Feeding the Pig at a Local Farm
I’m at my keyboard a bit early this morning – 6 a.m. – because I had/have plans to leave this morning. Unfortunately, another typhoon has formed. This one is headed for Taiwan, but it is still off the coast of the Philippines, and it is large enough that it is cloudy and rainy here. The weather might clear, but chances are it will get worse. It looks like I won’t be leaving today either. My plan is actually to return to the city of Tacloban. I’m actually just a day or two away from Tacloban, and I need to renew my tourist visa again. I had vague ideas of doing it in a different city, but since I’m still close to Tacloban, I thought I’d avoid potential problems and do it there. They know me now, and they process visas very quickly and easily.
I’m thinking that after I get my next tourist visa extension, I might cycle around the southern tip of Samar. I’d wanted to do that before, but I never got around to it as I was being lazy in Tacloban. I figure that I would feel best if I went back and picked up my journey from where it left off. I was looking at some more typical places to go – Siquijor, Malapascua, etc. These are the places that tourists visit. However, I think I’d find them disappointing for that very reason. I think cycling around southern Samar would be more interesting. To do that loop, I’d end up back in Tacloban again, and I could leave some extra gear there to lighten my load and then pick it up again. We’ll see how that goes.
Yesterday was another fairly relaxing day. I had a few interesting encounters, though. I went to an eatery that has actual tables and chairs. I usually go to one of three typical eateries very near my boarding house. They have good food and have reasonable prices. The problem with them is that the seating is pretty uncomfortable and basic. Plus, the people react to my visits like it’s a huge event every time. There is a lot of excitement and jokes and laughter and interest. Sometimes I can do without that, especially since you have to eat two or three times a day. All that attention gets a bit old after a while and I don’t want to face it sometimes. This other restaurant is a lot more organized. It even has a setup like a cafeteria. You pick up a tray at one end of a buffet and then move along it and tell the women which dish you want. The women are still quite excited when I show up, but since there is an ordering system in place, it is easier to navigate through it. The woman who served me asked me where I was from. When I told her, she said something, but I didn’t understand her. I had to get her to repeat it several times. Then I finally understood what she was saying. She was saying, “The land of milk and honey.” I believe that comes from the Bible and it refers to the land of Canaan – a land of plenty.
I’m never sure of my ground when I get comments about how rich and wonderful Canada is. My first reaction is to deny it. I, after all, am not rich. And when I think about going back to Canada, I don’t feel rich or privileged. I feel like a big financial burden would be laid on my shoulders since it is so expensive to live a normal life there. But, of course, that is because I haven’t kept a job in Canada. Had I done so all these years, I guess I would have a house and a car at the least.
My second reaction is to analyze the idea of being from a rich country. The assumption is that life in a rich country is better than life in a poor country. And (perhaps with the arrogance and stupidity of someone from a rich country) I end up arguing that this isn’t true, that, in fact, life in the Philippines can be seen as just as good if not better than life in Canada. This goes back to stuff I’ve rambled about in the past, how people have a richer and more developed family life and social life in this part of the world. There is much more human contact in the developing world and day-to-day life can be seen as more interesting and more varied. Things are more natural, too. Food tends to be more raw and more natural. People buy their food in open-air markets and it comes straight from the fields. They don’t drive to a mega-store and then buy everything in packages from coolers. Animals are also around a lot more. One is in touch with animals all the time here – chickens, pigs, carabao, etc. One is aware of them and sees them and encounters them all the time. This would not happen to the average person in a city in Canada. And if you want to touch a bit of a more subtle note, I’d argue that the vast amount of choice in Canada makes people unhappy. In the developing world, people are more constrained in their life choices, and in a way are happier because of it. They aren’t tormented by vast numbers of options and they can relax and enjoy the moment instead of constantly questioning their life and their choices and being discontent.
Of course, I can’t express all of this in a casual conversation with the woman dishing out my lunch rice. So I simply say something stupid about how life is wonderful in the Philippines, too. She probably would have some choice responses to that given the chance.
