Ivy and I had just met, and she’d taken me home to see her parents. Home was a tiny thatched-roof village called Caridad on the eastern shore of Siargao Island. The day had been filled with relentlessly honest interrogations by Mom and Dad, not to mention a few dozen relatives. Exhausted, we’d gone to bed early, only to be awakened the next morning by a series of blood-curdling screams.
Oh my God, I thought, Abu Sayyaf is cutting off somebody’s head!
In fact, I soon learned, it wasn’t any of our heads on the block; the screams came from the throat of an enormous pig being slaughtered right under our window on my behalf. Unable to curb a journalist’s compulsion, I immediately grabbed my camera and spent the next several hours photographing the poor animal being slowly roasted whole on a fire-licked spit. And that evening, experienced my first taste of lechon; the very same animal that had so recently given up its ghost, now crispy and brown, laid out on the table with its flesh ripe for ripping.
The only thing missing, it occurred to me, was an apple in its mouth.
It’s difficult to explain the impact of such a sight on the tender psyche of one for whom it is new to those who have literally spent their lives within earshot of the final death squeals of cruelly tortured pigs. Suffice it to say the experience is akin to waking up, as a character in the classic American film, “The Godfather,” does, with a bloody severed horse’s head next to you in bed.
Back home, of course, one buys one’s pork at a supermarket clinically wrapped in cellophane; God forbid that it, in any way, resemble the animal whence it came. More often than not, in fact, the meat is frozen, removing it even further from the distasteful circumstances of its origin.
For a time I was able to almost forget the woeful sound of that dying pig’s last anguished squeal. Living in the Philippines, naturally, I saw my fair share of whole roasted pigs resting on gaily decorated tables. But, absent those piercing shrieks, I was somehow able to do the mental calisthenics necessary to convince myself that they were probably synthetic, perhaps made of rubber.
Then came my 70th birthday.
It began, as many birthdays here do, with the harmonic caroling of sweet young voices, gently awakening me from my slumber. Then came a horrific contrast; the gut-wrenching squeals of an innocent young pig being carried in a sack up our driveway to its slaughter. Holy Mother of God, I thought, it’s happening again.
Try as I might, though, I couldn’t resist following that jiggling bag all the way to the backyard where, as I watched fascinated, its contents were unceremoniously dumped onto an elevated board upon which the unfortunate animal’s screeching throat was, even less ceremoniously, slit with large gleaming knife. Suffice it to say that there was blood flowing every which way. And that’s when I noticed I was remarkably calm.
It wasn’t exactly the kind of calm emanating from deep within, the kind finding its strength in a firm belief that the universe is good, and all things ultimately stem from some divine and everlasting core. No, this was more the kind of calm that says this too shall pass and you shall survive. Unlike, I might add, that miserable pig. The kind whispering a somewhat comforting message to the effect, more-or-less, that everything happens for a reason and it’s all just part of the natural flow. Which is how I was able to face my next – and most recent – pig slaughtering with a newfound modicum of comfort.
That third little piggy, like its predecessor, met eternity in our backyard, this time on the occasion of my son, Isaac’s, ninth birthday. In fact, the event entailed a certain symmetry in that the tasty still-breathing hunk of pork hailed from Siargao Island where I had first witnessed what it, unknowingly, was about to experience. That’s probably why I felt moved to record the poor creature’s last night on earth with an artful photographic portrait.
I don’t think I need describe what happened early the next morning.
Here’s the thing, though; there actually is some truth to that platitude regarding the natural course of the reality we all share. Living things are born and then die; pigs just do it sooner and in more gruesome fashion. And too, I suppose, it could be said that – unlike us – their lives almost invariably serve an immediate and obvious purpose.
Filipinos seem to understand all this. Unlike Westerners, who generally faint at the sight of blood, theirs is a culture with little tolerance for the luxury of flinching in the face of harsh reality. And, to be honest, that’s one of the reasons I like living here.
I certainly can’t promise to ever enjoy watching pigs being slaughtered. But here’s a New Year’s resolution; from now on, I will do my best to keep eyes open wide when life presents a raw truth. Even when it’s as bloody and uncomfortable as the undisguised preparation of that day’s lunch.
David Haldane is the author of an award-winning 2015 memoir called “Nazis & Nudists.” A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an American journalist, essayist and radio broadcaster whose 2018 story of the California desert garnered a Golden Mike award in feature reporting. He recently moved to Mindanao with his Filipino wife and their nine-year-old son. This column tells the unfolding story of that great adventure.
Originally Published in Mindanao Gold Star Daily