The other day, I was at NAIA Terminal 3, and stopped in at the National Bookstore outlet in the airport, since I was flying Cebu Pacific for about three hours and the onboard magazines tend to bore me. This outlet in Terminal 3 is the only bookstore I can think of at NAIA. There are a couple of tiny newsstands in the other terminals, but with very small selections. Curiously, this National Bookstore outlet carries very few books about the Philippines. So I’m browsing, and see a copy of “The Innocents Abroad”, by Mark Twain, tucked away in a corner.
High school and college English teachers have a really bad habit of sucking the fun out of reading. They over-analyze, look for themes and motifs that were never there, or that some professor somewhere has determined was the author’s intent. For instance, the historic record of Shakespeare’s life is incomplete and full of holes. He rarely made any commentary about his work, and there were limited contemporary critics whose articles have survived. So, some academic sitting in his office then decides that HE knows what Shakespeare intended to say. Indeed, though I’ve always liked to read, it’s been years since I’ve read any of the classics.
Mark Twain was an exception. I’ve always considered him one of only a handful of true geniuses in history. His wit and intelligence shine through in his writing, and his books are still highly readable and enjoyable, even in the present day.
So, aside from me buying the book at NAIA, what does any of this have to do with the Philippines?
Well, first off, Mark Twain was a highly vocal critic of the Philippine American War and of American imperialism in his own day.
The funniest thing was when at the close of the Spanish-American War the United States paid poor decrepit old Spain $20,000,000 for the Philippines. It was just a case of this country buying its way into good society. Honestly, when I read in the papers that this deal had been made, I laughed until my sides ached. There were the Filipinos fighting like blazes for their liberty. Spain would not hear to it. The United States stepped in, and after they had licked the enemy to a standstill, instead of freeing the Filipinos they paid that enormous amount for an island which is of no earthly account to us; just wanted to be like the aristocratic countries of Europe which have possessions in foreign waters. The United States wanted to be in the swim, and it, too, had to branch out, like an American heiress buying a Duke or an Earl. Sounds well, but that’s all.
– interview “Mark Twain in Clover / Joseph in the Land of Cornbread and Chicken.” Baltimore Sun, 10 May 1907, p. 14
History has shown that his opinions were generally spot on.
Now, “The Innocents Abroad ” is an early travelogue of Mark Twain’s. This was one of his first trips abroad, in 1867, and he writes with much wit and sarcasm about the trip, his fellow travelers, the places he visited, and the native people whom he met. He booked a passage to the Holy Land upon a brand new, luxury steamer, at a fare of $1,250 (US$17,412 in 2012 dollars). Expenses were an additional $5 per day (US$70 today). The passage was very much a luxury that few could afford in 1867. The United States was recovering from the Civil War, the railroads were still expanding, and most people still travelled by horse. There were huge distinctions in class in those days. Indeed, on Twain’s passage, merely having the money to buy a ticket was not enough: You needed to be vetted and approved by a committee in order to determine that you were the right sort of person to join their group. Indeed, Twain himself talks about his sense of relief upon hearing that he was accepted and chosen to travel.
What is fascinating, however, is the relevancy that this book holds when read in 2012… It is as relevant and accurate in describing some of today’s travelers as those 150 years ago. Many of the same attitudes and beliefs still persist, and are observable today, even though, obviously, the world has changed significantly in that time period. In other words, though technology and times have changed, people still remain the same.
About his fellow travelers, all very well-heeled, Twain describes high levels of ignorance and boorishness among those who comprised the cream of society in those days. These were days when you were openly mocked for not dressing appropriately at dinner, wearing plain leather gloves instead of the fashionable kid gloves of the day. The Protestant prayer meetings that were mandatory on the ship, along with the singing of hymns by those who could not, or should not, be singing. The racist and arrogant musings about helping the savages, the misguided papists, and the filthy and lazy whom they would surely encounter in the wilder, uncivilized parts of the world. Getting angry about the French not understanding when they spoke French.
He was also, understandably, quite excited about his trip, staring in wonder at the natural beauty of the ports he visited. Seeing things that he had only seen in pictures, and commenting that the pictures alone could not do these scenes any justice. Marveling at the diversity in the world, and the difference in daily life from one place to the next. His sense of pride upon passing an American-flagged ship on the other side of the world.
The world was much larger back then. There was a sense of adventure that is gone forever. The world has been mapped and explored. The Internet means that everyone has the means to learn about the world, though many do not have the desire to do so. Twain’s journey across the Atlantic took 17 days. Today, you can travel the same distance in a single day, or videoconference and not need to travel at all. Though many of the attitudes written in the book are racist in nature, and attitudes have changed significantly since then, you still see these attitudes among travellers to the Philippines today: The paternalism, the Western superiority, the looking down upon Muslims (referred to as Muhammedans in the book, often with the adjective “filthy” attached). You also read about complaints of taxi drivers (Known as hackneys in those days) overcharging, confusion about exchange rates, complaints about beggars, complaints of over-charging, complaints about corrupt officials. Gee, isn’t it starting to sound like an expat bulletin board or forum? These complaints 150 years ago are still heard today. And through Twain’s wit, the complainers are showing their true selves. He was never one who was known to bite his tongue!
Though I travel so much, to so many places, and I often get very nonchalant about going anywhere, I still have that same curiosity about the world. You still see the same types of people travelling with you. The arrogant upper crust, in their suits and dresses, first class all the way. The backpacking youth, without a spare cent in their wallet. The workers headed overseas hoping for a better life. The middle management types, like me, hurrying to the next meeting or flight, seldom taking the time to appreciate what they are seeing. The retirees seeing the places they always dreamt about, but never had time to visit or the money to visit in their youth. Those who you wonder why they travel at all, or even bother to try and leave home. You see every one of these types of people in the Philippines.
I remember vividly the excitement I felt at my first overseas trip. Having that new, unstamped, passport in hand. Though those days are long gone, once in a while, I still have that same curiosity and same desire to see something new. To experience a different way of life.
That is the motivation of many who end up in the Philippines. The desire to live and experience something different. You can travel the world, and you can experience things first-hand. You can also expatriate and live the life. The choice is always yours.
I’ve recently started re-reading some of the classics I remember from my school days. I’ve found that I now see them in a new light, unencumbered by requirements for a test, or a book report. Reading just because I want to do so, rather than because it is required. Paying attention to the story as it was written, rather than some imaginary, made up minutiae. Yes, this book by Mark Twain may be merely a part of that rediscovery, yet the relevance to modern life is still the same as it always has been.