Going Home. When you are working overseas, these words are always the best that you can possibly think of…to an expat working abroad, this sounds really good. Home is something that you look forward to. Whether you are going home because you have finished your contract, your annual leave is due, your company ran out of projects and you are one of the unfortunates that is being laid off, you were wrongly accused, you got into some form of mischief and your boss can’t let go, you are forced to leave because you are being maltreated, your employer can’t issue you a residence visa because you did not pass the medical test, one of your family members back home passed away, or a lot more reasons to go home, these words still sound good.
Life overseas is not always like a bed of roses. Yes, maybe to those who are lucky to land a better paying job, but even then, you can forget about your hardships once you are booked to go home. To those who are unfortunate… Well, you can still say ‘there will be another chance’.
I still remember whenever I was onboard a plane bound for home… it is always as the same like the other times. When the plane starts to hover over Manila International Airport, you can hear people clap and shouts ‘KABAYAN NANDITO NA TAYO!!” Oh! The shouts that you can hear when you feel the plane’s tires touch the ground. The scene inside an arriving plane is somewhat chaotic. Some fellows couldn’t help themselves. Amidst the noise, the voice of the stewardess is on the intercom telling everyone to remain seated blah, blah, blah… Some are already standing itching to open the overhead compartments for their belongings. Gone was the subdued atmosphere after boarding. Even the lady who was seated and huddled on my left is also consumed… she broke into a smile. The one seated next to the aisle who was silently crying when we left Abu Dhabi is fumbling to unfasten her seatbelt. The baby who was cradled by an elderly lady that is probably his grandma started to cry. Maybe his parents could not issue him a residence visa because they lack some of the requirements to do so. One lady on the front seat is already retouching her makeup. The lady beside her is telling the guy next to her to help her with her baggage, and they could perhaps share a taxi ride home. A guy who seems to be intoxicated with the freebies on board is muttering something. In those early days, mobile phones were still considered a luxury… No yelling at people to turn them off as the plane is about to land, but everyone is fumbling with calling cards so they can call home as soon as we land. Now, everyone turns on their mobile before we’ve even landed yet.
You can never miss this when you happen to be onboard a plane coming from the Middle East. Foreigners who happen to be on that plane, if it’s their first time to visit Philippines, sit in awe. What was in their minds, one never knew. After all, we ‘Pinoys’ are a happy lot. Some guys at the back began another round of applause. You can tell that they’ve come from Saudi Arabia. Some of them are wearing chunky gold chains, rings and earrings. Sometimes, members of a musical band do the same, only they accessorise themselves with heavy silver, and they always wear bandanas and arm bands.
The noise put my thoughts to an end. I mean, I was mentally noting the contents of the 60kg cargo box lying in the plane hold……… To whom would the packet of Pantene shampoo go to. The pack of Lux soap. Tubes of Colgate toothpaste, Jergens lotion, and the AED 10 each bottles of perfumes that the Indian neighbour had peddled… etc., etc. Of course, I did not forget my mother’s big tubs of Nescafe, linens, and cutlery items. I can imagine my mother’s face when she sees her Galaxy chocolates that are in one of those duty free bags in the overhead compartment. She prefers them to a Toblerone because it kind of melts in her mouth….For the love of God! She refuses to have dentures done. I also bought a “buy two, get one free” bottle of Johnny Walker, and a bottle of Remy Martin, plus Absolute vodka for brothers and cousins who are waiting for over a year to have some.
One can imagine how I managed to carry all these bags past the passport control to the trolley line. You can really feel as if your arm is being ripped off because the bags were just too heavy. It’s a good thing you are not paying for the trolley service anymore. Of days old, you had to pay a dollar so you could avail yourself of one. Yeah… You blew off your month’s pay to buy goody- goodies because it is expected that you’d be going home with ‘pasalubongs’ for everyone.
Having to wait near the baggage conveyor, you have to watch your carry-ons. Hilarious as it may seem, I even put my hard-earned money inside my socks. Now don’t get me wrong. I just don’t want to go home empty handed. I did that until one of my dollar bills got squashed and wet because I have clammy feet and hands whenever I am nervous. That was when I came home from Kuwait in 1983 and my early years in Abu Dhabi. Tales of fellow OFWs got me scared because some of them got mugged, even just arriving, right outside the airport. I switched to pocketing my money in my front jean pocket and securing it with a pin. I just leave enough for my taxi fare and bus fare, plus a little extra, if something arises, in my wallet. I still remember changing my dollar bills to pesos before heading to the province. My friend and I used to go to Mabini, or Padre Faura, to those money changers. Some of them still exist. A 10 cent difference to a dollar means a lot. Those days the rate was 20-25 pesos to a dollar. Nowadays, there are a lot of easy and convenient ways to send money. There’s the Kwarta Padala, Money Gram, Western Union, and bank to bank transfers. We cannot send through the latter… Abulug is a town in the north that doesn’t have a bank. The nearest bank is in Aparri and Luna, Kalinga Apayao. I used to send through an exchange centre in Abu Dhabi and my mother could just collect it in the nearby town of Ballesteros.
Transport is another problem. If you don’t have relatives in Manila who are affluent enough to own a Sometimes if my best friend, who owns a recruitment agency, happens to be there, I can have a free ride… but it means a day less from my leave. I used to complain about having two week’s vacation every two years instead of a whole month, but then, it sometimes has its’ advantages. I can keep myself from being bored. I was still unmarried then. A week of going here and there is enough, if you live in the province. There are no malls that you can go to in order to while away your time. My friends can’t go out with me if I want to go places, since they are already married with kids. And of course, I still have some amount left for a bus ride to Manila (wink wink………. you can ask any balikbayan how easy it is to spend your leave pay and savings whenever you’re here in the Philippines). Sometimes you don’t even have money left for a bus ride to the airport… you will borrow, to be paid back as soon as you get paid. Vicious cycle, I must say… But it’s all worth it. Nothing can beat that feeling when you see your family smile the moment you walk in that door. They may not say a lot, but you can feel their joy and happiness in that brief period you are staying and you know that when you are gone, they are gonna miss you again.
Fast forward to 2007… I’m going home with the usual baggage plus one. I mean my fiancée is accompanying me home. He had proposed marriage and I told him that he has to come with me to see how we lived in the Philippines. Although there’s an option to travel by air to Tuguegarao, we boarded a Florida bus en route to Ballesteros. Luckily my then fiancée slept through, up until Tuguegarao… my mother was dumfounded, and so was everyone else, when I told them that John is younger than me by four years. Again, don’t get me wrong. It’s not common for a foreigner to fall for one older than they are. Maybe then, what he felt, was true love. Our vacation went well, and he met my elders and other relatives. We went back to Abu Dhabi, and there we began to plan that we would move back to the Philippines… for good.
Home sweet home it is… after 14 months, we were married up in Abulug. I thought it was just so easy being finally home… but having to live that long outside the Philippines, I was in for a shock.
This does not end my story. My next posting will be about my struggles to adjust. I hope you guys will stay tuned, and ……. tata, for now.