Philippines - Day 5 (Traveling)
This is entry #7.
Link to entry #6.
Jolayne is also chronicling our trip here.
Day 5: April 3. Tuesday night we finally all slept well; it was our best night of sleep yet (that wasn't saying much), and finally the jet lag seemed to be mostly done. Our agenda for the day was to drive, drive, and then drive more. We started the morning by meeting Bishop Emil Lazatin and his wife Nekky at our hotel for breakfast. He'd told me the night before that he was going to drop by with a few local items to eat, but I didn't realize he meant he'd bring a bag full of food. So we had just ordered breakfast at our hotel when they showed up. We had tons of food to eat; a lively conversation followed, and we had fun kidding around, acting like the old friends we weren't. Great family.
Then we packed up our stuff and I texted Normita to ask if her brother in law, Jun--who would be our chauffeur for the day--could come over and pick us up, saving us a heavy trip on the jeep. He came over promptly and we loaded up the van and went back over to De Oceras for a while. Jun's van had plenty of room and great aircon, which made for a nice ride, especially compared to our transport modes up until that point. We bid farewell to the hotel staff; they had been very accommodating. I left a P500 tip for them and instructed the desk clerk that it should be shared. I'm not sure how much faith I had that it would make it to its intended destination, but that wasn't on me; it was mostly 2-3 bell boys who had done the helping out of my various requests along the way, so I hope they got something.
Shortly after 9, we hopped out quickly at De Ocera's and chatted for a while, took some pictures, and even greeted another old friend, Elda Aquino. The younger kids--who were old friends by now--played, and Amy and Misha both got to go for a motor scooter ride while I chatted with the family and Elda.
Elda may have been just a little ticked off that I didn't visit her at her home, but the truth is that I'm really not sure that I could have found it again on my own. On top of that, there simply wasn't another free minute in our cram-packed schedule, and this was the only way I would get to see her at all. Elda was my first baptism, if I recall correctly. Apologies for the cutoff pictures.
Elda hadn't been attending our church in San Fernando for quite some time, and the Bishop didn't even know who she was. So I was perhaps more that a little covert and arranged for him to drop by briefly since he worked just around the corner, so he could meet her. After the flooding in 1996, Elda moved north (Mabalacat I believe) and then bounced back and forth over the years. My hope was that by meeting these folks she would be able to get back into the swing and rejoin activity. We had a great time chatting (it was always lively with us two, a little makulit even) before I realized how far behind schedule we were, so I decided it was time to go.
This is the tindahan (family-run sidewalk shop) where it all began; I met the De Oceras here in February 1995.
We had a long journey ahead of us. We snapped a few group pictures with my Filipino family and readied to say goodbye; I knew it wouldn't be easy.
It had been a grand couple of days in Pampanga and I resolved that if we were able to come back in a few years, I'd stay longer and try to not be so over-compressed on my schedule. But the truth is that I'm not sure if/when I'll be able to return again. It's terribly far away, and hugely expensive. It's just hard to count on something like that.
It was by far the toughest part of our trip saying goodbye. Not surprisingly, I cried like a little baby (and so did Kristen). Here was a group of people whom I never thought I'd be able to see again when I bid farewell in late 1996. By the grace of God I'd been granted the amazing blessing to come back and see them all again, and even with my family. What an amazing treasured experience it was for me. I'm a bit of a softy by nature, and this was just a recipe for tears. Those are some very good people I was able to visit, and our trip had just gone so amazingly, it made it even harder to let go. Poor Kristen was so attached to her new friend/sister Allyson after only 3 days; they had a very hard time saying goodbye to each other. Both were crying.
It was at this point that Kristen did something pretty amazing. We had told her previously that the De Ocera (Emita, actually) girls only had the one Barbie each; it was a great lesson in not needing lots to be happy. We also told Kristen that if she decided she wanted to leave her own Barbie behind, she could. We wanted it to be her decision. As we were preparing to leave, Kristen gave her favorite Barbie to Allyson; both were already teary (more so for Kristen). Wow, what a proud parent I was; my daughter truly understood giving from the heart. That Barbie was her favorite, and she happily parted with it to add some joy to a newfound friend on the other side of the world. Wonderful. She truly had caught the vision of our trip.
After hugging one last time, we hopped into the van and pulled away. Jun had managed to get some back-road-shortcut instructions to get us up to the SCTEX expressway, headed to Subic. It took us about 30 minutes of traversing up one of the arms of the mega-dike complex before we made it to the expressway. The expressway itself was a bit of a wonder to me (though I don't think anyone else cared so much). It cut right through the middle of the area that had caused so much havoc from Pinatubo in years past. In the same place where roads were routinely closed and swamped, taking us many hours to get only a few miles, we now made 70mph to Subic in about 45 minutes. Wow. It was a beautiful drive through the province, very green. And the traffic wasn't even bad at all. The road had a bit of a galloping feel to it; certainly not as smooth as a new freeway in the States, but I wasn't complaining at all.
We basically crossed directly south of where we'd been the day before inside the volcano). A short time later, we popped out in the former Subic Naval Base and drove around for a short time just seeing the area.
