My Back-to-My-Roots Experience

Location: Naguilian, La Union Region, The Philippines

I woke up unreasonably early that morning. I think it’s because it was too silent; I was the only person sleeping in a 12-bed dormitory. There’s just something unnerving about spending time alone in a place that’s meant to be filled with people. 

Or maybe it was because I was nervous and excited about the momentous day ahead of me: the day I would finally, after years of imagining it, visit the place where my mom was born and raised. I was determined to find my relatives that still lived in the riverside village of Naguilian. All I had to guide me was an email from one of my aunts that still owned property in the town. Auntie Baby, as we lovingly called her (Baby is a common nickname for a female child in the Philippines, and Boy is common for males) had sent me simple instructions:

“Go to #1P Burgos Street across from the hospital. Ask for Eden.”

It didn’t seem like much, but as someone who generally doesn’t go places with a particular direction in mind, I felt like I had a pretty good lead.  

It turned out to be lucky that I’d woken up so early. The local bus terminal was busting with people when I arrived; there was a holiday happening and everyone was leaving Baguio to visit family in the nearby regions. I stood in line for a ticket for over an hour, making friends with a lady behind me, who was heading in a different direction but happy to try to direct me the right way.

Suddenly, a bus driver called out something in Tagalog, then, “Naguillian!” There was a mad rush toward a bus just to my right. My new friend pointed at it, waved at me to go, and quickly. I jogged over, making it just in time to snag one of the last seats, which I ended up sharing with a grandmother and her little granddaughter. They were both so tiny that counted as a single rider.

There was no way to tell which stop was which and I was anxious I’d miss mine. I was the only non-local on board. But when I explained my fears to the grandmother beside me, she assured me it was only a few stops after hers. She asked the bus driver to remind me when it was my turn to go and he made sure to point it out to me when we arrived at the corner of a wide street flanked by fat tree trunks and square, squat buildings.  

Even though it was still early morning when I arrived at Naguilian’s town center, it was already so hot I was sweating in my tank top and jeans. It had to be at least twenty degrees hotter than Baguio. I stopped in a street bakery, an open shack with a glass case displaying plump, colorful pastillas (sweet cakes) and fresh pan de sal (soft, salty-sweet bread rolls). I ordered a coffee and was handed a foam cup filled with hot water and a Kopiko coffee powder packet, the usual in the Philippines. I poured the brown powder into my cup and dissolved it, then sat at a little wood table out and took in my surroundings.  

Naguillian was flat and dusty. There were no buildings over two stories high, and most were small, rectangular blocks painted pastel with peeling signs. All the storefronts were open, most ceilings adorned with twirling fans. Trikes and jeepneys honked and bumped down the dirt streets, brightening up the otherwise plain landscape with their rainbow paint jobs and trinkets that decorated their front windows. Everyone looked at me curiously; not many (if any) tourists came to these parts. But the double takes were friendly and I just smiled and waved at everyone.

I caught a lime green trike to the hospital, which was a 15-minute ride away, on the edge of town.  

The hospital was one-story, an aqua-painted building with an empty parking lot. I stood in front of it for a while, taking it in; I knew my lolo (grandfather) had once worked here as a physician. He died when I was still a toddler, but I felt like I knew him intimately. My mom, aunts, and uncles had an endless supply of stories about his love of practical jokes and the wild block parties he threw throughout their childhoods. I imagined that those fun-filled, family gatherings took place on this same street. That he had once walked over these same gravel steps every day on his way to work. I’d been told that villagers often couldn’t pay for doctor’s bills and he accepted anything, from garden vegetables to pork, as payment.  

Across the street sat a clean, stucco church building with a life-size statue of Mary in a rock garden behind a rusted fence. The next building over was a convenience store. My stomach twittered as I walked up to the elderly man behind the counter, wondering if he was actually a long-lost uncle of mine. But when I asked him for Eden, the man just peered over his spectacles at me and pointed at the next store over, a much smaller space that shared a yard with two houses: one beige and newer-looking, the other older and painted a soft Tiffany-blue.  

I made my way to this other shop, stepping around fallen green mangoes on the gravel. Two large mango trees took up the fenced-in front yard of the houses and I thought it was cool that my family grew up with their own mango trees. This storefront was built of wooden and crisscrossed wires, all painted white. Shelves boasted bright, shiny packages of all kinds of Filipino junk food, from polveron (a powdery flour candy) to chicharron (pork crackling) to pastillas. A young boy with spiky hair sat in a plastic chair behind the counter, watching an old television.

“Hi!” I said, grinning. He did a double take and stared at me, confused.   

“Is Eden here?” I asked. He shook his head.

“Do you know when she’ll be back?”

“Um, later? An hour or so.” He said. His eyes flickered back to the television.

“Oh, okay. What’s your name?” I asked. 

“Dez,” he told me. 

“Is Eden your mom?” I asked. He nodded.

“Oh, awesome. I’m Cassia. I’m Charito’s daughter. Tita Baby’s niece. I’m pretty sure we’re related.”

He just stared at me.

“I’ll come back when Eden’s here.” I said, and wandered back down the street, leaving Dez to his television show.  

