Notes from our meet and greet with Big Brother

I’ve always felt that my North American/Canadian adventure with my family would feel incomplete without a trip across the border. But time and other resources that I’d taken for granted back home actually look so different here, and thus were not easy to obtain.

But despite these challenges, we finally did get to see our Big Brother, the USA.

The Amtrak Ride

On the 28th of September 2019, we took the early morning Amtrak train from Vancouver to go to the USA for the first time.

There is something so satisfying about riding a train. There are no sharp turns, no unruly pedestrians to avoid (though the train made a stop let a boat pass under a drawbridge), and you’re just chugging along, sometimes slowing down, but for the most part moving at constant speed. I love listening and feeling the rhythm of the wheels kissing the tracks and often create music in my head to sync to the beat. You’re still on the ground and connected to the earth and to everything around you: freight trains, as well as another Amtrak on its way back, running alongside; houses, buildings, cars, people, trees, roads, and the sky changing from pitch black to gray and then, a dull white throughout the day.

amtrak ocean view

The train moved through Surrey, Abbotsford, and White Rock, snaking along the muddy shoreline of Mud Bay and other First Nation reservations. We spotted a bald eagle and some rare heron among the ducks and pigeons wallowing in the mud. There were so many birds, and they probably knew that everyone in the train was a traveler like them, so they came closer. People were strolling along the shorelines, and some waved at us as we passed them by.

When we arrived at the US border, defined by a city called Bellingham, border officials came on board and inspected our passports. I was in awe of their blue uniforms, of the small machine they carried along with them to scan our travel documents. Our seating was one of only two on the coach that had a table. Across from the aisle sat a group of young men: all Canadians, one being a bit actor for a TV series being shot in Vancouver. One of them kept looking our way, probably wanting to establish eye contact and throw a kind greeting, because Canadians are super awfully nice that way.

As the train entered the USA, the coastline turned into green fields and rural scenery. The houses were larger, and I spotted hens and some dogs. “There is so much life here!” my husband exclaimed and my daughter laughed, because it was still too early in the day for people and there were just those animals in the fields.

The geography of Washington State is similar to Vancouver – after all, both places are on the Pacific Northwest. The tall fir trees, the coastline, the similar fall colors of the foliage didn’t feel like another country at all, even though it was. This was our first sighting of the United States of America, not seen as a smattering of pinlights from the sky, but large wooden farm houses and the occasional depot of heavy-duty metal steampunk jutting out of the expanse, housing the land’s bounty of oil or corn.

The trip felt like coming in from the backdoor, and somehow it felt simpler – no modern airport complex greeting us with a professional smile, just a Sunday morning that had decided to sleep in and didn’t care about Its tousled hair.

The Amtrak goes all the way to Eugene, Oregon, with Seattle and Portland being two of its most popular stops. We got off at Everett.

I have a Big Brother – literally

I actually have a Big Brother, a doctor living the American Dream with his beautiful wife in Washington State. For a few days, I got a taste of what it’s like to be living near the breathtaking view of Puget Sound, to ride expensive cars, to shop all you can at Costco, to eat all you can at a Korean BBQ joint, to play their baby grand piano with their music-loving German Shepherd at my feet, and to chat with his daughters, all so young, smart & accomplished.

But my brother is always very careful to emphasize that it took a lot of struggle and sacrifice to get to where he is now. I was actually quite shocked at the humiliations he’d had to endure. The main takeaway I got from his story is to keep moving. If your strategy isn’t working, keep moving until it does. He and his family moved around quite a bit in their early years following their migration in 2003. He and my Ate has since stayed put in WA, but their daughters are in exploration mode across the country. I wouldn’t want my brother to move any further – getting to WA from Vancouver took only 3 hours by train, which is fantastic, because I now have someplace really nice to escape to if my husband ever makes the mistake of picking up a fight with me!


We took a trip to Seattle from my brother’s place in WA the day after we arrived. An Uber car arranged by my niece picked us up and I rode shotgun with the super friendly female American driver! She dropped us off at Pike Place Market and we basically just hung out there the whole day. Don’t ask me about the first Starbucks, the Gumwall, and the places where Kurt Cobain hung out – we didn’t see any! We were only too happy to just watch the people and keep warm, as it was drizzling outdoors in 8 degree weather (which miraculously turned sunny later in the day). Plus, my fashionista hubby and daughter spent most of their time buying shoes and clothes at Target & Nordstrom Rack.

