Stories of our Lives

Recently, I attended the birthday get-together for Grace, a former landlady, who has also become a good friend. Because my former apartment (owned by Grace’s family) is just a short walk from my current one, it’s always easy for me to connect with her especially that she would always make it a point to invite me every time there’s a get-together in their home – including birthdays of her Mom and Dad whom I’ve also learned to love like my second parents.

I thought that after the usual “pigging-out” and conversations with Grace (I joked around with Grace that I stayed in the gym for two hours before going there so I can eat like an elephant), I’d just quietly go home and read a book. However, that night, a good friend from way back my Ricky Lee workshop days, was also there and he invited me to join their set of friends who are out there in the front patio.

Our stories connect us to the Greatest Source. (Photo taken in Tagaytay, Philippines, by the author)

At first, I was hesitant to join because I didn’t know anyone in the group except him and another woman whom I was briefly introduced before. However, something pulled me in so I found a seat and tried to join in the conversations. Most people who know me would say that I’d usually be the one to start conversations when thrown by circumstances to strangers. However, that night, I guess there was no need for me to try to break the ice because it seemed that everyone was already in the middle of conversations. Not wanting to just sit there and listen, I began to chat up with the woman beside me whom I will name Cristy. Cristy, by the way, is about to leave for the US—this, I gathered from the moment I joined the group.

So that’s where my first question to her came from. I asked, “So…I heard that you’re leaving…maybe you’d like tell me the story behind it?”  I didn’t want her to feel that I am trying to be nosy over what could be a very personal thing but it seemed that she was warm and open enough. Amazingly, I think this was also the needed question that would set the ball rolling…because immediately after that, all ears were on us.

It became apparent that the group was also raring to hear more about the story behind this decision. It turns out that Cristy was leaving “to follow her heart.” She met a US-based Filipino guy in Baguio sometime last April. They fell in love, went steady and eventually got married after one month. Yes, one month. Of course, to the hopeless romantics in the group, this was a love “made in heaven.” However, to some, they felt it was too short a time to get to know someone, much more, get married. The guy is now in the US and waiting for her to follow. When Cristy was narrating all these, she really looked so happy and in love! I prodded her more and more and she gamely answered all my questions. Before long, the others were also throwing their questions in.  Things like, “Why so fast naman?”,  “Are you in love?”, “Where will you be staying?” I guess Cristy didn’t mind answering all of our questions . She blushed. She laughed. Her eyes twinkled. She expressed her concerns, too, but she is a picture of joy and hope. I knew then that I was touched again by another love story.

The universe gathers our stories, creating a web of colors, giving deeper meaning to the lives of others. (Photo taken by the author in Gasan, Marinduque. Philippines)

Because the mood of the night began to encourage heart-to-heart talks about love, life, relationships and sex (yes, this is always a favorite topic), it didn’t take long for the group to start passing on the questioning (interrogation?!) to another female in the group. Let’s call her Janet. I can say that Janet is all fire and passion. Her sense of humor is contagious, too. She started by saying that she married her husband just after one week from the time she met her. I almost fell off my chair. I can imagine having sex with a man on the first date but surely, getting married only after one week…wow.

That beats me. Janet said she was engaged to be married to someone else already but when she met her husband, she instantly fell “magic.”  This word later on became one of the favorite words of the night. It was Cristy who said it first but Janet, maybe after trying to find a better word, just blurted it out for the second time that night. She said her whole family found her insane. But she didn’t care. She knew she will follow her heart and she did. She is still happily married now. She admits there are problems and that there was even a time that she wanted to call it quits. But now, she gamely said, “You single women there (pointing to me and another female guest beside me), marriage is a gamble and a commitment. You don’t know what you will get. There is no guarantee. But you have to give it your best shot. It is a continuing work. You committed yourself to it and that’s what you will do – make it work. That’s what I learned.”

I know I have been hearing and reading these words before. But it’s different when they are uttered by someone right across me. Nothing can get as real as that. I can hear her every word, each one coming from her soul. Janet’s decision touched me as very courageous. It was insane, yes. But how can one doubt her feelings when it is as strong as that? Could I trust my feelings in the same way, too?

As I mull over the questions in my mind, Lilia, still another strong woman, shared her story. However, before that, she said something like this…”Do all women here agree that each woman has a depth so deep that it is only herself alone who knows its reach and what it holds?”  Everyone was quiet for a few seconds…and then one by one, every person there nodded or said “Yes, I agree.” And then Lilia shared her story.

