An Inde Author in Asia: Days 20-23: 11th – 13th March 2018:
We arrive, a little dishevelled, at 5.00 am after an eight hour bus ride that has entailed rather less sleep than I would have chosen. On arrival I fall into bed, and fall immediately asleep. Four hours later I wake, shower (yes! Hot water!) and head out to find something to eat.
I’m staying in Poblacion Alfonse Lisa, Ifuago. Little is open today, it being Sunday. It is explained to me that most of the population here is Christian. I query this, since the Philippines seems to be to have an enormous Christian presence throughout. Clarification reveals that this area is Protestant. The distinction between Protestants who are Christian and Catholics who, apparently, are not, intrigues me.
Breakfast, or lunch, or whatever it is at this time of the morning, is found in a small food court where most of the stalls are closed. I’m happy to settle for whatever is here, so long as it includes coffee. My meal is rice, bitter corn and sautéed beans with pumpkin – unfamiliar, but much to my taste. Coffee is a sachet of instant Nescafe. Costa it is not, but it’s hot and black and contains no sugar. That is quite an achievement here.
I look out of the window at the concrete streets and see the ubiquitous cell phone much in evidence, along with many motorbikes and quite a few cars. Everywhere I have travelled in the Philippines, the cell phone is comprehensively present. Yesterday, at University of the Far East, I was told 90% of students have them. Here, rather less, I’m guessing. But the phones and the stalls that sell them are very evident, strangely incongruent, to my western eyes, against a background of shanty homes, unpaved roads and unshod children. Priorities here are different from those at home. Maybe.
I wonder about the impact upon a formerly isolated community, of the tsunami of information that the Internet has created. To me, it is little wonder that, back in Europe, we are inundated by a vast surge of humanity, betting their luck against border guards and their lives against Poseidon in search of a dream expertly crafted by western advertising agencies. Of course, if the urge were not there in us to have more abundant and more appealing food, more possessions, more shiny promises of satisfaction, those ad agencies, and the TV and film promoters, could not have built that foundation into the edifice of the dream that soars above us today. But now we do have it, it, too, has become a tsunami, a tidal wave of insatiable desire that strews the detritus of the discarded, material and human, over an undervalued planet.
It will take most of us most of our lives to discover it is nothing more than a celluloid fiction distracting our attention outward from our potential onto the sugar rush of bling. And by the time we discover that sugar rushes leave us unsatisfied when the moment has passed, we will have squandered our most precious resource, time, on the pursuit of airbrushed figments. If only I can have a cell phone, a car, more muscles, bigger breasts, more toys, more fame, more sycophants, more… something, then I will be big, then I will be valuable then I will be happy, then I will be loved. And thus we stumble, blinded by neon and deafened by cacophony, to the graveyards and crematoria of wasted time, only to fall to our knees weeping, when the truth of experience makes the scales fall from our eyes and ears. Sagely, we recycle diminishing planetary resources, for we are all conservationists now. But when will we learn that the most precious resource of all, our time, cannot melted down and reused?
Back to School
Monday dawns and I am preparing for a delivery to five hundred at Santa Maria National High School, Alfonso Lista. The upper half of the school will be attending, since, I am informed, creative writing is on the national curriculum. What a good idea. At breakfast I ask Dr Pascual to remind me of the name of the teacher who has invited us here. But she does not answer. I look up to see she has risen to her feet and is standing formally, her right hand on her heart. We are just across the street from the town hall where the Filipino flag is being raised. In front, is a gathering of perhaps 150 public employees, standing to attention, singing the national anthem. I too rise, in respect to the national identity of the country I am visiting. Later I am informed that, quite apart from the inclination most feel to take pride in their country, there is a sanction for any seen to contravene: first, a reprimand, then community service, then fines and imprisonment. Non-compliance with that which is approved of carries just as much of a penalty in our culture. The difference lies in the fact that we sanction contravention of politically convenient beliefs. And normally, are more covert.
We enter the school ‘hall,’ a free standing building at the centre of the town, to an audience that indeed numbers over five hundred. The metal roof is held up by long vertical iron girders. Walls stand to about two metres, the space above covered with mesh to prevent unauthorised entry, but open to the air. Inside the walls fall inwards in tears to provide seating, auditoria-style. The hall is half full. It will hold the whole school of a thousand pupils. Those before me are 16-18 years old, seated in horseshoe formation. The ends of the horseshoe extend beyond the table where I am seated, giving me an audience behind me as well as to the front and sides. As normal we commence with prayer and the national anthem. I take out my wallet, phone and nervousness and put the down on the table. All are inconvenient when I speak.
I talk as usual of comfort zones and the Land of Risk, of the journey to find the key that will open the cage where the shackled poets sleeps inside each of us. I ask, and I repeat asking, ‘How far will you travel to find the key?’ I quote T. S. Eliot: ‘Only those who are willing to risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.’ I speak of the Odysseus and the Land of the Lotus Eaters, who lay in indolence. I quote Homer, who has Odysseus chaining his sailors to the rowing boards, to force them away. And there the auditorium, with Odysseus, we ‘smite the grey sea with our oars.’ As we flee this indolence to press on into the Land of Risk, we discover that finding the key unlocks the cage that releases the kernel of inner creativity, the spark of the divine that dwells in all of us.
