Friday, February 18, 2005



Posted 02:22am (Mla time) Feb 18, 2005
By Ambeth Ocampo
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A15 of the February 18, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

JUST recently, the term "damaged culture" became widely used in describing our bad traits. This reminded me of the controversial essay in Atlantic Monthly with the same title by James Fallows.

When I was introduced to Fallows over a decade ago at lunch in Kamayan, I greeted him by saying, "Oh, you're the guy. I presume you're in town researching for another article that will infuriate all of us." With that tactless remark I was shunted away to a corner like the bratty little boy I still am. No loss, I said to myself, as I concentrated on the lechon de leche, but that was the last time I was invited by the host.

Filipinos are a forgiving lot; Fallows was never tarred and feathered.

In 1925, a similar report on the Philippines and the Filipinos appeared in book form and was titled "The Isles of Fear: The Truth about the Philippines." It was written by Katherine Mayo, who also wrote a similarly infuriating book on India that was publicly burned. Threatened with being tarred and feathered, I don't know if she ever returned to India for a lecture tour and book signing. In the Philippines, despite the grumbling, she would probably still be invited to a lechon lunch instead of being roasted alive.

Yes we are a forgiving lot. It has been almost two decades since Edsa 1986, and we still have to find closure for the martial law years.

Re-reading "The Isles of Fear" was an eye-opener. I realized first that the black-and-white photographs used to illustrate the book have been marvelously re-invented into striking, and now very expensive, pictures by the painter Bencab. For example, the frontispiece showing a man barefoot and holding his hat, photographed in profile as in a criminal mug shot, now enlarged and tinged with muted color, is one of the jewels of the Cultural Center art collection. Another photograph of an Ilocana lighting an over-size cigar has been cropped and re-made by Bencab into a picture that now hangs in a posh London flat.

Of the many anecdotes related by Mayo, this one stands out in my memory and is worth quoting here:

"One quiet morning ... a fisherman came rushing in from his work in Manila Bay with a great tale to tell. As he bent over his net, he had seen bubbles rising in a steady column from the depths. Looking farther, he perceived that the bubbles, like a crown of pearls, marked the center of a shadowy cross stretched upon the surface of the sea. Greatly amazed, he had dipped his coconut drinking cup into the bubbling stream, tasted it and found it sweet. Sweet water provided in the midst of the ocean! On that, he had sped ashore, aflame with his news.

"A priest, accompanying the fisherman back to the spot, found the stream and forthwith blessed it, proclaiming a miracle. Then the whole district of Tondo flung itself into small boats. And from that moment no one needed to lead the way, for, day and night, the spot was crowded with human cargoes, awaiting their turn to drink.

"Two days later, one of the liveliest epidemics of cholera on record broke out in the district of Tondo. Dr. Heiser, grappling with it, quickly discovered the history just narrated. Then he, also made a little voyage-resulting in the discovery that the unsalted stream and crown of pearls rose from a cracked city sewage pipe, whose poisonous contents the people in mounting thousands were eagerly drinking down. And so great already was the hold of the thing upon the whole city that Mr. Taft, then Governor, hesitated forty-eight hours before taking definite action, for fear lest an insurrection be provoked."

Mayo also wrote about women in jail, one a victim of an abusive usurer in Tarlac, the other accompanying the youngest criminal in an Ilocos Norte jail. The latter, if true, is something for the Guinness Book of World Records. Her informant, A.W. Prautch, related seeing a woman holding a sick baby in jail. When he inquired about the wretch, the Governor replied, matter-of-factly, that the woman was there to take care of the baby. When he inquired what the baby was doing in a prison cell, he was informed that the baby was guilty of arson. The story briefly is as follows:

"The woman, it appeared, was the wife of a poor laborer. One day when the man was off in the fields working, the woman climbed down the ladder of the shack and went to look for faggots to boil the evening rice. The baby, then just learning to creep, remained alone in the room. The baby was supposed to show discretion. What he did do, seemingly, was to hitch his way over to the fire-pot and pull out a pretty red ember. After which it would be a matter of minutes, no more, before the whole nipa-palm shack would blaze. The neighbors rescued the baby. But the house-which by the way belonged to the laborer and his wife and was all they owned in the world-[burned down]."

When the police came and investigated, the blame fell on the baby who was committed to prison to await trial. Problem was that the baby wasn't weaned yet, so the mother had to accompany the baby in jail and feed it.

Fortunately, Mr. Prautsch convinced the Governor to post bail that Saturday, get the baby and mother out of jail and on Monday during the trial simply suspend judgment. Without his intercession, the case would have dragged on and no one would have cared.

Now that really makes the Philippines the Isles of Fear.


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