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Turkey tour with Leni: Escaping and keeping the faith

Beyond family moments, the ancient destination reveals hidden lessons from the Underground City in Cappadocia

In one of the rooms of the Underground City, the glass floors reveal graves dug below. From left: Didi, Carlo, Andrea, Aika, Eyup, Jillian, Tricia, 'VP Leni', Pia (Photo by Rapa Lopa)

A GoPro shot by the tour group’s balloon pilot

My family and I just came back from a trip to Türkiye last July 31 with former Vice President Leni Robredo and her three daughters.  This was a trip that my wife Didi and VP Leni had planned a very long time ago.  I remember after visiting Türkiye for the first time in October 2019, Didi already told VP Leni that we should travel together after her term as Vice President.  Of course, this idea was shelved when global travel restrictions were imposed during the pandemic.  The prospect of doing this trip became even more dim when VP Leni decided to run for the presidency.

However, a month or so after the unfortunate outcome of the elections and after travel restrictions were lifted, Didi broached the idea to VP Leni again.  I guess after a very grueling seven-month campaign and a stress-filled six-year term in office hounded by vicious and relentless attacks on her person and her family, VP Leni thought that this could be a good opportunity to take a short break before she goes full blast again into pursuing her advocacies through her Angat Buhay Program.  It was also timely, since Jillian and Tricia were set to travel back to the US by end of August.  Jillian has been hired by the New York office of a London-based consulting firm, and Tricia has been accepted in a Masteral program at the Harvard Medical School in Boston.

As for me, Didi, and our kids, we looked forward to reunite with our daughter Andrea, who is working in London.  We have not been complete as a family since the start of the pandemic in 2020.  It was also timely since Carlo will start his post graduate studies on Foresight from the University of Houston, while Pia prepares to pivot her career towards becoming a certified fitness and wellness trainer and coach.

I myself honestly felt I needed a recharge.  Like many others, I really felt so down after the elections. While I may appear to have bounced back faster than most, I cannot deny that I had and still have my moments of asking whether or not it is still worth to fight the good fight. This feeling was most pronounced when we commemorated the first year anniversary of Noy’s passing last June 24.  The memory of his life of selfless service and those of Auntie Cory and Uncle Ninoy flooded my questioning mind and my broken heart, with its unsettling emotions.

I trust in faith that all three are now free from the pain caused by the lies and untruths thrown at them by historical revisionists. But I cannot help but feel upset and at the same time helpless against the relentless onslaught of a heavily financed disinformation campaign perpetuated by people who are now in power.

So excited as I was for the upcoming trip, I did carry this emotional baggage as I boarded the plane last July 22.

Didi was our tour leader.  With my daughter Pia and Aika, she made sure that all pre-travel documents were complete.  To minimize the hassle of a long queue in the check-in counter, since we were all travelling Economy, they did the online check-in the day before. When time came to check in our luggage at the counter, we were told by the Emirates supervisor at the counter to wait as they needed to check our visas to Türkiye (which travelers can get online); it needed to be properly backed by a US or EU visa.  Confident that we had everything covered since all of us had US visas, we were assured by the supervisor that they just wanted to make sure that everything was in order because some of us had their US Visas in their expired passports.  (Apparently, there was a recent case of a foreign traveler being denied entry because the required US/EU visa was in an old expired passport which did not match the information in the Türkiye visa the traveler had in his new passport.)  Anyway, thanks to the assistance of the Emirates airport supervisor and team, this bit of suspense was eventually resolved and we managed to fly out from NAIA terminal 3, have a stopover in Dubai, and arrive safely in Istanbul on July 23 without any hitch.

The ‘LoBredo’ tour group at NAIA 3 terminal, from left: Didi, Aika, Jill, VP Leni, Tricia, Carlo, Rapa, Pia (Photo by Didi Lopa)

From then on it was pure fun! For the next couple of days, it was all about two families (I call the LoBredo team) just enjoying each other’s company in a country waiting to be discovered.

As VP Leni aptly describes it in her Instagram post, “Türkiye was a feast for the senses.”

Listening to the morning and dawn chants coming from the mosques, mixed with local music, gave foreign travelers like us a clue of the typical day

Listening to the morning and dawn chants coming from the mosques calling on our Muslim brothers and sisters to prayer, mixed with the local music playing in the different restaurants, shops, and bars that lined the streets, gave foreign travelers like us a clue of the typical day of the locals.