Lilia has an ongoing 4-year relationship prior to her marriage. She considered him the love of her life…he was also her best friend. Unfortunately, they broke up and went their separate ways. Lilia eventually started going out and met a new guy who eventually became her boyfriend. He later asked Lilia to marry him. Lilia, who wasn’t sure how she would decide, asked God for a sign. She said that if her ex-boyfriend didn’t visit or see her for one month, she would say “yes” to her boyfriend.  During the weeks that followed, she was somehow hoping that her ex-boyfriend will visit her (she lives in Laguna while her ex-boyfriend lives and works in Manila) but after the “deadline” and still, there was no word or visit from him, she eventually agreed to marry her new boyfriend.

However, a strange thing happened after she already accepted the proposal of her boyfriend. Just after two days from the day she gave her “yes”, her ex-boyfriend visited her in Laguna! He said that he still loves her. He wanted to come earlier but that he just joined a new company and he couldn’t file a leave yet. Lilia couldn’t believe what she’s hearing. She wanted to tell him that she still loves him but that she knew she couldn’t have the heart nor the courage to take her word back from her future groom. When her ex-boyfriend left, she was so distraught that she cried for days on end. The day of her wedding came. She was on her way to the church in her bridal car when she saw…her ex-boyfriend, standing alone in a street corner near her house, as if waiting for her…she said she almost opened the car’s door and gone out to run to him…but she couldn’t…she went to the Church and married her boyfriend.

Looking back, she said that she couldn’t even remember most parts of the wedding. It was a blur. She was smiling outside but she was torn apart inside. Everyone thought she was so deliriously happy. We asked if she still loves her ex-boyfriend until now. And she said…”Yes.” But that she chose her husband and she has a good life now with 4 children. We asked, “Why didn’t you marry the person you really loved?” She said it was more important for her to keep her word and admittedly, her growing-up years made her promise to herself that she won’t allow her children to grow up in a world similar to what she experienced. She said that her father was so irresponsible that he was often jobless and left all the burdens to her mother. He would also often hurt her.

They eventually separated. And so, during those crucial days when she was thinking of what’s the best decision for her, she chose her boyfriend. She was sure that he would give her and her children a good life. And she was right. There were no flowers and no sweet-nothings with this man who became her husband but he is a very good provider and shows his love with the way he takes care of her and her children. She says she couldn’t ask for anything anymore. She admits that she misses the flowers, the sweet nothings and the “kilig”gestures, but ultimately, she is content.

Would I decide in the same way, too? I asked myself. I don’t know. It’s hard to say. Knowing myself, I think wouldn’t marry for any other reason. I would marry only for love and passion. But would this be the right decision? I don’t know. I only hope that I would have someone to grow old with and if it is God’s will that I remain single for the rest of my life, I pray for spiritual strength, contentment and bliss.

But let us not digress…let’s move on to another woman’s story. Let’s call her Pia. She married someone 10 years her senior. But truth be told, her decision to marry this man wasn’t really based on love. She married primarily for security. Of course, she cared for the guy and have strong admiration and respect for him. But you see, she came from a poor family and when she met this successful man and proposed marriage to her, she immediately accepted it, believing in her heart that she will be a good wife and build a happy family with him. It was a good and comfortable life. Her husband seems to be getting richer everyday.

Pia was happy…until one day, she found out that her husband was having an affair. She didn’t know when it started but looking back, it was clear that the more the husband became richer, the more attractive he must have been becoming to the opposite sex. There were fights and accusations until it got to a breaking point. Her husband left her for the other woman. She went through a long healing period and must still be trying to heal up to now. But she has finally come to terms that in this life, there is no guarantee. We just do our best and if things don’t work out, then we just simply move on. Now, she says she is still hoping and praying for another chance at love.

The stories of Cristy, Janet, Lilia, and Pia are stories that somehow connect to our lives, too. We may have different circumstances but we all share the same questions. We may have different paths to take but we all share a common journey – that of trying to find ourselves in a world that is full of uncertainties and eventually making peace with every decision that we make.

That night gave me valuable lessons that I now carry in my heart, grateful that their stories will continue to guide me as I continue my journey towards wholeness.

