By Robert Arafol
Terminal 1 of Ninoy Aquino International Airport may be deemed the world’s worst airport, but in my eyes, or perhaps to any other son, daughter, wife, husband or relative of an overseas Filipino worker, it is the world’s best.
I remember that it was 7 in the evening. Contrary to what I expected, the trip to the airport was smooth and fast. I was seated quietly on the front passenger seat of the taxi we had hired while at the back, my father gave my mother and sister a few last-minute reminders.
It has been more than three years since my father started working in Saudi Arabia. Our small construction business had gone bankrupt, and he had no choice but to accept a job as a mechanical engineer in one of the top oil companies in the Middle East. Life was pretty kind to my family while I was growing up—until I reached my junior year in college. One by one, our properties were sold, leaving us with only our house and a pile of debts to pay.
I did not feel the gravity of it at first because I was studying far from home and lived by myself in a dormitory. I went home every weekend and during those times, my parents would show me a world of make-believe, that everything was okay. Well, every parent would do that. But no matter how hard they tried, I was not numb. Little by little, everything became clear. They did not need to disclose all the details for me to get the whole picture. For a while, I was lost. And as much as this drastic change of lifestyle hurt me, I knew it was more devastating to my parents.
When my father first left, I was in my senior year in a civil engineering course at the University of the Philippines in Los Baños. I stayed in my dorm waiting for the departure time of my father’s plane. I chose not to go to the airport to see him off because I was afraid I would break my emotional barrier and cry. That was the last thing I wanted my father to see. He had left me, his eldest son, as the man of the house. I should be strong for him and for my family.
But it was very hard because I grew up with my father as my McGyver. He was the answer to everything and the help I needed every time I found myself in a sticky situation. I was too dependent on him. I can still remember his call a few hours before his departure. I bid him goodbye while faking a strong and happy tone. I knew he was also doing the same thing, but I made sure I was doing better. When we hung up, I cried.
Time flew very fast and it was not long before my father came home on his first vacation. (One of the benefits of his job is that he gets to enjoy a monthlong vacation every year.) But soon it was time for him to leave us again. It was not a degree less easy, but it was less sad. That time, my mother and I went with him to the airport. It was very hard to see him go. When he disappeared in the crowd in the terminal, I said to myself it would be another year before I saw him again.
And there we were again in a taxi ride to the airport. I wished it would never end, but it did. It was around 8 p.m. when we got to the terminal. I hurried to the monitor where one can check the times of departure and saw that the check-in counter for my father’s flight was not yet open. We decided to pass the time at the airport cafeteria.
While waiting, I thought about the things that happened in recent years. It was the third time my father was leaving and many things had changed since he first left. I am now working as a civil engineer in a reputable company. My brother, despite being a college dropout, has found a niche in his current job as a call center agent. My sister is in college taking up interior design. It will only be a matter of time before we fully pay all our debts.
Indeed, life gets better if you don’t give up on it.
As I bade my father farewell, I appreciated the fact that the crowd at the airport was sharing my feelings. I felt a thick cloud of emotion: The sadness of goodbye as well as hope for a better life encircled the travelers and the families they were leaving behind. I guess it is only in the Philippines where one sees extended families at the airport, seeing off travelers and then welcoming them home in fiesta-like celebration. It may or may not be cultural, but it plays a big part in who we are as Filipinos.
What our airport lacks in comfortable seats, facilities and services, all those grand structures the lack of which has put us in the bottom of the list, we make up for with the smiles and tears that greet travelers upon their arrival and the assuring hugs and kisses when we say goodbye.
Naia’s Terminal 1 will always have that special place in my heart. The glass façade serves as mute witness of my father’s undying love for our family. If only those body scans can detect how fast his heart is beating and how sorry he is to leave us behind and live for another year in another country by himself, they would announce how lucky we are to have him as our father.
I know that someday, that glass façade will not have to see our family broken apart again. But until then, I will just have to trust Terminal 1 as a place where a promise of return is made, making it, for me, the world’s best airport.
Originally published at Young Blood
Malaysia based engineer and quantity surveyor.