Together with Clark Air Base, Subic Naval Base was the largest overseas US military installation in the world through the 60's and into the early 90's. Previous to that time, the story of Subic during WWII is the stuff of Hollywood movies; really amazing stuff. Most Navy servicemen will tell you they've been there a time or two; during the Vietnam war over 4 million sailors a year visited the base. After the closing of Clark, Subic stayed open for another year or so until the Filipino government made a dramatic change of course and elected not to renew the lease agreement. The story goes that the Filipinos had grown weary of the American servicemen and the lifestyle they brought with them with the fights, prostitution, drunkenness, etc. However, the local economy in nearby Olongapo suffered greatly when he primary employment source dried up as the bulk of the Americans left. As I chatted with various folks I learned that most people really miss the Americans and the influence (and wealth) they brought to the area. Olongapo was the most advanced city in that part of the country (it had been rebuilt by the Americans after WWII). When Subic was closed in 1992 it was systematically and ceremoniously turned over to the Filipinos, which is part of the reason why it fared so much better than Clark. Access into the former base (surrounded on 3 sides by water) was still pretty tight even when I was there in 95-96, though we did make it inside on many occasions for shopping and recreation activities. As an interesting side note, though, beginning at the end of 2012 the government began once more to allow US forces into Subic on a semi-permanent basis, and the US will stage forces there going forward as Asia again becomes a hotbed of political activity.
We parked for a few minutes at the sea wall and could easily see fish right there in the clear blue water. It's really a beautiful place, and they've taken good care of it over the years; much better than Clark (since it didn't have to be rebuilt in the first place). It was beautiful.
Not surprisingly, we were approached and canvassed by a street vendor within about 30 seconds of getting out of the van. Of course I didn't even have my wallet on me. Made for an easy answer. By this time we were hungry, so we drove around until we stumbled into the shopping mall. The mall was new and extremely well maintained. You'd never notice you weren't anywhere in America. I went to go get a data card for my iPad so we could have map access for the remainder of our trip. That took forever, though, and so we went to have lunch at a nearby Wendy's. It was Wendy's alright, and the frosties tasted the same, but the menu was altered and they weren't able to give Jolayne any extra pickles (what's that?!) with her order. I had to pay P5 to use the bathroom in the mall, but it was perhaps the cleanest restroom I've seen in the country. It wound up taking us much longer than we'd thought, and by the time I got the data card sorted out (but still not working), it was after 2pm. We still had to stop at a nearby grocery store (Pure Gold, where you can get lots of imported goods) since we knew there wouldn't be many options where we were staying. Tick tock. Finally we headed north. Our next stops were first at the Olongapo mission home (in the town of Subic, north of the old base) and then a couple hours further on to Candelaria.
From this point on, we were on a simple two-lane road, the National Highway. This is where Jun's driving skills were put to the test. I drove that road many times in the 90's, and it was always an adventure. The highway is chock full of nearly every form of road transport you can think of and also has construction every so often. But the construction isn't the type with bright orange barrels. Instead, they have simple white signage, you have to be sure you're watching ahead closely. The road was very busy, with trikes pulling in and out of traffic constantly, jeeps honking their horns, and delivery trucks lumbering along slowly so that you have to continually overtake (pass) other traffic. All of that makes this sign pretty funny:
It's a constant game of chicken. Speeds rarely get over 40mph, and that helps keep it sort of safe, but it's not the serene type of country ride you might hope for. It took us about 20-30 minutes, winding our way up and around the hill of the Olongapo/Subic cemetery where all the graves are raised up in sarcophagus-like tombs, before we came to the mission home. We pulled in and were met by a guard with his finger in (not on) the trigger of his shotgun; everyone has armed guards. He directed us to the home in the complex and we were met by President Roberto Querido. We chatted for a short time and were given a tour of the mission home, treated to some yummy mango shakes (which of course Kristen didn't like), and then poked our heads inside the mission office briefly. We snapped a few pictures and were on our way again, but by now it was sometime after 3pm. I knew things were going to end up rough; sundown was around 6pm. That's the mission president on the far left.
We now had a 2-hour drive or so up the coast to Candelaria. Repeat my crazy-driving story. Jun, who was from somewhere down near Manila, was far from home and I could tell our long day was really beginning to grind on him. Having driven that road myself, I understood. He confessed later that he was on fumes because there weren't any gas stations; we were lucky to find one before we ran out. Along the way I tried to use my iPad to help with navigation, but the data card just didn't work worth beans; big waste of time. We got to the south end of Candelaria around 6pm, just as the sun was going down. We easily found two full-time Elders on the side of the road and they hopped in quickly and navigated us the rest of the way through to the Escalicas' home. There's little likelihood I would have found it on my own, especially at night.
Both the missionaries were Filipino, and I was happy to have them along; one had only been out on his mission for a couple weeks. As I mentioned at the beginning of this saga, Roberto Escalicas and his family were one of the other super-special families I met on my mission. I had learned before our trip that he died a couple years ago, and so we were headed to visit his wife Marilyn. This is kind of a blurry shot, but it's on our approach to their home; cars wouldn't fit down the walkways.
