Royal Valley, Davao: A Hard Life
I met Rachel, a coordinator for a non-governmental organization, at a restaurant called Mesa. She wore a long, white dress and told me that she had trained as a nurse. It was 11:30 on a Sunday morning. During the night, an intense rain storm had moved onto the island of Mindanao from the Celebes Sea. Now it seemed the storm had passed. The sun had emerged. The day had turned hot and humid. It made me more anxious. My destination, later in the day, was Royal Valley, Davao.
In front of a pair of glass doors, Rachel handed me the dossier, which we had discussed on the phone.
Although Mesa occupied a large space on the ground floor of a sprawling, modern shopping center, called SM Lanang, it was crowded and noisy. The waiter said: “You want a bottle of San Miguel Light?” I replied: “No, fresh fruit juice.”
Something irritated me. Was it the blast of cold air from the restaurant’s air conditioner or the stark contrast of the modern shopping center with its grim surroundings? SM Lanang was an island in a sea of slums. Or was it Davao City itself, a 19th century outpost, with a muddy river running through it?
The waiter brought a tall glass of calamansi juice.
My immediate goal was to deliver some initial figures on low-income families in the Philippines to my research partner in the U.S. She had been waiting for a week. We had graduated together from the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California and worked together for two years.
My ultimate goal on this trip was to finish my collection of in-depth interviews of selected families in Davao City. When I turned on my computer and accessed the Internet, the waiter hovered over me. Like others I had met in my travels across the Philippines, he was curious.
I ate the rice, vegetables, and chicken, and I sent my latest figures by e-mail. Then my telephone rang. “I’ll pick you up in front of the main entrance of SM Lanang at 1:00.” It was Chuy, my taxi driver. I looked at my watch. The digital numbers showed 12:15. Rachel had arranged a visit for me with a family at 3:30 in the afternoon. The people lived in Royal Valley, a rural community on the outskirts of Davao City.
My thoughts turned to Gia. She was supposed to go with me to meet the family in Royal Valley.
With 11 family members living in a dwelling of 70 square meters with one bedroom, a kitchen, a living room, and a bathroom, I could imagine serious problems. There was no privacy. According to the World Health Organization, a minimum amount of living space for an adult in a house was 20 square meters. The seven adults in this family required at least 140 square meters, or twice what they had.
Imelda, 54, and her sister, Maria, 43, were the matriarchs of the family. Bonifacio, 55, was the husband of Imelda and worked 60 hours per week, earning 150 dollars, per month as a forklift operator. Arnold, 40, was the husband of Maria and also worked 60 hours per week, earning slightly more, 175 dollars per month as a taxi driver. The only wage earners toiled nearly every daylight hour six days per week.
The two couples shared the house with two of their children and five of their grandchildren. How did it all work? Martha, a daughter of Imelda and Bonifacio, was the mother of three girls, Mary, 6, Lila, 4, and Rihanna, 9 months. Armane, a daughter of Maria and Arnold, was the mother of a baby girl, Rian, 6 months. While Martha was 27 years old, Armane was only 17. Although Martha received 2,000 pesos, or 50 dollars, per month from the father of her children, Armane received no support of any kind from the father of her baby. Because Armane was immature and penniless, her situation was dire. Her baby was both sick and undersized.
Anthony, the son of another daughter of Maria and Arnold, had showed up only recently and had enrolled in high school. He was almost a mystery. It was not clear where Anthony’s mother and father were.
I turned off my computer. The bill for lunch was 1,000 pesos, the equivalent of 25 dollars. It was more than a family of five, living at the poverty line, would spend on food in two weeks.
When I exited the restaurant, I saw a security guard, one of the ubiquitous guards stationed at the door of nearly every business across the Philippines. The young guard, a teen-ager, was dressed in his uniform of a white, button-down shirt with black tie, black trousers, and black shoes and was followed by two older, casually but expensively dressed men. The young man walked briskly; so did the two, older men. All three of them were talking. But it wasn’t clear they were talking to one another. Then the words spoken by the three men became distinct as they passed me.
“Mar Roxas wants to take care of you,” said one of the two, older men. “I’ve already received 500 pesos from him,” replied the young security guard, “but I’m not sure it’s enough.” At first, the manner of the young security guard struck me as odd. He spoke as if he were thinking about something else, as if he didn’t care. Then I realized that the vote buying for the upcoming presidential elections had started in earnest. The two, older men were bribing the younger man.
