Life In The Barrio - Southern Davao, The Philippines

Life in the Barrio

A young American woman views on life in a remote village in Southern Davao, The Philippines 

(Disclaimer:  I wrote this when I was 25 years old and this story is based own personal experiences & travel journal entries at that time)

I have traveled to the Philippines three times. I always go to the same place in Southern Davao on Mindanao Island. Life in “the barrio” I visit there is very interesting.  The barrio consists of a group of houses in one area of the province, like a subdivision of the main town. In Southern Davao, most of the families live in the same general area. When a couple gets married, they build a house on their family plot of land, so everyone in the family lives closely together. 

Gossip.  Everyone knows what everyone else in doing; gossip is the mainstay of life. Because there are no telephones and no jobs for the women, most of the housewives sit around and gossip. After returning from their menial jobs, the men like to sit around outside in hammocks and drink cheap rice whiskey and get drunk. That’s life in the barrio. I enjoyed hanging out and drinking beer with the men in the evenings, rather than sitting around with the housewives as they gossiped in their native Tagolog. I found the men to be more interesting.

Party.  I would say that the favorite pastime of Filipino men is drinking – it’s their favorite thing besides playing basketball. They just like to sit around outside and share a pint or two or three of whiskey, coconut wine, or Carlsberg beer. There was another concoction they enjoyed called [xxx] and it was the cheapest alcoholic mixture available; part Coke, part Sprite, and part whiskey, or something like that. The guys there taught me how to drink it. The trick is not to smell it before you swallow; otherwise the smell will make you puke. It was like drinking Everclear. It was too strong for me, but the young guys liked it because it allowed them to get drunk cheaply. When you only make four dollars a day, something inexpensive to get drunk on is very important. When young guys get together, their main topic of conversation is sex, what they call “skin sports”. They also like to discuss sports, girls, and their jobs. They talk a lot about nothing. They make silly jokes. The Filipino jokes to me are sort of nerdy, but they can get a laugh out of anything, even by just rhyming words. They are quick to smile and they laugh easily. Especially with a little coconut whiskey in the blood, anything is funny! Filipino men have no inhibitions. If they have to urinate, it doesn’t matter where they are or who may be in their presence; they just turn their backs to whoever may be around, and pee wherever they are. Men of all ages and all status levels do this. In my short time in the Philippines, I’ve seen more men pee in front of me than I have seen in all my years in the United States. It was so embarrassing; in the US, no one urinates in front of you. If someone has to relieve him or herself outdoors, they usually walk away far enough so that you cannot hear or see anything. But not Filipino men, even if you barely know them, they will stand there “watering” a flower and continue the conversation with you as if nothing was going on. In the Philippines, even my friend Brian would pee in front of me – I was mortified! 

Fish Brains.  Compared with most people in the US, the Filipinos in the barrio are also not particularly concerned with sanitation. A friend of mine there would fry three beautiful eggs for me and then give the pan to the nearest flea- and lice-infested dog to lick clean. Then later she would fry something else in the same pan for my next meal. Even the semi well-to-do people don’t mind if their dog eats out of the same pan as they do.   The habits of sucking the brains out of fish and of burping with abandon were also new to me, but not at all uncommon there. My friend Brian had a tendency to burp whenever he felt the urge, and he loved to suck the brains out of fish. 

Eat.   Burping is something everyone in the world does; however, in the US it is generally considered very impolite to burp in front of other people. In the Philippines, it is normal for both men and women to burp as loudly as they want to, no matter where they are. Filipinos love fish – the whole fish. I really enjoyed the milkfish they prepared for me, but I didn’t like to eat the intestines or the head. If I was eating a piece of fish, and the intestines started to pop out, I would lose my appetite. I really did try to like Filipino cuisine, but I must say it is probably the most unappetizing food I’ve ever had. For example, when Brian and I went to an island for a few days, his idea of dinner was a can of corned beef with some rice. He couldn’t understand why I found cold corned beef right out of the can unpalatable. The next morning for breakfast, there was no rice available, so he just ate corned beef, right out of the can. I found it very interesting, but I had never had any kind of canned meat in my life – not even sardines – and I am not planning to become a connoisseur of canned beef anytime soon.  There isn’t much decent food available in that part of the world. Their attempts at preparing American cuisine were very poor. In a five-star hotel, I once ordered sausage for breakfast, and I was served miniature hot dogs and hard rolls; very unappealing. A couple of things I did like were the Carlsberg beer and the bananas. Filipinos do not really eat that much fresh fruit. In other parts of Asia, there are fresh fruit vendors on just about every corner. In Davao, you have to really look hard to find them. You can usually buy pretty good watermelons, mangoes, pineapples, and coconuts from market vendors. However, I ate a lot of rotten fruit. I think most of their good fruit is exported to other countries. I’m not sure why there was not an abundance of good fresh fruit. I did, however, eat a whole durian by myself – the Filipino natives I was with would not touch the stuff. Durian is considered the worst smelling fruit in Asia, but I like it. It has a slimy texture, and it has an odd fruity flavor, but is not too sweet. It definitely has a very distinct flavor, nothing else that I know of tastes like it. One thing that visitors find enjoyable is to drink coconut milk directly from a coconut; it’s really nice. The locals told me that it was the purest water in the world. That is probably true. There’s an abundance of coconuts in Southern Davao. They are often used to make boco (coconut candy). They shred fresh coconut and mix it with brown sugar and I don’t know what else. It’s a local specialty and very sweet. If you eat too much of it, you’ll get a stomachache. 