I guess even for someone spending as much time here as I have, it’s impossible to really understand what life is like for the average person. I’m sheltered from the realities of it. I see it, but I don’t really experience it. I think that’s why I’m constantly asking people how much money they make and how much things cost and how they live. I’m trying to get a practical sense of how things really are for the average person.
I’ve been obsessed with this idea practically my entire life. It was thoughts like these that got me to study International Development in the first place, thinking that I would work with NGOs. I realized eventually that it was only in the rarified air of Canada that thoughts about developing countries and the people that live there made any sense. Once I got overseas a few times, I found the issue to be much more complicated. I found that this urge to help poor people become better off is not so straightforward. The idea is that by being better off, life becomes better and people are happier. But that isn’t necessarily true. Happiness is a much more slippery concept. As I’ve seen with my own eyes, when people have more money they do what all people do – they buy a TV. People in the developing world are no better and no worse than people everywhere else. Their goals and ambitions are the same and they largely lead toward buying fancy cars and big TVs. I’m not sure that helping people get their cars and TVs quicker is a very noble endeavor.
My second interesting encounter occurred late in the day. I mentioned earlier that I don’t like the sari-sari stores very much. However, there is one just up the street from my boarding house that I visit quite frequently. It is unique in that it has an actual Coca-Cola cooler on the outside. I tested a drink from this cooler once and it was quite cold, so I’ve returned there whenever I’ve had a hankering for an ice-cold drink. It also has a small bench sitting beside the cooler. That is also quite rare. But most appealing is the man that is often in the sari-sari store running the place. I learned yesterday that he is 32 years old and his name is Mark. Mark is very friendly and speaks good conversational English. He also is willing to come out from behind the chicken wire of the store and deal with me face-to-face. Whenever I see him at this sari-sari store, I stop there to make my various purchases of instant coffee and other things. When I don’t see him, I continue on by.
Yesterday, I went to this store and I bought a cold drink and sat on the bench. It was the Naval equivalent of rush hour, and it is entertaining to sit by the side of the road and watch all the pedicabs and tricycles go by with their passengers. I began to wish I had brought my camera to record some of the scenes and faces that I saw. (If the weather is suitable, I might do that this afternoon.)
While I sat there, Mark came and went from the sari-sari store. He has a small motorbike, and he hopped on it and raced away to run errands and then returned. One time, he returned with a bag of baked goods and offered me a bun fresh and hot from the oven. It was delicious.
Mark and I got to chatting. He asked me the usual questions. Then I asked him a bit about his life. I learned that he was a seaman. He got berths on ships through an agency from time to time. He returned from his last job eight months ago and has been waiting for his next job ever since. He hoped that he would get another job starting in October.
He told me that motorbikes like his cost about $2,000, or 84,000 pesos. A lot of people buy them on credit and pay about $75 a month. (I was surprised that Mark had all the prices in his head in US dollars.)
After we had chatted a few times, Mark came out to run another errand and he invited me to go along with him. He said that he had to go out to his farm to feed his pig. I was delighted at the invitation and I hopped on the back of his little motorbike.
It had been a long time since I was a passenger on a motorbike, so it wasn’t easy for me to get comfortable. Filipinos routinely put up to four people on a motorbike like that, so it is second nature for them. I had to be careful to put my worn-out sandals on the footpegs. Then I put one hand on Mark’s shoulder and my other hand on the rack behind the seat. It was extremely uncomfortable and precarious. Being the driver of a motorcycle or scooter is a lot more comfortable than being the passenger. We ran into heavy traffic along the main road, particularly when we passed the state university gates. There is always traffic congestion there.
We drove about five kilometers outside of town climbing up into the mountains before Mark turned off onto a small mud path. Just a hundred meters from the road, we came to a small house inside an old fence. Mark stopped the motorbike there and we got off.
Mark explained that this house belonged to his extended family. It was currently being rented out to a teacher at a local school for 2,000 pesos a month. That’s about $50. Even though the house was rented out, he still had access to the land and he kept chickens and one pig on the small lot around the house. The chickens ran up to us when we came through the gate and followed us to the pig pen. They appeared to know that they were going to get a bit of something to eat.
