Maris asked when I was coming over.

She is seven, held my hand the night before when Efrena was practicing a traditional Philippine dance to prepare for the upcoming winter festival. We sat together at the basketball benches watching the mayor’s wife bellow instructions at the dancers, telling them to lift their arms higher or emote more.

Maris’s house is next door’s to Efrena’s, and in fact Maris is related to her. Third or fourth removed cousins.

I had to correct Maris gently.

“You know, I’m coming over to see your momma, Maribel, too. And you..”  My smile was tender and encouraging.

She’s a willowy girl, loves the color pink and will grow to be a beauty. Her hair hangs long, close to mid-back and reminds me of buns fresh from the oven – golden brown. I looked forward to knowing Maris and her family.

After gobbling a breakfast of eggs and rice at Efrena’s, I lifted that juggernaut that is my backpack and opened the creaky fence for the last time.

Smoke from stove fires carried in the air. It was 9 a.m. and already the orange disc in the sky blazed, causing a tiny bit of sweat to form on my skin.

I maneuvered down the dirt path, noting how lovely the colorful parols were, gleaming against the sunshine. They were rainbows captured in stars.

An obscene amount of cocks cawed at the back end of Efrena’s house, held by nets constructed from bamboo. The nets were shaped like rounded colanders, in this case to capture a preened animal used for God knows what, not slippery pasta, steaming and piping from the stove. A tautly muscled young man was their minder, at times lifting up the nets to feed them grain or allowing them to stand on a perch. Later, Maribel informed me why they existed.

“Rodrigo takes them for fighting.” Her husband was in the cock-fighting business.

Maribel’s house was a stark contrast to Efrena’s. What was a modest lawn at Efrena’s, with a delicate wood fence became a wrought iron fence set into a poured concrete patio at Maribel’s.

While Efrena’s house was a confused, leftover state – Maribel’s was a symmetrical, squared off concrete building with russet brown wood doors. Uniform and packaged.

Maribel sat outside on a heavy wood reclining chair. She was an adult version of Maris. Lengthy, flowing hair with a few more lines in her face to mark her position in the family. Earth mother. Baggy beige capri pants and a soft white shirt added roundness, making her approachable, even huggable.

She grinned.  “Very welcome here.”

And I felt it.

We entered the house. I had removed my flip-flops, the shaded concrete cooling my hot feet. Hers was a complete home. Furniture the same shade as the doors gave the living room a formal setting. A tall, vertical shelf that served as a wall divider between the living room and the dining area held similar knick-knacks found at Efrena’s, with family photos. An image of a comely, young woman with Maribel’s eyes caught my attention. That had to be her daughter.

“She’s in Manila, learning accounting. Lives with my brother.”

The rest of the house emerged. In a standard Philippine home, one side of the house is generally built as two-stories. To the right were three rooms, then a staircase that led to a top landing, had two more rooms.

Each room had a true door, hidden behind cheery, white curtains accentuated with poppy red valances.

Maribel led me through the rest of the house. A dining area was at the left and a counter beside that had a mass of electronic gadgets seemingly abandoned, inert in their boxes. A blender, even a toaster oven. It was a silent graveyard for unused appliances.

Maribel said they were gifts from her brother. He obviously took care of his younger sister. Yet, why she didn’t use them remained a mystery.

The back of the house was a kitchen and bathroom. A large fridge to the right that would normally be packed with food, was only filled with bottled water. A skeletal, tabby cat lay on top, dozing.

The bathroom was truest in form – a flushing toilet and shower nozzle were in place. So was a large bucket, optional for flushing or washing.

Admittedly, Maribel’s living standards were first-class compared to Efrena’s. With cock betting at the high end ranging from 10,000 to 15,000 pesos, perhaps business was bursting for Rodrigo.

My room continued to hold that theme. Pink bubble gum in color and overtly feminine – it had been Maribel’s eldest daughter’s room.

It was a sweet cocoon, less open to the elements than the previous night.

I leaned my bag against a wall and changed into a bathing suit. Maribel and Efrena were going to take me to Anda Falls for a swim.

