KUWAIT - Valenzuela City councilor Shalani Soledad has been getting more attention because of her romantic relationship with President-apparent Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III. But there is a facet to the 30-year-old that is unknown to many--the fact that she spent some of her teenage years in Kuwait.
Soledad stayed with her older brother, Carlo, and her mother, Evelyn, who worked as a restaurant manager of the Al Boom restaurant at then Radisson SAS hotel (now called Radisson Blu) for 20 years.
"Bale 20 years na nag-work dito si Evelyn, ang tawag ko nga sa kanya palangga. [Palangga is an Ilonggo term of endearment – eds.] Restaurant manager siya ng Al Boom restaurant ng Radisson SAS hotel. Very active ang mother niya sa Filipino community," shared Ana Del Mundo, one of Evelyn's close friends in Kuwait.
("Evelyn worked here for about 20 years, I call her palangga. She's a restaurant manager of Al Boom restaurant in Radison SAS hotel. She's very active in the Filipino community here in Kuwait.")
Citing her memories with Evelyn in Kuwait, Del Mundo shared that the younger Soledad is a quiet and obedient daughter, adding that she was raised well with Christian values.
To date, Kuwait is home to some 2.25 million people, with about 9% of them coming from Asia (including the Philippines), according to filipinosinkuwait.com
. The website, which aims to link Filipino communities in the oil-rich country, classifies its members according to their hometowns.
Sweet and quiet
Overseas Filipino workers (OFW) here in Kuwait relived their memories of Soledad, who they met more than 10 years ago.
One of them is Precy May Fabro, who said that she first met the councilor in a Valentine's Day party back in 1998.
"Mabait naman si Shalani, very sweet, palangiti, parang walang problema. Mayroon akong hindi makalimutan na sinabi niya, na akala ng mga tao na super hinhin niya pero hindi alam ng mga ibang tao na nagpapatintero din siya sa kalye," Fabro said.
("Shalani is a nice person, very sweet, and she smiles all the time as if she doesn't have any problems. I remember she told me that most people think she's super poised, but they don't know that she also plays patintero in the streets.")
Paul Jean Andrade, also an OFW, shared his friendship with the teen Soledad, which started in 1997.
He said he got to know the so-called “First Girlfriend” through her brother, Carlo, back when they all stayed in Kuwait's Mahboula district.
"Kalaro ko kasi sa basketball ang kuya niya, kaya lagi akong nasa kanila. Kapag pumupunta ako sa kanila, lagi lang nasa room niya 'yon. Kapag nakikita ako, bumabati ng 'hi Paul!' Laging nagbabasa, nanonood ng TV, 'yon ang hobby niya. Tahimik at laging nasa kwarto," Andrade said.
("I used to play basketball with her brother so I'm always at their house. When I'm there, she (Shalani) is always in her room. When she sees me, she says 'hi Paul!' She's always reading books, watching TV, those are her hobbies. She's quiet and always stays in her room.")
Coming of age
Friends and acquaintances say it was in Kuwait where Soledad celebrated her 18th birthday, making the country an important place in the 30-year-old councilor's life.
She held a party at the Sheraton Hotel on April 27, 1998, said Fabro, who was part of the cotillion.
"Super saya ng debut niya. May production number na di niya inexpect. May kumanta, may sumayaw. Kasama ako sa cotillion, mga 3 weeks din kaming nagpractice. Tuwang tuwa kami," Fabro said.
("We had a really great time. We had a production number that she didn't expect. There was singing and dancing. I was part of the cotillion, we practiced for 3 weeks. We were really happy.")
Andrade, from being a friend of Soledad's brother, said that he also played an important role in Soledad's coming of age party.
"Napasama ako sa 18 roses at ngayong isa na siyang kilalang tao, parang it's an honor for me na noong mag-birthday siya rito, napasama ako," he said.
("I was part of the 18 roses and now that she's well-known, it's an honor for me to be part of her birthday celebration here in Kuwait.")
Del Mundo, a friend of Soledad's mom, said that she was also present in her 18th birthday. "Isa pa nga ako sa nag-18 messages at segment emcee pa ako noon sa Sheraton. Ang saya naming lahat, kaming mga friends ng nanay niya," she said.
("I was one of the people who gave the 18 messages, and I was even a segment emcee at Sheraton. We, her mom's friends, were all so happy.")
Soledad didn't only spend her coming of age party in Kuwait -- she also had her on-the-job training (OJT) here.
She and her brother had their OJT at the Housekeeping and Food and Beverage divisions at the Radison SAS Hotel (now called Radisson Blu) before returning to the Philippines to pursue their college education in 1998, according to a source.
"I gave them a very good appraisal. Kasi masipag naman silang magkapatid. Mabait si Shalani at 'yong kuya niya noong nag-OJT sila dito," said the hotel's housekeeping supervisor, who requested for anonymity.
While Fabro, Andrade and Del Mundo openly shared their fond memories of Soledad in Kuwait, some of the councilor's close friends declined to be interviewed, saying that they want to respect her privacy.
And since Soledad did not mention her stay in Kuwait during her recent interview with Kris Aquino on "The Buzz," one of her friends lamented that the 30-year-old councilor seems to be hiding this part of her life from the public.
"I'm not trying to say that she's hiding something. Kasi after watching at sa pagkakaintindi ko sa interview niya with Kris the other day, very clear na in-avoid niya ang stay niya dito, and we do respect that," one of Soledad's friends told Balitang Middle East through a message in Facebook.
("I'm not trying to say that she's hiding something. But after watching her interview with Kris the other day, it seems clear that she didn't want to talk about her stay here, and we do respect that.")
For their part, Fabro, Andrade and Del Mundo believed that there's nothing wrong if the public knows about this part of Soledad's life. The 3 OFWs wished nothing but the best for the President-apparent's girlfriend.
"Sana magtuloy-tuloy lang ang mga blessings mo sa buhay. Sana matupad ang mga pangarap mo. Sana magkatuluyan kayo ni frontrunner president Noynoy Aquino. Good luck sa iyo. God bless you and your family," Del Mundo said.
("I hope your life's blessings will keep on pouring in. I hope you get to fulfill all your dreams. I hope you'll get to settle down with frontrunner president Noynoy Aquino. I wish you good luck. God bless you and your family.")
Del Mundo also had this to say to Soledad's mother: "Evelyn, na-miss ka na namin sa Kuwait. Nandito pa rin kaming mga kaibigan mo sa Kuwait, nagmamahal sa iyo. Sana one day, mabisita mo kami, kayong mag-nanay kasama si President Noynoy."
("Evelyn, we miss you already here in Kuwait. We, your friends, are still here in Kuwait, and we love you still. I do hope that one day you can visit us, together with Shalani and President Noynoy.") - ABS-CBN Middle East News Bureau