But we did get to see the Space Needle. What we found amazing was the spacious ultra-modern train that took us there. At one point, it was running along at a certain angle, distorting the view outside its huge glass windows.

space needle more action
Usually drizzly Seattle gave us a sunny welcome while we were there!

 First Ferry Ride

I never got to experience our RORO back home in the Philippines, but was lucky to finally experience it in Washington State. We all piled into a van and went to Anacortes, where the ferry was. Vehicles were lined up neatly on the road, waiting for the ferry gate to open. Our convoy all got out of their respective cars and enjoyed the ocean view on the side of the road. Burgers and coffee were purchased at a nearby kiosk, held with hands white from the cold. Chats were exchanged, photos taken, people hugged and kept close. I enjoyed the waiting more than the actual ride.

ferry hanni and me laughing
With my youngest sister, the family clown!

When the gate was finally opened, I was in awe of the cars piling into the boat – and then we were moving across the water without really going anywhere. It was like being on the Amtrak all over again.

ferry panorama mv samish

Roche Harbor, San Juan

San Juan is to the Pacific Northwesterner as Puerto Azul is to us Manileños.

Puerto what?

A Tita moment there. I used to go to Puerto Azul as a young girl with my family and loved it. It was just a few hours away from the city and back then, fuel wasn’t expensive as it is now, so driving back and forth wasn’t a big deal.

The San Juan Islands in WA felt like that. It was an island getaway for WA residents that wasn’t too near but not too far either. My niece was getting married to a really nice, handsome guy and of course, we had to be there at the wedding!

My brother and sister had booked a house that was about a 15-minute drive from the wedding venue. It was the stuff of Victorian novels: a mansion with 9 bedrooms and a lot of space. There was a huge garden with a quiet, glacial lake at the back, a dap-ay where we would light a bonfire at night, and many more fir trees. My sister in law would let loose her beloved two German Shepherds in the mornings and play frisbee with them, and I would watch her from the kitchen window as I washed the dishes.

san juan glacial lake
Early morning lake. Photo by Robert Quebral.

The light is so vivid in San Juan. One afternoon, we drove for a bit and hung out at the pier. Everything looked like a painting – it felt so unreal. Now I understand why photos taken in America look different from photos taken in Asia – it’s the color temperature at play. Eventhough the sun was so high up in the sky, the atmosphere was still cold, and that gave the photos their unusual saturation. My young nieces and their BFFs sat under the shade of a great tree on the very green grass and just soaked in the sights. It was one of the most perfect afternoons of my life, and Jim Chappell’s sublime Living The Northern Summer album was on repeat mode inside my head the whole time I was there.

san juan under the tree
Chillin’ in San Juan. Photo by Robert Quebral.

Los Angeles

“All that space!” is a line I kept hearing from the movie The Marriage Story whenever the subject of Los Angeles came up.

We arrived in the City of Angels on the 17th of January 2020, a Friday. We took the plane this time around to LAX and was somewhat bewildered when we found ourselves at the airport exit a few minutes after alighting from the aircraft. No customs, no checks? Later on, my husband’s own Big Brother, who rolled in with a nice black Mercedes Benz to pick us up, explained that the immigration procedures had already taken place in Vancouver prior to the flight. Then we remembered the funny Customs officer who had stared at my son’s brightly-colored Stephen Curry shoes and asked him where it was bought.

 Los Angeles looks so much like Makati City. It felt so familiar, down to the traffic. One thing that struck me was the fast-moving cars on wide open roads. When there was no traffic, I felt like I was on an F4 racetrack each time. No wonder GTA is set in LA!

hollywood blvd mickey mouse
Mickey Mouse trying to get by. Photo by Robert Quebral.

My husband comes from a very big family, so two of his four Big Brothers based in LA took turns driving us around the city and making sure our very short 4-day trip was well spent. Unlike Vancouver, LA is just not possible to be enjoyed without a car. We had reunions and requisite tours to popular places: Universal Studios (we didn’t go in, just hung out at the signage and the mall area), Hollywood Boulevard (where we saw Spider Man and Mickey Mouse wheeling and dealing with tourists just to survive), Sunset Boulevard, a museum called Skirball that had Stanley Kubrick’s photos on display, and a shopping outlet called Citadel.

skirball kubrick
Robert admiring his favorite filmmaker’s B&Ws
skirball tom kiefer photo
Photograph by Tom Kiefer of lunchboxes left behind by Mexicans desperately crossing the US border.

