Saturday, February 11, 2017

Philippines Trip

Dear Friends and Family,
I want to thank everyone who prayed for me during my travels in the Philippines and let you know that your prayers were answered. I had a truly wonderful and rewarding time. I have never been welcomed with such warmth and kindness as I have been by my Filipino cousins. I have never been treated so generously. Getting to know my relatives was the most special part of the journey. Plus I discovered a great deal about my Spanish-Chinese-Filipino heritage and about the life of my grandmother Maria Magdalena Vidal Crosby Strong. I am grateful to my cousins Drs. Jaime and Carol Almora for making it all possible.

 
On the long flight to the Far East,  I took Qatar airlines, which offered delicious meals, wines, movies, and clean facilities. There were signs which asked people to pray seated rather than prostrate in the aisles! I changed planes in Qatar. I have never seen so many  Muslims, in various costumes. There were pilgrimage groups heading towards Mecca, the men and women sitting on the floor in separate groups. There were sheiks that look like they stepped right out of the desert, followed by groups of women in burkhas. The airport is huge, modern and high tech. The entire scenario was like a combination of Star Wars and Lawrence of Arabia. Everyone was cordial but they charge a lot for a cup of coffee. I could see the Persian gulf from the airport, pale blue and serene.

I thought the airport in Manila was clean and nice. My cousins met me there and immediately began to treat me like a queen! I spent the first night at the Manila Hotel where General MacArthur once stayed. All I could say was: "Grandma, I am here at last!" In the morning I had the most delicious breakfast at the hotel. It was Chinese New Year, with red lanterns everywhere. A few Christmas trees too.

That day I toured Manila with my cousin Jaime and his assistant Abe. I saw my grandparents' old neighborhood and the park where my mother played as a child, right near the beautiful Manila Bay. After lunch we visited Santo Tomas University where my grandfather was a prisoner of war of the Japanese.



We found his name on the list of prisoners. Later, we did research at St. Luke's hospital which was run by the same Anglican missionaries who brought up my grandmother. In the evening we had a big family feast with my cousins! All of them are fascinating people! My cousin Eddie remembers his father talking about visiting my Grandma's house during the Japanese occupation, and especially about a certain "little blonde girl" who charmed everyone. She was none other than my mother!


The next day I went to a medical mission in a small town with my cousin Dr Jaime where he and his daughter Dr. Adalyn provided medical care for poor people in need. There were other doctors present as well. Hundreds of people were there seeking medical help. It was in a gymnasium. The crowd was positively festive. I chatted with some women who were waiting for dental treatment. There was a magnificent old Spanish church next door where I prayed.  I think there is a power in praying in a place where many poor people have prayed. They have nothing but faith and their faith is strong and gives glory to God.



That night we arrived in the mountains of Baguio at my cousin Jaime's house there, where Cousins David and Tatet Almora lived with their children and grandchildren. The little ones were darling and called me "Grandma." It was cold outside but lovely and the Pacific Ocean could be seen far in the distance. We had a feast with the extended family to celebrate the Chinese New Year. The food was fabulous. They were all amazed at my willingness to try the various Filipino dishes. The next day I visited the hospital where my mother was born; later we went  driving over steep one lane roads to the mining camp where my Granddad worked as an accountant and where my Aunt Floy was born. We had lunch at the former officers' club at Camp John Hay.  I saw Baguio Cathedral as well as the Baguio Country Club to which my grandparents had belonged. There was also a giant mall.



That night we drove six hours through the mountains to Kalinga province in the northern highlands of Luzon where my Grandma's brother Frank had his plantation. It is still in the family and is now owned and operated by Cousin Jaime and they grow rice there. I stayed at their family home in Tabuk which is next to the hospital built and operated by my cousin so that the poor can receive the best medical care. When someone is sick in the Philippines they are accompanied to the hospital by many family members, especially if the sick person is a child. Jaime and Carol feed about a hundred people a day from their own kitchen. In the garden there are many pets, including ostriches, which danced for me!



In the morning I watched the Miss Universe pageant with everyone else in the Philippines. In the evening we had supper at the family farm, and visited graves of all the grandparents and other cousins where we prayed and lit candles. The men chopped up some coconuts and we had fresh coconut scrapings with mango ice cream and never was there anything more delicious!


I later had a more extensive tour of Cousin Jaime's lands by truck. We drove through acres of rice paddies and I got a good look at how farming is done. I also saw plenty of carabao, a deer, and all kinds of flora and fauna, especially chickens. Then we went to see an older lady named Amelia who lived near my grandparents in Manila during the war. Her stories about the war were helpful for the book I plan to write. I also was able to talk to Carol's father Grandpa Jerry who had been a guerilla fighter against the Japanese during the war. He told me many amazing things and gave me a copy of his memoirs.



One night my cousins Jaime and Carol had a wonderful party for me in their courtyard. Jaime was dressed as a local chieftain. The hospital staff was there and many family members. My lovely niece Blessie was Mistress of Ceremonies. The local high school students dressed in traditional Kalinga garb and danced the most incredible courtship dance. Jaime and Carol danced too. They invited me to join them and we all danced. Then they dressed me in their beautiful traditional costume, handwoven. And we danced some more, even faster. Then we had a feast of local cuisine, prepared by their cook who is a former cook of Imelda Marcos. What a magical time! The youngsters radiated such charm and innocence!


The following day we caught a plane to Manila and then we flew to Leyte island to the town of Maasin where another medical mission was being held. We saw the spot where General MacArthur landed.



Then I went with my cousin Cely and niece Blessie on a special excursion to the isle of Limosawa where Magellan erected a cross and the first Mass in the Philippines was offered. We traveled on an extremely rustic boat surrounded by crates of eggs. The gangplank was rickety and narrow and several souls were delivered from purgatory each time I traversed it. Several of the crew formed a chain to help us ladies disembark on the beach of Limosawa. We walked across the beach to our hotel.





