“Ang taba mo, Lotis! Kumusta si Dolphy? Mag pepelikula ka?”
This is the cheerful greeting reserved specifically for me, every time I pass through immigrations at NAIA. I’ve come to view it philosophically. It’s a metaphor, isn’t it? For the next ten days, two thirds of my experiences here will be surreal. Understand, I haven’t made a movie in thirty years, Dolphy’s passing was noted by the entire nation, but yes, okay, I’m fat.
So I smile regretfully and say, “Yes. He’s dead. No.” Commiserating, they smile sadly back at me, slam down the stamp, and I am allowed entry into the planet of poetic topsy-turvy.
As a wanderer with more than one cultural heritage, a person who calls more than one place “home”, twice a year, I make the ten thousand mile trek to Manila. It’s a long trip, but … there’s simply no other place in the galaxy, where my highly developed sense of the ridiculous, can be so perfectly exercised. No other place, where if I die, it will be from laughing.
I have arrived with a single piece of luggage. Customs is perturbed. One bag? Ano? Ito lang? They say it jokingly, but the wrinkle between their eyes reveals concern. The normal is eight to ten boxes, not including your actual suitcases. Who comes home with only one bag? A poor person that’s who! Has the girl they loved in high school, the girl who smiled at them in dark movie theaters, has she fallen upon hard times? They look sorrowfully at me, and I feel bad for disappointing them with my poor display.
Conscious that I’ve just landed and already I’m letting people down, I head out into the torrid night air. I don’t like to be picked up, “fetched” as they say here, because my flights always get in around midnight and it embarrasses me to disturb either relatives or household help, for something as elementary as a ride. Anyway, I prefer the freedom of showing up or not. I drag my bag over to the airport taxi stand where I’m greeted with, “Si Lotis Key? Looking car and driver? Downstair bottom level ma’am.” They can’t imagine that somewhere there isn’t a Benz with a uniformed chauffeur waiting for my command.
The booker shouts at them that I indeed, hired a taxi from inside the airport. There is a momentary, stunned silence before I’m swamped with five men fighting to cram my one bag into a taxi. Jet lagged, flushed scarlet by the heat, embarrassed by my quickly frizzing hair, I try to defend my honor (No! I am NOT poverty-stricken), by over-tipping each of them. Before closing the door they sing to me, “You are da sunshine of my lipe…. Lotis, faborito ka namin!” Looking at them, I realize they had to have been toddlers when I was in the movies. Ah. Re-runs. Well if they still recognize me, I can’t be all that fat. The giggles grab hold, and for the next two weeks I’m their slave.
During the drive home, I peer out into the darkness, trying to pinpoint landmarks that share space with specific memories. It’s not easy. As poor as this country is there never fail to be newer roads and higher buildings, each time I return.
We’re passing Ayala Ave. In the 1970’s when I was a young girl, I’d walk Bergerac my dachshund, down its wide, clean avenue. There were lush green trees full of twittering birds, pots filled with flowers and elegantly dressed doormen along the whole length of it. There was no traffic. You could cross practically wherever, and whenever, you wanted. Children played soccer on the field at one end. Of course I know it’s not like that anymore and remembering how it was, makes me feel old, like my lola who used to bore us by going on and on about Escolta.
Somewhere in the darkness on my left is a pretty little church I attended for a season. The American priest, Father Vincent, loved his Filipino flock so much he studied for a year, memorizing the mass in the native tongue. On the day of this grand debut, a group of adoring girls sat attentively in a row. It all went perfectly. Almost. Tagalog is an expressive language and the exchange of one single vowel, well.... Loving Father Vincent, we focused with all our might on the bloody crucifix as he went through the entire liturgy, making frequent reference to Ang Sagrado Pusa ni Jesus. The Sacred Cat of Jesus.
Farther along, we enter another part of town, and I press my face against the glass trying to peer down a side street. There used to be a small eatery there. The Chatterbox Café - a nice place to have a friendly chatter. Once, compelled by this name and sub-name, I couldn’t resist checking it out. Entering, I took a seat and a young boy approached with a menu. Instead of looking at it, I tried to engage him by asking what he recommended, what kind of food they served, etc. He was struck shy and stared at me dumbly. Several variations of my question produced no response. Finally I tried, “Boy, anong specialty mo dito?” He stammered, “Wala kaming specialty ma’am, only Lipton.”
