The greatest place in the world is always wherever I am standing, and right now that place is Barangay Botongon, Estancia (Philippines). I arrived back from Australia to Estancia last Thursday night and even though it can be such a challenge living here, the kids keep me coming back.
Jerry is celebrating his birthday next Monday so after school today we walked down the road to invite two of his older brothers to have birthday tea with us next week. I was thinking we could quickly run down the road and then get back in time to invite one of his little friends over for a play session. But then I didn’t factor in the kids. Mmm complete oversight.
First was Roy, I don’t even know where he saw us, Jerry had been holding my hand while dodging the mud and dirt (we had a talk today about caring for school clothes) when he darted into the alley leading into the back of Purok Quatro. I looked beside me and suddenly there was Roy, he grinned as I greeted him with delight and stroked his hair.
“You’re still so small Roy” I laughed but inside I felt a little sad that a boy of 13 was not much bigger than Jerry. I didn’t ask if he’d been eating because I already knew the answer, calculating in my head another 5 days until I would deliver a half-sack of rice to his mother.
We turned right at the top of the hill and walked past Ma’am Beuler’s house. A wonderful teacher, she had died while I was in Australia. Cancer. I peered through the gate willing her to come out and smile here smile at me. The gate remained quiet and we walked on.
Jerry’s older brother Itum is a twin. The other brother Puti I have never met. Itum and Puti are actually nicknames Itum (Black) and Puti (White), I have no idea of their real names. Neither does Jerry. Jerry was terribly shy as we sat down in the little bamboo house of his brother. Jerry’s brother lives with his mother-in-law and family. He has a little daughter and Jerry kissed his niece goodbye after Itum and his wife promised to come to visit next week.
Roy was waiting at the side of the alley and walked with us back to the street and we turned to walk further down the road. Jerry’s eldest brother lives in the next Purok.
“Are you still going to school?” I asked Roy.
“Yes” his single word reply was interrupted.
“Tita Mel, Tita Mel” shouted some kids from behind piles of dirt and gravel. They raced up to me. “You’re back!” They said and looked at me expectantly.
“Maybe next week we’ll have an activity in the house.” I began and they looked at me expectantly.
We kept walking, (me, Jerry, Roy and maybe 5 or 6 excited kids) down the street toward Purok Sinko. Three men were squatting on roadside concrete fixing motor bikes where you turn into a walkway. They greeted me with smiles and we all climbed down the concrete behind them into the Purok.
Jerry’s other brother Alain’s house was locked. We had walked about 20 metres in past three of four bamboo shacks raised on stilts above a tidal creek of sorts. The creek runs down parallel to the narrow concrete walk-way and in wet season it floods nearly every day. The water is thick and oozy and there is still black residue from when 900,000 litres of bunker fuel and oil spilled onto the coastline more than three years ago. I jumped across the creek missing the mud and sludge, saw the lock but knocked anyway. Nothing.
Walking back to the street the group of kids had grown to about 10 or 11 and they looked at me expectantly.
“Do you kids want to come to my house and watch a movie” I said finally.
“Yay!” They shouted cheers. About 30 metres from the house I instructed the now more than 15 kids to wait at the gate while I went and got Jian and baby Jyn. Children of my friend Emelyn who I knew would be at work.
I carried 4 year old Jian up a concrete ramp and his 10 year old sister walked beside me. Jerry was with us too, having raced across the road earnestly explaining that he now knew how to cross roads by himself. We waited for two tricycles and a truck to roar past and then the three of us took off across the road to the waiting group of kids. They giggled and cried with excitement as I opened the gate and they all ran through the little alley dodging the neighbours washing. The bottom of the stairs looked like carnage as all their shoes and footwear lay in piles.
For the next two hours we watched Angry Birds, constructed giant puzzles and talked about farm animals. I explained motorised tractors to some of the older girls while the smaller ones played jump rope.
We’ve been doing this for about a year now and we have our routines now, our jokes and our rules. They know I’m strict and I know how much these times mean to them. Yes Estancia is a difficult and challenging place but it’s these kids who keep me coming back.
My life with Jerry will move forward into other cities and eventually Australia, I’m not quite sure when or how I will say goodbye to them, but for now Barangay Botongon, Estancia (Philippines) is my home and the greatest place in the world.