A Volunteer´s Notebook

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“Do you dance?”

Dance? Was Sr. Paulita Astillero, president of Centro Filipino really asking me if I could dance? But wasn´t I volunteering to teach Spanish to newly-arrived Pinoys? Was dancing part of the requirements?
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I gave her a blank look but her smile didn’t leave her face, still waiting for my reply. Somebody called her attention but before moving away, she turned to me and smiled, a gesture that seemed to have said. “You are in. But you have to show me your dance moves. Not now, but soon”. That capped off my interview and marked the start of my journey as a Centro Filipino volunteer.

The world of volunteerism

I was exposed to the world of volunteerism at the young age of 12 giving English classes to Grade Six students of Andres Bonifacio Elementary School in my hometown, Bacolod as part of our reach out program in High School. At the age of 15, I was giving Typing classes to students of Luis Hervias High School. Every Friday, while my friends were looking forward for the weekend ahead, I was excited preparing my lesson plans for my Saturday classes.

When I was based in Madrid, I was a volunteer of an NGO educating undocumented teenage immigrants where I worked as a tutor, translator and interpreter. When I moved to Barcelona in 2009, I needed no more prodding from my friends who were already volunteers of Centro Filipino. I had wanted to be a Centro Filipino volunteer even before Sister Pau asked me about my dancing skills.

Then I met the founder of Centro Filipino, Father Avel; considered to be the Father of the Filipino community in Barcelona. Together with Sister Pau, they made a perfect team serving our kababayans selflessly. I did not only hear stories about their round-the-clock availability when a kababayan was in need of their assistance, but I also had the chance to witness it myself. They showed me what unconditional service should be.

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Years of living volunteeringly

Years have gone by so quickly. Father Avel is no longer around. Sister Pau is already based in the Philippines. Happily though, their legacy continues to live on. And so, in my seventh year as a volunteer, I want to share seven things that I have learned not only from Father Avel and Sister Pau but also from my titas and titos of Centro Filipino.

 
1) The desire to help, the passion to serve and the commitment to carry on – A true volunteer has always the desire to serve anytime, anywhere. He/she is passionate about helping others in any way he/she can. Serving with a heart. Serving without expecting something in return. This is not an easy task though as most of the time, helping others takes a lot of our time. It takes a whole lot of commitment. It is not a one shot deal.    It´s a process.

2) Truckload of patience – Helping others requires a lot of patience as it often comes with the desire to change the whole system, the whole scheme of things. It takes patience to introduce something new, go against what we think is wasteful and unprogressive. There will be numerous obstacles, doubters, people who are hesitant to even give new ideas a go.

3) Happy disposition attracts positive energy – Having a positive outlook is an important characteristic of a volunteer. Can you imagine somebody doing volunteer work as grumpy and whiny? A happy disposition causes a happy environment. Things get done smoother, faster and problems don´t get out of hand.

4) Little things count – Little is more. No matter how small your action is, this may mean a big thing to others. Making my student understand the difference between SER and ESTAR may be a small thing but seeing their delighted faces once they finally pin the right answers is already reason to celebrate.

5) It´s not always about the money– Never think of this as a cash -generating activity. After all, volunteer means doing things wilfully. With your whole voluntad, as they call in Spanish. Remember, volunteer is doing a job for free. The only consolation i get from this is seeing my students get by, learn to defend themselves by speaking the language and by saying words aside from “Si, Señora”. You know this extreme satisfaction when one student comes to me one day thanking me, “Sir, I went to the doctor this morning and I was able to apply what I learned from your class.”

6) Helping others doesn’t make you a superhero – A volunteer will never be superhero. He/she will never have superpowers. A volunteer can only have the power to touch other people´s lives. Helping doesn’t make a volunteer superior or self-righteous. I am here to serve not to impose. To share not to brag. And to inspire not to insult.

7) You cannot change the world – I remember one story I came across years ago. If I remember it right it was about a woman who was walking along a beach and found a lot of starfish laying on the sand on the verge of dying. As she walked, she picked one up and threw it back into the water. Her friend commented that she was just wasting time because there were a lot of them on the sand and she wouldn´t be able to put them all back. What difference would it make? The woman picked up another one starfish and before throwing, she turned to his friend, “I may not be able to help all of them, but at least I can save one.”

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All this I owe

I repeat, we alone can never change the world. Definitely not. Remember, we can only do so much. I sometimes feel frustrated and disappointed that things don´t go as planned. That no matter what you do, there will always be intrigues, jealousy and envy. I perfectly know that I cannot change the world. However, I can be part of that change. I know for sure that somewhere somehow, I am making a difference in someone else´s world.

I am enormously pleased that in these years of serving the Filipino community, not only have I been able to be part of my students´ journey in Spain, but also I have been able to come to know myself, squeeze out my creative juices and share them with others.

Seven years have passed, I am still with Centro Filipino. Enjoying my time giving Spanish classes to newly arrived Filipinos and a lot of volunteering tasks left and right. All this I owe to this Center that has become my home in Barcelona.

It has been seven years now since my first interview with Sister Pau. It dawned on me that her question about my dancing skills wasn´t asked just to pull my leg. Sister Pau had already the intuition that one day, I would be teaching Iskwelang Pinoy kids to wiggle their tushes to Black Eyed Peas´ ”Boom Boom Pow” at a carnival day celebration. That even if didn’t dance, I would gladly oblige. For this lady doesn’t take No for an answer knowing that as long as I am based here, I will always be at the service of my kababayan.

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Swallowing the Twelve Grapes of Fortune

 

 

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“An optimist stays up until midnight to see the New Year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.” – Bill Vaughan

Madrid 2008

“SEVEN MINUTES!”

Christian shouts at us when the metro comes to a halt. We scamper out and run to the stairs heading towards the exit of the metro Opera. The escalator is not working so we have to take the stairs. Skipping three steps, I feel my heart pumping both in excitement and gasping for air.

“Six Minutes! Hurry! Hurry!” He shouts again.
I can hear our thundering steps coupled with laughter, and a bit of huffing and puffing. Aurora and Mia are behind me trying to pace up with us. Jesica and Christian are three steps ahead of me.

