By: Amy Tse
My homestay father is Mario Ronzales, along with his thirteen year old daughter, Angel. As Lala ushered my roommate and me into Mario’s house, she said with a heavy heart how Mario’s wife passed away due to a pumpboat accident. Even before I met Mario, I already felt a sense of sadness for it must be hard to lose a loved one to the unforgiving waters of the Iloilo Strait. But the faces that greeted me inside the house shocked me. Mario’s face was covered in wrinkles but one could tell it was more a result of excessive smiling than old age. On the other hand, Angel’s whole face lit up and her eyes shrunk into beaming lines whenever she smiled. It’s been a couple days already, and I’ve begun to view them as family, their house as home, and them as a reason for me to come back to Guimaras one day.
In my entire life, I’ve never lived in a place as safe, as close-knitted, and as genuinely kind as Guimaras – and these facts were easily observed during my first few days exploring the island. As Lala took us hiking or as I had my very first dinner in Guimaras at the family eatery Mario helped out at, it seemed that everyone I was introduced to were either siblings, first cousins, or second cousins. But other than being related by blood, people here are generally very helpful and never hesitate to offer a helping hand. When talking about Guimaras, all the locals proudly exclaims, “Guimaras very safe, Guimaras no crime, very nice”. At first I was dubious, for what kind of society operating in a capitalist system would be completely safe from robbery or fraud? But after a few days, I was completely convinced – doors are never locked and windows never closed here in Guimaras Island.
It’s only been a few days and I’ve made friends already. Talking to Mario’s relatives while I have dinner every night at the family eatery has become a comfortable routine I look forward to everyday. And after I’m done eating, I would play with the adorable little girl while talking to them about Philippines, Hong Kong, and life. When asked about Iloilo, the answer is almost always the same, something along the lines of “Iloilo has too many crimes, not good, Guimaras better”. After my first visit to Iloilo City, the glaring juxtaposition stood out to me. The hustle and bustle of Iloilo City was painfully juxtaposed to the laid-back rhythm of Guimaras Island. The black fumes of jeepneys and the urban sound of car horns shot into my ear and startled me after my few days on Guimaras Island living in tandem with nature. Almost everytime I ask the question ‘would you want to live in Iloilo or in Manila’, I always get the same reply, “no, too busy, too much crime, I like Guimaras”. But for some reason, the same cannot be said with their attitude towards Hong Kong. Mario’s cousin, a full-grown man I’m guessing is in his 30s, mentioned to me how it is his dream to visit Disneyland in Hong Kong someday. JM, a friend I made while staring at the sunset at the wharf (shoutout to my man JM!!!), also asked me questions about Hong Kong, through which I sensed his high regard of Hong Kong as a beautiful, international city. And to both I replied, “come, come to Hong Kong, and I’ll show my home as you have shown me yours.”
The other day, Kaitlyn stayed over with me in Mario’s house because she missed her ride back to San Lorenzo. The next day she had to get to her business, Neptune Pittman’s Spa & Resort, and so in an attempt to help out my homestay, I suggested we asked Mario to take us there, as he was a tricycle driver. With Mario at the steering wheel, Angel by his side, and Kaitlyn and I jammed in the back, we made our way under the clear blue sky towards Buenavista. But when we pulled up to Pittman’s, I suddenly felt uneasy. I realized that even within the close-knit society of Guimaras, there were gaps between those that were better off economically, those that got by okay, and those that struggled to put food on the table. Prior to arriving at Pittman’s, I never thought much about Mario’s family, because compared to his neighbors in Jordan, he seemed to do okay. But seeing him and Angel stare in curiosity and bewilderment at the nicely decorated and furnished place that was the Pittman resort, I suddenly felt ashamed – ashamed because I was so inconsiderate. I started to think whether Mario and Angel would judge me because I was more at ease in the resort than in their home, and that even though this was supposed to be an immersive experience, I was travelling across the island to check out a resort. I sincerely wanted to tell them that those weren’t the truth, and that I sincerely treasure my time living with them. But as I searched their faces for a hint of judgment, I found nothing but genuine curiosity as their eyes took in the nuances of the resort. That’s when I knew that Mario and Angel were completely comfortable in their lifestyle; and that even though sometimes life got rough, they never gave up on hope, kindness, and humbleness.
Mario and Angel headed back to Jordan while I stayed at Pittman’s for a few hours. In the afternoon when it came time for me to go home, I sent Mario a text asking him to come pick me up, as he instructed. I sent the text not knowing whether he would receive it or whether he would even bother to come pick me up. In the few seconds after I sent the text, just as I was pondering how the heck I was supposed to find my way back to Jordan from Buenavista, I got a reply: “Ok I’ll be there”.