Street children of Manila: Innocence Lost

You see them all over the country but they stand out mostly in the city of Manila. Barefoot street children with dirty faces,and ratty shirts. They are a ubiquitous lot, weaving in and out of cars during traffic, begging for money. You find them in the sidewalks sniffing glue for their daily drug fix or in jeepneys wiping passengers’ shoes in exchange for a peso. Some have become petty thieves so as to survive the city jungle. At night, they sleep at street corners, wet markets or under city bridges with just a cardboard for a bed.

streetchildren 2The government tries its best to cope with the street children problem through the Department of Social Welfare’s rescue centers. There are also  institutions funded by foreign non -government organizations (NGOs), or run by private individuals and religious orders which provide them with education, food and shelter. However, the efforts are akin to stopping a rampaging river with a dam made out of sticks.  There are just too many children roaming the  streets.

They are fascinating oddities for foreigners who hail from first world countries. I remember bringing two Swedish colleagues, first timers in Asia, to several supermarkets for a product tour. On the way to downtown Manila, they kept on taking photos of the street children and barraged me with questions. They could not get over the fact that the children literally sleep on the streets.

Most Filipinos acknowledge the situation as the offshoot of a developing country with a bloated population.  I suppose many citizens would like to help alleviate the problem. But the truth of the matter is  many are just  too busy earning a living to really care or to find the time to volunteer. When I was still single. I volunteered at a center for street children run by the Salesian sisters. I went there during weekends to read stories to them or give them some coloring books and art materials. I also invited a dentist friend of mine to provide free dental services.  Unfortunately, my budding career in public relations took much of my time. I stopped my visits at the center and never came back.

I have not given the plight of  the street children much thought for so many years. Sure, I toss a few coins to them when they knock on our car window. But I got busy with my career and in raising a family.I have become inured to their existence for they have melded into the city’s landscape. But my seven-year old son Joshua inadvertently changed my jaded state of mind.

After his seventh birthday party, we brought home a lot of leftover food. It was a Sunday so we had to rush to go to Mass. I packed the boxes of spaghetti and french fries in a bag on the way to church. I wanted to give it to a friend who sells mangoes regularly in the vicinity. But she went home early that day.

My son pointed to a group of street children in front of the church selling strings of sampaguita (  small, white flowers). My son decided to give the food to them. They were initially hesitant to accept it but I explained to them it was from my son’s party. They gave cries of joy when they saw what was in the bag. They thanked me, greeted my son a happy birthday and ran off to a nearby tree to eat their unexpected McDonald’s treats.

I was taken a aback on how happy they were. My son was pleased. ” Mommy, we helped some poor people.” I realized that it was the first time that he actually met the street children in our area. He  asked so many questions about them until bedtime. Joshua could not forget the experience that he shared it with his Christian Life Education (CLE) teacher the following day.

I had forgotten how simple gifts and gestures are much appreciated by these street children. I witnessed that often when I was at the center. They were dark, smelled of the sun with most of them missing some teeth.  They were poor, abused with their innocence lost on the streets yet they giggled with delight with my gifts of crayola and paper. They were after all, deep down inside, just normal children.


HOT Mama

My plan was simple. My Mom taught me my lessons. I was going to do the same for my son Joshua as he entered the big school last June. How hard can grade 1 be? We breezed through pre-school together. I  overlooked the fact that I am 54 and my son is 7.  When I was in grade 1 the Beatles was the hottest thing on earth.  Today, Paul McCartney is probably as old as Justin Bieber’s  grandfather.

The school curriculum is based on the principles of Higher Order of Thinking (H.O.T.) as explained by the class adviser. The what? There is less emphasis on facts and lessons are geared towards critical thinking or the application of  what the child is learning in class.  Darn! I wanted to teach Joshua how to memorize dates, names, and places. I was good at that in school.  Does it mean he will never learn when Filipino hero Lapu Lapu killed Ferdinand Magellan who circumnavigated the  world?

Gone too is the thrill of memorizing multiplication tables. My math teacher used to  hold a contest on who can recite it without losing your breath. That is considered Lower Order of Thinking ( L.O.T). In my son’s school, grade school students are now taught Singapore Math. I had to attend a seminar together with other clueless parents to learn that 5 plus 5 is not just equals to 10. You have to  break the equation into different combinations called  number bonds to arrive at 10.  Whew! Totally alien territory for me but who am I to disagree. The Singaporeans top Math aptitude tests worldwide even beating the Americans.

ni_hao 2Then there is Mandarin.  The hubby and I thought that it would be cool for our son to learn a second foreign language. It would look good in his future CV and help him land a nice, cushy job. However, during his first month in school Joshua declared he hates Mandarin and wants to transfer to another school. My daydream of our son running a Ferrari  plant in China went poof!

