Stolen from Douglas MacArthur, and far less compelling, I did return to the Philippines to continue my journey of discovery, of Carmen, and myself. This was the second time I had returned to Philippines, wrestling with the same question: what did Carmen really mean to me? But this was to be a five month test, not a one week vacation.
MacArthur had had five tours of duty in the Philippines, the first in 1904 as an officer cadet serving under his father another much decorated American military personality. After his fourth tour he returned to Washington to serve as Chief of Staff, bringing with him his teenage Filipina mistress. But it was his fifth tour as Military Advisor to the Republic, of which he was oft heard to say, that were the best years of his life. And why wouldn’t they be? Living in the top floor apartments in the prestigious and luxurious Manila Hotel, and enjoying the status of a powerful and esteemed American General advising the government of the Philippines, not to mention the handsome stipend. Living with a beautiful Tennessee socialite, 19 years his junior, may have had something to do with it as well.
Maybe I was living a romantic fantasy of my hero of the Pacific, a vague notion of walking in the footsteps of history. I had read much of historical MacArthur. When I returned to The Philippines the last time, ostensibly to say goodbye to Carmen, we visited her home town, Santa Rita in Samar Province. I was curious about her roots, and to prove to myself, and maybe others, that I could understand the realities of Filipino life and growing up in the Philippines. To get to Samar you fly to Tacloban and Tacloban overlooks Leyte Bay where MacArthur did return. We even took time out to visit the inspirational monument to the landing which is based on the famous photo of Macarthur and his entourage wading ashore.
So here I was returning to Philippines, maybe to find happiness with my own Filipina companion. For her part Carmen had no choice. She had to return to her own country as her six month visa term in Canada was up on October 29. She said she was glad to go back to see her family in the Philippines but she really liked being with me in Canada. She had adapted well to my Kanata townhouse and my dogs, and even though she talked daily to her family via Messenger I think she must have been homesick, though she never let on. I booked our flight for October 23, with a Canada return date of March 23rd – the plan was to stay in Philippines for five months, returning in time for Carmen to see snow. She was thrilled that I had booked return tickets for her too; I think she may have been apprehensive that I might leave her in Philippines. She couldn’t know my innermost thoughts, and doubts, but she had strong intuition.
We were met at Ninoy Aquino International Airport by Carmen’s best friends, Lani and Annabelle, and cousin Noël; the greeting was warm, if a bit restrained as the reception committee discretely examined me. I reflected briefly on how the airport now felt so familiar, I had become a veteran traveler here.
The plan was to spend a week near Carmen’s family in Trece, to get re-acclimated and to reset out internal clocks twelve hours, then five days in Samar to meet the rest of the family in the old province, and then finally move into our rented condo apartment in Tagaytay for the remainder of our sojourn.
As it was we met Carmen’s immediate family the next day at the ubiquitous Jollibee, the iconic chain of restaurants featuring chicken and burgers and spaghetti. I was conscious of all the furtive glances carefully examining me. This trip was proving less culturally shocking to me this time yet still so fundamentally different to my own home existence. (You can read all about this in the first few chapters of The Tagaytay Tribune).
Thursday we flew to Tacloban and revisited the family home in Santa Rita, Samar. It was All Saints Day and this a serious holiday in the Philippines’ calendar. Everyone across The Philippines treks to their local cemetery to pay homage to their ancestors. For Carmen this was a chance to visit her mother’s grave in tiny dilapidated Santa Rita Cemetery, and a chance for me to show respect for her roots. And reflect on the dramatic difference between this place, so far from Ontario.
Five days later we returned to Manila and transferred everything to Wind Residences in Tagaytay. Our sojourn in Philippines was beginning in earnest. Carmen and I were going to play house and discover what it was like to live with the other, but this time in her environment, not mine, though, even that isn’t true since I had refused to live in her 50 sq. meter bunker bungalow in the dense concrete neighbourhood of Capital Hills, in Trece Martires.
