I paid an early morning visit to my estranged husband in his Batangas City subdivision.
“Hi Edward! What a beautiful morning”, I said. Fox News was blaring in his living room.
“How can you say that — the whole fucking world’s falling apart”, he grumbled.
The images flashing across his TV screen were completely at odds with what I had just seen with my own eyes. Outside his house was a wonderful morning — a morning of butterflies and bumblebees; a morning of lush, tropical gardens and bright splashes of bougainvillea and hibiscus flowers; a morning of magnificent orchid blooms.
“Edward, why don’t you shut off the TV and look outside your front door. It’s beautiful out there.”
“That’s what you think”, he insisted.
Three years later I still think that I live in a beautiful world. This morning I raged at my partner, Martin, who turned on the TV and invited war, American urban violence and African pestilence into our home while I was eating breakfast.
“Shut that off!” I shouted. Peace and beauty returned to our house.
Last week on my flight from Singapore to Manila, a man sitting in the row behind me coughed for the entire three and a half hour flight. Never have I heard a more savage hacking from human lungs. Sputum swirled all around us. I turned around to see what kind of an asshole gets on an airplane when he’s this sick. A white guy.
The flight crew handed out health quarantine cards. Ah yes, someone on board might be carrying the ebola virus. Maybe the sick guy behind me. I sincerely wished to see him busted at Manila airport and thrown into quarantine where he would be prevented from infecting more innocent travelers or local Filipinos.
We disembarked to find medical personnel lining the corridor, observing us. But looking for what, exactly? Nurses in uniform took our quarantine cards, carefully scanning our faces for signs of ebola. But what exactly does ebola look like?
I kept my eye on the sick white guy. I saw him stand up straighter and smooth down his hair which had been mussed up from the violence of his cough. He walked with full confidence toward the nurses, gave them a big smile and quickly handed over his card, then sped toward the Immigration counters, where he slowed down and resumed coughing with his mouth open and uncovered.
The sickest person on the flight had not even been noticed! Clearly, the nurses hadn’t recognized illness when they stared straight at it. But don’t we all see what we expect to see? A well-dressed white man isn’t what our brain tells us that disease looks like. Likewise, if Fox News and CNN tell us that the world is ugly and violent, then mightn’t we be so busy looking out for muggers and suicide bombers that we walk right past peace and beauty without noticing?
Last year I took an online photography course and was assigned to photograph the exact same location in completely different light. These four shots were taken in my neighborhood. You can see that my neighbor’s house is entirely transformed by the change in light. Bathed in early morning light, the house is golden and beautiful.
Under a flat, overcast sky, it resembles a prison.
A change in light also affects the color and mood of the sea in front of my house. A great photography lesson: light matters.
Life is no different. We all live in exactly the same world, yet some of us see and experience it as a scary, violent place, while others live in beauty and abundance. It really is all the same world — it just looks different, depending on which light we choose to view it through. We create the life we live.
I’m stubborn. I will continue to choose peace and beauty and love.
I sit in a bamboo hut, waiting for the Filipino healer to arrive. Tuesdays and Fridays he comes down from the mountains to heal whoever might be sitting in this flimsy, makeshift shelter with the dirt floor. My knees are ruined, casualties of a hill that I never should have hiked down — but did. For three months I have suffered, limping and grimacing in pain. Nothing has helped.
I’m now a little frightened — what if this is permanent? I need to solve this problem soon, as I’m about to walk the Inca Trail in Peru, four days of challenging trekking in the Andes. “Why don’t you try the healer in Balatero?”, a friend suggested, which is how I have come to be the lone foreigner among nine Filipinos waiting for the medicine man. I don’t particularly believe or disbelieve. I am curious but open. I WANT to get better.
He arrives late, despite the fancy watch on his wrist. There is nothing special about his appearance — nothing to suggest that he is the possessor of magical powers. He is bone thin, cigarettes sticking out of his shirt pocket. He looks at me, surprised to see a white woman among his patients. “Please wait, Ma’am”, he says. The other patients have explained to me how this all works. This is not “first come, first served”, as is the norm for hospital clinics in the Philippines. The healer will point to us in the order he wishes to see us. Mothers with sick babies go first, followed by those most in need.
