Philippines - Introduction
This is entry #1.
Jolayne is also chronicling our trip here.
Philippines - Introduction
PREFACEFriends, as I begin chronicling the journey my family has taken, I want to first set the stage and provide adequate background. As I do so, I'm somewhat leery about posting some necessarily private details on the web for the world to see. There's a vulnerability that comes along with being so transparent, and I ask your understanding as I do so. I may, despite my intent, convey things that are religiously or culturally controversial, even offensive, to some from time to time. For that, I apologize. I do not, however, apologize, for even a moment, for what this trip has done for me and my family; and in order to convey that feeling, I feel you must first understand my LDS faith.
I served my two-year LDS mission to the northern Philippines in 1995-96. It was a transformative experience in my life and very much defines who I am today. However, in the over 15 years since returning home, I've not kept up with the people in that part of the world. It was simply too hard to do at the time, as email and internet weren't yet staples in that part of the world, and telephones were simply for the rich. This photo is from 1996. The sign reads "Don't Pee Here."
For those who are not of my faith, my desire is that you may understand the deeply spiritual experience that this journey to reconnect has been for me, which will transcend any doctrinal variances we may share. I've always known, but it's never been more obvious to me than now, how much the Lord loves His children in every corner of this big world. This is my story in learning that message more personally. The theme of this trip, however, is simply that the Lord is in the details of all of our lives.
Tuesday, February 5, 2013 - 8pm - on a United flight DEN-SEA, sitting next to a really big dude on the exit row
"This really has been the best two years of my life. I never have expected such a bounty of growth." December 18, 1996. Those were the last sentences of my mission journal part 1. While perhaps not the best years of my entire life, they were without a doubt the best to that point in my young experience.
For Christmas 2011, Jolayne gave me the special gift of having typed in my entire mission journal (over 600 pages), which I've enjoyed re-reading over the last year. It's helped me to recall things that frankly I'd forgotten over the intervening years. What a great gift. Certainly much has changed, as expected, over the years. College, marriage, kids, house, career, callings, family, one change after another. But in those times were always sprinkled reflections and thoughts about the life I'd left behind in the Philippines. I had a few addresses, but I'm not really the penpal type. And though I'd tried to look up a few special families online, I'd never found much of anything. However, I was able to reconnect via Facebook with many old companions, and that's been great. Technology certainly bridges the divide. And yet I felt like it was incomplete. I'd occasionally tell stories to my kids about the volcano and humanitarian efforts, and even sometimes about the people I met. But I knew it didn't really mean all that much to them. After all, to them I'm just the old guy talking about things they'd never have reason to care about.
RECONNECTING - THE DE OCERA FAMILY
That all changed in December 2012. One morning while I was traveling for business in Phoenix, I woke up and prepared to exercise as I normally do. I checked email to see what had happened over night and a single email changed things for me. "Jeff Isom suggests you become friends with Normita De Ocera." Normita was "my first baptism," although I dislike the term. She was one of the chief people who helped me learn Tagalog after arriving, and she became like a mother to me. We shared a deep connection. Her husband, Arcadio, was baptized shortly after I was transferred out of the area. Her daughter, Armida, was baptized about a year later when I returned to a nearby area to serve in the mission office in an administrative role. That's the family pictured below, along with Elda Aquino.
When I read that message, I distinctly recall sitting down and experiencing a rush of emotion come over me. I'd found her. Or was it that she'd found me. Actually, it was neither, I suppose. I quickly sent the friend request and within a day or two we were exchanging messages about how we'd each reflected tenderly over the years, wondering if we'd ever be in contact again. It was great. But we were far from finished. Near the end of December, I also found her daughter, Armida De Ocera (now Emita) and we reconnected on Facebook as well, in addition to several other friends including Elda Aquino.
