Our floor was cool on the feet, I remember that. The entryway of our house was like a cave -- cold, dark, and low. Then came a long, wide row of steps directly in front, and, despite the distraction of a room to the left, your attention was tunneled up into the large, open cathedral of our living room. At the top of seven or eight steps, again, off to the left, there was a step-down, open room. A dry, somewhat ghoulish, cement water fountain covered an entire wall, and was flanked by a deep trough. The living room itself was bright and open, with lots of glass and a ceiling two stories high. Our Embassy-issued furniture looked drab and out of place, a little lonely.
Someone had been very level-happy designing this house as there were more stairs off to the right. Standing on the low landing there were two choices of direction -- either a swinging door leading into the kitchen, or even more stairs up to the bedrooms. In the kitchen there were steps going down that led (and you had to make sure and duck first so you wouldn’t hit your head on the low overhang) into yet another kitchen, only smaller. Then came the maid's quarters, a tiny room barely big enough for a bed, and a separate bath. From the stairs leading up to the bedrooms came a long walkway with railings where you could look out over the living room. I saw my father cry for the first time from that area, when he didn’t know I was watching him.
The foyer floor was made of tiny, smooth rocks that had been cemented together. The bigger stairs and main floors were both hardwood -- parquet, squares made of stacks, lines of different shades of wood. Our maid would polish them with frayed coconut halves that had straps nailed to the backs. She’d slip her bare feet under the straps and polish away, squirting a little wax in front of her. The kitchens and baths had tile, cool and white.
Months earlier, we had been the average suburban American family living in a middle-class subdivision in Austin, Texas. We had stayed out late in the evenings in the summer and ridden our bikes until our mother called. We had listened to the radio, watched copious amounts of TV like everyone else, and begged to go to fast food places.
Now I would go out to the quiet back porch, stand on those cool tiny rocks that felt so good under my feet, and flip my head over to dry my long hair. Back and forth, back and forth, making myself dizzy. There were barren banana trees back there, and a strange, freakish tree that I would later discover was called a Jackfruit. It produced one gargantuan fruit a year that our maid had loved, but which made the house stink for days.
In the short time that we’d lived there, I had already gotten used to some very strange things. I learned to look away when the beggars came to our car, stuck in traffic. At twelve, I could take a taxi downtown by myself, thirty minutes away, to meet friends. I could walk alone to the neighborhood store in a poorer part of town, where I'd watch someone bathe their child in a metal tub in the grass, washing their hair with a bar of bath soap. I could buy half a sandwich bag of pot every week out of my allowance and still have money left over for the movies.
I was alone in the house that afternoon, or so it seemed. My father was at work, my brothers were out playing somewhere, I didn’t know where the maid was. Where was my mother?
Then I heard the first sound -- a vaguely obscene moaning, too personal and private, too overtly vulnerable. It came again. And then again. I immediately thought I must find someone else in the house. The house was so big that you couldn’t have a sense of who else was in it. I walked downstairs from my room and went into the kitchen. The maid was coming up from her smaller kitchen.
"What was that noise? Did you hear that?" I asked.
"Yes, ma’am. I don’t know," she stammered. "I don’t know…"
We both looked toward the back of the house. We pushed through the swinging door leading out to the dining room and listened, staring hard at the back wall through the sliding glass door. The walls around our house were made of cinderblocks stacked at least ten feet high, covered in pieces of cut glass, and -- because we were at the periphery of the neighborhood -- topped with barbed wire.
Behind us lived the "squatters."
It’s amazing how quickly one can become used to seeing others as sub-human. Our first morning in the Philippines, we had eaten outside on the terrace of our small hotel because we were excited to be there. We were off a busy street, and we wanted to be close to the action, the streaming mass of cars and people, the din, close to the smell of the ocean. We were actually going to live somewhere close to the ocean! (We would later learn that raw sewage was routinely dumped into the water there, making it necessary to roll up the car windows to pass by Manila Bay. But that day, at least, was clear.)
A few moments into our meal, we were surrounded by children on the ground, fittingly below us, who called us all equally Joe and asked us for money with flattened palms. My two brothers and I were sitting at our own table, close to the fancy railing, and we looked back at our parents for guidance. Should we give them any money? I felt close to panic, seeing the dirty hands and fingers of these kids, the thin clothes, the bare feet, their voices blending. I wanted to cry. Their faces were bright and hopeful, but also hard and insistent. Never before had I seen children like this. Some of them were probably the same age as us, or even younger.
Much to my relief, our parents gave us a few pesos to pass out. Suddenly, the noise level rose several decibels. "Money, money!" "More money, Joe!" "More money!" On a silent cue, they took off. We thought, whew, we made them happy! A minute later they came back with ten or more friends. "Money, Money! You give us more money!" I couldn’t eat; the whole thing was so nerve wracking.
