By Zoya Zaheer
When Rea first took me to our house and made me meet my host family, I was terrified. I had never lived in such conditions and even though I was expecting it but initially I thought that I would not survive here for more than 2-3 days. All my fear was replaced really quickly by excitement when my mom Nenneng asked me if I wanted to accompany them to the beach to celebrate their father’s birthday. Between the family dinner and swimming with the local kids under a bright starry sky, I had already forgotten about the luxuries of life we were missing out on.
The next few days were very harsh. I tried to live life like I did in Hong Kong. I woke up pretty late and spent most of my time drinking with my friends at Elmar’s. Soon I started feeling that life is very slow in Philippines and there was nothing to do once the sun went down. I had a curfew of 10 pm which I was not at all used to and we had to be home before 6 everyday as there was no transport available at night. I was surrounded with so many kinds of animals and initially hated all of them. I could not process how a person could take a shower with a few goats, dogs, roosters, chickens, cats, cows and a gazillion insects. I was scared to even get out of the house alone and a few little kids accompanied me everywhere I went. So not knowing how to spend my time every day or how to deal with the circumstances I started living life like my family did.
The next morning I woke up early and spent time in the morning weaving with Rea and some of the neighbors. One of our neighbors Rebecca has a stereo in her house which blasted out with local Filipino music. Everybody was very excited to have an unfamiliar face around and was very curious to know about my culture. I was equally curious to get to know them. They cut a fresh coconut for me out of a tree and plucked some pink guavas for me. Seeing my excitement a neighbor helped me climb a tree to pluck some Santol which was a fruit that I had never tasted before. Then a fisherman friend of mine got us some fresh fish that he had just caught and we fried it and ate it for dinner.
“Philippines is more fun with the Filipinos” – A few days later when I went to meet Kumar and Anchit at Kumar’s shack, I found them sitting with some local Filipino boys. They introduced us to Tuba- a local coconut fermented wine. Everyone from little 7 year old kid to 60 year old grandpa was drinking Tuba here. We spent the night learning a few words from Visaya, asking each other riddles and dancing to some Hindi, English and Filipino music. These local boys here taught me my favorite word Hopog naka ( my Filipino friends make fun of me as I still don’t say it right).
My extended home stay families- Back at home we do not talk to our neighbors a lot. Here neighbors are more like a part of your family. You meet and interact with them every day. Every night after dinner all the kids from the neighborhood come over to our place. All the adults also come out to the shack in the middle of the houses and spend their time chatting, singing, dancing and having fun with each other. My mom Neneng treats the kids in the neighborhood just like her own, feeding them and taking care of them when their mom is away for work. On special occasions like birthdays or when something special is cooked, all the 4 houses in the area have dinner together in that tiny shack. All the kids have become my best friends. The people here love the Indian actor Aamir Khan and have seen all his movies. I downloaded a movie called Dangal for them and as we could not find a Visaya version, I translated the entire movie for a group of people. As a gesture to show how much I liked spending time with my neighbors, I organized an ice cream party for all of them. These were one of the most memorable experiences of my trip so far.
The best part of my experience here has been my family- Reno, Nenneng, Ria and Ryan. I cannot even start explaining the love and affection that they have showered upon me.
Lovely and pretty as she is, Ria is also so talented especially in singing and drawing. There is a wall of trophies in our house that Ria has won from her singing competitions. Every time Ria has to go for a competition I see that our mom is more tensed than what she is. Ria is not only talented but also a great human being. Mom told me that they could not afford to send both their kids to good schools. Ria was in a good school and Ryan was not. Ria collected all the money she had won from her singing contexts to get Ryan transferred to her school. This deeply touched me and he next time she won a singing competition, I decided to go out with her and buy her favorite food which is pizza for dinner. Her excitement and joy just made my day.
Ryan is like my little brother. I keep making mistakes and I can always rely on him to get out of trouble. He is the one who taught me how to weave. Even though I kept messing up over and over again, he patiently sat next to me teaching me how to do it till the time I finally got it. The first time I met Ryan I thought that he is a very shy and a very quiet boy. Now he is a very good friend and is always pulling my leg when I do something stupid.
Reno is exactly like my real dad back home. He is always super worried about my safety and is always telling me to get back home fast. Reno also has a very weird sense of humor. He is always cracking jokes that I initially never understood. Now slowly I have started getting a hang of it but still find it very difficult to figure out when he is joking or when he is serious. Reno is also a very knowledgeable man and is always sharing his stories and experiences with me. He tries to convince me to quit all my bad habits and I can always see him very happy when I tell him that I am improving a little bit.
My favorite person in the entire barangay is my mom Nenneng. She is a super mom and I have convinced her to adopt me and make me her 3rd child. She treats me like her daughter. Every day she makes sure that I don’t skip my breakfast. She helps me choose the clothes that I should wear every morning. She makes sure that we sit on a table to eat every meal at home and she makes both Angelline and I pray with the rest of them before every meal. She is also very strict sometimes and when I came home late one day, she put a curfew of 10 pm that I have to follow. We have long conversations about everything and there is nothing I can’t tell her. She is also a very fun mom. She has memorized some of my favorite dance moves and does them for me once in a while. She is as clumsy and as talkative as I am and we spend our entire day gossiping and laughing at each other.
I truly found some people I can call family