Day 33 Super Typhoon Yolanda – Hospitality Prisoner
An unusual day yesterday. A somewhat stressful one. It started out with a walk from the pension house to Mark’s house. I wanted to use their computer to copy some pictures and clear up a memory card or two. Without a memory card, I can’t do any more photography. Unfortunately, when I got there, I found the entire house empty and disturbingly quiet. Then one of the pretty young maids – her name is Dulce, I learned – showed up at the door with the resident child in her arms. She ran upstairs and started shouting for someone – one of the sons, I assume – and I was invited inside to sit down and wait for him. I did so, but no one came down the stairs. Perhaps the sons just went back to sleep. Perhaps there was no one up there at all, and Dulce had been yelling about something else. I’ll never know.
I could have just used the computer on my own, but they shut off the generator at the exact moment that I walked up the entrance to the house. And then we couldn’t get the generator started again. Bad timing.
I gave up waiting for the sons, and I went out into the city intending to walk downtown to check on the navy ship. I chose a route that took me through the busy streets containing the new post-typhoon illegal streetside market. My idea was to look for any SD memory cards for sale. A lot of cell phones had appeared on tables for sale, and I was assured by Mark’s family that there were memory cards everywhere. It turned out that they were right. There were stacks of 2-gig and 4-gig memory cards everywhere. Unfortunately, they were Micro-SD cards, not regular SD cards. It’s the story of my life to always be looking for something that just can’t be found. And then no one understands why they won’t work for me. The micro-SD cards were meant to be used with all the cell phones and smart phones for sale. They aren’t meant for cameras like mine.
I got through the security gate at the harbor without a problem again. They are used to seeing me now. Unfortunately, there was a brand new sailor on duty at the gangway shack, and he knew nothing about me and nothing about their schedule for going to Cebu. I hung out with him for a few minutes and babbled like an insane person. I don’t think he understood much of what I said, but I wanted to make an impression on him. If he remembered me, it would be one more chance to be notified when the ship made up its mind to leave. At this point, waiting for the ship is starting to feel a bit silly. I even saw a bus in Tacloban yesterday. So I could probably make my way to Ormoc relatively easily and then take a ferry from there to Cebu. But I have my heart set on taking the navy ship. I want to be evacuated officially and “rescued” from the typhoon.
Later in the day, I went back to Mark’s house. Only the mother and Dulce and the little girl – Kali – were at home. The mother immediately went into the Filipino hyper-hospitality mode. It’s a bit smallminded of me to complain of people being too nice, but this hyper-hospitality can be a bit much – especially when the people being hospitable are constantly telling you how hospitable they are. And, in my case, I almost never want the things they force on me. In fact, the elements of the hospitality end up driving me crazy and making me less happy than I was before. Surely, that is a poor form of hospitality.
I had to sit outside and be annoyed by flies for a long time while drinking Mountain Dew and eating cake – both of which had been specially purchased when I showed up. The idea behind this never-ending flow of soda, I’ve learned, is that they believe I can’t or won’t drink water. As a pseudo-American, I demand soda, they think. I find this belief in itself a trifle insulting – this belief that I only eat hamburgers and drink Coke.
Things were eventually set in motion regarding the computer and the generator. I felt bad about asking for this since the sons weren’t at home, but it was something I really wanted, and I figured I might as well make my wishes known if this hyper-hospitality is so bent on meeting my wishes. I was told to help myself to the computer. The mother assured me that it was fully charged and ready to go. I had to then convince her that she was wrong. This laptop is an old junker that doesn’t even have a battery. So I was now in the weird position of having to show her the back of the computer and point out the big empty space where the battery would go if there was one. She knows absolutely nothing about technology. I finally convinced her that for me to use the computer, the generator must be fired up. But none of them knew how to do that. I could have figured it out, I’m sure, but I didn’t want to risk breaking it. The mother then put her youngest son, RJ, on the phone with another son and this son explained the steps to RJ over the phone. RJ is a self-confident and capable young fellow and – with some trepidation and shouts of terror – he got the generator going. Then I plugged in the computer and got to work. It wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to do because the computer only had two working USB ports. I needed both of them for a memory card and a flash drive. That meant I couldn’t plug in the mouse, and I had to use the touch pad – something I hate. The computer is also very slow and uses all illegal software, so you never know what the darn thing is going to do. Notices and warnings pop up all the time, and it seems to be frozen when it is just thinking and whirring away.
It was also quite hot inside the house. and I got even hotter as I was swallowed up by a great, soft sofa. And there were hundreds of flies everywhere. They crawled all over my legs and arms and face and drove me nuts. I found it hard to concentrate, and I really needed to concentrate not to make a mistake. I would be copying over original picture files and they would be my only copy when I was done. So I didn’t want to be my usual distracted self and make a mistake.
