By Geo Ong
After the first week in the Philippines, spent entirely in Manila, it was time for us to fly north to Tuguerarao City, my mother’s hometown. While Manila reassuringly felt like Los Angeles to me, Tuguerarao would feel like nothing I knew at all. The same went for my four-year-old brother. As our small plane touched down in a field, he gasped when he saw caribou grazing out the window. He turned to my mother and with impressive indignation shouted, ‘You told me that dinosaurs were extinct!’
Tuguegarao is part of the Cagayan province in the northernmost region of the Philippines, Luzon. In the year 2000, it reported a population of 120,645. (In comparison, Manila’s population in 2000 was 1,581,082, and the Los Angeles population in 2000 was 3,694,820.)
My mother’s father, some of her siblings, along with their partners and children, lived in the very house in which my mother grew up. This was nothing less than a homecoming for her. For me and my fifteen-year-old existence, it would be the part of the trip where culture shock would hit the hardest.
During the day, as my brother ran around with cousins his age, I walked in and out of the house, looking for something to do. I felt I was too old to play with my younger cousins and not old enough to carry conversations with my elders. Oftentimes I’d sit and daydream that Jay would show up in his car to show me around just like he did in Manila.
The two most difficult acts I found doing in Tuguegarao didn’t even warrant a second thought back home in Los Angeles: bathing and sleeping. My mother’s childhood house didn’t have a shower; instead, we simply had a plastic cup that we filled with water from a faucet and poured on our heads and down our backs. My mother’s house also didn’t have air-conditioning, and Tuguegarao, like much of the Philippines, gets humid. We’d sleep in front of stationary fans with the bedroom lights on in case we had to kill mosquitoes. It was the first time I was aware of the fact that regular procedures like bathing and sleeping can easily differ from one person to the next; when you are travelling, procedures like these and, more specifically, the way you are used to doing them, are usually the first to become altered. This is, of course, a challenge of travelling, because these common practices provide a comfort level that you are most likely unaware of experiencing and thus take for granted; when it suddenly becomes apparent that these procedures are done differently and that you are expected to do them this way, you are then reminded that you are far away from home.
I knew, even as a teenager, that complaining about these small things would make matters worse, and eventually I got used to doing things a certain way. I even got a little situated, learning my way around my mother’s childhood house, knowing what to expect as you turn a certain corner. By the end of the week, I had adapted to a place and way of life completely foreign to me, one that I thought I’d never be able to get used to.
As we said our goodbyes and prepared to fly back to Manila, my mother began crying. When I asked her why, she said, ‘This might be the last time I see your grandpa.’ A trip to the Philippines is expensive and can take years to save up enough money to afford one. My grandfather was, at that time, already in his eighties. I would grow up eventually and, through my own travels and journeys, learn to say goodbye to numerous people, from strangers I’ve met to people I love. Oftentimes I am guilty of associating this part of life only with travelling. I forget that people, travellers or not, must say goodbye to each other all the time.
We had one more week in the Philippines. After arriving back in Manila from Tuguerarao, we paid a brief visit to my father’s family in Antique, along with a short trip to Boracay, a beautiful island in the central region of the Philippines and perhaps the biggest source of Philippine tourism. These shorter jaunts alerted me that the trip as a whole was coming to a close and that we would be going home soon. I had survived three weeks in the Philippines, and soon I’d be back to hot showers, temperate weather, and electronics. I don’t recall how quickly or easily I fell back into place upon returning home. Maybe I did it as if I had never left. Regardless, it is now quite clear to me that I took and learned many things from this trip, even if I only started applying them years later as an adult. Perhaps it was supposed to happen that way.