“Three more minutes! Come on guys!” He shouts again.

“Sir yes sir!” We chorus.

We just came from Jesica and Christian’s place where we had a very sumptuous and a very heavy NewYear’s eve dinner which I believe will last us for one year. I am still so full that anytime soon, with all this running, I am ready to explode. But still, I carry on. We need to be there the soonest possible time. As per Christian’s calculation, we now only have three minutes to reach the place and find a very good spot. Finally, cold air touches my skin. We are now outside the metro. There are waves of people everywhere in calle Arenal. We squeeze ourselves through the throng of revelers as the crowd moves slowly, going with the flow.

It is no longer possible to increase our pace. Christian carefully hides the bottle of champagne inside his jacket as bottled liquors are not allowed in the area. Last year there were a few bottle throwing incidents that made those in the city hall decide to ban bottled liquors in the celebration. We are about to pass police inspection to be allowed entry in front of the famous clock. As I come near where the cordon is, I raise my arms signifying that I don’t have any liquors and bombs with me. The police officer lets me in.

Tonight, we are celebrating the New Year’s eve in Puerta del Sol. The twelve grapes! At last, after having lived in Madrid for three years, I finally made it. I have always wanted to come here to witness and participate the traditional Spanish way of welcoming the new year, with twelve pieces of grapes. The officer did not notice the champagne Christian is carrying with him.

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As soon as the whole gang has entered the area we snake through the horde of warm bodies toward the closest available position facing the big clock of Puerta del Sol. As we wait for the main event, I see more merrymakers occupying the now vanishing gaps in the crowd like ants attacking a decaying prey. I survey the faces around me. It appears that there are more tourists than true blue Madrileños participating in this annual event. I remember asking my Spanish student Geronimo if he had ever been to the Doce Uvas in Sol and he gave me a flat “NO” and a smirk.

“It’s only for tourists Nats.”

To further support or possibly rebut his claim, I conducted an impromptu investigation by interviewing all of my Spanish students regarding the said event.

“We would rather watch it on TV.”

“Definitely, we are not going there, the last time was when I was a kid, but now, only tourists go there.”

“No, thank you. With all the drunks and wasted individuals around after the Twelve Grapes, I prefer staying with my friends in a more civilized place.”

Basing from the replies I got from my students, I therefore conclude that I can´t afford to miss it. After all, this is already my third year in Madrid and I don’t have an excuse to skip this event. It just spells adventure, fun and a lot of fun. I can always be a tourist, for all I know. So when we were eating dinner with my friends this evening and brainstorming what to do next to celebrate the New Year, the unanimous decision was to go to Sol.

Loud funky music booms in the background. People are dancing, others are shouting, howling, sounding off their trumpets, and most of them are taking photos. This is so much fun.

It was in 1909 where some Alicantese vine growers thought of a strategy to improve the sales of grapes. They created the Las Doce Uvas de la Suerte or The Twelve Grapes of Luck. It was right here in Puerta del Sol where they first celebrated this event that has become a Spanish tradition since then.

In the Philippines, the traditional way of welcoming the New Year can be both fun and dangerous. Aside from the customary preparation of food and putting rounded fruits on the table, firecrackers are the main attraction on this day. This is believed to drive away bad elements and spirits of the previous year and to usher the entrance of positive and good vibes for the coming year. Days before the New Year’s eve, most Filipinos buy firecrackers and horde them until the main event. Because at midnight, it is time to shock and awe. When I was a kid, I remember my father hoarding boxes of pyrotechnics months before the New Year. Ours were not as dangerous as the others. My mother was never going to allow my father to endanger our safety lest burn our house just to greet the New Year. Ours ranged from the not-so powerful Judas´ belt, triangulos and sparkling sticks.

An hour before midnight, people would wait  outside their houses and adults would start to fire explosives to the delight of us, kids, who would pleasure ourselves with lighting up sparkling sticks and kiddie firecrackers which can also be dangerous if one is not so careful.  Now, even if I am already allowed to fire a powerful firecracker, I refuse to do so. Images of gored fingers, burnt faces, hands with the thumbs falling off appear on television the day after. I just can´t afford losing my fingers or burn myself just to scare the bad spirits away.

I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn my head and look behind me. A group of Italian tourists is asking me to take a photo of them. The taller guy is wearing an Afro wig so enormous that he looks like a martian jazz artist. I oblige. After two snaps, they offer to take a photo of us in return. The tall guy takes off the wig and puts it on me. It’s my turn to be the martian jazz artist now. Everybody is having a good time oblivious to the cold weather that has been making my teeth grit the moment we stepped out of the metro.

“Ten minutes!” Christian, who is now enjoying his new role as our military training officer giving orders at us, shouts that in a matter of minutes we will be swallowing twelve pieces of grapes saying “Hello” to the New Year. He also fishes out the bottle of champagne he has been hiding under his jacket. Jesica takes out the six cans of canned grapes and gives one to each of us.

“Five minutes!!!” Christian updates us as if we don’t see the big and short hands of the big clock in front of us. The music gets louder and livelier so as the crowd.  “Ready guys! One more minute!” Everybody stares at the clock. 48 seconds later, the bell over the clock  tells us that it´s twelve seconds before midnight, before we say goodbye to the current year. I grip the can of grapes and take one out. “Dong!” the bell sounds.

Silence envelopes the air. On cue, everybody uniformly takes one grape. I can no longer think of chewing it, I swallow the whole grape. Then another dong, then another, then another. Somewhere along the way, I get so nervous that I swallow late. I have never realized swallowing grape by the second can be this stressful yet exciting.

 

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Then the last dong! The sky is covered with beautiful colors of explosives forming rainbows of enigmatic shades. Emotions run high as we turn to each other and greet “Happy New Year!” “¡Feliz año nuevo!”, greeting even strangers in the crowd amidst the rapturous shouts of the revelers and the flickers of the fireworks. Christian releases the cover of the champagne aiming it to a safer place where nobody will be hit by the lid. He pours on to the six plastic cups that Jesica takes out of her bag. She really came prepared. As soon as everybody has his own cup of champagne, Christian shouts again;

“To good life in the coming year!”

