Krismas Balikbayan

 by admin in Travel

Yesterday we left the Shangri La to travel to my mother’s home province of Albay for Christmas with the family. Albay is on the Bikol peninsula, and the dominant language here is Bikol. (The rules of Taglish still apply, though: “#!%@^ @!^ #&*&! blood sugar testing #$!%”) In the Philippines, a homecoming is called a balikbayan. The people making the homecoming are also called Balikbayans. That’s mom. We’re staying in Legazpi, one of the larger cities in Albay—which is not very large. And from there to Tiwi, the town where my mother grew up and where much of the family still lives. Not large… at all.

This balikbayan involves several shifts in scale. The Makati Shangri-La is a five-star hotel in the heart of Manila’s business district. It’s… Well, it’s big. It’s in a big city. I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels. In a lot of grand hotels. In a few Grand Hotels, too. And this one… well, it’s Grand.

The Grand Lobby of the Shangri La. It's hard to convey just how big this is. Suffice it to say that this is not one image: it's nine wide-angle shots stitched together. The tallest christmas tree here, in the back, is easily 30 feet tall. Women in full Bellhop regalia open the doors, and taller women dressed in very sleek full-length gowns greet you. I think that's their entire job. To greet you. Like at Walmart. But prettier. MUCH prettier.

The Grand Lounge behind the Grand Staircase is four storeys high and has an artificial tropical forest fronting the panoramic windows. There are Grand Ornate Shades pulled halfway down, so that people don't have to look at the Less Than Grand Highrises across the way. For scale, check the Greeter Lady at the back left. That dot. She's actually nine feet tall…

I’m only really mentioning this because the Shangri La will be our last taste of Five Stardom on the trip. We may have spoilt ourselves horribly. From here on in, it’s a liiiiitle more rough. Certainly by our bourgeois standards. But, anyway it was Grand!

And all this Grandeur is even Grander because it’s Christmas. Have I mentioned that Christmas is big in the Philippines? It’s slightly ridiculous, like being trapped in one of those Holiday Stores. But it’s also pretty damned festive.

You can buy a four-foot-tall gingerbread house—snack-size. You can buy cookies featuring Santa Nikolaus and the Christmas Kampus, a little horned creature that looks like a Wild Thing.

The Kampus is on the right. I have absolutely NO idea what this is or what it has to do with Christmas. Neither does my mother. I'm up for suggestions…

The rest of the trip will not be so Grand.

But we were talking about balikbayan. This is mom’s day for that. We begin to see the family.

Which brings up an interesting subject: my husband. The Philippines is an intensely Catholic country. Well, those parts that aren’t intensely Muslim, anyway. I mean, this is a country where divorce is illegal. My mother always said, “There’s no divorce in the Philippines.” I thought that was just a statement of prevailing conventions. Nope. Divorce is illegal. I suppose if you’re going to natter on about the Sanctity of Marriage, you may as well not be a hypocrite about it. But the queer thing… ?

Before we left, the subject of What To Call Peter got brought up, and my mother said, “to the ignorant ones, he’ll be your partner, to the educated ones, he’ll be your spouse.” I had been ready with arguments like, “I’m NOT going to make MY HUSBAND a second-class citizen just because THAT COUNTRY won’t accept it!!!” No arguments necessary.

Still, Peter’s my husband. It’s just a fact. And unless the situation is overtly hostile, I’m not going to edit that out.

The amazing thing is the natural way people here have of preëmpting the question. Hostesses seem naturally in tune with How To Be Discreet About the Queers. “This is David, Bella’s son, and this is Peter!”

Are people wondering about who the hell Peter is? Does everyone bring a Peter home for Christmas? We wear wedding rings, call each other “dear,” talk about how long it’s been since we did [fill in the blank] together… we sound like The Weintraubs from Down The Block. And no one finds it strange.

I can’t stand “being discreet.” I’m damned proud of being Gracie to Pete’s George. But it’s just how things roll here. And the amazing thing is that I haven’t had to be. And at least I haven’t been forced to call him my “friend.” That’s just creepy-fake.

So, aided by Migz, who was acting as our Fixer with intrepid ease, we went to the airport and boarded the plane to Legazpi. Well, after two or three hours wait in a crowded airport lounge, we boarded the plane to Legazpi.

Mention Provincial Travel in the Third World, and the go-to image is… yes. Women with Chickens. (What? That’s the go-to image for me…) Not so, here. We had a small Airbus (with more flies than might have been accommodated by JetBlue). As you get on, there are blowers shooting freezing air from the vents above and below the overhead compartments. It’s so hot here that the air actually steams. I don’t mean little wisps, I mean the plane fills up with fog. It’s weird and theatrical Loved it.

An hour later and we landed.

I love airports where you have to disembark down a staircase. It makes me feel like Mamie Eisenhower. (It’s not hard to make me feel like Mamie Eisenhower.)

Manila’s hot. Bikol is hotter. And this isn’t the Hot Season. We drove into the city and checked into the hotel. (The bellboy, Gerald, was so gay that he actually set off fire alarms as we walked to the room. I wonder what he calls his husband?)

From there, we visited my Cousins Leni, Trudi and Gina at my Uncle Ofel’s old homestead in Legazpi—the house he built and where he raised his children—eight girls and a boy. They stuffed us silly, and the house is really small (especially considering the number of daughters), but old-school charming. A real atrium where it rains (when it rains), plaster walls with little lizards running up and down. Real wood-paneled walls. Lots of lace and furniture full of Catholic tchotchkes… My cousins May and Dennis, and Dennis’s wife, Debbie, were there—this is my Auntie Luly’s family. You’ll meet Auntie Luly later.

In fact, all the introductions will come later, after Christmas Eve dinner with the whole clan.

Deep breath!


Arriving home. No, we weren't the only ones on the plane: Mom was the last to leave. What you're not seeing is Mount Mayon, the most amazing feature of the Albay landscape. It's on the right, outside the frame, and it LOOMS over everything. More on that later, too!

adminKrismas Balikbayan