The Filipina maid walks into the living room, interrupting the conversation between India and her husband, Edward.
“Sir”, Leah says to Edward, while looking at India, “the woman is here for your blow job.”
India is not surprised by this announcement, though she thinks that one o’clock in the afternoon is an odd time to be having oral sex. The day is blistering hot. Who feels like copulating in this weather? She knows that in the years since she and Edward have lived separately, Edward has probably never once had sex without paying for it. This is, after all, the Philippines.
India is long past being angry at Edward’s lifestyle. In fact, she could hardly care less. She does, however, become very angry when Edward gets himself into trouble. On more than one occasion Edward has phoned India, who lives on another island, to come and help him deal with a “situation”. Whenever this has happened, India has grumbled on the phone, cursed Edward after hanging up, and dutifully gotten on the first ferry going to the Big Island of Luzon. India is good at peace-making.
India doesn’t consider the girls that Edward pays to have sex with to be prostitutes. Yes, they exchange sex for money, but the word prostitute is a rather harsh word, India thinks. This is a country with a birth rate that has completely run amok. Poverty is rampant. How can a pretty girl who grew up in a grass hut on the side of a mountain or in an urban slum earn money? They work in girlie bars which cater to foreign men and use the money to buy diapers and milk for their babies and maybe a fancy watch and a cellphone or two. It is a material world, after all.
India has always gotten along well with Edward’s “girls”. In fact, she likes them. In the rare instance that India has prepared a meal in his kitchen, such as a birthday lunches or Thanksgiving dinners, the girls have helped her peel potatoes and chop onions and wash dishes. They have even politely pretended to like India’s cooking. They seem to genuinely like India.
On those occasions when Edward has gone too far and gotten himself into trouble, India has always kicked Edward out of the room and asked the girl what happened. Edward pushed them, bruised their arms or legs, they have said. India believes them. She always gives them a generous amount of money and asks them to sign a receipt saying that they have been paid in full and will not bring any charges or claims against Edward. India doesn’t want trouble. She is still Edward’s legal wife. The girls don’t seem to mind. They take the money, shake India’s hand and say, “thank you ma’am”. The world is what it is…
So India is curious as to who is about to give Edward a blow job. It must be the strangely-dressed middle-aged woman she saw sitting at his kitchen table when she got herself a glass of water earlier. In this unbearable heat the woman is wearing a long muumuu-style dress, with a high collar and long sleeves. India had assumed that the woman was visiting Leah, here only for coffee and gossip. She is the most conservatively dressed Filipina that India has ever seen.
“The woman in the kitchen? But she looks like a housewife”, India says to Leah.
“Yes, ma’am, she is”, Leah answers. “But they are needing money and her husband says it’s ok for her to come here for Sir”.
India knows the price of many things, including blow jobs.
“How much are you paying?”, she asks Edward.
“That’s way too much,” she says when he tells her. Then she thinks about it. If a married woman with a house full of children has to cook lunch and then walk down the road to give a complete stranger a blow job on a hot day like this, India thinks she’s entitled to be paid more than the going rate.
“Edward, you’re such a jerk,” she says, preparing to leave.
And as she leaves his house, India is angry. Shame on Edward for exploiting these women. Shame on this woman for doing what she knows is wrong. And shame on that woman’s husband for pimping her out in order to pay the electric bill. And shame on me, India thinks, for being too tired to care…
A sensitive topic, to be sure, but one that exists…(and this is a true story!)
“Wow, you’ve lived on this island for fourteen years! You must really fit in — I mean, you’re not a gringo anymore” said a vacationing American to me recently. I had to think about that for a few seconds, before I answered.
“No, I don’t fit in at all”, I said. “We’ll always be gringos here. But I guess I’ve been a pretty successful gringo — I mean, I’m still here.”
That short conversation started me thinking about the way expats assimilate into our adopted cultures. As a Canadian, I’m always surprised when I hear of an immigrant who has lived in Toronto for twenty years and can’t speak a word of English or French. “How is that possible?”, I have wondered.