On New Years Eve 2012, I noticed that Normita (Nanay, or mother, pa rin) had posted some videos of tatay and the grandkids dancing to Gangam Style on their day off. It was cute. I posted some comments about it, and before long Armida popped up on chat. This was the first time I had actually live chatted with the family, and we had much catching up to do. Amazing technology. I would say that over and over again. Facebook literally changed my life. And so off we chatted, over the course of a couple hours as I was watching the New Years countdown on TV. It was a sweet reunion, and in my broken, over-half-forgotten Tagalog we managed to catch up on many things. Armida is married to Rolando, has 3 kids (Allyssa 10, Allyson 5, and Armand 4) and lives not far from Nanay and Tatay. She works on the Clark base in a HR position and he works as a security guard. All are (now) active in the Church.
Both their families were flooded severely back in August 2012, and it was a transformative event for them. According to Nanay, the water was 8 feet deep inside (or in front of) their house, and was up to 12 feet deep nearby in the streets. Floods are pretty common in the Philippines, and certainly they were tragic when I served after Pinatubo erupted. But this was a severe one and it scared them badly. They lost many of their treasures, and I think they were worried for their lives. As a result, they decided to reexamine their commitment to their faith. To that point they'd been kinda wishy washy (my words, not theirs). No one has yet been sealed in the temple, though I'm certain Nanay would have done it 18 years ago if it were up to her alone. But after the flood they decided things needed to change. Rolando and Tatay now have callings, Armida's girls have expressed a desire to go on a mission someday, and they're presently working with their bishop to prepare to be sealed in the Manila temple. Amazing. The timing.
And so back to New Years Eve. As we chatted on Facebook for a couple hours, I started sharing these things with my kids, and I was clearly caught up in the moment. After midnight our time, we decided to video chat with them. Their microphone on their computer wasn't working, so we concocted a setup with audio via Skype and video via Facebook. It was so neat to see MY Philippine family once more. We had so much fun. When I found out about the flood, I learned that they'd lost all their baptism pictures and keepsakes. I scanned my mission pix (nondigital) back in 2006 or so, and so I had them all ready to go. I immediately sent them over to the De Oceras, and we truly communed, remembering a time that suddenly didn't seem quite so long ago. Even my Tagalog improved as we chatted. I surely didn't understand everything, and I'm positive I butchered all sorts of words. But it was coming back to me in waves, amazing waves that showed me it's all still there in the back of my head somewhere, collecting cobwebs. And hey, Google Translate is a miracle all by itself! What a help it was. By the time we finished our chat, I was saying things that I didn't understand fully myself until the words had been spoken. Perhaps not a miracle or anything, but still pretty amazing to a guy who hasn't spoken Tagalog fluently to anyone in 15+ years.
When I finally shut it down about 2:30am, I had a strong urge to go back there. I suppose it's always been on my "bucket" list. We nearly secured a foreign assignment there with IBM in 2008, but the details didn't work out. But it's soooooo far away, and soooooo different than the world my girls know. Ludicrous to pick up and go there, right?
That night, I laid in bed for quite some time just trying to process all that had happened. The Spirit was very strong in me. I knew there was a reason that we'd all found each other, and at that time. The next morning when I woke up, I lay in bed explaining the events of the previous night to Jolayne with tears rolling down my face. The De Oceras told me they'd finally found their "other" son once again. They explained that they often talked of us missionaries and the times we had together. Armida told me that her daughters wanted to "be like you, and serve missions" because of the great difference we'd made in their lives. Truly this is what the scripture speaks of when it says that the "worth of souls is great." My joy was full. I have to go back. It is like a tractor beam in my soul.
So I started hatching a plan to return, with the entire family, to the Philippines. Jolayne and I caught the international travel bug last year when we were able to go to the UK for work; it was great. We knew we wanted to do more such travel. Jo just wanted it to be to Europe! We've talked many times about needing to find ways to show our kids how so much of the world lives without iPods all the time, without having their every want given to them at will, always being connected (funny thing is that even in the Philippines now, those types of things are ubiquitous). But we really want to show the kids what a 3rd-world country is like. We've always just had excuses to do it later; it's not exactly convenient to fly for 18-36 hours across over 8,000 miles, with a family of still-young kids in tow. But as I was forming my plan, I rationalized that 2013 was the perfect year to return. I enjoy status on United Airlines. I have enough points to cover several of the tickets. I'm stable in my job (but could possibly change down the road). We have the finances to do it. And then I reconnected with the De Oceras. To me, it seemed as though the Lord was showing me it was time to go back.
