Friday, September 19, 2014

A Window on the Abyss


Moritz Thomsen is one of my heroes, one of a handful of people who decided to live his life according to principle - one of which was forsaking his comfortable life in California for a hard life among the poor in Ecuador. He's a hero of mine because, while I am sympathetic to his reasons for leaving America, I am nowhere near as tough as he was. He wound up living in the coastal city of Guayaquil because he no longer had the strength to farm, and because his lifelong smoking habit made breathing in high-altitude Quito too hard for him. He died in Guayaquil in 1991.

Since coming to live in what I (half) jokingly call the Sticks here in the middle of the Philippine archipelago, I have found insight and invaluably reassuring sanity in Thomsen's irreplaceable Peace Corps chronicle, Living Poor. Although the circumstances with which he contended were very different from mine, I think he would recognize his Ecuadorean friends among the Filipinos I see every day. And Thomsen went to Ecuador to help some of its poorest people. I came to the Philippines to help myself - even though I wound up in surroundings strangely similar to those on Thomsen's farm on the River of Emeralds.  

As close as he came to becoming one of them, Thomsen reached a point in his relationship with Ramon Prado, his closest Ecuadorean friend, when "a frightening thing happened which seemed for a time to open an abyss between us and to throw into a despairing light the difference in our cultures and our sensitivities to life." What happened was Ramon had taken some of the powerful herbicide called 2-4-D, which had worked wonders on the small fields they were working, and bathed his dog, named Tarzan, in it, to kill his fleas. It killed all the fleas, and Tarzan into the bargain. But it took more than a week for the dog to die. When Thomsen saw the poor animal, he knew immediately that something was seriously wrong with it: 

"I thought for a while that one of Ramon's neighbors - who used a machete or pots of boiling water on animals that came near her kitchen - had hurt Tarzan again, but Ramon explained that there was nothing wrong with the dog. He had been weakened by flea bites, Ramon explained. He had bathed the dog in 2-4-D,and now all the fleas were dead.

"But you've killed your dog, too" I told him in exasperation. "Look what you've done; he's dying."

"Oh, Martin, calm yourself," Ramon said. "Just wait a couple of days; he'll be like new."

"Well, at least pack him home," I said. "I can't stand to have him here dying all over the place."

"He walked here, let him walk back," Ramon said coldly.

"But he can't walk, he's dying."

After laying outside his house for two days, Thomsen carried Tarzan the half mile to Ramon's house. 

"He was not my dog, and I didn't want to be burdened with his death; I wanted him [Ramon] to suffer a little."

But the dog managed to drag himself back to Thomsen's house. Finally, he paid Ramon's brother a nickel to carry the dog back to Ramon's house. About a week later, expecting the dog to have died in the interim, Thomsen showed up at Ramon's house for lunch:

"In the old hog pen fifty feet from Ramon's house, lying in his own filth, his body a mass of open sores and maggots, lying where I could see he hadn't been moved in a week - Tarzan. He raised his head at my voice; his eyes were filmed over and blind; his body, which trembled violently with the effort of moving his head, was wasted. He wagged his tail a couple of times and dropped his head. Choking with rage, sorrow, and guilt, I climbed over the fence to touch him and talk to him.

From the house they all watched me in consternation - Ramon, Ester, Ester's mother and brother. Ramon called for water and brought me a gourd full.

"Get out of the pen," Ramon said. "Wash your hands; you can get sick touching something so diseased."

"Why haven't you killed him?" I asked in a choked voice.

Ramon looked back at me without understanding. "Get out of the pen and wash your hands."

"When did he have water last?"

"We gave him water every day, Martin. Now, for God's sake, get out of the pen."

"But why don't you kill him? He's yours; he depends on you; you're responsible."

"Come on, Martin," Ramon pleaded. "Lunch is all ready; we're having your favorite - lobster. Come on, wash your hands."

"I grabbed Ramon by his shoulders and started shaking him. "Listen, Ramon, answer me. Why is he still alive? Why haven't you killed him?"

The question shocked and embarrassed him. "I'm not the type who goes around killing his dogs," he said. "What kind of a man do you think I am?"

We stood there for a long minute staring into each other's eyes, really separated. I felt a real loathing for him, for the whole barbarous country. I kept wanting to tell him to go to hell and then walk away. The one truth that for two years I had not had the strength to face, that I had been unable to accept - that one day I would leave this place and never come back - this truth flashed across my mind stripped of its terror.

We were standing there staring at each other like strangers, and Ramon's face was very troubled. He said my name a couple of times. "Martin, what's wrong?" He held the mate out before him, still offering me the water. After a while, trembling, I took the water and washed my hands."

Unlike Thomsen, I haven't grown as close to a Filipino as he had to Ramon. But, like him, I've seen the unacceptable treatment of dogs by my neighbors - tying them up permanently on a short rope, providing people with an alarm if anyone was snooping around the house at night. (These dog alarms are as much ignored as car alarms are in the States.) Or when a dog bit a child in the face and there was a risk of rabies (why pay for shots for a dog when you can't afford them for your children?), I turned up with my machete and volunteered to destroy the dog. Even if it were free of rabies, the dog could never again be trusted around children. But the dog's owner had hidden it and promised to pay for the child's rabies shots himself, promising to "watch" the dog for a week to make sure it wasn't rabid.

I have never drawn the conclusion, as so many expats do, that Filipinos are barbarous or that the country's customs are crazy by any rational standards. I accept the fact that "this is not America," and that it's absurd to measure everything by American standards. They do things differently here - that's all. But there is a distance (I won't call it an abyss) that separates us that I can't cross. It's simply too far to go to persuade them that the reason why I cultivate - luxuriate - in my privacy and spend so much time inside my house is not because I'm hiding from the police. And I don't take part in their shindigs not because I'm conceited but because I can't stand the horrible music they habitually play at ear-splitting volume. And I don't routinely get drunk with them because, unlike every other foreigner they ever heard of, I'm not a millionaire, nor ever likely to be one - even by their inhumanly straightened standards.

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