In another parents workshop, I learned that Mandarin is a tonal language with four tones making it difficult for a neophyte like me to distinguish each of them. The only Chinese words that I know are xie xie and ni hao.  Thanks to a Nickelodeon cartoon.Teaching the Chinese strokes to Joshua is something else!  During study time,  I  have to be creative, sometimes forming shapes with my hands and feet, in describing certain strokes so my son can remember them.

Lastly there is the dreaded subject called Filipino, the Waterloo of many students. It’s an embarrassing  fact but  a majority of them would rather be proficient in English than their own language. Is it any wonder that the Philippines is second to India as the world’s favorite BPO site?

I don’t relish the subject either but do I have a  choice? I have to rewire my brain to absorb words I last heard 40 years ago like  pangngalan ( noun), pandiwa ( verb), patinig ( vowel), katinig ( consonant) etc . . My son complains how hard Filipino is but I threaten him  that if he flunk  the subject he can say goodbye to the gym. He loves to play at the gym after class. He can narrate in detail  his adventures with his classmates. But if you ask him what he learn in class today the stock answer is ” I forgot.”

After locking horns with the grade 1 curriculum for seven months, I am still standing and relieved that my son does not have a  failing grade. (I just wish he has better grades, whispers my OC self.) And surprise, surprise Joshua now finds Mandarin easy peasy. In two months time, he will be finish with grade 1.A friend, who listens patiently as I whine about teaching my seven-year old kid, suggested recently that I hire a tutor. Is she kidding? I am up to the challenge of being a H.O.T Mama next school year. Bring it on, grade 2!

Embracing Middle Age

numbersI am 54 years old and proud of it. I have always been upfront about my age. A couple of my women friends are aghast. They admonish me a lot.”Don’t ever divulge your real age. Ever!” “It should remain a state secret.” ” It is socially unacceptable to reveal your age.” ” Tsk, tsk, tsk  Just keep them guessing.”

I can’t understand why some women hide their real age. I suppose vanity lurks behind  it.  I just know that I look a few years younger than my age. I admit this without any conceit at all. Maybe I am lucky to have inherited some good genes? Maybe because I am small at five feet? I don’t really dwell on it.

I am aware that since I went into menopause my skin has lost its elasticity and is a lot drier than before. I don’t lose sleep over it. I just use a good low foam cleanser  and a moisturizer at night. Thanks to my being a brown  skinned Asian the wrinkles mercifully do not appear as deep.

Nowadays, my mind is focused on how blessed  I am to have lived this long. It is a personal  achievement allowed by God’s grace. I got married at 38, became a Mom at 47 and learned ashtanga yoga at 50. Through the years, I have worked with inspiring people. I have immersed myself in various cultures through my travels. I have kept in touch with friends who have known me since I was 13. I have made a fool of myself in love. I have been praised at work. I learned and continue to live so as to learn more.

Each day brings something new to discover. The perfect minestrone recipe that my husband likes. A baking school near our place that I can probably enroll in. A cute wooden tray table for the garden. A perfectly turned phrase in my article. A funny remark from my son.

Sure the middle age woes of creaky bones and weight gain creep up on me. But I choose to embrace middle age accepting its warts and limitations as well as its wisdom and possibilities.  For when I think about it age is just a number.

Angel in Fur

Jack came into my life when he was three months old, given by a cousin during a family reunion.  Though I grew up with dogs , I did not care much for them. They were there to simply secure our home. My Mom, who was a neat freak, never allowed them inside our house. My Dad  or the  maid were the ones who patiently prepared their meals, mostly leftover food.

My husband insisted I needed  a canine companion to protect me when I am alone in the house.  I  agreed as he promised to take care of the dog himself. Wary of his new surroundings, Jack was yapping  the whole time. We could not sleep at night. He liked to gnaw on our furniture and to pee everywhere.

I wanted the hubby to return him but he had to travel out of town. I was left alone with Jack, clueless on how to take care of him. I was constantly calling the hubby. I bought him some dry puppy food. Jack gobbled it in just a minute. I bathed him so afraid that he might bite me. But Jack just stood there allowing me to shampoo his fur. He immediately obeyed as I called him to sleep in his cage at night.  He followed me everywhere looking  at me expectantly with those brown eyes. Hungry again? I shoved food at him but he did not touch it. Jack was jumping up and down.  I hooked his collar and brought him to the backyard. There he was rolling with his feet a small branch that had fallen from the neighbor’s mango tree. Ah, so he wanted to play. I played with him until we were both exhausted.

