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Returning to Manila


We were hideous.  It looked like we had just stepped off a battlefield. The stretch over the Pacific had worn us out.  We were groggy and crabby, but glad there would be no more layovers, cramped seating or nauseating airplane food.

My mom, a tiny middle-aged princess, was returning to her homeland for the first time in eleven years.  My lanky brother and I, his stockier counterpart, were anxiously waiting to discover our heritage.  Our friend Amy, a life-sized Cabbage Patch Kid with waist-length brown hair, just wanted a vacation.

Boring…depressing…lifeless.  As I surveyed the terminal, these words came to mind.  The walls were naked and could use a new coat of the tan color they were painted.  The ceiling was the same drab hue and the fluorescent lamps that hung from it needed brighter bulbs.

A musty smell lingered throughout the building.  It was like someone opened the attic door for the first time in several years.  I tried to ignore the stench, but it seemed to only get stronger as we progressed through the wide tunnel. 

After a few minutes, my mother pointed far in the distance to the baggage claim.  Nevertheless, before we could retrieve our luggage, we had to pass a roadblock: a handful of booths that spanned the width of the hallway.  Stemming from each booth were single-file lines containing dozens of people. My mom indicated that ours was on the far left.  We moved on.

Considering the abundance of people who were slowly shuffling through the lines, the place was eerily quiet.  A soft murmur would occasionally come from the crowd of zombies, nothing more.  This uncomfortable silence bothered me so much that I almost walked into the people in front of us.  We had reached the end of our line.

Immigration, the sign said in large red letters above the tan booth. 

Underneath, behind a thick sheet of glass, sat a middle-aged woman donning a navy-blue business suit.  She had short, graying black hair that curled behind her ears and was wearing large glasses that magnified her searing brown eyes.

“Give me your passports,” my mom said.

My brother, Amy, and I handed them to her and she proceeded to slip a $50 bill into each one, two hundred dollars in all.  I looked up at the brown-skinned woman in the booth and started to worry.

“What are you doing?” I exclaimed.

“Don’t worry,” my mom replied, “I know what I’m doing.”

Due to the lengthy immigration procedures, the woman in the booth was taking extremely long.  Moving at a sloth-like pace, she tediously processed every person that stepped up to her window.

My mom had not seen her family in a decade and after a nineteen hour flight, she couldn’t wait any longer.  Although I had never met the family that awaited us, I grew impatient as well.  Luckily, my mother knew a shortcut through the bureaucracy: American money. 

At the time, one U.S. dollar was equivalent to 50 Filipino pesos, which was a lot of money.  Considering that a beer only cost me 13 pesos (equivalent to 26 cents), 200 dollars was a good chunk of change.  A jackpot this big could cause a government employee to develop temporary amnesia to certain institutional procedures.  My mom knew this.  She was sure the woman would take the bait.

Although my mother was confident, I was not.  She assured me that she had done this before, but I didn’t care.  She could justify it all she wanted, but it did not seem right to me.  I was scared.

I looked ahead in line and noticed that there were only a few people in front of us.  The moment of truth lay just ahead.  My heart was racing and I could feel beads of sweat slowly dripping down the sides of my face.  But, I couldn’t tell if it was the poorly ventilated airport or the anxiety of my mom possibly being arrested for bribery that was making me sizzle.

As the minutes slowly passed, several questions popped into my head:  Is she going to take the money? What if she doesn’t?  Are we going to be locked up?  Taken to some back room? Would she keep our passports? How would we get back home?  How would Dad find out?  I didn’t just spend twenty hours in a plane to not get let in, did I?  

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the woman motioned for us to come forward.  My mom handed her the passports through the small opening above the counter.  First, she looked at my mother, briefly glanced through her passport, stamped it, and set it down.  Next, she looked at Amy’s passport.  Same result. Then, in a very intimidating manner, she looked at my brother and me. It felt like her eyes were burning holes through us.  This worried me.

Do we have stuff on our faces? Haven’t you seen Americans before?  What’s wrong?!

Suddenly, seeing the family I had never met in my 21 years wasn’t important anymore.  I wanted to go home.

With her eyes slowly scrolling up and down, the woman looked at my brother, Jay.  He clenched every muscle in his wiry frame.  Jay just stood like a statue and stared at the floor, as if he was hoping that the woman wouldn’t say anything.  Then, she turned to me.  I tried to look at her, but was too scared.  Her stare frightened me, so I looked at anything I could, just as long as it wasn’t her.  I took a deep breath and finally looked back at her.  She was about to open our passports.

