“That’s why I’m so grateful that I live to be this old. Because I get to sit here with you. Think what I would have missed out on!”
Sister Sabina* sat under an over-saturated mango tree at night, fruit thudding to the earth periodically around our plastic chairs, insects gently carrying conversations in the orchard before us. The sound of the waves didn’t quite reach Father Castro’s* estate, but the karaoke party a few blocks down sure did.
Painfully-sung top 40 ballads pushed against our evening conversation, but couldn’t successfully interrupt.
Yesterday, I missed a flight for the first time in my life. I had scheduled a 5:15 a.m. flight to Legazpi at midnight, just a few hours before boarding. I woke up, checked out of the Manila hostel, took an Uber to the airport, and checked in for my flight, all on time. With a few minutes to spare, I ordered breakfast at a restaurant near the gate: a tuna sandwich to-go. It took a long time to make. I arrived to the gate 13 minutes before takeoff. The gate had closed 2 minutes prior. I had to pay to re-book a flight at 9:15 a.m. for a fee of about $40US.
An expensive mistake. An expensive tuna sandwich.
A few hours later, I sat in the window seat of the 9:15 a.m. flight (for which the gate remained open well after 15 minutes prior to takeoff, for the record). I’d eaten my tuna sandwich, I’d finished a glass bottle of soymilk I’d bought, I’d napped off the missed-flight frustration, and I sat beside an older woman and man, writing my article for the Haribon Foundation in my notebook. Provincial islands and cerulean seas came into view and disappeared, thousands of feet below me. I wasn’t hungry.
But when the stewardesses came by with a complimentary snack, I immediately accepted. Constantly on the move, constantly running out of local currency, and constantly burnt out, I learned to accept food, always. “BBQ Chicken Bun,” the sticker read. A perfectly smooth, round roll sealed into clear plastic. Sure. I unwrapped it and dug in, turning my attention out the window.
The woman beside me moved slowly. She unwrapped the bun, and paused. She held the bun in her hands. She regarded it. She considered it. This shitty airplane food mystery meat roll. Her gratitude was bold and unabashed. Then, she began to eat it.
Meet Sister Sabina.
I made a note of her mealtime grace in my pocketbook, thinking it a sweet anecdote to include in some other story. By the following half-hour, when I piled into the car next to Sister and abandoned my bus schedule for wherever she, Father Castro, and their friends would take me, Sister Sabina had become a story of her own.
“I see a lot of myself in you when I was younger,” Sister said in the car ride to lunch. Just know that she was cracking herself up progressively more with every word. “I would show up places without knowing where I would sleep that night.”
“But it works!” she laughed, bemusedly.
“It always works,” she laughed, carelessly.
“At least for us!” she laughed, victoriously.
(Just assume that whenever Sister is talking, she’s laughing.)
*Names have been changed for privacy.
The Golden State Warriors game played on the TV screen, while Mindanao updates scrolled along the news banner on the bottom.
Sister Sabina, Father Castro, two of their friends, and I sat on plastic leather couches around a table spread with a banana leaf. The restaurant was full of light from large glass doors and windows on either side. Two other large parties, friendly families, ate at other tables. We dug our fingers into fresh fish and pork ribs, cracked flesh of out an orange crab, plucked legs and eyes off shrimp and wiped the juice off our chins. Piled high on the banana leaf (the serving surface of the entire feast) was a mountain of rice, sculpted to look like Mayon, the perfect cone volcano right outside, visible through the stucco cutout in the semi-outdoor washroom.
“That’s what the Holy Spirit does. Helps us discern meaning,” Sister explained in the car afterward, on the way drop me off at the bus station. Considering the Pentecost the following Sunday, she gave a metaphor for the Holy Spirit’s work in individual lives. “Like the rice. The direction was just to eat. But they shaped it like Mayon so that we could see the meaning.”
I had forgotten that Pentecost was the following Sunday. It’s been so long since my Catholic elementary school days that the stories and the traditions I once knew so well are now vaguely familiar surprises.
But in the context of traveling a new, extremely unfamiliar country by myself—in a global context of infinite rich cultures clashing together, faced with the crucial responsibility to share space or suffer indefinitely—the story of the Pentecost dawned on me anew as quintessentially relevant.
“These were scared people,” Sister spoke to me from inches away, our shoulders smooshed together as the car bumped through traffic. Her thick glasses made her bright eyes seem even larger. “They were afraid, confused, and without direction. All together in a room,” Sister said. She reminded me that the Pentecost happened after Jesus had been crucified, and was no longer with his disciples. “They were expecting a military victory, and they lost.”
In case you didn’t go to Catholic elementary school:
The Pentecost was when the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus’ disciples, landing on their shoulders in the form of tongues of fire. Suddenly they were able to speak in tongues—in the many languages of the people around them, allowing them to communicate, and share the story of Jesus and everything that’d happened.
You wear red on the Pentecost, for fire.
“The Lord opened them up to their true nature, and they found meaning,” Sister said slowly, with a smile. Suddenly she was talking about me and my life, but I missed the transition. I realized it when she was already saying, “The way I see it, there is a choice between good, and good, and good. For example, there are 3 paths I see. Maybe there are 4, or 5, but I see 3. You could keep exploring the world, finding adventure. You could get married. You could become a nun. And they’re all good.”
I think the first time someone told me it’s not only ok, but GOOD if I don’t get married and just keep exploring was this conversation with a nun in the Philippines.
A choice between good, and good, and good. Can’t really go wrong there, can you?
I’m not becoming a nun.
When people ask me if I’m Catholic, I nod and say “I was raised Catholic.” Because that’s a true fact, and I don’t want to lie.
