Sarah Perry

A little unexpected

The winning article in the 2004 Shiva Naipaul Memorial prize. There were more than 60 entries from a total of eight countries. The runners-up were Horatio Clare, Simon Matthew Kingston, Joanna Kavenna, Bertie Cairns and Barnabas William Erskine Campbell.

Text settings

The winning article in the 2004 Shiva Naipaul Memorial prize.

There were more than 60 entries from a total of eight countries. The runners-up were Horatio Clare, Simon Matthew Kingston, Joanna Kavenna, Bertie Cairns and Barnabas William Erskine Campbell.

In the Jollibee burger bar, Kuya Virgo held out his hands. Cradled in each palm was a duck’s egg, still warm from its boiling water. He looked at us expectantly; we looked back. My husband reached out first. ‘Thank you, po,’ he said smilingly. I followed swiftly, attempting a little bravado: other British visitors had apparently responded to the ultimate Filipino culinary challenge with enthusiastic fits of vomiting.

Under Virgo’s instruction, we tapped the eggs at the tapered point on the Formica tabletop. Peeling back a little of the cracked shell, I could see what I took to be a kind of avian amniotic fluid inside. Kuya Virgo pushed forward a little bowl of salt, and we each took a pinch to season the liquid. I looked across at Rob; he seemed entirely unperturbed by the experience and merely grinned. Together, we threw back the fluid; it had lost much of its heat, and tasted oddly meaty.

This done, we set to peeling the remainder of the shell from the body of the egg. The white, cooked to a strangely light consistency, was laced with a tracery of black blood vessels, which held in place the tiny embryo of a bird. ‘The secret,’ said Virgo, ‘is not to look; you must just eat.’ Naturally, I inspected mine closely. The little body had a perfect wing tucked behind it; a tender, oversized beak; and vast eyes, boiled to a milkiness that observed me with detectable reproach. I was still considering whether it would be worth risking the inevitable nausea when I saw that Rob had finished his with apparently genuine appreciation, and was reaching for another. It gave me pause, this scene, and a perfect miniature of the mixed strangeness and familiarity of this country: Virgo continued to eat his cheeseburger; Celine Dion sang on the stereo; and my husband had the feather of a duck embryo stuck between his teeth.

Walking home, a friend confided, ‘We give this balot to honeymooners, you know. It strengthens the knees.’ Her arm through mine tightened conspiratorially. Rob spent much of that night on some odd protein high, enthusiastically battering cockroaches to death with a trainer.

We lived in Manila’s Cubao, an ambiguous district, part squalid, part wealthy. Western men were rare, but not unheard-of, creatures. Rob became accustomed to being mistaken for an American soldier, and to being hailed by greetings of ‘Hey Joe’ whenever he went out. Since this was in his view an unfavourable comparison, by the end of our stay he was threatening to have a T-shirt made that would howl in Tagalog: ‘I am not American!”

I, on the other hand, was greeted with mixed amazement, admiration and derision wherever I went. Heavy even by Western standards, with a great deal of blonde hair and very white skin and an inappropriate wardrobe of long skirts, I must have looked preposterous, as if a dairymaid had wandered out of the 18th century into those hot, concrete, neon-spilled streets. The first full phrase of Tagalog that I learnt was ‘Mataba, pero maganda, di ba?’, which roughly translates as ‘Blimey! She’s fat! Nice-looking, though.’ This followed me from the first week, when I was charged double for the price of the seat on the local public transport because of the size of my bottom, to the last, when dysentery and ludicrously high temperatures conspired to make me three stone lighter, but still at least twice the size of most Filipinas.

Now, as then, I find that each time I make some statement about the Philippines, another occurs that contradicts me completely. I speak about the Filipinos’ startling directness; their ability to say with no apparent regard for one’s embarrassment levels that one really is terribly large; that one is laughably badly dressed; that it must be dreadful to have such swollen ankles — see how horrible they look; witness how slender are theirs! — then immediately think of how often I offended Filipino friends with my inability to grasp the subtleties of what could and what could not be said.

Take, for example, the rigid system of politesse. This required us to find out, to the nearest month, the ages of new acquaintances, in order to know whether to address them as Ate (elder sister) or Kuya (elder brother), and whether to sprinkle our conversation — both in English and Tagalog — with the honorific ‘po’. I used to watch with mixed pity and amusement when nicely-brought-up British women of a certain age refused to state their ages, much to the consternation of the perfectly well-mannered Filipino who merely wanted to know exactly how civil he should be.

Regard for age extended far beyond mere titular politeness. It was unthinkable to contradict one’s senior publicly or, heaven forbid, seek a laugh at their expense. One evening I was holding a choir practice for enthusiastic church members, the majority of whom had no musical experience other than at the karaoke machine. It was 40 degrees, and the humidity in the monsoon season was almost at saturation point; irritability, never far from the surface in any circumstances, was seeping with the sweat from every pore. It had taken some time to quell my students’ enthusiasm to a level above which I could be heard, and I turned to the only remaining person speaking and said, with the usual light-hearted mock-crossness that is generally used to mask genuine exasperation, ‘Pastor! Be quiet!’

