Looking for Love
“I would need to drink a lot,” he says smiling shyly.
“How much?” I ask.
“A lot!” he says, covering a laugh with his hand. “ Five bottles. And some of that sex medicine, too,” and he laughs behind his hand again.
Fermin was looking for a baby-maker.
“It’s common in the Philippines, ” he says. “You pay the girl 50,000 peso($1,000), and for the health check-ups. And she makes the baby with you and gives it to you when it’s born.”
Fermin pauses. “But sometimes when the time comes they don’t give the baby up. Or, you make a contract and they decide not to go through with it.”
“Has that happened to you?” I ask.
He nods. “I talked to a girl from around here,” he says, motioning outside. “I asked her if she wanted a house or money. She was interested but then wouldn’t do it.”
Fermin pauses again. “I saw her a few months ago. She was pregnant. Pregnant! But with no money, no house, no partner, nothing for it. That girl…that girl is crazy!” he says.
Fermin owns a hair salon in Compound 18 of Manila’s notorious Tondo slum. A mirror dominates the tiny room. Above is a Chinese vase and a confusion of figurines: three little black babies, four Buddha and a Jesus standing with outstretched arms, look on as one of the Seven Dwarfs, Bashful, perhaps, plays the trumpet.
“What kind of girl would you look for? Intelligent? Beautiful?”
Fermin shrugs: “Just a simple girl, I just wants to have kids, that’s all…”
“So are you still trying?”
“Not now,” he says. “Maybe I will try again later.”
Outside, in one of Tondo’s many narrow alleys, the addicts, the dealers, the gangsters, the crazies and the desperate pass Fermin’s salon alongside a much larger crowd of hard-working, still hopeful, Tondo residents.
Inside is safe and a boy of 4 plays on the floor. A few feet away, sitting in a chair, watching morning television, is an eleven year old boy.
“Relatives,” say Fermin. “The parents of the younger boy don’t have enough money to look after him, so he with lives me. And the older one I take care of during the day.”
“He’s investing,” interrupts a friend.
“Yes, investing. He hopes that when he is old or sick they will look after him.”
Fermin nods his head.
That’s cold I think and attempting to buy love rarely works.
But the boys, unlike many other youngsters here, look well-fed, well-clothed and content. Part of Tondo’s lucky few.
Fermin earns between 20-30,000 ($400-600)peso a month by selling haircuts-starting price 50 peso ($1), and hair products.
“It’s good enough,” Fermin says of his earnings, “I can help my family.”
30,000 peso is nearly twice the minimum wage and he doesn’t spend money on silly things, he tells me. So his money goes into the bank, or he buys houses in Tondo and rents them out.
“What are your salon customers like?” I ask him.
“They are mean and naughty. Stupid!” he says with a chortle. “They tease me and ask if I want to be with them.” Despite the laugh, he is annoyed; it seems he hasn’t yet decided if he likes or hates the Tondo housewives that are his regulars.
Fermin has been working since he was 8 years old. “I had to, to support my education,” he says. So he stood outside of Manila’s big markets and sold large plastic bags to customers wanting to put all their small items into one big bag. It cannot have been lucrative work.
He dreamed of becoming a teacher. But no matter his endeavours, college was never an option. His parent’s could not afford it.
“They were always fighting,” he says. “Over money. And when they were sick or had no job we were kicked from one rented house to another.”
“We moved more than 20 times,” he says. Fermin looks sad, tears are near. “And sometimes when we had no money we had to share a house with relatives.”
Suddenly the small boy thrusts a small portable light at him and Fermin is further troubled.
“He’s broken my light,” he mutters. He quietly tries to fix it, but his mind is on other things.
Finally he looks up, “I have a women’s heart. Soft and emotional,” he says. “And once, a relative wouldn’t accept me for who I was.”
Fermin pauses again, “So I had to move out and away from my family.”
It was during these times he decided he would make enough money to buy his own house and look after his parents. But, fresh out of school, his start was a poor one: he started his full-time working life as a janitor at a private college.
He didn’t mind the work, but the rich students bullied him, for the lowliness of the work he says, but for being gay too, one suspects.
So he left one janitor’s job for another, and worked in an electronics company. After work he learnt from friends how to cut and colour hair and in 2000 he opened his salon within Gate 18 of the Tondo compound.
I ask him if he thinks he will ever be rich?
“Yeah,” he says confidently and by Tondo standards he already is.
“But are you happy?”
“I’m always broken-hearted,” he says dramatically. And then he laughs loudly.
