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January 11, 2007

After 20 years of spending his Christmas in America, a close friend spent his Christmas in Manila last month. As he relates it to me, the experience was a bewildering array of sights and emotions. But in general, it was a moment of fondness and admiration of the resilience of the Filipino people.

On arriving at NAIA, there was a string band composed of three musicians. The band played some Christmas Carols for the arriving passengers, making them smile and providing some lighter moments for the passengers after a long trip.  The Immigration and Customs staff members were courteous.  There were no intimidating whispers of “Pamasko diyan, ha, pamasko!”  And the Customs people did not threaten to open the baggages of the passengers, or else.... They were very, very courteous.  And your heart would go out to them because we know they are not adequately compensated because of a poor government of a poor country. The Customs and Immigration people symbolized the proud and dignified Filipinos. You would be proud of them as a Filipino.

My friend was met by a top official of the Presidential Commission on Good Government.  There was also his good friend from his college days, someone who was very influential during the regime of President Estrada.  He was surprised that his friend was lugging a laptop with him.

The balikbayan was invited to a midnight snack-unholy hour-1:00 AM breakfast at the Aristocrat Restaurant before he could drop his luggage and a balikbayan box of stuff toys for the children in Bicol in the place he was staying, the house of his brother. This was the beginning of that sumptuous Filipino repast – bulalo, other delicious foods, a coffee concoction which the waiters said was “Brewed Coffee”, but was served and tasted like a Cappucino. Of course, they discussed Philippine society, politics, and government. They parted after 3:00 AM. Outside, Roxas Boulevard was glittering with Christmas lights and decorations.  The ambiance was very beautiful, especially at that time of the night when the sky was clear, the stars were twinkling, and the temperature was a bit like San Francisco’s along Manila Bay.

The succeeding days were spent in visits, reunions, discussions, and consultations of relatives, former colleagues in the academe, and other concerned Filipinos.  Our balikbayan was not the ordinary bakasyonista who will ogle at the pulchritudinous and voluptuous lovelies in Boracay or Panglao.  In the first place, he does not have the wherewithal to go to those places. So there was that visit to a cousin who was taking care of numerous nephews and nieces who could not find employment in the provinces.  Then a dash across Taft Avenue to Ayala via “Buendia” for an appointment with the Solicitor General to ask for his help so that the case of a brutalized mother and her two-year girl child is resolved.  Along Taft, they kept on looking for “Buendia Street”, but the street name has been changed.  It was very frustrating.  Finally, through the massive and continuous use of cell phones and texting they arrived at the Office of the Solicitor General.

Over coffee, the visitors gathered more details about that assassination of one Assistant Solicitor General Nestor Ballacillo and his young son.  It was also learned that cases brought to the Office of the Solicitor General are almost growing at an exponential rate.  There are not enough underpaid lawyers to attend to them.

Our balikbayan and his son were treated to a sumptuous Japanese dinner at Diamond Hotel.  The room was exclusive.  All glasses with a panoramic view of Manila Bay.  Fit for the discriminating tourists from the First World.  Courtesy of Diamond Hotel manager, Yogie Ramos who, with his two children, were the balikbayan’s guests in California several years ago.  He was simply repaying a favor and more.

There was the visit to the Farmers’ Market.  The fish and the crustaceans were so fresh.  Our bakasyonista bought a whole yellow fin tuna for about $15.  In contrast, it is sold in San Francisco for $9.90 per pound.

Yellow fin tuna fish vendor in Manila photo
Yellow Fin Tuna, $15 for the whole fish at Farmers Market in Cubao. They sell at $9.90 per lb in San Francisco.

While waiting for his fellow marketers, he watched a team of bibingka makers prepare their bibingka.  He asked them to pose and took their picture.  These simple folks – not handsome, not lovely, not reeking of imported perfume, and not garbed in ornate attires – personify the millions of patient Filipinos, trying to survive with dignity.  I compared them to the bibingka that they were preparing.  The oppressive elite are on top of them, and the metas metas progressive groups are supposed to be propping them up from below.  They are sandwiched between two contending forces, like the bibingka they were preparing.

There were meetings and consultations at Sulo Hotel where the food was cheap and the Red Wine so tasty and the waitresses were lovely and statuesque and the music was heavenly.  There were dinners at Treehouse in Diliman.  Again, the food was cheap, and delicious and fresh, especially the broiled head of a tuna.  The servers were young and very courteous.  One young waiter told us that his brother, a graduate of PMA and the UP College of Law, is incarcerated because he was associated with a group suspected of attempting a coup d’etat.  His family was going through difficult times.

Then there were the lunches and an unforgettable dinner with former colleagues in the academe.  Their opinions on Philippine society were very enlightening and revealing, almost unbelievable coming from them.  They have become less forgiving.  In sum, it was sad, but not beyond hope.

Then shopping for pasalubongs at ShoeMart (SM).  Our friend could not stop asking the salesgirls who were so pretty why they were so thin.  “Bakit ba ang papayat niyo?”  Initially, they just smiled.  Finally, one girl exclaimed:  “Kasi walang makain dito sa Pilipinas.” (“Because there is nothing to eat in the Philippines.”) When he paid for the merchandise that he had purchased with his credit card, it was less than $100.  If the items were bought in San Francisco, they would cost in the neighborhood of $500.  He did something that he has never done before in his entire life.  He took out P600 and gave P100 tips to the salesgirls at SM.  It was Christmas after all.

Of course, it was a season of good cheer, of Christmas Carols, and hope for a better world, especially for the children.  The proletarian UP Staff Chorale Society, some 20 of them, sang Christmas carols where our balikbayan was staying.  If one recalls, of all the world-famous chorale groups in the University of the Philippines, it was only the UP Staff Chorale Society that performed a mini-concert for the children of Payatas on February 14, 2004.  Theodore Makabulos Aquino, President of the UP Alumni Association of America, Ching Torres, Irene Nobleza, and Roger Bantiles beheld how the UP Staff Chorale could sing like Seraphims and Cherubims, like they did in San Francisco in December 2001.  This time, they did it all over again.  But this time, there was a difference.  Celeste Castillo came with her two-year old girl child who was almost dancing in front of the Chorale group when they were singing Christmas carols.  Music of hope, uplifting music that soared to the December stars in Pilipinas Nating Mahal.

Bibingka makers in Manila photo
The bibingka bakers, struggling to survive with dignity and honor in Cubao.

[Published in the January 2007 issue of The Filipino Insider, a monthly supplement of the San Francisco Chronicle. The author was a former faculty member of the University of the Philippines Department of Political Science. He can be reached at Cesar1185@aol.com.]

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