There is a reason the Philippine airport terminal was named “Worst Airport Terminal” in 2014.
I am waiting in line at a baggage carousel, after 30 minutes of trying to nab myself a luggage trolley. There’s another batch coming in through the doors now, and I spy a young woman, mid-20s, long black hair, puffed eyes, short stature, bracing herself for the push and shove she knows will come (exactly like me, 30 minutes ago.) The first trolley she grabs slips from her hands. No matter, she clutches a second one and succeeds.
It was horribly entertaining watching everyone at the airport. Like a real-life version of the Hunger Games, except instead of shiny weapons, they were grasping tarnished, silver trolleys and instead of fighting for their lives, they were saving themselves from the pains of lugging around heavy suitcases. Humanity, ladies & gents.
Thirty minutes later, my two suitcases finally come out of hiding. I leave the very crowded baggage claim area, only to find an even more crowded waiting area. By crowded, I mean the tuna-packed, shoulders-almost-touching, I-can-hardly-walk-I-can-only-wiggle kind. I shouldn’t be surprised – it’s the pinnacle of homecoming for the Christmas season. Nothing like a Filipino airport at the height of Christmas.
There is a glass wall, which separates the fetchers. I spot many characters, fighting to get a peek of the passengers coming out. An eager parent seeing their kids after a semester’s worth of studying abroad. An excited wife reuniting with her husband working overseas. Hordes of relatives, both close and distant, welcoming a balikbayan (literally means return-country) who’s come home to discover their roots.
There is a sweet and unparalleled sense of family in Filipinos that I can find nowhere else. I cannot wait to see my own family.
I don’t recognize any of the heads peeking out, so I attempt to enter the crowd. I squeeze myself through the thicket of bodies and find a spacious enough spot that I momentarily occupy.
It takes a while for me to find the people who are picking me up until--“Sally!,” I scream with relief as I approach my dad’s assistant. It’s probably a bad idea that I leave my luggage unguarded but I quickly approach and hug her anyway. “It’s a good thing I found you. Crazy, so many people. Oh yeah, Merry Christmas!,” she says. Her greeting makes it real—wow, I’m finally back home again, and it’s almost Christmas! She reminds me why I love coming home during this season. There’s nothing quite like that Filipino Christmas spirit. I eagerly walk over to the parking area outside.
I drop my stuff in the trunk of the car and we make our way home. Salvation from the crowd lingers for a hot moment, until we enter a sea of perpetually red brake lights that tell me it is going to be a long night. This excruciating traffic will turn out what should be a 20min ride to at least an hour long one back to our house. Home sweet home.
As we drive, I open my window for a quick moment. It is unusually cold this night, with the light December breeze caressing my cheeks. The air I breathe is surprisingly fresh, a nice break from the usual stench of freshly polluted air from smoke belchers and unclean canal waters. I hear the melody of cars honking and jeepneys roaring and wails of Filipino words I miss hearing.
Along the roadside are dark cable wires that tangle around posts and run across the road, like hanging flag decorations at a fiesta. The almost midnight darkness is no match against the brightly lit advertisement boards that feature either whitening lotions and face creams or mestiza looking women as models for a consumer product. The only things towering these boards are the massive condominium, apartment & office buildings that form clusters around the metro. Some buildings are showcasing colorful light displays, some a little bit too tacky, but, hey, all in the spirit of Christmas.
The Manila outside environment isn’t the most conducive for nightly strolls—there is hardly anyone outdoors, save for the street kids at the traffic intersections carrying plastic cups to hold their day’s worth of coins. I think about how so many people wish they can go to another country because there are “more opportunities elsewhere.” I observe the kid dressed in thin & dirty clothes, knocking at the door of a car, and wish I could do something more than offer him a mere set of coins. I wonder how I will harness my experiences abroad and take advantage of the, what I believe, plentiful more opportunities for change back home.
After a long drive, we finally arrive at the familiar light grey-walled, brown-windowed house, now slightly ornamented with yellow Christmas lights. I enter our white-tiled house and quickly notice little changes. The flooring was fixed. A table was moved. The big, fat bottle of Bacardi 151 is now empty.
I knock at my parents’ door, open it and see my family all clustered around the television watching this week’s episode of Modern Family, one of our favorites. Their faces light up when they see me and their eyes scan my body, probably taking note of how much weight I’ve gained. I observe them back. My brother’s now bald, my little sister’s much taller, my father’s hair is whiter, my mother’s gotten thinner. I hug each one as tight as I can. My more muscular brother beats me and squeezes me in his arms, until I am slightly out of breath.
There are so many stories to share, so many things to catch up on, though I notice their eyes straining to stay awake. I know I need to keep myself occupied throughout the night as the lonesome jetlagged soul. That’s ok. I’m comforted knowing my next days will be spent in my favorite place with my favorite people. Despite the terminals that need improving, traffic that needs fixing and systems that need developing, this is where I choose to be.
There is no place like home.