By David Haldane
June 28, 2018
It was the kind of announcement you don’t want to hear from a pilot. Especially one controlling the airplane on which you’re a passenger. “Attention,” said the staticky voice of the man in the cockpit, “there’s good news and bad. The good news is that we’ll get you to your destination. The bad news: that the airplane can’t turn right. Fortunately, there are no right turns on the way to Manila.”
As the little plane rumbled down the runway toward takeoff from the tiny airport in Surigao City, I couldn’t help but think of a moth circling left over a drain.
I can’t quite recall the first time I realized how handy Filipinos are with chewing gum. Or, more precisely, handy at fixing things with whatever happens to be at hand. Perhaps the first time I got wind of it was when my Filipino father-in-law came to live with us in Southern California.
He speaks very little English. We quickly learned to communicate, however, the first time I saw him dragging a huge TV set in a little red wagon across my front lawn. It seems that he’d been down the road for the weekly farmers’ market and seen an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Let me say at the outset that I’m not opposed to television. Truth be told, I myself have spent many happy hours in front of a TV set or two. This one, however, was quite different from the ones to which I’m accustomed. For starters, it seemed almost as big as a small Volkswagen, probably more than thirty years old. On top of it sat a flimsy-looking set of rabbit ears. And when we plugged it in and turned the damn thing on, well, let’s just say that the picture didn’t improve.
But taped to the glass of that pitch-black screen was a small white sign that told the whole story. “FREE,” it said, written in what appeared to be the shaky hand of someone cleaning house. And what better way to get rid of a useless old fixture than by leaving it at the side of the road? I don’t know about other Filipinos, but for my father-in-law, it was a deal made in heaven.
“But it’s a piece of old junk,” I complained. “Why should we be storing other people’s junk?”
“I can fix,” he insisted.
And so, it came to pass that we now have a working TV set – albeit almost as old as me – installed under our patio awning. There are other examples of such thriftiness involving my father-in-law and his ilk. One that comes to mind involves the huge argument we had before moving from the city to the desert.
It all had to do with a set of ancient bar stools whose seats had long since rotted out. For me, the solution was simple; throw them away and buy a new pair. But he had a different idea, insisting that we take them along. He also persuaded me, against my better judgment, to keep a smelly backyard woodpile that I hadn’t noticed in years. The upshot? Bar stools, naturally, with nicely fitted wooden seats adorning the spaces around our new Jacuzzi.
Believe me, I get it. The Philippines, after all, is a developing country where new goods are often difficult to obtain and, anyway, generally out of reach for country folk like my father-in-law. So, they make do with what they have by figuring out ingenious – if sometimes tedious – ways of using it forever. The cardinal rule among provincials; never, ever throw anything away.
Which brings us back to that airplane in Surigao. We’d been sitting on the tarmac for maybe an hour when the first announcement came; our takeoff was delayed due to a “problem with the controls.” But the flight wouldn’t be canceled, an attendant assured us; kindly return to the terminal until the plane can be fixed.
Two hours later they ushered us back aboard with the news that the airplane could only turn left. And, sure enough, ninety minutes after that we landed safely in Manila having made, as far as I could tell, not a single right turn.
All of which left me both impressed and utterly terrified. The only significant unanswered question; exactly what brand of chewing gum did they use? I seriously doubt that I will ever know.
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 ongoing chronicle of that adventure.