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Watching The Paint Dry

By David Haldane

Oct. 25, 2018

It’s not as if we don’t have other things to do. There’s cooking, washing the clothes, taking Isaac to school, going shopping, visiting friends. But lately, when not occupied with some other regular or necessary task, we’ve taken to spending our time in a new and unfamiliar way; I call it watching the paint dry.

If you’re wondering what paint looks like drying, well, you’re right to wonder; it doesn’t look like anything. And that’s the point; as we sit in the basement ostensibly watching our new house growing up around us, we sometimes feel as if we’re living in a state of suspended animation. Nothing moves. Nothing changes. For days, sometimes weeks. The truth is, there are times we suspect that the paint has already dried, and we just don’t know it.

Several weeks ago, we had a “come to Jesus” meeting with our engineer who, it must be said, we hold in very high regard. “Friend,” we told him, as gently as we could, “it’s beginning to seem like we’ll be living in the basement with the ants for years. We don’t want to spend even one year living with the ants, is there anything you can do?”

He nodded earnestly in understanding and agreement, and immediately went off to have a conference with the foreman. And for a time, indeed, it seemed that the pace of the work picked up and, perhaps for the first time, we could actually see some focus.

Then I spent three days in the hospital being treated for a nasty intestinal amoeba,(link to story) followed by an immediate week-long sojourn to Siargao Island for the fiesta. On the boat ride home, Ivy and I fantasized about what we would find. “Maybe the house is finished!” she joked in anticipation. “Perhaps we can finally move into the bedroom.”

Imagine our disappointment when, upon arrival, we observed that the place – save for a random detail here and there – looked pretty much exactly as it had when we left. Suffice it to say that that evening’s paint-watching was particularly hard.

It’s not that they’re lazy. We hear them every day pounding, sawing, mixing cement and hammering nails. It’s just that we don’t know what they’re doing. While one guy is painting arches, another is digging a trench in the yard. To be fair, for the most part, the work done so far has been of high quality. And every once in a while, we see a major breakthrough; the house actually has glass on all its windows now, and the long-awaited generator has finally been installed. Generally, though, the progress is agonizingly slow as we watch each chip of paint crystallize into its final form.

A Filipino friend with experience in such matters suggests that we lock all the workers in one room and not let them out until the room is done. “That way,” he says, “you force them to focus.”

We are, in fact, considering it.

As we enter the third year of construction and third month of occupancy, however, we are trying to get some focus ourselves; especially on ways of living with this achingly slow pace of progress. Perhaps we need to start thinking of it as a kind of Zen. Instead of watching the paint dry, we need to embrace its wetness. Instead of banging our heads against an imaginary wall that we wish was there but isn’t, we need to stop envisioning the wall altogether and flow with the state of limbo that has become our lives; the endless lethargy in which down is up and up is down and all other directions are the same.

Or… we could schedule another evangelical revival meeting with our esteemed engineer to set some deadlines. First one: getting out of the damn basement.






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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.






  1. David G. LaBarr says:

    We have been involved in quite a bit of construction here in Davao including a 3 story house with two full kitchens and 5 baths. This all concrete, block, and rebar house with everything first class, took 10 months to construct. No ordinary house , even here in the Philippines, should take more than a year start to finish.
    God bless,


    • David Haldane says:

      Thanks for your input, Dave. I think part of the problem here may be the location, which is a bit hard to get to. We did have that heart-to-heart with our engineer and, I’m happy to report, the pace seems to have visibly quickened since then. And I can also honestly say that, for the most part, the work they’ve done so far is beyond reproach. That said, we are certainly hoping to be finished by the end of the year.

  2. Joselito Latham says:

    The problem is I think workers tend to do everything the long way round as they are paid daily thus everything takes so long. I have been renovating my house here at the back of Gaisano mall surigao and if I was not here to tell them to do things in a more efficient way they’d find ways to do things in a less timely manner. Just like to say I binged read most of your posts and found them quite entertaining from your perspective.

    • David Haldane says:

      Thank you, Joselito. Here in Surigao, they’re also telling me that it’s hard to get skilled workers because they can get a lot more money over on Siargao Island where the recent tourist boom has caused a building boom at the same time as putting more money in the pockets of locals. As always, it’s a matter of supply-and-demand; the only way to compete with Siargao is to pay Siargao rates which, of course, we are reluctant to do. We’ll see what happens now that Boracay is reopening.

      • Joselito Latham says:

        That may well be the case specially if they are offered free board and food! Hope you get out the basement soon, if you ever fancy a beer and are visiting Gaisano mall drop me an email I’ll be happy to have a few with you.

  3. Rob Ashley says:

    David: My wife has been trying to build a house, or to have her relatives build a house for her in Samar. So far, after quite a few pesos from us, there are some materials and some rebar sticking out of the corners. “Is there a plan I ask? is there a design? Can I see a drawing?” “No there isn’t. Just send more money.” Hmm. -Rob