It was a warm welcome! As soon as I got out of the airplane, treading the tarmac of Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), the heat seems to be coming from everywhere. Though initially uncomfortable, it’s a very good sign that my plane landed in the right city. I’m back to the it-is-summer-here-year-round Metropolis of Manila.
It was November 2006 when I left for the States. The day I arrived was April 3, 2014, around noon. It has been more than seven years since I’ve been home.
Greeting me at the airport were my parents, who arrived only hours earlier from Israel, and my sister who just completed a U.N. assignment in Africa three weeks prior. I sat beside the driver’s seat and had my first gaze, in almost a decade, on the city. I was simply amazed at how this place has evolved over the years.
The word progress is the only apt term for the skyline of Manila, which has become more dense since I left. The new buildings that sprouted from the cities of Makati (via the Makati CBD and Bonifacio Global City) and Pasig (Ortigas CBD) creates an impressive landscape of steel, as seen from one of the city’s new elevated highways. The main thoroughfares were filled with cars (as usual). Every commercialized spot is teeming with people. And after getting used to a sight that showcases ethnic diversity at its best, it was a minor adjustment to just see Filipinos everywhere!
As soon as we arrived at our place in Pasig, I was shocked at how big the place is. By Philippine standards, where we live is far from big. But after living in what could pass as boxes and micro houses in New York City and New Jersey, I feel an overabundance of square foot in our condo. My room, which my brother and I used to occupy, is as big as some friends’ studio apartments in Manhattan.
We headed straight to Via Mare for lunch, as per my request, for some Filipino food. My brother, whom I haven’t seen since 2007, was there with his wife whom I met for the first time. It was great seeing the second (and last) pastor in the family after all these years. For the first time in seven years, we were all in one table eating together. We’re complete again.
In Via Mare, I ordered Dinuguan (pork blood stew) while also savoring some of the Bagnet (deep fried pork belly) my Mom ordered. I finished my first meal in Manila with a Buko (young coconut) juice and Puto Bumbong (cylindrical rice cake) for dessert. The latter I’ve been imagining since I’ve decided to come back to Manila last February. The next pursuit after lunch was the search for hilaw na Mangga (green mangoes), which is traditionally sanctified with bagoong (fish paste). We went to Rustan’s supermart in search for the heavenly fruit, but unfortunately none was available (It took another day until I had my most wanted snack – mangga with bagoong. It was worth the wait!).
That afternoon, I took some time to rest. I needed it after a 21 hour flight that only allowed me to sleep for four hours. Though it felt like I had five heaters around me on a New York spring, I managed to rest at the living room. My “nap” lasted for at least three hours.
I came back to Manila to hire writers for my employer and though I came home with a seven year backlog of memories and tons of catching up to do, I had work duties to fulfill that night, a few hours before New York begins its work day. But alas, our home doesn’t have an Internet connection. My friends, especially my roommates from New York would know that Caleb without internet connection is a very, very, very bad thing.
Tensed and stressed – on my first night in Manila in almost a decade, I went to the nearest Starbucks, which was a block away from where I lived. When I got there I was told that their connection was down for the night, of all days! Determined to get some work done, I ended up at an internet cafe. As soon as I logged in, I just had to call (or FB message) for help! My former high-school classmate Hanna was thankfully available that night.
She met me at the internet cafe, called Serendipity (Midtown, anyone?) and brought me to Megamall, one of Manila’s largest shopping malls. In a span of one hour and the help of a tech specialist, I was introduced to the reality that pocket Wi-Fi is the way my people gets connected these days and that having 2 cellphones, one for SUN and Globe or Smart, is the norm. Some mobile handsets even have dual-SIM capabilities, allowing them to have two carriers at a time.
What I thought would have been a stressful and lonely night actually turned into a great catch-up time with Hanna, while getting a crash course on how Manila stays connected. Thanks to her and Aaron the tech specialist from Megamall, I’m back in the texting game with my Nokia Unknown phone (the type you had when you were in grade school) and my pocket Wi-Fi gadget. I began behaving like a Christian again after knowing that my Macbook can finally connect online.
We ended our impromptu dinner and tech shopping at almost 11 PM and when I came home, my bed was made. Mama fixed everything and even left a towel for me. And praise the Lord, my room has aircon! The curtains weren’t up yet so I had a full view of the Ortigas CBD from my windows. Overlooking were tall condo buildings and one hotel, on the far right is the Philippine Stock Exchange.
As I hauled my luggage from the living room to my bedroom to prepare to rest, the feeling was still surreal that I’m not in New York anymore. When I wake up tomorrow, Friday, I won’t be taking the PATH or Subway to attend the prayer meeting at our church in Midtown West. This weekend, my best friend Brandon won’t be across the Hudson river, but across the Pacific Ocean. My church friends, whom I usually spend a lot of time with over the weekends, won’t be around come Sunday. I won’t be swiping my Metrocard or tapping my PATH Smartlink for a while. Times Square will once again seem romantic (from a very long distance), than an annoying place to cross. Vinieros, Crumbs,and Magnolia’s won’t be accessible anymore.
I couldn’t help but cry my first night in Manila. I’m technically home, but it’s strangely unfamiliar. I felt uprooted, relocated and sent out from New York. I didn’t feel that I’ve come home, but that I’ve moved out of it.
To this day, more than a week since my first day and night in Manila, I still terribly miss New York. It’s my only concept of home for seven years – the first few years of my adult life since graduating college.
But like a season that has to end to give way for the new, Manila is my new challenge. It’s my new mission field. It’s my new adventure. My best friend, while looking at the very first pics of myself in Manhattan, told me that I was bright-eyed and seemingly full of dreams in the photos. Back in 2006 during my first few months in New York, I was too excited to reminisce about the past because I was so passionate about the future. The adjustment was surprisingly easy because I fully embraced what’s ahead of me.
I don’t know what the future holds. But we Christians have what we call grace and God’s will. Whenever a Christian is at the center of God’s will, it’s expected that grace and blessings will flow from it, because he is at a blessed place.
I know, with a peace that transcends my own understanding, that I am at the center of God’s will. Though this season is unfamiliar, challenging, and not completely my own choosing, I believe it will be filled with grace and blessings. In the same way that my faith in God has been my bedrock and fortress in all my seven years in New York, I will live the same way in Manila.
I left New York with a red eye from the tears I’ve shed right before entering the passengers’ area in JFK. But I’ve chosen to face Manila with the same spirit that I had for my former home when I first saw its impressive streets and buildings: Bright-eyed, full of dreams, and by His grace, ready to fully embrace what’s ahead of me.