Unforgettable – my first week in America

It was the mid-60’s. An era marked by tension over the Vietnam War, the gloom over young lives lost in the battlefields, the infectious rigor of drummed up peace movements, the heightened clamor for civil rights, flower children with beads around their necks and colorful bands on their hair, and peace signs everywhere.

That was the time I came to the US for a year’s stint as an American Field Service (AFS) scholar and exchange student to Pennsylvania.  Starry-eyed and full of expectations tinged with anxiety, I stepped off the Pan American plane from Manila, and at San Francisco airport, extremely amazed how 15 hours of travel took me to the opposite side of the globe.  That was my first travel outside of the Philippines.

A bus load of teenage exchange students from the Philippines and other countries of Asia was transported to Stanford University campus for a 3-day orientation. That bus ride was magical during that August early evening.  Silhouettes of tall buildings dramatically marked the San Francisco skyline, and lights of houses on the hillsides sparkled like fireflies. We were mesmerized. I remember exclaiming – isn’t that the acropolis? Remembering of course my lesson on Greece and its history.  Those who knew what I meant chorused – oh yes, like the acropolis.  Yet none of us had been to Greece.  But we felt we were in Greece.  Was this America?  Silly, yes of course, our chaperone said, and she drew our attention to the hazy blue of the bay to our left, with glittering lights on the far shore.  Ah, the Mediterranean, a few of us remarked.  So that was it – San Francisco was like Greece … a strange first impression for me and some others in the bus. Unforgettable first impression!

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Captivating pictures titillate memories – and inspire poetry

Often, writers look for pictures to fit the subject, or underscore the thrust of the article. In this case, I scratch my head for ideas or thoughts that can fittingly relate to spectacular photos that my grandniece Kim recently sent me. Not to use her scenery shots would be a waste.  And beauty is not to be wasted.  So, I share the photos with you here.

But first, I quiz myself — what is significant about these pictures beyond their alluring artistry?  I then engage in a process, and for a moment, I keep still – like listening to my soul.  The calmness is refreshing.  The quiet is purifying.  An overcoming feeling, something of nostalgia, edges in as I remember.  There really is so much to say, as prompted by the lovely pictures.

Kim, the teen-aged daughter of my nephew Chito and his wife Benita, took the pictures from the balcony of her home in La Union, Philippines, a richly charming place I made a point to visit during my vacations. The draw for me was not just the incomparable beauty of a home built on the fringe of a narrow shore, but especially it was the comfortable warmth of a loving family – of my brother Albert and his wife Cecile (both recently deceased). With unwavering tug at my heart, I look at these pictures, reminiscing the happy vacation days spent in that exquisite place.

The sceneries in Kim’s photos show the “backyard” of that beach home.  These pictures summon up flashbacks a few of which I shall share with you.

“Backyard” of a beach home in La Union, Philippines (Photos by Kim Chua Pandes)

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Willing back the old-fashioned courtship

Inspired by my previous blog on love and tradition, I write about old-fashioned courtship in the days of my youth, a nostalgic reflection of how a family-imposed preference easily became our accepted norm.  I grew up in a family in a  province in the Philippines where old-fashioned ways and discipline ruled. One of several daughters in the household, I was not spared stern expectations and rules specifically about the manner of courtship allowed. Looking back, it seemed like a different world then.  If by strike of magic I find myself in my youth again – would I want to be back in that world?  My answer is a resounding yes!  But why, you might ask.

Amusing as they are, I teeter with embarrassment as I share memories of courtship in the old veranda. There’s a delicate coyness about admitting being the object of admiration.  So, regaling stories about the courtships in my youth still somehow elicits a blush.  But this baby boomer Lola will cite the stories anyway, so the young generation will know how courtship was in the good old-fashioned days.

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Waxing sentimental with hootenanny folk songs – sing with me!

I sat through two hours of Peter Paul and Mary feature re-run on PBS station last week.  Utterly delightful.  But more especially, nostalgic. I reminisced the days of my youth when I was a high school exchange student in Pennsylvania around the mid-60’s –- peak of the anti-Vietnam war sentiments and staggering support for troops at war, cultural shakeup by the hippie and peace movements, height of the civil rights initiative and public demonstrations. Peter, Paul and Mary’s music carries all those rich sentiments, bearing messages that transcend time. Hearing their music again some nights ago, when protests continue to crowd the streets of cities around the country these days, was just too powerfully moving and overwhelmingly sentimental.

