Reunions are a dime a dozen. But for five sisters, all senior citizens with ages ranging from 66-79 years, coming from the United States and the Philippines to celebrate a reunion in China—THAT is a once-in-a-lifetime event.
And that is exactly what happened when Lourdes Caluag-Molina, Angelita Caluag-Cruz, Aurora Caluag-Cavalieri, Erlinda Caluag-Dancer and their elder sister, Paulina Caluag-Santos, planned their long-awaited reunion last September. They are the five surviving daughters of the late Dr. Jose L. Caluag and Vicenta Dimaliuat-Caluag.
The opportunity presented itself when we were invited to a special event in Shanghai by my son, Larry, who has lived and worked there for almost a decade.
When Lourdes, Paulina, and I left the Philippines last Sept. 16, Lourdes had brought one heavy carry-on luggage full of (you guessed it) frozen foods. Since she brought enough to feed a battalion, she was stopped by the Customs people at Naia and told to open her luggage.
After much arguing, and with us talking almost nonstop, the bedraggled airport official finally heaved a sigh of resignation, took out his roll of packaging tape, and painstakingly taped all the individual plastic containers that would be our breakfast for the next 15 days, all the while lecturing us on how to pack frozen food.
While the three of us debated in whispers whether to give the man something for his efforts, I suggested we at least reimburse him for his sorely-depleted packaging tape.
My suggestion was immediately shot down by my sisters. The man obviously couldn’t wait for our decision and simply walked away. I suspected he was just too glad to get rid of us.
Little did we know that this would be a portent of what awaited our group in the airports we would be passing throughout our trip.
We arrived in Shanghai midnight of Sept. 16, while Aurora and Erlinda had planed in a few hours ahead of us from the US. We met in the new flat of Larry, in a well-appointed residential area in the suburbs of Shanghai, which would be our home in Shanghai for the next two weeks.
The screams with which we greeted one another could well have come from teenagers greeting Justin Bieber at a concert, a poignant reminder that senior citizens or not, we could still dish out high-pitched sounds reminiscent of our high school years. Though we had occasions in the past to visit one another, this was the first time all five of us were in the same continent. The white, thinning tresses camouflaged by teased hair held up by spray net were obvious, as well as the wrinkles and the added weight … but nobody minded.
Everybody was talking at the same time, and Larry was dumbfounded, wondering how we could understand one another. After several hours of this, my son had to calm us down and remind us that it was already four o’clock in the morning, and that we had a full day ahead of us.
Larry hired a van to bring us around Shanghai. After having lived and worked in Shanghai for many years, my son was quite fluent in Mandarin.
We went to the Jade Buddha Temple, the fake market shopping area, where Larry was highly in demand so he could bargain in Chinese for lower prices for us.
The following days were spent visiting the Jing An Temple, the Bund (Pudong and Puxi sides) where we mostly took refuge inside a Starbucks outlet because of the chilly evening wind, the Xintiandi Bar Strip, and more shopping at Yuyuan Garden. By then, my only daughter, Michelle, who lives in Melbourne, had planed in and joined us.
The following Tuesday, Sept. 20, all of us, minus Larry, took a domestic flight to Beijing, where we were met by my eldest son, Fr. Francis, CM, (Kindergarten 1969 under Sr. Redempta) who had been a missionary in Tianjin for the past three years. We were now seven people, and much like Larry, Fr. Francis had also hired a van to bring us around. This time, we stayed at a hotel in Beijing whose facilities were so forgettable that I actually forgot the hotel’s name. We occupied three rooms, with my four sisters bunking in pairs, while I stayed with my two children in the third.
When we inspected our rooms, we were shocked to see the bathrooms with the toilet bowls situated directly under the shower head. While we were figuring out how we could take a decent shower in such an unusual arrangement, shock soon gave way to amusement as we pictured how time-saving that could prove to be. Come to think of it, we could actually plop down on the toilet seat, open the shower, take a bath, and shampoo our hair, all while doing our thing, and be done in a couple of minutes! (And even save on water in the process.)
From the first day since Fr. Francis joined us, he would say a private Mass at our hotel room before we left for the day. This would continue up to the end of our trip.
We never realized how dealing with four aging aunts and one aging mom had taken a toll on my son, Larry, until inside the van on our first day of touring Beijing, Fr. Francis’ cell phone beeped with a text message from him.
Fr. Francis read to us Larry’s text: “Just to warn you, for all plans with our five seniors, better gather everyone and inform them all together. Otherwise, you’ll get five identical questions from each. You will also get inquiries for all items like what is that small piece of sour food on their plate. They will expect you to have answers for every smallest thing. Be ready for stories na paulit-ulit. Pero masaya sila kasama at lagi nagtatawanan if they are not arguing.”
Like Larry, Fr. Francis is also very fluent in Chinese, and was our tour guide in Beijing, bringing us to such places as the Olympic Games’ Bird’s Nest and Water Cube, the Summer Palace, the Matteo Ricci Tomb, and the Nan Luo Gu Xiang Hutong shops. We even had our first Peking Duck dinner in Beijing one evening. Our last stops in Beijing were the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden City.
