Several people expressed an interest in seeing photos, so I added some.
Now the story.
Toward the end of January my housekeeper, Fe, and I were inspecting a house to rent in Antipolo, a hilly town two hours from Manila. It was the only available house she’d found, so we were hoping it would do. Because of all the wasted space, there was a lot less available than what we’d had before. I doubted all my stuff would fit. She said it would. I think she was more right than I was, depending on what you mean by “fit.” A friend of mine laughed when I showed him my bedroom. He said it looked like the inside of a tent. It does.
I explained to the landlady that we were leaving our house in Tagaytay because it was inside the danger zone when the Taal volcano erupted on January 12. A thick blanket of gray ash covered everything. The particles contain a lot of silica, which is bad for human lungs and even worse for the tiny lungs of little cats. Every time there was a tremor or a cat jumped on the bed I was lying in, I would wonder what an earthquake would do or what tremors were already doing to the crater wall. I’d known we had to get out of there, even though my neighbors, who were much less mobile because they owned the houses they were living in, seemed to think I was in an unnecessary panic.
“Are we on a fault line here?” I asked the potential landlady.
Before Tagaytay I’d been flooded out of a house in Manila. The Antipolo house was at the top of a steep hill, so no floods or mudslides. The lush greenery did not look like fodder for wildfires. She said no earthquakes. Still I sensed another disaster.
It came, of course, in the form of the coronavirus, which far outstripped anything I’d been in before. With the flood there were many who died or lost what little they had, and you’d better believe we contributed to disaster relief in subsequent floods. But I personally suffered nothing like that. Some trauma during and after the flood, some stuff lost, but for me the flood and the eruption were mostly just a major inconvenience. It would have been much worse if the lockdown had coincided with Fe’s commandeering the trucks that hauled my stuff to Antipolo, or if it happened before we were settled in and her husband had made some repairs to the house.
The lockdown of Metro Manila came around March 9. Fe and Jessie were unable to get to me or to each other. I was now on my own with the three cats, obsessing over the news, shaking my head at the sickness and death, with anxiety underlying a surface calm. As Governor Cuomo just said, “There comes a time with other disasters, like floods, when they’re over. Covid 19 is not like that.”
I am trying to claw back the belief I’ve had for years that I’ll get what I need. Just trust. What if what I need is to live in a peaceful world? I’ve already accepted my powerlessness over everything except little stuff like cooking dinner. It’s time to work on calming the mind and opening the heart.
Fortunately, another person had entered the picture. Nowadays I know I am not a stupid woman, although there was a time long ago when I did not know that. Since I first moved to Asia in 1984, I’ve been very aware of the need to have local people as friends who can help interpret the culture or help with the language, assistants for classroom management or research and/or employees to handle tricky or tedious jobs that need to be done. Also, most importantly, for companionship.
We’d been in Antipolo a week or so when I discovered that the trike driver who’d transported us to another part of town was a natural-born tour guide, volunteering information about places we were passing and answering Fe’s questions. I got his name—Christopher—and number on my phone. By the time the lockdown began, He’d taken me/us to Pinto Art Gallery, a church, the cathedral, an elevated spot called Cloud Nine with a good view of Manila.
So when Fe and Jessie were unable to get here, he was the one helping me shop at a pet store for cat food, a drugstore and in Shopwise—an hour and a half in line because they didn’t have enough cashiers—and the Robinson’s supermarket, which was much better. People waited patiently. I didn’t see any hording, certainly no scuffles over toilet paper. Only supermarkets and pharmacies were supposed to be open, but I noticed some small businesses with doors that didn’t look shut. A veterinarian’s shop which sells medicine and special food was also open.
Then public transportation was banned. Christopher informed me that he could run errands for me, but he couldn’t take me anywhere. Thirty tricycles had been impounded, depriving their owners of their livelihood, because they were caught ferrying passengers. I gave him a shopping list, money, and directions to ask the police how one could get around this restriction in case I needed to go to the bank. In my experience, when the regulations are too tight there’s an alternative. For example, in South Korea because of trade regulations bans on imports are too strict, and there would be strong opposition among the public if the authorities did not ignore the thriving black market, which brings in off-limits goods via US military commissaries.
The next time he came to run errands he said we needed an authorization letter—I have no idea how many of these I’ve written—saying he was my employee. We both signed it. After a trip to the ATM, where he gleefully told the mall security guards that I was his boss, not his passenger, he arranged for me to get a quarantine pass to hang around my neck like the one he had, and he inquired about getting a sticker for my subdivision. So definitely a work-around.
The sight of private cars in the parking lot annoyed me. In tourist-infested Tagaytay, weekend traffic regulations had been set up for the convenience of car owners and the inconvenience of everyone else.