After the boat ride I felt the need for a drink but the hotel bar only sold liquor by the bottle. So we bought a bottle of Napoleon brandy. Later we climbed into a pick up truck owned by the vice-mayor of Limosawa and toured the island where there were mostly bamboo huts. The bamboo huts are so much nicer looking than the metal shacks that have replaced them in other parts of the country. We saw the lush tropical forest and the memorial to the first Mass in the Philippines. While Cely and Blessie hiked up the mountain to see Magellan's cross, I lingered below in the lovely garden while listening to the carabao call to each other.



The next day we crossed back to main land Leyte in a better boat but the ocean was rough and the boat pitched and waves crashed over us. I sat with a Polish lady (there seemed to be a great many Poles touring the Philippines) and at first we were annoyed when the crew covered us with canvas but when the waves started crashing we understood why. That evening I had a lovely time with my cousin Cely and my nieces Blessie and Ada. We talked and talked in the lovely open dining room of the hotel overlooking the Pacific. I spiked my mango shake with the brandy we bought in Limosawa.

The following day we took a boat to Cebu. There was a typhoon warning but nothing came of it and the weather was lovely. We stayed in a lovely condo in Cebu City lent to us by one of Carol's relatives. There I met Uncle Oscar Binoya, a son of my grandmother's half-sister Julia. Julia was incredibly beautiful but I never saw any pictures of her until recently. We talked about the rift between my grandmother and Julia and Uncle Oscar said that my grandfather forbade Julia from coming to the house because of her dark skin. I was quite shaken to hear it. Similarly, my grandmother had been sent away from her family as a small child because of her white skin; her stepfather did not like her. She was brought up and later adopted by an American missionary, Frances Crosby Bartter.



We went with Uncle Oscar to the island where Magellan was killed by the chief Lapu Lapu. At the spot where two fearless, hard-headed men faced each other there was a lovely garden where students were recreating, a cheerful irony.




The following morning we drove over the mountains to the village of Balamban where my grandmother was born. It was a new road for in the olden days, people would have journeyed along the shoreline or taken a boat to get to another side of the island of Cebu. As we arrived in Balamban there was a fiesta in progress with all the local children in their finest array. They processed and danced in honor of the Holy Infant Jesus. It was the First Saturday of the month and when we went into the magnificent old church of St. Francis, where my grandmother and her brother Frank had been baptized, there was a First Communion Mass going on. The parish office was opened and I had a look at the parish registry. It was all written in the same hand for over twenty years of entries which I thought odd. I figured that there had been damage from a storm or fire to the older registries so what was left was copied into one volume. As it was, the entry concerning the my grandmother's baptism was missing. But then I remembered her telling me that her records were lost in a storm which is why the Episcopalians gave her a conditional baptism. Sometimes we learn more from what we do not find than from what we do find.




In the afternoon we visited one of the great shrines of the world, the shrine of the Santo Nino of Cebu. Magellan had bequeathed a statue of the Child Jesus to the Queen of Cebu and when the Spanish returned years later they found the statue was still being venerated by the natives. Many miracles have surrounded it through the years. One of the Augustinian friars gave us a tour of the shrine and the  monastery. The next morning, I had the privilege of assisting at Mass at the shrine with thousands of devotees. A little Child who is King and God won the hearts of a people and continues to win hearts today. There is so much reverence in all the churches I visited in the Philippines.

On my last day in the Philippines I enjoyed a spa day at the elegant salon of my beautiful niece Dr. Ada Almora. I had a facial, a makeover, a massage, and several other procedures, which combine the skills and insights of both the East and West. I came away feeling invigorated and looking great. I also had my hair done at the salon of Sandy Gee where my sweet niece Dr. Christine Almora took me. I had so many lovely conversations during the course of the trip.

Then it was time to pack and go to the airport. I was sad to leave the Philippines.
It is a country where family and faith truly are everything. Divorce and abortion are against the law. The Sunday masses are overflowing. Although there are social problems due to poverty, one has the sense that for the most part, purity and virtue are cherished. The people are hard-working, resilient and resourceful; the great poverty is due mainly to government corruption and mismanagement that occurred during past regimes.
 
Once again I passed through Qatar. The security was much tighter when heading towards America. I was patted down and had to take off my shoes and everything. I was x-rayed several times.

The flight to JFK from Qatar was quite long but I had some good books to read and they had some good movies. Plus I saw Russia for the first time, from the air, in the daylight: a vast country covered with snow and great forests. Oh but JFK was a nightmare! I had to claim all my baggage and then recheck it for the flight to BWI. How I missed the Philippines where I always had someone to help me! I had so much trouble understanding the people who worked at JFK because of their accents! No one bothers to enunciate. I also had one of my bags split open, then I left my passport and boarding pass at the baggage check-in and they would not let me back in to get it. One of the airport workers was kind enough to get it for me though. And I almost missed my connecting flight because of the long lines at security. I had to run across the airport to catch my plane.

Once at home, I went to Mass to thank God for the fantastic trip to the Philippines and for the safe return journey. My dearest cousins, Carol and Jaime Almora, I cannot thank you and Ada, Blessie, Christine, and Abraham and Celenia enough for all that you did to make my trip to the Philippines so wonderful and totally unforgettable. And all the other Almora and Binoya relatives that did so much to welcome me! My family here rejoices in the connections that have been forged with our relatives on the other side of the world. I have returned to my home basking in the happiness of my trip to the Philippines. My mother loves the gifts you sent and the rest of the family as well. She sends her gratitude for the love and care that you all showered upon me.

Now it is time to write the book about my grandmother's life; I am still trying to think of a title. Any ideas?
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