Sunset in Istanbul (Photo by Pia Lopa)

Nightlife in Istanbul (Photo by Pia Lopa)

The wide range of street food, homemade cuisines, and traditional Turkish dishes was an explosion of flavors that spoiled our palates.  It was a celebration of spices that Türkiye is known for. The variety of well-seasoned meat dishes, the freshest seafood and vegetables also allowed us a balanced diet.

Lamb stew and rice (Photo by Pia Lopa)

Grilled seabass (Photo by Pia Lopa)

Grilled beef (Photo by Pia Lopa)

Grilled chicken (Photo by Pia Lopa)

The majestic mosques and temples as well as the quaint alleys and colorful bazaars of Istanbul served as backdrop for a very dynamic, busy, yet fun-loving population.

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul (Photo by Pia Lopa)

The best tour guide, Eyup Karapinar, briefs the tour group inside the Hagia Sophia. (Photo by Pia Lopa)

The ‘LoBredo’ kids in a lamp store at Grand Bazar, Istanbul (Photo by Rapa Lopa)

The cruise along the Bosphorus Strait gave us a front-row view of the diverse architecture of buildings and homes along the coastline, showcasing the merging of the European and Asian cultures from the two continents that physically divided the country.

Photographers/moms during the Bosphorus cruise (Photo by Rapa Lopa)

The bridge at the Bosophorus that connects Europe and Asia

Didi before the Medieval Rumeli fortress along the banks of the European side of the Bosophorus Strait (Photo by Rapa Lopa)

Homes along the bank of the Asian side of the Bosphorus Strait (Photo by Pia Lopa)

The breathtaking view of the Cappadocia mountain ranges from our vantage point in the hot air balloon is a definite must-do in one’s bucket list.

Not to be outdone is our fascinating stroll in the ancient archeological sites in Ephesus and Pamukkale where we were all invited to imagine how our ancient ancestors lived.

‘Proposing’ at Ephesus (Photo by Pia Lopa)

VP Leni in front of the Library of Celsus in Ephesus (Photo by Rapa Lopa)

The Amphitheater Ruins in Ephesus behind the ‘LoBredo’ tour group

I will also be remiss if I did not highlight our pilgrimage to the humble home of our Blessed Mother, whose comforting and consoling presence we instantly felt upon entering.

The Robredos in front of Mama Mary’s home

The Lopas in front of Mama Mary’s home

As we savored all these, what Didi, VP Leni, and I enjoyed most was seeing how our children hit it off instantly.  While they already know each other, this was actually the first time they were going to be forced to be together for a 10-day stretch.  Before the trip, Aika told Tricia and Jillian that our son Carlo was a bit quiet and medyo formal.  This impression was based on her encounter with Carlo during their “palengke” visit during the campaign.  Unknown to Aika, Carlo said that he was actually star-struck with Aika then and was also unsure how he would relate to her.  But all these initial impressions changed immediately on Day 1.

The ‘LoBredo kids’, from left: Aika, Andrea, Carlo, Jillian, Pia, Tricia on the Bosphurus cruise

As the days went on, we also observed that based on their birth sequence, our children somehow projected similar personalities.  Aika and Andrea (the ate) were very reserved, Tricia and Pia (the middle children) were the most hyper, and Jill and Carlo (the bunso) were the most playful and bungisngis.

The ‘ate’: Andrea and Aika

Middle children: Tricia and Pia

The ‘bunso’: Carlo and Jillian

Discovering common interests, shared likes and dislikes, similarities in beliefs and values while discovering the wonders of a once unfamiliar country and people, is what made our journey to Türkiye truly enjoyable and memorable. It was one of those vacations that you wished would go on and on.

Saying goodbye to Andrea, who is taking an earlier flight back to London, from left: Pia, Tricia, Carlo, Jillian, Andrea and Aika

But reality bites and we knew that such cannot be the case. The brief escape had an ending.

During our tour of the underground city in Cappadocia, I discovered another hidden lesson

As earlier mentioned, I really envisioned this trip to be a major recharge for me.  A time to temporarily leave the problems and worries behind.  By all accounts, I believe our 10-day escape from the noise of the broken world achieved that.  And recharged, I am.

I have really appreciated the need to zone out occasionally from the troubles of our lives and our usual day-to-day concerns, so that we can re-energize and move forward to make our lives and those of others we encounter more meaningful.  But what I have learned whenever I do my so called “retreats” is the importance of being mindful about the hidden lessons that I am gifted with as I indulge in the comforts and benefits of “me time.”  I do this by viewing such comforts and benefits as blessings.  Blessings that fill me up which I can empty again when I share them with others.

