The problem I have is how can I put into words my brother's story without boring readers. Why am I so concerned about it? Well any writer's goal is to make the topic interesting that the readers will take time to read the entirety. Otherwise my goal of introducing my late brother to the world will fail. Anyway, I will try my best and I hope I will do good here. The stories come from my memories and from Kuya Obet's own accounts (his life in Papua New Guinea) mentioned to me over bottles of beers in 2006.
My earliest memories
We grew up from a very tightly knitted family which is common to most Filipinos especially the poor ones because that is our only wealth, i.e., strong love and affection for each other. We were born poor that in most days our meal consists mostly of rice+saluyot, on good days rice+carabao's milk + salt (my favorite) and on worse days rice + plain water + sugar. But while we lack a lot of things, we were very happy growing; abundant with love for each other that we don't care much about those. We were physically fit and being children do not complain much.
My eldest brother (8 yrs old then) assists on farming chores like planting, weeding and harvesting. My elder sister (7 yrs old) and I (5 yrs old) only assists on weeding. By weeding means we will be asked to sit between palay stems for hours and grope under the water, our butts under the water as well, for weeds pulling those out including the roots. That is my father's alternative to spraying herbicide (weed killer). We were given each rows to clean and to fight boredom we turned it into a play, a competition who can uproot most weeds or who can clean most rows. Of course I always loose at the competition.
During harvesting, even though it is our own field, our father gave my brother a salary equivalent to what he has harvested. I on the other hand since still very young were not allowed to do that because harvesting is done by hands wielding a sickle. However, I was allowed to follow the harvesters to await and pick up fallen pieces or pluck those overlooked uncut small stems of palay. You can imagine how I always wish two or more twigs to fall from the shoulders of our harvesters because when it happens, those are mine no matter what.
My brother at that very young age already knows his responsibilities as the eldest and never complains much. Very serious and is always there to look after his siblings. For when there is something wrong, he always gets the blame from our father with the words "It is your responsibility being the eldest to ensure that nothing untoward happen to your brothers and sister when we are not around!". So his character is forged at that tender age.
I remember one time me and our youngest (3 years old) argued and fought and he tried to stop the fight. But we never heed to his call and continued, so in anguish and in teary eyes he cried "Please take pity of me, I will be punished because of you two!". And that spontaneously put out the fight between me and our youngest brother. And surprisingly we never fought from there on because we understood even at that young ages that it is really unfair for Kuya Obet being punished for our mischief. :)
Now like I said we were very poor. But at those young ages, we were already smart. We observed that while our barrio dwells into rice farming, most of the neighbors from our barrio and adjacent ones are sort of lazy.
Ricefield snails are both considered as pests and a delicacy. So every weekend, what the three of us do (except the youngest) is wade onto the water to collect those snails braving snakes (they almost never appear during wet period but the possibility is harrowing) and leeches (abundant).
We wade from field to field collecting snails placing those into a small net tied around our waists. When it gets heavy, we transfer those into a bucket we left somewhere in the dry corner of the field. I remember one time I felt an itch on my left hand, between my fingers, where absentmindedly I scratched it. I was surprised of the gummy touch I received, looked down at my hands and saw to my horror a leech getting bigger by the second. I frantically rubbed my hand on the field grasses to no avail. Then in panic, I grabbed the net where I put my snails and rubbed my hand there without thinking if my hand will be lacerated; and it did the trick. The leech was dismantled in pieces. I saw my brother laughing hard at me where I returned with dagger-like eyes.
One day, he got a leech of his own and both my sister and I laughed hard when he runs from places to places yelling in horror and disgust "get it off me!".
So each of us collected snails, put those in our own net, and transferred those to that huge plastic bucket. Once that big bucket is full, my brother creates a turban out of an extra shirt, straighten his scrawny figure then with our help bravely and gamely lifts the bucket up to his head. Then we are on the go marching down the hot stony road of the barrios where my sister would start yelling "snail for sale, snail...". I being the youngest will simply echo once in a while "Snail..." in a singsong playful manner while skipping ahead or behind my siblings. We will go around 2 to 3 barrios and mostly after around 2 to 3 hours will be able to sell everything.
