A Month In Paradise Part Three
I consider myself pretty fit. I work a forty five hour week doing a physically demanding job without any problem at all. In fact, I enjoy the challenge and relish the exercise. I have more stamina than most people half my age and just about everyone the same age as me.
Secretly, I was looking to showing off a little. The day had come to lay some gravel. The Filippinos aren’t terribly impressed with their usual experience of the English work ethic. Nor am I to be honest.
We had a mob of relatives descending on us for a long weekend; two of Sally’s sisters, their husbands and their collective six boys, all in their late teens or early twenties. Nine males to move the best part of fifteen tonnes of gravel by hand.
We started late. Syrel, Gill’s eldest son, has a sugar cane truck of his own. It’s more robust than Gill’s but like all the trucks on the road here, it’s old and needs a considerable amount of TLC.
Syrel collected the gravel from the supplier then crawled back to Ara-al at walking pace, with stops every couple of miles to top up the water in the leaking radiator. They arrived with both load and truck intact at 10am.
Like most of the areas of housing around here, Ara-al has a main street running then a network of lanes running off it like veins in a leaf. The truck was too wide to negotiate the lane at the end of the fifty metre rough mud path leading down to the house, so Syrel had to park in the main street two hundred metres away.
The work crew were waiting when the truck arrived. They weren’t dressed quite as I expected a group preparing for a day’s hard physical labour to dress. They all looked as they were off for a day’s quiet relaxation on the beach. All wore thin tee shirts, lightweight shorts and flip flops.
The original plan had been to fill empty rice sacks with 25kg on the back of the truck and lower the sacks onto waiting shoulders for the long trek to the house.
Unfortunately Syrel had a full day’s sugar cane transporting ahead of him so we had to offload the gravel as soon as possible. Our only tools were two spades and a rake. An hour and a half later, the gravel was in an enormous pile in the road, Syrel had left to begin his working day, and the nine men were sprawled next to the gravel, dripping with sweat in the already sweltering heat, contemplating the mountain of stone to be moved.
The group had spent too long sitting down as far as I was concerned, so I hefted a sack onto my shoulder and strode briskly down the first alley towards the house.
By the time I had reached the house after stepping on, over and around tree roots and boulders, stepped down a series of high, muscle stretching concrete steps and thrown the neck chaffing sack thankfully to the ground, I was seeing stars and breathing like a steam train. The rest of the sweat free, totally relaxed looking group emptied their sacks, smiled knowingly at me and skipped back up the hill to Gravel Mountain.
By the time I had picked up my fifth load, my neck was red raw and my legs were shaking so much I thought they were going to give way. I staggered and slipped down the final steep stretch to the house with the sack cradled across my stomach to prevent any further damage to my sunburned and chaffed neck. I couldn’t carry on. I threw the sack down in disgust before walking dejectedly back to the house where a cool drink and shade were waiting.
Twenty eight year old Sannie picked up my discarded sack, in addition to his own and trotted the rest of the way to the house. He was wearing just one flip flop. The strap had broken on the other during the frantic gravel offloading. There weren’t any others available so he spent the rest of the day moving at least fifty loads wearing just one.
Just when I was feeling completely inadequate, Sally’s forty eight year old sister Cora, realising that the crew were now a man short, arrived to lend a hand. She looked as though she was ready for bed wearing a black tee shirt, pretty pink checked cotton bottoms and feet bare apart from gold nail polish.
One of her sons carefully lifted a 25kg gravel sack into the air and gently placed it on his mother’s head. Without any sign of either strain or discomfort she followed the rest of the men down the alley.
I didn’t expect to see her again but five minutes later she was back for more. After her 20th trip, having walked a total of 4,000 metres with 55lb balanced on her head, Cora still looked as cool and untroubled as ever. She stopped at about 4pm, not because she was unable to continue, but because she had food to cook.
I was reduced to keeping the guys, and Cora, supplied with full sacks. Sally held the bags open, I filled them with gravel until 6pm when we couldn’t see what we were doing.