Sister Sabina posed it to me as a stained-glass window. Religions propose a way to see the light, through their own little colored piece of glass. But the sun that illuminates the full stained-glass image is the same. There’s no reason to condemn any one fragment, just as there’s no reason to assume any one fragment reveals the entire truth.
I didn’t want to write about religion, but in a country as vehemently religious as the Philippines, religion doggedly aims for my offline Google doc, awaiting liberation by the pulsing cursor.
The Philippines is more than 80 percent Catholic. And not just, “I use religion as a reason to vote ‘right’ versus ‘wrong’ politicians into office” Catholics. Real, church-going, life-practicing, bible-studying, lifestyle Catholics for whom Jesus’ teachings are central to their thoughts, minds, and hearts, the developing way they interpret the world and its grey areas.
“How far away is the Philippines from legalizing gay marriage?” I asked a 21-year-old local friend who is queer.
“Not in my lifetime,” she said. “No, I definitely don’t see it happening in this lifetime.” She estimated that 60 percent of her graduating class was openly queer.
She and I sat on a bench at Saint Someone-Or-Other private hospital, waiting for an 18-year-old friend getting an ultrasound for her illegal abortion the next day.
A poster published by the UN hung above us, listing methods of contraception. Breastfeeding was listed above condoms in effectiveness. My friend was surprised to see such public sexual health information. She told me there is absolutely no sex education in schools, at all. That’s why you end up with stories like this one from an Al Jazeera article:
“Vanessa Aguilos, a 24-year-old Filipino mother of three, told Al Jazeera she did not know that having unsafe sex would lead to her pregnancy.
‘It did not cross my mind that this could happen. My mother just asked me one day why I was not having my period any more … After a pregnancy test, it turned out I was [pregnant],’ she said.
Let’s consider the estimated six million Filipinas who don’t have access to birth control. Then let’s consider that two million of them live in poverty.
Let’s consider that in the Philippines, one in ten girls between 15 and 19 years old has already given birth (AP). Let’s consider the toll that takes on a national GDP, when girls tend not to go back to school after pregnancy, end up as single moms, are prone to sex trafficking and abuse, and are prone to high health risks (the number one cause of death for girls is childbirth). This is without even considering the quality of life for these young women and their families.
Teenage pregnancy rates across the world have declined in the past two decades except in the Philippines, where teenage pregnancy has more than doubled in the past decade—a dangerous trend for the country’s economic and societal development.
Let’s consider that, despite a federal mandate to provide free contraception to women in the Philippines, reactive Supreme Court legislation has made it so that, once the current supply of birth control runs out, no one can get any more, free or otherwise? Shall we consider how many women are about to have zero access to contraception?
Shall we consider the women in the United States who are prevented from information regarding sex, pregnancy, and how they can be responsible and safe? Shall we consider that this is primarily done under the guise of “religion”?
And here’s the full scoop on the contraception situation from CNN Philippines.
Philippines adolescent birth rate: 53 births per 1,000 women.
United States adolescent birth rate: 26 per 1,000 in the United States.
(And the rate far lower in many other westernized countries.)
Philippines President Duterte called Pope Francis “the son of a whore”.
Are you still there? What a rant. Thanks for going with me on it.
After a brief visit to Donsol to swim with whale sharks—23-foot creatures looming out of murky water, suddenly inches away—I called my new friends in Legazpi, who drove an hour in island traffic to pick me up.
On the way back, we stopped in a sun-streaked afternoon forest, the grounds where Father Castro and Sister Sabina had been doing healings all day.
We ate camote—purple or orange mini sweet potatoes—in the kitchen while we waited for our holy friends to appear, ready to head back home to Father Castro’s place. I learned how to say “thank you” in Bicol, the local language. Mabalos.
Father Castro appeared all in white. He sent the young, smiling priest from Vietnam to find Sister Sabina.
Sister Sabina had taken a nap. She appeared, hair and shirt damp from sleeping in the afternoon heat.
That evening at dusk, when the sky was still light and we rolled over the gravel to the Legazpi estate, Father Castro, Sister Sabina, three friends, and I got out of the car, took off our shoes, and trudged over black powder sand to the shore: gazing out at the dark sea and the islands behind it; gazing back to the sun setting over the silhouette of Mayon; holding pumice rocks in our hand from the magma that still sometimes erupts.
“Heart opening at the top of a mountain,” Sister said, performing Tai-Chi as the rest of us followed. “Gazing up at the moon,” Sister said, and the salty wind blew all our hair. “Giving a gift,” Sister said, not laughing in the glow of the island sunset sky.
“It is always a step forward,” she said late that night, after a dinner of chicken and fish. We’d been talking of ego, and personality, and why it’s sometimes hard to release them.
When a version of myself has been strongly positively reinforced, shedding that version and moving onto the next can feel imprudent.
At risk of stripping the star-soaked night under the mango tree of its luster, I put some of Sister’s words in type.
She said that, “I lose who I was 10 minutes ago. Now I am different.”
“The unconscious becomes conscious,” she said. “It is always a step forward.”
And it’s a practice. Like gratitude. Of a BBQ chicken roll. A roll “which is a blessing not only to me, but a blessing outward,” Sister said.
“Every second who we are is changing and forming because of the actions we make right now. It’s not that the mind figures it out and now I’m ok; but we lay the foundation. We can choose,” she said, when I asked.
“Thank you for food. Thank you for friendship. Thank you for adventure. Thank you for Laura,” Father Castro told God at grace that day during lunch. And when I fell asleep to the light from the chapel, a gecko kept me company on the ceiling.