By David Haldane
Feb. 18, 2019
For the longest time, I thought it was me. I’d be lying in bed, just dropping off the sleep, when suddenly a tiny yellow lizard would scamper across the ceiling above my head. Or I’d walk into the kitchen just in time to see a huge brown spider slithering up its wall.
“Geese,” I’d say to my Filipino wife, Ivy, “we’ve got to do something about these critters!” What I neglected to tell her, of course, was that I’d already done something about that darn spider with a little help from my shoe.
“Sure, honey,” she’d respond sweetly, “No worries, we will.” But I could never escape the feeling that I was being placated. And, of course, nothing ever happened to eliminate the varmints inhabiting our house and sharing our food.
One night she calmly informed me that a rat was living in our bedroom. She knew that, she explained, because she’d just seen the thing scurrying across the floor. What surprised me, though, was the tone in which she spoke; exactly the same she would use in offering a morning cup of coffee. And that’s when I realized that the problem wasn’t how we lived, but where.
See, the Philippines is what Westerners politely refer to as a developing country. That label, of course, has lots of connotations; among them poor roads, crowded conditions and a general lack of infrastructure. Oh yes, and toilets that don’t flush with showers that won’t heat. Now I was experiencing firsthand yet another drawback that hadn’t previously occurred to me; tiny creatures that run amok.
“I guess this is just one of the things we’re going to have to make peace with in order to live here,” I told Ivy, stroking my chin thoughtfully. “I mean, there’s a definite price you pay for living in a country like this; certain things that you just have to give up. But, gosh, there must be something we can do about these bugs.”
A few weeks later I experienced an event that completely changed my perspective; Ivy and I attended a fancy wedding reception in Surigao City. Perhaps you’re wondering how something as mundane as that could possibly have a life-changing impact, so let me be specific; what did it was the table at which we sat. Don’t get me wrong, it was a nice-looking table lovingly strewn with an array of Filipino delicacies including roasted bananas, crispy pork, barbecued chicken and fried fish, to name just a few. It was also crawling with ants.
It wasn’t as if they were eating our meal; the food was covered in a protective plastic wrap, making it challenging at best for the insects to reach their mark. But it wasn’t for lack of trying either; as I watched incredulously, the tiny army of ants scrambled up and over the plastic wrappings, surrounding our plates and spreading like a puddle across the table’s surface.
Back home in the U.S., of course, such a menagerie of insect life – in the highly unlikely event that it would have survived this long at all – would, by now, be the cause of embarrassment, consternation and abject apology on the part of the wedding planner, not to mention the object of immediate annihilation by same. Much to my astonishment, however, none of my fellow guests seemed to even notice the ants; as if following a secret script, they simply took their respective seats, smiled benignly at each other and began carefully brushing the insects aside to uncover their food.
That’s when it struck me, as suddenly and shockingly as a bolt from the sky: What I had previously seen as a mark of the country’s backwardness was, in fact, a sign of its highly evolved culture. To put it succinctly, Filipinos have made peace with nature. Instead of constantly pitting themselves against it, as we Americans are apt to do, they have found a way to live in harmony with nature’s lowliest creatures including its ants, rats, lizards and spiders.
It would be difficult to overstate the effect this revelation had on me; suffice it to say that my mind was blown. In short, I began viewing the native inhabitants of my adopted country with newfound respect and a sincere desire to emulate their enlightened behavior. Being American-born, of course, it won’t be easy, but I have a plan. The next time I see a spider crawling up the wall, instead of grabbing a shoe I will simply relax and call it my brother.
Hey, it’s a start.
A former Los Angeles Times staff writer and winner of a 2018 Golden Mike award in radio broadcast journalism, David Haldane fell in love with the Philippines on his first visit there in 2003. A few visits later, he also fell in love with the beautiful young Filipina to whom he is now married and, with whom, he has returned many times. David has written extensively about his experiences in the Philippines for several publications including Orange Coast and Islands Magazine. Today he and Ivy, along with their eight-year-old son, Isaac, divide their time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Surigao City, Philippines. His award-winning memoir, Nazis & Nudists, recounts, among other things, the courtship of Ivy and finding a place to call home. For David that turned out to be at the tip of a peninsula marking the gateway to Mindanao where he and Ivy are building their dream home next to a lighthouse overlooking the sea. This blog is the chronical of that ongoing adventure.