Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The end of the beginning

Remember that dilapidated bunker I moved into so I could be close to my girlfriend? (That's not her pictured, though the age gap would still be less than for most of the mixed race couples over here). The house I optimistically paid four months rent on before I really knew what I was getting into? Well, I only managed one month before the increasing blows to my quality of life got too much and I had to accept that my upbringing and experiences over the past 27 years have given me moderate standards after all.

There are people who would be grateful for a cheap concrete cube with no bathroom, intermittent water and electricity and a menagerie of irrepressible nocturnal beasties, whose circumstances mean they deserve the discount living and who are less likely to be shouted at by kids every bloody time they step outside. They're welcome to it.

But at least I didn't put myself through extreme discomfort for nothing, as by giving my confused girlfriend what she thought she wanted - the chance to help out her family, spend time with me and work alongside me on our sickeningly matching laptops - she finally learned that you can't really balance two entire lives. After getting stressed out by having to look after her sister's store and her sister's kids every day while that sister was somehow allowed to go to work, she chose the life that had me in it.

So on Thursday 18 July 2013, we moved into our first flat together (pictured) in a much nicer part of Davao. Spoiled by air conditioning, an actual bathroom, 24-hour water and electricity, local amenities and security guards reducing the likelihood of me getting kidnapped and held for ransom by terrorists, things are so peachy here, I even forget what country I'm in most of the time. Have you ever deliberately lowered the standards of your life for a while so that afterwards bad things don't seem quite so bad?

Welcome to hellmonth

Yes, that was a Buffy reference.
I guess I could have gone for someone more obvious like Giles. Best not to analyse it

It would have been convenient if she'd been able to come to this decision without me having to endure a month of lukewarm hell first, and before I'd paid the required, non-refundable rent on that place and bought all the burdensome furniture and appliances I now don't even need in this furnished apartment, but I'll just have to be satisfied that I always get my way in the end and that we're now living the lives we want to. You know what, that'll do. Especially when you do the maths and work out I only lost the equivalent of £26.54 a month. The landlord had kids, it'll help.

There's still a not insubstantial part of my brain that finds that crazily low rent appealing - adding electricity and water bills, mobile broadband and groceries, I could theoretically get by churning out four car maintenance articles a week, or even make a living reviewing obscure black metal albums for 50p a pop like I used to in my unemployable post-university lull (they were actually good times). But I tried this life and it's not intended for me. I don't need to save money that badly, even now I've consciously decided to forgo flights and fancies to live a simpler life for a while, taking on more work if it's available and hoping this means my savings will grow so I can feel secure in the event of unspecified life changes and medical crises in the future.

Still, saving money doesn't mean I need to live like a refugee, and without being unnecessarily or vengefully harsh, my month in Tibungco really felt like a half-way meeting between my normal standard of cheap flats/hotels and one of those African villages One Direction patronises for Comic Relief. There were bugs everywhere, structural problems I had to fix myself or live with (Jackie cemented the leaking water pipe for me because she wears the trousers), a barely-equipped outside comfort room (just a seatless, flushless toilet and a tap, we provided our own bucket), a water supply divided with another village that doesn't obey any kind of regular schedule, and people and their too-many-kids (pass the Reproductive Health Bill and give these people condoms already!) shouting at me when I walk past because there's no work or free education and they genuinely have nothing better to do.

This is coming from someone who spent almost all of the last month lying on an airbed working a couple of hours a day on his laptop and filling the rest of the time catching up on pointless 1990s TV mini-series because he genuinely had nothing better to do either, but at least I was finding ways to keep busy that didn't involve making people who were already suffering reluctant to leave their concrete prison. Resurgence in the threat of terrorism, an outbreak of dengue fever and advice for travellers to avoid Mindanao entirely also meant that Jackie was trying to persuade me not to walk down to the village past all the dodgy foliage, but those weekly shopping trips to the poorly stocked supermarket a few towns distant were the only time I got out. I was always eager to get back to my bubble.

Because Mindanao wasn't unappealing enough already.
Don't worry, Mum, I'm only in the hazardous middle one

Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria

I haven't even got around to talking about the new place yet, I'm realising I've kept so much pent up about the old hellhole. I feel sorry - in a completely over-privileged, patronising, unwelcome way, but genuine nonetheless - for the kids who have to grow up in these rural villages and will probably always live in these same conditions, unless they risk the move to Manila and end up living somewhere much worse like a graveyard slum.

Filipino fatalism conditions these people not to expect or demand higher standards from their lives, because God will sort it all out. But we are not lilies of the field - if we neither toil nor spin, we won't have any money and our children will die. It's alright for the cocky lily, with its chloroplasts and roots absorbing everything it needs from the sun and rain so it can laze around all day shouting at other lilies of a slightly different shade, but we need to take action to improve our lives. It's not like the government's ever going to help these people - that's right, I've been reading bitter political blogs. I've had some free time.