Well, I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve lived in the Philippines for fourteen years and cannot speak Tagalog. My Filipino neighbors and friends seem to accept my ignorance and graciously greet me in English whenever they see me. Where I live, Filipinos speak English fluently — which makes it easy to be lazy and not learn their language. I’m sorry.
Yes, there are a few local customs that I know. For example, I’ve learned that if I’m sitting on a jeepney waiting for it to fill with passengers so we can leave, and a friend comes along and offers me a ride in his car, and I accept his offer, I must pay the jeepney driver his fare anyway. And if a neighbor dies, I will go to her house where she will be laid out in the living room (it costs a lot of money to be laid out in a funeral parlor) and I will pay my condolences to her family and make a donation for the funeral expenses, although I should not stay too long. It is not expected that I should stay too long.
Fourteen years is a long time to live in a foreign country. If I had been born here fourteen years ago, even as an expat child, I would no doubt have a far greater understanding of Filipino culture than I do now. And if I were a fourteen-year-old Filipino living on this island, not only would I know how to use a computer and a cellphone, I would also know when it’s time to burn the fields, how to open a coconut, what kind of leaves to feed a goat, and which plant cures a headache.
But I do know a few things that I did not know when I lived in Montreal and Paris and Tokyo:
I know how it is to rise with the sun each day. I know that the ocean has many moods and can change its color whenever it wants. I know that the calmest seas will come when the monsoons are in transition and neither one is in control. I know that the three-foot-long brown snake that curled up behind my refrigerator was not poisonous but needed to be relocated into the jungle because who can live knowing that there is a three-foot-long snake roaming around their house? I know that my hibiscus plants like to be heavily watered, preferably at night, while orchids like to feed early in the morning. I know that my bougainvillea will explode with color if I add a small amount of urine to to their water, and of course I should not plant banana trees too close to the house because they will attract mosquitoes. I know that mosquitoes which carry dengue fever fly during the day, while those that carry malaria fly at night (there is no malaria where I live, though there is much dengue). I know that there are men who can heal who live up in the hills of this island. I know that an island can reject or accept a person. I know what a super typhoon feels like and what it’s like to wake up and find that most of the trees in your yard have been blown down, but you’re lucky because your neighbors lost their roof and have no money to replace it. I know that you can feel cold when the temperature is 75 degrees. I know how it is to live without 911. I know that people die because they can’t afford to pay for treatments that would save their lives. I know that children live without their mothers or fathers because in this part of the world, parents must work in places like Dubai and Hong Kong and on ships at sea so they can pay to send their children to school. I know that children can be happy without expensive toys and iPads. I know what is going on inside my neighbors’ houses and I know that they know what’s going on inside mine because we all live with our windows wide open. I know that all people are the same inside: we all just want to be happy.
I know that I love living on a tropical island in the Philippines…
I recently signed up for a 10-day landscape photography workshop in Iceland. This is something I should not have done — or so my brain warned me. But my heart disagreed.
“You’re too busy”, said my brain. “Have you forgotten that you’re going back to school? The timing could not be worse. I hate to say it, but you’re insane.”
“I don’t care”, said my heart. “I really want to go to Iceland.”
“You shouldn’t even consider this”, shouted my brain, which had several other excellent arguments as to why I should pass up this opportunity. But my heart kept saying the same thing: “This is my dream and it will make me happy to go. And who knows if I’ll ever have this chance again?”
So I signed up. I often have these brain versus heart dilemmas. And I almost always follow my heart. So far, my heart has led me to some pretty wonderful places, but of course it’s impossible to know how things might have gone had I allowed my brain to lead the way.
One thing I’m sure of is that fear is not the best guide for making decisions. When you think about it, there’s always something terrible that could go wrong when we try something new: we might be killed, we could lose all of our money, people might laugh at us, we could catch some dreaded disease — the list is endless. Yes, the world is a scary place. But it’s also exciting.
I recently read a quote by Henry David Thoreau that I found rather alarming: “We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal, and then leap in the dark to our success.”