“Sir Olé Sir!”

The Night I Saw The Big Dipper For The First Time

 

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Germany, October 2016

“Look above! Look at the sky! Plenty of stars”.

Manu points to the starry sky as he exhales a puff of the smoke out of his nose. The smoke floats out of the window and offers a foggy feel which eventually disappears into thin air. I gaze up at the sky. A blanket of stars up above, as if having a feast, a banquet greets me. Are they celebrating the start of autumn? Are they having an Oscar night with paparazzi snapping trigger-happily their cameras at the stars? Below the glittering gathering of glowing gas, I am distracted by the darkness thats wraps the street outside. The world seems to be divided by a straight horizontal line with the upper half is filled with glittery dust while the lower half, the land below, is pitch black.

“How do you say star in German?” I ask Manu still holding my gaze skyward.

“Stern.” He answers while taking another drag on his cigarette. We are sitting at the window with the cool early autumn breeze tickling our faces. This is his spot where he takes his cig break before hitting the sack. It´s already one hour before midnight. All his neighbours are already asleep. I try to make out the lush garden below which is now swallowed by the thick blackness of the night. Not a single sign of any figures and shapes.

“Oh hey there, stern stars.” I try to play with the German and English words together.

“Look! There´s the Big Dipper!” Manu´s excitedly announces.

I follow Manu´s index finger as he one by one points to the stars that make up the Big Dipper. Of course, I have heard of the Big Dipper. But between you and me, I can´t remember gazing up at the sky finding any form of constellations. In short, I have never seen one.

But a starry starry sky always brings me back to that particular night in my childhood where the wide blue yonder was just as innocent as my 6-year-old mind not yet contaminated and jaded by the mean ways of the world. Ah, that night. Almost close to midnight. We were on our way home from a send-off dinner organised by my grandfather. We walked silently amidst the sharp chirping of the crickets and the hoarse croaking of the frogs in the background. The feeling was despondent and gloomy. My tatay was leaving for Jordan the following day to work as a laundry man in a factory. It was the first time he would leave us to work abroad.

My tatay was carrying my brother on his shoulder, my nanay walking next to him on his left and me, on his right occasionally getting hit by my brother´s dangling left foot. My brother was already too sleepy to fight back as I tried to pinch and tickle his leg away from me. I could hear the sound of our flip-flops hitting the small pebbles on the dirt road. A dog was howling in a far distance. I imagined eyes lurking behind the thick trees beside the road watching our every step. After all, it was almost midnight. Maybe some witches might just appear any moment and snatch one of us. I walked closer to my tatay only to be hit by my brother´s swaying foot yet again. Suddenly, I heard him point to the sky.

“Do you see those stars? Millions of them up there.”

He was actually talking to my brother trying to perk him up. My brother couldn´t care less. He didn´t even bother raising his head to look up. I did, though. I saw the sky full of stars. It was like an inverted sea of Christmas lights twinkling above us. It was so beautiful. I heard the dog howling again. I didn’t take my gaze away from the starry vault of heaven as it made me feel calm and distracted. It made me forget the lurking eyes behind the trees around us. As long as I focused my gaze on the stars, no witches would stop our way.

I pick up my phone, go to Google and type Big Dipper. The Big Dipper looks like a bowl with a handle. To my surprise, the Big Dipper, also known as the Plough, the Saucepan and Großer Wagen in German, is not actually a constellation. All along I thought it was. One article says that the Big Dipper is an asterism with seven brightest stars of the constellation Ursa Major. Also, together with the Big Dipper, one can also see the Little Dipper and the Polaris. I give the stars beside Mr. Big Dipper a thorough look to see if Polaris and the Little Dipper are also there. There it is, Polaris! But wait, it´s moving. I check the text if it says that Polaris actually moves. Not a chance. It doesn´t. I stare again. It´s a plane flying towards Hanover airport, it turns out.

Manu excuses himself to take a leak. I am left alone gazing up at the sky trying to play the images of that particular starry night in my childhood. Those were lightyears away from me now but I will never forget that night. I find myself wondering, what if tatay hadn´t left for abroad, would it have changed the course of our lives?

The longer I stare at the Big Dipper, the more it gives me the feeling of being in front of a big crowd of faceless strangers and see a familiar face waving at me. I am tempted to wave back at the Big Dipper. I can´t help but smile at the thought of bumping into the Big Dipper for the first time in my forty years of existence, Ridiculous, isn´t it?

I admire the infinite expanse of shimmering studs in front of me. The horizontal line that seems to divide the starry sky and the darkness below makes me ponder. We are just a speck in this massive and boundless cosmos where we go through life. We have routines. We go to work. We eat, cook, meet people, fall in love and die. Sometimes, we wonder, we ask ourselves. Why are we here? What is our purpose? Where is our destination?

And then one day, we find ourselves face to face with the horizontal line and we are caught in the middle. We realise our place in the big scheme of things. Sometimes, the choice is just there staring at us. That amidst the ocean of darkness, troubles, conflicts diseases and even death, all it takes is to look up beyond that horizontal line that separates the darkness from the sky full of stars. And if we are lucky, we end up seeing the stars align, connecting the dots of our destiny. They are just there. Waiting for us to experience either for just one second or an eternity.

Manu is back and pulls out another stick, his last for the night. I lean close to his face and feel his short beard stubble gently pinching mine. He smells of cigarette and shower gel, which has become my favourite smell for the time being. I give him a kiss and stare back at the sky.

“Hey there Big Dipper!” I whisper, addressing both to him and The Big Dipper above.