“Oh great,” I thought to myself.

My mom, who could pass for the woman’s Americanized twin, moved closer and started conversing with the lady in Tagalog, the dialect most commonly used in the Manila region of the Philippines.  The woman remained expressionless as she looked at our passports.  This bothered me even more. 

Mom, move out of the way!  Did she take it?!  Are we in trouble?!  What’s going on?!

I couldn’t bear it.  My heart was beating so loud that I couldn’t even think.  Suddenly, I noticed that the woman was handing the passports back to my mom.

“C’mon guys,” my mom said smiling.

I let out a huge sigh of relief.  I could breathe again.  What seemed like forever had only taken a few seconds.

We picked up our backpacks and walked ahead.  Then, the lady said something to my mother as she looked at my brother and me.

“She says you guys are handsome,” my mom explained.

It turns out that the woman wasn’t looking at us suspiciously; she was simply “checking us out.”

I laughed and smiled back at her as Jay kept walking forward.  I quickly turned and was on my brother’s tail until we were on the other side of the booth.  My mother then handed back our passports.  They were stamped and all missing the fifty dollars she had slipped into them.  I shook my head.

A Day at the Mall

We had bodyguards.  Our personal protectors, Jerry, Mike and Raul, worked for the government’s police force.  In fact, Jerry was our balding, beanpole of an uncle who was hired by our mother to keep an eye on us.  Since we were from the United States, our mom felt that it was too dangerous for Jay and me to be alone in public.  She informed us that to many Filipinos, all Americans are believed to be rich.  And, since U.S. currency is valued extremely high, some people will do anything to get it.  Mom always warned us that we could get kidnapped, or even killed, if we weren’t careful.  Jerry, who insisted on watching us, felt the same way.

“People here…very bad,” he would remind me from time to time.

At first, it was irritating.  I didn’t like being followed.  After awhile, however, I started to enjoy having personal protectors.  It made me feel like someone extremely important.  It was as if I was the President of the United States and these men were there to take a bullet for me. 

The common formation whenever my brother and I went into public was Jerry in front, Mike at our side and Raul in the back.  Jerry’s emaciated body contrasted the frames of his plump partners.  Despite their laughable appearance, the three men walked with a swagger, a confidence that almost welcomed trouble.  Their arms slowly swung at their sides matching their lengthy strides.  It always seemed like they were walking in slow motion; they were tough guys. And they had every reason to feel this way.  Beneath their deceptive attire of short-sleeved shirts, blue jeans, and sandals were loaded guns. 

One day, Jerry and his friends came to visit my mom, brother, Amy and I at my aunt’s house in Tondo Village, a shantytown on the outskirts of Manila, which is the capital city.  They offered to take us to one of Manila’s shopping malls.  Feeling sick, my mother and Amy declined.  However, Jay and I were extremely bored and jumped at the opportunity to leave our aunt’s impoverished village.  Jerry said that it would be about an hour drive, but that didn’t matter to me.  I needed a little diversion from the slum in which we had lived for the week. 

When we reached our destination, I was shocked by its size.  The mall was huge.  This building made the Mall of America look like a convenience store-the hallways were endless.  Although this shopping center was very different from its American counterparts in size, the merchandise was disappointingly similar.  American stores and products filled the spacious hallways while trendy U.S. styles were evident in most of the shoppers’ outfits.  There was hardly any evidence of traditional Filipino culture.

As we walked through the halls, I could feel the heads turn as we passed each store.  Attempting to make eye contact with our Filipino onlookers brought forth a few different reactions.  Young girls would simply blush, look away or giggle amongst their friends.  Young males would either look away or grimace as if we were intruding on their territory.  Almost begging for a staring contest, older men and women wouldn’t take their eyes off of us.  It became very annoying.

Stop it!  What are you looking at?! Can’t a guy walk without being gawked at?  Sheesh!

Jay and I were on display and could not do anything about it.  Characteristic of Filipinos, we had dark hair and brown eyes.  However, our father’s American traits made us stand out. Not only were we lighter skinned, but also taller than most people.  At times, I felt like a five-foot, eight inch giant.  My brother, who was couple inches taller than me, really towered over people.  I was also a pseudo-celebrity, which only enhanced my appearance.  On several occasions, I was told that I looked a lot like a certain Filipino soap opera star.

