By Dheza Marie Aguilar – When I left the Philippines in 2009, I was full of hatred at an inefficient bureaucratic system and desperate to be reunited with the man I love. When my parents brought me to the airport, I hurried my goodbyes, itching to step into the plane and start my life in Holland, which had been put on hold for about a year because of so many hindrances.
I did not shed a single tear when my parents kissed me goodbye.
Three years after, I was back outside the departure area of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, with my parents and sister in tow. I was too early for my flight but with the Naia’s pathetic facilities, there is no place for a proper separation of families—for example a restaurant where they can have breakfast at 7 in the morning and drink coffee while planning for the next reunion.
My father tried to use some connections so they could be allowed inside—but no to avail. One of the guards even shooed us away like dogs because he said we were blocking the passengers pathway. I was very frustrated, because this time I wanted to say goodbye properly, show the emotions of a daughter and a sister who was leaving her family once again to go back the life she had built abroad.
Unlike before, I can hardly turn my back. I hugged my mom several times, received the blessing from the hand of my father, embraced my sister and tapped her shoulders. I only asked them to take care of themselves because that’s the one thing I couldn’t do when away. I did not look at my mother’s face—I did not want to see her crying. The last image I saw was my father taking a photo of me waving goodbye.
So that was how it was: Three years of separation from the people I hold dearest to my heart, three years of shielding myself from homesickness, three years of fitting in to a society that does not welcome with the warmth of Filipinos.
I was fighting back tears back but eventually they came rushing in the moment I stepped inside the “for passengers only” area of the area. I wished there had been more time and more privacy for this situation.
Filipinos go abroad for different reasons, mostly for financial need but also to pursue individual happiness, like love or reunification in another country. But in most cases, the first two are the most difficult. Loved ones —whole families, even—are always left behind. With the uncertainties that come with life outside the Philippines, everyone looks forward to reunions, which are not always certain or which can take decades to materialize. You can only hope for the best.
I proceeded to the baggage drop off of KLM and was aghast with the long line before me. An airport personnel showed me to the line for those who have already checked in online. It was thankfully shorter. I could not help but compare it with other airports, especially Schiphol in Amsterdam where they have check-in machines everywhere to avoid the inconveniences of long queues. I was even more disappointed to see that the names of airline companies were only printed on tarpaulins. No LCD screens in the counters, just a long wall with hanging tarpaulins, some of it even barren and were plastered with tapes.
The lady behind the counter asked me where I was bound and told me that she could not give my boarding pass unless I pay the travel tax. I wanted to argue with her that I already printed my boarding pass when I checked in online but I knew better to keep my mouth shut. Thankfully the line at the travel tax counter was not very long. They questioned me again where I was bound, which was a bit redundant because it was written on my ticket, asked me how long I have lived in the Netherlands and told me to pay up P1,600. I did not know how they computed it, how it was related to the duration of my stay abroad, but again I preferred not to irritate airport officials. It can have annoying consequences to my travel plans. “Only in the Philippines,” I thought.
From there, I proceeded smoothly to the immigration counters, paid the P750 terminal fee and wondered all the time about the glaring visibility of the sign “It is against the law of the Republic of the Philippines to assault verbally or physically our immigration officers. Anyone caught on violation of the law shall be sanctioned by authority.” It sounded like a threat; we should not mess with immigration officials, otherwise you’ll have the taste of Philippine laws. Ironically above the same sign says “Naia, we go the extra smile” which you tend to frown upon when you’ve read the message below it.
The immigration official was quite chatty, asked me to explain my resident status, wondered about my job and advised me to register myself as an overseas Filipino worker because I was not a Dutch citizen yet. I was confused for a while because in the first place, I did not leave the country as a migrant worker. Luckily he understood and complemented how good I answered. I said I was just being honest when his questions sounded more like interrogation.
I had a few hundreds to spend so I went upstairs to have another breakfast. One of the ladies manning the landing asked me if I wanted a massage, which incidentally was just what I needed that morning. After finishing a poorly-cooked tocino meal and complaining to Hari-raya coffee shop about the unavailability of fresh mango juice (they serve canned juices) when there is an abundance of mangoes in the country, I paid the ridiculously-priced food and headed for massage. If you’ve been through a stressful time in Naia, a 40-minute massage at Club Manila feels like redemption. I did not regret spending my remaining Filipino currency there.
But those who cannot pay for such luxuries have to contend with the even more overpriced sandwiches at the food kiosks and eat at the cramped seats in the departure area, wasting precious time until their flights take off. This was precious time that could had been spent with their families who were left at the ridiculously overcrowded area outside trying to get hold of a cab.
This was supposed to be a blog post of images of departures I took with my Blackberry phone and perhaps show that Naia is actually not that bad. But when I sat down to write my piece, I realized that what our airport lacks is empathy—not even to businessmen or tourists who visit us, but even more to the millions of Filipinos leaving their families for a chance at a better life. These are the millions who fuel this country’s economy and keep it afloat despite the crumbling situation of the rest of the world.
Ironic and sad are the only words I can think of to describe the lack of empathy. Ironic because we pride ourselves for having very close family ties, yet our government cannot even provide a proper venue for families to confront their sadness at being separated from each other. There is no need for fancy architectural plans—an area where they can all sit down comfortably together and talk before saying goodbye would have sufficed.
Sad because calls for change like these will only fall into deaf ears once again, along with the millions of other voices still hoping for our country to be better drowned in the noises of political vengeance and grandstanding.
I don’t intend to stay away from the Philippines for another three years without going back. I have already made plans for my return. Perhaps I’d have to face the same difficult situation again—which will anger, frustrate and sadden me. But my family is still here.
For those Filipinos, though, who’ve had enough and have the means to bring their family and leave for good, these departures can be their last connection to our country.