I thought I was in The Heart of Darkness. The night sky was the color of ink with no moon and thousands of stars, the only light except for Tito Nonoy’s flashlight scanning the water for other boats. One 30” wide pump boat, 7 people, 1 50 kg sack of rice, my backpack, my face, 3 feet above the water. This is how I came to Samar.
I am not a sailor and so my experience with boats wasn’t much. The pump boat engine was loud, the only sound really, for a two hour trip from Tacloban. It was late November and I was going to meet my girlfriend’s family. We made it, of course, and since then, my girlfriend has become my wife, and over the past 7 years I have made this trip a dozen times and been on many pump boats throughout the Philippines and SE Asia.
These are “The Provinces,” my wife’s version at least, this area of Eastern Visayas, one of the poorest areas in the Philippines. It is deep in the Philippines, far removed from our city life in Cebu.
The first thing you notice is the kids. They are everywhere, seemingly happy, laughing, full of mischief, malnourished, curious, unsupervised. There’s not a lot going on there so anything and everything gets attention, certainly a White guy from California.
The “Province Life” in Samar is not very complicated, except that when you are poor, simple things like food, shelter and the weather are often huge challenges. Families often have 8, 9 or 10 children. In many ways, life there embodies both a basic survival instinct and a disconnection with modern society. People in my wife’s hometown live the “simple” life. They are farmers, subsistence farmers, or fisherman, and though they have some of the tools of the outside world, they have little in common with it. There really is no need for education about the outside world, and though most kids go to the local school for a while, it is mostly because it is a place where young people go and hang out. They do learn some things, some basic skills, but what they learn has no particular relevance to life in their island province. They speak Waray and though there is some understanding of English, most do not speak it, even Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines.
Though many leave Samar at 16, 17 or 18, to go to Manila or Angeles to find whatever work they can, most return within 3 years. Many come back after two months. This is the thing I think about the most; that almost everyone comes back. Not with their head hung or with a sense of failure about the outside world; they simply come back and people there are happy about it. It’s almost with an attitude of “See, that outside world really doesn’t have that much to offer, eh?”
Of course, there are variations in these stories, even in a barangay of 1200. There are people who have a relative who married a foreigner. There are some families who are richer than others for various reasons, mostly an overseas relative. The houses are a mixture of basic nipa huts and some “hollow block” houses. There are even some houses that are more “finished.”
Though there is no internet or cell phone signals unless you go to the end of the dock, lots of people now have Cignal tv, and karaoke machines and a DVD player and they use them, a lot, sometimes 35 kids packed into a room: Filipino movies. Filipino soap operas. It seems strange to me, that all of the stories, all of the characters in these movies are doing things in a world in which they are not qualified to participate. They are stories about people who work, who have careers and lives. They have adventures and romances and money. This tv world, that my wife’s family is so interested in, may as well be on Mars. Oh, it looks familiar to them; it is Manila or another province in The Philippines, but they can’t participate in this world.
Some families, perhaps 10 in my wife’s barangay, have motorcycles and though there is no real road, a business has started up giving rides for 5 pesos each between the three barangays that line the coast. Lots of families have boats. We have bought the family two, a big one for transport and a small one for fishing. My wife’s family is better off than many.
Different family members did ask for money at first, and a few still do, but we have set some limits as to what we will do and can do. These are rather wavy limits I’m afraid. They depend somewhat on my wife’s guilt. I give her an allowance, which was supposed to be so she didn’t have to ask me for every little thing…you know, her “pocket money.” She spends most of it to her family; it is mostly for food and school supplies and medicine and to fix the things they have. Life there is rather hand to mouth. When something breaks down, or there’s a typhoon or a sickness, there is simply no plan for such things.
Learning to say no has been a learning curve for my wife who by her nature wants to help and has been taught to help her family… It is the Filipino way. She has come to distinguish between when true help is needed and when she feels she is just being used. It’s a fine line and she has complicated thinking about it. It is perhaps the only thing we fight about. Like I said…we have rather wavy limits about such things.
It would be easy to see my wife’s people as being lazy, by Western and even Philippine city standards, but there is more to the allure, to the comfort of their Provincial lives. Part of it is a way of looking at life. There is a Filipino attitude of bahala na or “come what may” that enables a person to meet difficulties and shortcomings with resignation by leaving it up to the Almighty to sort things out.
Of course part of it is laziness too. For many years my wife, being who she is, has tried to plan and sculpt a life for her sisters and brothers in the city. It never works. We have brought different family members to Cebu, to work for us; we have brought different family members here to go to school. In each case, it lasts 1 or 2 or 3 months and they return to the Province, to the simplicity that is familiar to them.
Her father doesn’t like it in Cebu. He finds it boring. He says, “You can’t walk anywhere. You have to take jeepneys. Everything costs so much.” He misses his simple life of “working when you want, struggling, talking with his friends, playing “Tongit,” a card game, and drinking “tuba,” or coconut wine. It is the life he knows and understands.
Like I said, everyone keeps coming back after their forays to Manila or Angeles. The girls often come back with babies which are simply absorbed by the family. Even if there is not enough to feed and clothe everyone. Certainly not enough attention to teaching kids how to behave and grow up. Children there are sort of left to their own devices. My wife shrugs her shoulders and says in Waray, “Pag damo an anak mayaman ka.” “The more children you have, the richer you are.” It is simply accepted.
My wife’s current goal, one of them, because she is going to university here in Cebu, and really likes the city, the civilized life, to travel and to have things, is to build a house in Samar, among her family, so she/we have a place to stay when we visit there. She says it’s “for the future”; I am older than she is and she says, “When I get old, I want to have a place where my people are.”
Now my wife and I have lived in Japan and in Europe and she loves that she has been to Spain and Paris, Vienna and even Morocco. She likes the city; she wants to get a degree and have a good job, but she wants to hold onto the provinces too. She is torn, with one foot in each world. I have had to learn to live with that, and I struggle with it sometimes. Often, the simple is quite complex and I have a lot more thinking and understanding to do about life in the Provinces and what it is.
As I write this, I find myself thinking again about life in Mexico and the comparisons I have made before about the similarities between the two cultures. I remember something a colleague in the US shared with me, who quit his teaching job and moved “South of the Border” 30 years ago to live in a simple house and start a restaurant. It makes me think about The Provinces and life in Samar. It’s not a perfect match, but its close. After all, there are different ways of looking at life and what it holds and offers you. What your role in it can and might be.
So, I want to share it with you. What my teacher friend shared with me.
The Mexican Fisherman
An American tourist was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked.
Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The tourist complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.
The Mexican replied, “Only a little while.”
The tourist then asked, “Why didn’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?”
The Mexican said, “With this, I have more than enough to support my family’s needs.”
The tourist then asked, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”
The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos, I have a full and busy life.”
The tourist scoffed, “I can help you. You should spend more time fishing; and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat: With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats. Eventually, you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor; eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You could leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then Los Angeles and eventually New York where you could run your ever-expanding enterprise.”
The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?”
The tourist replied, “15 to 20 years.”
“But what then?” asked the Mexican.
The tourist laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions.”
The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”