The Crazy Lady

Posted: January 27, 2011 in Life in the Philippines
Tags: , , ,

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“Manila is like a crazy lady,” one of our new friends said to us our first month here, and then quickly added, “but eventually you learn to love her.”

With its mishmash of Spanish, American, and Asian cultural influences (the product of centuries of colonial rule), its two extreme seasons (hot and wet; hot and dry), and its stark contrast of glitzy shopping malls next to sprawling squatter communities, Manila often feels schizophrenic, or at least manic depressive.

Early on we learned about the phases of culture shock: stage one, the honeymoon phase; stage two, the I-hate-everything-about-this-place stage; and finally, stage three, where you come back to earth, accept the tough stuff, and are finally useful in the midst of the struggle. The stages never quite fit for us, both because we’d done enough research to feel somewhat prepared, and because we were thrown into negative aspects of our new home too quickly to experience anything like a honeymoon. We’ve decided that “culture fatigue” more accurately describes our adjustment to life here.

A few months ago I had a day that brought me to the depths of culture fatigue. I spent four hours traveling to and from an airline ticket office to try to (unsuccessfully) change tickets I’d purchased for my parents’ upcoming visit. It began to rain—hard—and for the first time, I had forgotten my umbrella. Tired of waiting, I ran out into sheets of rain, my clothes immediately soaked. I rushed to an already packed MRT train, and then, seeing that there was just enough room for me to fit onto the last car, ran toward it before the doors closed. In the seconds before they did, my foot slipped between the train and the cement platform, and my entire body dropped until I felt splintering pain where my upper thigh finally stopped my fall. There were gasps around the train, but I hobbled to my feet and squeezed inside.

I watched a huge squatter community whiz by out the window, stood with six passengers pressed up against me on all sides with my hand on my wallet (I was pick-pocketed in a similar situation just a few weeks before), and then limped to a jeepney. Most jeepney drivers remind me of an impatient sixteen-year-old boy learning stick-shift for the first time—which is not so bad once you get used to it. But on this particular day, the tires squealed as we raced around buses three times our size, and the engine roared as the driver jammed the gas pedal to the floor. When I called out “para po!” (please stop) he slammed on the brakes, paused long enough for me to start walking hunched over toward the open back of the jeep, and then gunned it before I could step off, sending me flying and, unfortunately, clocking an innocent passenger in the face with my flailing hand.

As I got off the jeepney, I mused that so far, the crazy lady had mostly just driven me crazy. But every now and then, I understand. Manila may be a dirty, sweaty, chaotic place, but it’s also the kind of place where things happen—things so special that you would never dream of them on your own.

A few weeks after we arrived we found ourselves listening to Joniver Robles, a local blues artist, on a rainy night when most Filipinos didn’t venture out. Joniver sounds an awful lot like John Mayer, Johnny Lang, or Stevie Ray Vaughan, depending on the song (he covers all three artists), and can rip up guitar solos almost as well. We chatted between sets, and when I mentioned my singing background, he invited me to join him on stage. I crooned my way through a Norah Jones song, and then he asked me to do some blues improv. Being the blues junkie that I am, I knew the consistent themes (I’m so lonesome I could die, my baby left me, why you gotta treat me so bad, etc.), and so I got to live out a lifelong dream of belting the blues.

Or there was the seemingly ordinary Tuesday when I suddenly had a handful of texts from friends urging me to look at the Philippine Star, one of the major newspapers here. The previous weekend I’d had the good fortune of winning a trail running race, and there I was, right on the front of the sports section, looking a little too giddy as I crossed the finish line. I can count on one hand the number of times the local paper published my picture in high school even though I won far more races back then than I do these days . . . never once did I make it into a major city paper. But in Manila, these things happen.

There have been other, daily “good crazy” moments: flying seatbeltless down a darkened street perched on the back of a “tricycle” (a motorcycle with a sidecar); finally getting to ride on the back of a jeep (not usually something women get to do); admiring plastic soda bottle sculptures carved by a woman with a face as ancient as time; watching kids gleefully play basketball in flip flops in the middle of the street; having an hour-long conversation with a new woman friend at the bars during outreach (all in Tagalog!); tasting a mango, and realizing that nothing I’d tasted back in the States deserved that name.

Without a doubt, the best sides of the crazy lady’s personality are Filipinos themselves. It’s Hazel, our teacher friend, showing us true Filipino hospitality in a delectable dinner even though she just met us. It’s one of the Samaritana women worriedly sending another volunteer after me so I wouldn’t have to make the walk to the jeepney without a kasama (Tagalog for “companion”). It’s the way the Samaritana women tell me I’m beautiful and give me hugs for no reason almost every day. Filipinos are pretty amazing people. They’re the reason we came, and the reason why even on the hard days, we’re not ready to go home.

The crazy lady still drives us crazy. But slowly, we’re learning to love her too.

-Laura

Advertisements
Comments
  1. jack davis says:

    Really enjoying your detailed, gritty, descriptions of life in Manila! The blogs would make a nice collection … dad

    • freeisaverb says:

      Thanks, Pop! We’ve occasionally had the same thought ourselves. If only getting published were as easy as writing a blog post. =) But of course if the opportunity presented itself, we’d jump on it!

  2. jen says:

    What a fabulous summary of the crazy life you’re living. Thanks for sharing it so eloquently.

  3. It’s also living down the road from L.J. & Maria Custodio, with whom I spent three years studying at college.
    Who’d have thunk life could be that coincidental!

    • freeisaverb says:

      You’re kidding! I’ve laughed with them about how crazy it is that they were in Rooty Hill just like I was, but for some reason it never occurred to me to ask if they knew you. It really is a small world. Thanks for reading this, and I hope you and your beautiful little family are doing well! We had been hoping to make a trip to Australia, but when we realized that traveling there from Manila is almost as expensive as traveling there from the U.S., we decided it would have to wait. We’ll get there someday!

  4. Kaye says:

    Really like the fresh look. I was pleased with the content. Thank you for this quality posting.

  5. ed says:

    enjoy reading your posts. you are special to many people including Filipino blues giants.

  6. Robin Davis says:

    Laura, your vivid descriptions help me sense a bit of what you’re experiencing there. Thank you for painting this picture of the “crazy lady.” Love you.

  7. hilarykdavis says:

    I can so relate with the totally futile (and raining) miserable travel day mixed with the magic of what can happen to you when you’re totally out of control. Reminds me very much of one day in particular I had in Kolkata.

    This makes me miss the missionary life… sigh. But praying for yours.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s