I woke up in the morning, surprised, that I had enjoyed myself during the last few days. I found myself hurrying home from work  to give Jack his treat for the day. I combed supermarkets for the cutest dog collars and toys.  My conversations with friends were peppered with anecdotes about his latest antics.  He slowly grew on me and realized that I have become, albeit reluctantly, a dog lover.

He became my protector, stress buster and TV time companion. I was childless for a long time. Jack was a comforting presence during the highs and lows of my fertility work up.  When I finally became a Mom, he acted like an older brother to my son Joshua protecting him during playtime. I had been a mother for a few years when Jack died. Though heartbroken, I was also grateful. I have learned patience, unconditional love and how to enjoy the moment from an angel in fur.                              askal 2

Loyalty of a Labandera

clothesline 2

When I think of the word loyalty only one person comes to my mind- Siony, our labandera (laundry woman). She came into our lives when I was in high school to wash  and iron our clothes. I can’t remember now how my Mom  got to know her. She lived in the squatters area near our home where she raised her many children.

Siony was small and thin but managed to hoist our heavy bed sheets and curtains up the clothesline. She washed our clothes and that of  several families  in our neighborhood. It was not uncommon to see her always in a hurry, flitting from one house to another to earn her keep.  The fact is she was not good at washing clothes. My Mom incessantly complained about it  and would sometimes ask her to wash our clothes again.

But Mom continued to hire her because she was a master of the flat iron. With a flick of her  wrist, she can conquer the creases of clothes in any fabric. I would watch her iron our clothes so effortlessly and quickly. It is a gift from God, I told myself, since I don’t relish the chore. Her skill was well-known in our clan. Once in a while, some of our relatives would ask for her ironing services.

She can also be relied  upon to do other tasks for us. She was our dish washer during family parties and  became a  part- time nanny of my youngest brother. My youngest brother grew close to her that it became a running joke in our family that Siony is his real mother.When my brother got married, he would still request her to iron clothes for him. She would oblige even if he lives two hours away.

Siony worked in our family for so many years that she saw my brothers and I finished school, land jobs and get married. She was part of the ebb and flow, the joys and sorrows of our middle class family. When Mom died from cancer, she was as devastated as we were. Right after the burial, Siony claimed that she felt the spirit of my Mom while she was washing clothes. We kidded her that Mom must be checking again if she was washing our clothes well.

She lived a hard life. Her husband left her for another woman and the  partner she chose to live with was an alcoholic. But inspite of it she remained  a good-natured woman. Poverty drove her to be resourceful and grateful for any work that came her way.  Tired of being a  labandera and plantsadora ( ironing woman), she worked in a garments factory for a while. But she could not keep up with the long hours.

One time, I sent her an SOS text message. My plantsadora was sick and there were mountains of clothes that needed ironing. I live outside of Manila and it was a three-hour commute from her house. But I knew she would come. We gossiped like old times and I was again amazed on how fast she finished the ironing.

” Sisiw,” she joked. ( Sisiw is colloquial Filipino for ” That was nothing. It was so easy.”) A few months after that, I heard from my sis in law that she fell from the second floor of her house while hanging newly washed clothes. She died  soon after. I was not able to visit her at the hospital which I regret up to this day. For the last time, I would have thanked her for the generous spirit and  loyalty she had shown to my family.

Travel Light

London 2    Sweden waterfront 2

I envy the Filipino youth of today. With online information readily available plus budget airlines’ low cost deals, foreign travel nowadays is  so convenient and affordable for them.

I was already in my mid 20s when I first traveled out of the country for a two  week marketing training. I was excited, a bit afraid and super naive. During those times if you want to know something about a country you have to read up. This meant read up on books for it was still the pre- Google days. I did that and also asked my colleagues who went there before me what Sweden was like.

I committed a faux pax of any first time traveler. I packed so much stuff in my no wheels luggage. In today’s standards, that was a clunky way to prepare for a trip to Europe.

The trip was uneventful until I landed in  Heathrow Airport, London to catch a  plane to Denmark. The travel agency booked my flight alright but I had to take it at England’s secondary airport, Gatwick.  I had to immediately board an airport shuttle or else I might missed my flight. I dragged my heavy luggage and almost ran to the bus depot.

