Christmas Day: back to Tiwi.
The same traffic conditions apply. It’s just crazy. And we’re hurtling along in the little van we rented (with driver). And occasionally, the roads have been washed out by mudslide.
Reunion, Part Two: The Departed
A stop before Tiwi. Mom visits the graves of her parents, which she’s never seen before.
Tiwi’s graveyard has a large section devoted to Clutarios and Corrals. Those of you who live in waterlogged states like Florida and Louisiana know what above-ground graves are like. But in a third-world country, an above-ground graveyard can end up looking like this:
Mom’s parents, my Lolo Lino and Lola Yaling (Sulpicia), as well as my Uncle Oriel and my Cousin Iole’s husband, are buried in a foursquare family plot that is distinguished by being below ground and having a good deal of space around it. Suitable for two former mayors of the town.
Migz tells us that on All Souls Day, November 1st, the entire graveyard is lit up by candles and everyone comes and picnics on the graves. Sort of like the Mexican Dia de los Muertos. I smile and pretend that it’s an idea that doesn’t make me want to scream.
But they’re Filipinos. Eating marks everything.
Have I mentioned that this whole trip has been an eatfest? We were fed like piggies going to market. Breakfast becomes Merienda (snack, sort-of) becomes Lunch becomes Merienda becomes Dinner.
First stop is Auntie Mina’s house (the remains of the Old House where my mother grew up).
At Mina’s, last night’s leftovers—TONS of them—have become today’s feast, with the lechon remains transformed into several additional pork dishes: a paksiw (pork with vinegar and garlic), fried rice, pork ribs, rice, pancit, pork, rice, pork, fermented little fish, pork and pork. Heaven.
Worth a mention: The venerable Pili Nut is a staple and a point of pride in these parts. Like many island nuts (the candlenut, for example, and the macadamia), the Pili is very fatty and very delicious. As its name might suggest, it’s indigenous only to the Philippines. These are Pili Nuts in the raw. They’re soaked, which makes them soft and then the white pith is eaten. Below that is the nut’s shell, which needs to be whacked with a machete to loose the nutmeat. (Yes, I just said, “loose the nutmeat.”)
After that, the family had their Christmas Day gift exchange, which included the kids taking part in the Filipino equivalent of a piñata: bags of goodies tied to a bamboo frame. The kids have to jump for them.
While the family had their celebration, we went off to explore the town. Much of it is like the other towns we saw: ravaged by weather and time. Tricycles and pedicabs everywhere.
But we found some wonderful things, too. Like the ocean. Yes, Tiwi’s on the ocean. Not that you’d know it: because of the dangers of flood, typhoon, et al., it’s separated from the sea by a seawall. Our little walk took us right up to the wall. We peeked over, and… who knew?
And on the way back, we found another Tiwi surprise. It’s known for its halo-halo, a confection made with ice, jelly, condensed milk, beans, cheese (stay with me, here), young coconut and sometimes ice cream. Suffice it to say I’m not a big halo-halo fan. But this was by far the best I’ve ever had. It even got the thumbs up from Pete.
Pete, by the way, was a big novelty in Tiwi. I guess they don’t get too many white guys around here. Little children would run around the street corner and literally gasp and say “AMERICAN!” Like he was Bigfoot.
As we walked into the halo-halo shop, a group of bolshy teenagers at a table near the front greeted him with “Frodo, is that you?” I thought that was hilarious. I’m not entirely sure Pete did.
And everyone was all smiles and “Merry Christmas!” Christmas parols everywhere. The town square was very festive. Mom attended mass at her childhood church (which is now surrounded by market stalls). It’s very pretty, and apparently it’s been renovated on the inside.
On to… you guessed it. Another meal.
Uncle Moring had a big Christmas Day blowout at his house. No karaoke or dancing this time (thank god), but there was a seemingly endless loop of Filipino Christmas Carols, some of them sung by what must be the Filipino version of Alvin and the Chipmunks. And what English carols there were had strange new lyrics. “We wish you a lot of presents, we wish you a lot of presents…” Really?
Of course, there was a lechon. (For those keeping score, yes, that’s two pigs in two days.) The guests this time were like a school of piranha, skeletonizing the poor beast in what seemed like minutes.
And then I had my reunion.
Reunion, Part Three: Tita.
Filipinos always have “helpers.” And the “helpers” are being equally helped. It goes like this: Filipino makes good. Filipino shares the wealth by taking another Filipino into their household—free room and board, help with their education, and maybe help getting work overseas. In exchange, the “helper” often helps around the house—watching the kids, etc. Sometimes the “helpers” are family. My extended family have helped lots of folks better their lot. Nieces and nephews, cousins, friends of the family, sometimes more-or-less strangers. And sometimes “helpers” who aren’t family become family.
Teresita Aznar (TIta) took care of me from the time I was born to the time I was eight years old. In many families, she would have been called a nanny or an au pair. My extended relatives would have considered her a yaya. In my family, she was my sister and my parents’ daughter. No questions asked. That’s how she was introduced. As my mother says, “she was more than family.” With two parents being busy doctors, Tita was a huge part of who I was as a kid. She raised me as much as they did.
There were two big revelations in my childhood: the first was that my father had been married before and that my siblings were actually, technically, my half-siblings. The other was that Tita wasn’t actually my sister. But none of that mattered, really, because all of them were my brothers and sisters in a much truer sense.
Anyway, Tita was a constant, and she loved me fiercely. And then one day when I was eight, she was gone. She had demons of her own and trouble getting residency in the States, even though she had an entire family willing to sponsor her for citizenship. She wound up back in Albay, and for many years, my parents kept track of her and helped her in any way they could. Then, eventually, she just… disappeared.
My mother and I saw Tita again for the first time in 28 years on Christmas Day. She looked good. Very good. She walked into my Uncle Moring’s house and I stood bolt upright. My mother shouted, “Tita!” And she came to the table and said, “Is that David?”
When a Filipino (a real, native Filipino, usually a child or young person) meets an elder or a person of respect, they make a mano po, a gesture of respect. It’s a little bow, taking the elder’s hand and kissing it—or, in modern times (“for hygiene purposes”), touching it to their forehead. I had forgotten this custom until I had a gaggle of little Filipino cousins do it to me when I first met them. So… out of respect for what she had been to me, I very awkwardly bowed, took her hand and kissed it.
There was awkward embracing and some attempt at catching up. But it was difficult, because, first, Tita seemed guarded and ashamed the tough times she’d gone through, and, second, she had lost her English almost entirely. And she had spoken English like an American. We haltingly spoke of what I had become and what she had become. I introduced Pete. She proudly announced that she knew I would be turning 37 because she remembered my birthday: January 30, 1975. She’s 63.
It was really wonderful seeing her again. She and mom spent much of the evening reminiscing in Bikol about what had happened to the rest of the family. By now, I can make out Taglish (or Bikol-ish) fairly well, and when Pete went to get drinks, my mother told Tita, “I live with them now. They take me to the market, to the movies, to dinner…” Tita looked at Peter across the room, smiled and said, “Mabo’oton.” Which means “Very sweet.” That made me very happy.
And that was Christmas in the Philippines. On the way back to Legazpi, we stopped and looked at all the Christmas displays in the little towns along the way. The best one by far was in the city of Tabaco. Santa Claus in his sleigh being pulled by the closest thing the Philippines has to reindeer: six pedicabs.