My left elbow pokes out of the open bus window as sweat beads on my hot skin, glistening under the scorching afternoon sun. My clothing becomes a second skin, the damp fabric clinging to my thighs and stomach. Four pairs of legs are pressed tightly alongside one another on the small wooden bench. I squint through the piercing daylight at the jeepneys and cars and buses speeding down Commonwealth Avenue, their exhaust filling my lungs - I find myself forgetting to breathe. In this moment I realize I am sharing a fraction of a Filipino’s everyday life in Manila.
I’m also confronted by my middle-class American privilege - back at home I don’t think twice about turning on the air conditioner as soon as the room gets a little warm or walking down the street with the ability to breathe clean air. As I sit in these contrasting realities I wonder if my life would even fall into step with the rhythm of Manila.
I am sitting at our small dining table watching Coral, my Trek site partner, and Pearl, our eleven-year-old neighborhood friend, play the word-guessing game “Hangman”, in Tagalog. Coral and I love when Pearl comes by every evening after school to hang out with us even if we struggle communicating with one another. Despite the language barrier, Pearl’s calm presence always is able to communicate acceptance and understanding. Pearl runs up to me to pick a Tagalog word for Coral. I continue to watch them communicate with limited words and lots of hand gestures. We laugh at our misunderstandings and in this moment I realize I am sharing a fraction of life with Pearl. The moment feels so normal that it makes me pause with gratitude. I didn’t realize until moving into the tight living quarters of the slums that personal space is a huge privilege that I often take for granted at home. The first week was filled with unending challenges: language barriers, screaming kids running in and out of the house, showering alongside cockroaches, and uncontrollable sweating. But in this simple moment I see how God is displaying how our lives are interleaving with the people in our new home.
I pray for patience and understanding in the weeks to come, for my fellow Trekkers and me as we question our privilege and encounter cultural differences - and approach both with a posture of gratitude.
- Ali Hampton