Leap in the dark? I don’t care too much for that idea. But I see his point. There’s always an element of risk when we leave our comfort zone. And unless we leave our comfort zone, we’re not going to get to the top of whatever mountain we’re trying to climb. Unless you quit the job you hate, how can you start the one you’ll love? There must be a leap of faith, as frightening as it may be.
So yes, I AM going to Iceland. I will leap in the dark and see where I land. And I’ll let you know how it goes…
I received no Christmas gifts this year — unless I count my new milk frother, which looked very much like a gift in its festive holiday bag. But since I bought it myself on the way back from Hong Kong last week (the best $100 I’ve spent in a long time, by the way) — I don’t think it counts. And in a rare effort to be practical, I chose not to put up our pretty artificial tree, deciding that two indoor potted trees looked Christmassy enough decked out in their garlands of sparkling fairy lights. A few days ago, I poked my head inside a Manila department store, saw what looked like half the population of Manila swarming through its aisles, and decided that it was quite alright if Santa skipped our house this year. I don’t do crowds.
Okay, so you might suppose that my holidays have been sad and lonely given that there were no gifts under a nonexistent tree and my family is on the other side of the world — but the strange thing is that I have had a wonderful Christmas season. I asked Martin not to buy me anything. Does our house really need more made-in-China junk lying around? Christmas Day itself was quiet and peaceful (I did roast a chicken with stuffing) and best of all, there was no pressure to have fun and be happy. Why on earth is there so much pressure put on a single day? How can any one day live up to a three-month buildup? Particularly in the western world, there is almost always a sense of anti-climax (and/or relief?) after the Butterball turkey has been eaten and dinner dishes have been washed and put away. That’s it? It’s over already? What will I replace all the Christmas hype with?
This morning I sat down and figured out that this is the 23rd year I have spent Christmas and New Year’s outside of Canada. There was a time, early in my expat life, when I chose to go “home for the holidays”. Now, I choose to stay at my own home, which is on a tropical island in the Philippines. These days I prefer visiting my Canadian family in the more relaxed “off-season”. To be honest, I don’t find those big family Christmas gatherings as appealing as I once did: racing around from mall to mall in bumper to bumper traffic, hoping to stumble onto the perfect gift; coping with the ever-present risk of being beaten to a pulp if you happen to grab the last high-demand kids’ toy off the shelf; wasting time standing in slow-moving check-out lines while wearing hot, bulky clothing — and oh yes, spending lots of money. Then there’s the stress of cooking for twenty people, some of whom you might not even like anymore…
No thanks. Skype works just fine.
I hope I don’t sound cynical. I do admit that I prefer the Christmas season over the Big Day itself. I loved seeing Hong Kong and Manila all dressed up for Christmas. I even loved hearing Christmas music piped into the streets. I enjoyed giving my Filipino neighbors money as gifts, recognizing how lucky I am to be in a position to give rather than needing to receive.
I don’t need presents to make me happy. I’m already happy and that’s the greatest gift there is. I realize that many expats do go home and have a thoroughly wonderful holiday with their families and friends. And not everyone gets caught up in the shopping vortex. At the end of the day, it is the spirit of the holiday which matters most.
I hope you’ve enjoyed your own holidays. Even if you haven’t, the good news is that in a few days, they will all be over — until next year…
I’m not sure how I have come to be so deeply connected to Asia. Yesterday, as I sat in the back of a taxi on my way to Manila airport, I saw the taxi’s reflection on the side of a mirrored building. In the background were a Bank of the Philippine Islands and a couple of scrawny palm trees. Wow, that’s ME in that car, I thought. How on earth did I end up in MANILA, of all places? How bizarre! When I was a kid growing up in Canada, never did I dream of traveling to Manila, let alone living on an island in the Philippines. Nor did I fantasize about working in Tokyo, where I spent four years in the early 1990’s.
And now the connection deepens further: I will be doing a two-year Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at a Hong Kong university.
I spent this afternoon with the head of the program and am thoroughly inspired by the prospect of becoming a better writer. It’s the perfect situation for me. I’ll only need to travel to Hong Kong three times a year for short-term residencies — the rest of the time I’ll be working from home or during my travels. Sure, it’ll be intense at times, but by the end of the two years, I’m hoping that I will finally have created that full length manuscript that has been patiently waiting to come to life for such a long time.