I achieved in that instant the kind of silence for which any schoolteacher would cheerfully kill. Two dozen pairs of brown eyes turned on me with absolute disbelief; those belonging to the publicly chastened pastor were thankfully the first to smile, and the others followed; but it became clear to me in the days following that I had committed a dreadful faux pas. British directness did not sit comfortably in a culture in which people were minutely careful never to make another lose face. This rather limited my chances for playing to the crowd: all our best jokes are a little unkind, and gently aimed at others.

A failure to grasp the principles of personal honour was potentially disastrous. A friend of ours, though regarding himself as more Filipino than British, and resident in Manila for more than 30 years, came unstuck when looking for a builder. Speaking on the phone, he found that all of them would answer his direct question — can you do it? — with direct affirmatives, and then not turn up. This happened several times until he realised that to admit to being unable to do ‘it’ would be exquisitely embarrassing, and that until he found a way to phrase the question with a sort of inbuilt get-out clause his walls would remain unplastered.

Despite this extreme sensitivity, Filipinos can be astonishingly blunt on some subjects best left, to the British mind, unmentioned. In a country where many are too thin, and where the large bins left on the pavements outside cafés are fair game for anyone prepared to rummage through for leftovers, pointing out that someone is fat is not necessarily pejorative. In fact, if you go to Shangri-La, the shopping mall where the air-conditioning is turned on full to allow the cream of Manile society to wear their fur coats, you’ll find scores of young children fed to a grotesque level of plumpness as an indicator of their parents’ wealth. It was unreasonable, then, to expect them to remain silent on the subject of my weight; nonetheless, it was this — and not the cockroaches that shared our bedroom, or the constant running sweat so salty it burnt my face — that finally made me lose my temper. We were climbing the Taal volcano, one of the smallest active volcanoes in the world — an island in a lake that is itself the crater of a far larger, extinct volcano.

Taal’s own crater is filled with hot water which slowly boils and releases vast green patches that spread on the surface. This pool is belted by a narrow bay punctuated with perfect circles releasing plumes of white steam. Volcanic earth being aggressively fertile, the slopes burst with palms and orchids, and are carpeted with mint. As we neared the crater, the scent of the mint grew stronger and mixed with the sulphurous fumes from the lake, so that it smelt as if all the inhabitants of hell were cleaning their teeth. I resent any kind of exercise, and despite the outrageous beauty of the setting muttered to myself much of the way to the crater. I was determined to walk, rather than to resort to the ponies that most of the tourists were using, if only to strike a blow for the capability of well-fed Westerners. This determination was lost on the several men who followed me up with their ponies, waiting with me every time I paused to regain breath and dignity. They gave a typically frank commentary on my hot and laborious climb, and I unfortunately knew enough Tagalog to know exactly how extraordinary they thought it that I had made it this far; how very unlikely it was that I wouldmake the crater unassisted; and how fortunate it was that their ponies in particular (and here they diverted wildly from the evidence of my own eyes) were the strongest to be found on Taal. I regret to say that I finally lost patience and yelled at them to leave me alone; at my friends to instruct them to leave me alone; and finally at all of them to stop laughing. I achieved nothing but a distance of perhaps ten feet between myself and their continuing assessment of my progress, and a grudging understanding that it is no good at all putting an entire nation in a box labelled ‘excessively polite’. Next we visited Banaue, a province of sensational beauty, covered with rice paddies on terraces carved into the mountainsides. Look at it, and your vision is entirely filled from east to west with vast irregular staircases of shallow steps. When we were there, the rice was young and the paddy fields full of still water and seedlings. We walked out on the narrow baked-mud walls that separate each step from those above and below, and found that the sky was reflected with such clarity in the water around us that we seemed to have been flung out into it, and suspended there. We climbed down more than 300 stone steps to reach Bata’an, a village where the Catholicism brought there by the Spanish 400 years ago is regarded as a passing fad. For a hundred pesos, we were introduced to a woman who produced woven vases and boxes — go to Camden, you’ll probably find one — tarred with a deep red stain that gave her hands the appearance of a Lady Macbeth. Tucked behind jars of varnish and unfinished vases was a bundle wrapped in a bright cloth. It rattled a little as she brought it down; I drew ghoulishly closer. She knelt beside the bundle and unwrapped it, until we could see a pile of bones. This, she explained, was her grandfather, who had been killed in the second world war. She picked up the top section of his skull, and the jawbone, which had become detached. Fitting the jawbone back into its socket, she moved it up and down, so that it appeared to be laughing at us. He had been a very brave man, she said, repeating this with the joint of his hip and waving the thighbone so that I could hear the bones dustily grinding together.

