Keith and I just spent three weeks in Southeast Asia; during that time we were in Manila, Hanoi, Halong Bay, Siem Reap, Boracay and Hong Kong. It was a lot of fun, but man — that’s a lot of stops to make when you’re something like fifteen time zones away from home, especially when you squeeze in additional Manila breaks between Siem Reap and Boracay, and then again Boracay and Hong Kong. Even though we went to some pretty awesome places, the highlight of the trip — for me, anyway — was staying at my grandmother’s house.
The last time I was at my grandmother’s was five years ago, but before that it had been ten. We used to visit with far more frequency, but traveling 8500+ miles gets more difficult when there are things like jobs and vacation time to consider.
My grandmother lives in the Makati portion of Manila, in a neighborhood called Bel-Air; she’s lived in the same house my whole life, on Solar Street. I always thought that bit was particularly cool, not only as it’s alliterative but especially as other streets in the neighborhood have names like Galaxy, Jupiter, Aquarius, Asteroid, Polaris… Filipinos love a theme.
There’s something so pleasing about going back to a place from your childhood and finding it to be as you had last left it. Of course there have been changes, the most notably the fact that my grandfather wasn’t there — he died in 2008 — but I was still so surprised and comforted that so much of it was the same. Much of that feeling was because the entire upstairs of the house is literally as I remember it; my grandmother is quite fit, even at 83, but she has little reason to go to the second floor and lives almost exclusively on the ground level. Still, the bedrooms I’d slept in as a child have the same décor as they did in the eighties; the same mini-fridge full of mango juice stands at the top of the stairs; the glass case on the landing still houses my grandmother’s playing card collection (from when airlines used to give out decks as part of the in-flight entertainment).
When I used to travel to the Philippines as a kid, I’d arrive during summer vacation in August or July. Those are the months of the American summer; in the Philippines, the season runs from mid-March through May, so my many cousins (there are almost thirty of us) were in school during the week. The house in Bel-Air would be filled with family on Saturdays and Sundays. The aunts and uncles — my titas and titos — would arrive, with my cousins and their yayas in tow. Food would have been laid out on the long credenza in the dining room, fresh mangoes sliced onto platters, drinks lined up next to the bar sink… all waiting to be consumed.
My favorites were, and are, calamares cooked in their own ink. And pan de sal, always pan de sal, with or without butter.
The eating takes all day, and when we show signs of slowing, the meriendas comes out. In another word: snacks. Snacks like peanuts boiled in their shells, sapin-sapin (sticky rice and coconut cake), ensaymadas (sweet rolls covered in grated cheese and granulated sugar), hopia (mung bean cakes) and chicharróns.
Merienda time is also mahjong time, when four of my aunts settle a card table in the air conditioning, lining up the tiles and engaging in a genteel form of trash talking over the swish and click of tiles sliding across the table and colliding into one another. The game lasts all day, often into the night. The aunts and grandmothers take turns at the table while the grandkids run a lopsided triangular loop from the TV to the park across the street to the meriendas and the husbands sit in the dining room with newspapers and coffee.
Not much has changed, except the kids that now watch a sleek flatscreen TV are my cousins’ children, the great-grandchildren, and the husbands now tap iPads alongside their sons instead of flapping newspaper pages alone. The meals may vary from week to week depending on moods and trends in food, but the essence is still the same. Sunday is still the busiest day of the seven. I may not know what I’ll be up to in a few days, but I can definitely tell you what’s going on half a world away. And if we were there, I know I’d be sitting on the sofa underneath the 3-D TV, iPad in hand, while Keith and my aunts swirl the mahjong tiles in the middle of the table, making the little ivory tablets swish and click, swish and click. I can hear it in my head from here, a little whisper of what was, what is, what will be.