And I will have come to be friends with Hong Kong. And who knows where else this path will lead. I’m ready for a new adventure…
I thought you might like to know how we fared during Typhoon Hagupit. First, let me just say that typhoons suck. A typhoon will materialize out of nowhere, march across your island and smash everything in its path — then it will disappear like a melted ice cube, leaving you cleaning up the shredded mess that used to be your lovely tropical garden. Or worse. Much worse. In the Philippines, it’s not uncommon for a single typhoon to kill more than a thousand people. Last year’s Haiyan (Yolanda) left more than 7,000 dead. Not to mention the homes, local businesses, food crops, roads and infrastructure that were destroyed.
I’m happy to say that Super Typhoon Hagupit, locally known as Ruby, was gentle with the island I live on, though I have heard rumors of a couple of deaths caused by a landslide. Despite dire predictions as it approached the country, by the time it reached us in the west, it had weakened substantially and was no longer a typhoon, but a tropical storm. Still, there were several hours of howling winds and some powerful gusts that sounded pretty scary while we laid in bed, sleepless, at 1 o’clock in the morning. By then, there was no power and no internet and no way to know what was going on in the outside world. In the morning we woke up to find that there had been flooding, a few trees were down, and a great deal of mud was strewn about the town.
At home, our open-air indoor garden caused no problems at all. Yes, there was rain — a LOT of rain — which made the whole house damp, but only one day after the rain stopped, the house is already dry and back to normal. I don’t think I’d be keen to ride out a Category 5 super typhoon with that open roof in the center of the house, though. It might get a little hairy…
I realize that not everyone was as lucky as us and other parts of the country suffered major damage. One thing I’ve learned during my almost fourteen years here is that you have to take every typhoon seriously. Everyone I know — Filipino and expat alike — took Hagupit very seriously. The entire country was prepared for the worst and more than a million people were evacuated. The death toll was not nearly as high as it might have been. Today, in my neighborhood, we are all counting our blessings. Even the power came back on after only 29 hours.
We’re all keeping our fingers crossed that we have seen the last typhoon for a while…
UPDATE Sunday, December 7th 3:45 p.m. We are still waiting… Typhoon Ruby made landfall on the eastern side of the Philippines late last night and is very, very slowly crossing the country, dumping far too much rain on areas prone to flooding and landslides. I have no idea how much damage the storm has caused or if there has been loss of life. On the bright side, the storm’s wind strength has decreased because of running into land — and it is now just a normal typhoon rather than a super typhoon. There are conflicting forecasts for Ruby’s path, but one shows it hitting our town head on around midday tomorrow. I spent a few hours today preparing for the worst: putting all my potted plants inside the house, moving outdoor furniture and making sure that there is nothing in the yard that can be swept up by a fierce wind and hurled through our windows or the neighbors’ windows. It is still calm and peaceful, though the sky is darkening in the east. Kids are playing basketball next door. Our power is still on for now, though the power company always shuts it down before a storm arrives, to prevent downed live wires from bouncing around streets. The last time we were hit directly by the eye of a typhoon (2006), we had no electricity for three weeks. The thought of going through that again makes me very unhappy! If I have an internet connection tomorrow, I’ll give you another update. If I don’t have internet, I’ll see you when I can… May we all stay safe!
It seemed like a great idea, moving into a house with an open-air garden in the center of its living space. Having no roof over my tropical garden will be lots of fun, I told everyone. But now that Typhoon Ruby is currently projected to run pretty much directly over our house, the indoor garden idea isn’t quite as appealing.
Millions of us here in the Philippines are carefully watching every move that Ruby makes. The good news is that this massive storm has recently been downgraded from its super typhoon status, though its current winds are still strong enough and its rainfall heavy enough to cause some serious damage.
