In the latter part of my last column, “Our gruelling first five years of marriage,” I mentioned a bit that I spent the fifth year of our marriage away from my wife, Malou, and our two toddler sons, as an Overseas Filipino Worker or OFW (back then, we were yet ascribed as Overseas Contract Worker or OCW) in Saudi Arabia.
Interestingly, from a teaching job in the Philippines, I landed working with a transportation rental company in Saudi. I was kind of an Office In-Charge (sort of manager) assigned in Saudi’s western part, the industrial city of Yanbu Royal Commission. Our company provided car rentals (sedan cars of all types and brands) and taxi services to all sorts of clients – Saudi locals, tourists, expat workers, and even Filipinos.
Under me at my assigned post were some drivers (mostly Indian and Pakistani nationals, no Filipino) and two auto mechanics (one was a Filipino). I was called “modir” (manager) by my subordinates. In time when I arrived at my post, I have to double- time learning the Arabic language as I have to deal with the locals, other clients, and subordinates who cannot speak or understand English.
Except for the queasy intermittent attacks of homesickness (I recall having sleepless nights thinking about my dear Malou, and especially my second son who was only over-a-month old when I left), life was fairly good then as I was regularly sending quite lucrative amount to Malou from my $1,000 monthly pay. The exchange rate then was P18-20 to $1. My living accommodation was at an internationally-famed hotel. Aside from my regular post, I sometimes have to cross-duty at the airport, the town center, and at the hotel.
Now, let me recount two unforgettable observations I have had during my overseas job stint – perhaps, if only to provide a glimpse not only of the “gains” (higher income) but also of the “pains” of labor diaspora – family separation, psycho-emotional starvation suffered by family members, and worse, broken marriages and homes.
One, out of homesickness (if not, of other factors), many OFWs indulge in extra-marital relationships. I’ve observed not few OFWs who, already married back home, and unknown to their spouses in the Philippines, would manage – through scheming compliance of local laws, such as “multiple marriage” – to get a “family or couple accommodation” status and live together while working there. So, as long as they are overseas, these philandering OFWs are staying together; but whenever they come home to the Philippines, they go home to their original spouses and families.
Well, ‘tis not just belaboring the truth that philandering is likewise common back home. But, point of fact, for OFWs, the scourge of homesickness because of family separation is but overwhelming to succumb to temptations.
Two, at my place overseas, I’ve observed how some or several fellow OFWs are addicted to gambling, sugapa sa sugal, particularly card game – aside from jueteng, and other forms of lottery. I have seen how they extravagantly bet with big amounts (and greenbucks or dollars at that!) and even jewelry items or valuables. I can’t avoid recalling two of my OFW friends who were certified “sugapa sa sugal” – one was a bowling pin boy with just a modest salary, at the hotel where I was staying; the other one was a Filipino-American working with an American petro-chemical company, with a hefty salary. I remember him very well because one time, it was told, with no more money and jewelry, he bet his unused original Levi’s trousers.
Come every Thursday evening before the Friday weekly holiday, these two friends of mine would each rent from me big cars to fetch their playmates for their overnight gambling galore. Well, hindi man ako naglalaro at hindi ako marunong, naaabutan din ako ng balato, at dolyar pa.
After a couple of years when I was already back in the Philippines, I happened to meet again my bowling pin boy friend in an unexpected occasion: I was riding a passenger bus and he was the conductor.
On hindsight, hence, life in my then overseas job was undoubtedly laden with seemingly insurmountable temptations. In fact, I wasn’t spared too – but thanks heavens that I didn’t give in. For example, I remember quite well one mature Caucasian woman, wife of an American expat worker, who was our regular taxi customer for her routine aerobics sessions. On one occasion, she called me to book for a taxi, but unfortunately there was no available driver. She requested if I could just drive her instead – and out of courtesy I did, just for that occasion. But, the next time around, she was insisting that I’d be the one driving for her, not our assigned driver, and telling me further to go to their villa accommodation (her husband was out at work) as she prepared food for me and that she wanted to show me something. I was quite alarmed by this, and knowing how strict the local laws were, I firmly told her I cannot and thus sent our driver for her.
Another example, my office was located just beside a hospital. It was always a welcome news for flirting OFWs every time a new Filipina nurse or hospital employee arrives. In time during the first few weeks of duty for the Filipina employee, she is paid a visit at the hospital by suitors bringing gifts – flowers, chocolates, etc. Some of my friends would even rent a luxurious car (American or German made) from me just to showcase their flirting stance to newly arrived Pinays.
Or, at times, I receive invitations to attend clandestine parties of Filipinos, and surprisingly finding out that female OFWs were around. These secret gatherings were breeding occasions for extra-marital relations.