We decided to climb the Great Wall, not in Beijing which was more commercialized, well-paved, and teeming with tourists, but from the Tianjin side, which was our next destination. Tianjin, where Fr. Francis lived as a missionary, was half an hour away by train, but our rental van took us all the way there in 2-1/2 hours.
We arrived in Tianjin, a modern city, on Friday, Sept. 23, with my four sisters staying in a four-star hotel and greeting the bathrooms with “Ohhs” and “Ahhs,” a far cry from our Beijing hotel.
I stayed in Fr. Francis’ flat with him and my daughter, Michelle.
Fr. Francis had asked a Chinese friend, Tom Liang, to accompany us on a tour of Tianjin. Our first day, we saw the Ancient Cultural Street, the Italian Concession, took a looong walk one evening at the Hai River, and prepared mentally for the Great Wall trek the following day.
On our last full day in Tianjin, we went to the Great Wall. Although Lourdes and I had already climbed the Beijing side of the Wall on previous trips taken separately, it was, for me, a very different experience. Beijing Wall was totally tourist-friendly, with smooth cemented walks and handrails, and I had to walk only as far as I wanted to go. In Tianjin, we had to walk … plod along … crawl … inch by agonizing inch on uneven, occasionally potholed rough cement all the way from entrance to exit. There were very few people, true, but the stairs were much much steeper, that sometimes we would be literally stopped in our tracks by a flight of 40 steps going straight up to a top not visible to our eyes. It was either climb or perish. And all five of us climbed, and almost all perished. But for the physical help from our three much younger companions—Tom, Michelle, and Fr. Francis—I doubted that anyone of us five seniors would have made it to the end alone.
The young ones pulled (reluctant arms), pushed (heavy butts), encouraged, cajoled, and threatened … even telling us the “end is near” and all it would take were a few more steps. The more gullible among us believed, only to be disillusioned as, rounding a corner, or cresting a towering hill, we would be greeted by yet another set of endless steps.
We had some sort of a running joke as we trudged along. At the peak of one particular climb, my daughter, Michelle, said, “Wow! Look at that magnificent view!” And one of the exhausted seniors who still had the energy, would reply, “What view?” The others who attempted to glance at the magnificent view, were either sprawled on the steps, or hanging on for dear life.
Finally, we reached the top and were told that the rest would be easier because it would be all downhill from there. Downhill? Our collective hearts leapt with joy! Hooray! We celebrated too soon.
The way down wasn’t through cemented walks or stairs. The way to that light at the end of the tunnel—the exit—was outside the ramparts. There were no cemented steps but rocks imbedded in soil where each step meant you either lose footing and slide a couple of feet down unchecked until some kind soul grabs you, or you plunge headlong down the ravine.
At one point in the descent, a young Chinese teenager was below me, said a few Chinese words, and held out her hand to me. I thought she was asking for my help in going up, so I grabbed her hand and pulled her up. Then she laughed and Tom, who was with me at that time (our three young companions were spreading themselves among the five of us to check who was in most need of mercy) explained that she was offering to help me go down to where she was standing.
What should have been a 1-1/2 hours’ walk at the Great Wall became a 3-hour trek for us. That night, muscles we never thought we had all cried out for attention, as we recalled our climb over dinner. We were doubled up in laughter recalling our ordeal, but we all had fun because miracle of miracles … we finally lost those two pounds that we had been attempting to shed.
The following day, Sunday, all of us attended the 11:30 a.m. Mass at St. Joseph’s Cathedral, celebrated by my son, Fr. Francis, who introduced us to his parishioners. After lunch, we all left for the Tianjin airport for our trip back to Shanghai, to meet up with Larry and another son, Bernard, who had by then arrived from Kuala Lumpur with his wife, Romma, and 5-year-old daughter, Yana.
At the boarding gate, Lourdes was again called by the counter lady and asked to open her handcarry (again).
No frozen food this time. The culprit? Her aerosol Lysol (which came in very handy at all the public toilets we used), Baygon mosquito spray, and spray net cans! We started kidding Lourdes that if this had been graduation, she would have gotten an “honorable mention” from airport officials.
Back in Shanghai, we were now 11 people staying in Larry’s flat. The evening of Sept. 26, we had dinner at a Thai Restaurant to celebrate Bernard’s birthday and to fete Larry’s other guests.
On our last day in the flat, Fr. Francis blessed the entire house, including the basement, and we prepared many coins of different currencies for the “pahagis.” It was all for the benefit of the only child in our group—my granddaughter, Yana. But as we each threw our peso, dollar and RMB coins in the air, and we all made “excited” sounds to encourage Yana to pick up the coins, we ended up with all of us bending over and picking up the coins ourselves, and Yana just watching us with a perplexed expression on her face.
It was a sad day when we had to leave, with Aurora and Erlinda flying back to the US in the afternoon of the same day my two sisters and I left for the Philippines on a midnight flight. On our way back, we were at the airport in Shanghai checking in our luggage, when … guess what happened?