Janet and I were preparing for our first meeting. We’d known each other online for nearly a year but hadn’t met. I’d proposed that she meet me in Cebu City the previous December when I was preparing my first trip to the Philippines but she turned me down cold. I was honest and told her I intended to meet several of my chatmates during the trip.
Her response was right to the point. “I don’t want someone who just wants to ‘collect and select.’” Frankly, up until that conversation the notion of “collecting and selecting” sounded like a pretty good thing but I understood and respected her point of view. Unlike some Filipinas, she was not willing to give up her values just to meet a foreigner, no matter how guapo.
In another posting I’ll get into the details, sordid as they are, about how that all turned around. The main point is that by the summer of 2012 we’d decided to meet. By then I knew enough about the culture of the Philippines to be unsurprised when Janet proposed that we spend part of our time together traveling to the small town of Alcoy, Cebu and meet her family.
I’d been in Cebu City before. A metro area of about 3 million I liked it, despite the pollution and mad traffic. But Alcoy had nothing in common with Cebu City, other than the provincial address. From Cebu City, Janet and I took a non-aircon bus for the three hour drive south to Alcoy. It seemed to take most of that time just to get out of the metro area, but once we did it was a different world. The highway hugged the coastline and many of the towns that we passed had wonderful views of the ocean. But none were as beautiful as Alcoy. The further we traveled south, the more I saw what I viewed as “real” Filipinos, with the attendant chickens, roosters, cows, and goats on the side of the road. Vendors constantly climbed on the bus, carrying Costco-sized bundles, hawking their food treats. Janet munched on a bag of chicharon; pork rinds. It was a different world from Manila and Cebu City.
Prior to arriving, Janet and I suggested to her parents that we take the family to a local restaurant for a meet and greet. Janet’s mom would have none of that, insisting we meet at the family home. This terrified Janet. “My home is very poor,” she repeated dozens of times over the weeks. “Are you sure you want to go there?”
“Of course I want to go there and of course I want to meet your family,” I told her, loving the fact that she was being both protective of me and her family. But as a traveler who loves the road less traveled I built in my mind an image of poor, provincial Philippines and couldn’t wait to experience it.
Her fear about my meeting her parents was equally intense. “They are very old,” she’d say often.
“But you told me they’re younger than me,” I reminder her.
“Yes, but they look much older. They are just poor Filipinos. You’re a very guapo foreigner,” she threw in, already knowing how to divert my attention.
Once in Alcoy, getting to her ancestral home takes a little doing. We found a motorized trike willing to take us there easily enough; he probably sized up the rich kano and figured a big payday. We exited the highway and bumped downward along a dirt road, passing gaping children, not used to foreigners in their neighborhood, cows, pigs, and the ubiquitous roosters. Even at my small size, I banged my head on the tiny trike’s crossbeam several times as we hopped along. All the while I wondered to myself, “just how bad will the house be and what will the family be like and how should I react.” I reminded myself that I’d spent time in a mud hut in Kenya and shanties in Tobago, so I could take anything.
The trike stopped with a jolt. On the side of the house we were facing was a large banner, “Welcome Dave Weisbord,” with photos of me and my family. Many of Janet’s family members were outside waiting for us. In a blur I was introduced to everyone. All I could think of was how touched I was by the welcoming banner. Lunch was already set up with the pig next to the table and chairs. The banner was magically whisked inside and hung over the soon to be devoured pig.
Wave after wave of people came in for the food; the adults including the guest of honor first, followed by kids, neighbors, neighbor kids. Janet is one of ten children and I was amazed at how efficiently people came in and out and were fed. I am sure 60 people came to eat and gawk at the foreigner.
I am sure 60 people came to eat and gawk at the foreigner.
As for the house that I had built up in my mind as part of a shanty town; it was modest but clean and comfortable. It wasn’t really that different from an American home; a couch and chairs in the living room, as well as a small TV and videoke system. The dining room was well set up. There were several electric fans which actually made the home cool, despite the mid-day heat. The porch was the main hangout for the kids and young adults and each time I was invited to sit there a flurry of pictures were snapped, everyone wanting to be photographed next to the kano.
Of course there was no indoor plumbing and I was told by Janet to avoid using the outhouse. Thanks goodness that at my advanced age bladder retention is still – well retained.
And what about Janet’s elderly parents that I’d been led to imagine were on death’s door? Both looked healthy and vital. I took Janet aside.
“I don’t know what you were talking about. Your home is perfectly nice.”
“But it’s poor.”
“And your parents. You made it sound like they were on their last legs. They look their age; younger than me.”
“But you’re more guapo.”
“Anyway, I like it here.”
After everyone had been fed, her dad brought out the Red Horse and we had a glass or two together. I asked to talk to her parents. With Janet and her younger sister translating I explained to them where we would be going on our trip and what we would be doing. I assured them over and over I would take very good care of their daughter. While they did not speak much English it was also clear that they understood it well enough. I asked if they had any questions. By now I wasn’t just talking to the parents. The entire family had gathered, neighbors were leaning in through windows. At least 40 people were listening intently. It was like one of those old Paine Webber commercials; when I talked – Filipinos listened.
Her dad calmly asked about how I would handle the differences, the difference between my being rich and Janet being poor. He had clearly thought out what was his greatest concern. I started out by gently correcting him. “Well, the truth is I am not rich.” But I immediately realized the foolishness of such a statement. Any way you look at it, by their standards, I am rich. All I could do was assure her dad that like all couples we would talk and resolve any differences.
Her parents seemed satisfied so I looked around and asked if anyone else had any questions. They all giggled and the Visayan flew. Finally, her brother asked in English the $64,000 question, “So, are you getting married?” Everyone laughed and cheered.
I asked him, already knowing the answer, “Are you a gambling man?” He nodded. “Well, there are no guarantees yet but in my country we would say that it was a good bet.”
More cheering and laughter. I had passed the first test!