I have to confess: I was not eager to leave the Philippines. It was an easy place to be a visitor. Most of the people speak English (with an American-ish accent!), they like Americans and our culture, and the majority religion is Christian. Of course there are differences, but it wasn’t a huge stretch to spend time there. What’s not to like about a country with so many malls?
I was vaguely aware of the historic connection between our 2 countries, particularly during World War II (“I shall return” still rings a bell even with those of us who weren’t around when it was said). But I came away with a much deeper understanding of the Philippines’ somewhat complex love for the US (mixed with some impatience, like for an overbearing parent).
Our last day in Manila we visited a spectacular WWII monument, maintained by the US Embassy. It contains thousands of white marble crosses and a few stars of David for those soldiers whose remains were found, and monuments with inscribed names for those who were not found. There are intricate mosaic maps of all the Pacific WWII battles and each state has its seal carved into the floor tiles. It was a serene and lovely place to commemorate the sacrifice made by soldiers from both countries.
I also had a chance to visit one of Manila’s art museums, the Ayala. I saw contemporary work by several Filipino artists next to ancient, intricately worked gold artifacts. The gold items are scarce because when the Spanish found gold jewelry in use by the indigeous people, they typically seized it and melted it down for their own purposes. But in the 1920s a cache of items that had survived was discovered.
Another exhibit in the Ayala was a set of historical dioramas, which depicted in fairly gory detail the Philippines’ past relationship with Spain. It filled in more of my knowledge gaps of another layer of their colonial past. One of Avito’s jokes: we got the (English) language from the US, our religion from the Spanish, and Japan gave us our kamikaze drivers.
Indonesia, on the other hand, had a lot more negative baggage attached to it. Some years back when I was making quilts, I collected their batik fabrics. I knew they grow good coffee, some of the world’s best. Bali was a familiar location, along with a few other places. And I knew some pretty ugly incidents had occurred over the years, often involving hotels full of Westerners and devices that go boom.
But I had this relationship with this young girl, Syalom. Her name means peace.
She was a bit inscrutable, her letters not that frequent, but she seemed sweet. She called us Mami and Papi. When I first began writing her, she was only 7, and now she was about 11. At first she sent cute drawings (including lots of adorably labeled people in boats, Christmas trees, and elves); later she told me she liked to read, and go swimming, and her mother had remarried. Did I ever come to Indonesia?
That question came up a few times, though not incessantly. It had a feeling of longing, not a tone of demand. When she mentioned celebrating her birthday last November, she wished I could be there with her.
She talked a lot about how she prays for us. When I told her about my friend Linda, who has cancer, she wrote back that she’d been praying for Linda. I passed a copy of that letter on to my friend, who was touched enough to give me a check. I sent it to Syalom as an extra gift, augmented by some of our money.
So when we began to talk about visiting the Philippines before Abby graduated (see post, Visit 1), it only seemed reasonable to swing by Indonesia to see Syalom too—the one of these children who’d actually asked us to come. And after all, it’s right there, more or less in the general neighborhood.
But I confess, I was afraid. Flying into Jakarta, population 20 million, in the world’s most heavily Muslim country, I was most definitely on edge.