Baby boomers remember Peter, Paul and Mary – stellar performing artists who channeled their music and songs to rallying for human rights and justice around the world. Their folk songs remind me of hootenannies, singing parties I so very much enjoyed as a teenager in Pennsylvania. Friends and I and our contemporaries were not much into jam sessions where rock n’ roll was king of the dance floor. Rock n’ roll was not the craze of youths in the area where I lived with an American host family for a year. Maybe because we all loved music and singing, and we gravitated to any singing party in town. Hootenannies were the fad.

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Watching a replay of Apollo 11 moon landing surged happy and silly memories

A routine activity I indulge in during this shelter-in period is watching my favorite public TV channel 32, alternating between music and NASA programs. Today, after enjoying two hours of fabulous music, excerpts from concerts, opera, Broadway and shows, I watched a replay of Apollo 11 moon landing. A remarkable documentary of a historic world event involving American astronauts Armstrong, Eldredge and Collins. This flooded back memories which I so gladly welcomed and enjoyed, in the middle of a late breakfast with no one but just the TV and me.

1969 – I was in the cusp between my late teens and young adulthood. I remember elbowing my way through a crowd of some 19 young adults huddled in front of a black and white television in the living room of a large and elegant Spanish house in Bulacan, Philippines. Our group of first-year graduate students just finished a full day’s field work, walking from house to house for a direct survey aimed at finding out the effect of radio educational broadcasting on the community population. We were students of mass communication on a two-day mission for a course-related university project. Our two mentors managed to secure a night’s accommodation for us in the city.

That night was eventful, not just for us, eager group of young people and our professors, but for the world. You see, that very moment, we witnessed on the screen the first walk on the moon. It was absolute euphoria, knowing especially that we were watching the same occurrence with people all around the world.  Incredulous!  Gathered around the TV in that city in Bulacan, strangely, we all felt part of that historic drama.

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Commemorating fifty-year anniversary of the first moon walk in July 2019

Last week, I stayed tuned in to a NASA broadcast that featured a Q&A forum presided by a high-ranking NASA Executive. Not sure if it was a taped broadcast, but it definitely sounded recent. The subject of the discussion revolved around planned missions to the moon and Mars. Space exploration. That subject fascinates me. So, I stated tuned in.

One question stood out. Why does the US need to engage in exploring the moon? The NASA rep elaborated on details of the mission’s goals, among which were:
– Why not – a lot of countries are pursuing their travel to and exploration of the moon. The US wants to be on the forefront of all space exploration.
– Apollo missions have shown the presence of water ice caps on the moon, as well as elements that are thought to be results of meteor fallouts and solar emissions from billions of years. These elements are not present on the earth. All these would be resources for research that would benefit the earth and its inhabitants.
– Studies of the moon may lead to knowledge of whether it is habitable or not.
– The moon can be the jump board for travel to and exploration of Mars, and later, other bodies in the solar system.

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Valentine’s Day — and memories of courtships in the old veranda

Valentine’s Day. Normally associated with romantic love. However, over time, it has evolved into a special occasion for expressing honor, appreciation and affection to loved ones (besides spouse, girlfriend or boyfriend) – i.e., parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, siblings, other family members and friends. Recently, I cut out a big heart out of a bright red folder for a Valentine card for my nine-year-old grandson. I drew a chain of hearts inside the fold and taped a little pouch, so I could insert my Valentine cash gift. I was proud of my artwork; it came out attractive and lovely. Last weekend, I handed the red card stuck to a small shiny red box of See’s candies to my grandson and called the package my pre-Valentine gift. He couldn’t wait, tore the package and card open – that was OK, too. There is nothing premature about a love greeting, I thought.

So, who is Valentine anyway that we celebrate his day with “I Heart You” signs every year?Read More »

Flashback of Christmas of so long ago

Seated in the veranda of my home in Naga City on a Saturday afternoon, poring over a required reading for sixth grade English class, I was suddenly interrupted by jovial voices by the staircase. Girls in bright red and pink apparel, about to start a song and dance routine to the accompaniment of two guitars. Pastoras-a-belen, they were called, carolers that livened up their holiday greetings with delightfully choreographed movements. They went from house to house in the neighborhood, expecting to receive money for their performance. My reading paled in comparison to this spectacular random showing. I loved the pastoras. Maybe, I secretly wanted to be one of them.

