In 2002, I was part of a small Hong Kong delegation that went to Yogyakarta, Indonesia to attend a regional SFC Conference. I joined the group led by Kuya Mer Anonuevo, my first household head, and his wife Ate Beng Anonuevo, and fellow singles Jenny Perez, Shasha Sarmiento, Barbie Tarrosa, among others. I was so excited not only to attend my first-ever singles conference. It was also my first taste of travel, a childhood dream to complement my emerging interest in geography and travel. We attended talks, tasted exotic dishes, explored this wonderful city and met plenty of friends, many of whom remain in my Facebook contacts.
Fast forward in 2013, a full year after being handed over the role as couple coordinator for SFL Hong Kong and four years after Kuya Mer and Ate Beng became our wedding sponsors, my wife Babes and I joined a lean delegation to the World Singles Congress in Subic. Although my role has changed, from just being tagged along, to a leader who look responsibility and look after ten other people, the experience brings back good memories of Yogyakarta. It also brought back the good times in the university when our class went on a week-long adventure in Luzon and greeted the trip with great excitement and anticipation.
Our ministry in Hong Kong may be one big family, but schedules and restrictions at work made it look like a fragmented puzzle. I have no doubt the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but I also had to be practical and realistic. Yet, gatherings like the WSC brought us as one big family. The warm weather in Clark brought pleasant respite from the chills of Hong Kong — even though we later had to succumb to sweltering heat and high humidity. We are indeed in the Philippines.
WSC 2013 wasn’t just a case of so-called balikbayans reconnecting with Filipino roots, it was also sort of baptism of fire for the uninitiated members. When an immigration officer at Clark’s Diosdado Macapagal Airport asked Jozelle Gabriel a question in local vernacular, Babes had to come to her aid from the back after her gestures over her shoulder signified a mixture of confusion and concern.
On the other side of the spectrum, the duo of B.J. Santos and Karina Daluz and their litany of local Filipino street foods proved their strong Philippine connections: kwek kwek, a variation of tokneneng, a deep-fried orange batter of hard boiled eggs, proben, deep-fried chicken proventriculus soaked in corn starch and dipped in vinegar. The latter’s preference for the local joint of Potato Corner which offered calorie-rich flavored french fries dragged everyone to adore its taste and became instant fans.
Also, we were spoiled by the endless list of chicken restaurants on one strip of the road: from household names such as Max’s, Andok’s and Jollibee to a cornucopia of standalone stalls out to dispatch each other with unlimited rice and peculiar names such as McDollibee, Kini Rogers and a personal favorite Mang Inasar – Maasar ka sa Sarap, a play from the Jollibee-owned Mang Inasal which I personally look forward to pay a visit. Needless to say, the smell of fried chicken permeated in the area as we took a brief tour of the neighborhood.
Traveling to the Philippines can be challenging, even for a local. From the doorsteps of Clark airport, one can easily notice the apparent lack of guideposts for tourists who wish to get out of the airport unmindful of touting jeepney barkers and taxicab drivers. There are no feeder buses to nearby provinces and one has to get on board an “airconditioned” jeepney for fifty pesos to get to Mabalacat bus complex not so far from the airport. I guess such arrangements open up opportunity for drivers to earn a living while ferrying passengers from airport to bus terminal.
In our case, someone picked us up from Clark airport and brought us all the way to Subic, via SCTEX — Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway, many thanks to the organizers who assigned Tinay Mamaril and Fyron Umali to guide us international delegates.
Imagine a van full of folks who knew each other and has plenty of energy left after a short flight. Riot. At least that’s how I wish it would be, as far as I remembered my college outreach trip in Kidapawan and Digos turned out to be. But this time it was rather quiet, with occasional trivial information shared across the van.
“The mountain on the right is Mount Pinatubo. If street rallies and lobbyists in Congress spent years to express their desire to get rid of American forces out of Clark, Mount Pinatubo’s wrath in 1991 settled the score once and for all.”
But I knew it was too academic. I joined this group not as a history professor nor a tour guide. It was probably because I am not good (or quite comfortable) cracking jokes properly, Jae Drilon was sleepy or Melissa Deocadez had other things in mind. The van drove into the well-paved road with not much commotion inside. We passed through towns of Porac and Floridablanca and Dinalupihan, Bataan, before making a right turn to Zambales where Subic, another naval American base that closed also in 1991, sit facing the South China Sea. It was my first time to visit Subic but I’ve heard good impressions about it.
When booking for hotels, one must be prepared to lower expectations or possibly deal with flaring temper that will ruin the trip. As these lodging places are promoted with best foot, er, rooms forward — photos of the brightest, most well maintained rooms appear on Agoda and Booking.com — an unsuspecting guest may find the rooms smaller than photos actually try to portray — like NBA basketball courts are actually smaller than they appear to be on television.
After spending hours comparing hotels by price, visitor feedback, location and many other factors, I’ve come to a conclusion to patronize Ridgecrest Hotel which had decent rooms, good feedback and more importantly, can accommodate our number. Our rooms weren’t too shabby, except virtually all of the ones we booked were not well endowed with natural light and do not appear to have insulation from outdside noise. There was the staircase but no elevator, but it wasn’t much of an issue except during moments when we came in and got out with our luggage. We didn’t book together with other international delegates at a hotel closer to the venue but we found ourselves in the same hotel with WSC delegates from Bukidnon (or Ozamis, or both).
