Strangers and missed flights



My chest and legs burned as I sprinted toward the check-in counter amid the chaos of Kuala Lumpur's international airport. Scraggly hair, morning breath, grumbling stomach, last night's clothes. It was raining and grey outside, and when I scurried out of bed, I was hoping grey meant 6 am. "Please let it be 6 am. Shit! It's 7:50?! Thirty minutes! Fuck!"

I struggled not to fall asleep, but I accidentally did anyway. Ultimately, I was defeated by a defective phone that has been programmed to ring at 5 am daily (for good measure), but which decided to die on me in my sleep -- never to be revived again. So there goes the P5,300 that was supposed to be for my girl's tuition and bank loans. There goes the time I should be spending at home, finally, with my daughter and the cats after 5 days of being an absentee mother.

I thought about these, the salary I worked hard for, above all, now gone because I had to purchase a new plane ticket that I shouldn't be buying in the first place, had I woken up on time. It's a nasty thing to miss a flight. It is like you are losing a battle, but you keep chasing and hoping. In the end, what it all comes down to is, despite all hope, you never win. Tears are born and strangers see you in your ugliest self.

A couple of Filipina domestic helpers sat beside me on the plane and noticed my chicken lasagna. It went from a conversation about Nasi Lemak to one about their employers making sexual advances, starving them, and not allowing them to see or talk to their families. In comparison, my five days in Indonesia and Malaysia were filled with host-provided luxuries and the joy of discovering friendships with our Muslim brethen. Obviously, my morning woes were petty compared to theirs.

I can manage to eat five times a day and send my daughter to a private school. My job affords me the privilege of seeing places around the world. It is not without difficulties, but every day, I'm able to provide for my kid and also spend time with her. I don't have to raise other people's children while my child is growing up motherless thousands of miles away.

Today these women come home with uncertainty. They don't have money or a job to sustain their families now. They are too old by Philippine standards to keep office jobs or even serve or wash dishes in restaurants. Their kids are just a year short of graduating. Monumental milestones have happened. And all of it, they were not able to enjoy and experience because they were locked up in foreign houses like slaves, eating in the toilet and stripped of basic rights - all so that they can send money back home to keep their kids alive. The years they lost are not something that can be rectified like a missed flight.

After nearly five hours, we see the chaos that is Manila from our seats on the plane. Oddly, despite its garbage-ridden waterways, congested, fume-smelling roads, and its reputation for crime, we have never been so excited to come home. In Manila, we find a sanctuary. There is familiarity. There is comfort in family and the fortitude it yields in financially stressful times.

We bade each other goodbye at the arrival gate. They said they will keep in touch. They said, "You are lucky with your job."

I stepped out into the sun-kissed streets. I am in my mother city, its warm and sticky arms wrapped around mine, as if saying, "Welcome home."'

Looking at Manila's skyline, I smiled - probably the first true time since morning - and whispered, "I am grateful for this day despite the complications. I am grateful to be lucky. I am grateful to come home."

Gretchen Filart Dublin

Gretchen is a freelance travel writer and social media manager. She writes for print and digital publications for work and weaves travel stories on her blog for fun.

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