There is no private examining room. A single plastic chair sits in front of the healer, in full view of the other waiting patients. Forget modesty — people hike up their shirts, roll up their pants, and display their wounds and illnesses for all to see.
This healer does not — cannot — accept money. Apparently, God has given him his gift of healing and if he chooses not to use it, he becomes ill himself. We will each give him a token gift: a bag of sugar or instant coffee or fruit from a garden or a pack of cigarettes.
I am the last one called. I accept this as a good omen, a sign that I am not particularly sick. Though they have been treated already, several other patients hang about, curious to see what is wrong with me. The healer asks why I have come, consults his spirit guides and writes symbols on a piece of paper. He rubs coconut oil on my legs, yanks my feet so hard that my groin hurts, tears the sheet of paper apart, and sticks four symbols onto each leg, while speaking unintelligible words. Mumbo jumbo.
“Okay”, he says, in surprisingly good English. “Keep the papers on your legs until they fall off. You will feel better by tomorrow.”
“Thank you so much,” I say, handing him a bag of Nescafe.
I stand up and walk carefully out of the hut, not quite able to believe that I no longer need to limp. During the ten-minute walk to my house, I enjoy the sensation of moving pain-free for the first time in months. With each step my legs become increasingly looser and more limber. By the time I reach my yard, I am completely cured — there is not a trace of stiffness or discomfort in either leg. I test myself by successfully doing deep-knee bends. I’m astounded.
In Peru, I walk the Inca Trail without a hitch, and though much of my body suffers and aches each day from lugging heavy camera equipment up and down the long, steep miles, my knees feel nothing, not even a twinge.
Do I understand how my knees were healed that day? I do not. Was it just a coincidence, a psychosomatic curing of myself? Possibly. Would I go to the medicine man to be treated for cancer? Doubtful.
As Hamlet said, “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”…
On a flight from Singapore to Manila yesterday, I felt a flash of fear. What if I’ve chosen the wrong path? I’ve always lived with the certainty that my life is exactly as it was meant to be. But what if I’ve been wrong? What if I’m wasting my life in the Philippines?
The classic expatriate toast has always been “to absent ones”, as though friends and family have left us rather than the other way around. My fear is that I will come to regret all the years I’ve been absent from my family in Canada — the twenty-four years that won’t come back — my chair sitting empty at Thanksgiving tables and birthday parties, the Christmas gifts I never mailed — so busy with my own life on the other side of the world; away while my father fought cancer and my brother’s sons were born and my grandparents died. My chair has sat empty at weddings, funerals, christenings and family reunions. And has it been worth it? What have I done that is worth the price of those empty chairs and absent years? I honestly don’t know.
I really can’t say if I’ll leave Asia. It’s an unlikely love affair, to be sure. I curse the struggles and the conflicts, yet whenever I arrive in Manila my spirits soar and my heart sings. I know this crazy place. Here, I can be ME. But there is a price for all those years of empty chairs. I think I must try to live my life well, to do something worthwhile while I’m here…
My camera and I are gearing up for a lot of travel between now and the end of the year: Bali, South Africa, Botswana, northern Canada and southern California are all on the agenda. Lately, I’ve been doing more writing than shooting, so for the past few days I’ve been walking around Singapore with camera and tripod in hand, practicing. My goal was to spend a lot of time doing street photography and cityscapes — my weaknesses — and although Singapore’s architecture, with its unusual shapes and textures, are a photographer’s dream, I inevitably found myself in a taxi heading for the Singapore Zoo and Jurong Bird Park to do what I love most — take pictures of animals.
Spending a day at the Singapore Zoo is like visiting the jungle, except that no tigers will leap out you here. Going to your local zoo is actually a pretty great way to take some wildlife photos. The animals are nearby and, unlike in the real jungle, you can sit and watch them for hours at a time. Just because a giraffe lives in a zoo, doesn’t mean he isn’t a giraffe…
I hope you enjoy the photos…
“You’re a racist”, an anonymous blogger recently wrote to me. “You should go back home”, the blogger said. Am I a racist, I wondered? And if I went back home, where would that be? I haven’t lived in Canada for twenty-four years.