[Re-post of a blog dated June 4, 2006 (from my previous site).]

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This is not a paid blog.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2014 Mary Anne Velas-Suarin

How buying my toiletries gave me more than I asked for

With Rose, riding a rickshaw in Dhaka

I still wonder why I didn’t write about this important event in my life many years ago when everything was still fresh in my mind. Maybe I just wanted to keep everything to myself, worried that if this story gets published, the beauty of the moment will be diminished.

Ten years ago, I was assigned in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to coordinate the preparations for an international conference, which was going to be attended by civil society groups engaged in social development, justice and equity, governance and empowerment. I was a little anxious on the day of my departure from Manila. After all, it was my first time to be away from home for more than a month (my Dhaka stint was to last for six months). It also bothered me a bit that some people think being assigned in a job in Bangladesh is like experiencing a “hardship post”. While these two things somehow bothered me, I actually looked forward to the experience. I cannot explain that, too. Perhaps it was a combination of anxiety and excitement.

In Manila, my friends put on some bets that I wouldn’t last there for more than a month. Not that Manila is a paradise. Although, I must say, at this point, that despite Manila’s chaos and horrible traffic, I am very much in love with it. But as you know, many people somehow always think that Dhaka is not really a place to go. I didn’t ever think of Dhaka or any other place, for that matter, as a place that I shouldn’t visit but of course, I knew what they may be thinking: Dhaka only translates to poverty, beggars, traffic, chaos, and floods. They seem to forget that Dhaka could also be a place of warm smiles, friendly people, innocent children and beautiful moments.

There were many wonderful things that happened to me in Dhaka and I would probably need a whole issue of Readers Digest just to share them all to you. But one thing that really stands out is this very touching story of my encounter with a shop-owner.

Almost every weekend, I would go to this marketplace where I would usually get my week’s supplies of food, drinks and personal stuffs like toiletries. Around that time in Dhaka, there was no shopping mall yet. Nothing like Manila’s SM Megamall or Bangkok’s MBK.  The closest that one can find is a 4-storey store called Aarong where Bangladesh-made products are sold (but even Aarong would seem small if situated beside SM or MBK). For grocery and household items, one can only get them in marketplaces that are similar to Divisoria or Baclaran stalls in Manila, only smaller. These shops are nothing modern or swanky but of course, it has that quaint character. It reminded me of small shops and nooks back home or even those in Phnom Penh. Some shops/stalls are airconditioned, some are not. There would usually be 3 or lesser sales staff to attend to the customers. Of course, things could be different now.

Anyway, on that particular weekend, I needed to buy mostly toiletries so I went to this shop where I figured familiar brands are sold. Those silly things that we mortals are sometimes guilty about whenever we are away from our comfort zones…ahhh, forgive my youth and ignorance back then! Nowadays, I guess I am older and hopefully, wiser and would likely prefer products that are locally-made or locally-grown! And for Asian economies’ sake, I hope we Asians can patronize more of our locally-made products, right? After all, we are supposed to be the future!

Not to get sidetracked…the old male shop-owner helped me find shampoo, conditioner, lotion, feminine pads, tissue paper and the like. I was so happy with my finds and confidently took out my wallet from my bag….but lo and behold, I realized that my wallet didn’t have any local notes in it! I just suddenly remembered that I failed to put new notes in it as I was in a hurry to leave my flat a couple of hours earlier. I started apologizing to the shop-owner, explaining that I don’t have any local money in my wallet and that I could no longer buy all the items that he kindly prepared for me. It was all wrapped up in a brown bag and I felt so guilty just thinking about how he helped me with my purchases.

I thought I would just simply leave the shop after getting his acceptance of my apologies. I was wrong. For the next thing I heard was, “No, Madam…you can take everything home with you, no problem…just come back another time so you can pay me.” And with those words, I saw the most sincere and kind smile in the whole world. I think that I was so shocked with that gesture that I was speechless for half a minute. As I still couldn’t believe my ears, all I blurted out was, “Are you sure??” And he said, “Yes, Madam, I am very sure.”

The next thing I knew, I was already teasing him. I said, “Well, for all you know, I may be flying home to my country tomorrow and you won’t get your money anymore.” With that, he simply said, “I am sure you are coming back here.” Wow. I suddenly realized, there are really small miracles that can happen in our daily lives but sometimes, we just miss them or take them for granted.

