It’s been three days, and somehow here we are, half a world away.
After 21 hours in transit, Saturday morning found us trudging into customs at SFO, encrusted with bags, hesitating briefly before getting in the native, non-visitors’ line for a the first time in year. We noticed big white people everywhere, and did auditory double-takes at being spoken to in English by Americans. When we saw “Welcome to the United States” scrolling across the screens above customs, tears sprang to our eyes as the full meaning of being an American, and returning there, impressed itself upon us. We were home.
Outside at the curb, breathing strangely clean air, we looked for the friend who had agreed to pick us up, and were instead greeted by more than a dozen friends, who welcomed us with hugs, smiles, and remarks that we looked thin and tired. One handed us farmers’ market peaches, a worthy substitute for the Philippines mangoes we’ll have dreams about.
The last three days have been a collage of returning to California memories: eating burritos from our favorite Oakland taco truck; devouring local cherries, strawberries, and figs; driving up highway 101 at dusk, watching the golden sun play on rolling vineyards and olive trees; being served a tiny fruit and cheese plate by our 5-year-old niece.
The intensity of everyday niceties here is a clear reminder of the life we just said goodbye to: each hot shower is a delicious luxury; clean air encourages deep, happy gulps, and despite the jet lag, trails to run on prompt grateful smiles. Drinking tap water is a minor celebration, as is sliding behind the wheel of a our own car instead of cramming ourselves on some form of public transit. And the quiet! This whole country is quiet, spacious, and clean. But the strangest thing isn’t all of the sudden contrasts, but how familiar it all seems, almost as if we never left.
The people we’ve left behind, however, give even the best of the Bay Area a bittersweet tinge; it was only Friday afternoon that we cried more at our Samaritana farewell than we have since our grandparents’ funerals. We had a group Pinoy-American bawl as women held us and told how we’d helped them grow; one of them said in tearful Taglish that she was never the kind of person before who would believe in herself, but she does now and knows she can be a leader. Another shared that we made her strong and brave to face life’s challenges. At the end they gathered around us, every woman touching or hugging us as they prayed for our safe travel, our future, and (much to our amusement) that we would have a baby. With every I-love-you and soggy embrace, we kept thinking “We can’t never see them again!”
In short, we’ve been ruined for the better. Instead of working for awards or prestige, Nate’s goal will be finding whatever advertising work will allow me to stay home and finish my book (and us to support Samaritana). Instead of filling our lives with activities, we’re planning ways to share our love for the Samaritana women with anyone who is interested enough to hear about them. We’re talking about how to bring home the sense of deep community we experienced in the Philippines, a reality where relationships are more important than money, results, and time.
Before we left Manila, some of the women joked that they would hide inside our checked suitcases, and that they’d be ok as long as we packed some rice for them inside. Sadly even the most petite were over the 50-pound limit per bag, so we couldn’t bring them with us. We hope, though, that the next best thing can be carrying them in the embrace of a country that has so much to give.