I arrived in Manila the last week of November only to spend the first week of our stay at the hospital where my father was confined for pneumonia. After that, it was feasting every lunch and dinner hosted by family members and friends. There was always a new restaurant to try, new dishes that were worth the extra pounds. Filipinos love to eat at any time of day. Every meeting or gathering is over breakfast, merienda, lunch, merienda again, dinner and finally, a nightcap or midnight snack; and even if meetings are held in the office, there are snacks and drinks on the table. But why are most Filipinos slim despite being gluttons? Is there a secret for keeping the weight off? Do tell me, please, so I can enjoy the food without feeling guilty (and heavy).
Each time I am in Manila I attend a funeral, and this trip was no exception. Two of my friends’ mothers died in December. Funerals have become the social events in the Philippines: who received the most flowers and Mass cards; who had the best choirs; who served the best food; who had the most guests; who had the best eulogies. Gone are the days of simple, elegant goodbyes. Several years ago, at a funeral, I bumped into an old acquaintance from San Francisco who had returned to Manila when her husband died. I asked her what kept her occupied, and she replied, “Event planning for funerals.” She added, “See how nice the chairs and tables are arranged. I ordered the flowers and chose the caterer, depending on the family’s budget. We even have bibingka and puto bumbong.” She must have a lucrative business.
There are also funny funeral stories. My sister had a friend whose ex-husband had four “wives” (I don’t know if he was married to all four of them). When he died, each wife occupied one corner of the church. When my sister went to the funeral, she was ushered to the first wife’s corner. Then there are the stories of how second wives and families are barred from attending a funeral, even if the deceased had already been estranged from the spouse.
At funerals I see people I have not seen in ages, and they are also just as surprised to see me after more than 30 years in absentia. (“Wow, Lisa. You look so…healthy!”) It’s a people-watching activity (my hairdresser told me she had a customer who went to every funeral even if she didn’t know the deceased) and catching up on the latest gossip: who had plastic surgery and botox injections; who has a lover on the side; who is having financial or legal problems; what is the latest scandal; etc. It’s also a place to talk about current issues like the upcoming elections and see which families are supporting which candidates. The elite may make the best analysis of every candidate, but it does not determine the elections. It is the poor, the masa, who outnumber the elite, who vote with “gut feel” and who decide the outcome of the election.
Philippine elections this year are very confusing (not that U.S. elections are any better). There are so many clowns running for president, and each one thinks he or she will be the star of the circus. You have a senator who gave up her Philippine citizenship to be an American, a vice president whose whole family has been accused of corruption, a mayor who admits to killing people and having several girlfriends in addition to his wife and mistress, and being molested by a priest when he was young. You also have a brilliant but “sick” senator whose running mate is Bongbong Marcos, son of the late dictator, who, I am told, has the solid backing of the Ilocos region. (Whether you like it or not, they’re baaaaack!!!! How can the atrocities committed during martial law be so easily forgotten?) Then there is the administration’s candidate who suffers from foot-in-mouth disease. There is no one candidate who has the experience and embodies the values of transparency, honesty, intelligence, competence and compassion. So we are left with no choices but to vote for the “least evil” candidate (again). When I express my sentiments about this dire political situation, I am confronted with, “What about you in the U.S.? You have Donald Trump!” True.
The traffic in Manila is terrible. It was already bad even before the holidays started, and it graduated into a disaster in December; what with all the shopping and parties. No, change that, traffic in Manila is actually debilitating. So much time and energy spent going nowhere. My father and I live on the same street, McKinley Road; he, on the Forbes Park, Makati side and I, on the Fort Bonifacio, Taguig side. It’s less than a mile to traverse, but it would take me 30-40 minutes to get to his house. If it weren’t too hot and humid, I could walk the distance. Everywhere I went, I would give an hour allowance so I could still get there on time; but most people arrived late anyway. I read in the papers that Uber and Lyft were suspended during the holidays to help ease the traffic. That’s hundreds of drivers roaming the city to pick up passengers. You definitely need your book, phone, tablet or laptop with you in the car to distract you from the irritating traffic. If you think sitting in your air-conditioned car for hours is terrible, you should see the long lines of people waiting to get on the LRT and buses under the scorching sun or heavy rains after a long day at the office.