And so, armed with my package, I happily prepared to leave his shop and whispered a silent thank you to the Supreme Being who makes things like this possible. Of course, I couldn’t stop thanking the shop-owner that I swear, I was ready to hug him right there and then.

One week after that, I went to the shop and the moment he remembered me, his eyes sparkled and said, “See, Madam, I told you, you are coming back!” We started laughing together.

I paid what I owed him, and added some more. I even ended up buying  a whole month’s supply of toiletries!

What more can I say? Dhaka didn’t just give me quiet moments, beautiful friendships, wonderful sceneries, French language lessons, soulful chanting that I hear from a nearby mosque every morning and evening, opportunity to work with committed NGO workers, and unexpected help from officemates (who went as far as bringing a broken shoe to a shoemaker). It also gave me a deep reaffirmation of the beauty of life – that in every corner of this world, there is a little kindness just waiting to happen.

Dhaka can really be a challenging place to most people used to ‘big’ city living. But for me, it is indeed a very soulful place, still full of old charms, of genuinely kind people, of people who still give their trust unconditionally. I would probably never experience that kind of gesture anywhere else in the world. But then again, who knows?!

 

[Repost of a 2006 blog from my previous site].

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This is not a paid blog.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2014 Mary Anne Velas-Suarin

Turtle ‘Lola’ Fairy in Guimaras

Last 2003, during my summer vacation, I spent some days in Guimaras islands with two of my friends. We stayed in this cozy cottage resort by the seafront of the major island where the resort manager took very good care of our meals by allowing us choose what we like to eat for the next day even if they were not part of the menu. It was like being at home, begging your Mom to cook your favorite dishes for you!

And we would eat our meals out there, almost by the beachfront, with the sounds of the waves and the calm of the blue skies…words are not enough to describe the beauty and serenity of those moments. It sounds like a cliche but it sincerely felt like paradise. I am definitely going back there.

One of the most meaningful parts of the vacation was visiting this small island where there was a sanctuary for sea turtles. After finishing a huge breakfast of pritong isda and sinangag complete with hearty servings of the world-famous Guimaras mangoes, we took a small banca to this island I would later call as my “Turtle Lola Fairy Island.” The boat ride was made so much more enjoyable because the three children of the boatman were with us and I had so much fun taking their pictures. I fell in love with them.

A beautiful encounter with a beautiful creature.

When we arrived on the island, we were greeted by this cute young sea turtle trying to practice his “breast strokes” by the shore! He is tied up with a string to a post by the fence of a small hut; the string extends to the sea, long enough to give him a portion of the waters where he can practice his swimming. It was so cute watching him! I was laughing as I watched him struggle so much and I knew then that he’s going to be a great swimmer with those fast and frantic strokes.

I look at the boxes by the fence where they keep the young turtles and saw several of them in their own compartments. I couldn’t control my urge anymore and I asked if I can carry one turtle in my hands and have my photo taken! Oh dear, it was an exciting thing to do but poor turtle, he has to endure being with me for about 30 seconds while I tried to smile amid the fierce way that he is hitting my hands with his strong arms!

Poor Cutie Turtle, he had to endure a quick photo shoot with an adoring fan!

Now it is time to meet the special lady who takes care of all these adorable creatures. I was so surprised to know that the person behind this small-scale sea turtles sanctuary and conservation effort is an old woman I would call as Turtle Lola Fairy. She is so old that I would estimate her age to be between 70 to 75. However, despite her age, she looks like she still has many more years ahead of her. If taking care of sea turtles would make me this strong at that age, I would definitely consider it as my retirement job!

The beautiful discovery was accompanied by the realization that she receives no grant for this effort. She is simply doing it on her own as her contribution towards saving the community of sea turtles in Guimaras. Yes, she is on her own! One or two of her relatives would come around to help her with the physical tasks but managing and financing it is entirely her work. She takes care of the turtles until they are big enough to be let out in the wild seas. She charges a minimal fee of P 10.00/person only every time a visitor drops by in her sanctuary. Hearing this, I was ready to give her a million if I had it!

We spent some time talking with her and I consider those moments as very enriching and inspiring. Her eyes were windows to her soul and I saw calmness and solitude. Her wrinkled face narrated to me stories that her voice could not. Maybe she wouldn’t even remember us anymore but as I type this, the memory of her face and her nurturing power envelop me with so many wonderful feelings. One day, I am going to visit you again, Lola.

