Before I traveled to the Philippines during the summer of 2016, I asked my mother for some advice. The island country in Southeast Asia is her homeland: the place where she took her first steps and said her first words. My mother moved to the United States for graduate school and stayed for better job opportunities.
I visited the Philippines when I was younger, maybe four or five years old, but didn’t return because of my parents’ divorce and the ensuing drama. I always felt a connection to the Philippines, as my ancestral home, a place where I could trace back my personal history. My American friends didn’t have this luxury, knowing that they were from Germany or Italy, but lost that link after centuries of assimilation.
My mother had told me that the Philippines had some of the ugliest places in the world, but some of the most beautiful sights to ever be seen.
But I saw the ugliest first. The slums, which could been seen right outside of the airport, underneath the highways, looked like the remnants of a nuclear apocalypse. My eyes were used to seeing pristine lawns, sparkling green and cut precisely at the same length where trash would dare not touch.
Yet garbages covered every inch of the ground here, eye catching in the color of the abandoned soda bottle labels and plastic bags from supermarkets. Shacks were barely passing as houses, tarps pretended to be roofs, and discarded car doors acting as walls. The mildest of winds could knock them down without much effort. This kind of poverty didn’t feel real, like the contrived kind you could find in a wartime movie or a late night television commercial.
I was immediately overwhelmed by sadness, the tears forming in my eyes and rolling down my cheeks before I knew it. When my cousin asked why I was crying, I could barely speak. She had never stepped foot in the United States, living in Manila for her whole life. She couldn’t understand that life could be so much better.
Once the sadness passed, guilt overcame me. Anything I complained about seemed beyond vain. So what if I had to pay fifty dollars for a speeding ticket? Or if I have to drop a hundred dollars to fix the crack in my phone? These problems, although legitimate in their own way, had simple answers. I would make the money back in no time.
After three weeks of living in the city and seeing the ugliest in every corner, my tito took me to the Philippine mountains so we could spend some time with my lolo and lola. We drove along unpaved roads and along the sides of highways without safety rails. He appeased my anxiety by telling me stories about my mother’s misadventures when she was my age.
We had been driving for three hours straight when he stopped the car near a sari-sari store. I thought he wanted to buy some Sugo peanuts to settle an empty stomach.
“You should see this talaga,” He pointed towards the mountain range.
My tito began explaining the history of the Banaue Rice Terraces, a geological phenomenon that almost seemed too beautiful to be real. Even the pouring rain couldn’t ruin the view. The grass surrounding the sloped planes looked greener than any suburban lawn in America. These massive steps, belonging to a stairway to heaven, could have belonged in the pages of a fantasy novel.
This moment proved that my mother was right. She must have looked upon the terraces and felt my same wonder. I wanted to stare forever, to imprint the images in my mind and replaces the slums.
Yet I knew I couldn’t do this. Both images of the Philippines were true. Ignoring one for the other would be lying. And I really needed to be honest with the place that I considered to be my second home.