Red Book - The Real Filipinos

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sometimes in our lives, we are given the privilege to witness extraordinary things but we do not do not realize how significant they really are until much later in our lifetimes. Some things simply do not sparkle unless viewed from hindsight, where they show their true nature and become golden. This post is about one those events, written for posterity, that never will come the day that I forget when I saw what it meant to be real Filipinos.

When I was about five and living in Saudi Arabia, I distinctly recall having a couple stay with my family for a short while. They were tad older than my folks, but they were a pleasant lot. We lived in a small apartment of two bedrooms, only slightly larger than the first floor of our house in the Philippines so I remember being slightly pissed at the idea that they would occupy the room of me and my sister. On the other hand, the lady taught my mom how to cook pizza and cheesecake, and I got to sleep with mom and dad again. After a couple of weeks, we brought them someplace in Riyadh (we lived in Al-Khobar) and I got to eat at McDonald's, and that for me was the highlight of the trip.

That was my version of the story, from the point of view of a five year old, a good twenty-two years ago.

As I grew up and pieced together things from my sister, my parents, and later understanding of other much more subtle things that I remember, the picture that emerged was entirely different.

One night, my dad was in a public long distance call center. International direct calls used to be very limited back then so we had to visit these places just to place calls to the Philippines. It was then that another Filipino approached him. I do not know what exactly the man said but he told my dad that he was familied like he was, and hoped my dad would understand his situation and help out.

As it turned out the man my father was talking to had run away from their employing family who withheld their passports and put them on the police search list for runaways. They needed a place to stay. My dad, hearing the man's plight gave our address, and soon enough, the next day, they arrived at our place.

First, note that this man is a total stranger to my father, who has the whole family living in the address that he just gave away. And while I can say that living in Saudi brings out the best in Filipinos, I cannot say that there are also bad apples that tend to act desperately if not criminally in the face of hard life there. Second, we are not talking about the United States, or the Philippines. Saudi Arabia has unforgiving laws, be it towards criminals, or even those who seek to harbor them. Knowing these things, my dad agreed.

Throughout the stay, we did our best to help them become accommodated. My dad had to work so this left our mom, my sister and me to the company of our guests. Tita Cory and her husband, whose name eludes everybody in my family, also tried hard to make themselves useful. Part of the help they gave was the cooking lessons that Tita Cory gave my mom, which to this day I'm still grateful for (Mom's pizza and cheesecake are still the best).

All is not well though, and at the time, although I did not know it because she hid it from us kids, Tita Cory was already languishing at their plight, being stuck in a stranger's household and not being able to send money back to the Philippines to help her children and family. Being outlaws, they could not even go outside our house that had no windows (for insulation) and almost zero means of entertainment. (It was the late 80s, cable was not yet mainstream, betamax availability was few and far in between and the internet did not yet exist in Saudi). I could guess the boredom amplified the stress of hiding. My mother told me Tita Cory cried a lot, and if ever there's anything my dad has a soft spot for, it's crying women.

The problem with returning back to the Philippines is that you can't do it without a passport. And even if you do have it, you can't simply walk into an airport with your name on the hitlist of the police. The only ticket you're getting is one straight to jail. The only way out is through the Philippine Embassy, which we did not have in Al Khobar. It's in Riyadh, which is 389 kilometers away from Al Khobar. To put that distance in perspective, that's the distance between Manila and northern Ilocos Sur. The road between the two cities is a highway cutting across a swath of desert land, patrolled by police and laced with checkpoints where they check foreigners for documents. In short, just moving from one city to another was already very risky business.

My dad knew just letting them stay with us was already pushing our luck, and that the trip was no trivial matter considering he was also working full time on two jobs. He went around our building to bring the matter to his closest friends to see who could help. Understandably, nobody would agree to help. Who wouldn't say no to something that would jeopardize both their safety and livelihood for people they did not even know?

That said, my dad knew that if there was anybody who could do something about it it would have to be him. So one morning, we all woke up, got into dad's company car, and went for the long trip to Riyadh. Before we left, I noticed that there was money in my pocket. I gave it to my mother and as it turns out, it was tita Cory's small way of thanking us for our cooperativeness. We returned the money anyway, knowing she'd probably need it more than I do. (This part my mom told me, as I could no longer remember it ever happening)

I remembered sitting on somebody's lap. I don't remember who though. But at the time, I didn't know how dangerous what we were doing was. Hiding the folks was one danger, being on the road with them where one patrol or checkpoint could expose how we were helping undocumented aliens was completely another. My mom told me that one possible reason why my dad brought me and my sister along is that Saudis tend to have a weakness when it comes to children, and they become lax in their checks. Me? I was just happy to tag along. I was five and bored, so I was just enjoying the trip.

Thankfully we never got to test the child-weakness theory of my dad. As though the hand of God was at work, that day, there was not a single checkpoint on the road on the way to Riyadh. I don't remember ever dropping them off but I do remember Tita Cory was teary eyed when we were within the city already. Funny how her face at that specific time was the only one I ever remember of her. I remember eating at McDonald's afterwards, which at the time only existed in Riyadh. As a side note, if ever you think going a block or two for Mickey D's is a bitch, try three hundred kilometers.

On our way back, the significance of the act of God seemed more apparent as the places where there were no checkpoints before were now filled with police. Had we not been at the right place at the right time, Lord only knows what would have happened.

As an epilogue, I later learned that the couple, through the help of the embassy, was able to return the Philippines. Later on they both went back to work this time in a cruise ship, where Tita Cory became a chef. My parents and the couple exchanged few and brief correspondences and pasalubong packages a few years after the incident but sadly we've not heard of them ever since.

My parents risked livelihood and life to save a couple of strangers who for all practical reasons given our situation could have been ignored. People say that Filipinos are generally hospitable for their generous treatment of their guests. That's probably true, but I also think that the real hospitality, the nobler and less practiced, and less publicized one is the hospitality that moves us to help out and accommodate strangers, the value that turns us into Samaritans in face of great risks to ourselves and our loved ones to do something inherently altruistic and human.

That day I saw a glimpse of the real kind of hospitality.

The real Pinoy spirit.

That day I saw Real Filipinos.


Leo said...

dude, if you don't mind - let me repost it in fb... good stuff!


Sure thing man


Search This Blog

Most Reading