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Shadowing sentiments and recollections of a November 1st tradition

An eclectic tradition in Philippine culture – All Souls Day on November 1st. While communities in the US celebrate Halloween, in the Philippines Nov. 1st is the day of the dead. Cemeteries buzz with lively activities hinged on remembering loved ones who have passed. Light bulbs, candles, flowers liven up the place. Tombs and grave stones whitewashed for the annual commemoration become the center of gatherings of family, kins and friends. Think about a fair – that’s the atmosphere that permeates on the grounds. No spookiness at all, but a pervading impression and feeling of vitality. The irony is, what goes on at the cemetery on Nov. 1st is not like a memorialization of death, but a celebration of life.

Visitors roam about the cemetery grounds looking for friends come home to pay respect to their beloved dead. People stroll about the cemetery grounds seeking folks they hadn’t seen in quite a while, or just checking out how fancily some tombs are dolled up, or maybe, to get invited to partake of drinks and food. Strong aroma of food brought by families permeates, and who wouldn’t want to get invited! Happy greetings and boisterous conversation accent the air. Some even bring stereos blaring loud music enough to make one think of a shindig. You would wonder if the dead were floating among the living, shimmying it up and feasting with the living. Who knows!
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Memories of an old-fashioned girl’s prom

(Repost from blog of Oct. 28, 2017)

Jitters attacked me.  It was the night of the junior-senior prom at my American high school where I was an exchange student. The grand ball of the year, where high school seniors and juniors swept out of their ostentatiously decorated cars in their best gowns and tuxedos, where girls became ladies hanging on to the genteel arm of their handsome escorts, where boys turned gentlemen opening car doors and pulling chairs for their ladies.  It was a splendid night of putting on the ritz.

The opening event was a march of the voted homecoming king and queen and their royal court.  Having been voted by the school population as third runner-up for homecoming queen, I was thus designated as a princess of the court.  That night, I felt like a pampered princess in a lovely apple green machine-embroidered cotton gown sewed by my American host Mom.  My escort, blond, blue eyes, six-foot tall and all seemed like a prince.  The prince, however, was terribly shy and barely spoke 30 words that night.  He could have been a frog.  If he croaked, that would have thrilled me. But he was much too quiet. Bring two bashful youths together, and the result is disaster … though now, quite funny to me.

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Happy and tickling flashback of Midway

Summer reminds me of Midway. Midway was the designation for the reunion at Washington DC of the year’s American Field Service (AFS) exchange students. It was an impressive and animated congregation of youths from various countries around the world, all starry- and misty-eyed from missing the American host families and friends they left behind, yet eager for the return back home to be with their own families.

It was at Midway where the AFSers — who had just graduated from their American senior high school and said goodbye to their American families and friends the week before — struggled with the hard core of conflicting emotions: a crazy mix of sadness, nostalgia, longing, yet with the joy and anticipation at the thought of going home.

Midway carried a mysterious fascination for me in my youth, and you’ll later know why.
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Old songs evoke memories of serenade, an old courtship custom

Last night, I listened to pop music of the 60’s and 70’s on the PBS TV station. It surged memories of my teens and early adulthood. I love the old songs. They carry charming melodies and lyrics. Reminiscing the old days and daydreaming come easily while listening to them. Baby boomers would agree that these oldies nostalgically remind us of our youth — days of fairy-tale dreams and overblown ambition, the restlessness for adulthood, the carefree spirit of gaiety, spunky defiance and miscalculated invincibilities. Maybe that’s why I like the old songs so much; they make me feel young again.

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The magic of a place haunts the memory – is there such one for you as there is for me?

Is there a place you visited or stayed in that haunts your memories or continues to live in the heart? There is such a place for me. It’s my grandfather’s farm called Auayan or Awayan, an immense stretch of land in the northern part of the province of Camarines Sur in the Bicol region. Nostalgia prompts me to write about Auayan, more than 600 hectares acquired by Lolo (Grandfather), a surveyor, and which eventually was subdivided among his ten children. He also generously offered some hectares to Grandmother’s two sisters, spinsters who devoted to helping Lola (Grandmother) care for her children and the family home.

Auayan is a wide expanse of rolling hills and valleys bordered on one side by a river that gently snakes toward a bay in the far town of Libmanan. The puzzlement about this river, especially where it flows beside Grandfather’s farm, is that its slim banks glisten with white sand. Often, I wondered how the sand from the ocean’s shores got carried to Auayan’s river banks. The river beach, as I call it, stands out in a picturesque way against the turquoise glow of the waters. That’s another of my puzzlement: why the river always looks the rich shade of blue-green. Perhaps, because of abundant vegetation underneath the waters, like a thick blanket of vibrant moss on the river bed.  But in the evenings, the waters turn a deep mysterious green that cascades in eerie silence.