We had put a couple of cases of beer on ice for the evening but everyone was too tired to drink it. By 8pm everyone was in “bed”. Bed for all of our guests was the bare tiled floor in the lounge. No one had a change of clothes or any nightwear, The only bedding was a rolled towel for a pillow.
I forced myself out of bed at 7am ready to help with the rest of the gravel moving. I was too late. The rest of the crew were waiting for dawn at 6am. Half of the remaining gravel had already been moved. All of it had been transferred in time for breakfast at 8am.
My ego has been severely bruised. Actually, not so much bruised as publicly beaten to within an inch of its life. Even though I didn’t do any of the heavy lifting, I was tired and aching. The rest of the guys, each having carried getting on for a hundred loads down a steep and uneven hill, looked fresh as daisies. I think I need to spend more time in the gym.
The Other Side Of The Coin
The people are as beautiful as the landscape, the temperature’s a very acceptable year round thirty degrees and the cost of living is very low. It’s no surprise that many foreigners choose to retire here, but there are some aspects of life, especially in this very rural community, which I don’t think I would ever get used to.
I don’t understand why so many people have dogs here. Most appear to be loosely attached to families but very few are cared for as pets or even acknowledged. They bark incessantly throughout the day and, even more annoyingly, at night too.
Because the dogs aren’t cared for by their owners, they mess wherever they please. Wherever they please tends to be exactly where I want to walk. The inconvenience of the mess the dogs make reminds me of the many miles of aimless street walking I did as a teenager in the mid seventies near my home on the outskirts of Birkenhead. I spent much of my time hopping on one foot as I tried to remove a sticky, smelly mess from the sole of a shoe.
Not only do they cause a mess, but they are also a menace to passing traffic. It’s not unusual to see them laying in the sun in the middle of a busy street, or walking suddenly into the path of an oncoming vehicle. Even during my limited time here I’ve been on a couple of tricycles which have had to swerve or brake suddenly to avoid hitting one.
I’ve seen many dogs in the village which have been hit, accidents which have resulted in broken limbs. The breaks aren’t treated. The dogs are left to fend for themselves. The breaks heal but often at odd angles.
People here aren’t cruel, they just don’t pamper the dogs they own like we do in the UK. They can’t afford to. When Sally and I visited Bacolod last week, we shopped in the enormous SM superstore. It’s at least as large as the largest English Tesco store in the UK. There were just a few square feet dedicated to pet supplies. We bought a bone shaped hide chew for Kim, the family’s mongrel. It cost 78 pesos, just over £1. Most people work in agriculture in Ara-al. The average daily agricultural daily wage is just 110 pesos.
Very few dogs are cared for here, but I like to think that we’ve made Kim’s life a little more pleasant. He used to sleep on the bare concrete outside the house at night. Now he has his own basket and blanket under the kitchen table. He’s responded very well to affection from Sally and I. The family have begun to acknowledge him too.
I was sitting inside typing on my laptop a few days ago. I glanced out of the window to rest my eyes. I noticed Gill sauntering around the garden, admiring the plants. Kim was laying on his back in the sunshine. Gill smiled, bent down towards the dog and with an outstretched hand gave Kim’s testicles a friendly tweak before continuing his leisurely garden patrol. I don’t think he’s quite got the hang of showing the dog affection yet.
I’ve not visited any other area of the Philippines but this part of the country, anywhere away from the larger centres of population, is staggeringly beautiful. When I wake in the morning I can see the frequently mist shrouded forested slopes of a now dormant volcano. Flowers of every shade and hue adorn the roadsides. Trees bowed under the weight of delicious fruit grow everywhere I look. It’s all very, very pretty… apart from the litter.
Most people here don’t pay tax. Because they don’t pay tax, the government doesn’t have much money to pay for essential public services. There is no refuse collection service out here in the country.
Household waste is either burned or discarded. A couple of times here I’ve noticed members of the family using plastic bags to help light the fires they cook with. The fire isn’t terribly well ventilated so whoever is in the kitchen has to breathe the toxic fumes. One of the boys, Hilson, has a permanent cough. He tends the fires used for both cooking and water heating for hours each day. I’m sure the poisonous fumes have either caused or contributed towards his cough.