For over an hour there is barely a sound in the room, if you can call it a room. Education, opportunity, is highly valued here.
Then, as I stop, the questions come. A trickle to begin, for it is not easy to be the first to step into the Land of Risk and speak up in front of five hundred of your contemporaries. How do you create such deep characters? (They are all me). Do you write for yourself or others? (I only write the words of the Poet who dwells within. If others have ears, let them hear). The questions grow deeper. How do you write a masterpiece? (I speak of Beethoven, of the impact of impending deafness, of the temptation that must have existed to stop when it becomes hard, to settle in the Land of the Lotus Eaters. And then we speak of this man’s refusal to do so, the cutting of the legs from his piano, the using of the floor as a sounding board to create the fifth symphony all becomes a huge metaphor for the creation of a masterpiece form the spirit inside.
We break after two hours. I wonder if they will all return. But twenty minutes later, the seats are all filled as before and still more have arrived. Dr Pascual takes over until the final hour is filled by more questions from these high-energy young people. Then it’s lunch and I assume we are done. But no, we return for short stories from my short story collection, The Goblin Child and more questions.
After seven hours we finally have to leave for Banawe. Today I have learned something more about yielding freely to the poet who dwells within. I have also learned much about what T S Eliot means when he says: Only those who are willing to go to far, can possibly discover how far one can go.’
Speaking of going far, Banawe is high in the mountains, another two hours drive out from Manila, I am told. Two hours, in the way of Filipino timekeeping, turns into three. As we rise on winding roads and hairpin bends, the air grows cooler, but the engine of the minibus does not. We stop frequently for the driver to spray the radiator and brakes with hosepipes, which are provided at strategic points along the way. Evidently it is not only our vehicle that has this problem.
The concrete road, built only in 2010, periodically give way to unpaved tracks where landslides have taken the concrete. We pass houses, clad, I am told, with GI – galvanised iron. The GI insulates from the cold. Many of the houses are of traditional design. Roofs are four sided, with sharp gradients rising to spire-like peaks. Footprints are maybe four metres by four. I am told that in these structures will live families with up to eight children. I visualise them piled to the roof, biggest at the bottom, smallest on top. I cannot be far wrong. Below the houses the dead were traditionally buried, in seated posture. Connecting to your roots means something more here than at home.
On reaching Banawe, we are accommodated in a hotel, internally clad with intricate carvings of pine, which grows freely here, in the cool, dry air. We enter, of course, on the ground floor, at the front of the building. It is not until I head up for bed that I see that at the back, due to the gradient of the mountainside, what at the front is the ground floor, at the back is the fourth floor. I am wondering if we too shall sleep piled high, the littlest on top. If so, I will have to climb down several floors.
Confrontation and happiness
The following day is a day off. We squeeze yet again into a motorbike and side car, Noah riding pillion behind the driver. The space is tight, for I am not exactly diminutive. When they said they wanted a prominent poet from the UK, I don’t think this was what they had in mind.
We stop for photos at a stall selling traditional costumes. Outside in the sunshine stands an elderly man, dressed in traditional costume, holding two spears for tourist photo opportunities. I decline to dress in traditional costume. I do not do imitation well. But I accept the persuasion of my fellow travellers to have a photo taken with the gentleman. He poses with his spear pointed to me and bids me do the same to him with the other spear. I decline such a parody of confrontation. Instead I point my spear away from him and take his hand, holding his eyes with mine. This elicits a broad, toothless smile of obvious delight. Cameras click. Namaste. I honour in this man that which is eternal. We give him twice the sum he asks for, in payment for the pictures. The labourer is worthy of his hire. This man will stand all day in the direct sun for the whims of feckless tourists, most of whom will short change him. I will not be one. As the bike pulls us away, I’m told I have made an old man very happy. ‘That’s two of us,’ I think.
At the next stop we have a photo opportunity spanning down a long, deep valley, which is teared much of the way up the mountainside with rice terraces. Here we meet three Mormon missionaries. I initiate a conversation that I suspect most avoid. They tell me that they are at the end of a two year tour. Tomorrow, one returns home to Miami, another to New Zealand. I am introduced and my purpose in the Philippines explained. ‘How do you write poetry?’ I am asked – maybe the most common question put to me when I am speaking. The answer here is the same. ‘By connecting with the Poet, the spark of divine creativity that dwells in all of us. We access that in the silence.’ Sufficient rapport has been created that they ask for details of my website. Though they use different metaphors and walk a different path, the same spirit dwells in these men as does in me, even if they do not yet know it. We illuminate our roads but such light as is carried by the lanterns of our hearts.
As we talk, beside us squat six elderly lades. These too are in regional costume, awaiting tourists seeking photo opportunities. One, who would be, perhaps, five feet tall at full height, walks, bent double, from the sun to the shade, barefoot and with faltering steps. I want to leave a gift with them. I want to meet and connect with them. I seek to shake hands with each. When I reach this particular lady, she does not offer her hand. She is blind. I reach out and touch her. ‘Kumusta. Salamat.’ (How are you? Thank you). It is all the Filipino I know. Like the gift I leave, it is not enough. It is never enough.
Tonight we head back to Manila by ten-hour bus ride.