As always, it took much longer than I’d have liked. Copying 20 gigabytes from a memory card to a flash drive is a very big job. It goes slowly, and I sat there in their living room for more than two hours. It was okay, though. I got to chat with Dulce a little bit and watch various family members come and go.
The slim and pretty wife of one of the sons (and mother of Kali) appeared at one point and I chatted with her. Her English is better than most in the family, and she actually pays attention to what other people say to her. Talking with her was almost a real conversation – something I never have in the Philippines. I learned that she worked in a bank in Tacloban. She had spent the day at the bank helping to clean it up. She’d had an opportunity to get a job in another country and really wanted to go, but she decided to take this job at the bank. I was surprised that she would go to another country on her own and leave her daughter and husband behind, but she didn’t see that as a real problem. “You have to make sacrifices,” she said.
She had worked in a fashionable designer shoe store in Singapore for a while. And there she met celebrities, such as Beyonce and the queen of Malaysia. Apparently, the queen loves shoes, and she bought out the entire store. She can’t work at that store anymore because they only hire single girls. She got pregnant when she was 22 and that put an end to her life overseas. She and her husband and daughter have their own house, but it was damaged in the typhoon. They haven’t been able to fix it up and clean it up yet.
When I was finished copying all the pictures, I stepped outside to say goodbye to the mother, and I discovered that hyper-hospitality had laid a trap for me. The father had come home and seen me sitting inside. The sun had gone down in the meantime, and it was dark. He and his wife immediately assumed that I would stay for supper and, in fact, that I would spend the night. I hadn’t been aware of it, but people had been running around preparing a room for me upstairs in their house. Everyone in the household was assuming that I was their guest for the night, and I didn’t even know it. A couple people had said odd things, but I just let it pass. People were always saying odd things. But all that time, they were acting as if I was spending the night.
Now, I am willing to bow to the pressures of hyper-hospitality to a certain extent. I really just wanted to go home and have dinner and relax. The thought of having dinner with the whole family kind of horrified me. But I saw that I had little choice in the matter. Orders had already gone out and people were shopping for chicken and other delicacies. I had to stay for dinner. But there was no way in a million years I was going to spend the night there. My pension house was just a few blocks away. Why in the world would they even assume that I would spend the night? It’s very strange to me. Anyway, I wasn’t going to prevaricate in the slightest and give them the chance to force me to stay. I just dismissed the idea out of hand. I think I even snorted and laughed a little bit. It seemed so bizarre to me and it took me by such surprise. It certainly showed how wide was the gap between us that they understood me and my cultural background so little as to think I would want to spend the night.
It took a while for the various shoppers to come back with the food for dinner, and I was treated to an endless monologue from the father. I started to see where young Mark got his never-ending voice from. His father was nearly as bad. In some ways, he was worse because I found it next to impossible to follow the train of his thoughts and his English. I had no idea most of the time what he was talking about. But he certainly had a lot to say about a lot of things. It reminded me of a night a few nights ago when there was a group of men sitting around a fire in the lot beside the pension house. I could hear them just fine in my room, and I heard one man talking non-stop in a shrill and strident voice. He just went on and on and on, and I pictured his friends sitting there like prisoners, having to stare at him and listen or at least pretend to listen. And I come across groups like that all the time. There is always one man who just talks – practically shouts – non-stop while the friend or friends just sit there and listen. And if the friend’s attention wanders for even a second, the guy will reach out and pluck the guy’s arm and force him to focus again. I see this all the time in the Philippines, and I often wonder why the listener doesn’t suddenly punch his friend or pull out a gun and shoot him. Yet, the listener always seems content to just listen. I’m definitely not content, but I had no choice in the face of hyper-hospitality, and I sat there with my eyes vaguely focused on his face and tried to pick out a word here or there so that I could sort of follow the thread. I wanted to be prepared in case he asked a question. It was sheer agony and torture and it went on for sooooo long. I wanted to kill myself. All I could do was try to derail the monologue from time to time and get him talking about something that might actually interest me. I was successful at that a few times, and I learned a few things about him – his “rags to riches” story, as he put it.