“Most of the time I am lonely or sad… relatives just stop by… not to visit but for money…” he says, and his voice is flat, the laughter gone.
“And I used to have partners, but no matter how hard I tried they always left me,” he continues.
“They always left me for a girlfriend,” he says.
“For a girl?”
“Yes. Some I paid for their study and paid their parents’ debts. But still they leave me for a girl. I can give them everything…everything but kids,” he says softly.
I ask Fermin if it is difficult being openly gay in Tondo.
It’s OK in this neighbourhood he responds. “We are all friends, here.”
And then he returns to his loneliness.
“Life was better before,” he continues.
“I had no problems. Now I have money, but I am always thinking who is my family, who am I..my family only remember me when they are in trouble…”
Fermin stops and picks up the small boy at his feet who has started to cry. “I’m always alone… I wish I had my own son… there’s no one for when I get old, when I get sick…”
The boy stops sobbing, and Fermin too is quiet.
“How would you like to be remembered?” I finally ask.
“As someone who helped when help was needed,” he says simply.
I show him a mirror and ask him to tell me what he sees.
Fermin looks at himself and answers quickly. “A guy that has someone or something missing…incomplete…needs someone to make me happy,” he says seriously and then he laughs loudly again.
As I step outside into the narrow lane two women and two men squeeze past me carrying a gleaming white, child-size coffin. Five or six people, the family I suppose, follow sombrely; tattily dressed, the children have no shoes, and no hope.
Fermin waves at me through the barred door.
“Can you be my friend,” he says, the laugh gone.
“Sure, why not?” I tell him, as I turn to leave.
Arsene Jay, a lively 8-year-old boy is both deaf and mute. But he knows we are talking about him, so he watches intently.
“We need 45,000 peso,(US$1,000)” says Amelia.
“If we can raise that we can get him a hearing aid and he will be able to go to school, get a job, and live a normal life” she says.
“And if you can’t?”
Amelia pauses and looks down at her callused hands. “He will live with us until we die, and then…” Her voice trails off, she is unable to finish her sentence.
Amelia is 46 years old. She looks fit and healthy, and she smiles and agrees when I tell her so. This sweet smile is made with missing teeth, but she breaks out into a deep laugh often and unexpectedly.
I ask her how long she has been here.
“Here? About one year,” she says.
She lived in Manila before, but she had to leave it behind. Home now is a small plot of land on a hill in the community of Bapbap in Bamban Tarlac province, 99 kilometres from the capital.
The verdant plains of Bamban Tarlac province fall quickly away as we climb the hill to Amelia’s home. And the higher we rise the worse the poverty becomes as the cheaply made, but solid bungalows at the foot of the hill cede ground to tin-roofed wooden homes and marginal agricultural land, and finally, higher still, the houses are thatched, the soil barren, the kids more raggedly looking.
Here is her shack, the walls bamboo, the roof thatched palm leaves, the floor roughcast concrete. It sits three-quarters the way up the hill, the most deprived area in a community of general deprivation. There is neither running water or electricity. She shares this one bedroom home with her husband Antonio, daughter Anna Vallerie, a 3-year-old granddaughter, and her son, the deaf, mute and mischievous-looking, Arsene Jay.
Arsene Jay’s prospects are bleak. 45,000 peso is an impossible sum of money for most poor Filipino. She would like to send him to a special school, too, where he is taught to talk. But there aren’t many such schools, and they are expensive. So Arsene Jay sits quietly, not in school, but watching as a tiny tabby kitten eats rice from a bowl in the dusty, bare front yard.
“My husband once had a good job, a stable job. He was a housekeeper in a five star hotel for 18 years. But the hotel was sold and the new owners no longer needed him,” says Amelia.
He received severance pay of 200,000 peso(US$400) and immediately set about looking for work. But Manila had changed, people were better educated and he was no longer young. So, he couldn’t find a job and the money began to run out. And they lent money to family and friends, and that money never came back.
Amelia once had a good job, too. She was a housekeeper for a rich family, but then the kids came, 5 in all, and the last two of the brood, Anna Vallerie and Arsene Jay needed her more. So she quit.
So here they are. A savage fall in income taking them from some comfort in urban Manila, to a makeshift shack in rural Philippines, and eking out a living by peddling charcoal for cooking fuel.
“It was my husband’s decision to try this,” says Amelia. “But it’s difficult to make charcoal.”
