"Balikbayan" - loosely translated, means to return home. In my youth, I could always remember my Mom and Dad filling up balikbayan boxes and sending them "home" to the Philippines. The boxes would contain cans of spam, corned beef, chocolates, toiletry items, and our old / outgrown clothing. Little did I realize that the contents of these balikbayan boxes would have a profound effect on me. I remember quite vividly a visit to the homeland when I was 13, over thirty five years ago!
It was 1983, I was 12 years old and we took a trip to the Philippines. Since I was used to the mild, sunny temperature of San Diego, the climate of the Philippines shocked my physical senses as soon as I stepped off the airplane. The humidity and heat were overwhelming. Within seconds, I was drenched in my own perspiration. After such a long journey (15 hours or more), I longed to take a refreshing shower but would have to wait as the trip to my grandmother's house entailed another hour of riding in a taxi and little did I know there would be no running water in the restroom.
In the taxi, my thoughts quickly transferred from wanting to shower to being in awe of the mountain-high block-wide amount of trash that people were scavenging through to find I don't know what, scraps to salvage or recyclables, or even food. I could not stop watching the old and the young in bare feet picking through four-story-high hills of trash! A feeling of shame then set on me. These people were trying to survive by sorting through garbage! I thought to myself, what a privileged life I have been living. I was quiet the rest of the journey as I processed what I just witnessed.
When the taxi finally turned down my mom's hometown street, children mobbed the car! We could barely inch through the crowd. Faces were smashed against the window looking in. I was a bit fearful to even get out. I didn't know if I would be safe. The children were dressed in thread-bare shirts or tank tops, shorts, and flip flops or with nothing on their feet. I was hesitant to open the door. I wondered if they were going to start touching me. They seemed so fascinated with us, the people from the "States."
It was then I experienced another jolt of the day. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a lime green track suit pants with yellow stripes running down the side pant legs. Wait a minute....that looked awfully familiar. It then hit me that this boy, who was a relative that I hadn't met yet, was wearing MY old pants from two years ago. I loved that track suit! Yes, it no longer fit me, but I had wondered what happened to it! Here it was across the world. I never gave a second thought as to what went into those boxes my mom and dad carefully packed. Now I knew.
Since it was so hot, we slept with all the windows open. I wasn't yet adjusted to the time zone change so the next morning I was the last to wake up in my room. When I opened my eyes, I immediately noticed kids squatting on the tin roof next door just watching me through the windows until I woke up.
I was spooked and ran downstairs to find my mom, ducking my head on the wooden stairs as I almost ran smack dab into a 2-inch long flying cockroach! Eww!
What else do I remember from that trip? I used a bucket with a long handle for the water (tabo) to give myself a bath. I stood in front of a fan to dry my hair. I poured talcum powder all over myself to keep my skin as dry as possible. I was bit from my eyelids to toes by mosquitoes who loved my sweet blood. I also flinched at least a half dozen times a day when a lizard would pop out of nowhere and scramble across the wall or ceiling.
I remember going shopping and being embarrassed that I was a size extra large in clothing compared to my relatives. And when we ate a hamburger at Jollibee's, I wanted at least two more, because they were smaller than my hand! Look at how actor Josh Garcia can probably finish his burger in two bites!
I also remember the hospitality of all we encountered who opened their doors when we visited and offered us plenty to eat and wanted to show us around. I also remember the grandeur of the local cathedral when we attended mass.
I remember seeing students in their white and blue school uniforms walking to class and wondered what their school day was like. I remember the sari-sari stores on the neighborhood streets and buying a piece of candy or something to drink. I remember drinking soda from a plastic bag from a straw.
I remember women and girls holding handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths as they stood on the sidelines trying to hail a ride. I remember riding a crowded Jeepney and being jockeyed up and down as it drove over the pot-holed streets.
Mostly I remember how that trip humbled me. It changed me. My relatives didn't nearly have the amenities and luxuries I had but they didn't need these materials things to be joyful. Laughter and smiles were plentiful!
I understood fully for the first time that it really was the simple things in life that mattered. I learned how to be appreciative and how to be grateful for what I had. I understood what humility meant. I came back with a total paradigm shift of what was important to me. On that trip, all of those life lessons learned were packed in a balikbayan box and now are held in my heart and mind since.
Been on a life-changing trip? Please leave a comment here!