Over the next several days, I would go through a crash course in Beggar Relations. Everywhere we went in a car, we’d be swarmed by children and adults who could peg our white skin on a crowded street in two seconds flat. Our car would be approached by a child guiding a blind man with white eyes, or a man missing legs anchored to a skateboard. The child would hold the man’s hand to direct it more accurately toward the car window, inches from our faces.
In the beginning this scared the hell out of me. I was both fascinated and repelled. I wanted to study the man’s face, his goopy, white eyes. What had happened to him? I wanted to look away. I wanted to help him. I wanted to make him leave. Sometimes children would approach our car selling tiny boxes of Chiclets or recycled cigarettes made from the butts of cigarettes found on the ground.
The squatters were everywhere in the city. You’d see them bathing in new mud puddles after a big rain. You’d see their makeshift houses leaning against buildings -- found pieces of wavy metal, cardboard, pieces of plywood and wood. They’d sleep on the dirt and make stinky fires, cooking trash for food, God knew what else. They’d sit on the ground with their elbows tucked inside the bends of their folded legs -- hence the term, squatters. It’s hard to sit that way -- I tried it -- but they’d sit that way for hours. They had solid colored clothing, usually dingy and faded; often they had no shoes. Dogs would tag along at their heels, barking; young children would be naked.
If some foreign dignitary was scheduled to visit, the police would do a big sweep and suddenly the squatters would disappear. Entire areas would be boarded over and whitewashed, making the city look freshly clean and scrubbed. In a week the white boards would be gone, free building materials for the taking.
The maid wandered with me closer to the wall. We heard alarming shrieks, more moaning. The muscles of my lower back seized up. I felt suddenly very naïve and stupid, very American. Was someone being murdered, were they wounded? How often did this happen? Our maid looked blankly at the wall and said nothing.
My mother came downstairs. What was going on? What was that noise?
The feeling in the room held the unspoken sentiment that it was bad enough we had to smell their disgusting cooking and sooty smoke wafting over the wall, but now we had to deal with their domestic problems as well? I went back upstairs to my room, worried, disturbed, knowing something was very wrong.
The woman was having a baby, our maid informed us.
She couldn't go over the wall, and there wasn’t a way to get back there, except by going all the way out one of the two armed gates to our neighborhood, so our maid, a native, talked to them over the wall by shouting.
The squatter woman was having a baby.
This was unbelievable to me. These people had babies in the mud? What was she going to do? The place must have been filthy, crawling with germs and disease, and dogs, and… This was crazy. How could she be having a baby? Someone had to do something.
After more discussion between our maid and my mother, some of which seemed to be charged with a certain irritation on both parts, the maid was sent back with an offer of help.
What could we do?
Our maid was like a delegate, an Indian being sent back out by the troops to communicate with the savages. She was both proud of her ability to do something we couldn’t, namely talk to them, and eager to set herself apart from them. She didn’t live in a hovel made from scraps of cardboard and metal. She had a job, and made good money, enough to send some back to her family in the Provinces. She wasn’t living on the streets, cooking over a weak campfire, getting her hair cut in an old dentist's chair in an open shack.
She went back to the wall.
They didn’t want our help.
There was nothing we could do.
I overheard all of this from the door of my room, and from my window close to the wall. I could hear the excited voices of the squatters, having a run-in with the rich people behind the wall, with the maid. The woman was still moaning and occasionally shrieking. The sun was starting to go down. It was getting close to bedtime -- tomorrow was a school day. More oily smells drifted in through my window. It seemed rude to just shut it -- after all this was a human tragedy, a drama unfolding, how could I?
At a certain point, it became very quiet behind the wall and inside our house. Maybe the woman was done, I thought. Maybe the baby had been born, or maybe they had both died. Then I heard more moaning.
Isn’t it wrong for us not to just hop in the car and do something, I thought. Shouldn’t we be making our way through their maze of a camp with blankets and hot, clean water, helping a new life come into this world?
But no one seemed inclined to do this, and who was I, some dumb twelve-year-old? What did I know? Better to not get involved. Too messy and complicated, and after all, they were just squatters. Didn’t they deserve their lot in life somehow? If they had just worked harder, or tried harder to be smarter, wouldn’t they have avoided this scenario altogether? Hadn’t they gotten themselves into this?
This was to be the mindset I would encounter over and over again during my three years in the Philippines. The superiority of the Americans, our wealth, our resources, our power, our money. Their jealousy, their resentment, their powerlessness, their attempts to hide feeling intimidated.
Even then, I had a bad sense of how this could make things go in life. I wondered how things might turn out for all of us when I became an adult. How could this feeling of imbalance and unfairness just be allowed to happen, unquestioned, or worse yet, unnoticed?
I tossed and turned long after the lights went
out. Eventually the moaning stopped. And then, like nothing had happened, I fell