Allow me to share one last story and reflection I took away from this last trip.

During our tour of the underground city in Cappadocia, where the early Christians found refuge from the persecution of the Roman Empire after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, I discovered another hidden lesson of escaping and retreating.

Scale model of the Underground City (Photo by Pia Lopa)

During our visit, our dear friend and tour guide, Eyup Karapinar, refreshed our lessons on ancient history and narrated how the Roman empire then was so threatened by the emerging Christian movement inspired by Christ’s teachings.  To eliminate this perceived threat, the Roman rulers ordered the hunting and killing of the disciples of Jesus and their followers.  Fearing for their lives, these early Christians fled to other countries, which I imagine is similar to how migrants today flee from their countries in strife.  While the death of Jesus (the perceived savior from the oppression of the Roman empire) and the consequent flight of early Christians appear to be a sign of failure and defeat, I have come to realize that there is much to learn from this as we confront our present-day challenges.  I have to admit that before my first visit to this ancient site last October 2019 and again recently, I did not see the significance of a country like Türkiye in our Salvation History, and much less in our own unfolding history.

I wondered, what was it that made them endure the pain and suffering inside those caves?

As we went through the narrow passages and claustrophobic caves of the underground city, I imagined how extremely difficult it must have been for the early Christians who lived there for months without seeing daylight.  While more modern technology has made these networks of caves more properly ventilated and lit today, it did not blind my imagination to how it must have been in those ancient times when lighting was limited to oil lamps that emitted unhealthy smoke and fumes. Such conditions led to widespread sickness and death— evident in the shallow graves dug in the caves, where the survivors lived in hiding alongside the mortal remains of their loved ones and fellow Christians.  We can go on and on and imagine other trials and tribulations they had to bear.  In the end, I wondered, what was it that made them endure the pain and suffering inside those caves? Where did they draw their strength and courage to live on?


Credit: Video by Rapa Lopa and Eyup Karapinar

When VP Leni and I paused to rest after long walks under the punishing heat of the Turkish summer, we had the chance to chat about this.  As we shared our respective experiences of the tour and the insights we drew from it, we both arrived at the same realization that maybe, the early Christians thought that it was best to retreat into the caves and find ways and means to preserve the community of believers, so that one day they could continue to live the teachings of Jesus and spread Christianity. Even if there was no guarantee that many of them would live long enough to see the Christian faith alive and flourishing, they probably surmised that the survival of others would mean the survival of the faith.

VP Leni then remarked that maybe this is a mindset we need to keep these days as many of us struggle to move forward to continue fighting the good fight, no matter how insurmountable it appears.

Recalling this remark, I revisited my pre-departure moments of vacillation and rediscovered why I needed to re-engage with the reality of our times.  It dawned on me that despite the uncertainty of outcomes, like the early Christians, countless other Filipinos suffered, disappeared, and lost their lives as they fought the reign of oppression, repression and corruption of the Marcos dictatorship.  Of course, I also remembered how Uncle Ninoy, Auntie Cory, and Noy, in solidarity with our people, embraced their respective leadership missions and gave of themselves to fight for and serve our people. And we all know that many of them never lived the day to see the fruits of freedom and democracy that we all enjoy today.

Ironically, this same freedom and democracy that many Filipinos from all walks of life fought and died for is the same freedom and democratic system that has been gamed and manipulated to bring back to power precisely the ones who once undermined it.  The same free and open system that has now become vulnerable to a powerful hi-tech disinformation machine that appears to be successful in muting the truth and discrediting those who uphold it.

Faced with this overwhelming challenge, I then look to VP Leni again.  This time, however, no longer as a co-parent and travel companion, but as our tireless and relentless leader who has not wavered even in times of defeat. The leader who continues to respond courageously to the call to lead and be the champion of truth and hope of the least, the lost and the last.

This random conversation with VP Leni, triggered by our shared experience of the underground city, was an unexpected yet grace-filled moment in our trip.  It served as invitation to me (and hopefully to those who will read this) to follow the ways of the early Christians and the others like them who lived and died for a cause much larger than themselves. It also reminded me that despite the undesired outcomes that have come our way, and even if we find ourselves temporarily retreating after a major setback, the lessons of our ancient and recent histories remind us that we are all called to remain brave and persevering in fighting for what is good, just and true.

We are called to Keep the Faith.

About author

Articles

He is the author of “To Love Another Day,” the memoirs of democracy icon Corazon Aquino. He continues to work with NGOs—evidently one of the Filipinos who continue to believe in the Filipino.

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