Every week – generally, but not always, on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday – we are startled by the sudden explosion of loud and very scratchy music from the street in front of our house. If it weren’t so badly recorded it would, I’m sure, remind me of the local Carnation ice cream man of my childhood who used to announce his presence with the gentle tinkling of bells or, more often, a musical jingle used only by him.
Alas, the weekly wakeup call here is not the ice cream man but someone who, while probably more important, isn’t nearly as much fun. I’m speaking of the trash collectors who, if you ask them nicely, will stop by your house whenever they happen to pass just long enough for you to hustle your essential throwaways down to their truck. Provided that you do it fast.
In America, the weekly trash pickup is taken for granted. On a given day of the week (for us it was always Monday) you simply leave your filled-to-the-brim plastic or metal trash container at the front curb and, voila! Invariably, within hours, its contents magically disappear. Here in the outskirts of Surigao City, on the other hand, it’s not nearly so easy. That’s why, every Wednesday, Thursday or Friday, there’s a tremendous hue and cry at our house, accompanied by heartfelt and urgent chants of “The trash man’s here, the trash man’s here” as that week’s designated trash monitor hustles down to the front gate, dragging our fully loaded trashcan behind.
We usually make it in time though, sorry to say, sometimes we don’t.
It reminds me a lot of a scene in an old Steve Martin comedy called “The Jerk,” in which Martin – playing a semi-retarded (oops, I guess the politically correct term these days is intellectually disabled) man who gets very excited when the new phone book arrives. “The new phone book’s here, the new phone book’s here!!” he screams to the utter bewilderment of all those within earshot. “I’m somebody now!”
To most Americans, of course, the scene is hilarious because their new phone books arrive regularly without fanfare (although how long that will continue is a subject of some conjecture) and, well, having one’s name and phone number listed in the phonebook is a matter of little consequence or note.
In my new hometown of Surigao, on the other hand, I doubt that most residents would even get the joke. The reason is obvious; people here have never received phone books, seldom have landlines, and even mail delivery is rare and unpredictable at best.
Which brings us to my central point; the difficulty of transitioning from an orderly and well-run society like America’s to one in which you get your electric bill from a neighbor who probably got it from the barangay captain who got it from God-knows-where? A society in which, frankly, emergency services are unpredictable, mail delivery sparse, brownouts and water shortages common and even the arrival of the trash collector a matter of some excitement and joy.
“Honey,” my wife said to me during a recent heated discussion regarding inconvenience in the Philippines, “if you’re going to live here, you have to get used to it.”
And so I am trying. There are days when the best I can do is question my own sanity (excuse me, intellectual disability) in deciding to move here. But then there are those others, the times in which a strange kind of excitement wells up in my heart, a sort of primitive satisfaction that not everything happens just when and how it should. Ultimately, I think, it’s the raw alertness – a form of heightened consciousness, really – required in a world where one must fend for oneself rather than have all his needs lined up in tidy little rows.
It is at those times that I happily join the chorus of Filipino and other voices heralding the unfolding of life as it happens. And it is on those days that I cheer loudest for the celebrated coming of the trash man.
God willing, this time we’ll catch him.
David Haldane, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, is an award-winning American journalist, author and radio broadcaster who recently moved to Surigao City with his Filipino wife and their eight-year-old son. This column tells the unfolding story of that adventure.