We started off down dirt roads, passing houses of varying dimensions and styles. A house of simple bamboo was lodged beside a pink cinder palace. I wondered if this was a terrible status time warp – some residents lived exceptionally well, while others scraped by with the bare minimum.

An endless blue sky was overhead and the only sounds were our footsteps clopping on the packed dirt. Palm trees and fat, abundant bushes ripe with flowers surrounded us. A bright orange and black butterfly appeared, fluttering prettily down the path with us. She floated off in a different direction once we turned a bend towards the rice fields.

A few acres of land were being tended by a small handful of men working in the hot sun. Rice is life in the Philippines, to not have rice at a meal is unheard of.

“This will feed all of us. A family given one plot,” said Efrena, as she pulled a towel over he head to block the sun’s rays.

I wondered if the barangay accounted for population growth. Was more rice allotted if a family unit swelled?

It came time to cut through the rice fields, I had trouble balancing on the narrow pathways formed from mud and small stones, my sandal landing in a soup of mud.

Both women laughed a little, and so did I.

We then found a path up a straight incline, sort of a miniature mountain that would lead us to the falls.

My breath fell short, Efrena and Maribel were paces ahead of me. I felt the impact of a doughy body that years of office slouching had produced.

We came upon a clearing and not knowing what to expect, I gasped at what only could be described as a Romanesque pool.

The Philippine government had invested in this attraction. If I closed my eyes, I could picture the sensual wives of Rome’s elite moving water slowly back and forth, cooling themselves on the concrete, eating figs, olives and fruit overflowing from bronze bowls, maybe even a male slave or two at the ready.

Such images were lofty, since this pool was in the wild, with trees hundreds of years old offering shade. Coconuts hung down in pairs or triples.

The pools contents derived from a slope above, where water flowed downwards. An exceptionally steep staircase fashioned from rocks could be climbed to see the run-off at a closer view.

I took the stairs and suddenly felt silly standing there watching water, yet knew this wasn’t about water, but experiences.

My eyes followed the trail. Water seeped from a dam, a hole cut into it, trickling into the Roman pool. At the left corner was another gradient that acted as irrigation flow. Water was then funneled into the nearby fields, maybe even supplying a household or two.

A skinny man in Adidas shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt was cleaning off some leaves that had fallen. After cleaning the leaves he sat on a wooden bench off to the right.

Efrena and Maribel knew this fellow, dropping into an easy banter with him. I gathered he was the caretaker of Anda Falls, but he didn’t seem isolated, just content to talk or pass time on his own.

Our purpose here was to swim, yet Efrena and Mairbel weren’t joining me.

“We no swim,” they said in unison.

Alone in my intention, I peeled off my shorts and tank top and dove in. The water was cold, but I swam a few lengths. Sometimes my feet touched the bottom and detected a layer of slime, probably moss and dirt from the waterfall.

Our caretaker had done something marvelous as I frolicked in the water – he climbed one of the trees with no safety harness and came down with a few coconuts.

He used a short machete to slice off the tops. Soon we were sitting on the benches and sipping from sheared coconuts.

My head swirled with this level of simplicity. There I sat – at two o’clock in the afternoon by a waterfall, drinking coconut juice. I fit comfortably in my world of tech gadgets, innumerable tasks and deadlines, yet at that moment I wondered to what end?

Residents of Casica had enough rice and enough companionship. I thought about the numerous articles in North America that recount increasing numbers of loneliness and depression. Being virtually cut off from nature and large communities to attain material success seems empty, a hollow pursuit. Casica also had cell phones, televisions and stereos, yet these objects held a small place in daily life. It made me wonder why the same objects are so coveted where I come from – more valuable than human feelings, or even lives.

After the coconuts were drained and my skin had dried, we decided to make our way down.

Branches and coconut husks lay discarded at the sides of the path – Efrena carefully selected a couple of husks.

Maribel mentioned that singing was important in church.

“How about at Christmas? Is that important?” Since it was close to this worldwide holiday, it seemed appropriate to ask.

To demonstrate, Efrena began the first verse of “Joy to the World”.

We joined her and belted out this often sung tribute to Jesus’s birth. We giggled as we sang, Efrena banging the coconut husks together – our very own percussion section.

