The Travels of Sheila O’Mara  

Saturday, September 5, 2009

(Fr. Shay's columns are published in The Manila Times,
in publications in Ireland, the UK, Hong Kong, and on-line.)

When Sheila arrived from Ireland and landed in Manila, she was given a traditional organized tour and was amazed to see the many glittering symbols of civilization - the towering office blocks graced with shinning glass fronts, soaring skyscrapers reaching to the clouds, gleaming condominiums with blue swimming pools. She entered the plush mansions of the rich enclosed in walled-gardens within gated communities. The grim faced armed guards inspected passes, searched cars, suspected visitors.

Her tour bus crawled through the polluted air and dense traffic. The expensive vehicles that choked the streets and palm lined boulevards were tokens of wealth and opulence. Nearby she saw the magnificent malls of the metropolis, with bounteous boutiques flouting magnificent gold and sliver jewels, exotic baubles and beads, evidence of a prosperous and plentiful nation, a modern civilization of prosperous people.

But later she was to see the real Philippines and meet the rural farmers and learns about the life of the landless peasants, the impoverished crop sharers, the ragged and wrecked coconut farm workers on vast plantations. She met the sun- scorched sugar cane workers wrapped in rags to fend off the biting insects and poisonous snakes. She visited dozens of graves of church, peace, and justice activists that died by the assassin’s brazen bullet or cruel killing knife. She wondered why the good should die.

Then on the third week, she met the urban poor living in the overcrowded slums swarming like bees around the hive from which the honey was taken, the goodness of life, as it were, snatched away. She walked the plank raised above the floating sewerage through rotting shanties and shacks, some hanging dangerously over evil-smelling garbage filled canals. She sat with washer women with their laundry basins grouped about a single water faucet with soapy suds overflowing onto the middy ground. She gazed open-eyed and mystified when they hooted with rib hurting laughter and slapped their knees in bellows of mirth when she asked how much was the weekly unemployment cheque their jobless husbands received and what government medical assistance was available.

The uproar became hilarious when she asked about child support, nutritional supplements, food stamps, homes for the homeless and the aged, the street kids and the like. These social services were unheard of and such fantasies unbelievable, they said. They could not imagine a wonderland society like that. They were living by their wits, they said, whatever turned up when they scratched they pecked it, they lived like hungry chickens, said skinny Maria, speaking in Tagalog, although she was from Leyte, the home of Imelda Marcos with the three thousands pairs of shoes, she said, waving her rubber slipper, and they roared in laughter. What a happy day were having with Sheila and her guide. Life was a joke, to be enjoyed.

They washed clothes, the children gathered scrap metal, bottles and waste cartons, the lucky ones enjoyed slave-like conditions in underpaid sweat shops and back-street factories. They were told they were worthless and useless for anything else. Take it or leave it. “We are the poor, and this is our life, miracles don’t happen, nothing changes for us so we joke a lot”, said Josie, the squatting wizened gray-haired toothless old grandmother with wrinkled skin like crept paper and a black licorice cigarette hanging from her mouth. She then cackled with mirthless laughter. The wealthiest in the slum had a small TV rescued from a junk shop and repaired with Filipino ingenuity.

Dozens of slum-dwellers avidly watched the news despite the snowy lines that danced across the screen. They reveled in the serious barking, almost shouting, voice of the presenter announcing one bloody tragedy after another, one violent shoot out in the streets, one more ambush of government troops by the Muslim rebels, one more bus crash that killed a dozen or more people, more child rape and then came the million peso dinner ($20,000) eaten by the Philippine presidential entourage in New York’s most exclusive restaurant to celebrate their White House meeting with President Barack Obama. The jokes flew fast and furious, “Why was I not invited?” said one, the crowd erupted in laughter. “I will eat the bones said another ³, more laughter. (to be continued)

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Contact Fr. Shay Cullen at the Preda Center, Upper Kalaklan, Olongapo City, Philippines.
PREDA Information Office
PREDA Foundation, Inc.

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