Smells Like the Philippines (in pictures, mostly)

The family waiting area at Philippine International Airport.

The Philippines smells. I first learned this when I was a kid. Every time relatives from the Philippines would visit they would bring a box of filled with stuff from the homeland. The boxes were how I learned to love bibingkasapin sapin, and other Filipino delicacies. We’d also stock up on inexpensive clothes, usually polo shirts. Sometimes there’d also be a toy. For us kids, it was like a mini-Christmas.

One thing, though, also snuck its way into the pasalubong: Philippine air. Trapped in the crevices between plastic wrapped garments, hidden in the banana leaf encased desserts was the smell of the Philippines.

Technically, it probably was a combination of tropical humidity, living jungle earth, and diesel fumes. To me it smelled like grandma and grandpa, uncle and auntie, cousins, many of whom, as a child, I’d never laid eyes on.

Scientists say that smell is the sense most associated with emotional memory. I could’ve told them that. Every time I step off the plane in Manila, what hits my nose isn’t just the smell of a foreign country; it’s not just ocean salt, jungle, and heavy humidity. It’s toys, desserts, gifts, and the knowledge that people far away think of you as family. In other words, it kinda smells like home.


22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

The arrival for family is a big deal in the Philippines. Waiting family is restricted to one side of a vehicle loading/unloading area. Notice the two levels, both lined with rows of seats facing the airport exit so that groups can demonstrate their enthusiasm for arriving relatives. The second floor is lounge air conditioned.

Loading zone only

A car pulls up and loads up luggage from a family member. It is 4 a.m. in the morning.

Organizing arrivals

To sort out the hordes of arriving relatives, there are handy signs telling passengers where to wait and stare across the loading zone until they spot a familiar face. (Note the English, one of the many gifts the Philippines received from the U.S. during its imperial rule.)

Waiting with a box

I got picked up by a relative who works nights at a call center. I was pretty much alone most of my waiting time. This is the quietest I’ve ever seen the arrival area. Still, there were groups of people across the way waiting in the lounge.

I got bored.

Pay phones in various states of existence in case you don’t yet have a sim card for your cell phone.

The new tollway

The new tollway to where my father’s family lives has been widened from two to four lanes. It is still lined with Great Wall of China height billboards. It’s nice some things never change.

Bible bus

The Philippines is over 90% Christian and 80% Roman Catholic so bible verses on the back of commercial buses is nothing unusual. If you look this one it it reads: “22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” I’m guessing no road raging bus driver, then.


You’d never mistake driving into my dad’s brother’s place for anything back home in the U.S.

Share the road

No sidewalks needed. Cars and pedestrians learn to share.

Power lines

Power lines crisscross and tower over a busy street. Compared to most I’ve seen this is pretty organized.



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