When I created this blog two months ago, I had no expectation of it becoming anything more than a link for that rare person who might possibly read my story, “The Rainiest Season”, which was published in an anthology called “How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia”. I thought I might write a couple of stories here, maybe post a photo or two, and then move on to other projects.
Much to my surprise, I have come to enjoy writing these posts. Even more to my surprise, people have been reading them! And I thank you for that…. But here’s the thing I’m really amazed at — by writing these stories I’m learning a lot about my own character.
I like to think I’m the hero in my stories, yet fairly often the woman staring back at me in the mirror looks rather villainous. I profess to being an introvert who likes to live privately and quietly — yet here I am, baring my most private thoughts and feelings to you, most of whom I have never met. I meditate every day, yet I realize how often I shout and curse when things go wrong. I view myself as low-maintenance, yet I routinely expect to have what I want when I want it.
I honestly don’t think I’m a racist. I like and admire Filipinos. I don’t live in a gated community in a large city, guided and protected by a multinational corporation. For thirteen years I have lived on an island in the Philippines, surrounded by chickens, goats and rice paddies — and Filipino neighbors who are pretty damned poor. For the most part, my neighbors and I get along fine. Once in a while, there are collisions: collisions of interests, of expectations, of culture. They don’t last long, maybe five minutes of unpleasantness. Maybe a day or two. But we always get past it. The thing is though, it’s those collisions that make the best stories. Who wants to read about my day at the beach?
And so I write from the perspective of a woman who comes from a race and culture that, like it or not, considers itself to be top dog in the global scheme of things. But in my Asian world, the tables have been turned on me. I’m living on someone else’s turf and they have a gigantic set of rules that I don’t understand. I don’t even understand the language, for God’s sake. The deck is stacked against me, though that might not seem obvious at first glance — and that’s something that takes some getting used to. Once in a while I find myself in a predicament that scares me, which I usually respond to by getting mad (or sleeping). Luckily, I can almost always buy myself out of trouble — because when the chips are really down, money is about all I’ve got going for me in this part of the world. In the meantime, my life really is one crazy adventure and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Am I a flawed character? Absolutely. Do I mean well? Most of the time. Do I have some interesting stories to tell? Hell yeah…
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…
A shark once swam past my face while I was diving in Borneo. That was scary. Another time I was charged by an angry water buffalo in the Philippines — boy, those things can run fast when they want to. Then there was the time a Bengal tiger sniffed my knee in South Africa — for the first time in decades, I found myself begging God to please let me survive.
But absolutely, without question, the most menacing creature I have ever encountered was a woman who works for Canada Customs at Vancouver Airport. I have no doubt that if this woman were locked up overnight in a cage with a wild boar — the next morning we would find her gnawing on pork bones. I don’t know where the Canadian government discovered this woman or what kind of food she was fed during her training period — but she performs her job duties like an apex predator.
Through a series of unfortunate events I found myself in the airport Customs office, hoping to receive a refund of the $350 in Canadian taxes I had been charged for transporting a new American laptop through Canada on my way from Washington state to the Philippines. When I asked the Customs woman how I would receive the refund, she roared. I saw fangs. I was frightened. I knew then that the Canadian government had no intention of ever giving me back my tax money. The woman aggressively eyed my luggage and I realized that I should escape before she began tearing through my clothes, charging more taxes and fines and duties. Because she could. She can.
I thanked her for her help, grabbed my cart, and wheeled myself away as quickly as I could.
Then I thought about it. Wait a minute, doesn’t she work for ME? Isn’t she a public SERVANT? Apparently, that’s not how it works in Canada.
I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I arrived back in Manila…
I recently read a blog post announcing that I should accept the fact that no one is going to pay me to write, so I might as well give up my creative dreams. The writer’s disillusionment made me sad.