Mark explained that there was going to be a big fiesta in Naval in October and the pig in the pen at the back was being fattened up to be slaughtered during this fiesta. I expected to see a huge pig, but it was actually a fairly tiny thing. It hardly seemed old and big enough to be slaughtered for its meat, but I guess Mark would know best.
There were two acres of farmland attached to the plot around the house. Mark said that they grew mangoes and coconuts on this land. His family had once planted pineapples there, but once the coconut trees grew to their full size, they blocked out the sun and the pineapples wouldn’t grow anymore. Now they stick with the coconuts and the mangoes and they sell them in the market.
Once the pig was fed and watered, we got back on the motorbike and rode back into town. As I have done several times in the past, I burned the calf of my right leg on the exhaust pipe of the motorcycle. I always forget how hot they get. I was very tired and uncomfortable on the ride back into town. I was glad that we didn’t have to go very far. I don’t think I could endure a long trip as a passenger on a small motorbike like that.
As we drove into town, we continued to chat. We were passed by a couple of large trucks with groups of men sitting in the back. Mark told me what those crews of men had been up to all day, but I couldn’t understand what he said. He also told me that day laborers like that made the minimum wage of 300 pesos per day. Pedicab and tricycle drivers make about that much as well, if not a bit less. Mark commented that these men were full family men and were married and all surely had several children. Therefore, it would be difficult for them keep their family cared for on 300 pesos per day. That is about $7.
When we arrived back in town, Mark pointed out a two-story cement house and said that was his mother’s house. Mark lived in the little house behind his sari-sari store with his wife and two children.
All of this tied in well with my sense of the complicated yet organic economic life of families here. The family has many different streams of income. They don’t survive on the main salary of just one breadwinner. Mark makes some money as a seaman when he is lucky enough to get a berth on a ship. They make money from their sari-sari store. They rent out a house, which brings in a small amount every month. Plus, they raise chickens and pigs and grow coconuts and mangoes. I don’t know what Mark’s children do, but I imagine they also work and bring in money as well. I’d be willing to be that there are a half dozen other ways that members of the family bring in money.
While we chatted, Mark asked me how much my room at the boarding house cost. This is a common question, actually. People all over the Philippines have asked me what I pay for my room at various hotels, and I’m always embarrassed to tell them because I’m aware that it will seem excessive to them. My room here costs 400 pesos a night. Mark was surprised that that doesn’t include air conditioning. Four hundred pesos a night amounts to 32,000 pesos a month. For 2,000 pesos a month, Mark pointed out, I could rent an entire house and have access to a kitchen for cooking. That certainly makes staying in hotels a silly thing to do. Of course, it isn’t that straightforward. The house that Mark was renting out looked anything but comfortable. It was clearly dark and dank and probably infested with every creepy-crawly you could name. I doubt very much that there was a bathroom with running water. It was not a place I’d like to live in. In fact, in the short time that we were at the farm feeding the pig, my ankles suffered from about a dozen mosquito bites. The ground was extremely wet and muddy – particularly around the pigpen – and I don’t think it would be very healthy to live there for any length of time. Still, you can’t argue with the low rent. And Mark pointed out that land and houses were quite cheap here and many Americans had married local women and then built a nice house. So far, I’ve only seen two foreign men on Biliran. I saw one in the doorway of a local house in Almeria and I saw another eating dinner in one of my eateries. This second man was a much older man, but he had a young boy with him. I don’t know for sure, but it was likely that the boy was his son. The man was European, and he showed me pictures on his smartphone of his house on Biliran. He complained of the noise and crowding in Naval and couldn’t wait to get back to the quiet and comfort of his house. His young son was also eager to get back and pestered his father – in English – constantly for them to leave. This boy whined and whined and complained until I wanted to slap him.
Mark dropped me off back at my lodging house. It was not a moment too soon because my butt and my legs were aching from the ride on his motorcycle. It was great to spend time with Mark and get a glimpse into his life here. It looks like I’ll be spending another day here in Naval, so I hope to see him again at his sari-sari store.