So I spent dozen and dozens of hours researching options for how, when, where to go. Routinely I'd stay up until 1 or 2 in the morning searching flights, reading reviews of places to stay, and more. This isn't the type of place one just signs up to go visit (at least not if you intend to see the real side of the country.) It turns out it's an amazing feat to get 3 award tickets and 2 purchased tickets (at reasonable cost) on the exact same itinerary for a trip around the world. There were literally only 1 or 2 options amongst the MANY that were available that would work for us. Jolayne clearly wasn't comfortable splitting up for the air journey, which I understand. It was just hard to figure out. Originally we were looking to go after school let out in May. But that's getting into the rainy season, and so many things could go wrong then, outside my control. So I elected to go at Spring Break, at the end of March, which is the middle of the summer season in the Phils. It's going to be hot, very hot. But we managed to find a flight option that works (both ways) and was even affordable. Amazing again (since April is their high season and I wasn't planning very far out).
As an aside, our family likes to go somewhere each year for Spring Break. This year, although I had plenty of air miles to use, we just couldn't settle on a place to go. We tried multiple times over the course of several months to lock in on some plans. Never happened. Now I know why. That's how the Lord works in our lives, in the details.
I explained my plans to Jolayne and she (almost certainly reluctantly) agreed. Then I had to get the kids on board. Turned out that wasn't hard at all. The idea of a mega-adventure seemed right up their ally, especially for Amy. Amy had joined me in the late-night video chat with Nanay and family, though she was pretty shy about the whole thing. So I resolved to teach them a little Tagalog and spend time talking about the culture (including lifestyle, church, transportation, etc.) And I've been learning all along that it's really nothing like it used to be in 1995. It's changed along with the rest of the world, of course. The kids are STOKED. They're so excited to go on this adventure. Though I think that missing almost an extra week of school probably has a little to do with their enthusiasm.
And so we're going to the Philippines at the end of March 2013! It's all booked now, and aside from a few odds and ends to complete planning, the basics of the trip have fallen into place quite well. As we were planning, we wanted this to be much more than an exotic vacation. We want to incorporate a genuine service element to what we're doing. I've gotten in touch with the Bishop of the San Fernando First Ward (Bishop Lazatin) and learned of the needs of the area. He has a number of primary kids who suffer from malnutrition. There are also kids whose parents cannot afford the (approximately $100) tuition and uniforms required for school. And finally, he shared that he has a 20-something sister in his ward who suffers from Cerebral Palsy and is in need of an electric wheelchair. These are things we can help with! We are going to spend time over the next 7 (wow it's coming quickly) weeks soliciting donations from friends, family, and neighbors to see what we can do to be agents for good when we go. More on that later.
The itinerary now stands as follows: we will leave on Thursday March 28 after school and fly to LAX where we'll stay the night (only way to get flights together). We'll use hotel points to stay near the airport and relax before we depart for Seoul/Incheon at 1230p the next afternoon, on a leg that lasts over 13 hours. We'll fly Asiana Airlines (United partner) and sit in Incheon for 2.5 hours before connecting to Clark Field in Pampanga. This will allow us to be close to the area I know and skip the mess of traffic and pollution that is Manila. Back in 1995-96, Clark was still recovering from the Pinatubo eruption and we just being developed into an industrialized city after it was turned over by the Americans. The airfield wasn't operational at the time (I recall the runway lights had even been looted, among other things). My companion learned to drive inside Clark, and I had fun driving down the runway at top speed! Now the airport has been reconditioned as an alternative to Manila. Great for us. We'll arrive after a very long day of travel at about midnight.
