Monday, January 25, 2010

Moving On Out

One of the curious things I have learned since I came to live here in the Philippines is how well-off people who own property are so poor in liquid assets. I first found out about this when my landlord, who owned a few houses in the barangay I was living in, came to my door one day and asked for an advance on my rent because his daughter had taken ill and he needed the cash.

In late August I moved from that barangay to another. My rent increased from $20 a month to $30, but the improvement in the conditions in which I was living was dramatic. I went from living in a virtual barn with rafters rather than a ceiling and wooden shutters rather than windows to finished floors, glass windows and real ceilings.

In contrast to the changes for the better that I enjoyed, my landlady was giving up her house and moving into a shack close by with her three small children. As I slowly discovered, however, it was obvious that her move was not properly planned. She was giving up more than just simple comforts. She was relinquishing what most of us would call necessities, like a bathroom (called a comfort room or CR) and a kitchen.

When I moved in, she used some of the cash I had paid her as a deposit to hire a man to dig a pit next to her shack which would eventually have become her toilet. All that was needed to complete it was a cement slab upon which an actual toilet (sans seat, as always here in the Philippines) would be affixed and an enclosing structure of some kind made of wood or cinder block. More than four months since the pit was dug, however, it remains nothing more than a gaping hole in the ground. No more work has been done to finish it and the prospects are dim that it ever will be.

So, without a toilet, my landlady and her children have had to improvise. During the day, one of their many relations living nearby allows them to use their CR. But at night, the call of nature must be answered in other ways, which has necessitated, I was appalled to learn, the use of a pot. I only learned of the existence of the pot by accident, when its contents were spilled just outside the landlady's rickety front door, which is only about twenty feet from my west bedroom window. Because of this accident, I not only found out about the pot, but I was informed by a friend that its contents were being scattered in the bushes several yards away on a daily basis.

But the lack of a CR also means that the landlady and her children have had to perform their daily ablutions against the north wall of my bedroom. Rising before dawn, using a defunct clothes washer as an improvised sink, the woman bathes standing up, followed by her 12-year-old daughter and her small twin sons. I discovered this practice when I heard a noise one morning and opened my curtains to see what it was. There was my naked landlady, who was spared the embarrassment herself because soap from her hair had got into her eyes. I decided thenceforth to block off the window, if only to provide the woman with some unsolicited privacy.

This situation had become such a personal embarrassment to me that when an opportunity arose to move, as it did a few days ago, I decided to take advantage of it. At least I will no longer be reminded, every time I look out my window, of the depths to which my landlady chose to lower herself just for a little cash in hand every month.

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