Down the Coconut Highway: Life in Small-Town Philippines
The colorful awnings were not hung for the benefit of Americans: I have to constantly stoop my head, while all around me Filipinos mill busily, checking pinya for pits and bangus for blemishes.
In just a few hours the vendors will have sold their stock and packed up for home: the tiny sour kalamansi will be gone, and the papaya, and the sharpened bolos.
The fishmongers will still be there, as they are every day – selling wriggling pantat and pasayan and pusit. The meat vendors, with their bloody chunks of manok, whole baboy heads and neatly-shaped cubes of ground liver, will remain. One can still buy yellow paho and, if fortune smiles, lumpy green guyabano.
But the bustle will be gone: the places where sellers set up their tables hours earlier will be marked only by fruit rinds and food wrappers. People will still be buying bugas, their staple in this hungry country, but the frenetic pace will have slowed back into the regular tempo of Filipino life. My town, Zarraga, will again fall quiet.
There is time now: time for conversations deeper than the haggling for five pesos off a kilo of rambutan, more personal than the argument that the brown imperfections in a batch of lansones call for a discount.
There is time for walking slowly, and looking – looking not to judge the quality of the talong or calabasa, but looking simply to look. The sky is darkening, and in this place away from cities and spotlights, the electricity of a few houses doesn’t dim the stars.
Along the highway back to my neighborhood, men check the plastic bottles they’ve attached to the roadside lubi, the coconut trees. They’re collecting liquid for tuba, a native coconut wine. It tastes like sour, rancid milk.
There are ragged brown children playing in the dust next to the road where huge buses sometimes roar by; my town is just a quick flash of scenery for these people on their way from Iloilo City to somewhere on northern Panay Island – Roxas City or Kalibo or the famous white sands of Boracay.
Aside from the circles of men beginning their nightly drinking binges – who always call out a “Hey Joe!” and “Where are you going?” – people mostly stare at me in silence as I roll by on my bike.
The bike: it was once gleaming and new, with a spotless gleaming chain and smooth yellow and black paint. Now the chain is rusted from rain and clotted with hardened mud. Falls and flying rocks have pitted the paint, and the tires are patched and proudly worn. A year – only one year – has reduced it to its current state of decrepitude. But it gamely continues on, sliding through the warm gathering evening.
It is one of my few evenings at home. I work late: I usually don’t return to my little house until after nine o’clock, and then nothing is more inviting than taking a cold bucket bath, washing off the dirt and sticky, perpetual tropical sweat, and falling into bed.
As long as the rice flies are not swarming, and the tiny black beetles remain in manageable numbers, and my electricity is stable – because even in the dead of night, the heat is enough to make sleep come slowly or not at all without the blessing of my electric fan – I will fall quickly and deeply asleep.
But today I have the evening to myself, because it is Sunday: market day, church day, my day off. I can sit and listen to music, my music. I can write, as I am doing now. I can read. I can relax.
The next day will be both predictable and unknowable: it will be frustrating, difficult, hot. I know these things, but others are more variable: maybe I will get something done, maybe I will not. Maybe today’s eight-hour smile will be artificial; maybe it will be real.
What do I do? I teach kids to speak English and multiply fractions. I throw small children into the air and catch them again; they thrill in the momentary fear, and I in their implicit trust. I sit and listen to troubles. I share food and something just as sustaining in Filipino culture: chika-chika, small-talk. I work endlessly on projects that will, I know, never be realized. I play patintero, dama and chess.
My work isn’t just at work; sometimes the most important things I do are outside the gates of my center. I attend ceremonies, I meet the parents who have failed their – my – children, I go to the wake and funeral of a grandmother I have never met. I stay up late texting one of my girls because she is sad.
I cut a holiday short so I can visit the far-off home of two of my kids. They are siblings, these two, a boy and a girl; they live at the center along with a hundred and thirty other vulnerable, neglected or orphaned children, but five more of their brothers and sisters still live at home, in a tilting house of bamboo with huge holes punched through the walls.
I meet friends and relatives. I eat with them and, no matter what, act like I enjoy it. I accept the buko, the young coconut, not because I want to drink from it, but because someone just shimmied thirty feet up a swaying palm to cut it down for me.
Life can be mundane here, and it is natural to look forward to tomorrow, next week, next year; but in a place where “tomorrow” and “yesterday” can mean anything, time moves in spurts and slogs, sometimes skipping ahead and other times doubling back on itself. Every day is long and every month is short. It can be equally surprising that today is only Tuesday and already halfway through March.
There are things that I take as normal now, as if I’ve never had anything different. Cold showers. Dusty, hot jeepney rides. Roosters at dawn. Power outages and shut-off water. They’re all part of a daily routine. They are my life now.
And these also, the bits and pieces of a year and more: swimming in a breathtakingly cold mountain spring while a waterfall, swollen immensely by rain, thunders down only meters away; eating fish eyeballs and pig blood and chicken intestines; endless fiestas and festivals.
A thousand waters, from the gorgeous clearness off the white sands of Siquijor to the deep, deep, almost black depths of the South China Sea to the brown, sluggish sludge of the Pasig River in slummy Manila – and, in the same city, the filthy mix of liquids swirling along the streets in their worst flooding in forty years, thanks to the first in a series of typhoons that killed hundreds in the north. I was there in Manila for the storm, but I wasn’t living in a rickety shanty standing precariously over the wharf, and I wasn’t sleeping under a sheet of cardboard on the sidewalk; so I wasn’t really there.
Life on the Outside
I took a brief, sometimes surreal jaunt back into the United States, to the beautiful beaches of Oahu and Maui: where I had to remind myself that bringing my water bottle and umbrella everywhere was not necessary. Where I could eat whatever I wanted. Where traveling a few miles – on smooth roads! – didn’t take up a good chunk of the day. Where the air, though hot, felt cool. Where I was torn by two realizations, one a relief and the other an odd disappointment: that here, strangers didn’t care what I did; and that here, strangers didn’t care about me.
One of the strange, inevitable things about the Peace Corps is this: it has an end. An end of which you are, no matter what you’re doing or where you’re living, always aware. This end, for me, is still a year away – a distant speck down the coconut highway. But Philippine time will always play its tricks, jumping forward and sneaking back; the next year may seem endless, it may seem short, and most often it will be both. Nothing is certain but unpredictability. Bahala na – let it go; live; things will be as they must.
Ryan Murphy is a recently-returned US Peace Corps Volunteer who blogs about his travels through cultures at Eleven Degrees North.
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