We missed that diner where they shot Pulp Fiction, and Griffith Park where the famous Hollywood sign could be seen. We missed seeing so many other friends and family who also call LA their home. Next time, for sure!

Elbow Live At The Wiltern

The highlight of our LA trip was the concert by #Elbow at The Wiltern on Wilshire Boulevard.

After going through security check at the entrance, my family and I saw one of the most beautiful interiors we’d ever seen. If our very own Metropolitan Theater were restored properly, it would probably look like this building. Beautiful art-deco architecture all around. There was a modern red carpet lounge and bar at the ground floor and mezzanine lobby. A large coffered sunray design adorned the ceiling above the stage. The seats were too cramped though, so one had to stand and push the seats back to give way to people entering the row.

wiltern stage

wiltern me and poster 3
My favorite band in the whole world right now. So lucky to see my Guy!

What can I say? It was a dream come true to hear my Guy sing, my Mark play the guitar, my Craig touch those keys, my Pete thump the bass, and my Alex hit those skins! The boys performed all of my super favorites and saved the best for last, which was #LippyKids. The crowd was amazing and always game to follow Guy’s instructions to sing, harmonize, shout, put our arms up in the air, and even whistle. I’d never seen such interactivity in a concert before. Guy is an amazing showman, and even though #FlyBoyBlue/Lunette is my favorite, I wish he’d stop singing that line about him wanting a bottle of good Irish whisky and a bundle of smokes on his grave. I need him to stay alive for a few more decades so I can enjoy his music and poetry! Please Guy, take it easy with the bottle and cig now, okay?

Family Is Everything

My relatives in the US are so closely-knit. After being in North America for over a year now, I have seen so much change in my own home. I’ve never been as close to my children as I am now. America is so big and overwhelming, and bitter cold for a season, so it feels nice to come home every night to something smaller and more familiar. My husband has made it a rule not to fight or raise our voices at home. It is our sanctuary, our refuge from the cold outside.

dinner xmas decor detail
Detail from my brother in law’s Xmas decor still on display at his house. Photo by Robert Quebral.

Our reunions with family were lovely. Imagine being hosted in many such sanctuaries full of warmth, good vibes, and great food! I ate so much sinigang, turon and buchi. Homes are truly the center of American life for many Filipino immigrants. I don’t see a lot of my relatives going very often on mountain hikes, ski trips, epic road trips, big bike rides, football games or whatnot like a typical outdoor-loving American, though. Home seems to be their mountain and ski resort all at once.

But it’s a different story for the younger ones. My nieces and nephews from all sides are traveling so much, taking up sports, embracing the great outdoors, and are tech-savvy, friendly and chatty. They are respectful and mindful of their place in the family, which I sometimes lament. I don’t want to be just a Tita but also a friend they can take along on their adventures too!

At the end of the day, we are really all just little kids at heart, looking forward to having their Big Brother around to keep them safe, happy and warm wherever they are.


During our LA trip, I also had a quick catchup with an aunt and a niece, who took us downtown, where we got to walk around Staples Center. It felt great to have walked on LA Lakers territory and taken pictures alongside an immortalized Kareem Abdul Jabbar, for one. I’m not as rabid a basketball fan as my hubby, but I do know the name #KobeBryant growing up. I have always found him quite remarkable. He has such a beautiful, radiant face, more so when he smiles that perfect u-shaped smile. He’s younger than me by only 3 years, making him a contemporary. As is usually the case when one is immersed in American pop culture, you feel invested in celebrities’ lives and therefore experience terrible heartbreak over any sad news about them. It hasn’t been a week since we were in Los Angeles, so the heartbreak over Kobe and his daughter Gigi’s untimely demise is still quite raw. There were many buttons that Kobe pushed today: my youth, of which he was a part; my being a parent; which he was, and by all accounts, a very hands-on and inspiring father; and my lack of ambition these days, which his spectacular achievements in and out of basketball inspire me to address. Thank you for walking with us for a while, #BlackMamba. You will be missed.