The community outside the colorful school gates is a familiar taste of exotic fruits. Like a mystery candy flavor it is vaguely similar to something… In the following post Mr. Junior will be referred by his Ilocano title, Ma Nong Junior. Mn. Junior has become an excellent guide for me. He is relaxed and patient with me. He respects me not as a novelty but as a genuine visitor. He and I spend time talking together, watching TV, and playing chess. He is remarkably skilled at Chess.
Mn. Junior has told me a number of his action packed life experiences as a bodyguard for a politician during an era of social unrest. He tells me that by age fourteen, the age he became a guard…think about that, he was carrying a sidearm and for several decades onward he would continue to do so. He has an air of deep relaxation, a balance that truly experienced people have learned to hold. He has seen all sorts of stress in his lifetime, so he doesn’t seem to dwell on the small aspects of daily business. His calm disposition compliments my curiosity.
After spending three days inside the school campus, I decided that I would nice to see a bit more of the surrounding community. Just before sunset on a cloudy evening, Mn. Junior and I took a walk toward his home. Stepping out of the campus the first signals that I am in the Philippines is the tricycles, motorcycles w/ sidecars, that are all over the roads. These are not taxis, as I wrongly assumed, but rather they are the family vehicle with Mom and Dad on the bike with Grandma and the children in the side car. Our students arrive to school in their parent’s tricycle. The tricycles outnumber the cars on the Guimba’s roads. The second Philippine road sign is the elongated jeep-bus or Jeepney. They were originally American Army Jeeps converted into buses. These days the Jeepneys are made specifically as Jeepneys. They are decorated with bells, bumper stickers, and whatever flares the driver pleases.
Walking through the rustic town I could see a layer of smoke stain on the buildings. On the main road the air is congested with vehicle and foot traffic. The buildings seem to have adopted a grayish hue to match the soot and tractor smoke that is mixing in the air. Outside of the main road the air is clean and fragrant with the humid scent of dense green foliage. Branching off from the main road, there are shanty homes with aluminum roofs and bamboo slacks for walls. Beside these homes there are trash fires. The overgrown grass is dandrufffed with garbage. In this area there are young men playing basketball on hard earthen courts surrounded by grass. The hoops are nailed unto banana trees. The Filipino obsession with basketball is fervent that the town’s Mormon church built a full sized asphalt basketball court in the very front of the building to attract devotees.
Mn. Junior and I turn off the main road and enter his barangay. Barangay means community in Tagalog. Guimba is divided in 72 communities. Each Barangay has a few thousands residents and one captain of the barangay. The barangay as a community froms a neighborhood watch and other municipal services. The Mayor of Guimba is the leader of the 72 barangay captains. I’m under the impression, from reading my schools Character Education materials and from observations, that Filipinos are a community minded people. They seem active in their communities through their PTA, church, or barangay. There seem to be a number of social, political, and community organizations that operate within Guimba. I’ve seen Freemasonary and Nights of Columbus meeting halls. I noticed in the schools Character Education materials there is some mention of how to conduct yourself and your opinion politely at a group function. Group decorum is not commonly empathized to American children. This gives me the impression that group decorum larger part of Philippine society.
Mn. Junior walked me through his barangay while pointing out who lived where. Overseas Filipinos owned the larger houses. He trumpeted that most of the people in the barangay were his cousins. To back up his claim the younger men greeted him as “daddy”. There were a number of loitering young men standing in the street drinking beers. Its not actually a street, but a dirt path pock-marked with soupy pothole puddles wide enough for a car. There are no streetlights and little traffic. Much like in India the men here buy their liquor from refreshment stands that have metal bars over the windows. The metal bars make it look ugly, pathetic, and submissive to drink in the street. Beyond these few desperately bored young men there were children walking about and adults doing errands. It seemed like a nice community to live in if you were accustomed and accepted.
Mn. Junior warned me that one of the young men shouting to us was a man in the daylight and a woman in the moonlight. The town has its own werewolf.
Mn. Junior guided me off the road down a small path toward his home. For the past thirty years or so, Mn. Junior, his wife, his daughters and now his six grandchildren lived in a small room not larger than my living room. Their roof is sheet metal and their walls are made of split bamboo stocks and plywood. Mn. Junior’s story is optimistic. Next to his house he is building a new cinderblock home. His new home is 80% completed and it will be a very nice home for he and his family. They hope for construction to be finished in the next several months of Filipino time.
Once I arrived at his home his wife emerged from the door away. She had deep smoky eyes and a kind smile. Mn. Junior’s wife has been doing my laundry every single day I’ve been here. I gave her the blessing and thanked her. Mn. Junior, his wife, his daughters, and grandchildren sat under a naked light blub in the unfinished cinderblock structure. As each child entered the unfurnished room, their grandmother beckoned them to give me the blessing. It made me feel old to have children as old as eighteen blessing me. Then the conversation turned to the Mn. Junior’s children.
