By David Haldane
Somewhere close, a dog was complaining. But it wasn’t just an ordinary howl; piercing, mournful and terrifying, the cry in the dark sounded more like a wolf baying at the moon than a hound expressing its discomfort. Soon other dogs – dozens throughout the neighborhood – began answering their unhappy cousin’s call with their own discordant symphony of barks, whines and obedient whimpers. It was only hours later and with much difficulty that I finally got back to sleep; just in time to be awakened by a wild cacophony of roosters’ crows.
Anyone who’s ever spent time in the provinces of the Philippines knows exactly what I’m talking about; even in Surigao City, the sounds of the night are never too far. I used to think that it was mostly animals causing all the ruckus. Until a recent visit with friends in Dalaguete, Cebu, dramatically pulled aside the curtain of a new quadrant in my understanding. We spent roughly three days with our friends; he, an American like me and she, a Filipina like my wife. And of all those hours, only a few passed unaccompanied by the generally tone-deaf strains of their most proximate neighbor’s wretched attempts to make music. Vastly amplified, of course, by her overly enormous karaoke system.
Please don’t misunderstand; I do appreciate, and even occasionally indulge in, the universal human impulse to raise one’s voice in song. What I’ve never quite understood, though, is why in the Philippines there seems to be an inverse relationship between the quality of the effort and its volume; the more horrible the voice, in other words, the louder the song.
Then I noticed something telling. While our friends were more-than- willing to express their displeasure at the auditory intrusion in the privacy of their own home, the idea of communicating it directly to the offending neighbor – or, for that matter, to any neighbor at all – was completely out of the question. All of which started me wondering; in what other national environs can one, without repercussion, keep the neighbors up all night with barking dogs and off-key singing? Certainly not in America, where such behavior would invariably earn you a prompt rap on the door by the local police.
Here’s the thing: The Philippines, to be sure, is a developing country, ergo fairly disorganized and often inconvenient. But, ironically, amidst all that chaos – to some extent, in fact, precisely because of it – lies something sorely lacking in the more-developed West; freedom. And, even more importantly, freedom’s underlying requirement seemingly baked into this country’s cultural core; tolerance. While the West – especially the USA – loudly proclaims its devotion to that much-heralded value, the sad truth is that it is in increasingly short supply these days in the public lives and private souls of too many befuddled Americans.
And so I find myself in northern Mindanao, where freedom is available for the relatively low price of a few sleepless nights. In fairness, though, the sounds of this land are not always loud and disruptive; sometimes they whisper to you in soft and soothing tones. I first heard that caressing murmur early in my new life here after catching a ferry to Siargao Island, just three hours offshore. There, outside a rustic beach resort near General Luna, I spent a perfect hour lying in a hammock over steaming white sand shared only with a sleeping dog. And the next morning was awakened early by the voice of a young child singing next door accompanied by, yes, a veritable choir of crowing roosters.
That’s when I knew that I was home.
David Haldane, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, is an award-winning American journalist, author and radio broadcaster who recently moved to Mindanao with his Filipino wife and their eight-year-old son. This column is the unfolding story of that adventure.