In the darkest days of the pandemic when we were afraid to go out the door of our own house, when we quietly obeyed barangay officials at military checkpoints enforcing the strictest lockdowns, and when we watched Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN International almost exclusively every day, the idea of finally getting to travel again was one of the main things that kept us going. Travel to Makati, then maybe Tagaytay or even a beach somewhere. Ultimately, however, we dreamed of being able to travel abroad. To eat absurdly good food in an obscure city, to drive cross-country to visit long-unseen relatives, to shop for things other than shorts and t-shirts in any place other than the Alabang Town Center.
We tested our travel legs with quick trips to Singapore because the disciplined city-state opened quickly while good, old Hong Kong remained under prohibitive zero-Covid restrictions; but we still looked forward to a long journey. Three movies plus two meals and a midnight snack in the dark on the plane--that long.
This was our big Christmas gift to ourselves: Manila to Tokyo to Chicago to New York where we were entranced by Eva Noblezada in Hadestown; New York to Cincinnati where we rode around in a Mercedes Benz that kept my buns nice and toasty when the first hints of a generational winter snow storm came down in flurries; Cincinnati through Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia to historic Charleston and Savannah where stories of hauntings and ghostly horses seemed all too possible, all too real; then, Savannah to Lakeland where Christmas “wasn’t typical, but nice”; Lakeland to Tampa to Detroit to San Francisco and San Lorenzo where a not-so-quick side trip to Carmel By The Sea was tiring but fun; and finally, SFO to Tokyo where the Uniqlo items look, well, exactly like those in Alabang.
Vengeance is mine. It was a trip that put to rest all yearning to travel. (For now.)
Along the way, we learned or, rather, confirmed a thing or two.
Revenge may well be best served cold, but revenge travel to extremely cold places is definitely not the best idea. I do not do well in low temperatures—anything single-digit-Centigrade, certainly anything below zero is way too cold for me. The Filipino solution to not owning the right kind of clothes is “layering” which translates into looking like the Michelin Man and which quickly unbalances the ratio of dirty to clean clothes in your luggage. Aside from making my pants too tight, long underwear makes my pants slip down my slender hips, and to pull them back up I have to lift my coat, sweater and shirt every few seconds. I decide to forego the long johns. Having cold legs is better than walking around feeling hip-hop with my ass hanging out of my pants (hidden under my jacket, thankfully), but then my skin quickly dries up and cracks and itches, which is a real problem because I have sensitive skin. (Excuse me, it’s a medical condition.) It is imperative, however, that I keep my chest, neck and head warm. Thus, I wear zippered up puffy jackets and idiotic beanies; otherwise, I cough or at least make semi-discreet noises suppressing coughs, and the entire post-Covid world stares at me with accusation. So, anyway, traveling to the so-called temperate zone in winter makes me look fat and gangster-ish and forces me to spend valuable time moisturizing my butt and repacking my suitcase. Next year I will spend Christmas at some place where all I’ll need are my Speedo trunks and six-pack abs.
Regardless of weather conditions, however, our countrymen have made homes for themselves all over the world. I’ve said it before, and it continues to comfort and embolden me in my travels: A kabayan will almost always pop up to help. This time it was in the vast underground Tokyo train station where we had stumbled on a tiny ramen restaurant in the middle of the lunch hour. A big machine at the door had rows of buttons with photos of food, but no instructions. Certainly, none in English. We tried pressing a few of the buttons and lights would go on promisingly only to go dead after a few seconds. As we struggled with the technology, panic began to set in because we were holding up a line of patient, but very likely hungry Japanese. Kabayan to the rescue! A tiny woman wrapped in multiple sweaters and scarves—layered! —stepped up and inserted cash into the machine. Years of un-tropical weather had not been kind to her skin. Clearly, she had the experience with Japanese ramen machines that we plainly lacked. Later she would recount that she used to be a dancer but was now a checker in a lumberyard in a small town a long bus ride outside of Tokyo. In the moment, however, she explained, “Cash lang po ang tinatanggap ng makinang ganito. Mababait naman po ang mga Hapon pero kailangan po natin matutunan mag-isa ang mga sistema dito. Hindi nila ituturo.” A small ticket came out and she handed it to a server who led us to a couple of empty seats. Delicious ramen came soon after. Thanks to a fellow Filipino in a strange land.
In a sense, we were also saved by Filipinos abroad when they hosted us in their house on New Year’s Eve. It’s such a cliché to say Filipinos always crave Filipino food after a week or two in a foreign country. The truth is on our very first day after landing in New York I was looking for a meal with hot, steaming rice. Kanin! Sino’ng may sabing two weeks pa. First day!! I believe great business success awaits the entrepreneur who launches a Filipino breakfast restaurant chain in the U.S.—tapsilog, tocilog, longsilog, bangsilog and the American-sized lahatsilog.
OK, so there we were in the home of U.S. citizens of Filipino descent, and we would have been completely happy to dine on hotdogs, burgers, thick-cut porkchops and hickory-smoked BBQ ribs. Completely happy. Instead, we were treated to pochero and lechon belly and steamed fish and deliciously moist, immaculate white rice. We forgot our fear of being pushed onto the subway tracks and our dismay at being approached by a homeless man who started his pitch with “Kuya, . . .” We could savor our travels and yet feel secure in the knowledge that we truly belong in the Philippines, the land of good food and better friends.
The irony of our extended trip, intended to make up for being forced to stay home, was in our learning that where we really wanted to be all this time was at home. Home, sweet home.