It's a country that loves acronyms, knock-offs, and references to The Beatles. (My family and I drove past a little "lechon," or "roast pig" stand called Sgt. Pepper's Litsonan the other day. And that's only one of the many references I've seen here since arriving.) Kinda' "baduy," I know... but it made me smile and I'm sure John, Paul, George and Ringo would get quite a laugh from it.

Inside of every 7-11 are dozens of bags of delicious prawn crackers, fish kropek (also crackers), local candies like pulvoron and barquillos, and various flavors of C2 juices. Ripe mango, watermelon shakes and dalandan (mandarin) juice are restaurant staples, along with crispy pata, sinigang, kare-kare and pancit. McDonald's delivers, including their spaghetti and 1 pc. chicken combo. It's a food lover's dream.

The "barangays," or neighborhoods, consist of narrow streets crammed with uneven houses, but the people inside them become lifelong friends who share daily greetings and participate in massive fiestas during the holidays. Street vendors walk down the badly-paved roads yelling "taho," "balut," or "fishballs." Who needs the ice cream man when you can cook your own snacks on a traveling wok for less a dollar? And if you didn't catch the "taho" man, you just walk down the street, because chances are, there's a family who's converted their front room into a convenient store where you can get what you need. And if you're lucky, they might have some bananaque... that's right, barbecued banana. Yummm.

Even the main streets have their vendors. Despite the beggars that cup their hands against the windows to get a peek of who's inside the cars, other street-salespeople, with their raggedy clothes and worn tsenelas (flip-flops) walk between the cars with bags of snacks and various packs of cigarettes. Ran out of smokes? Just roll down your window and pull out a 20-peso bill.

I'm coming home the day after tomorrow. Go figure, I'm finally used to the humidity and the air, and now I'm coming back to the fresh and dry deserts of California. Still, it's a pretty exciting prospect because I really miss Penny Lane Pom Pom, my friends, greek food, my laptop and my bed. Besides, living out of a suitcase is really starting to wear on me.

But I'll remember this trip and this country. I'll remember the best, drunken sing-along I ever had with my cousins. I'll remember the patriotic pride of the Philippine people, the amazing cuisine and the way people appreciate their blessings instead of complain about what they don't have.. or even need. And I know I can come home with a new understanding of why my immigrant family members are the way they are, why my parents' modest upbringing made it so important for their kids to have comfortable lives and quality education, and overall, a newfound respect and love "para sa bayan ko."

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