Are we unique in this plight? In the world no, there are less fortunate but in our place, yes we are. While the rest of the kids are playing on weekends, there we are working our butts to do something fruitful. Mind you, our parents never asked us to do those. The idea and decision is from the 3 of us (actually I just tag along).
We did this so often that in the end it is our frustration not able to find much snail left in our fields. So we approached the owners of the neighboring ricefields offering our services to get rid of their snail pets...err pests for them. It is a mutual beneficial move that allowed us to prolong our selling spree.
The Golden Years
Throughout our lives growing up, we were able to engage from one business scheme to another. Our financial capability back then has already improved. In my brother's college days though, during holidays he and his friend since childhood, Kuya Al, spends it on earning extra money by selling cigarettes in a nearby cockpit arena. Of course, seeing it gives them extra money I followed suit.
My brother eventually graduated as a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine with the help of our Aunt Fen in California and thereafter worked hard as a salesman of poultry products. My brother is so good in his job that he was awarded as Salesman of the Year by the company he worked at, on a nationwide level for 2 consecutive years. He then took care of sending me and our youngest brother to school (our sister has just started working as a nurse volunteer). Riding in a flashy car with pocket full of money, those were his real Golden Years.
But while there are ups, there are also down. During the outbreak of FMD (Foot and Mouth Disease on hoofed animals), my brother saw the opportunity and has resigned to engage into a poultry business. Since almost no one dares eat pork meats then, his poultry business became a success that later 4 more relatives eagerly joined. Since there is a boom, others also followed suit and so the emergence of innumerable poultry businesses at that time.
Then suddenly the turn of tide shifted. FMD outbreak was lifted and people deprived of pork meats for a long time never wanted to touch, smell nor even look at poultry meat anymore. Those chickens became a huge feast for flies in the market, all-throughout the country. That resulted to lots of bankruptcies and that included my brother and his partners. Financial obligations were suddenly recalled and it became so hard because even the vendors who owe my brother huge money weren't able to pay him back. Sad thing is my brother is the front-man, so the lenders went after him alone; and the rest of his partners left him on that predicament.
So he fled out of the country and went to Papua New Guinea not to run away from those obligations but to be able to find a source to pay those back slowly at a time. No one helped him. One good character that was inculcated on all of us is we always pay our obligations and does our best to make true of our promises. My brother though paid more than he owed because he has shouldered all the financial obligations of the whole firm, alone. When business go sour, expect that your partners will leave you alone hanging dry to save their own hides, relatives or not.
My brother's account of his life here in PNG.
I was never told of this portion of his life per my brother's request. He recounted these stories only after he came back and he visited me on my apartment as we try to bridge the years in front of beers. As far as I know, he hasn't recounted these events in his life to any one else the way he has recounted this over to me.
The poultry business went down the drain a month after his only son was born. The only solution he can think of back then is to try his luck abroad. He was introduced to someone who assured him that if he can raise PHP 80,000 that time that he can arrange for my brother to travel here in PNG as a tourist and be given a job thereafter. And that someone will be waiting for him at the airport to drive him straight to his new boss. For lack of option, my father sold our house and lot to be able to raise said amount then we moved back to my mother's birthplace.
In the plane, my brother cried silently, continuously, not for himself but because he is thinking of his newly born son and his wife for he doesn't know what awaits him on this foreign land and what future it may bring. And he doesn't know until when he can come back to Philippines. He has resolved he won't come back until all his (and his partners') financial obligations were paid in full. So he spent 5 years in PNG and paid something close to a million pesos before he was able to come back. He bore without complain the 5 long years of being away from his family because of his integrity; he wanted to clear his name.
The plane normally arrives at 5am in Jackson Airport in Port Moresby. Al-throughout the day, my brother waited but the promised someone who will pick him up never showed. And so my brother never eaten nor drank any water the whole day. How can he, he has no money left on him. On a foreign land, Very afraid and hungry, he tried not to loose hope and faith and silently prayed......until the airport closed.
Then a local guy approached him saying "Hey bro, I work here! And I have been observing you since morning, do you know where you are going? Are you expecting someone?". And so my brother confessed that he did but the guy never showed up.
