by Colm Meaney,C.Ss.R.
Reminiscent of the description of the mighty city of Nineveh as a place where people “don’t know their right hand from their left”, the parish priest described Avocado (my current mission area) as a place where the people hardly know how to make the sign of the cross. He wasn’t exaggerating.
Avocado is part of Brgy. Talalac (Santa Catalina, Neg Or) and I have been in it, and the neighboring hamlets, for the duration of Lent and Holy week. It is a picturesque setting: 100+ houses nestled among the hills (which means no cellphone signal for days on end), with an elementary school and a small high school. I stay in a rather basic bunk-house belonging to the LGU; the elementary school teachers with three working students stay in the other half of the rudimentary building.
I often feel like T.S. Eliot’s Magi with their notion of an “alien people clutching their gods”. These people, and their lives, are so different from mine (and yours). Their lives revolve around a plain daily (tedious?) routine: living in very bare houses (no luxuries, very little adornment or decoration apart from the school ribbons, and the laminated collage of graduation and wedding photos, etc); the trip to the well to do the washing and gossip with the other women; the ever-returning daily grind on their stony, hilly plots of land; the weekly escape of market-day, when they sell their produce, buy the essentials, mingle and joke with the neighbors, where some of the men have a few drinks too many, and amuse themselves and annoy the entire village bawling into the microphone at the videokehan.
Such is their life, a life that seems to me to be lived within very limited parameters. When they watch TV, it’s those endless Filipino telenovelas, the plot of which is memorably simple: rich man dates rich woman; rich man is smitten by attractive, simple, shy maid from the provinces. Ditched rich woman becomes furious, throws multiple tantrums, tempestuous scenes of accusation and blame follow; the mother of the rich girl appears on the scene and begins to mistreat the helpless, hapless maid, etc., etc. Alternatively, if the setting is a high-school, it’s the two-boys-fighting-over-one-girl scenario, with various punch-ups, pulling of hair, etc. I mean, is there not one single original scriptwriter in the entire country?
And this is the entertainment that has the good folk of Avocado agog, because anyone who has two centavos to rub together has a satellite dish on the roof of his house. If they’re not watching local programs, then it’s the embarrassingly stilted predictable offerings from Mexico, or the laughably stereotypical shows from Korea.
I supppose it’s an escape from the drudgery of their daily living. I mean, what’s more immediately attractive if you’re coming home, trudging tired and weary from the fields? A gathering in the chapel for sharing on the gospel or half an hour in the videokehan, a few songs to satisfy the tired mind, a few shots of rum to soothe the weary body?
Their lives have a daily grind of which we are all completely unfamiliar; their quotidian conditions never, ever impinge on us: children and teenagers hauling water, well beyond their own body weight, from the well; young men and women carrying 50 kgs of bananas or calabasa in baskets on their backs (I couldn’t even lift one such basket when I tried; adult men carry 70 kgs); I met a girl of thirteen (13) and her sister eight (8) at 7.15am as I was setting off for one of the sitios. They were coming back from some pre-school weeding in the fields. Theirs is an almost entirely different world from ours.
Emblematic of their having so little is what is usually called a “clothes line”, but in their case would more accurately be called a “rags line”, when I see the miserable items hanging out to dry. Sometimes there appear to be more holes than cloth. In many other places such excuses for clothing would long ago have been consigned to the rubbish heap. But these poor folks don’t have that luxury; they will keep wearing such rags until they literally fall off their bodies. The only decent blouse or shirt, skirt or trousers, is reserved for church or fiesta, wedding or funeral.
Yet I think to myself, they never read (many, of course, can’t read, being illiterate), they never listen to Bach or jazz or the haunting melodies of Sakamoto or even the catchy tunes of Rey Valera or The Apo Hiking Society. This is not smug of me, it’s just that two very different cultures meet, with limited points of mutual understanding. But not of total mutual incomprehension – otherwise I wouldn’t be up there for seven weeks, moving from one sitio to the other. Still, most of them haven’t the slightest interest in whatever it is I’m peddling, so maybe it’s time to change my sales pitch or come up with a revamped Vision-Mission statement.
You might think Avocado, nestled so attractively in the hills, 24 kms from the highway, might be a haven of tranquility. You’d be mistaken. Soon after sunrise, those with sound-systems let rip. Their entertaining of half the village with their incessant boom-boom may, from their point of view, be their daily act of kind-hearted philanthropy. Needless to say I demur, but being in a tiny minority (one), I keep my dissention to myself.
Apart from the monotonous thump-thump from early morning, conditions can sometimes be somewhat trying. I’ve eaten more dried-fish and milled corn in the past month than in the previous ten years, but that didn’t bother me at all. But eating your food, with dogs growling and snarling under the table, and with cats sitting on the table – well the only consolation I found on that particular occasion was to conjure up the gentle spectre of Bill Skehan and his feline friends. At least he had the good manners to keep them out of the eating area.
Animals around the dining table I consider unhygienic, dangerous and intrusive of my sense of what’s proper: humans eat in one place, beasts in another. But it’s an intrusion mostly only on my mental sense of how things should be. Far more intrusive, and a far harder challenge for me in terms of inculturation, is the matter of noise. The spartan conditions of the bunk-house were satisfactory until the videoke across the road got going. When the drunken shouting into the microphone finally ended at 1am, I decided I needed to change my sleeping quarters. I moved to a house on the edge of the hamlet and the first few nights were fine. Then their bitch of a dog produced four pups and between the incessant barking of the cur and the high-pitched whining of the whelps, sleep again was impossible. Once again at 1am I walked in the pitch darkness back to the bunk-house. With everyone sleeping soundly, I removed two glass jalousies and climbed and crawled ignominiously through the gap.