- 01. Giving It Away
- 02. Mind Games
- 03. Customer Service
- 04. Getting Down to Business
- 05. …And Not a Drop to Drink
- 06. The Commission
- 07. Service!
- 08. Instant Celebrity
- 09. The Pinoy Diet
- 10. Life As We Know It
- 11. Doctors’ Borders
- 12. Poor, Poorer, Poorest
- 13. Half Empty
- 14. Me and My Leg
- 15. Always Be With You
- 16. Going Underground
- 17. Decisions, Decisions
- 18. I Shall Depart
- 19. A Volcano within a Volcano
- 20. A Nod and a Smile
- 21. Not Fighting City Hall
- 22. Stasis in Places
- 23. Fond Farewells
- 24. Parting Shots
I was having a nightmare. My dreams often include personal conversations with world leaders and other serial killers, perhaps because I usually sleep with news radio streaming in my ear. In this particular dream I was just watching TV on election night, with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and Andersen Cooper insisting that Donald Trump was heading for an electoral college majority. One pundit after another paraded on camera, forced to provide explanations of results they clearly did not understand. They made further predictions even though each had accumulated a remarkable string of misguided prognostications. It made me squirm to watch them blather away without the slightest appreciation of their own irrelevance. It was awful. I was sure I would wake up at any moment.
I am now a few weeks into this nightmare. I am beginning to think I must be in a coma. Traffic accident, perhaps, or another fall down the stairs, as I am wont to do. (I’ve never owned a flight of stairs I didn’t fall down.) I am certain, though, this electoral calamity cannot be happening. At least now I know for sure that it is possible for a comatose person to hear. Hey, somebody out there turn off the radio please! Enough is enough.
Regarding Trump’s election, I posted “I didn’t see that coming”. While that is true, twenty years ago I sensed the troubling bubbling of the irrational nationalists. Then, Newt Gingrinch’s “Contract with America” sent me packing for Australia, from whence I have watched the USA’s painful devolution to its current state of nefarious affairs. “Smartest thing I have ever done” I have remarked many, many times since, but now it seems smarter than ever.
It seems perfect timing to publish, at long last, what I consider my masterwork, “Smiling Kodiak Flees the Country”. Unfortunately, my publishers are not returning my calls at the moment, they being less than overwhelmed, I assume, by the sales of my previous works. I say we let them know we will not stand for capitalist censorship! Stand up for free speech by telling them so on http://zingarapress.com/contact-zingara/. Well, it is free for us, not for them.
I haven’t written much of late, and that may be your fault. Over the years I have found that folks don’t like to read bad news or depressing stories, unless, of course, it goes to support their view as to how the world is stacked against them. Lately, I haven’t had much positive to say. Far from a diatribe explaining how the world is stacked against me or you, the following considers the possibility it is our own damned fault. I can feel my readership dwindling as I type. Oh, yeah, this will get my publisher to pick up the phone. Not. Oh, well, art for art’s sake, and all that rubbish.
Jesus Christ said “The poor will always be with you.” At least that’s what Matthew’s translators want us to believe. Like most everything in the bible, the throw-away line is subject to interpretation, controversial, and oft taken out of context to serve some perverse end. To tell the truth, I am not sure what the context was. I have no idea what Jesus might have been on about in saying it. I’ve never been able to make any sense of the bible, but I suppose that’s because it is about faith, not sense, and faith is not my thing. Regardless, it is an interesting statement, to the point that it doesn’t really matter what Mr. Christ meant by it. By most accounts JC was a lovely bloke, yet His was but to do and die, which He did, and for that I am eternally grateful.
For more than a month now, I’ve been back working on my volunteer assignment, almost full-time. Things have pretty much picked up where I left them at the time of my injury. It is mostly desk work, drafting plans and procedures and other artefacts. Twice a week or so I present these things to the leaders of one informal settlement community or another. I am received with fanfare and appreciation, garnering more applause and thanks than any accountant has a right to.
You would be correct to surmise I am not completely comfortable with being a high-falutin’ know-it-all helicoptered in to provide the impoverished with step-by-step instructions on extracting one’s community from poverty. I’ve never extracted anyone from poverty, not even myself. At the outset, I hadn’t even stepped foot in their neighborhoods, so quite literally I did not know what I was talking about.
Earlier I said “almost full time” because I still have to make my way to St Luke’s during the day three times a week for physical therapy. I am happy to get there on foot, taking the opportunity to explore the back streets and hidden neighborhoods of Quezon City. Doing this, I stumbled upon one of the many informal settler communities that I’ll be working with in the not-too-distant future. It was a good chance to come to understand their circumstances from a grassroots perspective. I have wandered through there more than a dozen times now, to the point that this partially crippled cross-eyed bald middle-aged white guy has gone from “circus freak” to “doesn’t even get a second look”. A few regulars even offer warm greetings as I pass. When we get around to working with them I am hoping my familiarity will help in the trust and credibility arena.
