When Life in a Third-World Slum Becomes Better Than in America

My wife’s dad died in an automobile mishap in Oxnard, California in late December, 1999, and it was up to us to bring him home to be buried in Manila, Republic of the Philippines. Through cultural connections with a local travel agent, my wife was miraculously able to get three rather inexpensive tickets (the two of us and our youngest son) for us all to arrive in Manila on the evening of December 31st, the night before the new millennium. Upon our arrival at the barely-controlled chaos that is Ninoy Aquino International Airport (and after a small bribe quickened the customs process), we were met by several other family members, and we all escorted the casket containing Dad (I called him ‘Dad’, too) in a Jeepney to the family compound in Sampaloc, a suburb of the fifteen-million-resident megalopolis of Metro Manila.

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A Philippine Jeepney. By Lawrence Ruiz — Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47310547

During my Navy career I’d been to several third-world countries (including the Philippines), but I’d rarely really gotten out past the “touristy” areas that catered to sailors. Those readers who are also retired Navy will read a great deal into that previous sentence, but as most seasoned travelers will aver, the areas that mere tourists see is a far cry from the normal life of the people.

So after taking an hour to travel perhaps fifteen miles (the traffic there deserves an article all its own), we turned in to the alleyway (called an iskinitia) to the compound. The first thing I noticed at the entrance to the iskinita was an elderly homeless man sitting on a chair with a white turkey - a turkey! - with its leg leashed to the old man’s chair. Now this article must take a detour, for in the previous sentence, there’s three items in the previous sentence that must be addressed: (1) the homelessness, (2) why nobody, but nobody messed with the old man’s turkey, and (3) the larger lesson to be learned.

First, the homelessness. In America, most people tend to look at the homeless with either deep pity or barely-concealed scorn, but in any case most of us (whether out of fear or disgust or both) do our best to minimize any contact or interaction with the homeless - the assumption being that the homeless are drug addicts or alcoholics or are mentally challenged. In the Philippines, however, homeless people are simply regular people who are down on their luck. There, such people are referred to as “squatters” who are almost always just trying to do their best to just even have food for themselves and especially their children. This isn’t to say that there aren’t many addicts or mentally-challenged people among the homeless - of course there are - but for the most part, they’re normal, trustworthy people who work their fingers to the bone when they can find work. Some of the squatters who lived in the iskinita had lived there for decades and were well-liked and trusted by the families who were fortunate enough to live in houses there.

Second, the old man and the turkey. Nobody I asked seemed to know where the heck he got that turkey from. I’ve since found out that there are a very few turkey farms in the Philippines, but in the nearly twenty years since that night, I’ve yet to see another live turkey there. We returned to the Philippines almost every year for the next decade or so, and in 2008, the old man passed away, and the turkey was no longer to be found. It doesn’t take much imagination to realize what must have happened to it in a slum where most have never tasted turkey. But before then, the old man was frail - he couldn’t have stopped anyone from taking it from him. Why did no one bother that turkey? Come to find out that it had to do with the local custom concerning circumcision. In the Philippines, young boys are normally circumcised at somewhere between six and eight years old. My wife told me how they line up on a particular day with loose-fitting shorts for that procedure which any grown man would dread, and then for the next few days they’d be walking very carefully. The old man, it turns out, was the one who performed the procedure for the local community. It was then that I realized why nobody ever messed with that turkey, for if a young hoodlum were so foolish as to do so, that old man would certainly bear that in mind the next time a young boy from that hoodlum’s family lined up for circumcision, and (no pun intended) the old man might “accidentally” take more of a tip than was originally intended.

Third, the larger lesson to be learned. Even though the old man was homeless, a “mere” squatter, he fulfilled an important role in the local mostly-Roman Catholic culture: he performed the circumcisions. The fact that a homeless person would be not just respected but even important to the community is (sadly) a concept that would be foreign to most Americans. There in the Philippines, however, it’s normal. That’s why most squatters there are not shunned and ostracized as in America, but instead are usually (though not always) treated as regular people.