The house and the garden here are kept spotlessly clean. Two of the boys and Sally’s sister spend hours each days sweeping and polishing but they have nowhere to put their plastic waste. It’s often thrown out of sight onto the mud bank which borders the stream at the bottom of the garden or on some waste ground just outside the garden’s front gate.
The earthen path which leads from the house to the nearest street is littered with plastic bags, crisp packets and discarded sweet wrappers. The paths and roadsides around the village are all similarly littered. Everyone discards litter. I have watched many shoppers in nearby La Carlota finish a drink or take the last cigarette out of a pack, then drop the container carelessly on the ground.
When I was returning from a morning in the sugar cane fields we ran out of petrol. Daryl purchased some from a roadside stall a couple of miles away. It was sold in 1.5l coke bottles (I had spent the previous two weeks thinking they were selling Cherry Coke). He emptied the bottle’s contents in the bike’s tank then casually tossed the empty plastic bottle in the ditch where it lay beside many other plastic bottles, bags and wrappers.
The litter is all the more noticeable because of the beautiful countryside it spoils but what can people do until the government provides somewhere to put it all?
The noise here drives me mad too. I don’t mind the cockerels so much. It’s a sound I don’t find too unpleasant. I would rather not listen to them competing with each other from most of the many gardens within earshot for much of the day, but it’s something I am used to now.
I don’t really enjoy the continual dog barking and wining, again from just about every garden within earshot, but I don’t find it as irritating as the music.
The music drives me mad. Everyone has a sound system of some description. The default listening volume is full blast, regardless of the time of day, the type of music they’re playing, their proximity to other properties, or whether those other property owners are playing music already.
Yesterday our next door neighbour treated us to a selection of Tom Jones’ greatest hits, played at full, ground shaking volume, from 6.15am. He has varied tastes though, so he never bores us with his annoying habit. This morning showing his appreciation for country and western music. At the same time, it’s 7am as I write this, Sally’s sister’s boys are playing a delightful selection of club classics, again at furniture shaking volume, while the neighbour on the other side is sticking with her favourite Japanese wailing.
Oh, how I long for the peace and quiet of the marina were the loudest sound in the honking of the occasional Canada goose.
Just one final moan; I get ever so slightly depressed by the monotony of meal times. I know it’s my fault. I come from the wealthy West where a huge variety of foods are available at every supermarket.
Our hosts can’t afford fancy food. They can’t actually afford much food at all. Of course, Sally and I are helping out with the cost of the food while we’re here, but they don’t take liberties. Quite the reverse. The main ingredient in any meal is rice. To this they’ll add a minuscule helping of whatever meat, chicken or fish is being served.
There’s no difference between a meal eaten in the morning, at mid day or in the evening. The leftovers from one meal are simply carried over to the next. Take last night for example: we had rice of course, served with cabbage mixed with minced pork and whole grilled fish which looked and tasted like large sardines. Not all of it was eaten last night so breakfast this morning was rice, and the rest of the cabbage and sardines. All of the sardines and cabbage was eaten for breakfast, but some of the rice was left. The remaining rice will be served for lunch with a chicken casserole. Not all of the chicken will be eaten mid day, so we’ll have that this evening.
I crave the variety we enjoy in England. I enjoy toast smeared with honey for breakfast, a sandwich at lunch time and a full cooked meal in the evening. I know my affluent English eating habits are unnecessary but they’re enjoyable and a part of me looks forward to the beginning of March when I can return to them.
A Riverside Picnic
Sally painted such a vivid picture of idyllic location and relaxation when she described family picnics to the river. She talked about how the family loaded a couple of cases of beer, a suckling pig and themselves onto the back of Gill’s sugar cane truck, set up camp on the bank of the gently flowing river and sipped ice cold beer as they relaxed with feet dipped in the cool crystal clear water.
The reality was every bit as wonderful as Sally’s description. The only ingredient missing was the lechon, the suckling pig. At over £50 for a small one we decided that it was an unnecessary extravagance.
After all day Friday and early Saturday morning spent gravel moving and then the rest of Saturday spent trying to use the ancient computers in the internet café, I was ready for Sunday’s picnic.