To my surprise, I learned that he had been a tricyle driver earning 200 pesos a day at most. He was a tricycle driver when he married his wife. But he found that his body was getting sore. He had sore shoulders and a sore butt, and he realized he wouldn’t be able to drive the tricycle the rest of his life. He started raising and selling chickens in a small way. And somehow whether by luck or hard work or business skill, he found himself selling more and more chickens until he had a huge business selling tens of thousands of chickens. He made enough money to expand his business all the time and buy new properties. He said he had about 11 properties now including a commercial building with about eleven tenants each paying him 15,000 pesos a month in rent. It would be interesting to get all the details of his rise to riches. I’m very curious how that happens. I think of making money as a very difficult thing to do. He doesn’t seem to sweat it at all. I asked him if he lost money from the typhoon. He said that the typhoon caused about seven million pesos in damage to his farm and hatchery and about seven point five million in damage to his other businesses and house. That’s nearly $180,000, and as far as I can make out, insurance doesn’t cover any of this. And he can absorb this loss no problem. That’s amazing to me. And he made all this money in just over 20 years starting with absolutely nothing. His wife said it happened because they worked so hard. They worked hard and they worked all the time. But from his stories, it doesn’t sound like there was a lot of work. The chickens just multiplied and the money poured in. Anyway, money has always been a mystery to me.
There were certainly some bumps in the road in our conversation. At one point, it became the standard Filipino attack as he told me everything that was wrong with my life and what I should do and why. It’s funny that despite this intense self-proclaimed hospitality – which they are very proud of – they end up doing what in my eyes is some of the rudest things possible – things that no Westerner would ever dream of doing. The last thing I would ever do is meet someone and then sit down right away and tell them how they should live their lives. It’s unheard of in my cultural background. Only the rudest and most arrogant of people would do it. But here, everyone does it to me all the time.
Dinner was a simple affair when it finally all came together – just some rather burnt rice from the bottom of the pot and some chicken and some bottles of Coke. The Coke was another misunderstanding. I thought the mother had asked me if I brought any Coke. I said that I had brought Coke the last couple of days, but not today. In fact, she was telling me that there was no Coke available, only Mountain Dew. But my reply made her think that I really wanted Coke, and to my utter dismay, she sent the boys out in the family car to go find some Coke for me. That meant waiting even longer for dinner to start and having to listen to the father’s monologue even longer. They even had purchased some big bottles of mineral water because they believed I wouldn’t drink the water they drink. And it turned out that they had some reason for this belief. Their eldest daughter is a nurse and works in Sydney. She had married an Australian, and when this guy came to the Philippines, he would not drink the local water. So they assumed that I wouldn’t either. That might explain whey they practically tie me down and pour soda down my throat whenever I show up.
I really understand nothing of what goes on around me at that house. I was kind of kept there for hours after I wanted to leave – a prisoner of their hyper-hospitality. I was forced to stay for dinner and be the honored guest as they got special food and cold Coke. But then, the second dinner was over, I was rushed out the door like yesterday’s old newspaper. It had been decided that they were going to drive me back to the pension house. They wouldn’t hear of my walking. At that point, as the guest who had just enjoyed a nice dinner, I felt it was my duty to sit down and chat and be sociable. It is the standard payment for a meal in the West. The opposite behavior – to eat and run – is considered very impolite. But here, they were pretty much kicking me out within seconds of my finishing the meal. I was given the bum’s rush. The father was already in the driver’s seat of the car and the mother and RJ were sitting in the back. I had to quickly grab my bag and leave with hardly a chance to say goodbye to anyone. And I felt so strange driving through the streets of Tacloban in this car. The father was a very poor driver and nearly had three accidents along the way. It was crazy. But the worst was yet to come.
I finally got back to the pension house. I was a free man. I took a quick bucket bath and then climbed into my mosquito net to settle down and enjoy reading a book on my Kindle. I took out my Kindle – which I had just fully charged while at Mark’s house – and found that the screen had been shattered. Thinking back, I realized what had happened. Without thinking about it, and being somewhat ruffled, I had left my pannier bag sitting on the sofa. At some point, the rambunctious kids had sat on it or leaned on it and broken the screen. Under normal circumstances, I would never leave my pannier bag in such a dangerous position with kids around. But I was so flustered by being a hospitality prisoner that I never thought about it. And that is the result.
It’s actually just one in a series of dozens of occasions – maybe hundreds or thousands – in which I’ve been confused and flustered and vague and fuzzy and ended up paying the price. The biggest example is leaving my bicycle outside as a super typhoon bears down on the city. Then I trip and smash my lens and nearly destroy my camera. I already rusted out my chain twice on this trip as I left my bike wet in my room for a long time. I’ve dropped and nearly broken every single thing I have with me. This goes all the way back to my departure from Taiwan. This has been the most poorly planned trip in history. I think deep down, I don’t want to be in the Philippines on my bicycle at all. And that’s why I’m so vague and lost. I’m simply not paying attention.