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14 June 2009

TRAVEL TALES : Filipinos in northern India

Celebration of Independence Day
Image source: Paul Ancheta

I'M ENDING my "blog drought" with this weekend's story. It's about the best two consecutive days I've had since the Regional Bahá’í Conference in Kolkata in November 2008. It deserves to be told.

Last Thursday, with an invitation from the Philippine Embassy in New Delhi, I flew to the Indian capital to help celebrate the 111th anniversary of the Philippine declaration of independence on 12 June (yesterday). I planned to use the visit to renew my passport and register as an overseas absentee voter for the Philippine national elections being held next year.

I also wanted to meet New Delhi Consul Iric Arribas, trade officer Vyke Roaring, and Mumbai Consul General R. Swaminathan in person. We've had phone and e-mail conversations earlier, so it was the right time to finally meet up. Over lunch, we enthused over possibilities of trade links with the company I work with, and shared upbeat stories as Filipinos living in India.

Then came Friday morning. It was Independence Day. I joined over 50 other Filipinos for a flag-raising ceremony at the gardens of the Philippine Embassy. Thoughts of socio-political freedom were farthest from my mind. There was something much more thrilling than those.

I was finally meeting a bona fide Filipino group, for the first time since coming to India in December 2005.

They had remained faceless names in the "Filipinos in India" Yahoo!Group that we shared online. Not anymore. Standing on the embassy gardens, they were smartly attired in Filipino shirts and dresses, the dainty embroideries on pineapple and banana fabrics gently lit by the early midsummer morning sky. Smiles were shared, laughter echoed. And there spilled Tagalog, the beautiful language of my very many years in Manila. "So you're Dante!" "Remember Paul Ancheta, who was speaking in Ilocano? That's him!" "Yes, I remember the message you posted about remittances!"

The Philippine ambassador to India, Mr. Francisco Benedicto, and his lovely wife opened up their home to welcome the community after the flag was hoisted. Their house, elegant and inviting, was spacious enough to fit all of us, seated. It was also the perfect setting for a perfect Filipino breakfast. Sinangag. Lugaw. Maja blanca. Tapa! The last time I had Filipinized spaghetti was during my brother's birthday in Manila in 1998, so that morning's spaghetti lingered a while in my mouth before getting chewed completely.

Later that day, several more Filipinos joined the same group at The Ashok hotel for evening cocktails with members of the Delhi diplomatic corps. Instrumental versions of the Indian and Philippine national anthems opened the evening and set its tone: dignified, familiar, enveloping. I never realized how moving the Indian anthem could get.

Those I met this weekend represent the most diverse Filipino community I've seen in all the places I've lived and worked in. They come from the fields of NGO, hospitality, fashion and product design, retail, urban planning, public works, private service, and family builders (I refer to the housewives of Indians). I was introduced to Monsignor Arnaldo Catalan, the first Filipino appointed as secretary to the Papal Nuncio in India. I met a Filipina working at the Norwegian Embassy, and saw a Filipino married to the lady running Spain's cultural center in India. I also saw the best of both worlds when I met the non-Filipino spouses and their children: those kids should join beauty contests when they're old enough!

With all the familiar Filipino food, fun, and fellowship in Delhi this weekend, it was like being transported back home. It was good. Very good.


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