Under the Bus
TO: INDIA HARRIS, RESPONDENT. YOU ARE HEREBY REQUIRED TO APPEAR BEFORE ME ON THE 13TH DAY OF AUGUST, 2013 AT 3:00 IN THE AFTERNOON FOR THE HEARING OF THIS COMPLAINT. SIGNED BY THE OFFICE OF THE BARANGAY CAPTAIN – REPUBLIC OF THE PHILIPPINES, PROVINCE OF ——–, MUNICIPALITY OF ———.
The complainant is my former housemaid.
“Oh my God”, I shout after reading the summons that was delivered to our house while I was enjoying lunch with a girlfriend. “Can you believe this? I’m screwed. I’m totally, absolutely screwed.”
“What do you expect, this is the Philippines”, Martin replies.
“That’s right, this IS the Philippines. That’s why this is so WRONG.”
I have given our Barangay Captain (local village mayor) generous amounts of money in donations — everything she’s ever asked me for: cash for sacks of rice for the elderly; money for cubic meters of gravel and bags of cement to patch up holes in the local streets; contributions for village fiestas that I never attend; thousands of pesos for her favorite charity — “The Senior Citizens’ Fund”. I’ve never been given an official receipt nor have I asked for proof that any of this money has gone where she’s promised it would go. I don’t care about that. What I’ve really been buying is assurance that my life will run smoothly in her village. Assurance that my house won’t be robbed. Assurance that my dogs can run through this neighborhood without being poisoned or turned into adobo. In other words, she’s supposed to take care of me, because that’s how it works in the Philippines. By sending me this summons, she’s stabbing me in the back.
Yesterday I fired my maid for stealing. The list of what she took is long and too expensive to ignore or forgive: one DSLR camera body, one expensive point and shoot camera, one carbon fiber Gitzo tripod, three prime lenses, my Amazon Kindle charger, and an Apple computer charger. All purchased in the United States and impossible to buy in Manila. I have a safari coming up in Kenya next month so the gear must be replaced quickly. I can go to Singapore but I know it will cost thousands of dollars to replace everything. My camera gear is sacred to me and there is absolutely no doubt that it was Nanette. Sadly, there’s nothing anyone can do to protect you from the people you invite into your home.
Like any sensible foreigner, I paid her one month’s salary as severance and asked her to sign a receipt stating that she had been paid in full and would not bring any claims of any kind against me. Yesterday Nanette signed and took the cash — but today she has instigated these proceedings. I am livid.
The Barangay Captain wields enormous power in Filipino communities. In any personal or legal conflict, a meeting with the Barangay Captain is the first stage of the judicial process. The Captain attempts mediation, but can charge fines and even send someone to the local jail. Their decisions are binding. Even I, a foreigner, must abide by my Barangay Captain’s rulings.
I feel sick with anger and fear because there are three things that I believe to be unalterably true:
1. In the history of the universe, no foreigner has ever been victorious in a legal dispute with a Filipino;
2. In the history of the universe, no foreigner has ever left the Barangay Captain’s office with the same amount of money he/she arrived with; and
3. In all of my under-the-table dealings (and there have been many) with Filipinos, I have never experienced someone not fulfilling their end of the bargain. Until today. And my brain is having trouble processing this new fact. My universe has been turned upside down.
When I arrive for the hearing, I’m shaking with anger. How much will this cost me? It could be hundreds of dollars, maybe even thousands. I’m about to be thrown under a bus, and sitting here waiting to be hit goes against my every survival instinct. I want to run.
The Capitana asks me how I am and I reply that I’ve been better.
“I’m not sure why I’m here”, I say.
“Because your housemaid has brought this matter to my office. The two of you have been together for six years…
“Only five and a half”, I interrupt. Nanette shoots me a look. I’m not sure how this fine is going to be calculated. If it’s based on the number of months she’s worked for me, I don’t want to be charged for six months that she didn’t work. (When I moved here from another village last October, I brought Nanette with me. This didn’t sit well with my new neighbors, who were of the opinion that a local woman should be hired to clean my house. After much discussion, it was decided that because Nanette had been with me for so long, it wouldn’t be fair to make her lose her job.)
Capitana looks at me strangely, but continues. “Okay, well five and a half years is a very long time. You have a friendship. It’s a sad thing that you are ending this way. So, Miss India, what is it that you would like from this meeting?”
“Me? I don’t want anything. I just want to go home. I’m not the one who asked for this meeting. Nanette, what is it that you want from me?” I would like to spit on Nanette.
“I want to clear my name”, she says.
“Clear your name? Okay, how’s this? Nanette is innocent. Nanette is a wonderful person. There, are you happy? Can I go home now?”
I’m watching Capitana’s face, trying to get a reading of how badly this is going to end for me. I can see her wheels spinning. I hear the bus engine, it’s on its way.
“I don’t have a job now,” whines Nanette.
“Well I don’t have my camera gear! I’m the victim here.”
I know how proud the Captain is of her community. I ask her, “So, is it normal for people to have valuable items stolen from their homes in your village? Does this happen a lot? Is there a lot of crime here? You must know, you’re the Barangay Captain.”
“No”, she says. “This never happens here. Not in my barangay. Well, maybe once or twice it’s happened, but it’s always been done by an…” She glances at Nanette. “By an outsider. Yes, these thefts are always committed by outsiders.”
And this is when I hear the screeching of the bus’s brakes. Nanette hears it too. The color drains from her face and she actually begins shrinking in her chair, like an inflatable doll that has just been poked by a fork. The bus has now backed up and is changing direction. I don’t know how this scene is going to play out, but the momentum has definitely changed. I feel excited.
I watch the Barangay Captain’s face grow brighter and more animated as she discovers the way out of her conundrum.
“Miss India,” she says sternly. “You must never contact Nanette again. You can never ask her to come and work for you anymore.”
“That’s fine with me,” I say.
“And Nanette. You must never contact Miss India and ask her for your job back.”
“I wouldn’t want to go back there.”
“And Nanette, you are banned from ever returning to this village again. Ever. Do you understand me?”
Whoa! I had heard of these lifetime bans, but I can’t believe Nanette is getting one!
The bus has hit Nanette hard, and she’s dazed. She’s avoiding my stare.
“Really? But what if I’m invited to a birthday party or something?”
“Well, you must get special permission and it will only be for that specific event. You are being banned from here forever.”
Nanette leaves the room, mangled and destroyed. What the hell was she thinking, asking for this hearing? I can’t believe I have survived so well.
Capitana smiles at me. She looks happy and friendly. “Miss India, would you care to make a donation to the Senior Citizens’ Fund?”
“Yes, I would like that,” I answer, digging a 1000 peso note (about $22) out of my wallet. “I wish I could give more, but I’ve just been robbed.”
Capitana stuffs the bill into the right front pocket of her jeans and offers no receipt. As I walk home, I feel content in my knowledge that the planets and stars of my world are aligned in the order that I have always believed them to be…