Channeling Olivia Newton-John

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All of a sudden, the silence of an otherwise eventless evening is broken by a sound akin to a stampede. Of young impalas escaping a hungry beast. I sit up and listen eagerly. I glance at the kitchen. My nanay is still busy preparing our dinner oblivious to the pandemonium outside. The sound of racing feet comes back again. Another group. Another batch fleeing imminent death? But curiously, whatever the noise is about, it doesn’t transmit an air of fear and alarm. Instead, muffled giddiness and common excitement. I put down the book near the oil lamp. My brother is in the other corner, lying on his stomach on the floor, playing with his coloured rubber bands. He too stops and listens to the hubbub outside. I am about to stand up and see what is going on when I hear my nanay calling my name in a relaxed voice. She wants me and my brother to buy a bottle of Minola coconut oil. We excitedly stand up and head out to the street.

As soon as we get to the main street, we see people running in one direction. Dying of curiosity, we increase our pace. Instead of walking straight to the store to grab a bottle of cooking oil, we walk to the spot where a crowd is slowly building up. I can hear music blaring from the big speaker attached to the back part of a red Sarao jeepney. A man standing next to the vehicle speaks on the microphone summoning the kids to come forward. So this is what the commotion is all about. Every kid in the neighbourhood seems to be here. Thus, the stampede.

“Now we only need three pairs more. Come on kids! We are going to have fun!”

Right next to the host, there are around seven pairs of kids looking all so eager and excited. What´s going on? A boy runs towards the group followed by his friend.

“We only need two more pairs and we can begin!” Shouts the host.

My brother finds a friend and both of them sneak through the crowd and run near the host signifying their participation. I feel a hand clutch mine and pulls me close to the jeepney. Liza, my neighbour who lives two houses away from ours gives me a sinister smile as we stand next to the other kids.

“Do you dance, right?”
“Uhm, yes!”

“Then we are going to beat them!”

“We now have ten pairs of the best dancers this side of the city! Please give space for the dance floor! Let the fun begin!” An unfamiliar techno song starts blaring in the background.

“Dance!” Liza encourages me.

I start to sway.

“This is a dance contest, whoever wins will win a prize”

“What´s the prize? Money?”

“Most likely! But they didn’t say!”

Probably cash. I think to myself while I slowly shake my tush to the rhythm. My mother will be happy if I win. Bringing home the bacon. I smile to myself. Suddenly, I remember the bottle of cooking oil my mother asked me to buy. My smile instantly fades away. I don´t stop dancing though. The music suddenly stops. Everybody stops and the crowd falls silent. Is this a statue dance? But it´s not a statue dance. Nobody is eliminated even if one of the pairs dares to move. Just then the DJ plays the most popular song of the moment.

“A place… where nobody dared to go, the love that we came to know
They call it…. Xanadu.”

The crowd swoons and shouts in delight. I raise my hands in the air and shake my head and my hips leftward trying to ape the moves of those cool dancers of a popular noontime variety show. Liza gives me an emboldened look.

“Follow me.” I instruct her.

As the chorus plays, we are now doing the same steps together. I sway my whole body on one side, Liza does so. I roll my hands up in the air. Up and down. Down and up. We turn around and meet the chorus with a dramatic
shoulder sway, throwing our head on the side and both hands upward, shake our shoulders and hips a little and smoothly stumping our feet. We extended our arms, hold hands and kick our left feet in the air.

A million lights are dancing and there you are, a shooting star
An everlasting world and you’re here with me, eternally
Xanadu, Xanadu, (now we are here) in Xanadu
Xanadu, Xanadu, (now we are here) in Xanadu
Xanadu, your neon lights will shine for you, Xanadu

I glance at the other dancers. What is my brother doing? Strutting? Is that even moon walking? A man next to the announcer is intently observing each pair. He then walks near my brother and his partner. With a surprise look on their faces, they are asked to leave the dance floor. Oh! Has my brother just been booted out? Poor bro. So there is only one judge and HE is not going to eliminate us. We have to impress him. The song continues and one by one, the judge taps a pair and out of the dance floor they go. My synchronised steps with Liza make us look like the team to beat. She is a good dancer, actually. Sometimes I follow her steps, at times she copies mine. When I glance around again, we are the only two pairs left. The rest of the dancers are surrounding us. Some cheering us on, others with arms akimbo watching us with a green with envy.

We are now approaching the last part of the song. I shake my hips some more. More exaggerated than before. Liza does so too. We are so going to win this. Olivia Newton-John belts the last stanza. We end our act with our left hands raised and the right on our hips just like they do in Dance Sports Competitions. The crowd has doubled since the dance competition started. I remember the cooking oil once again. I survey the audience hoping not to spot an angry mother holding a ladle while smoke coming out of her nose. The host is going to announce the winning pair. Liza holds my hand. God, this is so thrilling.

“And the winning pair is….!” The host hangs his announcement a little bit, the crowd goes wild shouting their choices. After a a couple of seconds, the announcer grabs my arm and raise it in the air. We won! Liza jumps up and down. I jump up and down with her. The other pair walks away.

“And the prize of our winning pair is…!

I can´t wait to hear the prize. Is it going to be cash? A car? A College Insurance Plan? I am going to be rich!

“Two bottles of Sprite for our winners!” Shouts the announcer excitedly and then babbles away promoting the NEW AND IMPROVED Sprite blah blah blah.

Our house is suspiciously quiet. Is nanay already asleep? Did she get to finish cooking without the cooking oil? Or did she also go to watch us dance? We nervously climb up the stairs. Before knocking, I stare at the bottle of Sprite and then to my brother. “This is going to save us from hunger in case we will be deprived of dinner tonight.”

The Sinner, the Fish and the Fisherman

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“I’d stand in line for confession with old people and little kids, and as the line moved up, I knew when I got into the box that I would lie! Again!” – Mercedes McCambridge

 

 

Madrid, 2004

I FOUND THIS beautiful and solemn church, the Inmaculada Concepción somewhere in calle Velásquez. Since I don’t have work yet, I frequent this place. Just like I used to do when I was in Manila where I would always hear the twelve noon mass near our office. The Inmaculada Concepción church is huge. The first time I entered this place, I instantly felt something different. A different kind of sensation: peaceful and calm.