Activities at WSC 2013 didn’t get started until late afternoon. Ahead of the event, I went to the venue, Subic Bay Exhibition and Convention Center (SBECC), a 12,000 sq meter property which makes it the largest convention center in Central Luzon. The problem with the venue is that since it is located inside Subic Bay Gateway Park, not all vehicles can pass through the area; I had to walk a few blocks from where public vehicles are allowed. It was then that I met familiar faces: full-time workers who have served Hong Kong such as Dylan Reyes and met for the first time fellow servants whose familiar names are recalled from email exchanges: Arvin Serra , Jeff de Luna and Tinay Mamaril, to name a few.
As I paid the fees and picked up kits for the delegates, I saw the organizers feverishly apply last-minute touches for the venue, setting up entrance booths and the giant ‘Declare’ logo at the entrance gate. This is something that reminds me of our wedding preparations, whose planning and execution was not accomplished until the wedding day itself.
As a member of the Family Ministry who has its share of organizing events, I can relate with event preparations and the multiple parameters that are in play. For example, the choice of venue must accommodate expected guests, the shirt design must comply with event theme and countless coordination meetings with various groups, without giving up too much on our household meetings. As venues are made available for WSC organizing team only at the booked event days, last minute setup is totally understandable. Even though planning was underway months ago, decorations can only be done hours before the event.
But it was all worth the effort, sacrifices and even possible clashes of ideas.
When Grant ‘Cocoi’ Javier formally opened the World Singles Congress 2013, we learned that this year’s attendance set a new record. And it was just the beginning of a series of exciting highlights.
- We were given front-row seats in the venue, which I thought was very special, allowing us to witness praise and worship, talks and presentations unobstructed. As I was told before, international delegates are accorded not with such privilege. But I did not see it as special treatment, but as recognition of our efforts to accept the invitation, prepare and join the largely Philippine-based contingent. When each delegation was called out in the customary check attendance, our small delegation erupted in cheers, waving our large banner — the only one of its kind I saw in the entire event.
- I realized we kind of adopted that fashionable taste while living in Hong Kong when B.J. Santos and Jozelle Gabriel were shortlisted in the Sprinto-backed ‘Black and White’ event, which organizers were on the prowl for the most well-dressed participant in the past two hours. Not knowing what to expect, the two were given a lesson or two on overcoming stage fright. Billy eventually won the male category and won prizes.
- The Gala Night was kind of reminiscent of proms we did in high school but in a much more elegant manner. Too bad, Jae Drilon’s dress, the one she carefully and painstakingly carried from home to airport to hotel got into wardrobe trouble. But somehow, with the help of fellow female delegates, she figured out a remedy before we all went to the venue picked up by a van.As we descended into the venue, the atmosphere was electric. At the reception area were specially arranged booths allowed well-dressed guests take memorable snaps. I guess it got so crowded that I saw photos of our delegates taking selfies inside the washroom, apparently getting impatient with the line that got longer.Inside the venue was even more festive. Illumination was dimmed as floodlights gave way to dancing lights.Soon as the announcer’s voice emerged signalling the start of the event, the crowd went delirious. We were unsure of where our seats were, as we moved from one end to another, anticipating a view that’s as good as our front-row seats. As I was sitting and chatting with guests nearby, I summoned the less sociable Christian Joy Paniza and Mary Chris Deocadez from their corner and join the dance. Never miss this opportunity, ladies.The gala wasn’t just an opportunity to reenact the prom or some random friend’s debut party, it was also a way to emphasize the message by the Live Pure team, on the value of chastity, as a newly-wed couple was ushered into the stage that culminated with a kiss. From the dance numbers, serenade by a group whose name I forgot, and the whatchamacallit Mister and Miss Gala Night, the event ended with a powerful praise and worship which featured delegates onstage.
- Fr. Arlo Yap’s demeanor suits well with singles. After giving a talk, he makes himself available for us to chat, goofs around and cracks jokes to everyone’s amusement — including one in which he feigns not believing I am my wife’s husband, “hindi kayo bagay…” We joined for lunch and, in between nibbles, a group approaches him for photo opportunity, a gesture he welcomes.
- Praise fest is undoubtedly one of the most anticipated portions of any World Singles Congress. And we were not disappointed. At the beginning and end of each day, powerful rendition by different bands set the tone right: SFL music ministry, SFL Novaliches and SFL Biliran. If there is anything Melissa Deocadez could easily remember in her previous conferences attended, it’s probably the praise and worship parts. “It’s just on another level,” she enthuses.
- Not only Billy Joel won the “Black and White” event, SFL Hong Kong was also recognized as the “Most Generous” in our efforts to help Bahay Karunungan, an award that enabled me to go onstage on behalf of the group. Maybe we’re based abroad where cost of living is relatively higher, our share was kind of “significant,” considering that our headcount in the WSC 2013 is below a dozen. As I read in a news item, charitable donations in Hong Kong’s past fiscal year (April 1 – March 31) amounted to HK$9.2 billion (P52.9 billion). I guess it rubbed off to us a bit.
Big kudos to the organizers who made this experience a memorable one. Not only that, when power interruption took place in the middle of praise fest led by Dylan Reyes, presence of mind of folks in the backstage averted a prolonged darkness in what looked like divine intervention. Big kudos to SFLs who took time onstage not only to showcase musical talents and perform dance numbers but also to share their life, their transformation.
Jermer Cruz shared the cancer therapy of his mom, Joy (or was it Ej?) Aguila who recalled the life of her father, and a teary-eyed sharer who dedicated his delegation’s attendance to a coordinator who recently passed away, the stage is a powerful platform to highlight one’s faith as shield against despair and hopelessness. What a fitting conclusion to that year’s theme “Declare: Faith Works Wonders.”
As we flew back to Hong Kong eagerly anticipating the announcement of the new Pope, organize a WSC Echo Conference in Hong Kong, and, of course, start a countdown for World Singles Congress 2014.
A countdown that winds down soon.