At supermarkets the wait was long because only a few people were allowed inside at a time. Shopping became Christopher’s job. This was mostly good, though after his first trip I had to laugh at my own failure to communicate. It hadn’t occurred to me that “a large jar of mayonnaise” could be a two-liter plastic tub. I decided any missteps could go to a friend who’s delivering food to the homeless in the middle of the night. Maybe he could make a huge supply of egg salad sandwiches. Before the next trip Christopher carefully took photos on his phone so he’d get exactly what I wanted
I should not have mentioned this to Fe, who called him up and had a talk with him—diplomatically, I’m sure. I told her I needed her to be nice to him. She admitted to being jealous. She’s now been battling my problems for twelve years and wants to be here and not in Manila. It’s endearing in a way. I knew because of the way Fe and Jessie handled our flood aftermath that I could trust them with my life. Remember this the next time a westernized Filipino feeds you a stereotype about the unreliability of the Filipino working class.
Probably the worst day started s when I got a phone call from my bank in Manila saying checks on my bank in Pittsburgh had been rejected. Because Filipino banking regulations only allow checks of $2,000 or less, I’d written four checks. I’d done this several times since moving to the Philippines, but not recently. PNC looked at the checks and found it suspicious that they arrived immediately after a deposit of $8,000 into my checking account from my investment account. Well, yes, I thought that was the only way I could move the money.
When I phoned PNC, the guy said he’d make a note in my record so that the next time, hopefully, the checks would go through. He also said the signature on the checks didn’t quite match the one they had on file. Well, yes, they might have been looking at the account application I’d made in 1983. My handwriting has deteriorated over the years.
PNB in Manila said there was an alternate way. I could write one check for the whole amount. Now I heard that had not gone through because no address was printed on the check. It would cost $100 to process it and another $100 if the check bounced.
Then I discovered one of the cats had pissed on my bed for the second time that week. I was actually happy to focus on cleaning up the bedding instead of thinking about the terrifying conversation I’d had with a friend in the States about the virus. No, no, focus. Cat piss, cat piss deodorizer, washing. A couple of hours later I removed the body of a dead cat from my garage, put it in a garbage bag and in the garbage can, which was then emptied by the person doing pickup. There’s still a black blood stain on the concrete that didn’t wash off. I told myself that at least the cat had a quiet place to die in.
I was sweeping up a bit when the president of the Homeowner’s Association told me my garbage can was stinking up the street and I needed to wash it. By this time I’d discovered my favorite cat was missing. He’d apparently sneaked out the night before when I was going between the kitchen and the “dirty kitchen” because my gas range is too big for the stove space in the kitchen. So I told the guy my cat was missing. He said, to my surprise, that he and his team could help look, and he would be around the following day for the cat’s picture so they could post it around the subdivision.
He didn’t show up the next day, but Christopher did, and after he did the shopping we went looking for the cat. It took less than ten minutes. Twilight was approaching, but he spotted a girl in the shadows carrying a gray cat. He called out, she brought the cat over, he showed her the posters I’d made up with the cat’s picture, I pointed out that I was offering a reward, gave her 500 pesos—$10 or a day’s wages for a lot of people—she was happy and the people around her were happy. That cat is a sweet, trusting, cuddly individual. And this was not the first time he’d disappeared and not returned because someone else was feeding him. The next day the subdivision people did come by and I told them the news. It makes me feel good about living in this place that they would care enough to help.
The other day I ventured out of the subdivision for the first time in two weeks in order to go to the bank. Online banking doesn’t convert currency. The mood among customers waiting to be let inside seemed to be upbeat, we-can-do-this-together, but Christopher got me inside immediately as a senior citizen. I got as much as I could onto my ATM cards and asked about going to Manila because only at my home branch can I get into my pension account. The bank officer told me there would be too many checkpoints in the way, but they’d be removed when lockdown is over, maybe April 15. Well, I can wait that long. Maybe PNC will agree to wiring over my $8,000, although they wouldn’t in the past. The Philippines is not the only place that’s rigid and provincial.
Much as I chafe against regulations I find inconvenient, I’m grateful that the Philippines and the local authorities are acting responsibly. The incomprehensible mismanagement and crazy magical thinking one sees in news from the States has many expats relieved that we are here—or wherever—and not there. I also know expats who are frustrated at being unable to fly home.
One of the few good things that’s come out of this horrific tragedy is the sudden interest among social-distancing folks in online communication. I’m seeing and talking with friends from Pittsburgh and Seoul for the first time in years, and on a regular basis. Ironically, I’m less isolated while housebound in Antipolo than I was in Tagaytay working on a novel about a reclusive potter who finally comes out of her studio to connect with others.
The book is now finished and was submitted to an agent for her consideration. This is no done deal: agents get over 500 submissions a week. But I have a good feeling about this.
Correction: Fe says she called Christopher to thank him–which, knowing Fe was probably her intention. Christopher either took it as criticism or an indication of how important his service is to me. We will probably never know.