I briefly caught up with Simeon when I went to the Philippines last year. We met at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport when I touched down and we exchanged some pleasantries before I left to meet my guide for some other adventures. We didn’t meet up for the rest of that trip.
This year when I decided to do the same itinerary with my group of 42 people as part of the Trek For Hope team. On a whim, I decided to invite Simeon to travel with me. He gladly accepted.
“Blue Moon was the first song I heard when I first stepped foot into the Philippines more than 20 years ago,” Simeon volunteered as I was grappling with directions to meet my local contact. “It was my first overseas trip and this song was played over the radio as we drove through the highway to Quezon City.”
He smiled. It was the fond smile of a good memory. “I even saw the biggest statue of Mary along the way overlooking the highway.” Then he chuckled. “All first impressions somehow always stick in your mind, don’t they?”
We spoke about my upcoming trip to Baguio to climb Mount Pulag, the 2nd highest peak in the Philippines, and the course of the journey over the next 5 days. “I didn’t know you loved nature!” Simeon exclaimed. “You just weren’t the adventurous kind of person I used to know.”
There was a slight, thoughtful pause. “In fact… you hated the outdoors, didn’t you?”
He was right about that. Books, drama, and music were the first loves of my life. Ok, throw in the regular XBOX sessions too…
“Did you know that I saw my first meteor shower here in the Philippines?” Simeon told me, looking up at the sky. “It was on the back of the truck when I was returning to my hotel with a group of friends. I was 17, and to this day I remember it being the most beautiful sight I ever came across.”
Simeon sighed. “At that moment, I thought that God was speaking to me and he wanted me to stay in this beautiful land for good.”
That roused my curiosity. “Did you?” I asked Simeon.
“No.” Simeon looked away from me and the quiet returned for a long moment. “Family, studies, and my upcoming National service enlistment got in the way. 1994 was a crazy year for me.”
“What about that commitment to God?” I probed.
“At 17, you don’t expect to make life decision and seriously think it will last,” Simeon recalled. “I remember we were always asked to make a full time commitment to serve God in ministry when I was back in college.” There was a sad, light laugh at the thought. “A good half of us stood up for God in that lecture theatre during those days.”
Then he added with a sly smile to hide the sadness in his eyes. “You’re lucky to even have 5% of them honor their commitment today.”
Simeon watched me from afar when I went on to prepare for the trip. I could see that he was impressed with the changes he saw in me after all these years. We hopped on the overnight coach to Baguio and we chatted the whole night through. He saw the song book which I had prepared to use during the journey.
“Clearly you caught up with modern tunes!” he laughed loudly. “I am still stuck with Jose Mari Chan!”
Then we sang one of our old favorite songs. When we had finished, the joy had returned to Simeon’s eyes. “One thing about Filipinos,” he said, “is that their warm hospitality towards a new friend never change. I remembered when I heard a Filipino song sung by a choir. One of them even went to record the song in a cassette tape for me! That was one of the nicest thing someone had done for me at that time.”
Our sharing continued into the night and throughout the 7 hours bus journey. It was an interesting conversation that we had – about old times ( like when they had the most beautiful Filipino VJs on MTV, or how Simeon meticulously “planned” to abduct Lea Salonga and bring her back to Singapore), about changes in life, and also what the future may bring.
Simeon also offered me some travel advice for the rest of my trip.
“The sunset at Manila Bay was just spectacular the first time I laid my eyes on it,” he said. There was a fondness in his voice. “We used to be able to buy street food at the Bay. I remember my first bite into the balut and how I almost instantaneously threw it out! It’s all been replaced by coffee joints and fast food restaurants now.”
We finally reached our destination in the early morning of the next day. The skies were still dark when Simeon turned to me as we came down from the bus. “It was nice catching up with you again! But I will have to leave you now to do what you must do for your team. Too much idle talk will only slow you down!”
“I am glad that you came back to the Philippines though,” he told me. “And thanks for the hours of reminiscing the good old times with you.”
“You kept your promise…” were his last words as we shook hands and he departed into the shadows. I understood what he meant.
I don’t know if I will ever see or talk to Simeon again. He stays within me all the time, but I have retired him deep into the recess of my memory. Yet I will always treasure those short moments on the bus where he bared his heart to me on that long and cold journey to Baguio.
“It was sure nice catching up with you.”