I accompanied my friend Mae to Barajas Airport to collect Jesica who was arriving from Manila via Doha. When we got
to the airport, the plane was already en tierra. At first, we thought that it would not take long for Jesica to come out. The first passengers to come out were Europeans, Latinos, Arabs and Indians. Spanish families who went on safaris, Brazilian surfers, German businessmen…. but no Pinoys!
Twenty minutes passed and two hundred thousand passengers later, there was still no sign of Jesica. Then my phone rang. Jesica! She couldn’t locate her suitcases. She sounded worried. “Nats, I haven’t got my suitcases yet!” “Suitcases?” I repeated with a hint of surprise and alarm.
Yes, suitcases. Two, actually. But no, they were manageable, meaning not heavy, Jesica assured us. So we waited again. Another hundred thousand passengers came out. Still no Pinoys. Weird, right? A flight from Manila with a layover in Doha without Pinoys? Are you kidding?
After 40 minutes, the first Pinoy emerged. He popped his head out of the sliding door. Seeing a lot of people waiting in front of him, his face looked embarrassed. When he finally decided to come out, he was pushing two balikbayan boxes. I mean two BIG balikbayan boxes, plus, two suitcases, a rucksack and another small box. Mae and I glanced at each other. Here they come! Then one by one, more Pinoys emerged, more big balikbayan boxes came into sight.
“What big boxes they have!” I heard somebody commenting.
I suddenly recalled explaining to my Spanish friend once about these “big boxes.” That this is a Filipino thing, really. That if one happens to be at any airport in the world, and happens to see an Asian-looking man or woman pushing a cart with big boxes filled with souvenirs and gifts, then he has just witnessed a Pinoy going home. Or coming back from the Philippines. Because this time, the boxes are filled with a year’s supply of Philippine goods.
Still, no sign of Jesica. Suddenly, two enormous balikbayan boxes stopped in front of us. The owner was a petite Pinay who was busy craning her neck looking for her relatives in the crowd.
“What is that smell?” I heard the person beside me asked her companion. The smell was so strong that we found ourselves covering our noses. Strong as it was though, it smelled familiar, something close to home. Something I used to eat with green mangoes. Something that my mother put in her pinakbet to make it delightfully irresistible. Mae and I giggled at the thought of bagoong! Yes, I was very sure that there was bagoong inside the box.
The Pinay did not mind the reaction of the crowd who were starting to cover their noses. She found her relative and carried on. My phone rang again.
“Nats! Somebody’s bagoong spilled all over my things! My suitcases smell horrible!” Jesica was hysterical.
I smelled trouble…. rather, I smelled bagoong, a Philippine condiment made by salting and fermenting the bonnet mouth fish. It is used as a flavor enhancing agent in place of salt or soy sauce. There is only one problem though, it smells awful. However, once tasted it’s truly divine. I tell you, bagoong is best served with green mangoes.
Finally, Jesica appeared, with her sorry face and bagoong-soaked maletas. And that smell! ¡Que fuerte tío! So after exchanging besos and gasping at how Jesica gained weight after a one- month eating spree in the Philippines, our attention turned to her stained suitcases.
We looked for a toilet. Maybe we could do something to lessen the foul smell. Coming out of the loo, Jesica was already holding a bottle of perfume and had already sprayed it all over the maletas. For a brief second, they smelled of perfume. Soon after though, the offensive smell persisted.
Inside the metro, we carefully chose the coach with the least number of passengers. After two train changes, the reaction to the smell was milder than we expected, maybe because there were fewer passengers. But on our last train, most of the seats near us were not taken. Passengers deliberately avoided us. We could hear “¡Ay, heule mal!” “What’s that funny smell?” One even rushed to another seat far away from us. But still, Jesica carried on raving about her Philippine summer adventure.
Por fin, we reached our stop. Relieved and still reeking of bagoong, we walked from the train station to Jesica’s place. As soon as we reached her house, she immediately opened her suitcases and examined the damage. A lot of her clothes stank! For a moment we decided to forget about the stinky incident.
We were excited to see what she had inside her maletas. One by one, Jesica took her stuff out. And to our surprise and delight, she brought daing (salted dried fish), gabi leaves (taro leaves) and pancit loglog (thin noodles). Ladies and gentlemen, a true-blooded Pinay returning from home risking her life to bring in the “hot stuff” for her homesick friends!
As a sign of gratitude for picking her up at the airport, she insisted on cooking lunch for us. The smell of bagoong and daing permeated the whole house as we ate with our hands devouring the humble dried fish, tomatoes as side dish and of course, hot rice. It was one of the most sumptuous meals I have ever had in my entire stay in Spain.