There is one hard fact of life that Philippines shares with Nepal. The low wages and high unemployment spur a diaspora to the Arabian Gulf. In Kathmandu everyday one thousand young Nepali people move to the Gulf per day and a lower number of Nepalese workers return. The Philippines has a similarly harsh reality. Mn. Junior’s daughter works at a day care center in Lebanon. His daughter’s husband is a janitor in Bahrain. His cousins all joined the US military and his family, much like many other Filipino families is scattered across the world to send money back to their loved ones. The luckiest migrants make it to the US, but the vast majority are channeled into the Gulf states to work the brutal construction hours in the Dubai heat or as sex workers for Arabian and International clients. My friends in Nepal, who earned their middle class status by doing hard time in the Gulf, told me that the Filipinos and Nepalese have a similarly unlucky lot in life. To use a statistical illustration, Saudi Arabia has the highest population of Filipino’s outside of the Philippines.
Mn. Junior’s grandchildren are beautiful and intelligent. The two eldest are about to be awarded medals from the mayor for being the highest ranked students in the class. This family has an optimistic future. They will soon have a wonderful home and their grandchildren will make them very proud. I left there home feeling good that there was hope for them. Their potential success is an example of the opportunities that education invites.
Under the cloudy moonlight, Mn. Junior and I walked home through the unlit gravel roads through the dark fields. The blurry shadows of cows chewing indistinguishably in the near darkness. They wondered like the dark moments you see when your eyes are closed. They lingering in your vision, vanishing the moment you catch their shape.
I wondered if we were safe and if I had worn the right shoes. Mn. Junior mentioned what kind of fence he would like to install in his new home. In his toothless lisp he meandered over the benefits of barbed wire at keeping out the heroine addicts. We were on and off the subject of heroine because a crackling addict was passing by. Mn. Junior told me, “ That man is laughing because he is on Shabu, Morphine”. Our stumbling addict was like Johnny Appleseed ambling across the fields, whenever he went a barbed wire fence would grow.
I wondered about safety in general. The Philippines much like the USA has wide gun ownership and violent crimes. Although the majority of crime is petty crime there are rebel groups that profit from kidnappings. Just last week, in the break away region of Mindanao a Chinese national was kidnapped. Mindanao is a nearly lawless region that is defacto governed by a rebel group the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). They will soon be granted an autonomous region and move from the frontline to the ballot box. The very recent peace deal with the Islamic faction of the Philippines marks the end of Asia’s longest war. Even with the prospect of peace violence remains as contagious as yawning with trauma upon trauma building into extremism. Out of the decades of violence in Mindanao a terrorist group affiliated with Al Qaeda has emerged. Although weakened by government attacks, the extremist factions of Mindanao are still a danger to non-Muslims. There are rumors that IS will eventually court their favor when they turn their eyes toward Indonesia: The world most populous Muslim country. For the time being those conflicts are far away. Luzon has its own rebel non-muslim groups, but their heydays have since passed. The only danger I am in is stepping on a sleeping dog in the street.
My mind drifted from these thoughts to the memory of a man playing mahjongg while resting his white faux-ivory pistol on the table. The bullets visibly outside the gun. I guess they take mahjong rather seriously. Speaking of serious games Mn. Junior has promised to take me to a cockfight in the coming weeks. Cockfighting is legal and normalized. My host started his working life as an ambitious teenager selling cigarettes before the matches, when spirits and stakes were still high. Mn. Junior mentioned that this month is the “hard month”. This is the last month before the rice is harvested and the people are down to scraping the bottom of their savings. Coming late September the rice will be harvested and the local economy will surge. The cockfights will be in full swing, the swimming pools fill up, and holiday shopping will begin. The countdown to Christmas has already begun and the shopping lists are assembling. Once the rice is harvested the town will be abuzz with commerce and a new financial year.
Passing out of the dark fields, I imagined one of the black oxen murdering me with his brutish horns. We slinked along the cinderblock box homes and between the silent pedestrians. Mn. Junior pointed to a line of distant lights coming from cubicle homes across a distant field. “Those are the houses of the minor wives, the man’s second wife. He keeps her there so no one can see”. Filipino men much like many Asian men are able to pursue mistresses or minor wives with a spoonful of denial and impunity. The dedicated motel-like homes for the minor wives gave credence to the silent truth. In the context of Filipino society this isn’t as immoral as one may assume.
