God’s cruel little joke

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Monday, April 28, 2014


LET me tell you about the little trick God once played on me.

The first time I went abroad was when I was five, back in 1965. My little brother Raymond had just died and my parents needed to go away, and they took me with them on a trip to Japan and Taiwan.

Thirty-five years later, in 2000, that first time remained the only time I had ever gone abroad. I was 40 years old—already halfway through my lifetime—and I wondered, with growing panic, if I’d die without leaving the country again.

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I remember staring for hours at the world map hanging on my office wall. There was the Philippines with Taiwan a little above it, and Japan a little farther north, and I remember thinking, this small dot on the edge of a vast ocean was probably the only place on the planet where I’d ever be.

Every day I fantasized about backpacking across fields of sunflowers and vineyards in the Italian region of Tuscany, or drinking red wine in a Monet garden, or listening to an accordionist play La Vie en Rose in a café by the Seine River under a starry Van Gogh night.

And every night I had these recurring dreams of flying, I mean literally flying, flapping my arms and hovering unsteadily above treetops and rooftops, or sometimes shooting up to the sky and swimming among clouds. I interpreted these dreams as my unfulfilled desire to experience the thrill of flying on a plane.

As consolation, I went to Cebu for a national conference. As I knelt before the Sto. Niño with a plastic bag full of danggit beside me, I prayed to God to give me the chance to see Rome which, I pointed out to Him, all Catholics should see once in their lifetime, the way all Muslims must make a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Yet I know there are some barrio folks who spend their entire lives within a radius of only a few kilometers. I know some people who have never been to Baguio and I’m sure a lot of Filipinos in the Visayas and Mindanao will never get the chance or the means to go to Manila. Why was I sulking when I could move around a little farther than many in my country?

But, as the Disney song goes, “A dream is a wish your heart makes….”

And so, on that afternoon of May 2000, as I got ready to go home from work, my boss knocked on my door and, with a big smile on her face, told me to prepare for a trip abroad.

Had she said Hong Kong, I’d be forever grateful. And had she said China or Thailand, I’d be jumping up and down.

My boss told me, “Robby, you’re going to Italy, France and Israel!”

It could have just been Italy, or just France, or just Israel. Another country could have been put in the mix, but God in His kindness and mercy granted me my three wishes in one serving, on a silver platter, right on my lap, and according to my exact specifications.

I was floating in disbelief for days, full of wonder and surprise, convinced that I was God’s favorite.

It was going to be a three-week trip, one week per country. The itinerary would include Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Rome, Paris and Lourdes. At the Vatican we would attend the World Congress of University Managers and Professors, as part of the celebration of the Holy Year (2000). We would have an audience with Pope (now Saint) John Paul II and a tour of the Vatican Museums. In Paris we would go up the Eiffel Tower and visit the Louvre. I made a mental note to skip some Congress events in Rome so I could make quick personal side trips to Florence, Assisi and Venice.

My boss and I would join a delegation from the University of Santo Tomas led by the UST Rector, Fr. Tamerlane Lana. We had three months to apply for our respective Schengen visas at the Italian embassy in Makati. (The Schengen visa was a common visa to the 10 European nations that had signed an agreement in a summit held in Schengen, Luxembourg. Israel, on the other hand, does not require a visa for tourists staying less than three months.)

I joined my boss and all 25 delegates from UST to apply at the embassy. Two weeks later, everyone got their visas—everyone, that is, except me. The Italian embassy’s explanation, which came later, was that I fit the profile of tourists who were most likely to overstay in Italy. Apparently, in the World Youth Day held earlier that month in Rome, many of the overstaying delegates were from the Philippines, particularly Central Luzon.

I was shocked. I was beyond devastated. No one could talk to me for days. I locked myself up inside my room, surrounded by the luggage that I must now unpack.

I had already announced my good fortune to everyone, and they had all heard the wonderful story of God’s big surprise for me. Now they felt sad and sorry for me, avoiding my eyes when I was around and then shaking their heads and clicking their tongues when I wasn’t looking.

My boss offered to let me join the delegates up to Israel, which did not require a visa, and then go back alone to Manila while they proceeded to Italy and France. No, thank you, I said bitterly.

I turned my anger towards God, who had turned from a generous giver to a heartless trickster. It was a cruel joke He had played on me, so cruel I wouldn’t play it on another person myself.

My boss, to her credit, did try pulling strings with influential people. I myself turned to my friend, Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago, who wrote the Italian Ambassador certifying my personal integrity. When that didn’t work, she wrote an Italian Senator in Rome, promising that if I overstayed, she would fly to Rome herself and personally bring me back to Manila.(She faxed me copies of these letters.)

I now only had a week left before departure. My boss told me to prepare for the worst. I unpacked my luggage and put back my clothes in the closet. I accepted my fate and set aside my resentment.

A little over 24 hours before our scheduled flight (which wouldn’t include me), I was actively participating in a seminar held on campus when I suddenly felt an urge to go back to my office, which was in another building.

My phone had been ringing for some time. I was just in time to catch the last ring. It was the Italian embassy. The voice said, “This is to inform you that your visa is now available at the embassy.”

Twenty-four hours later, I was flying over the tip of Mount Everest in the Himalayas, en route to Israel, Italy and France, totally mystified by the turn of events and grinning ear to ear like a fool, because I had fallen victim to a divine joke and I liked it!

Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on April 29, 2014.

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