Sally hired a cook for the day. Sally and her sisters cook perfectly well but this lady regularly caters for parties and weddings. Her food was considered a cut above the rest, she came with a full set of industrial sized pots and pans and her fee was a very reasonable 200 pesos (£2.70). We provided the ingredients from a list she provided, she did the cooking.
Twenty of us, including the cook, loaded the picnic food and beer onto the back of the truck plus, mystifyingly, a pressure washer, two spades and twenty empty rice sacks.
We chugged downhill for five miles before turning off the main road onto a dirt track. The truck reversed half a mile down the narrow road squeezing past roadside houses and scraping under low hanging branches before parking close to the river bank.
The river swells to ten times its volume during the rainy season. In mid February there was just a gentle flow through the centre of the riverbed but enough to wade thigh deep in places. Much of the river flowed under the shade of fifty feet high bamboo stands, ferns and trees very similar to English willow.
The food was carried into the shade under some riverside palms and the cases of San Miguel dropped lowered on to the rive bed where the fast flowing water quickly cooled it. Within half an hour the beer was chilled and served with plates of lightly spiced chicken and fragrant rice.
After we finished our desert, halved sweet mangos eaten straight from the skin with a spoon, I settled down for an afternoon’s quiet relaxation. Relaxation isn’t something which the Filipinos generally, and this family in particular, do very well.
The pressure washer was fired up. Half of the men gave the truck a spring clean while the rest began loading brick sized water rounded stones collected from the river bed onto the back of the truck.
When they had finished collecting about half a tonne of rocks, they took the spades and empty rice sacks to the riverbed where they filled them with another half tonne of coarse sand.
The sand and rocks are for a new raised flower beds for the house. The same material has already been used to effectively terrace the rear of the property which used to slope steeply down to the stream at the bottom of the garden.
While the men were working, so were the women. Some used the washing up bowls we had brought with us to wash the dirty picnic cutlery and crockery in the river, some took dirty clothes they had brought with them down to the water to wash, most, at some stage in the afternoon, produced bottles of shampoo and bars of soap to thoroughly wash themselves and their children.
Just sitting watching and sipping cold beer from the shade of a riverside palm was enough to tire me out but, after showing my lack of stamina moving gravel, I didn’t want to fail again. I opened another beer and prepared to endure another couple hours of relentless relaxation.
I don’t like shopping at the best of times, so when the shopping trip involves four hours travelling on and in a selection of worn out buses, tricycles and taxis, I can honestly say that I’m not enjoying myself as much as I would like while I’m on holiday.
The nearest decent DIY store is in Bacolod, thirty miles to the north of La Carlota where we go for our food shopping. Bacolod is also where we would need to go for any reasonable medical attention. It’s a sobering thought given the lip service which is paid to personal and vehicle safety out here in the sticks.
The number of motorbikes and motorised tricycles in the rural districts outnumber cars and buses. Four wheeled vehicle drivers are usually, but not always, more responsible than those with two or three, especially after dark.
Driving or being driven at night is not for the faint hearted.
Vehicles travel at speed, often almost bumper to pumper, and often without some or all of their lights either working or turned on. We enjoyed a particularly interesting journey last night.
We went to Bacolod for the second consecutive day. The previous day we intended to find an effective solution to the internet connectivity problems at the house. Sally was determined to get her sister online so that she could keep in touch with her via email email and/or Skype. The modem we bought the previous week hadn’t worked at all. We then discovered that the local village school used a USB dongle which worked very well.
On Tuesday we made the four hour round trip to buy the dongle and to have lunch at one of the mall restaurants. A meal for four of us including a soft drink each, barbecued chicken served with a soy sauce, lime and chilli dip, unlimited rice and a peculiar desert which comprised of vividly coloured jelly beans, ice cream and tapioca served on a bed of crushed ice, which was much, much better than it sounds, cost us the princely sum of £10.73 in one of the better restaurants in the poshest shopping mall on the island.
On the subject of prices, four hour’s travel for four people didn’t cost us much either. The half hour tricycle ride from the village into La Carlota cost us 27p each, the hour and a half bus journey from La Carlota to Bacolod 43p each and a twenty minute taxi ride for four in a brand new air conditioned Honda Civic just 75p.