I have to say this was perhaps the biggest disappointment of our trip. After traveling all day we were met with only a lukewarm (at best) welcome. This was one of my favorite (kindred spirit) families. We were not invited inside or given any sort of traditional hospitality that would indicate we were welcome guests. We sat out front for about an hour while I talked with Marilyn and learned the rest of the story. Her daughter Maricris, who I'd also baptized, lived right next door with her family and also joined us. I learned that Roberto had indeed done well after I left. He had been called as the branch president in that area and he was even sealed to his family in the temple. A true success story, especially for a man who had been so down on his luck when I'd met him. A few years later he was elected the Barangay Captain (equivalent of mayor of a neighborhood) and things turned around for him. At that point, one of the missionaries told him that it was a conflict of interest for him to be both barangay captain and branch president; that he couldn't do both. That is not true at all; there are a number of people in my area now who hold various church-leadership positions and are also involved as elected civic leaders. Anyway, he and his family were offended by this and withdrew from the church, not to return. What a sad story, one that shows how important it is that we are careful in the way that we share our opinions with others. That one conversation (if the story is correct) undid many years of good.
Roberto was diagnosed with liver or pancreatic cancer in 2010 and didn't live too much longer. In an example of how you really can find just about anything on the internet, I found his libing (memorial service) on YouTube as I was piecing together his story before our trip. In the years since, Marilyn has remarried and is attending another church. She was a fairly hard lady now, though we talked for some time (all in Tagalog), together with the missionaries. They have been visiting her weekly for some time, so it was good to have them along for some consistency. I explained my journey in returning to the Philippines and the way that I'd felt the Lord's hand so clearly in my life directing me back here, hoping that perhaps she would see that He was reaching out to her to let her know he still loved her. She held her ground. Still, though, I challenged her to come back to church and to rethink her ways. At one point the hair on my arms was all on end as I testified to her of the things I knew to be true. My Tagalog was broken, but I know she understood and felt that same spirit. I reminded her of the experiences we shared together, and they did pull out a photo album that had a number of shots with the missionaries back in my day. There's still a tiny spark there. Perhaps our visit will make some sort of small difference down the road somewhere; it's the best I could hope for. We shared a few more of our toys with the kids and then said our goodbyes. Here's some photos with the family in 1995.
And from our visit:
And from our visit:
We were very late for dinner now so I texted Analyn Garcia, who was the caretaker at the home we had rented for the evening, to let her know we wouldn't be there before 9pm. We still had another 2 hour drive ahead of us back south to San Antonio, only this time in the dark. It was a mixed blessing. Much of the chaos and traffic from earlier in the day was gone and we made much better time than we had earlier. However, with no street lights and various hazards on the road, the stress level of that drive went way up. We passed numerous tricycles with no lights, several of which whose drivers I'm sure were well into their evening drinking time by then. People sat on the edge of the road and had no intent of moving out of the way as we came by. Jun was visibly stressed by this time and was now using his horn as a "get out of my way you fool" notice instead of the traditional tap-tap used to let people know you were there. The kids slept the whole way (they had been very bored at the Escalicas visit) so at least they didn't worry. Jo and I watched while I tried to get my maps to work. They didn't. The ride got downright scary in a few places and we were blessed to eventually arrive safely. We thank Jun for his patience and skill.
Ultimately we made it to San Antonio, our destination for the evening. But we were coming in from the north and my directions were described as though coming from the south. It was a rural area with little in the way of lighting and signage. I knew it would be tricky to find our rented home in the middle of the rice field (bukid). We were supposed to look for a water tower (which we obviously couldn't see at night). More than one silent prayer was offered by this time; I was really hoping we'd be able to find our place. I had the name of the barangay, and Jolayne mentioned that she had seen a sign with that name. So we stopped and asked for the street we needed. In an uncanny non-coincidence, the guy on the street replied that the street we needed was EXACTLY beside us. Amazing. That's the type of tender mercy we'd seen from our Heavenly Father since even before we had left home. We turned down the tiny road and drove until the road ran out. Jun was a little incredulous by this point; he wasn't sure his van would make it out of this place, though my instructions had ensured us that large vehicles would do OK here. His poor van had had it as well by this point; I think it was overheating. We got to the house (literally in the middle of the rice field) just before 9pm. We were starving. Quickly we woke up the kids, unpacked our things, and helped Jun get several gallons of water into his radiator. He then wished us well and was on his way home to Manila without delay.
The home we rented was just great. It was a two-bedroom American-style home with purified water and air conditioning, all for the low price of $55/night. Not bad. I had found it on vrbo.com, and there were only a small handful of places in the Philippines so it was a great find. Analyn had prepared a great dinner for us and we ate quickly. Everyone was tired. We joked and unwound a bit from the long day. I was beginning to feel like I had simply packed too much into our time here. It was exhausting. But we had arrived safely, and I had been blessed to meet old friends again. We fell into bed around 11pm. Tomorrow's agenda included taking it easy. About time.