By Maribel Castillo
WHILE on a cruise to Alaska, my husband and I met many Filipino workers — now hailed as modern-day heroes of the Philippines — who endure many months at sea to support their families and help keep the nation’s economy afloat. Comprising almost half of the ship’s staff, Filipinos work as waiters, chefs, retail clerks, spa staff, fitness directors, cruise ship entertainers, lifeguards, production managers, host staff, kitchen staff, cruise ship bartenders, cruise casino workers, security workers, beauticians, excursion organizers, customer service representatives, deckhands, even as ship doctor. Manuel Carlos was the handsome Filipino maitre’ d at our favorite Italian restaurant of the Norwegian Sun. Here is his story.
THE plot is familiar, reminiscent of the teleseryes so popular among Philippine TV viewers. Manuel Carlos (not his real name) was one of seven children of a petty bureaucrat and a homemaker from Binangonan, Rizal. His mother often resorted to creative ways of stretching her husband’s meager earnings to feed and raise a brood of seven. “We were so poor that my parents could not afford to give us an allowance while we attended high school. I walked to school every day so I could save on jeepney fare,” Manuel recalls. “In December, when all my schoolmates got new clothes for Christmas, I had to make do with khakis, the single pair of pants that I would wear every day the entire school year until I outgrew it.”
Early on, Manuel’s mother urged her children to seek their fortunes elsewhere. “Hangarin ninyong lumayo upang kayo ay umasenso”. This is the sorry lot of the poor and the lower middle class in the Philippines. For many, there is only one way to pull themselves out of the rut of poverty. They must tear themselves away from all that they hold dear: family, friends, familiar surroundings, country.
Manuel Carlos is one of those wanderers, among the growing number of OFWs (Overseas Foreign Workers) who are fortunate enough to land a job abroad. Manuel works with one of the world’s large fleets of luxury ocean liners. He is a veteran of the sea, having worked with Norwegian Cruise Lines for 15 years now.
A marketing graduate, Manuel started out as a detail man for a pharmaceuticals firm in Manila. Heeding his mother’s advice, he did a brief stint in Saudi Arabia as a bank clerk. Back in the Philippines, married and with a growing family, Manuel realized he would never be able to send his kids to college on a clerk’s income.
So, with hope in his heart, he endured the long lineups in a narrow alley close to the recruiter’s office in Intramuros, hoping to land a job – any job – with one of the cruise lines. Like many others before him, after two long months of patiently waiting in line by the recruiter’s office, he landed his first contract with Norwegian Cruise Lines. In 1994, he started out at the lowest rung of the ladder, working as a mess man in NCL. Manuel spent the next 10 months at sea, catering to the whims of vacationers who dined and wined on board ship as if there were no tomorrow. The hours were long, the pace gruelling and the nights lonely. But he was ecstatic. For the first time in his life, he had savings, and with it he satisfied the elusive dream of owning his own car. “I never imagined I would be driving my own car. I couldn’t even afford jeepney fare when I was a student!”
Several contracts later, Manny realized his family needed more stability. His family was growing. His wife Shirley had borne him three children. He decided to take the plunge and make the ultimate Filipino dream a reality. With his savings and proceeds from the sale of his car, Manny bought a small plot of land in a residential subdivision in Binangonan, Rizal. With his status as an OFW, Sam joined the government’s PAG-IBIG housing program and obtained a half million-peso housing loan, which was released in three batches after submitting photos of ongoing construction. The house was finally completed when Manuel was back at sea. He could barely believe his good fortune until his wife sent snapshots of the two-level, three-bedroom concrete house. He was, at last, a homeowner.
The years with NCL have been a financial godsend to Manuel, Shirley and kids. Manuel eventually rose up the ladder. He was promoted to the post of assistant MD (Maitre’d). His children are all enrolled in private schools, Manuel declares proudly. Chelsea, 19, is a nursing student at Far Eastern University. Matthew, 17, is a computer science student in Taytay, Rizal. Nathan, 14, is still in high school.
On the surface, all seemed well. But the long months at sea, away from the warm embrace of family, had taken its toll. Young, good-looking and virile, Manuel succumbed to passion and started a four-year affair with a Filipina waitress on the same ship. The relationship bore him a son, now 6 years old. At the time, Manuel basked in his notoriety as the ship’s Pinoy Casanova. Temptation was rife. There were many other lonely women workers on board ship. He started a liaison with another co-worker, with whom he also conceived a child. His two paramours were locked in bitter combat. Sadly, his second lover miscarried.
Back home, his wife Shirley shed many tears, but could not break off with Manuel because she had no income and would be unable to support herself and the children without her husband’s remittances.
It was Chelsea, his eldest daughter, who found the guts to tell him to his face: “You have made my mother miserable. She cries every day. Don’t show your face to us. My father is dead.”
This was Manuel’s wake-up call. He agonized for several weeks trying to sort his life out. That’s when he decided to become a Born-Again Christian. He made a decision to cut off his extra-marital relationships. Twice a week, after his last shift at 11 PM, he joins the Christian fellowship on the ship and spends two hours reading the Bible. He now preaches how to tread the straight and narrow to his fellow workers. He says he has found the courage to resist temptation.
Manuel has now mended the rift with his family. His wife Shirley has been magnanimous in her forgiveness. When Manuel comes home for his 2-month vacation, she will welcome his young son by his paramour into her home. The boy is the spitting image of his father, a reminder of his past transgressions, but also a symbol of the healing that has started to repair family ties broken by the tough challenges posed by being an absentee husband and father.