It became one of my favourite churches right away. I come here everyday and attend the twelve o’clock mass. Today, I arrive twenty minutes early. I settle near the door. I just sit there and feel the harmony between complete silence and absolute serenity. This is the best place to reflect on things. I just love this solitary moment.

Then, I see the light bulb above the confession box sign turns green. The priest enters and waits for a sinner to confess. There is no queue. Aside from me, there are only three more people inside the church. An old lady with a big red bag, a man in his 40´s wearing a grey suit together with a younger lady in a blue dress.

I don’t often go to confession. The most is once a year. I know that as a good Catholic, I have to at least confess my sins once a month. When I was a kid, I used to do this. Of course with a lot of prodding from my mother. But as I grow older, I no longer observe this practice religiously. As I said, once a year is enough, during holy week or before New Year’s eve.

I don’t have anything against this religious practice but for me, it’s better to go directly to God and tell him all about my sins than to a priest. It is because I have the tendency to sugar-coat some of my sins to make myself look like an obedient and a good boy. But to be honest, I am not really that comfortable telling my sins to other people. That is why, every time I confess, I don’t talk about my sins, but rather, my problems or my plans. It is more on asking for a blessing or advice from the priest than declaring my sins.

I look at the confessional box again. It is a sinless day today. Taking my cue from the fact that it is not a busy day for sinners, I feel a sudden urge to confess. This will be my first for the year. No queues, no pressure. After a few seconds of deciding whether to confess or not, I finally head towards the confession box. I do not kneel down as soon as I reach the small pew. I go straight to the priest and ask him if I can do the confession in English.

Although my Spanish is ‘acceptable’ I still prefer telling my sins in a language that I am more comfortable with. But no, he doesn’t speak English and he tells me that there is another priest who can.

Before I can tell him that I don’t want to be a bother, he is quick to tell me that my Spanish isn’t that bad at all. That we can do the confession in Castellano. I want to back out. I am tempted to tell him that I have changed my mind. But strangely, I find myself going straight to the small pew, kneel down and start my confession. Ah, God wants to be entertained today.

But since I am not really a frequent confession-doer, I realize that I have already completely forgotten the opening line before rattling off my sins. It takes me a while to remember the line. In my mind, I start with: “Bless me Father for I have sinned, these are my sins.” I intentionally skip the part where I have to say the last time I went to confession because between you and me, it was ages ago. The next thing to do is to mentally translate the line to Spanish. Darn! I blank out. I can’t remember the Spanish word for SIN! I begin translating the line with: “Bendígame padre porque soy…. soy…” (Bless me father for I am …).

A gap. Total silence wraps the air as I am trying to grope for the correct term. I can feel my pulse beating and the only sound that I hear is the clinking of the rosary the old lady with the red bag is praying with. The priest is still waiting for me to say the right word. I continue, “Porque soy PESCADOR…”

Oops! That doesn’t sound right. I am not a fisherman, am I? What is the word? I
try again, “Porque soy…soy PESCADO…”

But doesn’t pescado mean fish? Darn it! Nemo ain´t I! And being a fish is never a sin, right? Oh God I need Divine Intervention. Before I utter my next try, I take a deep breath. Lord God, I promise I will never sin again. I am not asking for big miracles here, no dead sea parting or bush burning. I just beg you to please whisper the Spanish word for SIN? I bow my head pretending to reflect. I can hear the slow breathing of the priest waiting for me to finish my opening line.

Just then, as if there is a sudden ray of light passing through the gaps of the steel bars of the small windows of the church and flashing directly to me that I remember the word! Triumphantly I pronounce the line, “¡Bendigame padre porque soy PECADOR!”

Oh God, thank you! That sounds so right. Okay, I might have sounded a bit excited declaring that I am sinner but I don´t care. Now, I feel strips of sweat on the back of my neck. I can’t avoid clenching my fist and mentally saying “Yes!” I am so proud of myself. I wink at the statue of Jesus on one of the pillars near the confessional. I am a little bit embarrassed with the whole thing that I no longer notice if the priest is giggling or is just letting this blunder pass without laughing. Or is he secretly smiling?

After reciting the opening line, I go on rattling off my sins. But since my Spanish vocabulary is not that confession-friendly, I blurt my sins according to the level of my Castellano. I carefully use simple verbs. Mostly, the basic ones, avoiding subjunctives. When I finish my monologue, the priest sounds unconvinced because I hear him say,“¿Ya está?” That’s all? Of course ya está. I don’t have to tell him that sometimes I steal salt or garlic bulbs from our landlady or lying to my flatmate for eating her rice.

“Yes, Father! Ya está.”

He then recites his “sermon” which I hardly understand because of his thick African accent. I thank him for his patience and apologize for my blooper. After praying for my sins, the bell rings and the mass begins.

Spain, Finally: Bewitched, Beguiled and Bewildered

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“En Madrid sólo son buenos
Desde la cuna a Madrid”- Luis Quiñones de Benavente

“LADIES AND Gentlemen, welcome to Madrid!”

The cheerful voice of the stewardess, with her very thick German accent instructing all passengers to fasten their seatbelts resonates through the speaker. She ends her announcement at a jolly pitch. I can´t see her from where she is but I can imagine, by the tone of her voice that she is smiling widely while extending her right hand just like beauty contestants do when they introduce themselves in beauty pageants.

We are about to reach the end of our one hour-and-a-half flight from Switzerland. Our flight was delayed in Manila yesterday so we had to spend the night in Bangkok and catch a connecting flight to Zurich. From Zurich we took a smaller Swiss airplane. We are still a few miles above ground and it´s hard to hide this extreme excitement that I am feeling right now. From the moment we boarded the plane in Switzerland after an almost three-hour layover in Zurich, I have been engulfed by this ridiculously happy feeling that makes me want to jump and dance in my seat. Thanks to the seatbelt around my waist, it keeps me from the itch of boogie-ing around and kissing everyone on the plane.

