When you return to a familiar place after a long time away—your old college dorm, a street you used to frequent as a child—everything is smaller than you remember.
But Cebu has always felt small, every corner a home, every street a sanctuary. It wasn’t until my young adulthood that I began to think about what it would be like to have never left.
I was 12 years old when my mother announced that we would be moving to Manila. At the time, there wasn’t much that tethered me to Cebu—I wasn’t old enough to fathom the gravity of leaving anyone or anything. All I would be parting with were small routines: looking out the window as my dad drove through the roundabout at Fuente Osmeña, falling asleep at Sunday mass in Redemptorist Church. Etcetera, etcetera. We moved into a small house in Cavite and I forgot all about my idyllic childhood. “All the good universities are here,” Mom would remind me. We had been estranged from our extended family for many reasons, which only reinforced the appeal of a new life in a new place.
But in 2013, when I was 17 years old, my father decided it was time to rebuild burnt bridges. After half a decade of being away, seeing Cebu again felt like remembering snapshots from a dream you had the night before.
But while I came of age, the city grew up without me, too. New buildings were erected in the place of old ones. Roads widened and trees grew. My sanctuary now felt like a distant friend, where too much had changed for us to ever be the same again.
The one thing that stayed the same was my childhood home in Malabuyoc. Our home, which has housed four generations of Pepinos, was built in the '60s, and it was exactly as I remembered it. My grandparents, aunts, and uncles reverted to calling me by my childhood nickname, “Chin”—a name I actively rejected throughout my high school and college years. It wasn’t long before it grew on me again. Touching base with people and places I associated with childhood made being back in Cebu a little less scary. Finally, I was ready to see more.
In our little town close to the southern tip of the island, the whale sharks of Oslob and the Kawasan Falls of Badian are a quick drive away. Canyoneering might not be for the faint of heart, but Badian has no shortage of locally accredited guides, hostels, and equipment rentals for a hassle-free watersports experience. Meanwhile, people who have plans of coming to the former should know that swimming alongside the whalesharks is a form of animal cruelty (you don’t want to disrupt their already compromised ecosystem). Admiring them from a distance is an experience in itself, trust me.
The family embraced us as if we had never left, and old traditions were taken up once more. We had big dinners at Majestic, where the bird’s nest soup and spicy garlic spare ribs alone are worth the flight back. We walked over to the cult-favorite Larsian Barbecue wearing T-shirts and slippers. I had a happy reunion with Cebu lechon. The skin is crispy-crackling, the fat is juicy and not overwhelming, and the meat is so tender, it’s better you eat it with your hands...I’m going to stop right here before this story morphs into a love letter to lechon. During lazy afternoons, I helped my grandmother prepare budbod, a stickier, sweeter version of suman. To me, all Cebu food was comfort food. (A few other dishes you shouldn’t miss: Casa Verde’s signature ribs, La Marea’s divine desserts, and of course, Sunburst chicken!)
Cebu was one of the first islands where the colonial Spanish established their stronghold on the Philippines, so there’s no shortage of religious structures to visit (read: it’s not just Magellan’s Cross). We made pilgrimages up hundreds of steps to the castle-like Simala Shrine/Monastery of the Holy Eucharist, which is what a cathedral would look like if it were a love child of Disneyland and the Buckingham Palace. We marveled at the Temple of Leah, which is the Philippines’ version of the Taj Mahal: it’s a mausoleum dedicated to the late Leah Albino-Adarna (Ellen Adarna’s grandmother) by her husband, Teodorico. From beaches to restaurants to malls, there was still so much to experience. But it would only be a few days or a week before it would be time to head back to Manila, and I would have to leave my hometown once again.
For the next few years, I would spend every summer or Christmas break in Cebu, discovering new sights and re-familiarizing myself with old ones. But I couldn’t deny that I knew Manila more intimately. The hardest years of my life happened here, so escaping to Cebu was a relief, but Manila was special now, too. This arrangement puzzled me because it constantly felt like I was leaving home to go home. The more trips I took, the more I didn’t know where I belonged. So even as I began to plant my feet as a writer here in Manila, I often flirted with the idea of packing my things and purchasing a one-way ticket to Cebu.
The loneliness only bred questioning. Do I love Cebu more than any place because I experience it in small doses? Are visits with my family only special because I see them rarely?
Going back to Cebu would mean leaving the decade’s worth of friendships I’ve made here. But staying in Manila would mean never getting to be with my family as long as I wanted to. I could continue my usual routine of shuttling back and forth indefinitely, but something tells me I need to choose a home. For good.
The Philippines is a country of busy airports. We flock to Manila or even farther to provide for our families. I must be one of thousands who feel like “home” has become an arbitrary concept. Someday, I know the decision will come to me. But for now, it’s lovely to have two places where I can hang my hat.
Find Cebu travel inspiration when you check out our Travel Guide.
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