Why Tagaytay you might ask? I did not want to live with Carmen in her tiny house in claustrophobic Capital Hills. I needed more space and more creature comforts. Carmen knew this was one of my concerns but out of mutual avoidance, we didn’t talk about that. Instead I argued for a bit of distance from her extensive family who lived in Capital Hills. I didn’t mind meeting all of Carmen’s extended family and neighbours, I just didn’t want to be immersed with them. I was also genuinely concerned about coping with the intense heat of tropical Philippines where temperatures are routinely 30o+. Carmen suggested the nearby town of Tagaytay, a 30 minute drive from Trece, and it’s a lot cooler there as it is about 2000 feet in elevation above the lower plains of Cavite. It’s a tourist town she said, everyone comes every weekend to view scenic Lake Taal and its volcano. That caused me momentary pause. Tagaytay is located on the caldera of a vast dormant volcano. Still, the government promoted Tagaytay since 1938; it must be safe. Only later did I discover Taal is still active and last blew its stop in 1968 and burped in 1991. A massive condo complex had been constructed on the ridge within the last ten years. Carmen was sure we could find an apartment to rent. Sounded good.
Living in touristy Tagaytay was, it seemed to me, like living in touristy Niagara Falls. There was constant traffic along the main drag overlooking the main attraction, in Tagaytay’s case, the Lake Taal Island volcano. Living on the 15th floor in a 24 story condominium apartment tower, one of five in a development complex, was wholly unlike anything else one might experience in the Philippines outside of Manila. Certainly it was far different from anything I had lived in before, or even contemplated living in, in Canada or anywhere else. And while this tiny two bedroom condo apartment unit was twice the size of Carmen’s house, it was still only a third the size, or less, of my 3-floor townhouse in Kanata. In fact, the whole apartment might have fit in the master bedroom with walk-in closet and ensuite bathroom. I must say when I actually stepped into our new abode my face fell with delight. I’m not sure what Carmen thought of the place, she was taciturn and studied my demeanour to see what she needed to do. I’m sure her feelings were mixed: this was an envious address for most Filipinos and she certainly was proud of that; it was also very different from her poor place in Trece. The view overlooking the town and the volcano was great, but the apartment was small, the windows rattled in the constant wind, the bathroom was basic, and it smelled! These are things that don’t come across on an online VRBO listing. Not a good start but we had to start somewhere. How would we survive this little flat for five months? As it turned out we didn’t have to, other tests were thrown our way.
So I had returned to Philippines to continue my search for meaning and a life partner. Carmen may not have had quite the same crisis of purpose but she knew she wanted to take charge of her life and live for herself. She wanted to find love and happiness, and not be alone. She had given enough to her family and now needed to give to herself. This sounded familiar to my mind. I think Carmen is far more resilient than I am – in the last twelve months she had seen huge changes in her life and lifestyle; because of me she has seen and done things she had never imagined. She has shown a lot of courage. She has not expressed regret.
And I have to say the same. In the two years of tumult and depression following Marlene’s death and Emily’s decision I had wrestled with the meaning and purpose of my life. I think one’s life purpose is only what you make of it. We were about to find out what to make of The Philippines.
I have often wondered, what would Marlene think if she could see me now? She and I would never have taken on this Philippines adventure together if she were still alive, though Marlene probably would have been thrilled with the idea. I doubt she would be resentful of me now, if you believe in that sort of thing.
And I have often wondered what Emily would think of my breakout from my past life; I hope it is regret.
The claim of MacArthur’s return is shared with other places in Philippines, but Leyte on October 20, 1944 was the first. He also landed on Mindoro Island on December 13. His landing in Lingayan Gulf January 9, on the Pacific side of Luzon, 3 months after Leyte, was the beginning of his return to Manila.
Did you know, there are two Jollibee restaurants in Winnipeg? And that is because Winnipeg is the Filipino capital of Canada!