Needless to say, the Madrid-bound flight is filled with mostly Spanish-speaking passengers. My ears have been on high alert mode. I hear them lisp and I see a lot of hand gestures when they talk. In front of me is a Spanish couple who has been talking to each other non-stop throughout the flight. Behind me is a Spanish grandma and her grandchild, a two-year old future football player who has been kicking the seat in front of him, meaning mine. I try to eavesdrop to every word they say, testing my comprehension skills after learning Spanish for two years in Manila. God, they speak so fast.

De Madrid al cielo. From Madrid to heaven. I can vividly remember our Spanish teacher Juan explaining to us the meaning of this phrase. It´s a popular local saying that means that the city of Madrid lies at the gate of heaven. Or simply saying, Madrid is the best city in the world, period. According to Juan, the complete phrase is “De Madrid al cielo, y en cielo un agujerito para verlo. Literally means “From Madrid to heaven, and in heaven, there is a hole to see it.” This line became popular in the last years of the 18th century during the beautification of the city spearheaded by Carlos III. It was said that when one dies, he can still see from above the Villa and the Corte that made the city grand and majestic through an opening in the sky.

Making use of the view out of my window as my improvised “agujerito”, I take a good look below. However, judging by what I see through my “hole in the sky”, I am not staring at Villas and Cortes. Instead, I see dark and light brown patches of land. And they look dry. Is this the Madrid that is the most beautiful place in the world, second only to the heavens?

As the plane gently dives to land, I don’t take my eyes off the emerging land area as it gets bigger and wider waiting for the real Madrid to come into view. My thoughts are disrupted by a soft tap on my shoulder. I turn around and see the stewardess signaling me to sit straight. The plane prepares for landing. I bite my last chunk of Swiss chocolate that was given to all passengers upon boarding the plane.

In Philippine history class in high school, our history teacher made us memorize the date March 17, 1521. The day when Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, working for the Spanish monarch, reached the Philippine shores. He was met with welcoming arms by the natives. He befriended the tribe´s king King Kolumbu who later invited him to a symbolic feast to celebrate the dawn of a lifelong friendship. The king showered them gold and ginger. At dinnertime, Magellan was told that the island was rich in gold. He and his men pretended that they were not interested in gold or whatever wealth the island must have. The truth was, he was already plotting to return again and get them. Unfortunately, a month after his arrival, he was killed by Lapu-lapu, one of the tribe rulers who rejected the Spanish colonisation.

And so today, September 2004, after 483 years, I, Nats Sisma, 29 years old, has finally reached Spain, safe, sound and no signs of jetlag. As I mentioned before, my love affair with Spain happened in 2001 when I caught this documentary about España. I instantly fell in love with its cobbled streets, castles, cathedrals, avenidas, paella and more. Outrageously. Deeply. Madly in love. To a point where it became an intense obsession for me to come to Spain. I wasted no time and took Spanish classes every Saturday. After two years of conjugating Spanish verbs, I applied for a scholarship granted by the Spanish government. After three months, I got the news. I was in.

Here I am now, in front of the immigration officer, grinning from ear to ear upon hearing the light thump as the die of the rubber stamp hits the pad of my passport. The words “Madrid Barajas” are now an indelible seal on top of my Spanish visa. I am a little bit disappointed because he didn’t ask me anything. I would have wanted to recite my first lines in Spanish IN Spain for the first time ever. But he just looked at my passport, glanced at me and with a straight face, certified my official entry to Spain, not knowing that the real reason for my stay is not only to study but also for a mission: to recover all the golds and ginger the ex-colonizers had amassed and looted while overstaying their welcome in my motherland. We are talking of three hundred thirty three years here. Hah!

The immigration officer looks at me again. Oh. Did he read my mind? Is he suspicious? Welcoming? Or it´s just a blank stare? It doesn’t take long for me to realize that he is just signaling me to let the next person in line to come forward. Still grinning from ear to ear, I pace towards the corner a few feet away from the immigration booth to get a luggage cart. Passengers are already gathered around the conveyor belt waiting for their luggage to emerge. I pull one cart. It doesn’t budge. I pull again. Nope. I drag it towards me. Something wrong with the wheels I conclude. But before I can move to get another cart, a friendly-looking señor walks towards me. Spain´s version of King Kokombu? I wonder. Instead of offering me golds and ginger, he walks straight to the cart and presses the handle downward. I feel the cart moves. The wheels are working! The helpful señor gives me a warm smile and points to the sign on the cart´s handle that says “press down to move cart.”

The airport is huge not to mention clean and cool. There are lots of people alright but everything looks orderly. I see that everybody can enter the airport building anytime they want. A far cry from our international airport in Manila where not everybody is allowed inside. When my mother, my brother and my aunt saw me off at the airport last night, they could only accompany me up to the entrance. Only passengers are permitted to enter the airport lobby. This is because everybody wants to be with a departing or an arriving friend or family member. It is a Pinoy (Filipino) thing. I am talking about truckloads of well-wishers and welcoming committee which can be the whole neighborhood complete with welcome/farewell banners.

I text my brother telling them that I have landed. After 30 minutes of waiting, our Spanish friend Carlos arrives. Blond, green eyes and a wide smile, Carlos introduces himself in Spanish. He is the boyfriend of Carla who is a friend of a friend of my friend who also happens to be a co-scholar and my companion on this trip. Carla is supposed to collect us but she has to beg off because of work. My friend and I are staying at their place in Mostoles for about a couple of days before I move to Santiago de Compostela and him, to the student dorm near the Complutense University in Madrid.

Carlos´ car is your typical European car, small and practical. It takes us a while to figure out how we can squeeze ourselves and our luggage inside the vehicle. With a lot of pushing and shoving, the four big luggage are securely tucked inside the trunk. Carlos warns us that he doesn’t speak English and we warn him that our Spanish is neither here nor there. Our first preoccupation is how are we going to understand each other. However, we don’t have a choice but to frisk away our shyness the moment he starts the ignition and drives us to their place. In between our pidgin Spanish and his below-elementary English, we are able to strike a conversation during the trip. Carlos’ smile is just all over the place and he is very patient with our grammatically-challenged Castellano. His Spanish is so crispy for its utmost clearness that it sounds like eating a crunchy fried chicken wing dipped in mashed garlic and mayonnaise in a Spanish restaurant in Manila. My first taste of conversing in Spanish IN Spain for the first time. Ever.

