I wasn’t home for Christmas – for the first time in my life. Of all holidays, Christmas had exclusively been a family affair. In my 50 years, I celebrated 45 Christmases with my parents. Becoming an orphan five years ago was a game changer. What could be the loneliest holiday proved to be less so with fellow orphan Ki. We had already decided to ring in the new year at Taipei 101; I figured we might as well leave earlier to spend Christmas at our port of entry, Kaohsiung.
San Remigio / Santa Fe and Bantayan, Bantayan Island, Cebu, the Philippines
December 31, 2018 – January 3, 2019
We rang in 2019, not with a bang, but with a whimper. Dominoes of delays came crashing down at Hagnaya Port in San Remigio, Cebu. We missed the last ferry out to Bantayan Island on New Year’s Eve. Not one to sweat the small stuff, I settled in with similarly star-crossed passengers on the non-ergonomic wooden benches, unmindful of the simmering anger beside me. Ki expected us to wait out the next ferry at 2:30AM in a hotel. I shrugged the idea off as unnecessary and impractical; he got his beastmode on. The only fireworks we had at midnight were of the verbal kind.
It was a case of CNN brainwashing. Images of worldwide New Year’s fireworks displays featured by the news network year in and year out inspired us to cap our Taiwan cross-country trip with an explosive climax – at Taipei 101 which had hosted the firework event since 2005. While Hong Kong was nearer to Manila, its skyline was not as distinctive and iconic as Taiwan’s pagoda-shaped skyscraper.
The urban squalor depicted in the acclaimed Brocka film Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag in the 70s persisted like a stain that wouldn’t come off. The glory days of Manila were long forgotten. In the 80s, I could not unsee children and grown men hanging from embankments and pooping directly onto Pasig River in full view of morning rush hour traffic. Thirty years later, little else had improved. Until Mayor Francisco Moreno Domagoso – popularly known as Yorme Isko Moreno – came along. Barely warming his mayoralty chair, he set out to scrub off the decades-old grime of our capital city.
My Holy Land Pilgrimage ended at a low point. Literally, the lowest point on land – the shores of the Dead Sea. This stretch of the Great Rift Valley had sunk lower than sea level by more than 400 meters. Water from the Jordan River could find no way out of this catch basin save for evaporation, leaving behind tons of mineral runoff, primarily sodium, from the surrounding desert. That was how this hypersaline lake, ten times saltier than the ocean, could keep bathers buoyant on their backs – “funny bath,” as Mark Twain giddily put it 150 years ago.
Jo and I stopped by Mahagandhayon Monastery in Amarapura, former royal capital, to watch monks line up for lunch. The experience was strangely calming. At 10:30 AM, the novices were being served what would be their last meal of the day. Hundreds, if not a thousand, of young monks, some still children, bearing black bowls formed snaking lines on the street under tall tamarind trees in utter silence. They were mostly oblivious to the handful of tourists like me at the sidewalk taking their photos.
We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.
Even when I knew what to pray for. I had listed both thanksgiving and supplications on ripped paper prior to our visit to the Western Wall, Kotel in Hebrew, a place of prayer for both Jews and Christian pilgrims. Jewish people had always believed that divine presence resided at Mount Moriah upon which the Temple was built and eventually destroyed in 70 CE, the sole surviving section of which was this retaining wall. As God’s address, it had been considered the holiest site in Jerusalem.