TO THE MILLIONS of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) worldwide, who cannot come home for Christmas, this true story is for you.
At the age of 26, I left New York City to embark on an adventure of a lifetime, dubbed eastwind, hitchhiking 25,000 kilometers for 3 long years, drifting through 18 countries in Europe and North Africa. The story below is an excerpt from a book I subsequently wrote – Wings and Wanderlust – the Art of Discovering Your Inner Self.
I arrived in Athens, hitchhiking from Rome to Bari, took a ship to Dubrovnic in the former Yugoslavia, then to Athens, melting pot of stray North African drifters. I was the only Filipino drifter. The rest of the Pinoys were mostly chambermaids, sailors, and musicians. This was in the mid-70s.
Christmas was around the corner. Weeks before, I knew I would get homesick. I never spent one Christmas outside the warmth of home and family. I met a Sudanese guy, a Jewish girl and a host of Arabs and North Africans in my cheap hostel. Drifters and refugees seeking jobs stuck together like magnet, becoming instant friends.
Early Christmas eve, I was in panic where to go and what to do at midnight. I could look for Filipino sailors in Pireaus or just get drunk. I chose the latter. I collected money from the guys (about ten of us), announcing a midnight drinking party. Everyone screamed. I bought the terrible cheap Greek wine called retsina, which smelled like aviation gas. I also got vodka, gin and tequila, enough to trigger a nuclear blast. Arabs and Jews normally did not celebrate Christmas but the holiday feeling was in the air in Athens, so we had this grand party at the hostel. Arabs also normally did not drink. Not this bunch.
It was a wild noisy party. At eleven o’clock in the evening, we were all goners. I tried to hide my loneliness and depression, but everyone, especially the keen Jewish girl, could see it. They were trying to comfort me. After all, I was the only Christian in a sea of Islam and Judaism. At half past eleven, I stood up, wobbled a bit, and quietly sneaked out. No one would not miss me because everyone was drunk.
The cold December air and the sudden silence jarred me from my stupor. I instinctively walked towards music I could hear. My hair stood on end and my drunk state vanished momentarily. It was a midnight Mass, an oasis in the middle of a vast desert. The church was overflowing, so I stayed outside the entrance. They sang “Oh Holy Night”, and my eyes were getting wet.
I felt guilty but it was better going to Christmas mass drunk than not going at all. It was my total refuge from my total loneliness, the warmth of the church with many people singing carols – from deafening noise to silence, from wildness to serenity, from drunkenness to solemnity. It was a wide pendulum swing. I wanted to go to communion, but changed my mind, as I might trip along the aisle. I just prayed and sang ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ with the crowd. Bethlehem was just a stone’s throw away. More, five stones perhaps.
Almost at the end of the mass, someone elbowed me. It was the Jewish girl. I turned around and saw the whole gang. They followed me to church. They wrapped the vodka and gin in paper bags. They started giggling. I was embarrassed as church-goers started staring. But then again, I was touched. Friends who did not believe in Christmas believed in friendship. They came to Mass to share themselves with me on this precious day. I was almost in tears. That was the greatest Christmas gift on the road, given by a bunch of non-Christians. We left and were rowdy in the streets, shouting and singing, as we went back to the hostel. They sang strange Arab songs. My loneliness disappeared.
“Hey, guys, thanks. I really appreciate it,” I said.
“We’re all in the same boat, Bernie, remember,” the Jewish girl answered. “We’re all away from home. We have to stick together. Especially in our moments of being alone. We are family.”
I embraced her and the guys hooted, pushing us to each other. Back at the hostel, I asked for an attendance report. Everyone shouted his/her origin – Tel Aviv, Khartoum, Marrakesh, Manila, Cairo, Dakar, Tunis. I forget the others. Come to think of it, they were more Muslim North Africans rather than Arabs, descendants of Bedouins and Berbers, nomads of the Sahara converted to Islam. They were mostly escaping the physical poverty of their North African homelands, looking for jobs in Athens, or going north to Paris or London or Copenhagen. I and the Jewish girl were escaping the spiritual poverty of affluent societies. Whereas the North Africans were looking for jobs, the Jewish girl and I were looking for ourselves.
We slept at about three in the morning only because there were no more to drink and the stores were closed. Everybody piled back to their rooms. I would never forget that Christmas. Like in Las Palmas, Andorra, Algarve, Pisa, Munich, Grenoble, Marseilles, and many other places, I had this gift of serendipity, the gift of ‘accidentally’ bumping into good people and good places on the road. That is my Christmas story.
To the OFWs out there, when the opportunity comes, drop everything and take wings, while you are young or not so young. Eastwind may never blow your way again.
[Any feedback please to Bernie V. Lopez, firstname.lastname@example.org. Please copy to email@example.com]