Recently, I have also visited several other communities, and gotten to know some of their leaders better. It is reassuring to find that despite their outward graciousness, they can be rightfully skeptical about the efficacy of volunteers, having seen many come and go over the years. To their credit, at one recent event they very politely told me I was full of crap, an accuracy I could but accept with a smile. Later, it was explained to me that the Board of Directors had taken my description of business realities as a greedy capitalist grab for profits.
Indeed, the poor will always be with us. Some say the observation only refers to the fact that there will always be people that are relatively poor, and therefore always be with us. Others use this Christian sentiment as an excuse to behave quite unchristianly by ignoring the needs of the poor — if they’re always going to be there, why bother? In past, I tended to think of the phrase in terms of politics, assuming it suggested the poor will always support — “be with” — would-be saviors, even those as devilish as Trump.
To me it seems the poor I have been working with have a simultaneously impressive and pitiable need to trust others despite a lifetime of other-cheek-turning. They refuse to believe that the temptation of handling untracked cash will inevitably lead to theft. They cannot see that relying on volunteers to run a business will result in less reliable workers who may need to steal dinner. To suggest it may not be in the best interests of an organization to appoint the Chair’s brother as its CEO is seen as viciously impugning the Chair’s integrity. Nowhere is the perception of corruption more pervasive than in the Philippines, yet the poor here persist in giving everybody, from the aristocracy to the starving brethren, the benefit of the doubt. Love and a hug instead of a slap and a snarl. I’m beginning to think there is little hope for progress towards reducing poverty so long as the poor maintain such a high opinion of humanity.
They may be on to something. As one who clings to the cynical tenets of western materialism with unconscious vigor, it is somewhat disturbing that these hopelessly indigent people seem, on the whole, as happy if not happier than their middle and upper class cousins. Certainly, they worry and get angry about things a whole lot less. They see the “Rule of Law” as the folly it is, a protector of the status quo. Yet many still view human nature as that of the noble savage, when savage nobles surround them. If it wasn’t for the bothersome tendency to drop dead at an early age from preventable ailments, we all might be better off staking out a claim next to a flood-prone sewer.
Having been raised by two well-educated parents in a well-fed but truth-and-knowledge hungry family, I never had a prayer of experiencing that kind of happiness. The sardonic maxim “choose your grandparents wisely” is usually used in reference to health, but it also applies to values, which may not be genetic but most certainly are hereditary.
Not surprisingly, one gets a very different vibe walking through an informal settlement than one gets when lecturing their Board of Directors about accounting. In my daily walk to work I take a 500 meter detour to avoid the stench of a certain creek which is but a muddy flow of human excrement pushing rubbish within reach of toddlers who wade in to retrieve the bits with recycling value. I recently heard the statistic that only five percent of metro Manila has any kind of sewer system, none separates human shit from street shit, and all empty into waterways untreated.
It is common to see a sleeping child covered head to foot in welts and bug bites, cradled in a mother’s arms – meters from a modern hospital they will never step foot in. Or a dog with a crushed leg, mostly likely from a traffic accident, attached only by an isthmus of skin. More upsetting than these sights is the indifference of passersby, including me.
Whether or not the dog has four legs or three, if one so much as scratches you, you have only a couple days to start treatment for rabies, or risk death. That is even if you got the rabies vaccination shots, which merely provide a bit more time to get to the doctor.
Getting anywhere requires wandering through traffic, on the side of the road, and across it. It seems inevitable that any regular pedestrians will eventually be picked off by a less-skilled or inattentive driver. This may be why nobody walks anywhere (except volunteers, that is).
I have lost count of the number of people I have met who have had a stroke, or have an immediate family member who has had a stroke. Air pollution is most frequently blamed for this, but chain-smoking with a high fat, high sugar diet while never walking anywhere would seem to play a role, too.
It is hard to ignore the 7,000 “drug suspects” killed by the police and others since the president here launched an all-out war on drugs in July. In my lifetime no war on drugs has enjoyed much success, but then, never has one had such teeth. I have no desire to end up on either side of this conflict, so I will refrain from commenting further except to say that it remains unclear whether teeth are the answer. We will see. In the meantime, I will try to remember to duck.
Predictably, pretty much everybody – rich or poor, but especially the poor — wants out of Metro Manila. Migrants from the provinces may flock to Manila in their thousands for the jobs here, yet the overarching Filipino dream remains to leave the Philippines. Money sent home by expat Filipinos is one of the nation’s top sources of income. Most envied are those who get into the USA, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, but thousands more go abroad, often to slave-like conditions in rich Arab nations, or into the merchant marine.
And there lies the true problem. I am supposed to be “building capacity” here – but it seems to me many who develop capacity use it as suitcase, heading off to more lucrative jobs overseas. That is probably the best thing for them, and for the families they have left behind. But it does nothing for the teeming communities of the impoverished who watch role model after mentor after coach after teacher pack up and flee. Rich nations’ insistence on accepting only the best educated and skilled from poor nations cements the future of the poor nations.
So the poor will always be with us, if all goes as planned.
I am sure I will wake up at any moment.