They say there are 200,000 more cars in Manila today than a few years ago, and yet very few roads have been built to accommodate this increase. I am told the car dealers have thousands of back orders they cannot fulfill. Color-coding does not work because people just buy another car with a different plate number. In Fort Bonifacio (Taguig), there is no color coding so the streets are blocked solid during commute hours as drivers try to bypass Makati to get to EDSA or C5. And get this, senior citizens are exempt from color coding! A good intention, but it does not alleviate the traffic. There is no sticker on the car to identify the passenger as a senior citizen, so the police still stops the car, adding to the traffic slowdown.
Speaking of cars, I saw dealers for Bentley, Aston Martin, Porsche, Jaguar and other high-end cars. Why would people pay so much money for a high performance car only to be stuck in traffic? Well, one early Sunday morning on my way to Batangas, several sport cars raced in SLEX (South Luzon Expressway) and there were no cops to stop them. I guess the traffic is the price we pay for a bullish economy which will soon slow down, if it hasn’t yet. A report I read recently said that Manila could be uninhabitable in the next four years if the traffic nightmare is not resolved soon. This should serve as a warning to the incoming administration.
Forget the traffic. I was in Manila to spend time with my family, and sure enough this part did not disappoint. As I get older, I value the relationships I have with my siblings, nieces and nephews. It felt good to be called Auntie Lisa and treated like an Auntie Lisa. It was good to hear the stories and laugh. It was good to see how the grandchildren have grown, a testament to my aging. No matter what family quirks or dramas there were, this was still my family –- my father, eight siblings, 15 grandchildren, 15 great grandchildren and seven in-laws. Every affair was a big event involving several families, and it felt good to “belong,” to be part of something grander.
After returning to San Francisco though, I had to turn around and go back to Manila after a week as my father needed surgery. My father turned 93 years old on February 6, so we were nervous about how the surgery would weaken him and affect his quality of life. But all the doctors, around ten of them, recommended the surgery and they were amazed at his quick recovery. After only one and a half weeks, my father was recuperating nicely at home.
I was impressed with the quality of care my father received in the hospital. The nurses and the doctors were all very capable, patient and malambing (loving) to my father. I remember when my stepmother was confined at Stanford Hospital some years ago, a nurse yelled at her. You will not encounter this in the Philippines.
And again, during this extended trip I attended two more funerals. Another friend’s mother died. The fourth funeral was more personal. Miss Juanita Medalla, 91, was our surrogate mother. When we were children, my parents traveled frequently, so they hired a teacher from St. Scholastica’s College to be our governess. She lived with us from the time I was 10 years old, and she moved out only when my youngest brother became a teenager. She worked at one of our companies for another ten years, until she retired. Then she helped me with some of the administrative work in Manila for the foundation I started. She never married and she considered our family as her own. I have known her for 55 years, and I visited her at least once a year in the province where she chose to stay, the latest being only last December.
Although that visit was short, she met my husband and bragged about how she took care of all of us. She made sure our homework was done every day. She made sure we ate our vegetables. She stayed up late to hear stories about our dates. She disciplined us when we needed it. She taught us values that strengthened our characters. She hugged us when we cried and hugged us again when we triumphed. She knew our secrets and our dreams. We called her simply, Miss, and we will surely miss her.
We got word that another loyal helper, Eming, passed away in the province the same week Miss died. Eming started working for our family as a laundrywoman when I was just a little girl. She stayed on for many years, eventually as a mayordoma for my sister. I think about Eming and Miss and the other caregivers in our lives, who so lovingly took care of us, and I am so grateful to them. I hope my grandchildren in the Philippines will remember their yayas just as fondly.
When I prepare to go to Manila, I get very anxious because in some ways, I am so American now. I have changed so much in my thinking and perspective these 34 years and am not sure how I will adjust or adapt. When I leave Manila to return to San Francisco, I am sad to leave family behind, the childhood friendships, and all the cultural trappings and familiarities that make me a Filipino. For now it is nice to have both worlds: the Philippines where it is always more “fun” and delicious with family and friends, and the U.S. where I have a private, quiet, anonymous and peaceful life, where I can walk around a beautiful lake in perfect weather and try to lose the extra pounds I gained in Manila so I won’t look so “healthy” on my next visit.