Letters From The Philippines - updated 5/2020!
When I was a teen I had a penpal in The Philippines. We wrote back and forth for over 20 years, way before the Internet. She started a family at age 16 and lived in a village in Mindanao, Southern Phillippines. I grew up in Washington state in a middle-class farm family and went on to college and a career in Los Angeles. We kept in touch via snail mail all those years.
Now in 2020, we are Facebook friends so we no longer write handwritten letters, but I do have over 20 years' worth of paper letters. My plans were to always write a book or short stories on our friendship, but I have never found the time or patience to do it. Now with the global pandemic, I am having more time on my hands and I know you can self publish books on Amazon now! The good thing is that I am able to communicate more freely with my dear friend Lummie, so if I do decide to take the time to write some short stories, I will be able to reach out to her to fact check dates, etc.
In 2014 I decided I should try to visit again...to see each other before we get too old and to get the letters. Maybe I thought I could write a book about our friendship. After all, it is very unusual and has many tales. I have been to The Phillippines four times now. Once I was hospitalized in a village hospital and another trip to Tilikud Island in Davao, I met up with the Muslim extremist group, the Abu Sayyaf . (click to read more about them) No kidding. This will be part of the book/story. There is something to write about. 4 trips in 20 years. This trip I went back to the islands and had a good time. The Abu Sayyaf have moved on from the area so it was relatively safe.
|My Filipino friend did my laundry each morning by hand. Samal Island, Davao|
I just flew in from Davao City via Manila and Japan in the past 24 hours. I checked the travel warnings for Mindanao before I left. They all warned American citizens not to travel due to bombings, kidnappings, etc. I went anyway, alone. I have never been one to listen to travel warnings.
My first night in Manila I ended up booking a hotel next to the red light district. I did not plan it that way, they don't mention that on booking.com. I spent my first day getting a massage since walking the streets was too stressful by myself. I had all my money in my bra, the rest I wore in a bag held in front of me. The massage lady warned me about robbers who ride in tandem on motorbikes and the guy in the back grabs bags, she warned me about people putting something in my drink at bars, etc. So I went to a beauty parlor instead to kill time, I ended up in a lady boy hair stylist place. I talked to transvestites while getting my hair done. Hell, it was safer than walking the streets. I had travelled 7,000 miles and ended up in the transvestite hair salon. We talked about taking hormones, boob jobs, etc. This is my life. I never said it was boring.
That next night I felt better from the jetlag and wanted to go out of the hotel, so I went to a karaoke bar that had an armed guard with a machine gun at the door. I figured that was pretty safe. It was. I was fine. When there is a machine gun guard at the door people won't f+++ with you. Trust me. (Even McDonald's has an armed guard, honey, they don't play games here.)
|My penpal getting water from her well. Nov. 2014, on my first visit it was an open well with a bucket.|
No problem. The Filipinos are warm, generous, and friendly people, but you also have to watch your back if you are by yourself. In a country where the minimum wage is 300 Pesos ($8 or so), a day and kidnapping make headlines, its best to keep your guard up while on your own in the city.
If you have a good friend in the Philippines you are treated well and I am so lucky to have this experience. (:
|Lummie Mom and I, October 1996|
|Lummie Mom & I, November 2014|
I did not sleep very well the entire trip due to the stress of jet lag and being on guard most of the time, but I was thrilled to see my friend of over 20 years and meet her children again as adults. I named the youngest one many years ago, Derek and he is now 19. I am glad to be home as travel is exhausting and I don't sleep on planes, but don't ever say I am not brave or crazy. I think I am both.
|Me and my penal Lummie, her husband Zaldy and grandson Zach, Panabo, Davao Del Norte, The Phillippines|
I went through my archives and found a short story I wrote in 2011 about my penpal, this was before my latest visit...read below..it outlines our first visits together and my first time to the Philippines. This entry was based on my first visit to the country, I had never been before and it was as seen through the eyes of a young college girl.
My Pen Pal Lummie
In 1984, I was growing up on a pig farm in eastern Washington State in a small town called Moses Lake.
went to school on a big yellow school bus and I
cleaned pig pens and washed dishes for my chores. On Sunday and Wednesday
nights I went to church with my parents and three siblings.
In my spare time I read books – lots
of books, because we did not have a TV in the house.
One day, a couple in their late 30s from our local church went to the Philippines to visit some of the missionaries in our church.
When they came back, they had a few
addresses from young ladies in the village where they visited. The girls wanted pen pals
back in the United States. I just happened to be one of the
young girls they gave an address to.
I wrote a letter.
months later, I received a reply from a girl who was about
a year older than me and who lived in the southern island of
Davao with her mother. She was about 15 years of age or
maybe younger, I cannot remember. I just remember she had amazingly
beautiful penmanship and her biggest heartache was that she did not know her
father. Her father had left her mother
before she was born, so she never met him. She also felt like the community
shunned her, which perhaps they did. At that time the Philippines was
not like the United States, where unwed mothers were more
or less accepted in our society. I also felt that she was
stigmatized in her community because of this fact. She said she did well in school,
liked to read books, and so on and so forth. We wrote back and forth for several
years as young teens, continuing into our 20s.
At 16, Lummie was dating a local young man named Zaldy Bautista. A wedding quickly followed and then their first baby was born – a girl they nicknamed Dimple.
More children followed in the next
few years. She would send me photos of the children. At that time her letters went from “Oh,
I like to read books…” to “You
know my life is hard, and I am just having babies, and it’s
painful, difficult, and not so easy to raise babies, no electricity or running
water…” she told me of her feelings, not
just the facts.
