The blazing Philippine sun beats relentlessly on my pasty winter skin. From behind, my teenage skipper barks at me to row, then to stop, then to row again. I obey willingly, smiling as I push my feeble paddle through the chop.
I’m perched at the bow of our shallow wooden canoe. It’s narrow beam and shallow hull would normally make it unfit for the sea, but it’s been fortified with wooden pontoons that attach to the hull with beams that jut out both forward and aft. Where these cross the gunwales is the rowers’s positions. I’m at the bow, and the captain at the stern. There’s another young man hunched over inside the canoe fiddling with the net that will hopefully catch our lunch.
“Okay!” shouts the captain. I thrust my oar into the water and begin pushing it backwards. He does the same, and the boat crawls forward.
As we shuffle across the water, parallel to the beach, the first mate tosses the 100-foot-long volleyball-style net overboard. To make sure the net stays in the right position under water, the top of it has been rigged with chopped foam sandals, while the bottom is drawn to the sea floor with tiny weights.
After the net has been thrown overboard, I’m instructed to wait as the captain turns the boat towards the shore. We then row away from the net, and after a few minutes, I’m told to stop again. The boat swings back towards our original spot.
“Okay!” shouts the captain, and I once again begin rowing.
In front of us, the rest of the crew—five young locals—begins swimming towards the net. Each one of them is flapping their arms wildly, violently slamming them down on the surface as they advance. Every few seconds a large glug highlights the marine orchestra as someone throws a rock, or sometimes a starfish, towards the net. My mouth falls open as I wonder if this is how they’ve been taught to swim. But I quickly shake this notion away. These boys practically grew up in the water; there must be a reason.
When we finally reach the net, I’m told to stop. The crew is already there, diving under the water every few seconds, yelling something in their native Visaya language as they surface. I’m clueless as to what they are saying; I cannot even discern excitement from disappointment. We start to pull up the net, and every so often, a small fish comes with it. They’re no more than a few inches long, and in a different setting I would be admiring their vibrant colors and unique form, but in this context, as one of the boys, I see only one thing: lunch.
One of the fish we pull out of the water, aptly named “Danger Fish” by the first mate, has a sharp pincer on its back that will cause your finger to swell if you’re careless enough to let it touch you. His method for avoiding this pain is to bite the live fish right in the gills, which kills it instantly and gives him the necessary leverage to yank it free from the net. Blood drips down from the hand holding the fish, staining the water that’s accumulating at the bottom of the boat. He tosses his catch into the pale red sea water and continues pulling the net.
On the first pass we catch only two fish. There are nine of us in total, and while there are other treats to be had at our impromptu barbecue, such as raw sea urchin, a small shark, coconut, boiled banana, and rice, our work is not yet done; our feast not yet ready.
We repeat this process a few more times. I’ve now realized their flamboyant swimming style is designed to scare fish and chase them towards the net, and I’ve joined in by using my paddle to loudly slap the water as the boat moves forward. I’m skeptical, but they seem convinced this works, so I gladly beat the snot out of the choppy water.
After about an hour we’ve collected ten fish—enough for each person to have one. I get the sense this has been less successful than other fishing ventures, but I also get the sense this doesn’t really matter. We row towards shore, but I jump out early and swim. My skin sizzles as I land in the cool water. No sunburn, but I’m rapidly approaching medium-well.
I hadn’t planned on going fishing this day, and in fact I hadn’t even planned on attending a barbecue. Both events were products of authentic spontaneity and rich coincidence.
Walking down the beach in search of shade, we were beckoned over by a group of young men who were eager to ask us how we were enjoying their home. They offered us fresh coconuts recently cut down from nearby palm trees, and they were keen to give us more. I was told on one of my first nights in the Philippines that hospitality is taken very seriously in this island nation. No guest will go hungry, thirsty or disappointed.
But with nothing to contribute to this modest feast, we were reticent. Foolishly, I thought helping out with fishing would somehow earn our place at the lunch table, yet I was a mere ornament to their outfit.
I shake my head at my own naivety, as well as at my automatic rejection of the idea that complete strangers can and will offer what they have for no other reason than to be kind. I’m a bit ashamed at how hard it is for me to accept such random yet authentic kindness, but even being conscious of this, I still cannot crush the sensation of freeloading. It didn’t seem like they had enough for everyone to have their fill, and without anything to add, it didn’t feel right to take their food. We said goodbye and made to leave.
Our decision to leave, though, seemed to be more offensive than accepting the invitation to eat what little food there was. We were told this was the second or third round of the barbecue, that they had already eaten some fish before we came (and more shark—they had caught several small ones earlier that day), and that they would be thrilled if we would join them. Awkwardly retreating on our farewell, we put our stuff down and agreed to stay.
It was delicious, and there were leftovers, which we gladly passed over to a family a few hundred feet away that was also enjoying the day at the beach, but that had far more mouths to feed.