“When we have some money for freshly cut wood, we put it there,” she says motioning to a wide, five foot deep pit, that sits a few metres from the house. We cover it with banana skins and dirt and light it from underneath. It takes three days. We can never leave it during that time, day or night. But sometimes the quality of the charcoal is not good and we can’t sell it.”
Amelia and her husband make charcoal as often as they can. If the charcoal is good they can quickly sell 5-10 sacks for 150 peso ($US3) a bag. But that doesn’t happen often-they usually can’t afford quality wood. So each month they sell only 20-30 sacks. Amelia shrugs when I ask her if she likes making charcoal.
“It’s good when we have finished she says. “Once it’s done, that’s money.”
But the quantity they produce is so small, she complains.
Making up the shortfall between charcoal sales and living expenses is difficult. Amelia’s husband hawks other people’s charcoal from a small cart for 200-300 peso a day when he can. And she tends to a small crop of chilli which she sells for a tiny sum.
I tell her that I was home in the winter and chillies were selling for $24 a kilo in the local supermarket. Her eyes widen, that’s a ridiculous price she says, but then she laughs.
“I should,” she says, “take her small crop back with me so I can be rich.”
One child with special needs is a burden for any poor family in the Philippines. But, two, and life is a terrible grind.
And so a slog it is for Amelia. Because her youngest daughter, Anna Vallerie, a pretty, shy, 12 year-old has epilepsy. To avoid serious seizures she needs daily medication. Medication that costs 700 peso(US$14) each week.
That’s a grand sum when the family income is sometimes as low as 200-300 peso a day. But they make do, and Anna Vallerie gets her medication, and she goes to school. She’s smart, she has a chance, Amelia hopes. And although the possibility of going to college, with all the costs involved, seems remote to me, I don’t have the heart to question her further.
Amelia left school when she was 13 years old. She had no choice she says. Her father and mother were farmers. As were her grandparents.
But one day, while in the rice fields, the plough ‘ate her father’s legs,” Amelia says calmly. So, she left school to help the family.
I ask her how she felt about leaving school so early. She finds the question odd: I can tell by the look on her face.
“I thought nothing of it. My family needed money. I left. That’s it,” she says, shrugging.
“Do you think you think you will ever be rich?”
She screws up her face, shakes her head and laughs.
I ask her what she wishes for, and she answers quickly.
“I’d like to fix up this house so people don’t laugh at us,” she says.
“They laugh at you?”
“Yes. They laugh out of curiosity that someone can be so poor.”
It strikes me as a strange answer, her neighbours, those near the top of this hill, appear as poor as she.
“How much to fix the house?”
“We have no electricity and no water,” Amelia says. “It costs 7,000 peso for the electricity to be put on and 3,500 for the water.”
“And the rest of the house?”
She tells me they paid 20,000 peso(US$400) for their small block of land. And they had spent another 30,000 peso (US$600)building the house.
Amelia estimates it would take another 300,000 peso(US$6,000) to have a home with proper walls and a roof and a floor. It’s all an unlikely dream,(and Arsene Jay’s hearing aid impossible) I think on the back of a few bags of charcoal and a small crop of chilli. But Amelia seems, if not confident, hopeful. And she keeps smiling as we talk of needs and wishes, enjoying the company of the gaggle of children, both hers and the neigbours, as they tumble in and out of her little one door home.
Later, I ask Amelia to look in a mirror and tell me what she sees. She peers, almost furtively at first, smiles, and then cackles.
“I see someone getting old,” she says. “I see happy, and I see sad. I see someone who is making the most of what I have.”
Finally, I ask Amelia how she would like people to remember her. She scratches her head and gazes across at her children who sit giggling on the doorstep.
“As someone who helped,” she says softly. “Last week, a crazy girl, a pregnant crazy girl, was wandering around here without underwear. And I gave her some shorts.”
Amelia then tells me she’s never talked to a foreigner before. But she’s enjoyed the experience, the chance to tell her story, it feels good to have someone listen she says.
As I go, I reach out to give Amelia some peso for her time. She’s shocked at the notes I have in my hand and at first refuses to believe they are for her. I press them into her palm and she looks as if she will cry. But she holds back. Instead she grins broadly, then laughs, and looking at me intently thanks me with both her words and her eyes. And then she thanks me again.
That money won’t fix her house or even turn the water on. And it contributes little to Arsene Jay’s hearing aid or Anna Vallerie college fees. But Amelia is excited and she’s happy. Perhaps, because she has calculated it will pay for 10 days of Anna Vallerie’s medication. Or, perhaps it’s because a few peso from a stranger offers hope.