The next morning I am squatting in our driveway, watching Mang Pablo, repair a wheel that has detached from my suitcase. The head housemaid, Ernestina, also known as Dona Ting-Ting, comes out to shout and shake her walis at me.
“Loti, what you doing dere? Back to house now!”
I try to explain, “I’m learning how the wheel goes back….”
“No! You come! Pabling will do! Baka ma kita ka ng mga neigbors! Pasok Na!” She smacks the broom down hard on the patio steps, frustrated by the possibility that the entire household will be exposed to disgrace by my indiscreet interest in manual labor. Taking a deep breath, I rise and return obediently to my room, throw myself on the bed and stuff the corner of a pillow into my mouth to smother my screams. I can rewire a faulty socket, repair leaky plumbing, hang wallpaper … but that is in the U.S. Here, to be respectable, a woman must be attractively incompetent. I might as well go get my feet bound.
It is Holy Week and we must have the traditional dried fish. I tell mommy I’ll take her out to eat it but she insists she has to do it herself, because no one soaks it properly anymore. She sends Terit, the new maid from Ilocos, to go to the market and buy dried bacalao. It is two hours before Terit returns with this solemn message: “Ma’m, inikot ko yun buong palenke, pero ang sabi nila sa akin, hindi sila nagbebenta ang baculao, at kailan pa may, hindi sila magbebenta ng baculao.”
I smile, sigh and nod at the same time, grab my handbag, call the driver and go sit in the car with the door open, pointedly waiting for mommy to get in.
I’m not a shopper, but walking around the incredible malls is the best show in this town. Staying away from the “classier” ones that are imitations of sterile American shops, (I don’t travel ten thousand miles to pretend I’m right back where I started) I gravitate to the noisy, messy ones, filled with thousands of people. Here are hundreds upon hundreds, of small, unique store fronts, along with restaurants that feature every edible known to man. The pace in them is frenetic crazy, the noise level akin to that of multitudes of rollercoasters all thundering past at the same time. The hawkers call out to me that I am pretty, but I’ll be bee-oo-ti-ful, if I buy their T-shirts, bags, necklaces, make-up, placemats, woven slippers, Dvd’s…. Ignoring hawkers seems to raise concern that I may be deaf, so they pull on my sleeves and ring little bells in my face. It’s okay. I always bring money to buy stuff I don’t want. It makes me proud to be the first customer of the day and watch those lazy goods get spanked with my bills.
I stop to buy from my favorite pizza place. It has a difficult name for this country: Greenwich. When I was a kid, people struggled with the pronunciation of it and you could tell which of your classmates vacationed abroad, and which didn’t, by the way they said the name. When I order, unwilling to appear snooty I ask for the Green-Witch cheese and tomato combo. The order boy pauses for a moment and then says kindly to me, “Ma’am, dat’s Gre-nich.”
Abashed, I thank him and leave, eating my slices while wandering aimlessly, immersing myself in the game of watcher and watched. At the center of the frenzy is a Catholic chapel filled with penitents on lunch break. I stop to listen to the call and response, bowing my head as the host is lifted up in the midst of the market place.
I hear music and follow the rhythm outside to the huge mall parking lot. An entire section has been taken over by people of all ages, gyrating to Latino dance music. What? Are you kidding me? It’s spontaneous ZUMBA! A free for all that anyone can join! I bolt down my last slice and hurriedly insert myself into one of the lines. It is the middle of the day, hot as a sauna, and I am in a public parking lot, sucking in my stomach, wiggling my hips and sweating with two hundred people I don’t know. A very loud Ricky Martin shouts at me that we’re, “VIVIENDO LA VIDA LOCA!!! I so totally agree.
Toward the end of my visit I receive a phone call. A party invitation! I’m excited to be asked, because I adore Filipino parties with their lavish food, live music, dancing and mahjong until dawn. I fully intend to go, but mistaking my polite hesitation for unwillingness, my friend attempts to seal the deal. “Lotis, believe me, you will enjoy! It’s only for the elite, everybody will be somebody!”
Before I can process the good intention behind this remark, my mouth says, “You do know, that elitism is a form of racism, which is an attitude associated with the inhabitants of small towns?”
My friend bursts into hysterical laughter. “That’s what I LOVE about you Lotis! Hindi ka nagbabago! Suplada ka pa rin!