There are all sorts of people here in PNG. Con men and rascals who instead of helping someone in need, will rob the person of his few belongings and might kill him afterwards especially an expatriate like my brother. In their eyes, we are a good source of money. This local guy told my brother that he used to work with Filipinos. And so he offered to bring Kuya Obet to a "wantok", meaning a fellow countryman. With no option left, he gambled his faith and his life on the hands of this local guy.
True to his words, the guy did brought my brother to the house where Filipinos live. Sadly, nobody wants anything to do with my brother each arguing "we have tons of problems of our own, why add more?"; in front of him. Until the owner of the house, an old guy, who is also a Filipino was not able to help himself swore "(cussing), Shame on all of you! If none of you will help this poor fellow, I will! Maybe this will pave a way for me to heaven". The guy has a cancer.
Teary eyed, my brother thanked and promised to help in household chores and do anything to give back something in return. The old man said "Don't think about it, eat and rest first. You sleep with my son in his room!". Truly there are still good men around the world.
The guy is a gambler, loves to bet on a cockfight. My brother saw this so he offered to build for him an incubator for the eggs of his fighter cocks. Surprised that my brother can do that, my brother then explained that he actually is a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. Those others who shunned him before got surprised of the revelation and slowly gave my brother a respect he deserves. The old man was very happy when a lot of eggs hatched.
He went back to the cockpit arena, bought himself a local beer called Live Lave (I think a pidgin for Liver Lover), bought some lamb clops (those two being cheapest drink and food) and sat on a silent corner away from everyone. Then in a very weak voice lest someone hear him.... sang "Happy Birthday to Me!" then chomps on the meat and swigs on the bottle. "Happy birthday to me....", chomps and drinks.
The dawn of a fresh day
Days go fast until Kuya realized his tourist visa is about to expire within days and so he became deeply worried again as nothing really positive has happened yet. Then a new-found friend visited him for a drink and a chat where he asked "Bro, do you know someone who needs a worker? My Visa is about to expire!" The other replied "Hey, my boss is looking for another manager, I will introduce you to him!". A ray of hope on a cloudy day.
A Ray of Sunshine
So he went for an interview with this Chinese guy. My brother is not that fluent in English and with added pressure of landing a job outright, stammered along the way. Until the Chinese guy spoke in fluent Tagalog (Filipino Language). Wide-eyed, my brother uttered "Boss, you can speak in Tagalog!" and the Chinese man laughingly replied "Of course I do, I am Pintsik (slang for a Pinoy/Filipino Chinese) kabayan (fellow countrymen), my father is Chinese and my mom is a Filipina!".
With huge sigh of relief, my brother grabbed both of his hands and said in our native tongue "Boss, please give me a job and you won't regret it!". And so he was given a job there and then. Then my brother said "Boss, I have a problem, my tourist visa will expire 3 days from now" where his new boss replied "No problem, give me your passport and I will take care of it!". Then my brother said again "Boss, I have one more problem!" where his boss said "What again?" and he replied "Can you give me an advance, my wife has just recently given birth to our son and they don't have money!". The new boss laughed amused and said "Okay, I will give you your salary for the month in advance!". Lucky he is part Filipino for he understood? :)
A Great Beginning
To make the long story short, my brother speedily went up the ladder. He is a hardworking guy, capable, straight, trustworthy and really has the skills and brain. When he brought me here in PNG in 2007, he is already the Best Manager of the first Company I worked here. And after our company filed bankruptcy in 2009, he became the General Manager of another company, handling several businesses; while I jumped into this Company I am working now. Needless to say, he is already earning good.
He had paved the way for all of us who are now here in this Country. Me, my wife, his wife, his in-laws, our cousins, and other non-relatives. Even all the people I was able to bring here for employment later is because of him for if he has not given me the way, how would I be able to help others as well?
Through all those trials and hardships, my brother has never changed. Sure there are times we don't see eye to eye which is natural, but that do not last long. The next morning we forgive and forget each other without further words.
One attitude that is very unique with my brother is on all of us siblings, he is the most caring, the one who always finds time to call his family. There are times I wonder how he was able to find time to check on us. He keeps ringing me just to check on how I was doing.