Arguably too much free time

But even beyond the place itself, I was getting increasingly irritated at the imbalance in our relationship, which had required me to make a lot of sacrifices as I followed all of my girlfriend's specific instructions so we could spend more time together, with new clauses being added every day ('we cant, the walls are too thin,' etc), while it seemed on the surface that Jackie's life was proceeding as it did before. Just with a few hours listening to a complaining boyfriend squeezed in to an already packed schedule of sorting out other people's problems.

This perceived unfairness was putting a strain on things, as was my inability to let it lie and request that we just spend a little more time together in this place I was only staying in to be close to her, until one day she collapsed under the multiple pressures on her life and told her mother we were going to move in together in the city, because she needed to get on with her life and have time to make money online like she used to before she became her sister's unpaid PA. Then she told me about it. It was the first good news I'd heard in a while.

This wasn't an easy decision for her, as even though she's got her parents' blessing, moving in with someone before marriage isn't really the done thing here. Though I'd guess that for most people it's less down to anxiety about filial respect and more a case of lacking the funding for freedom. With that nagging away at her conscience and the possibility that she's providing fuel for the scandalous gossip of those aforementioned wasters with nothing better to do, she's making sacrifices so we can be together. The fact that this makes me feel better by lightening the load of my own concessions probably proves that I'm a bad man, but how can you be happy in a relationship if you're the one doing everything?

Even considerately kneeling so you can get in frame with your diminutive other

It's not like there won't still be problems. I'm still in the Philippines, but it's suburban Philippines, which isn't as backward as the rural barrios, and even has actual pavements! More importantly, after a month surviving exclusively on my own cooking, I can now go for a Chinese or a pizza again without needing to take an hour-long jeepney ride into civilisation. The fact that I just described Davao City as 'civilisation' bodes well after that earlier post when I dismissed this region in general - maybe there's hope for it yet.

We got a flat

We really like it. We just celebrated our halfie-anniversary too, so my life's boringly happy in general. Unfortunately, this contentment means you shouldn't expect any new spiteful travelogues from me for a while - it's been nearly three years, I think I've done my civic duty.


  1. Sometimes in my daydreams I like to imagine going to a place like this (normally an Indian slum, sometimes an African village) and using my comparative wealth to make things amazing. First I'd improve the water supply then, having befriended some of the locals, I'd buy a little bit of stock so some of them had basic shops (which they'd use the profit from to keep going) and seeds and stuff so they can grow their own food. From there things get bigger and more advanced and it all spirals out of control.

    The main problem of course is that I'd have to live in, or near, one of these places and I'm not sure I'd like that very much.

    1. That's the kind of "I've got the money, I'm not using it right now, they could use it more than me, they'll pay it back later at a convenient time" attitude that's led to most of my money disappearing over the last few years, because people are terrible at the last part.

      If my income had stayed at stupid 2011/12 levels forever I could have forgotten about it, but that probably won't be the case, especially now I'm living with someone and the longer it goes, the more impending and real The Future becomes and I need that money to have a life that isn't in a slum.

      It sounds obvious, but you do need to spend time somewhere to really understand the significant differences (like your slum fun). "Savings" here actually means money for daily expenses like rides on the jeepney and snacks - basically, what's left over after you get paid once a fortnight and immediately do your big shop and pay bills, school fees and everything else. Filipino salary is so much lower than it actually needs to be, one of the things that makes me angriest about this country's government/corporations/whatever (and that's a massive list).

      I think a lot about your girlfriend's story about her dad helping out bloody everyone in a village and relocating kids so they could have a (subjectively) 'better' life. My girlfriend ideally wants a kid before she's 30, so I've still got a few of years of not having to face up to that reality yet (ah, whatever, worse people than me have had kids and not totally screwed them up), but we've already talked about whether raising them over here and condemning them to a bad salary and bad reputation would really be fair. I can imagine him/her looking at me when they realise their best possibilities in life are to emigrate and be treated like a slave abroad and asking "why did you do this to me, Daddy?" On the other hand, I could just support them with my own money forever if we lived here, and thereby raise another dependent fatalist with their hand permanently out.

      Not writing many blogs at the moment, so my comments might be overlong and not on topic at all. Thanks for bothering with the word/number verification though, the spam notifications just got too annoying.

  2. I'm going to ignore all your griping and get straight to saying congrats on moving in together. There's nothing better than getting to argue about the little things, like "why did you put the cheese on the meat shelf?", "why didn't you replace the loo roll?" and of course my favourite "why don't you wash your own damn socks!?" ahhh the domesticated life. Saying that, James and I only officially moved in together last month and it's been what, two and a half years now? Amazing.

    1. My favourite is 'You're not even watching the TV now, why don't you switch it off? I'm trying to relax and I can't with these faces flashing and jabbering in the middle of the room' etc.