An ominous cloud is a pleasing sign that rain is imminent. She always wants to play in the rain. It’s the tropical Third World version of a warm bath. She’s the epitome of what brings me back to the Philippines. One of the countless little people…pure in heart and selflessly emanating love. Most of the kids are just like her. Virtuous. Immaculate. Nonpareil. The absurd notion that they are born in sin always infuriates me. They are perfection yet to be tainted with barren ideologies and bad habits of flawed men. Aira yearns to do what she’s told. She’s eager to see what the world has to offer and dreams of going to Cebu City as if it’s a mystical magical place. Little does she know, it’s an overpopulated repulsive godforsaken wasteland with nothing to offer. I’ve just spent 23 hours in flight and still her village is 3 hours from any real city. Visiting means I must forego all of the luxuries of my world…a real bed, electricity and running water in exchange for bamboo, moonlight and rainwater. But the felicity of small smiling faces is far greater than any comforts of the west.
When I hand Aira a piece of bread, she always gives it to her little brother first, without vacillation. When she sees a small child crying, she will give it whatever she has to pacify… her only peso, her hair tie, anything. When I had a bout with dengue fever, she routinely and concernedly whispered thru the makeshift fence while standing in the rain…Mommy Lani, okay ra? Are you okay?
She sees me coming from a mile away and with her, I hear a dozen words start buzzing from afar “Mommy Lani! Mommy Lani! Mommy Lani!” A few boys always put a twist to my name “Mamaay Lanaay!” I have no kids and yet I have so many kids here that I begin to think my first name is Mommy. With them comes
the double patter of their flip flops like running horses coming to a slow trot. There are 20 children now, each lining up to give me the blessing. Amen. Amen. Amen. My right hand to their forehead. It’s the utmost sign of respect here. The continual ritual that happens just from walking down the street in this small village. I always wonder how they know I’m coming and suspect that my blondish brown hair is the dead giveaway. But even in the lightless night they just know.
They’re always eager to tell me I’m fat. To me, it’s an insult; to them, a compliment.
In our market, I often encounter an elderly woman who tries to give me her two grandchildren.
This isn’t a place of rags to riches happy endings, and so few Filipinos vow to change this place. It’s a country you hope to leave and you become proud of only because you’ve managed to escape. Kind of like leaving New Jersey. I digress…
Aira is also my mountain guide who lives deep in the jungle. She shows me all the plants I can eat and tells me how to use them…good for sabaw soup, good with isda fish. Though I’m skeptical, I always discover that everything she says is unfailingly true. She randomly picks up flowers, leaves and strange pods to tell me what kind of medicine they’re used for…headache, stomachache, muscle pains. She fascinates me to no end and she’s so happy to tell me what I don’t know.
Once she told me in her language, “Mommy Lani, you don’t know very much.” She’s right.
She gives me directions in the most irreproachable fashion; “Take a right at the mango tree” and “When you see the tall mahogany, we’re almost there.”
She’s connected to the earth and once explained the circle of life as: the eagle will eat the cobra; the cobra will eat the rats and the rats will then become food for the eagle so be kind to the rats so that we can enjoy watching the eagle soar.
Usually tied to her side with a simple rope is a bolo knife that’s almost the entire length of her leg. She can climb a coconut tree in 20 seconds flat. But since Aira is only 7, she also tells me ‘sabot’, or be quiet, when we’re walking past bamboo because the Sigbin lives there and it would be rude to disturb them. Sigbin is a mythical fairy gnome creature. I pretend she’s right because I know that every time I go to the jungle with her, it’s an adventure.