When I got off the plane in Manila, I had been awake for nearly 30 hours, more or less. I had the remnants of a head cold, I was airplane-dehydrated plus I wasn’t quite sure the last time I had eaten, because time was not a thing that made sense to me anymore. It was around 1 a.m. local time, and I trotted gamely through the mostly-empty Ninoy Aquino International Airport with the rest of the people from my Air China flight. I handed over my arrival card (“is someone going to flag me down because I’m sick? It’s just a cold!”) and then went through customs with no problem. At the baggage carousel, I watched as the bags and boxes went around and around and around with no sign of mine. I went to the ladies room and upon my return was informed by staff, “This is everything, ma’am.” My bag hadn’t made it, but the staff person pointed to the counter where I could fill out my claim form for Air China – the bags of at least 75 or so fellow passengers ALSO hadn’t made it, so at least I wasn’t alone.
But I was increasingly tired and hungry and unsettled and frustrated. As my dear friend whom I was visiting told me the next day, after I had rested and started to recover, “You seemed totally unlike yourself.” And I was.
Travel does a lot of things to our meaning of home. George Carlin’s famous routine “a place for my stuff” talks about how when you travel, your luggage becomes a “second version of your stuff – an even smaller version of your house!” He’s talking about the physicality of a house and possessions, but part of my sense of displacement when I found my suitcase hadn’t made it to Manila with me was that the STUFF in that suitcase was part of what I was relying on to let me make myself at home there. Because to me, a huge part of travel is learning how to be at home in different places and situations.
Without my suitcase, hungry, thirsty, beyond exhausted, and unable to understand quite where my friend was waiting to meet me, I grew frustrated as the further I walked from the airport the less I could hold onto that thin tether of wifi that was all that was keeping me in touch with my friend. He was now officially My Home Here. I didn’t have my stuff. I barely had a sense of myself. HE was what I had to find.
It was a lot to ask him to bear. But he did it, and even though I was barely myself, I got hold of myself fairly soon and began the work of being at home there.
This post was supposed to be about cats. All those street cats in Manila, on the high street in Bonifacio Global City, the one little guy at the beach, the tiny filthy kitten near the church, the cats that begged so skillfully from the tourists at Corregidor – in ways both large and small I made relationships with all of them. Cats are my constant comfort. Long talks on my vacation with my friend led me to reflect on how much emotional support I had gotten from pet cats as a child, when in some key ways my emotional needs were not being met. I love all animals but cats are more than just animals to me. For a week now I’ve been thinking about how to write this.
When I finally found my friend, when I asked an airport employee for some help and he pointed me in the right direction and I walked away from the last strand of airport wifi signal and into the warm breezes of middle-of-the-night Manila, when I finally found him he wrapped me up in a big hug and said, “Would a Coke Zero and petting a cat help?”
“There’s a cat?!” I said excitedly, muffled-ly into his armpit.
He pulled back from the hug, helped me find a seat at the outdoor waiting area, and pointed. But by then he didn’t need to, as the small orange-and-white creamsicle cat was walking towards us.
“HI, oh, hi kitty!” I said, but he sauntered past. No fool he, there were other people a few benches away who had food they might drop. As I let myself sit down on the bench and my friend went off to get me that drink, I breathed deep.
Though I could not name it at the time, that first scruffy street cat who had no time for a tourist without a snack in her hand – that was my first taste of home in the Philippines. My stuff, my sanity, even a person I love couldn’t ground me in quite the same way that small cat could.