Divorce is illegal here and annulments are extremely expensive. One of the many inhibitive costs of getting an annulment is a 1,000 USD$ mental evaluation. These requirements see to it that ending a marriage is only a wealthy privilege. Given these circumstances the prevalence of minor wives seems to have evolved in the place of a divorce. However, it seems that only men are able to enjoy the opportunity to start a second life. The Philippines has draconian limitations on birth control, which punishes women, exacerbates poverty, and leaves the country littered with unwanted children who are susceptible to prostitution, slavery, guerilla groups, and gangs.
In the face of this impasse the Filipinos smile that “ If you are not rich with the money, you are wealthy with the children.”
Mn. Junior and I walked past the fluorescent glow of a Seven Eleven. There is a thick layer of American peanut butter spread on the Philippine sandwich. Root beer, screen doors, Fox News, ACE hardware store, hotdogs, Slurpees, hamburgers for lunch, Gatorade, spaghetti, American style public schools, eagle imagery, US shoe sizes, inches, biblical names, and being overweight. These are just a few of the elements of Americana that are in the Philippines. Unlike continental Asia there are few chopsticks, no Buddhism, and no Asian writing script. The Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam are the most systematically colonized parts of South East Asia and the destruction of the indigenous writing systems is proof. That said, the degree of oppression during their colonial eras seems to have had a marked effect on the success of the state once liberated. The British holdings of Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia are all highly developed economies. Malaysia is even flittering with membership in the OCED: a rich nation club. The French colony of Indochina was split into three factions deterred by communism and decades of brutality. The notorious Spanish legacy of extractive colonialism has left the Philippines and South America, to be polite, with enormous social challenges.
The Filipino saying, “300 years in a convent (Spain) and 50 years in Hollywood (USA), summarizes the legacy of Philippine colonialism. The Spanish and the Americans benefited from keeping a plantation system in place. In its first introduction to the western world the Philippines was touted as an exotic garden and renamed, “ The Spice Islands” by its first European visitor Ferdinand Magellan. The two colonial powers that dominated society for the next 350 years kept the Philippines under the thumb of the landed elite and their enormous plantation estates. Even now in the independent era land reform policies are still trying to reunite the tenant farmer with the lands they worked for generations. In Guimba, which was once owned by a few powerful estates, it is now illegal for an individual to own more than three hectares of land. My host’s job as an attorney is to ensure that those laws are upheld. With land and potential land holds, as the primary source of wealth in the Philippines, it is no doubt that his job is dangerous.
Covering the dark road in the dim light of the rumbling motorbikes and tricycles, I remembered a conversation I had with my host on his porch. My host told me that in the Philippines corruption is the source of poverty. Having read Why Nations Fail a fascinating book I could appreciate his opinion and I heartily agreed. What surprised me was that corruption starts in elementary school. My host started his school in order to provide a completely transparent grading institution in Guimba. A school that would be immune to corruption.
In the Philippines status of institutions and rank in class are important. The valedictorian of a high school can go to the best colleges for free without even taking an entrance exam. If a parent can manage to purchase the right grades for their children, even in elementary school they can assure that their child will remain high in the ranks and eventually get into a prestigious university. The prestige of this will carry into their career.
I’m starting to imagine that Philippine society has a hungry appetite for prestige.
Corruption cuts opportunities away from the talented students and sees to it that the rich get the best of all possible worlds. Also corruption allows incompetent people to rise through the ranks. These people use even more bribery and intimidation to conceal their inaptitude and siphon away more ill gotten funds. My host even told me that in his lifetime he knew fellow students who would clean their teacher’s houses for better grades. He wanted to make a school that was going to reward only the talented. He mentioned that if the youth learn that there are avenues to success without diligence than they will not learn the value of honest work. For my exposure in the field of educational development educational corruption is a fascinating new avenue to explore.
Mn. Junior and I reached our school where we live. There was a power cut so we ate our dinner by candlelight with the seventeen-year-old grounds keeper Nomar. There was a full moon and a push-ups contest before we went to bed.
The next morning was Ma Nong Junior’s 69th birthday. As he slept on the sofa next to my bed I slipped a Happy Birthday sign and a carton of Marlboro Lights onto the coffee table. Mn. Junior awoke in the morning to his first ever surprise birthday gift. At lunch time Mrs. Luna and I took him to a floating restaurant for a surprise lunch. I wrote Mn. Junior a thank you letter for his friendship and I gave him balance for his pre-paid phone. At the end lunch, he was in crying small tears of joy. He listed the funerals and birthdays past that he didn’t cry, but since this year he was surprised by the celebration he was moved. Mn. Junior had mentioned his birthday to me in passing when we first met and asked me not to tell anyone. However, he was overjoyed that I couldn’t keep my mouth shut and we were able to celebrate his birthday together.