By David Haldane
Sept. 6, 2018
It always happens at the most inopportune time. You’re having dinner with friends about to make a point that, you are convinced, will finally identify you as the genius you know yourself to be. Or, better, you’re sitting on the potty reading the Sunday paper just about the flush. When suddenly the lights go off.
It would be bad enough, of course, simply having to carry on in total darkness sans air conditioning. As it happens, though, the high elevation of our house in Punta Bilar requires water to be pumped up from an underground vault below. That pump is electric. So, when the lights are gone, well, so is showering, shaving and, yes, even flushing. When power outages happen here, in other words, one’s continued survival becomes an exercise in primitive living.
We were not so naïve, of course, as to be incognizant of the fact that this sort of thing happens often in the Philippines. That’s why the design of our house calls for a battery-operated generator to provide power in precisely such situations. But the generator has yet to be installed. And so, God – who clearly has a well-developed sense of humor – gave us a little gift to welcome us to our new home; not one, but two, major brownouts in as many days. In fact, they were the most memorable experiences during days two and three of our new lives on this Third World Island.
My immediate reaction to those twenty-some hours of insufferable heat, impenetrable darkness, stagnant water and stinking toilets can roughly be summed up as follows: what the hell am I doing here? Or, put more succinctly; what was I thinking, please take me home now.
That didn’t happen, of course. Instead, Ivy and I and our seven-year-old son, Isaac, soldiered through those two grueling nights. Rather than expressing my doubts, I swallowed them, and I’m sure that Ivy did the same. And then a miracle happened; God said, “let there be electricity” and there was.
It took a few days, though, to fully assimilate what had actually taken place. That crack in consciousness occurred during a late-night tour of our three-story house, which is still under construction. While workers pound nails and exercise saws on the upper floors, we pretty much confine ourselves to one small bedroom and bathroom in the basement. On this particular night, though, I expanded my horizons by venturing upwards after dark. And what I saw completely changed my perspective on our suffering.
In a word, it was a cadre of construction workers sleeping on wooden planks. Six of them. Scattered at various points on the dusty debris-splattered floor. Without air conditioning, lights or even mattresses.
I knew, of course, that some of the workers were spending their nights at the construction site rather than returning home to their families. I’d also been told that they bathed in a nearby stream and relieved themselves, well, God knows where. But this was the first time I’d actually seen them.
And it had an effect. Specifically, it reminded me that our standard of living – even without electricity, air conditioning, running water or flushing toilets – was still better than that of many Filipinos. And it made me ashamed at having been such a cry baby.
In the end, I realized that what I thought had been God’s joke was really his lesson and it was this; that my family and I are privileged. And that privilege is something one should never take for granted or forget.
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 chronicle of that adventure.