In the meantime,
was going to school at Washington State University, going to fraternity
parties, going to classes, studying with friends –
not having babies and doing laundry by a well hole dug in the ground. I did not understand her pain or
her lifestyle except through her monthly letters and cards. The letters were sad and distant. I just wrote back encouraging
words. How could I help, I often wondered? I had no experience to help her
with her marriage, her pain of being an unwanted child, her postpartum
depression. The photos she would send me would
be of a sad-faced
teen holding an infant while standing in front of a banana palm
tree. In her letters to me, she put me on
a soap box. I was her only true friend, and she
loved me, and she told me how grateful she was to have me as
a friend, and on and on. I thought it was nice,
but I did not understand these types
of feelings for someone you never met. I had my own life and routine
problems of the college-age years. I had to get good grades,
and go to the right parties on the weekends. At some point in my college years,
I would start to send her $10 here or there, and then boxes of used clothing
from my own closet. She loved that, the T-shirts,
the pants, the shoes, the used Nike tennis shoes. She
really enjoyed those boxes – they took three
months to get to her, and everything inside
My lack of understanding changed in 1993.
was chosen to go on an exchange program with Washington State University to go
to Thailand and be an exchange student for one semester. So I went to Thailand, had a ball, and
I learned to love the Thai culture, the food, the people, and
the life. On my way back, I thought
since I was already in Asia, I might as well
stop in the Philippines to see this girl I had been
writing to for six or seven years –
to meet her face to face.
I scheduled my flight to stop over in Manila.
I arranged for one of the ministers
from my church back in the USA to pick me up there. The local Filipino
ministers arranged for me to fly down with
one of them to the nearest airport on the
island of Mindanao which was in Davao City. I flew there
with a 28-year-old
female Filipino minister named Alma. She kind of took care of me because
I was from the same church, just back in the United States.
I had told Lummie I was coming, but did not give her a date, because she did not have a telephone or a fax.
The only time she could arrange
to talk to me on the telephone was when she went to visit her
aunt in the city. It was a rare thing.
So I flew to Davao City and went to her village called Panabo.
in Panabo, we stayed with a local family from
the church. The husband and wife were very
kind. They had a simple house with two
bedrooms, build on a concrete floor. There was
an indoor toilet that you could sit on and flush with water that was in a
bucket near the toilet. To take a shower,
you went outside where they had a little shower room with a big pot
of freshwater that you could bathe with. Their home had nice wood-and- rattan
furniture and was very clean. It smelled like bleach. The husband built wooden furniture
for a living and they had a very cute little home. They
offered me peanut butter and banana sandwiches and other things they thought I
would like; they were a very
sweet couple. They weren’t
poor, just average and very tidy.
The ministers lived with the local church families so this was not unusual.
was there to find my friend. I did not have a telephone number
or a street address. Her address was very vague because
she picked up her mail at the village post office. Her address was regional;
it simply read “southern
Davao”. I was lucky because we started
asking around among our church friends if they knew the last name of the
family. It happened to be
that the lady of the house where
we were staying had gone to grade school with Zaldy Bautista
– Lummie’s husband. So one day off we went to their
part of the village asking neighbors were the Bautista home was located. Everyone stared at me, because I
was a rare sight in these parts; a young white girl in the middle of
a small, rural Filipino village. I had Alma with me; she would not
let me out of her sight, not for a moment. I think she was aware of the danger
I could have been in, because kidnappings of Americans was a common occurrence
in the Philippines at the time and still is a big problem today. I was only 22 and quite oblivious
to any danger I might be in!
After walking through several dusty roads, we came to the home of my pen pal.
It was a hut with no
doors in the door frames and no glass in the window frames. The floor of her home was a hard-packed
dirt floor with a few platform bamboo beds built in the corners. There was no order to the room; it
was just a few boxes of clothes and those platform beds. There was no plumbing
or electricity to be seen. In the back of the house was a place
you could tell she cooked. There were dogs running around with the chickens,
in and out of the house. Since the house had no
door, the chickens or dogs
could come in or go out
as they pleased. There was a pig tied up to a post
with a piece of rope.
Lummie was not home at the time, but word got to her that we were there, and she came to the house running in from the rice fields that surrounded her shack.
had a baby on her hip and a couple of small kids running behind her. She was wearing a black skirt and a
dirty white T-shirt, and her feet were
bare. Her kids were wearing ripped T-shirts
and had no shoes on. The baby was naked except for a T-shirt. The children had dirty clothes,
hands, legs, and faces. She came running up –
her heart was beating so fast and she was speaking in
Tagolog about how she did not know I was coming! She was not prepared! The kids
were not prepared to meet me! And on and on. She did not hug me or speak English
to me, she was just freaking out about my arrival. Then she ran into her little house
with no door and changed all the kids’
clothes and apologized that they did not have shoes on. She kept saying how unprepared she
was and that her heart was beating,
and so fast!!!
I was blown away by the poverty.
I had just spent six
months in Thailand and had traveled around Malaysia
and Singapore, but I had never seen this level of poverty. It was mind-boggling; I could not
take it all in. Lummie was so nervous that
she had nothing to offer me in the way
of drinks or food. She rushed around and had one of
the kids go buy a glass bottle of Coke and some sweet white bread. She brought it out to me on a
plastic plate with a banana leaf on it, just as nervous
as she could be. She would barely speak English to
me, even though her English was perfect. We only stayed about 30 minutes,
and then we left with promises to meet up in the next few days.
As we walked back down the packed dirt pathway among the banana plantations that led back to the main road, I was in shock.
Shock at what I had seen. All
those years of writing to someone; I was sort of in awe for a few hours after meeting her.
The next time I came she was more prepared; she had told all her neighbors within a five-mile radius that her pen pal from the United States was here.
I was the celebrity visitor of Panabo for a day or two amongst the neighbors in her barrio.