rainAn 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?

Insensitive and merciless adults with nothing to do always tease her saying she doesn’t have a mother. She will be the first to tell you her mother larga, or left, on a bus. Buses are synonymous with her mother’s egress. She can explain that mama’s gone to Kuwait to make money for her family and that’s also what she wants to be when she grows up. How can you dream to be an exodus, I wonder. I don’t tell her the reality; that her mother is a servant to an affluent Arab and subject to a hellacious life of slavery. She’s been gone 5 years now and who knows when or if she’ll ever be back.

IMG_2847She 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.

Tambok Fat!”, they exclaim and smile waiting for my return praise but my western ways can only conjure up a half-smile. Although I’m only 110 lbs. being fat means you can afford to eat, and that’s a luxury. They always want to eat with me and probably envision a cornucopia of Filipino food riches. Meat is for the wealthy and I’m sure they secretly hope for an array of carne, so they must be disheartened by my emphasis on vegetables. Regardless, I share until there’s nothing left because they are eager to share with me whatever they have. Sometimes a star apple, sometimes a banana, and sometimes just to hold their hand.

In our market, I often encounter an elderly woman who tries to give me her two grandchildren.

She speaks to me in a way I know she’s rehearsed many times…wala na mama ug papa. No mama and papa. She pleads for help. She explains that the mother ran off with a foreigner and the father stepped on a bone in the cemetery, contracted tetanus and died. Kapoy kaayo. So tired, she says with sincerity. I want to take the children. All the children. And then I start imagining building a structure to house these interminable babies and my bubble bursts when it reaches titanic proportions as I do the math. That’s the commonplace reality of the Philippines.

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…

IMG_3361_2Aira 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.

IMG_7722I return because of the Aira’s. I return for transformation. I return here because I want something better for my people. Not just the substandard dreams of obesity and electricity. It pains me to see a 75 year old woman or a 5 year old child doing back-breaking labor. The pig son of a bureaucratic pig in a neighboring town once told me they like to do it. He also told me everyone in his country owns a television and that’s all they need in life. I wonder what world he’s living in. When I told him the majority of people in the Philippines actually don’t have that luxury, we argued while he fumbled with his Nikon D5, unsure of what any of the buttons were but said “My Daddy got it for me from a trip to the US.” Daddy is some arbitrary government official in the nearby Podunk town. Every town has a group of him and they’re what’s wrong with the islands. These fat cat bureaucrats are usually the only ones awarded passports by the Philippine government because they know they’ll always return to their comfortable lucrative corruption.

I contained my urge to punch him in the face but smiled and kindly offered to help with his camera while I changed all his settings to Rubix cube fashion….something he surely could never figure out just as he can’t figure out the misfortune that surrounds him.

Lani Evans lives in Los Angeles, California, and is a proud dual citizen of the US and the Philippines, thanks to her Filipino Mother and American Father. A Journalism and Political Science major in college, Lani took a slight detour to work with some of the biggest names in the music industry over the last 15 years. Her true calling though is to use her unique experiences, passions and skills, coupled with an insatiable wanderlust, to the expose injustice in the world, shed light on dark places, and speak for those who have no voice. Her passions include adventure, culture, history, kindness and the 1968 Mustang Shelby Cobra GT500-KR.

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