Now we can return to the arrival of Dad and those of us escorting him to the family compound. By this time it was forty minutes before midnight. The air was thick with the smoke and the acrid smell of the fireworks, and there was a near-constant roar of firecrackers. The whole city was celebrating the Millennium…the whole city, that is, except for our family compound. We were all crying. I couldn’t help but note the irony in that in April of 1999, he’d promised the family that he’d come home to visit sometime that year, and he did indeed come home (with forty minutes to spare), though obviously not in the way he’d planned.

The first thing I noticed was just how many family members there were. My wife was one of ten children, and at last count she has well over forty first cousins. In my youth in the Mississippi Delta, my grandmother would tell stories about how life was with her twelve siblings, and I figured this really wasn’t much different. There were kids of all ages everywhere, and for a diehard introvert like myself, the constant interaction was more than a little exhausting…especially given that they all wanted to meet the ‘Cano (their word for “American”) and talk to him.

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A *small* part of the family — my youngest son is in the blue shirt in the middle. This picture was taken in January 2000.

Dad’s casket was placed in one of the houses in the compound, and the wake began. I’m of Irish descent, so it was no surprise to me that the wake was still going on the next morning, or even the morning after that. But when the wake was still going on the morning of the fifth day, I finally asked my wife what was going on. She smiled and patiently informed me that in the Philippines, wakes normally last up to seven days. What’s more - and to this day I do not fully understand - during wakes, the bereaved family is expected to provide the food for those who come to pay their respects. Perhaps it’s because friends and community leaders tend to give a bit of money to the bereaved family, and many of those who come to pay their respects have little or no money, and so hope that there will be a little food to eat. The standard joke is that the bereaved family isn’t crying because they lost a family member, but because they have to spend so much to feed everyone who will come to the wake!

The most important experience of the trip, however, is the one I must relate now. Lola Enyang, my wife’s grandmother, was already old, half-blind, and half-deaf. Most of the time she simply lay on a cot in the muggy heat, with the flies and (thankfully uncommon) mosquitoes, and if she was lucky, she had a fan blowing on her to keep her cool. I felt so sorry for her, that she was in such a situation, but what could anyone do? There are very few homes or institutions for the elderly in the Philippines, and they’re too expensive an option to consider. But then I remembered all the stories that my wife would tell me from her work as a nurse at the nursing homes, even those nursing homes that are “assisted living” with nicely-furnished apartments and very good service. One thing that almost all residents of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities in America have in common is that their family members usually don’t visit much, and sometimes don’t visit at all. And this isn’t just an American problem, but one that is found in England, France, Japan, South Korea, and even in Australia.

What do all these nations have in common? They’re all first-world nations. First-world nations are more prosperous, and as a direct result, have much lower birth rates…and the lives of the adults are so busy that they have little time to spare for paying attention to (much less providing for) their parents and grandparents. So that makes one wonder who, really, is the richer? What good is it to live a long, prosperous, even wealthy life if in the last two decades one is increasingly isolated from one’s family, and especially if one is left in a nursing home, essentially forgotten by one’s children whose ever-rarer visits are often less out of love than out of a grudging sense of familial obligation? At that point, even the nicest, most modern nursing homes become nothing more than that proverbial gilded cage.

Truly, who is the richer? I look back at Lola Enyang, who lay on that cot in that sticky heat, and ask myself what did she have? She might not have air conditioning or a nice clean room, but every single day she had direct interaction with her children, her grandchildren, and even her great-grandchildren! Now look at the elderly who are wasting away, waiting to die in our first-world nation’s nursing homes - what would they give in order to have what Lola Enyang had every day, penniless as she was, even in the deep and grinding poverty of a Manila slum? As hard as her life had been for so long, who, really, has been as rich, as blessed as Lola Enyang was in her golden years? The only downside is that she never could have known just how utterly envious most elderly in America would be of what she took for granted.

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That’s me hugging my eldest son and my Darling, and my youngest son in his blue shirt, with a few more of our family there. Behind us is a rice field where we would share coffee while watching a farmer plow his rice fields with a carabao (a domestic water buffalo) every morning.

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Retired Navy. Inveterate contrarian. If I haven’t done it, I’ve usually done something close.

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