It is a traffic-less Saturday afternoon. The streets are wide and spic n´ span. Curiously, I notice that most of the cars are rather small. My gaze follows the red Peugeot on our left. I wonder if this small car which looks more like of a toy car, can survive the main thoroughfares of Manila especially the long and the notoriously dangerous EDSA avenue. I have always likened this uber-long avenue to a stampede scene in the movie Jurassic Park where fleeing dinosaurs are pounding each other for safer grounds. The buses passing through EDSA are definitely like those Jurassic monsters overtaking smaller vehicles in any way they can; stomping the slow, trudging the frail and plodding the weak. Urban legend says that once a driver survives driving in EDSA, he can absolutely drive anywhere else in the world, with eyes closed.

With the window open, I feel the fresh autumn breeze against my face. I watch “toy cars” drive past ours. I can´t help but wonder whether Pinoy car owners are more vain compared to their Spanish counterparts. You see, a speck on one´s car in the Philippines speaks hugely of the kind of owner the car has. When I still had “Tiago”, my Honda City baby for five months, I didn’t have a choice but to take him to the car wash twice in ten days or else he would stand out in a traffic jam filled with shiny and clean cars, old or new. I didn’t want to be bickered at by “car police” thinking that I was living by the foot of a recently-active volcano because my less than dainty car was covered with ashes and dust.

Even Carlos´ car does not escape this observation, it needs one good trip to the car wash too. Its body is dusty and the windshield has bird shit that looks like it has been there for ages. But mind, even if his small car is dirty on the outside, its interior is impeccably clean and it smells good too. Tall apartment buildings emerge in the horizon. I see a lot of graffiti on several walls of buildings and bridges. Honestly, I don’t mind. They look more like artworks than eyesores. At last, Carlos pulls over the car and we climb inside the lift lazily dragging our luggage.

Then there´s Carla who looks like a character in a Mexican telenovela, big brown eyes, dark hair and very “Spanish”. It is a lot easier to talk to Carla. Thank God she can speak English. Oddly enough, after spending a short thirty minutes talking to her, I already have the feeling that we have known each other for a long time. Like Arturo, she has a warm smile. She just talks, talks and talks. She is a human chimney too. She seems to have smoked a hundred sticks in thirty minutes; non-stop. She only stops though when she raises her two hands to highlight something that needs hand gestures. Our so-called Asian timidity and coyness has decided to say goodbye after seeing the warm reception we got from Carlos and now Carla.

It is already eight in the evening and the sun is still up. Right from a tiring twenty hour flight from Manila, we take a rest in their guest room for a few hours. When the couple sees us up and awake, our first taste of an authentic Spanish dinner follows. Cheese, Spanish omelette, chorizo and bread flood the table. Carla grabs the long baguette and cuts one chunk using her bare hands and passes the rest of the bread to the next person: me. I do the same. Much that I am delighted to have my first Spanish dinner eating bread as everybody else in Europe does, my throat and tummy crave for a plateful of hot rice to go with the Spanish omelette and chorizo.

Lively conversation ensues, juggling from our broken Spanish to Carla´s acceptable English to Carlos´ hand gestures. To go with the sumptuous meal, wine is served. To cap off the hearty dinner, my friend and I feast on peaches and oranges while our Spanish couple has one cig each for dessert. The dining room officially becomes an inverted chimney with smoke hovering over our head. After dinner, we settle on the sofa and try watching TV. Carla can´t hide her amusement when she sees our surprised reaction to the naked woman in a shampoo commercial. We tell her about censorship in the Philippines. She just releases a you-must-be-kidding-me laugh and then goes on telling us that in Spain, there is no such thing as censorship. That porno films are even shown at midnight when kids are presumably asleep.

After several channel surfing and finding no interesting show to watch, Carla tells us, in between puffing, to prepare ourselves for a glimpse of Madrid nightlife. After all, it’s a Saturday night. But not before making it clear if we really want to. Or else we can stay at home. Stay? On a Saturday night? You must be kidding me! Jetlag? What jetlag?

So off we drive to the heart of Madrid. Our first stop is a bar somewhere in Chueca. Fast Latin music reverberates in the background. It seems that our thirty something hosts know everybody in the place. Apart from eating bread at mealtime, one Spanish thing that I need to learn quick and fast is the “greeting” kisses. It is amusing to see that everybody is giving everybody a kiss on both cheeks. Even some men. At first I thought that I would only give one kiss to those whom I have already met before and a handshake for those whom I have just met for the first time. But no. Even before I can extend my hand to the newly introduced friend in front of me, she has already bent closer to plant two kisses on my cheeks.

After an hour of what seemed to be endless chatting, smoking and drinking, we move to another bar. More drinks and kisses-on-cheeks follow. I have already downed two bottles of cerveza.

Another hour has passed, but Carla and Carlos are not yet in the mood to call it a day. They lead us to yet another cool place which turns out to be one of Madrid´s chic discos somewhere in Gran Via. We never feel any signs of jet lag whatsoever because the moment we enter the place, we are plagued by the contagious party spirit of the Madrileños. We dance to the Spanish beat, laugh and drink on the crowded dancefloor.

“What time is it?” Carla asks me after a couple of hours of non-stop dancing.

“Eleven o´clock!” I give my watch a quick glance and then continue wiggling. “Eleven o´clock? But eleven o´clock was like four hours ago!”

“What?” I don’t hear what she is talking about.

She points to my watch. I look at it. And realize something.

“Oh! It´s still Philippine time!”

Why Spain?

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“In Spain there’s the king – and then there’s Antonio.” Melanie Griffith

“WHY Spain?”

My boss puts my resignation letter down on his desk and looks at me, as I gather to compose myself. I have already practised what to say. I have been memorizing my speech since the day I received the BIG news. My boss arranges the pile of printed memos scattered on the table and stirs the coffee that has long been cold. He looks at me waiting for my reply.