An invisible thread connected us – the parallels more evident than the contrasts. A song I had known in snowy Canada was also sung by Efrena and Maribel – probably performed at school or in their bamboo thatched church.

We took a different route back, coming upon a patch of grass with houses on either side. Ahead were several orange tarps, the kind used for shelter during a rainy camping weekend. It was harvest time and rice was scattered across the tarps – drying in the sun.

I thought it was a beautiful sight.

We navigated down the barangay road, stopping to talk to neighbors, even visiting an elderly widow, never quite alone with people stopping by frequently.

It was close to dinnertime by the time we approached Maribel’s house. Efrena and I had to say goodbye. I knew we’d see each other in the morning, that she’d walk me to the main road where I would catch a van, but for now we shook hands, waving to each other as Maribel opened the latch to the gate.

The entire household was assembled. Maribel’s mother came out of the bathroom, a tiny woman with a bent back. She had spent the day at the markets.

Rodrigo was a burly man, but not intimidating. He was dressed in a singlet, a few tattoos covering his body, which could have hinted to a harsher past, yet I only detected friendship from him. He eagerly pumped my hand when we were introduced.

Maris burst from one of the rooms and flew into my arms. Her brother, Wylie, was close behind.

At 11 years old, he was still at that gangly stage, where his limbs were awkward, the shape of his face boyish. I speculated that he must have a few female admirers at school though, for he exuded a grown-up confidence.

Rodrigo had purchased some fish at the market, to honor my pescetarian leanings.  Fish stuffed with tomatoes and onions, along with stir fried vegetables and rice were on the menu.

Maris and her mother started cooking at the back of the house, very similar to Efrena’s household, yet again I noticed a modern stove in the kitchen.

“You don’t use this?”

Maribel shook her head. “Propane too much.”

Impressions are deceiving. Maris’s status appeared elevated compared to Efrena, but once again sacrificing for the children mattered most. Her daughter’s education rang in at around 15,000 pesos.

And she has other children to sacrifice for.

Any pleas to help with dinner were met with chastisement. Instead, the kids dragged me to the front side patio. Darkness enveloped the barangay, save for outdoor lights. Insects buzzed and collided against the porch light above us. I sat on the wooden reclining chair.

Wylie and Maris encircled me, fascinated with this foreign presence in their home.

A little troop of barangay kids, friends of Maris and Wylie must have heard about the visitor and stopped by. They formed a human circle around me, shooting questions.

What is your favorite color?

Your favorite song?

Are you married?

When it came time for Maris to tell me her favorite song, I had no reference when she said “Open Arms.”

A Philippine tune? Puzzled, I requested that she sing some of it.

“Lying beside me, here in the dark, feeling your heartbeat with mine…”

I cackled. I was prepared for something exotic, Gregorian monks chanting to the ancient wind. Not Journey, a top 40 song broadcast over radio stations during the eighties.

A song I knew intimately in junior high school, probably shed tears to over my latest crush who ignored my existence. That never stopped me from etching our initials together in my notebook. JM + BD = Forever.

As Maris’s warm hand intertwined with mine, we sang the love song together.

The further I seek fault lines, the more I discover connections. The planet is vast – we are not. We are specks who should stop hating and fighting, and begin to understand, share and love.

Rodrigo poked his head out the door. It was time for dinner.

Good timing, because I was famished.

International homestays is not a new invention.  According to the World Tourism Organization (WTO) over one billion tourists will step foot on foreign soil by 2012.  In the developing world, tourism is described as small enterprises, what travel aficionados refer to as the ‘local touch’, those flavors that charm us.  People of Anna Cleal’s caliber are doing more – by trying to uplift their standard of living in Bohol. For a private operation such as hers, it’s an admirable fight. 

Cost of the homestay:  Each night of the homestay is 600 pesos, well below what you would pay at a hotel.  300 pesos goes directly into the pockets of the host and the other 300 is retained by Philippines Homestay for administration costs.  Food is priced according to meals, anywhere from 50 to 60 pesos.  The object is for you to experience what the local food is like thus the cooking is done by your host.

 To book a homestay with Anna Cleal, you can email her, visit her website or follow on Facebook and Twitter.