By Jee Soo
By the time I arrived at the homestay, I was the most tired and filthy I have been in a long while. The steep, partially unpaved hill was almost insurmountable with my 20kg luggage and huge backpack in addition to a tent-mosquito net. To say I was muddy was an understatement; I left a trail of crumbling dirt inside the house as Neneng led me in to show me my room.
View from the hill leading to Tubod Mar
Neneng’s house consists of 4 buildings: Neneng’s place where her daughter Reannie and her son Sean-Ryan lives with her; Neneng’s sister Rebecca’s place; Neneng’s sister Estella’s place where Neneng’s father Pergentino (We call him Tatay, meaning grandpa), her daughters Pauline and Elaine, also reside. The three buildings surround a bamboo hut on three sides. Christina and I are staying in one of the two rooms in Neneng’s building.
Soon after dropping my bags in the room, I was invited to the welcoming dinner on the first floor of the bamboo hut. Neneng’s 17-year-old daughter Reannie prepared for us Filipino dishes with chicken and pork. Unlike the Korean tradition in which the elders eat first, Neneng’s family insisted that the guests eat first according to the Filipino tradition.
The food was great. The people were friendly. The hut was scenic. But the best of it was the feeling of home. Back in Seoul, I rarely meet my cousins and relatives – perhaps once or twice a year on big holidays, more often if someone is getting married. And when we do meet, there isn’t much to be said: major news – someone is going to college, someone is getting married, someone is graduating – are shared, we congratulate each other, and move on. Things are rarely followed up until the next holiday.
The family dinner at Neneng’s was different though. Reannie’s hobbies and achievements as a singer, artist, and student were known to everyone. Pauline and Elaine’s poem recital routine was performed so often that Estella and Rebecca knew it by heart. The kids called Estella mama because she looks after them like they are her own children. Life stories of Tatay were told – how he started carpentry at 12 because his family could not send him to school, how he helped finance his siblings’ education, how he still loves to learn, how the really important things lie beyond the textbook. After two nights of food and stories and smiles and connection, I feel as if I have known them for years.
Neneng and Reannie in their living room
Another pleasant surprise was the little cat that sleeps on the wooden shelf in the bathroom. I thought she was Reannie’s, but it turns out that the cat is her neighbor’s instead. The mysterious kitty sneaks in occasionally and roams around the house prying for food. This morning, after a long night’s sleep that outlasted everyone else’s, I found the kitty following me around for some prospects for food. She walked between my legs, rubbing herself on me, making cute growls until I gave her a small piece of bread from my plate.
I was warned beforehand that the lifecycle here is very different from back home. “The day starts with the sunrise, and ends with the sunset,” is what I heard. The warning was not misguided. At 5:30 in the morning, the roosters crow in their unmistakable volume. The crickets compete with the roosters in boisterousness. The people are awakened and start moving around. The wind effectively shakes the roof and wall to give the sensation that someone is knocking on the door. And with such an early start, every day is a long, long day. I woke up at 6:40am on the first morning (exceptionally early for my usual routine), but I felt like a lazy, spoiled child waking up later than everyone else in the family.
I have 22 days left in Tubod Mar, and I am genuinely looking forward to my time here with Neneng and her family. I sure miss the conveniences of city life. I wish I had air conditioning, a functioning refrigerator and a proper shower head with warm water. A flushing toilet sounds remarkable. I want to walk into a Starbucks for a morning coffee and stream Youtube anywhere I go. But so far, in this house with bare minimums, I am finding myself a home.
Update (August 8, 2016): I have made a mistake on the relationship of the host family members, and have revised the content accordingly.
Also, Rebecca’s husband Lito came home for a few weeks, taking a break from his work in Cebu. On his birthday, we went to a nearby beach for barbecue, boating, and night swim. The water was so clear that every detail of the coral reef and the myriad of species they house could be observed from above the water. The bioluminescence sparkling in the dark night sea is also something I will never forget.
On Lito’s birthday. From the left: Christina, Samuel, Rebecca, Lito, Kasper, Jake, and me
One more important development with the host family is that I am planning to record Reannie’s performance and create a Youtube channel for the videos. She has a beautiful voice and won numerous regional tournaments. Unfortunately, she had not been able to access recording devices, and although my devices are far from professional caliber, it will at least be something her family can cherish as a great memory.