Why Spain? I repeat the question in my head. But before I can open my mouth, he proceeds to talk. “Are you sure you want this?” He says in a low voice. I nod my head. “Are you ready to give up everything for this?” He looks at me in the eye. I nod my head once again. He is referring to my current position at work. I have just been promoted for the second time. I have just gotten my first ever car from the company. I am a District Sales Manager. I handle at least fifteen people. I am enjoying the respect of my colleagues, not to mention the perks and bonuses that the company has been giving me. Am I ready to give this all up?
I glance at my resignation paper that my boss is still holding. I mindfully chose the right words when I wrote that letter. I consciously didn’t want to part in a bad tone. I want this to be perfectly fine. I know they will understand. This is my dream. Going to Spain has long been my dream for years now. They know that.

“Yes, sir. I am.” I speak softly so as not to make my voice shake.

“You will give up your car, your position, the benefits, your bright future in this company. Have you thought about this? You are giving up a lot of opportunities for your future. Aren’t you worried about what if this Spain thing of yours will not work out and….”
I decide not to let him finish his sentence. I open my mouth. “Yes sir, I have thought about this a hundred times. I am ready. I am prepared for whatever is in store for me in Spain.”
My boss doesn’t react. He stirs his coffee again and this time raises the cup and leans forward to take a sip. He reaches for his pen and signs his signature at the bottom part of my letter. “Did you also furnish a copy to Human Resources?”
I nod.

“Well then. It seems that you have already made up your mind. I wish you good luck and I hope you made the right decision.” He offers his hand. I stand up to reach it. I take a deep breath and give my boss a smile. This has been easier than what I have imagined.

“Why Spain?”, echo the five voices surrounding me right now. The news has spread throughout the office and I have been bombarded by questions about my resignation. The five curious faces are now looking at me as if I have committed the most heinous crime against humanity.

You see, I have kept everything a secret. From the time I applied for the scholarship up to the time I received the result. I thought it was surreal. Finally, my chance of going and living a life that I have dreamed of. I didn’t want to jinx it. Only my family and some selected friends knew about the exciting news. I perfectly remember that afternoon when a friend called to inform me that I was in the list of lucky scholars bound to study in Spain. I was about to jump for joy and hug everybody only to later on realize that I was in a conference room having a meeting.

Of course they already knew about my Spanish classes every Saturday afternoon. But to actually pursue something as big as this, they never thought I would go this far. They were only aware that I was the odd guy learning Spanish. Just to pass time. One of my bosses even joked about it. “Why Spanish? Why not take French? Or German? Spanish is a dead language.” They couldn’t understand why I would waste my Saturday afternoons learning this “dead” language for nothing. What good would it give me, they argued. Spain is not a world economic force to reckon with anymore. Why even bother to go there. I just shrugged off whatever remarks they said. I was not going to let them affect me nor my dream of one day, living in the land of Don Quijote. I assured them I just loved what I was doing and I loved Spain for that matter. It was my breather from the stress my job was giving me. They skeptically accepted my line of reasoning. They tried to hide their cynicism so as not to offend my enthusiasm. They feigned support so as not to upset me. They concealed their doubts so as not to pull my spirits down. Until today.

“Are you really really sure? One hundred percent sure? You are leaving us for Spain? Do you know what you are up to?” One of the five voices echoes through my ears.

I can’t blame them. Their reaction is predictable. For most Filipinos, America is the only country outside the Philippines that can offer a bright and promising future. The land of milk and honey. Though, the Philippines was colonized by Spain for three hundred years, we don’t show much affinity with our former colonizer. After the Spaniards left the Philippines, the Americans took over. The pro-American stance taken by past and present governments left the Philippines finding itself alienated to its one time colonist.

We may not speak Spanish, but the Spanish culture is a great influence among Filipinos. We are 80 percent Catholic. We are the only Asian country that has Spanish sounding surnames. We celebrate fiestas all year round. We employ 20 percent of Spanish words in our language. We are even described as the Latinos of Asia for being happy, cheerful and friendly, traits that we share with the Spaniards. Sadly however, for most of us, Spain is just a thing of the past. A former colonizer, that is. The old world. Nothing more than bullfighting, paella, guardia civil or Julio Iglesias or Real Madrid and Rafa Nadal for the younger ones. Nothing more.

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I must admit though that I was once one of the many who thought of Spain this way. But this did not stop me from exploring the possibility of visiting this once great nation. It all started after watching a documentary about Spain. I was intrigued by its beauty and magic. I was beguiled by its grand culture, its fascinating history. I woke up one morning telling myself I was Spain-bound.

Actually the truth was, I wasn’t sure how this whole Spain thing was going to happen. Maybe luck would just come knocking at my door one day, like a long lost rich grandfather looking for a long lost grandson to bequeath his riches to and that grandson turned out to be me. I would then use that money for Spain. I would be living my dream. Everything would be like, wow! But this was very far from happening. First and foremost, my two grandfathers are already dead and were not rich. I had to do something to make my dream come true. In between salivating daydreams, I took Spanish classes at the Instituto Cervantes in Manila. It was heaven. I couldn’t describe the satisfaction that I felt being with my classmates knowing that we shared the same interests and the love for Spain. And whoever said that Spanish was a dead language must be skinned alive.

I FASTEN MY SEATBELT. I can’t contain my excitement. I am finally going to Spain. There are still passengers standing in the aisle looking for their seats. I look outside the window. It’s dark. I feel my mobile phone vibrating. A text from my brother, reminding me to pray the rosary during the flight. Obviously it came from my mother. I can’t help but smile. After 28 years, I will be away from my family. I will be living alone in a foreign land. I press the keys and type “Okidoki.” I switch it off and recline my seat. In 18 hours, I will be in a totally different world. I hear the flight attendant speaking on the PA system telling everyone to settle down. In a few minutes, the plane starts moving and prepares to take off. I comfortably rest my head against the window. This is it, I tell myself. I reach for my pocket, fish inside it and take out my rosary. But before I start to pray, I hear myself saying.

“Why not Spain?”