It was a homecoming like no other — a gathering that brought together some 25 stouthearted contributors to the travel field, each an integral piece in their own right. The occasion marked not just merely another reunion of remarkable minds, but a tribute to the gentleman who ignited the spark of a flourishing era in the country. In the annals of Philippine tourism history, no name shines as bright as Jose D. Aspiras — Sunshine Joe — the former Secretary of Tourism whose legacy still reverberates through the hallways and corridors of the travel industry.
The story begins with the inception of the Department of Tourism, a gainful institution that Aspiras was key in establishing. The guests, now in their senior years, came together once more, some more physically fit than others but all carrying the same Sunshine Joe-inspired rah-rah-rah spirit that had been ever-present in their prime. With a sense of familial camaraderie, they were ecstatic to descend upon the sprawling abode — yet all very familiar — of the mover and his ever-gracious and ladylike wife, Amparo.
The venue was nothing short of iconic, having been the backdrop of several authentic barrio fiestas during Aspiras' long, pioneering and trailblazing tenure. The atmosphere was rich with the scent of nostalgia amid previously-hosted energizing affairs, complete with heritage dances and folk games, the melodies of string and bamboo bands and the resonating voices of pop singers. We might have even missed a carabao or two, akin to an Amorsolo painting come to life.
We can recall that gatherings of yesteryears were procession — make that parades of VVIPs who had commanded global spotlights in the realm of travel and tourism — they were the royalty of the most-loved industry in the world.
Among them were CEOs and COOs of airlines, cruise liners and transportation companies, owners of hotel chains and resorts, influential tour operators and travel agents who were expected to rise to a new level. Not to be forgotten were the media — newspaper travel editors and TV travel hosts, responsible for discovering and promoting, which ignited trends before the time of social media.
In the warmth of the balmy noon sun, three of four sisters, namely, Aida Aspiras, Babot Oreta and Christy Aspiras — with chef Reggie Aspiras busy in her expansive kitchen — welcomed everyone with open arms, tight hugs and teary eyes. It was as if everyone had been transported back to the golden days of the DoT Building on T.M. Kalaw Street. The greetings were infused with earnest care and amor con mucho cariño, a lasting testament to the genuine bonds that had stitched this community together. They were all simply overjoyed to be reunited, quickly catching up on each other's lives and reminiscing about the glorious past — the days of the Camelot of Tourism.
As tradition dictated, it commenced with a celebration of the Mass, presided over by Rev. Father Joey Irlandes, a long-time family friend who had together witnessed numerous celebrations and commemorations. The little chapel, with an altar which reveres the most Sacred Heart of Jesus and several images and icons, became the focal point to honor the life of Jose D. Aspiras on what would have been his 99th birthday.
Then there was chef Reggie, a multifaceted culinary personality known for authorship of books and columns, a frontrunner in countless ventures and adventures, to include winemaking and tea brewing. The personally curated buffet spread of family favorites was a marvel which showcased her prowess — with impeccable table settings to boot!
The spread included Fried Kesong Puti with Bagoong — Caper Butter; Bulaklak, House Pickled Vegetables, Prawns, Salted Egg, Pinoy Vinaigrette; JDA's Whitebait Sinigang, Baby Spinach, Cherry Tomatoes; Badjao Spring Rolls, Vegetable Confetti; Cashew Butter Kare-Kare, Coconut Cream, Ripple, Bagoong Cacao; Chicken Pork Adobo Lechon; Ternate Pandan Rice, Chef's Fried Bagoong; plus mom's favorites, such as Homemade Suman with Amparing's Mango Jubilee, Chef's Kakang Gata Ice Cream; Ginataan, Guava Bilo-Bilo; Turon; and Chef's Relaxing Tea.
Settling down was no easy task as the attendees engaged in never-ending animated conversations, leading to a rigodon of seating arrangements that seemed choreographed for an extravagant performance. Just as we thought they had final choices, they hopped around and moved once again! Even after the entire exercise, the lively nature of this bunch proved the eternal youth that a shared passion can bestow.
The four Aspiras sisters, true daughters of Joe and Amparing, listened in awe as we spoke with pride of his accomplishments. As the first Secretary of Tourism and subsequently the Minister of Tourism during the Parliamentary days, Aspiras had set the foundation for the Philippines to rise as a prominent destination on the global map.
Among his notable contributions were the Balikbayan Program, an original initiative that brought Filipinos residing abroad back to their homeland. With it came Balikbayan promotional airfares — and how can anybody forget the Balikbayan Boxes? We recalled the Reunion for Peace program, a heartfelt thrust that invited survivors of World War II to embark on sentiment-filled journeys returning to the areas where they served during the conflict. The year 1980 brought memories as a banner year, wherein the Philippines played host to some of the largest congresses, conventions and conferences, spearheaded by the World Tourism Organization, the American Society of Travel Agents, International Hotel Association and the Pacific Asia Travel Association, only to mention a few.
Looking forward to the future, an in-tune attendee suggested to commemorate Jose D. Aspiras' 100th birthday and to make a pilgrimage to Agoo, the birthplace of the tourism stalwart.
Bet on it — it will certainly happen. Mabuhay, Sunshine Joe!