Cavite is a peninsula across the southern Manila Bay. Cavite City (only a town really) on that peninsula has a rich place in Philippines history. Cavite is also a province with a number of other towns closely linked – it’s hard to tell when you have left one town and entered the next. It’s also Carmen’s home the last 19 years. Trece Martires actually, just another town in this dense province. Her neighbourhood, Capital Hills, is home to her friends and her sister’s house, two of her grown children and the community church. I was warned before I arrived in Manila that Carmen really wanted to be home in Cavite to attend the Church Christmas Party. I had no problem with that as I figured I may as well meet her sister and then the extended family. I knew I would be on display.
The drive from the the Discovery Hotel in Pasig District Manila to Cavite proved to be a real eye-opener to this Canadian foreigner. 30 minutes on the map proved to be 2 hours by taxi; Metro Manila never seemed to end, except for a 2 km stretch of mixed housing, garages, pastures, the odd cow and some rice paddies; the humanity was ever-present. Congestion and culture shock caused this passenger to become uncharacteristically quiet. Carmen must have picked up my vibe as she held my hand tighter and stopped her chatter, except to give the driver instructions in Tagalog. I had to confess to myself I was completely lost and disoriented; I had to put my trust in this woman and our driver. Is this how kidnapping and ransom demands happen in this part of the world?
We drew nearer to our destination, evidently, as Carmen instructed the driver to drive though the drive-in window of the local Jolly Bee Fried Chicken Outlet. She wanted to pick up six buckets of chicken as her contribution to the Christmas lunch. Out came Doug’s Visa card once more. I smiled to myself; I enjoyed the casual way Carmen assumed I would cheerfully finance the feast. And she was right. But it was cash only, so I had to get the driver to stop by an ATM to get more cash.
We arrived at the church, though too late for the actual service. And I was faced with yet another surprise. I knew this was not going to be a Catholic cathedral, as I had imagined back in Canada; Carmen’s church was a born-again Christian congregation. But a church is not defined by soaring spires and flying buttresses. This church was little more than a long and narrow warehouse squeazed in between the continuous row of small residences. Carmen took me by the hand and led me into the entrance, and into the hall. The MC of the event may have stumbled a bit at my arrival; certainly all eyes were on me, the adults discretely, the kids wide-eyed. Carmen introduced me to her sister, Trefela, and brother-in-law, Rogelio, who evidently was revered in this congregation as he was the retired pastor. Rogelio had the honour of pulling names out of a hat to announce the winner of the next Christmas package for one of the kids. Rogelio beckoned me to sit beside him but as I had been sitting in the back of a cab the last two hours I preferred to stand. This afforded me a better chance to survey the room, and all the eyes watching me.
One young lady kept looking my way and she certainly kept catching my eye. It occurred to me she looked like a young Carmen. I asked Carmen about her and sure enough she was a great niece, 17 years old. I couldn’t help wondering what might have been happening in Carmen’s life when she was merely 17, and what was yet to happen to this young reincarnation. At a suitable point I spoke to the pastor, a woman of 22, and invited her to come out in the street for a private conference. Carmen looked at me quizzically but left me alone with the pastor. I asked Adette about her flock and how she got to be the pastor. She was a recent graduate with a Master of Divinity following a Bachelor in English Literature, recruited to replace Regelio. She was impressed by my card: Doug Jordan, Publisher, AFS Publishing, and the list of my books on the back. She said she was a total book worm and wanted to read my books. I knew she probably couldn’t afford them so I asked about her mailing address and resolved to send her copies direct from lulu.com.
But my real mission was to find out more about Carmen’s young niece, KC. I didn’t want to appear like a elitist foreigner come to save the local Filipino, but in fact that was how I was feeling: was there some way I might be able to affect this young woman’s future in a suitable way. I asked Pastor Adette if she knew Kaycee well, what sort of student was she, what was her character? If she thought it worthwhile, I wanted to send Adette money to assist Kaycee, but keep it anonymous. Adette promised to get back to me.
Gifts all distributed and the feast of fried chicken, and roasted piglet, and lots of rice consumed, the happy crowd began to disperse. Trefela and Rogelio lived just two doors down from the church. The extended family all seemed to be there and try as I might I couldn’t sort out who was related to whom – which of these people were Kaycee’s parents? (as it turned out, neither was there, her parents were separated, father in Manila, her mother with a new boyfriend.) After a bit Carmen lead me down a lane and around the block and shortly we arrived at her house. Her neighbours and friends all waved at her, and no doubt examined me closely. Carmen’s house was a small story-and-a-half with an open outdoor kitchen to one side, her cat and some chickens darting amongst laundry pails. We stepped inside and toured the downstairs rooms; Carmen didn’t invite me to her own bedroom. It was dark upstairs and I soon discovered Carmen did not have any power as she had been disconnected by the local utility. This explained why she spent the nights at her sister’s house. The financial desperation Carmen faced was now taking on a much more dramatic spectre, and the contrast to the glamorous woman who emerged each day from that gigantic bag in the hotel was stark.
Soon her sons JayR and Jule arrived to drive us back to Pasig. But first they harvested fresh mango from a large tree growing up through the porch. The mango were still a bit green but they were refreshing in the oppressive heat of the mid-afternoon.
We made the three hours drive back to the city; traffic was even crazier as we reached the city and then finally to our hotel. Unnerving to see five lanes of traffic trying to squeeze into three lanes of road, and the nausea from the constant lane changing, and the motorcycles darting between lanes, and the sea of Jeepneys, and motorized tricycles. It was enough to give an organized mind (mine) serious discomfort. Amazingly, I never saw an accident and rare was the vehicle with evident damage. I wondered how they were able to maintain the brakes on these vehicles.
Happy and relieved were we to be back at the hotel. We showered and dressed for dinner – neither of us wanted to face any more traffic that evening and were grateful for the wonderful steakhouse on the 22ndfloor of the hotel again.