Adding to the stress is that I’m supposed to fly to Hong Kong on Monday morning, which is exactly the time Ruby has been predicted to cross my island. Boats from here to the main island of Luzon are still running today but it’s likely that the Coast Guard will cancel ferry traffic tomorrow, stranding residents and tourists until the storm ends next Tuesday or Wednesday. I’m crossing my fingers that Ruby will drastically change course or continue to weaken as it crosses the country.
In the meantime, I’ll try to change my Hong Kong flight and hotel reservations and will hope that my beautiful indoor garden is still beautiful a few days from now. I’ll let you know how it goes…
UPDATE Saturday, December 6th:
Typhoon Ruby has intensified and is once again a super typhoon. It is a slow moving storm and is expected to take days to cross the Philippines, dumping several inches of rain on the ground which will cause landslides and flash flooding.
I’ve cancelled my trip to Hong Kong and will go next week instead. The typhoon is remaining steadily on its projected track, which is still right over my island.
This morning is peaceful and quiet, with not a breath of wind. The calm before the storm…
The girl in this 70’s photo used to be me, but I can barely recognize her. Who was she and what was she thinking? Why was she posing like that? I haven’t the foggiest idea. I know this girl was generally angry, but I can’t remember exactly why. Maybe all girls go through an angry stage? Who took the photo? Probably my father, pleased to document the construction of our lakeside cottage in Quebec. My brother — my only sibling — looks happy, though there was much sadness soon to come. This would have been shortly before our parents separated and eventually divorced. Our grandfather appears to be wondering what might happen to these two grandchildren. Or maybe he was thinking about lunch. Who can tell what anyone else is thinking…
I’ve been discovering all sorts of things about myself since moving into our new house. After years of waiting in sealed boxes until they found their “permanent home”, photo albums, files, books and magazines are now slowly being unpacked, along with souvenirs from long-past holidays and clothing that belongs to a previous century.
From my collection of stuff it’s clear that I’m interested in flowers and music and art and photography and cooking and animals and travel and 19th century English literature. I’m a saver but not a hoarder. I’m more utilitarian than vain — but there is still some vanity. Maybe some day I’ll wear those expensive dresses with the price tags still attached. I am not a particularly neat person, but I’m quite well organized. I buy good quality things. I am interested in Buddhism and Hinduism. And meteorology. I love to sail. And I paint the walls of my house bright colors.
Painting my walls bright colors is the reason why I have not been blogging recently. I still have no idea where my running shoes are, but given a choice between painting or unpacking, I will paint. Soon I’ll give you a tour of my new house, when it’s all finished. Right now, it’s time to scrub the red paint off my hands and get some sleep…
It feels like I’ve been hurtling through time and space lately. Always on airplanes, always saying hello to someone or someplace — and of course, always saying goodbye. The celebration of a greeting is never without the sound of a clock ticking, a reminder that there will be sadness when we part.
Life is full of circles and I need to remind myself that endings are not the end. How can we begin something new without leaving behind what we have finished? How would eagles learn to fly if they refused to leave the nest? Change can sometimes be comforting in its predictability. Doesn’t spring always arrive after winter?
As sad as it feels to say goodbye to family and friends right now, it’s time for me to go home to the Philippines. I often meet Filipinos who live in Canada.They have left their country and adopted mine. They think it’s strange that I have done the reverse.
I don’t know what’s strange anymore. I’m just going with the flow and am curious to see where that might take me. It has recently taken me on some wonderful adventures and it looks like there will be more to come. In the meantime, it will be good to say hello to Martin and my pets and stay home for a while…
I woke up to find a very large polar bear asleep in a snow drift outside my window. This was my first morning in Churchill, Canada, and all through the previous night a blizzard had raged, shaking our walls and rattling our nerves. By morning, however, all was calm. I was so surprised to see this massive polar bear curled up in the snow that I completely ignored my camera. Instead of taking photos, I sat up and watched the sleeping bear — and felt happy. I was happy to be in this land of ice and snow, happy to realize that I hadn’t travelled halfway around the world for nothing — and especially happy that a polar bear trusted humans enough to nap right alongside us.
That was the start of a week filled with magic. I happily shot thousands of pictures trying to capture that magic. I hope you enjoy these images.