Sunday March 31st will be Easter and we will (deliberately) attend church with the De Oceras in the afternoon, which should afford a decent night's rest and acclimation. I understand their chapel was again destroyed by the flood and they are awaiting its repair, so not sure where we'll attend. My kids are more than a little bummed that I'm going to make them attend the full three hours in a language they don't understand. Jo and I have told them, however, that it will be a remarkable experience to focus more on how they feel than on what is being said. I hope that turns out to be true for them.
Monday we have set aside the day for service and to explore the neighborhoods of San Fernando (I want to take the kids to the palenke (market) so they can get the full-sensory experience that the open-air markets provide.)
Tuesday we're hoping to make the trek all the way to the crater of Mt Pinatubo, which erupted in June 1991. It's now a sort of eco-tourism thing where you show up super early in the morning and take a 4x4 for an hour or more to get onto the mountain. Then you have to walk a few kilometers to the crater itself. The crater is full of water and is a beautifully preserved place. Considering how much destruction I witnessed from that mountain when I was there before, it will mean a lot to me to return to the epicenter and see how it has changed.
Wednesday, April 2 we will hire a van for the day and drive to Zambales. There's now a highway between Clark and Subic, so it only takes an hour to drive what used to take 3-4 hours (if the roads were even passable at all). I remember one transfer where the roads were closed completely due to lahar flows and we had to drive the long way around through Tarlac, taking all day. On Wednesday I hope to spend a little time in Olongapo and driving around Subic, seeing how things have changed. But mostly I want to drive up the coast of Zambales to Candelaria and Santa Cruz to show the kids what it was like in the "bukid" (fields) away from the noise and garbage of the city. That night we've rented an American style home in San Antonio, the same town where we were guided to hold missionary certifications in 1996, saving Pres Balbuena's life after crashing through the glass at the chapel. It will be neat to return. The home will be in the bukid itself and should be a nice departure from the city.
Thursday we hope to go back to Pundaquit beach and enjoy the ocean. Fitting since that was one of the very last places I went before I headed home in 1996. Friday will be a travel day and we'll get to take just about every form of transport used in that region. We'll start with a trike to get to the bus stop, then a bus to Olongapo, then another bus all the way to Manila (probably a taxi in there somewhere too). Then a short flight to Boracay, regarded by many as one of the top 10 beach destinations in the whole world! We'll land at the Kalibo airport about two hours' journey from where we want to be. There's another airpot closer, but it's very small and doesn't support larger aircraft. So then we'll take yet another bus from Kalibo to Caticlan where we'll switch to a boat (banka) that will take us 10-15 min across the channel to Boracay island itself. The journey will take the better part of the day.
We'll then spend 4 nights on Boracay at a small inn called the Palm Breeze Villa, with two separate, adjoining rooms. The Palm Breeze has only 5 rooms and is rated as one of the best inns on the island. I'm grateful we were able to get it; most of the good places were either fully booked or too expensive. Most of Boracay is western-style pricing. The Palm Breeze is on the windward side of the island, away from the hustle and bustle, and right on the beach, and it should be a delightful place to stay.
We'll then depart on Tuesday morning, April 9 for our long return journey. We'll wind up in Manila in mid afternoon and have the rest of the day to kill before a flight that leaves at around midnight for Incheon, where we arrive at 430a! That ought to be a great night. I'll keep some energy drinks on standby. We then have 12 hours to kill before a return flight on Asiana back to San Francisco where we'll sit a couple hours after clearing customs and then take a direct flight to Denver. Because of the date line, the trip that takes 36 hours will actually start and end on Wednesday, and we'll land in San Francisco BEFORE we took off in Korea! We'll hopefully arrive home around 7pm that night, surely to be absolutely exhausted. And that will be our 2-week sojourn to the Philippines!
