Sunday, July 29, 2007

Bert's Trip to the Philippines, Part 4

March 20, Metro Manila

A night at Serendra

First, a little background. Back in 1967, a bunch of us college juniors who could not line up a summer job, signed up for a month and a half of summer camp held in Angat, Bulacan, sponsored by Junior Operations Brotherhood and Presidential Economic Staff. None of us at the time knew the bonding we had then would last a lifetime. The project was named "University on Wheels." We were supposed to work in the barrios, to do research, conduct surveys, and other good things to help the production of agricultural products.

From my college, the group consisted of young, energetic, fun-loving yahoos who didn't have a clue of the difference between "miracle rice" and malagkit rice. The other campers or "wheelers" as we called each other were students from other universities and colleges. (We also had a professor from my college with us, who later on became one of our buddies on campus.) Other than the students from the same schools, we all lost touch with each other when we graduated in 1968.

Fast forward to 1997, when the Internet was at its heyday and email was becoming more common. We got a hold of one Wheeler, who knew the whereabouts of others, who knew more Wheelers, and before we knew it, we were about a dozen strong. We exchanged emails and had mini-reunions and carried on as if we never were separated. Of course, in the span of 40 years, we had our own separate lives, careers, families, and other sets of friends, but this did not discourage us from seeking the others and visiting with them whenever we could. Some were able to keep some records of the camp, and we had a grand time reminiscing about the "good old days'"in pictures and prints and letters and whatever anecdotes we remembered and shared with others. Of course, some Wheelers'remembered some things happened a different way, and this even added fuel to the fun and excitement.

We planned and planned a grand reunion for years and years, but somehow, this did not materialize. All we could do was visit each other when someone is coming to town. You see, the Wheelers now span the globe in terms of residences, from Spain to the Philippines, from Canada to the United States. It is not an easy task to bring everybody together under one roof.

Fast forward again to Tuesday night, March 20. Serendra, Market-Market, Bonifacio High Street... I don't know exactly where we were, but the guys and gals from Manila managed to scoop up nine of us Wheelers--including one from Canada and one from Iligan City--to spend an evening together over steak, fish and old fashioned San Miguel PP.

We have seen most of each other in pictures, but being there, shaking hands, exchanging hugs, beso-beso in flesh was something else. Some have changed quite a bit in appearance, some were able to hide it well (like my hair color) and some even managed to look the same. We were so noisy it was a good idea we were given a long table back in one corner, where we did not bother other patrons of the restaurant.

Yes, I have changed over the years. No longer the shy teenager who wanted to sit in one corner and observe, but now the annoying son-of-a gun, the pompous ass who thinks everything is a joke. Or turns everything into a joke for the sake of laughter. Or maybe I was like that before, and was just hiding it, who knows? I hope I did not embarrass anybody, and if I did, who cares? Hehehe.

Anyway, the dinner was superb, the ice cold San Mig washing down every bit and morsel of the restaurant's specialties was great, but the company was even better. Each of the four or five people I hadn't seen in 40 years summed up their lives from the time we separated at the camp, with me interrupting their stories with my questions a la Barbara Walters ("Are you happy?"). When we finished dinner, I kinda gave my observation of the state of some of the nation's small towns, making sure that I was not criticizing them, just trying to give some suggestions, a project of some sort. But that was another story. I still want to pursue it though. Later.

The night was still young (10 o'clock) so we decided to move the "party" to the nearby coffee shops at Bonifacio High Street's outdoor mall. We ordered coffee and cake and sat and ate some of the peanuts Iligan City was famous for at the sidewalk section of the shop. We continued our endless jokes and anecdotes, and clarified the nagging questions and rumors as to "who had a crush on whom" at the camp. Of course, for my part, I confessed. I named them all but I ran out of names, so they did not take my answers seriously. If they only knew.

Sometime during this session, the Ayala Company turned off the lights outside from the tall posts. It was midnight. Time to say goodbye. We walked over to the parking garages and managed to spend another half hour saying more goodbyes and promises to see each other again and to not wait another 40 years. Light bulbs flashed from every angle of the digital cameras. I think there was even one shot of me where one of the women was touching my tummy, as if I were pregnant and waiting for "the day." Can't wait to see that one.

Husband and wife Mandy and Angie who picked me up, also gave me and another Wheeler a ride home. The parting was bittersweet.

Back at my brother's house where I was staying in Quezon City, I could not sleep right away. I made some notes. At my age, you can't rely mainly on memory. One of them said: go on a diet when you get back to Los Angeles.

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