I met a woman of less than 50, and was sharing the woes of being builtalong the lines of a galleon in full sail in a land of canoes — when she sighed, ‘I am old, already, Sarah: I am old.’ I mistook the solemnity of her voice for regret; besides, her plumpness filled out her face and she looked young. I protested at some length — her son was young, her skin was smooth: she need not worry! — and succeeded once again in offending. ‘I am old,’ she insisted. ‘I am old enough.’ I understood this time: she was proud of having attained an age where she could properly expect respect and assistance from family and strangers.

I tried to give it to her. I thought I had come to understand the Filipino reverence and respect for age, and their sense of personal dignity, but then we attended a wedding at which several women in their forties tore sticky lumps out of the wedding cake and ran around the restaurant giggling and smearing it on each others’ faces. So I mentally scored my carefully drawn picture of the Filipino through, and started again.

As with the people we met, so it was with the places we saw. I never saw such ugliness as I did there, and never such beauty; it was at once utterly familiar, and completely strange. Cubao itself is bisected by the ill-named Aurora Boulevard, and over this looms the metro sky-train, supported by vast concrete stanchions. It looks as every modern city does, with branches of Starbucks, McDonald’s and KFC; walking there you might as well be in Thurrock, until something a little unexpected presents itself and it is as if everything suddenly shifts, and you see it all from a new and dizzying perspective.

Certainly, you are eating a chocolatechip muffin — but Ate Estela is chewing on a chicken’s foot; yes, this is a Guess Tshirt that you have bought — but the store next door is selling bone-handled flickknives with blades four feet long; absolutely, Mercury Books stocks Harry Potter — but it’s coming up to Good Friday, and young men are putting their names down to be nailed to crosses for the evening. We spent ten days out of Manila in the province of Bicol, at the home of relatives of a friend of ours. Our hut was constructed from the branches of the nipa palm, and its roof looked very like that of a thatched cottage in Sussex, but somehow it insulated us from the midday heat more efficiently than the precious but noisy air-conditioning unit we had in our Cubao bedroom. Several times I found reasons to go outside, and come back in, simply to marvel all over again at the coolness. I was revelling in how terrifically authentic it was that I had just harvested some radishes from where they grew under the banana palms using a vast machete, when our hosts suggested that we watch a film together. We sat satiated after a stew of fish-heads and, with the wind coming up the river rustling in the nipa fronds of the roof, watched a Brad Pitt DVD.

I found each expectation confirmed, then confounded; every experience followed by another that seemed impossibly out of keeping. Ate Estela, who is a social worker, took us several times to the shanty towns where she worked. These are known as squatter areas, in reference to the clause in the post-Marcos constitution that allows the homeless to live on government-owned land with impunity. Built ofany material to hand, often stupefyinglyhot and tangled with cables that conveyed electricity illegally from the nearest lampposts, they seemed at first to epitomise a dreary misery. Most women had far more children than they could reasonably feed, and seemed to produce them from the beginning until the end of their fertility. In homes where extended families lived and slept in the same few square feet, child abuse was rife. I remember Jocelyn, a child with huge keloid scars on her arms from where her mother burnt her with an iron, sitting beside me on the grass and stroking my belly in a vague understanding that I had eaten something that hurt me. It used to delight and sadden me equally that children who have suffered loathsome abuse still have this kind of capacity for loving adults.

I have in my mind a series of snapshots from our visits to the slums: the woman who had no teeth and seemed ancient, yet who was breast-feeding her child; the enterprising boy of four or five who sat in an old wooden chair for hours each day solemnly peeling green mangoes and selling them; Kuya Gerry, who lived in a hut on stilts built on the steaming rubbish dump by the harbour, and who had almost no possessions except a Bible and several books on theology;the little girl with a boil the size of a kalamansi lime on her head.

How can I explain, then, that I also found in these places a great deal of stoic happiness and a resolute capacity for enjoyment that now seems to me to be the most defining Filipino characteristic? I’m ashamed to have been shocked to see that a family sleeping on cardboard boxes for beds had a karaoke machine in the corner of their tin hut. Its silver plastic casing and sprinkling of coloured lights seemed grotesquely misplaced, and must surely have cost several months’ wages. I thought that the poor should be properly discontent with their lot — an instructive experience, like a living Hogarth engraving. It never occurred to me that it should be possible to live like that and be — even if just for brief moments — happy.

It is impossible to do justice to all the contradictions. Women who rarely ventured out of their own particular maze of shanties and who must have struggled every day to buy food nonetheless had perfect manicures, and almost always had eyebrows plucked to an elegantly surprised arch. Children of these families who were able to attend school left their homes each morning in immaculate uniforms that must have made them indistinguishable from their wealthier classmates. And the overriding smell of the squatter areas — or at least the one that lingered with us as we took the rickshaw home — was not of rising drains or stale food, but of soap powder.