I have the highest hopes for this trip. My heart longs to see the places that I loved so much as a missionary, to reunite with people with whom I have an eternal bond. And perhaps we'll even be blessed to be instruments in the hand of the Lord one more time, to help these people on their journey back to the temple and an eternal family. There's much that could go sideways on us, for sure. But my kids are seasoned travelers, and they roll with it pretty well. The Internet has been an invaluable tool in planning, and I've been extremely blessed already to get back in touch with many people who are helping to ensure that the trip will go well.
While most educated people in the Philippines actually speak English pretty well, I know the family will get the most out of the trip if they immerse themselves in the culture, just like a missionary should do. It's only when you get past the tourist facade that you can really see what it's like to be someone else. So I've been attempting to teach the kids (and Jo) the first parts of Tagalog. It's a tough language to learn. I should know. And I should set my goals realistically about how much they'll actually be able to pick up. We've started by creating 100-200 sticky notes and pasting them on the windows in the living room.
Misha has (surprisingly) turned out to be my partner in crime here. She's spending most of the time with me and is picking up the words better than the others. I sure hope she has a magical experience there communicating in a language not her own. I pray that the Lord blesses her with the gift of tongues and that she'll be able to communicate with the other kids in a way that touches her soul for the rest of her life. She asked me a week or two ago if I thought she might go on a mission to the Philippines someday. Wow, what a thought.
We've also found an iPad app called iSabi which works quite well to help teach common words and phrases. I've been working with the family a couple nights each week for an hour or so, and they're doing pretty well. I hope that by the time we get there, they will be pretty comfortable with the basic phrases and also with what to expect in the culture. I'm sure I'm not the best teacher (by far), but they're doing well. Amy didn't show much interest early on and last night after FHE seemed to catch the spirit of the event, going through 50+ quiz questions very well. We'll keep working, and at the same time I'm hoping that my own language skills can get unrusted enough to be of service. The De Oceras, like many people, understand English pretty well and speak a "Taglish" mix of words, so it helps to have the basic gist of Tagalog to communicate effectively. Kids learn English in school, but they likely don't know too much more than my girls will know of Tagalog, so it'll at least be a comical get-together when we all meet up. I'm hoping to get a good video camera to preserve this once-in-my-lifetime reunion.
I've been planning for a while to use the current missionaries in Zambales to try to help me locate the Escalicas family, the only family I taught from start-to-finish in my whole mission.
I've tried to set my hopes realistically, as they were very poor and I figured had either moved around or left the area all together. Today I sent a note to the mission president, Roberto Querido introducing myself. (I learned a couple weeks ago that the church's system is now more complete than I'd realized; our stake presidency has full access to leadership details for all units around the world. They provided me with contact information for everyone I need. How cool!) Pres Querido replied quickly (and enthusiastically) with an update on the area and even the membership details for the Escalicas family, who still has records in Candelaria! I had struggled to remember the names of the kids, but remembered that I had that type of information in the front of my journal. I was able to find most of their names and piece together the rest of the info. The info I got from Pres Querido shows that Roberto's record is not in Candelaria, but the rest of the family, including the kids, are still there. To me, that means that he's gone, she's still there but perhaps inactive since the kids' records never moved anywhere else. I found Welhelm on Facebook in Saudi and sent him a note hoping he'll remember me. I also found Moanalyn (who was pretty small at the time) and dropped her a note, not expecting her to remember me at all. We'll see what they say. Pres Querido will also reach out to the Elders in the area to do a little groundwork for me, plus I have the Branch President's contact info, so hopefully I can figure it all out prior to going. If I'm honest, though, I'm a little nervous at what I'll find out. Either way, I do have faith that this trip is coming together for a reason. And perhaps it will be to show one of Heavenly Father's children that he still cares deeply for them and knows who they are. I can only hope to be part of such an experience. Our family has been praying for missionary experiences; this may not be what we expected, but is sure to be amazing nonetheless.
Next: Entry #2.
Next: Entry #2.