“Who is that?  He looks just like Serio!,” girls told my mom throughout the week.

After walking around for a while, Jay and I grew hungry.  Jerry said he would take us to a food court upstairs and led the way.  We proceeded to an escalator and upon reaching the top, noticed a security guard at the entrance to the next wing of the building.  He looked the same as the other guards I had seen: white captain’s hat with a black brim; white, short-sleeved, button-down shirt; black pants; black boots; and a thick, black belt, which had a holster enclosing a pistol on one hip and a billy club hanging from the other.  Like the others, this man was strategically placed at a high traffic area in order to curb violence.  Manila had been the target of recent bombings and these guys were there to prevent terrorists from smuggling explosives or other weapons into the mall, a dangerously populated area. 

Jay and I had been to several parts of the mall and knew the drill by now.  We raised our hands high to let the guard frisk us.  After he patted us down, he motioned us through the entrance.

Jerry, Mike and Raul were very aware of the pistols tucked down their pants and didn’t want to make a scene.  Before they could be frisked, they quickly pulled out their wallets and flashed their badges.  And from underneath their collars they showed the guard their ID cards, which were hanging around their necks by a thin black cord.

“Manila Special Police Force,” the cards read.

Without hesitation, the guard waved the three men through.

Once our protectors got through the entrance, we realigned in our usual formation and were on our way to get some food. 

A week earlier, I would have never thought it would have been this difficult just to go to Burger King.

My Newfound Friends

It was about one o’clock in the morning.  Our plane was scheduled for takeoff at 8 am.  Exhausted from a long day spent in Manila, Jay and Amy were sound asleep inside my aunt’s house.  My mom and I were still awake.  She was talking to her sister in the kitchen and I was standing on the decaying cement road in front of the house.  Surrounding me, in a crescent-shape formation, were a half-dozen local men.  Their years ranged from early twenties to middle-aged.   The narrow streets were quiet and vacant-it seemed like we were the only ones on the planet.  Most of the lights inside the neighborhood’s makeshift shacks were turned off.  Luckily, we were standing underneath a well lit street lamp, enabling us to continue our conversations into the early morning.  Although the sun had long vanished, it was still hot and the air was so thick that you could almost take a bite out of it. Unlike my half-naked audience, I was the only one wearing a shirt and shoes.  It was as if I was a modern-dressed missionary speaking to natives wearing hand-me-down jeans and shorts.  

We had been in the middle of the street for a few hours, laughing and sipping San Miguel beer, the drink of choice among the men.  Throughout the night, the guys would take turns making beer runs to supply the group.   Only thirty feet behind them, stood a tiny stucco store, still open and making a killing on the beer it had been selling to us. The supply was endless, which was great because my newfound friends were having a good time.  They were intrigued with the “Americano” and took turns asking me questions.  I loved it.

For the first time in two weeks, I was comfortable.  My bodyguards weren’t around nor did I want them to be.  I felt like I fit in.  I didn’t want the night to end.

As the hours passed, I patiently answered the men’s questions as most of them struggled through their broken English, which was now partially slurred.  Suddenly, I was taken a bit off guard by one of them.  He was roughly my age and spoke English surprisingly well.

“Do you know Alicia Silverstone?” he said from out of nowhere.

“Yeah” I responded in a curious manner.

“Really!  She is my favorite actress!” he screamed.  “How tall is she?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“How often do you talk to her?” he asked.

I didn’t know what to say.  Apparently, he assumed that I must know Alicia Silverstone because I was from the United States.  I didn’t want to let him down so I just went along with it.

“I haven’t talked to her lately, but next time I do, I’ll tell her that you said ‘hi,’ I replied.  “What’s your name?”

“Elverto,” he answered.

“Okay, Elverto.  I’ll make sure to tell her,” I falsely promised him.

His face broke into the biggest smile I had ever seen.  For a moment, I thought he was going to rush over and hug me.

I grinned and sipped on my beer as he did the same.

“Ty, you should get some sleep,” my mom yelled from an open window.

“Yeah, I know,” I responded loudly.

I turned back to the group and noticed they were all looking at me.

“Another?” said one of the older men, pointing to his beer.

Considering what my mom had just said, I looked back at my aunt’s home.  Then, I turned back to him.

“Sure,” I replied and he handed me another dark brown bottle.

I could sleep on the plane.

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