Postcards from the Philippines

It’s been exactly one month since I got to the U.S. from the Philippines.

The first few days back almost negated the entire three weeks I was there with my family, in really confusing and frustrating ways. Jetlag and homesickness were daily themes, as my sisters and I tried to console and comfort each other. We looked at photos, relived memories. Each new detail we discovered about our trip brought us immense pain and also joy. We would laugh, and then cry. We made pacts, we changed our plans.

For us, there was only one thing that became prevalent: we needed to be back home as soon as we can, in Pampanga.

I started to think about all the photos I took — most on my phone, some on my Instax. I’m missing a lot of the photos too, and I pray to all the gods that they’re just hiding in bags or notebooks somewhere, not lost.

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Since this trip was our first back as a family after migrating to the U.S. in 2004, it was life-changing. We went to different places, famous landmarks, touristy areas and old spots we used to go to when my sisters and I were younger.

And as I always tend to do every time I feel vulnerable, I started thinking of folks who have stirred me with their words.

In Balucuc, close to my hometown Apalit, we had lunch in the middle of rice fields on a Sunday. I thought of Tomas Tranströmer’s book of poems Preludes.

 Two truths approach each other. One comes from the inside, the other from outside, and where they meet we have a chance to catch sight of ourselves.

— Tomas Tranströmer

I come from a family of farmers, on my father’s side. I remember some days when I’d come home from school with the front of our house turning into a makeshift rice-drying areas, with men raking in newly harvested rice, gently back and forth. I thought of my grandfather.

Our house too looked different. I thought of Teju Cole quoting Marcel Proust, in Known and Strange Things.

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Proust in a letter, “We think we no longer love the dead because we don’t remember them, but if by chance we come across an old glove we burst into tears.” Objects, sometimes more powerfully than faces, remind us of what was and no longer is.

-Teju Cole

Teju resonated with me so much, in so many different times. How funny that you can convey a feeling in several ways, whether that’s in Tagalog or German.

The German word for homesickness is “heimweh.” Legend has it that Swiss mercenaries from the fifteenth century onward, dispersed throughout Europe to fight foreign wars, were hardy soldiers susceptible to few weaknesses. But they missed home with a deranging intensity, longing for the high elecution of their cantons, their clear lakes, their protective peaks. This feeling they called, in their Swiss German, heimweh.

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J’ai besoin de beaucoup de tendress. (I need a great deal of tenderness)

I wrote in a journal, just as I remember Susan Sontag doing in As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh. I was with her when she said that “the ultimate fantasy is the recovery of the irrecoverable past.” Seeing my friends brought all the feelings, as well as a deep well of gratitude for these connections.

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In Baguio, my sisters and I thought of summer vacations when we would indulge in strawberries (the only time we could), go on a boat at the lake, look at our parents at a different light amidst the fog.

Secretly we are all looking for ways to continue our childhoods — the hurt, the pain, the love, the fear, the shame.

— Susan Sontag

img_4684In Boracay, I took photos for posterity more than anything else. Once again, lines from a favorite:

Photography is inescapably a memorial art. It selects, out of the flow of time, a moment to be preserved, with the moments before and after falling away like sheer cliffs.

–Teju Cole

And of course, if there’s one person I should quote when it comes to the art of traveling, it’s Alain de Botton.

A dominant impulse on encountering beauty is the desire to hold on to it: to possess it and give it weight in our lives. There is an urge to say, ‘I was here, I saw this and it mattered to me.’

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I’m still floating, at times dreamily, thinking of home. I guess I’ll never really be able to anchor myself where my feet are planted, because once you know where you’re supposed to be, you don’t stop until you get there.

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7 thoughts on “Postcards from the Philippines

  1. m S says:

    Pia,

    I’m trying to find the words to describe the feelings. Beautiful, heart-wrenching and familiar. Not that I think we are the same person or that we even know each other like that- but that I can so relate to this idea of home being far away. The idea that your roots/anchor are not physically where you are is something that resonates with me so deeply my heart hurts. I grew up in a suburb of Philly where the majority of the people had been there for generations and had no ties left to family in another state, let alone another country or continent. Thank you for writing and sharing your experiences. It gives me hope in a place that constantly tries to erase people like us.

    Best, Miki

    Liked by 1 person

    • Pia Cortez says:

      Miki, thank you so much for your thoughts. It’s been a constant theme in my life — not being anchored because of migration. When I came back from the Philippines I meditated so hard and chanted “You are where you’re supposed to be” to try to alleviate a grieving spirit. It worked for a little while, but ultimately, you can’t really make the longing go away. Sending you love, as always. And hope, lots of it, as we navigate difficult terrains on our way home.

      Like

  2. RJLozada (@RJLozada) says:

    Hi Pia —

    First time reader, first time posting. What heartfelt writing made deeper and more complex by your citations. Your post presents some haunting (albeit of a more positive kind) analogues, parallels to some of my experiences on the road. I took my first solo road trip across the U.S. at the tender age of 35, in the summer of 2015…allegedly a belated effort, as experiencing the American road is a rite of passage, encouraged during youth where recklessness and passion is high. I digress. Rather than seeking out the obvious monuments, and historical sites, I went and sought out sites of recent death, primarily of people of color, at the hands of law enforcement, particularly those in 2014. Too many to name, too many to visit in a little over two months. The experience drained me, obviously–and I could never find the words at the time to eulogize, I could only find and document the sights, tones, sounds… Returning home with a volume of footage and an incredibly heavy heart, I wanted words, I needed words, and much like yourself, found them through Cole and Sontag. It’ll be two years in June from the time I started that trip…and I still have pages and pages of reflections, citations, hours and hours of footage. I’m forcing myself to stop, because I feel like there’s some visible terminus…and it’s maddening to keep these visions under lock and key. Part of hiding a lot of them from public eye is the reality that all of these expressions and mediums that I’m using are terribly inadequate, a let down of sorts. I confess though, I’m starting to conclude that that’s the way it is…that it’s always about reaching for, grasping at, everything, nothing. Many thanks for writing and sharing, it’s a validating experience to have another artist eternally seeking, whether in dread, or in absolute faith, and joy…it’s helpful to know there are others around.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Pia Cortez says:

      RJ,

      Thank you so much for reading, sharing and for passing by my blog. There’s so much more that I haven’t been able to write in this post, so much more that I’ve yet to acknowledge because there’s still a huge part of me working through my grief. I’m elated that you’ve found solace with Cole and Sontag’s words/work as much as I have; they seem to have a better grasp of the right words to convey my emotions.

      I just finished reading Carlos Bulosan’s “America is in the Heart” last night, a book that almost all Fil-Am activists I know have read in their younger years, a contextual foundation of their activism. Reading it brought a lot of memories back from my last trip in the Philippines in 2014 wherein I got to meet and integrate with farmers/farmworkers in Southern Luzon, the urban poor in Manila and factory workers in export-processing zones.

      Much like you, I still haven’t been able to write about that experience — even though I have a stack of poems + photos that I’ve been holding on to for awhile. I feel like I won’t be able to present all that material in a way that’ll give my subjects the attention and justice they deserve, and for that I’m terrified.

      I think I read Bulosan at the right time, inspired by his incredible will to tell the truth. And I think that right now, we both have the privilege of sharing what we’ve experienced, of imparting what we’ve recorded and seen, of telling different kinds of truths. And it can be nothing, or everything. The unfinished beautiful, however it may look like.

      Like

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