So this is England in October, I whispered in awe. As we drove on  ( I was the only passenger in the bus) , I saw  a wide swath of green grass with sheep nibbling  on it at both sides of the road. I remember blinking my eyes several times. The grass was so green that it seemed to hurt my eyes. The bucolic scene reminded me of  Mills and Boon novels which I used to devour in high school. I told myself that someday I will be back in England  but not as a transit passenger.

I arrived in Denmark just minutes before a small local plane was to take me to Lund, Sweden. There was no time for me to get my luggage. The airport staff assured me that it will be brought to my hotel soon. And true enough my luggage was in my room after dinner. That was my first introduction to Scandinavian efficiency.

Sweden was cold, cold, cold. My European colleagues, of course, loved the fall weather while I was freezing in my  thick sweater. Lund was such a clean city, a bit of a shock  for someone who came  from grimy Manila. The Swedish also smelled of milk which they consumed by the gallons. And they speak English impeccably.

They were fascinated with me, the little brown girl from the Philippines. Cory Aquino just rose to power and Lea Salonga was wowing theater audiences in  ” Miss Saigon” so the country was prominently in the news.  Sing us  a song, they asked me. They thought all Filipinos knew how to sing!  Some heard me conversing in Tagalog with a Filipino engineer at the canteen. Your language sounded so musical, a colleague commented.

I bonded with the female participants from Malaysia and Argentina while  learning about the global philosophy and marketing success of the multinational company called Tetra Pak. We flew to Stockholm , the capital,  where we visited the Old Town, gawked at the museums, and bought Swedish chocolates. My Malaysian colleague invited me to cross over to Copenhagen for the weekend. I was hesitant because  that was beyond my comfort zone and I was on a tight budget. “Come on, she urged me. The good hotels in Copenhagen offer  50% off  in  their rates during weekends.” That was enough to convince me.

We hopped on a ferry and checked in at a five-star hotel. We toured the city by bus, visited more museums, ate open face sandwiches and one kroner hotdogs to save money. At night, I could not sleep for I was overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells of my Nordic experience.

I came home a changed woman. Travelling to other countries, to use an oft repeated phrase, widens your horizon. It naturally feeds on your curiosity and erases the negative spirit of  intolerance.  Oh yes,  I went back to England  for a PR conference and stayed for almost a week.I had fun, bravely exploring the city of London on my own and, this time, I learned to travel light.

Parts Unknown ( with apologies to Anthony Bourdain)

Mother and son 2Mother and son

Has it been seven years already? I have been a Mom for that long?  A friend says it’s a parenting milestone. My husband, an ex La Salle brother, says seven is  considered  a perfect number in the Bible. Was that meant to make me feel good? I oftentimes wonder how I manage to survive it  everyday. A  girlfriend  with three grown up kids warns ” Wala pa yan. Naguumpisa ka pa lang. Marami ka pang mararanasan.”  ( That is nothing. You are still starting as a parent. You will undergo more experiences.)

I reluctantly entered into a world with many parts unknown. Thrown into a decision to become  a parent in only a few days, I was giddy,and afraid.  Gone were the after office dates with the hubby, the lazy weekends and the uninterrupted sleep at night.And the reality of hiring a yaya (nanny) to help me take care of a one month old baby sank in as deep as the ocean.

On the way to bring Joshua home,I asked myself if I am capable of being a good Mother. He cried continuously that we had to stop in three gasoline stations to check what was wrong with him. Was he hungry? Was he wet? I helplessly rocked him to sleep thinking my life has suddenly been turned upside down.

When  I had my  bearings back, I armed myself with so many information . Read baby books and parenting magazines. Asked advice from friends. Prayed to my deceased Mom for guidance. Eventually I chucked all the tips and unsolicited advice swirling in my head. I followed my maternal instincts as I tackled ” Mommyhood.”

I committed many mistakes, and learned from it. I understood why being a Mother is forever a life altering experience. You give so much of yourself physically, emotionally and mentally until you are so exhausted. But when you thought there is no more left to give the Guy upstairs throws at you a reservoir of boundless energy. He knows because he too has a Mother.

How have I fared as a Mother? I wish that I have more patience when Joshua is being  extra naughty. I wish that I can always cook  fantastic meals for him. I wish that I can often hide my disappointment when he brings low quiz grades.

As  I was writing this post, he requested for some playtime before I tutor him, then gave me a hug and said ” I love you.” Whenever  I hear those precious words  it somehow soften the edge of my imperfections. It helps to boost my confidence that perfectly imperfect me can always be a loving Mother.