Even after not seeing him since seven years ago, I instinctively anticipated the punchline in Willy’s story.
“There was a Filipino couple who went to Madrid. They found a restaurant that serves bull meat after they’re killed by the matador. You know, the one who kills the bull in bullfighting? So the Filipinos ate the bull testicles, and they liked them so much that they went back again the next day.”
Almost convinced it was a genuine story.
“So anyway, they ordered the testicles – but this time they didn’t like them. They complained to the waiter: ‘These are so much smaller than the testicles we ate last night!’
“Do you know why?”
There it was.
“The waiter said: ‘Because today the matador got killed!’”
For a moment, the fast food joint in Manila’s Makati District was filled with my moronic laughter.
Aside from his presence itself, it’s Willy’s sense of humour I’d missed the most dearly: how his jokes would brighten up my childhood, in a sometimes-stern and joyless household in Hong Kong; how, after he went back to The Philippines, the absence of a kind of chuckle reserved for his whimsy actually became conspicuous.
I went to The Philippines because I’d wanted a reunion with someone missing in my life for too long.
How Willy Navarro ever came to be part of my early life began in a camera shop in Manila, where he met and became infatuated with his co-worker and another significant person throughout my existence: Concon.
After a stint in the film developing department, Concon joined thousands of her compatriots migrating to Hong Kong as a foreign worker, rearing two-year-old me and my soon-to-be-born sister. The suitor followed her to the city some half a decade later, where they dated, married – theirs was the first wedding I attended that I can actually recall – and lived together under our roof.
Then Concon gave birth to Carl, whom they entrusted his grandparents to raise back in The Philippines while they continued to work and reside in Hong Kong. When, later, they decided Carl shouldn’t grow up without at least one of his parents, Willy returned home whilst Concon stayed.
That tearful farewell and separation was seven years ago. It was also then when my household truly scattered across the globe: my grandmother and foster mother remaining in Hong Kong, my own parents and sister relocating to New Zealand, I having already lived and studied in England since three years prior – and Willy, his humorous disposition, his concurrent brotherly- and fatherly-figure, isolated from me on the Pacific island I’d yet to visit.
Until Expedia sent me there for the Travel That Matters campaign.
I owe Concon and Willy much more than they would claim credit for. In fact I’m indebted to them for the life I now lead, or at least the fabrics they wove into this tapestry: expressions of mine, flamboyant or plain, was sowed as Concon tutored me in English, my second language, as early as when I played with toy letter cubes; the love of stories, a yearning to ride the suspense and hear the end of them, began with the first joke Willy ever told me; a worldly curiosity was the bearing they nudged me towards and outwards.
Be compassionate. Be generous. Be understanding and understandable.
My background was undeniably Cantonese Chinese, with a motley of British liberalism thrown in; but to be fostered by them and absorbing their noblest qualities: that was my quasi-Filipino upbringing a world away from The Philippines.
Which makes it, even if I’d never physically been, one of my many homes.
But what brought me to The Philippines, rather than enticement of reunion or exploring my adopted homeland, was in fact Typhoon Haiyan.
Another thing I’ve learned from Concon and Willy is the Filipinos’ spirit of resilience; despite being ravaged by one of the most powerful and devastating typhoons on record, with millions of homes damaged and deadly floods in its wake, the people of Philippines simply rebuilt – thanks hugely to international aid – and carried on. Because, after all, it is a nation tempered by constant trials of fire and water.
Yet it needs its tourism industry to support the staggered economy more than ever.
Partnering with Expedia to showcase the best of what The Philippines has to offer its visitors, my mission may well be one way I could begin repaying some of the finest individuals, in my eyes, their country has ever produced – so that The Philippines’ gifts of expression and empathy to me would lend me words and sentiments, to capture and depict the beauties I would soon encounter on my journey.
I went to The Philippines for an assignment; I accepted the trip because it was personal, to the very depths of my heart.