We worked very far apart and whenever I broach my plan to go visit him when there is a long weekend, he dissuades me saying it is too far. That I have to fly to Wewak and from there travel hard for 7 to 8 hours on almost impassable muddy roads and rivers to Aitape, his place. If the water is high, that I have to turn back to Wewak. That if I succeed, it will only be for max 3 to 4 hours then I have to turn back again so I can report back for work on time. He wants to be with me but is thinking about my safety and how hard it would be for me to reach him that he kept on dissuading my plans.
But while we are that far apart, whenever he hears I am traveling to Port Moresby for maybe a reliever admin job, an IT job, troubleshooting, or other matters or before I am going for holidays, he will arrange to fly there as well just so he can see me, his wife and our cousins. I remember coming back from DevCon, he surprised me again when I arrived back in Port Moresby and saw him. We drank, tell stories, sang and do a lot of fun stuff for 2 days and 1 night. And during times like those is when I can see him happiest, being with his loved ones.
Nevertheless, anyone can imagine how lonely his life is there. But while he complains now and then about his loneliness, he squared his shoulder because he is being himself, the responsible eldest who always thinks about his love ones and what that salary can provide for his son and partly our family.
Sadly until the day he died I was not even able to go there; for I met his body in Wewak. He was choppered halfway and halfway they traveled by road. My only consolation is that I am the one who brought his body back to the Philippines. So I have been with him longer until he was buried.
A Bit of Surprise
During the days and nights of his wake, we were all surprised on how many friends and relatives came to be with him during his last days here on earth. His wake took 6 days and night and our cousin has estimated the average number of people per day and night combined to be around 200. Those are relatives from both our father and mother's sides and from his wife, previous peers, his highschool friends, new veterinary students from his alma mater CLSU, neighbors and some more people. Some even traveled very far for a day or two before reaching his house.
But actually we were not that surprised considering how we knew him to be a lovable guy. For he is a good friend, relative and by far the best kuya not only to me but also to our cousins. No matter what he says first, in the end he always helps those who are in dire financial needs. He is the best father for Ivan and the best son of our Mom. I won't and can't compete on that level.
When he is still living, sometimes, I get sort of annoyed especially when I am up to my neck and he would call just to say "How are you?" or repeatedly asks me about some simple things. I created this write up as the moment I arrived back in my office Wednesday morning, I suddenly half expected his calls asking "Jun, how is your vacation? How is your flight? You okay? How is your wife? How is mom and Ivan?". Simple words that I sometimes took for granted is now echoing back on my mind and is stabbing deeply in my heart. I never thought before how lucky I am to have a big brother who always wants to ensure that everything is okay on our side.
My brother died very young at the age of 46 years old of stroke. But his legacy will live on with all of us younger siblings and relatives. And so I always say when someone mentioned that he died young that "While it is indeed short, it is nevertheless a colorful and a fruitful life!" which is what I do believe in my heart.
I never for once thought there is something called Best Kuya (Big Brother) but now I know and believe there is. Kuya Obet, you are the best kuya for me and without argument to our younger cousins. Everyone of us believes your soul is finally at peace with the Almighty God. That is how we who loves you console each other.
OFWs Around The World
Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), in our country are envied by others. Because we do earn more than our peers back in the Philippines. They always say how lucky we are and that sort but they fail to consider the sacrifices we do to earn money for the family. How hard it is for us to be working very far away for and from our love ones.
My late brother is a good example of this. Despite his isolation and loneliness, despite his health conditions, he shrugged his shoulders and braved the times. He has told me countless times how tired he is already working abroad and how he yearned to be working back in the Philippines to be with his son and our Mom. While I told him he can count on my assistance, time and time again however he has second thoughts about this because he is always taking in consideration the bread that will be brought to the table so to speak. That is how OFWs think.
Most of the time, we post our pictures with all smiles as if we are really very lucky and have no worries in life. But the truth is those are the rare moments we smile and laugh. So we immortalize those pictures for our love ones to see; so they won't worry. Here is one OFW quote I saw, author unknown:
"When there's a problem, just cry it out, wipe the tears, adjust the dress, comb the hair, then SMILE. Life goes on!"