The interesting part of the journey was when we reached the bus terminus in La Carlota just after dark, about half past six. There are two types of tricycles plying their trade in the town; there are the smaller ones which just operate around the town and which can take five or six people at a push, and the larger ten to twelve people capacity vehicles which operate within a ten to fifteen mile radius of La Carlota. Regardless of capacity, they are powered by a an old and knackered bike of no more than 150cc.
The one which stopped for us already had eight people on board plus all of their shopping. We waved the driver away because we didn’t think he could take us and our shopping. I forgot to mention what else we bought in addition to the dongle.
The truck Gill uses to collect sugar cane isn’t entirely legal. It has neither driver nor passenger seats. There’s just a couple of planks supported by two old upturned boxes. The truck was also short of a horn. I’m lead to believe that the DIY seating is legal, but the missing horn is not.
Sally decided that the truck should have both. Gill new where to get them.
After enjoying the air conditioned walkways and fancy façades of the SM shopping mall, briefly immersed ourselves in the noise and fumes of the automotive district in overcrowded down town Bacolod.
Walking through the doorway to their trade counter was like stepping back fifty years in time. Wrinkled elderly clerks sat at island workstations like oversized school desks equipped with ancient typewriters and mountainous piles of yellowed receipts and folded invoices.
Gill asked about the seats he believed they stocked. An assistant showed us half a dozen they had stored behind the counter. None were in particularly good condition. He stopped us as we turned to leave and beckoned us to follow him through a doorway into the back of a shop.
He led us through an Aladin’s cave of automotive parts, along corridors and up steps to a higher floor and then another, and another until we reached a cavernous room high above the ant-like activity in the street below.
The space was completely filled with second hand car seats, literally hundreds and hundreds of them from every make of car imaginable. After a long and heated debate Sally and Gill decided not to buy one of the seats which they thought was 2,100 pesos, just over £28. The salesman told them they were mistaken. The price was for two seats, not one.
They carried both of the seats back through the warehouse and down to the trade counter on the ground floor where they paid for them in cash. I thought that the bulky seats would then be put to one side pending collection by Gill or one of the extended family when they were next in the area with a vehicle. Gill and Sally had other ideas.
We hailed a passing taxi to take the four of us plus our car seats to the bus station. The taxi driver didn’t look the least surprised when we produced the chairs. He found a couple of short lengths of frayed rope which he used to loosely secure his flapping boot before lurching into the chaotic traffic at the normal breakneck speed.
The bus driver didn’t blink an eye either but he did charge us £1 to take each of the chairs with us on our hour and a half journey.
I thought we would really be in trouble when we reached the bus station in La Carlota. The tricycle drivers stop operating at dusk. They stop then because the trade normally dries up rather than because of the danger of trying to negotiate uneven road surfaces without lights, so we were lucky to find one.
Unfortunately we weren’t luck enough to find an empty one. There were already seven people plus their shopping on board. Remember that this is a 150cc motor bike with a sidecar which has all kinds of seats, shelves and platforms welded to it.
The driver managed to find space for the four of us and then enlisted help from the other passengers to recline the seats as far as possible and then lift them upside down onto the roof where they were secured with bits of twine in a not entirely secure looking fashion.
I ride on an overloaded tricycle in the dark is an experience which will stay with me for a long, long time.
Turning lights on in the dark is either considered as something which only wimps do, or as a complete waste of time. Not only did our driver resist the temptation to light up his route, and alert other vehicles to his presence, he also felt the need to wear his sunglasses to protect his eyes from the flies which peppered our unprotected faces like hail.
Effective vision is always handy on roads frequented by other unlit vehicles and pedestrians and essential to spot the numerous bone jarring potholes in the poorly maintained roads. Our driver’s tactic was to keep to the wrong side of the road where he thought the road quality was better, swerving out of the way of oncoming equally hard to see tricycles and occasional monstrous sugar cane lorries at the very last moment.
We survived the journey. I don’t know how, but we reached the village after the usual hour, covered in dead flies and an icy sweat, but otherwise unharmed. Another day in paradise.