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Traveling back in time on a Chopin waltz

Last night, I heard an energetic rendition of a waltz by Chopin. I stopped working on my computer and immersed myself in the piano music by my house guest. It was moving in the sense that it made me stand up and perform fancy footwork on the floor to the rhythm of the piece. Suddenly, I stopped my swaying and sycophantic moves and sat down. A memory so vivid crossed my mind. I allowed it to float fully into my consciousness.

I was a young girl, lying on my thin pillow, ready for sleep at around nine in the evening. Something kept me awake, however. It was that same piece by Chopin played over and over again in hopes of perfecting it, perhaps. I remember the music came from a beige-painted 2-story house across the river, just almost the opposite side of ours. Our house stood around 12 meters from the river bank that was dotted with a few banana plants and a couple of sampaloc trees with branches often laden with lumpy fruit pods. Sampaloc pods contain seeds embedded in fibrous substance which, when ripe, are sucked for their tangy sweet and sour flavor. Thinking of that river reminds me of sampaloc.

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Recalling the first three days in America

“The Acropolis!” Several of us in the bus chorused as we passed lighted houses on the hillsides on our way from San Francisco Airport to the Peninsula. Obviously, several of us high school students remembered our Greek studies. Those that didn’t simply exclaimed “Wow” multiple times at the lovely sight. We were all very excited. For some twenty high school students from the Philippines, this was our first day in America. From the first step off Pan American Airlines, I could hardly contain myself. I knew, the rest in my young group were like me, eager, happy and anxious.

I was in Palo Alto, California for a three-day orientation along with other American Field Service (AFS) scholars from Asian countries, several decades ago. We stayed at Stanford dorms in Escondido, two tall structures a few stories high – a rarity since at that time there were few (if at all) buildings in Palo Alto that were more than a story high — two buildings that stood like twins easy to spot even from El Camino Real, the same that stand even now on campus, stalwart through the decades.

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Memories of an old-fashioned girl’s prom

Jitters attacked me.  It was the night of the junior-senior prom at my American high school where I was an exchange student. The grand ball of the year, where high school seniors and juniors swept out of their ostentatiously decorated cars in their best gowns and tuxedos, where girls became ladies hanging on to the genteel arm of their handsome escorts, where boys turned gentlemen opening car doors and pulling chairs for their ladies.  It was a splendid night of putting on the ritz.  The opening event was a march of the voted homecoming king and queen and their royal court.  Having been voted by the school population as third runner-up for homecoming queen, I was thus designated as a princess of the court.  That night, I felt like a pampered princess in a lovely apple green machine-embroidered cotton gown sewn by my American host Mom.  My escort, blond, blue eyes, six-foot tall and all seemed like a prince.  The prince, however, was terribly shy and barely spoke 30 words that night.  He could have been a frog.  If he croaked, I would have jumped in sheer delight.  Bring two bashful youths together, and the game plan is a disaster … though now, quite quirky and funny to me.

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A sad recollection … and the message to a confused world

Sorrow engulfs much of the news in the media these days. Human suffering is magnified. No heart can stay callous to the pain of tragedy and loss. Lately, we often are reminded by the mounting numbers of people divested by calamities as hurricanes, terrorist and criminal acts, and the ravages of war.

Reading or listening to the news can be a painful experience. Stark photos tell the stories. In recent weeks, hurricanes in Houston, south Florida, the Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico, then, earthquake in Mexico City, and lately, massacre in Las Vegas, not to mention isolated stabbings and shootings in other cities in the US and abroad – all these run a cord through humanity, and humanity trembles. Devastation, loss, grief and uncertainty induce fear that castrates hope. Yet, in the midst of profound suffering emerges the triumph of the human spirit: resilience, courage, determination, patience, re-birth of hope, the strength of faith. The selfless service of responders and volunteers, the outpouring of help, sympathy and prayers all manifest that in this world, love is not lost, human hearts care.

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A fourth grader’s first agony of defeat

A strange memory popped up – my first painful encounter with defeat. It was in the fourth grade when I robustly volunteered for a needle threading contest: walk fast ten yards to the person holding up a needle, thread the needle in lightning speed, and … easy, I thought.

The first to thread the needle, I stopped right by the human post. I couldn’t understand why some zealots in the audience were waving ferociously at me. Were their waves victory gestures? I smiled triumphantly back at the waving people. But suddenly, my smile froze when I realized something was wrong. The other contestants were rushing back after threading the needle. Then gripped with the sad realization, my heart suspended in mid-air, anger with myself followed over “youthful stupidity” fringed on lack of focus. I was too busy listening to my thoughts of winning, and failed to hear the full instructions.

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