Sunday, December 28, 2008


"The Filipino people," she said, shaking her head. Stopping herself short. "They do not value life."

We stood in the kitchen of her modest stone house, as her daughter-in-law puttered around the kitchen, preparing food for her two small children. (This was in a village in Ifugao, a northern mountain province of the Philippines. If it could be called a village. What do you call houses snaked along the edge of an endless highway?)

The night before, on Christmas day, a cousin of a cousin, a relative of a relative of a relative, had drunkenly stumbled along and been hit by a truck just a little bit down the road from this house (The van I had been traveling in had stopped so the driver could say hello to this same man only a few minutes or hours before he was killed.)

Nobody was sure who had hit him. The driver hadn't stopped. It had happened late at night, along a winding, mountain highway road that was completely dark by dusk. No street lights for miles and miles, not this far up.

"They found his insides on the road," she said. "And his tongue, too."

She was worried about her son. He had been drinking rice wine all day the day before, since early morning, had eaten nothing, collapsed at some point during the night, and was now too sick and ashamed to come downstairs. She feared that someday he would wander along this same road. Get hit by a truck in the dark. Dead before dawn.

I thought about she had said.

That the Filipino people do not value life.

I knew what she meant. Everything is closer to the ground here. People ride on tops of vans that careen down spiralling country roads. Seatbelts are optional. Kids play basketball on the side of the highway. Drivers are reckless, if not completely insane. Dust and diesel perfume the air. There is the sense that the future is already here, and, in its present state, at least, it does not seem offer much, so why bother?

But life is not only about planning and precaution, and its value does not stem solely from how we try to bandage ourselves against time's inevitable assault.

I think of another person I met that Christmas night, a clerk for the local election office. Upon meeting me he sheepishly said that he hoped that I was able to adjust to the Philippines. He knew that it was a third-world country, and that it might be difficult for me.

Apologizing, essentially, for the poverty.

And that is another aspect of life here, a certain decency, a desire to put other people at ease. A welcoming.

In the west we insulate ourselves, cocooned within our houses and cars, our finely-tuned budgets and carefully worded blogs.

Here, people are on top of each other. A dozen or more to a house. Cities teeming with chickens and cows and orphans and executives jostling for the same simple space.

There's nowhere to go, so you learn to inhabit the realm of others more easily.

This is not to say that such proximity doesn't breed avarice and selfishness, greed and resentment. One only has to glance at the headlines of The Philippines Inquirer each and every day to recognize that blunt reality. Poverty is not pretty, and the kindness and generosity of the poor sometimes seems like a conscious way to keep pushing against the darkness that stains the streets.

And yet, how strong the bonds of family are here! How readily people are able to accept one another's faults and imperfections. They may not have much of a future, but they do have each other.

I keep thinking of that winding mountain road. A drunk man hit by a car on a dark Christmas night. A worried mother looking out the window at the pavement, wondering if her oldest child would someday meet the same fate.

Anxious, yes, but there was a guest in the house, and she made sure that a bowl of cookies and crackers was kept full throughout the afternoon.