I followed the main road through town, past half-abandoned homes, open storefronts selling 10 different types of rice, a bus station where I stopped to pick up some sesame ball treats to share with Eden (if I ever met her), the community college, grazing cows, open restaurants, more homes, and finally to a bridge spanning a wide, grayish river. The green banks were studded with thatched huts and I watched kids swim while an older man dipped his arms into the water, pulling up a crab crate.  

When I looked back up, I noticed two out-of-place figures headed my way; their pale skin practically shimmered under the sun. One carried a black umbrella, shielding his face from the sun. I wondered how uncomfortable they were in their crisp white button downs, black suit pants, and black tie-up loafers. When they noticed me, both stared. I wondered if I looked as unusual with my black backpack hanging off one shoulder, my red DSLR wrapped around my neck.

The two men, both around my age, turned out to be American Mormon missionaries. One was from California, the other from Utah. We chatted for a few minutes. I told them my family was from the area and they told me they’d been living in the mission house in Naguilian for the past six months. They let me snap a photograph and gave me a card with a picture of a blonde religious figure and a verse for keepsake. As they left, I wondered what they thought of Naguilian and more so, what the locals thought of them. The population of the Philippines is mostly Catholic. It felt like a strange place to try to preach Mormonism when the Spanish missionaries had already converted most people. 

Afterwards, I wandered back to the shop. This time, an older girl with short brown hair and an easy smile she saw me and when she did, she let out a gasp.

“You look just like Tita Baby!” She said. “Are you her daughter?" 

I laughed, told her I was Charito’s daughter, that Tita Baby only had a son. The girl, Lauden, was technically my second cousin. Dez was her little brother. Lauden invited me in through a rusted, teal-painted, chipping gate, and when I met her in the yard, I saw that she was at least 5-months pregnant. Her red t-shirt stretched tight over her full belly. She introduced me to her boyfriend and asked if I’d like to stay for lunch. Eden was somewhere around, she could be back at any time.

Lauden showed me around the property while her boyfriend prepared lunch in the outdoor kitchen behind the shop. There was a stack of fish balls and skewers half-prepared on a table between the shop and the house; Lauden had been stacking up the colorful, chewy shapes in a glass display case for the store. She led me through the newer house, which had one smaller bedroom, a big main area, and a kitchen. Everything was empty of furniture except for a table in the middle. It was decorated with a colorful cloth, little religious figures, greeting cards, and a framed image of my grandfather’s sister. Lauden looked at the picture lovingly. On the other side of the house was an opening to a shed in the back and a thin-legged, skinny dog peered out at us. A motorbike leaned up against the wall of the blue house.

This second house, where Eden, Lauden, her boyfriend, and Dez lived, was smaller than the first. The whole family slept in the same room, on different beds and mattresses spread out across the floor. The other rooms were just used to storage. It was a strange set up.

The mantle in the middle area was covered in stuffed animal versions of American icons, and in the far corner, underneath a spotlight, sat a statue of Mary. It reminded me of my intensely-Catholic aunts. I could see that the religious-thing ran in the family. Lauden let me snap photos of everything and asked if anyone else from the family was traveling with me. When I told her that it was just me and that most of the family didn’t know I was here, she was surprised.

When Eden arrived, we ate lunch at an outdoor table shaded by the store’s rooftop. It was a hodgepodge of Filipino dishes whose smells and flavors brought me back to many an evening in my aunt’s living room, sitting cross-legged on the itchy, carpeted floor, paper plate in my lap because there weren’t enough chairs for everyone. As we ate, Eden shared stories about Lolo and Lola, and about Casiano, the man I was named after. He was a kind soul, they said, a friendly jokester of Naguilian.  

I showed everyone pictures of my parents, sister, and brother, and they shared stories with me about all the family members that had visited over the years. Of how Tita Baby spent most of her time in the Philippines up in northern Luzon’s mountain ranges. Of meeting my cousins for the first time and visiting Baguio together. They had lots of questions for me about Boracay Island and Palawan; they’d never visited either place.

When I told them I was thinking of heading up to Kalinga, another destination they’d never traveled to, they asked me why I was interested in making the trip. I described the headhunting warrior tattoos and the mambabatok. Lauden shook her head and smiled; she already had a hard time believing I was traveling through the Philippines by myself. My plans to journey up to hike through the mountains must have seemed almost crazy.

Then they asked me about the rest of the family, about my aunts, uncles, and cousins in America. I found myself pausing, unable to really provide much recent information that they didn’t already know through Facebook.

“Actually, I’ve been out of the country for a while. It’s been at least five years since I’ve been to Indiana and seen everyone.”  

I was embarrassed in this moment and I stared down at my plate, playing with stray rice grains. How could I have made time to travel all the way to the Philippines but I didn’t even know what was happening with the cousins, aunts, and uncles I grew up with? My stomach knotted. Family is everything to Filipinos and I wondered if I’d lost that value, spending so much of my energy focused on myself and exploring the world. Meeting Lauden, Dez, and Eden made me miss my family back home. 

After lunch, Lauden and her boyfriend brought me to Casiano’s grave. He was buried in an overgrown cemetery with his brothers, sisters, and wife. The actual grave was clean, but totally bare. Lauden had brought a tarp with the names of all the relatives; they were apparently renovating the grave and this was what they used in the meantime to commemorate our ancestors. I stood in the memorial above the man who I was named after and closed my eyes for a moment, just glad I was able to be here, to learn about this part of my family’s history and myself.