By Claire Friesen
When I was twenty, my childhood best friend, Hannah, and I returned to the Philippines, our childhood home. I’d had it rough my first semester of college, and had decided to take some time off school and go back to where I’d grown up to reset, and to experience the Philippines anew as an adult. Hannah and I moved back to Manila at the end of 2010 and lived with some family friends, who graciously opened their homes and their hearts to us during those six months.
We both volunteered at a children’s home founded by a family that attended the same international school we’d attended for so many years. During our six months volunteering, we got to know some of the women who took care of the children there. One of these women was Gloria, a social worker who worked with the children’s home as well as the school run by the same mission.
One afternoon, Gloria casually invited us to visit Negros, her hometown. Negros is one of a number of islands in The Visayas, located in the middle of the Philippines. She invited us for a week in March, and told us her family would be happy to have us stay with them. I was hesitant at first, partly due to the price of the plane tickets, and partly because I’d never met anyone in her family and didn’t have any idea what to expect. But after talking it over with Hannah, we decided to go.
Looking back, I can confidently say that our week in Negros was one of the best weeks of my entire life. Our time there was pure magic from start to finish. What first comes to mind when I think about Negros is the natural beauty that breathes from the soil. Tall, swaying palm trees lined the dusty roads. Distant mountains framed intensely green rice fields, and the ocean tides swelled and retreated just beyond the town limits. I remember thinking to myself on more than one occasion that week, “This has to be what heaven looks like.”
But it wasn’t just the natural beauty that caught my breath. When Hannah and I arrived in Negros with Gloria, we were instantly greeted with the type of hospitality that makes Filipinos so loved around the world. Gloria’s sister Marie hugged us and offered us her room for the week. Her sweet mom and aunt greeted us and treated us like family from the moment we first walked through the door. And it wasn’t just Gloria’s immediate family that welcomed us with such open arms. The entire community showed up at their doorstep to meet us. We all ended up spending hours and hours together, and it felt as if time didn’t exist during that week. There was an ease, a sense of happiness and contentedness everyone oozed effortlessly, the type of feeling most people spend their entire lives searching for.
It felt as if time didn’t exist.
A friend group made up of guys our age, who called themselves the Taroroy Barkada, took it upon themselves to show us around and give us the full “Negros experience.” On our first day exploring Negros, one of the guys in the group brought along a bolo and lopped off stocks of sugar cane for us to try. They climbed coconut trees and cut down fresh coconuts for us. We drank the buko juice straight from the coconut and then scraped out the meat with pieces of the shell. One day we all piled into the back of a pick-up truck and drove to a waterfall tucked away deep in the mountains. We spent the day there swimming, jumping off rocks, and eating picnic lunches.
On another day, the entire community piled into boats made of bamboo riggings. We glided down a narrow river that eventually fed into the ocean. The water was clear-green, and lapped quietly against the shore. But there was no one else around. This perfectly beautiful spot was all ours for the day. The guys immediately got busy catching crabs and fish with their nets, and sometimes with their bare hands. They cooked the fish they’d caught over open fires on the beach and we all ate like royalty.
Despite all the amazing adventures we had, my very favorite memories are of the nights spent singing karaoke. At least three nights during that week we all gathered at Gloria’s family’s house. Someone had rented a karaoke machine for the week, and we set it up in the living room. Karaoke is as much a part of Filipino culture as tininkling (a traditional dance that uses two bamboo poles) or the clay piñatas that are ubiquitous at birthday parties. Even if you’re shy in most circumstances, you will sing your heart out into a microphone. You’ll probably be horribly out of tune, but it won’t matter because everyone will laugh and cheer anyways. I lost all my inhibitions in front of the mic. We’d all had a couple beers, so that probably helped loosen us up a bit, too. Hannah and I would choose sickly romantic songs to sing and classics like “Kokomo” that, to this day, remind me of my time in Negros.
However, the real karaoke star in the community was Ken. People literally called him “Golden Ken” because of his beautiful voice and the pure confidence he exuded when singing a ballad. Ken and I had a short island romance that lasted the duration of my week-long vacation. The only real issue was that we barely spoke any words of the same language, and I was over six inches taller than him. But at the time, those things didn’t matter. To me, Ken wasn’t just from Negros. He was the embodiment of it. He knew how to jimmy his way up palm trees and cut down coconuts, and he could catch crabs with his bare hands. He knew how to get to the most beautiful spots on the island, and he could drive a tricycle (a motorcycle attached to a sidecar—one of the most popular forms of transportation in the Philippines). And most importantly, he knew how to sing.
On those karaoke nights in front of the entire community, Ken would grab pink plastic roses out of the vase by the TV and dramatically present them to me as he sang his heart out to the most heart-felt of romantic ballads. The song titles that come to mind are “Breathless” by the Corrs and “Closer You and I,” a classic Pinoy karaoke favorite. Everybody would laugh and cheer and sway to the music, and when Ken was done with his performance, someone else would grab the mic and we’d start all over again.
I can’t explain what that experience was like. It seemed other-worldly to me. A few days before, the people crammed into the living room had been complete strangers. Now I felt inexplicably connected to all of them, comfortable and unembarrassed, swaying and laughing and scream-singing like nothing else in the world mattered.
Sometimes when I look back on that week it seems almost too perfect, surreal, something that couldn’t actually happen in real life. Life lived in Negros was so simple, so natural. Nobody was ever in a rush. Nobody seemed stressed or caught up in their own worries. Everyone just spent time together and laughed and explored. They knew how to just be, in a way that astounded me. Maybe I’m looking back on my time there with rose-colored glasses…but I’ve always felt this sense of wonder knowing there is a place in the world that is full of so much joy, so much natural beauty, and a community that genuinely looks out for each other the way family does.
I have to admit, I’ve had moments in the last eleven years since then when I wondered what it would be like to move to Negros. What would it be like to “go off the grid” in a sense, to live a simple life surrounded by palm trees and the ocean, taking regular rides in the back of pick-up trucks, and singing karaoke with abandon? Maybe what makes those memories so special to me is the fact that they don’t happen in regular, day-to-day life. Either way, one day I will return to Negros. This time though, I’ll return with my husband. And the little girls that showed Hannah and I all the nooks and crannies of the island will be full-grown adults. A lot of things will have changed. But I’m sure some things will be exactly as I remembered.