I’ve thought a lot about that blog post and its underlying negative message — that creating art for art’s sake is a waste of our time. Should money be the artist’s sole object? What about beauty? Or fun? Is art only valuable if it generates income?
I don’t care if no one will pay me to write. I’m going to write anyway because writing makes me happy. Not only does writing make me happy, it makes my soul sing. And a happy, singing soul counts for a lot, doesn’t it? Maybe it will even make my writing better — maybe one day I’ll write a masterpiece. Then, who knows, maybe someone might pay me for it. But I’m pretty sure that giving up right now, or scouring the internet, trying to imitate what others have sold isn’t going to get me very far…
I’m not quite sure why, as a culture, we have come to fear following our bliss. Why we continue to allow the elimination of art and music from our children’s schools. Maybe it’s easier to control people who no longer think creative thoughts. Whatever the reason, I don’t think we should surrender our creativity. I believe we should take our blank canvases, our blank pages, our blank songs — listen to those faint whispers of intuition — and create…
These photos are special to me because they represent the completion of a great circle in my life. Once upon a time I was a backpacking adventuress, with lofty dreams of placing both feet on all seven continents. Well, I’ve done that, but not in the way I had intended.
In Auckland, New Zealand in 1994, I found myself facing an unexpected fork in the road: I could either catch a bus to the South Island as I had planned — to be followed by job-hunting in South Africa — or I could accept an offer to replace an absentee crew member on a 31-foot sailboat that was on its way to Fiji — with unemployment to follow. I cashed in my Cape Town ticket and jumped aboard the yacht. Much to my surprise, I ended up marrying my Captain and we enjoyed seven adventurous years of sailing the high seas before settling on a tropical island in the Philippines.
As all of you know, not every romance has a happy ending. Mine ended rather badly. But throughout the good times and the bad, I never entirely forgot that I had missed out on New Zealand’s South Island. So this past April, twenty years later, I returned alone — back to the beginning. Full circle.
I hope you enjoy the photos…
To be honest, I’ve put off writing this post. I have found laundry to do, books to read, closets to reorganize — anything to delay revisiting the day I returned home after Typhoon Glenda. But you, dear readers, have very politely read the first two installments of this story, and you deserve to know how it ended.
When I walked into my house on the morning of July 17th, I was looking forward to a cup of coffee and a leisurely breakfast. That didn’t happen.
The first thing that struck me when I walked through the house was that it seemed unnaturally quiet. There was no bird chatter or excited, welcome-home barking from my dog, Lai Lai.
“Lai Lai”, I called. Silence.
I raced through the house but she wasn’t there. Her blanket wasn’t there. Her water bowl wasn’t there.
“Oh my God”, I shouted.
An unsmiling Martin said, “Things have changed”.
Anyone who has ever loved a dog knows how I felt when I realized that my dog had died while I was away. I still can’t think about that morning without crying. We spent eleven beautiful years together and it breaks my heart to think that she died without me by her side. I knew that she had been failing, but hadn’t realized that she was so near the end. Why couldn’t she have waited for me?
I’ve thought about it a lot and have come to the conclusion that Lai Lai hung on much longer than she should have — because of me. From the moment we first laid eyes on one another eleven years ago we had loved each other — so deeply that neither of us could bear to say goodbye. So she slipped away quietly while I was gone. Easier for both of us. One final gift.
While I was absorbing this terrible blow, Martin then broke the news that our birds had been stolen while he slept one night. My fury howled like the typhoon that had just ripped through the country. Outraged that some people choose to live their lives in the gutters, like vermin.
There was more bad news to come. Our landlord had visited the week before, announcing that he’ll be moving here from Australia in October. We have three months to find a new home. Though this was not unexpected, it wasn’t particularly welcome news. Who likes moving? (though I am incredibly excited about being free of this annoying landlord)
This was definitely not the homecoming I had been hoping for.
I’m in limbo right now. Life is changing and I’m not sure where we are heading. It feels like I’ve been slammed by a wave and am being tumbled and tossed through the surf. I know I will eventually surface, but can’t be sure exactly where. I can only trust that it will be in a good place. I’ll let you know…
Thank you for joining me on this crazy journey!