A few hours later, after we had moved onto another part of the beach, the boys were back out fishing again. They seemed to be having a blast lounging at the beach, goofing around until they got hungry, fishing, cooking and repeating everything over again. A pacific Sunday full of presence, as well as the gifts of Mother Nature that are willingly bequeathed when we stop to synchronize our heart with Hers.
These boys were all cousins, and this particular Sunday was a rare common day off. The man who initially called us over and invited us into the group had just returned from working in Dubai. He had been there for several years and over time became the manager of the coffee shop where he worked. But he was doubting his return. The plan was to be away for three months, yet after just a few weeks at home, he was feeling the lure to stay, even if it meant narrowing his economic choices.
This was actually the third barbecue to which we had been spontaneously invited. The first was when we stumbled upon a relatively secluded beach on the island of Siquijor. About 30 people were spread out around the beach. Some were far out on the sandbar collecting fish and other marine delicacies, others were just off the shore cleaning and preparing something I couldn’t quite see, and a few boys were hunched over a fire up on the beach, loudly tapping something on the rocks before putting it to their mouth and slurping up what was inside.
I approached them to ask what they were eating. Sea urchins. My look of surprise upon hearing this triggered Philippine generosity, and we were quickly offered a taste. Deliciously fresh, and quite similar to oysters on the half shell, I scoffed down three before saying thank you and moving on. We were offered more, but politely declined. Still full from lunch, and merely stopping through, the timing just wasn’t right.
The second invitation came two days later. Walking along the beach, killing time before our ferry, we ran into a neighborhood block party. About 25 people were gathered to celebrate the Chinese New Year long weekend. Here were were given fresh fish, clams, sea urchins, stew, soup, some strange ceviche-type thing, tuba (fermented coconut wine), puto (some sort of rice bread), and a sweet rice dish whose name escapes me. Again, delicious.
This random kindness and unflinching generosity was a pleasant surprise from my time in the Philippines. I will not make the mistake of extrapolating this experience into blanket statements about Philippine culture. There is good and evil, generosity and greed, and acceptance and rejection everywhere, and our impression of a culture often comes from our unique individual experience with it, but I cannot deny these moments warmed my heart and reminded me just how easy it can be for people to get along.
I’m told the Philippines is a poor country, and materially speaking, it is, but these definitions seem absurd to me. They’re nothing more than a way of creating unnecessary distinction between the Self and the Other.
Calling someone poor makes us feel rich, just as calling someone evil makes us feel good. No one is inherently anything, and our attempts to define the undefinable rest on the crutch of relativity that will inevitably fail to support us.
Dividing the world into developed and developing is a cruel simplification of life. I will not deny that material poverty presents tremendous challenges and can alter the range of opportunities available to people, and I will not ignore that the absence of some liberal values in many parts of the world actively contributes to a more difficult lived experience for countless people, and I will also not look away from the fact that the lens through which I view the world is one of privilege, but I also refuse to accept that we are different.
Upon returning from our hour-and-a-half fishing trip, our new friend proudly pointed at our catch and told me what we’d harvested from the sea would easily have cost 150 Philippine pesos at the market. While the activity was for fun, it was also a way to save some money.
One hundred and fifty pesos is roughly 3 USD. My first thought when he told me this was, “Wow, that was a lot of work for three dollars worth of fish.” But then I quickly pushed this idea from my mind, realizing what we had done wasn’t work. For me, it was never about the fish. I was simply basking in the moment, trying to be as grateful as I could for the point in time and space in which I found myself. In some form or another, they were doing exactly the same. Connection made. Hearts combined. Joy experienced.
The openness of heart and willingness to give that often comes from people who have so little is a nice reminder of how useless material wealth is at measuring the development of a person. The world is winning the war on poverty. While there have been some setbacks in recent years, and while there are still many challenges to come, the arrow is decidedly pointing up. But as we move forward in this noble fight, we must remember there is so much more to life. The voices we quiet often have so much to say, and it’s important we don’t let them die out in the blinding pursuit of wealth.
In a time of great tumult, when the world seems desperate to put up barriers and create distinction, these ephemeral experiences were refreshingly humanizing, poignant reminders of how we are all in this together, and of how kindness can break down all the walls we construct around us.
Achieving sustainability requires removing the conditions of life that make people desperate, but just as importantly, it requires a change in ourselves to understand that often times we create these conditions on our own. By accepting what we have, resisting the urge to desire more, and loving compassionately and unconditionally each and every being with which we share this Earth, we can hope to take important steps towards achieving genuine sustainability.
I’ve heard people say that traveling to the “developing world” is like going back in time. Older cars, less efficient transport and outdated technology gives that impression, but looks can be deceiving. For me, it feels like traveling to the future, to a place where the humility of the downtrodden meets the eagerness of the opportunistic.