Admittedly, thus, beset with this backdrop of “temptations” or threats to marital unity and exacerbated by my seemingly incurable homesickness, after over a year I thought of cutting short my contract in order to come home. I first tried requesting my employer for a family accommodation and have my wife and two sons come and stay with me. My employer rejected my request. So I just decided to come home, the air fare at my own expense.
Before coming home I called up my wife, telling her about my decision and to which she was at first adamant. But I told her: “Look, I have one and a hundred reasons why I have to stay overseas – the pay, etc., etc. But I only have one reason in coming home – it’s you and our family. I don’t want to let our children grow up in my absence.” And the rest is history, I returned home.
But, wait. What about my having been jailed overseas? This is what happened as culled from my long-kept journal I wrote some 32 years ago.
My travel itinerary was supposedly Yanbu-Jeddah-Bahrain-Hong Kong-Manila.
At 9:00 a.m., I left Yanbu airport for Jeddah, my first stop in my exit itinerary. At 8:50 a.m. I arrived Jeddah airport, where I first changed my money for US dollars.
At 2 p.m., I left Jeddah airport for Riyadh, together with other Filipinos homebound. At around 3:25 p.m. we arrived Riyadh. At first, we were advised to remain seated. Shortly after 15 minutes, our passports and ticket were collected, then we were asked to disembark purportedly to identify our baggage. However, when we were down at the airport, we were informed that we cannot get to Bahrain because Manila airport, our end destination, cannot confirm our flight as it was then CLOSED because of a coup. We stayed at Riyadh airport for 1-2 hours, after which we were asked to board another plane back to Jeddah, where we arrived at around 7:30 p.m.
We were immediately jostled into the immigration area, segregating us into two groups, those with exit-reentry and those with exit-only visas. I was with the latter – we were 17 Filipinos.
We were then dump-packed into a small air-conditioned room, only with chairs on the wall sides and a restroom – no beds or mattresses. In the same room at the rear portion were some 16 real detainees of different nationalities who’ve been languishing in there presumably for quite long. Immigration authorities kept our passports, while our plane tickets remained with us. We just slept on the floor.
We, 17 Filipinos, were asked to call our sponsor-employers to pick us up at the airport, cancel our reservations, and have them rebooked later. The reason, according to immigration authorities, was: we have already accomplished our exit documents and thus we were no longer supposed to be around. In short, we were already illegal aliens!
In my case, there were two problems: first, my exit visa was already stamped still in Yanbu. Second, the exit form or slip which I gave to our company representative in Jeddah, which was supposed to be presented by the sponsor in picking up, was already sent to Yanbu the day before. So, I had to stay then. Meanwhile, a few of my Filipino companions were already fetched by their employers.
Fighting was still raging in Manila, and no Manila flights yet – the guard would tell us. Our number now was reduced to 9, as others were picked up by their employers. I tried to call again (the phone booth was just outside the door) our company branch in Jeddah, who then advised me to wait for them to pick me up. I waited until midnight, and nobody came.
Meanwhile, we were locked inside the room. The immigration guards were treating us like criminals. We were not allowed to stand by the door. The only chance I could use the phone booth was whenever the guard would enter the room to count our number and so I have to appeal to him several times almost the whole day before my request is granted. We were given food though, thrice a day – 4 a.m.; 2:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.
We were only four Filipinos remaining in the room. I didn’t call my employer anymore. My chances of being fetched was becoming slimmer.
We learned that the Manila coup was over, and that Manila airport opened in the afternoon. However, there was no scheduled flight yet for Manila.
One airline started its first flight for Manila at 10:30 p.m. But we were booked for another airline, which was scheduled to operate its Bahrain-Hong Kong-Manila flight the following day.
Today, LIGHTS in our room were PUT OFF for around SIX HOURS. I just didn’t know why or what. In complete darkness, I lay down with my attaché case as pillow, profusely reciting the Rosary by my fingers. What kept my strength and perseverance was the persistent thought of being re-united with Malou and my sons.
At 4 a.m., a man from the airline came asking for our tickets. But at 7 a.m. the same man informed us that our Bahrain to Hong Kong flight was not confirmed yet, so we were told just to stand by.
At last, we were freed! We, four Filipinos, were escorted by the immigration guards all the way to the plane. It was so humbling, so disgusting. A crushing experience of a lifetime. I was more excited seeing my family then.
I must admit that recounting my story unavoidably made me heave a sigh of relief, of healing, of closure. I’d like to reckon that my seemingly appetizing life overseas but which ended up in a wrenchingly jinxed journey home didn’t crush my spirit at all. All the more, the harrowing experience made me stronger.
I knew all along that what kept me going was my all-consuming LOVE for Malou and our sons. I’ve always told Malou that, “Whatever the cost, no matter what happens, I’ll always come home to you!”