Personal Questions.  Filipinos have different social boundaries than we do back home in the US. They would think nothing of asking me if I was married before they even knew my first name. That could be annoying…they thought that if you’re not married, there must be a reason. That would lead to more questions: “Why not? Are you thinking about getting married? When? How old are you? Do you have a boyfriend? Are you a virgin? Do you ever do drugs? How much money do you make? Is your family rich? Are they married?” The list of questions went on and on.  It could be extremely irritating, and I started to feel like something was wrong with me, because I was not married, and I didn’t have a boyfriend!

Culture. Dating. Drama.   In the Filipino culture, women are expected to be virgins before they are married. A 46-year-old jeepney driver told me that if a bride was not a virgin on her wedding night, her husband would be ashamed and, of course, she would also be ashamed. I asked him “What about the men?” He replied, “Oh, for the men it is a different story. It doesn’t matter if the guy is not a virgin. It is only important that the girl is a virgin when she gets married.” Despite these expectations, it is very common for young Filipino women to get pregnant outside of marriage, though most of them get married soon after they become pregnant. One rarely meets an unwed mother – it would bring shame on her and her family. I know one girl that was impregnated by a local teacher. She had the baby boy, then fled to Manila to get a job there and left her baby behind for her mother to raise.  I asked her relatives if she loved her baby and if she was going to come back for him one day. They said that she loved her baby, but that she could not take care of him because she had to work in an office. It was good at least that her mother was willing to raise the child. My Filipino pen pal got pregnant when she was only 17 years old. I asked her why she got pregnant. She said that her boyfriend, Zaldy, wanted no one else to have her, so he got her pregnant. Having sex with her was his way of laying claim to her. She said he told her he loved her very much, but she did not feel the same way about him. She went on to say that it wasn’t her choice, but that he cared for her, and he wanted her only to himself. As a result, she got pregnant and they were too ashamed to tell their parents. They finally broke down and told them the news, and she was married in white when she was five months pregnant. Another story I’m familiar with is that of Arvin and Lub Lub. Arvin was the president of his college and Lub Lub was the secretary there. Arvin had had the same girlfriend for six years, but despite his relationship with her, he and Lub Lub got together, which resulted in Lub Lub becoming pregnant. When she was two months pregnant, they told Arvin’s mother, who was quite shocked by the news. They had a quick wedding soon after that. At the wedding, Arvin’s now ex-girlfriend showed up with her mother. The present they brought to the wedding was gift-wrapped with all the old photos of Arvin with his ex-girlfriend taken while they were still a couple. Inside the box was an old dirty lampshade. No one understood this sort of anger. The gift offended Arvin’s whole family, even his grandfather. It caused much unneeded heartache to the family. Now Arvin and Lub Lub and their baby are living with Lub Lub’s parents. They are both unemployed and Lub Lub is two months pregnant with their second child. They are only 22 years old. That is a common situation there; when a young couple gets married, they usually move in with the wife’s parents. In the US, most couples wait until they are financially secure before they get married. In the Philippines, people get married when they fall in love or procreate. Who cares about money? They can just live with the parents and sponge off of them. No problem. Parents are much more obliged culturally to provide for their children as long as they live or are able to. The 46-year-old jeepney driver said he paid for everything for his daughter – from her books to her sanitary napkins. And she is a 22-year-old student living in Manila. I asked why she couldn’t get a part time job. He said it was impossible because she had to study. I went to school full time and worked 20 hours a week to support myself, and my dad didn’t give me a dime. But in our culture, many parents don’t feel the lifetime obligation to support their children until they get on their own two feet. I was out of the house and on my own financially when I was barely 18 years old. Her father said he would wear ragged clothes as long as his daughter could go to school. Children come first to the average Filipino. Those who never marry just continue living with their parents or move in with a married sister or brother. There is always a sister to cook and clean for them. So who necessarily needs a wife? You can just hang out with your nieces and nephews.

To be continued....


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