Way before the age of electronic mail and the internet, I gave vent to my passion for letter writing by joining the now defunct International Youth Service or IYS. It was a penpal service for students which facilitated connecting young people from different countries through a matching service given your deomographics and request. For a minimal fee payable in international money order or US dollars, you got to pick a friend-to-be in your country of choice.
My correspondence with youth from the different parts of the world helped open my eyees to the rewards of travel and gave me a bird’s eye view the world outside my own. We exchanged not only stories but postcards, little presents, trinkets and other goods. We wrote about the mundance things of life like school, boys, hobbies and the like.
While I managed to begin several friendships this way, the best friends I found across the seas were from the Netherlands and Hong Kong. Sadly, through the years, I had lost touch with my two closest penfriends: Jolanda and Clara. Of the two, I managed to meet up with Clara several times, as she took had pursued a course in tourism which eventually led to her becoming a licensed outbound tour escort for tourists coming in from Hong Kong to Manila.
The recent incident where a tourist bus of Hong Kong nationals was taken hostage in Manila brought back my fond memories of Clara and I couldn’t help but worry she might have been the tour escort accompanying that contingent. Tour guides, as opposed to tour escorts are locals who show the group around in the destination of choice. Tour escorts on the other hand accompany the group from their mother country and make sure that all goes well for their clients outside of their home base.
I had long been searching for Clara whose Chinese name is Mok Man Ha. Thanks again to technology, I managed to find out that she is still a licensed outbound tour escort, because her Chinese name came up in the list of accredited escorts in Hong Kong. I tried contacting her through them, but a polite no was what I got as the group reportedly has a policy of not forwarding their members’ contact information. I asked if they would forward my note to her, but apparently, they had no means to. (Or something was lost in the translation as they say..)
She had initially chosen “Catherine” as her English name, but later on had changed it to Clara. I have tried Facebook and the like but have not had any success either. Even searching for her Chinese name has proved futile, as it appears to be a common name. Although my last contact with her was right before she got married, she had taught me early on that married women retain their maiden name, so I know that she is still Mok Man Ha.
It’s a long shot but I tried her last known employer, and I emailed their Human Resources department hoping that she is still with them. Perhaps this time, I’ll get an answer.
Clara and I used to write each other almost weekly. Her letters gave her a chance to polish her English, and I got a first hand account of life in Hong Kong which proved helpful when I first visited in 1997. I tried looking for her then but it was too hectic a trip, having been sponsored by my employer then whose regional office was in the beautiful Queensway Towers on the Hong Kong side. I tried to do a random search in their white pages, but speaking to someone with no working knowledge of English on the other end proved very difficult. My second visit the following year proved futile as well.
But I am going to keep trying. For all I know, she might already be traveling as an outbound escort to New York, and like before, her job might pave the way for us to meet again.
Meanwhile, I’m hoping that someone out there might stumble into this post and tell her her Filipina friend is looking for her. I’m not giving up — I’m still searching for my friend, Mok Man Ha.