My friends and I then went on to another island and spent the day enjoying the beautiful waters of one of the smaller islands of Guimaras. They were screaming with joys as they see the beautiful fishes playing just several meters from the shoreline. They were beckoning me to come to them, and endlessly teased me because I really do not know how to swim and I couldn’t really go that far. Little did they know that I was simply enjoying that space and time, quietly seated on the sand, kissing the sun, and marveling again at the beauty of this world, made so much more alive by the eternal magic of the sea turtles and the loving touches of their fairies and grandmothers.

[Re-post of a blog dated August 28, 2005.]

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This is not a paid blog.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2014 Mary Anne Velas-Suarin

Soulful Teaching

In the hinterlands somewhere in the North, there is a young teacher who teaches about 150 pupils from three different grade levels, in just one classroom. Let us call her Maria.

She lives in a rented room that costs her about P 500 a month. She is originally from Baguio and her job takes her away from her husband and toddler one month at a time. She sleeps on a cot with barely a soft cushion to soothe her tired body from her long days in the classroom.

She nurtures them and believes in their future.

Still, she teaches with pride, commitment, and joy. Her eyes speak of passion and eagerness. Of faith. She believes in the future of “her children.” She speaks of them as if they were her own. For the whole day, she manages the daily learning of Grades 4, 5, and 6 students, in one classroom. She does this by staying with each grade one at a time;  leaving “seatworks” to that class after which she goes on to the next. Her co-teacher is assigned to Grades 1, 2, and 3. They follow a similar system.

Most of the students are from indigenous communities. There was this tiny girl who smiles shyly at strangers, big eyes full of curiosity and innocence. Some are barefooted. Several have torn shirts. But the sounds of their voices carry a lively tune, like they are looking forward to the promises of the future despite their circumstances. There is so much beauty in that.

This kind of learning is called a “multi-grade” system, a practice already allowed by the Department of Education (DepEd), to address the age-old problems on lack of teachers and school buildings. Although this has the supervision of the DepEd, teachers like Maria are not in the government payroll. They receive regular allowances from the Local School Board.One may think that the financial reward must be so significant that merits Maria’s ultimate sacrifice: being away from her little family, her beautiful and precious child most especially, who is in that age when a mother’s touch is very important or even necessary. One would never guess that she is only receiving a meager P3,000 a month for this tiring work and ultimate sacrifice. Three thousand pesos. Deducting the P 500 rent, she is just left with P 2,500. Divide this by 30 days, and she is left with only P83.00 a day. Eighty three pesos! It is not even enough to cover a typical city dweller’s lunch expense!

How is it that she can still smile? How is it that she can still work with so much passion and energy? I am even tempted to help her find a teaching job here in Manila! But I know I cannot deprive those children of the opportunity to learn, the privilege of hearing their teacher’s voice that continue to shape their souls.

When asked if Maria ever considers leaving her volunteer work and opt for higher-income jobs in the city, she replied, “Paano na ang mga bata? Paano na ang kasama kong teacher?” That, to me, is an answer anchored on a deep commitment to serve.

Every night, as Maria prepares her lesson plans for the next day, she remembers the simple joys of the day, the voices of her children, and affirms to herself one again that indeed, she is doing the right decision. That she has found her place under the sun.

It is my friend Thea who shared this beautiful story with me several years ago over dinner of pansit and siomai. Once she started telling me about Maria, I remembered my Mom, too. She is a retired public school teacher and spent almost 30 years of her life teaching in far-flung barangays in Aurora. Because we siblings were all in Manila while she taught, we practically grew up without her by our side. When I was younger, I questioned Mom’s decision. But now that I am older (and hopefully, wiser), I could say  that I understand her decision. I am proud of the fact that she dedicated her life to public service and did a life-changing sacrifice by depriving herself of the joys of seeing us grow up because she wanted to fulfill a personal mission.

From Maria, my Mom, and the countless others who continue to teach in the barrios—without comfortable material rewards—we gather strength and inspiration. They are the reasons why I still believe in the Filipino soul.

[This is a repost of a previous blog and had been submitted to a blog competition with the code PBA094n66314.]

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This is not a paid blog.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2014 Mary Anne Velas-Suarin