Down to the last detail, the system seemed corrupt.
The Market, Royal Valley, Davao
In front of the main entrance, Chuy waited in his taxi. I sat down in the back seat of the car. My cell phone rang. “I’m with Imelda and Maria,” Gia said. “We’re at the Bankerohan Market. Meet us here at 1:30. Then we will go back to the house in Royal Valley, where you can interview the rest of the family.”
From SM Lanang, Chuy followed J.P. Laurel Avenue, traveling southwest. We passed the Abreeza Mall and the Seda Abreeza Hotel on the left. At the next intersection, Chuy turned right on Elpidio Quirino Avenue. Before crossing the Davao River, Chuy turned right again. We stopped in front of the outdoor market.
Women and children and a few men moved among the stalls, with their broad array of fruits and vegetables and their seafood, poultry, and pork.
Gia stood in front of a stall with fish. She wore a black skirt and a red blouse. She had long, black hair and was pretty. Across a display of crushed ice a hundred tilapia were arranged in neat rows. Next to Gia, Imelda was selecting fish. “How many times a week do you come here for fish?” I asked.
“Three or four,” Imelda replied. “We make big pots of fish soup.”
“Do you always buy your tilapia here?” I said.
Hesitating for a moment, Imelda replied: “Sometimes I buy fish from a vendor who passes by my house. It depends on what I can afford and what is available.”
Carrying her fish wrapped in a newspaper in her left hand and carrying a plastic bag containing rice in her right hand, Imelda moved to another stall with onions, garlic, and radishes. Near a stall displaying beans and squash and several varieties of rice, Maria stood. She looked at a piece of paper, her grocery list, in her hand. Soon the sisters had selected some beans, squash, and rice.
“How many times per week do you buy vegetables?” I asked. Maria’s face was more expressive than her sister’s. Her eyes seemed brighter.
“Two or three times,” replied Maria. “They don’t spoil, of course.” Her English was good. “But fruits. They are different. Bananas, mangoes, durian, and mangosteen. We buy them only when they are fresh and in season. Not every week.” The two sisters walked toward the parking lot.
I stopped for a moment. Gia stopped next to me. “How often do they come here?” I asked Gia.
“Almost every day,” Gia said. She added that the jeepney ride took them 40 minutes and cost 10 pesos. “Sometimes they go to a neighborhood store, much closer, but food costs more there. It is an indoor market, called SaveMore. They have to go shopping every day somewhere. They don’t have a refrigerator.”
Chuy returned in his taxi. The three women got into the back seat; I, into the front. The heat was stifling. Chuy turned on the air conditioning.
“How much money do you spend for food each week?” I asked.
“About 2,000 pesos,” Imelda said. It was the equivalent of 50 dollars. “We are eleven at home,” she added. The distance from the market to their house was five miles. The traffic was light, and the journey was fast.
We crossed the Davao River, following MacArthur Highway. On either side of the highway, lush vegetation spread toward the horizon. Here and there, banana plantations occupied large plots of land. Fields of other crops, including roselle, stretched away from us in long rows.
Chuy slowed as we approached a curve in the road. We found ourselves moving northwestward on MacArthur Highway. When we passed the SaveMore market on the left, Chuy slowed the taxi again. But this time he brought the vehicle to a stop and turned left onto a street called Taal Road.
“We’re entering Royal Valley now,” Gia said. “We’ll be at the house in a few minutes.”
“How long have you lived in Royal Valley?” I asked, turning to look over my left shoulder at Imelda.
“Almost 20 years,” Imelda said. I looked at Maria. “And you, Maria? Two years?” She nodded.
Rachel had told me that Maria and her husband, Arnold, and their daughter, Armane, with her baby, had moved into the house recently because they had no choice. They had nowhere else to go.
“They lived in Digos City before,” Rachel had said. “But then Arnold lost his job.” Digos City, 30 miles south, was smaller than Davao City. Digos City had 150 thousand people; Davao had 1.5 million.
We left Taal Road and entered a small street. Now Imelda spoke, and Chuy turned on another and a smaller street. Chuy slowed the vehicle, and we proceeded over potholes. The street was half dirt and half pavement. The biggest holes forced Chuy to stop and start. I saw a large creek stretching behind the houses on the left side of the street. Also I knew from looking at a city map earlier that another large creek cut through the other side of Royal Valley five blocks away, where the two creeks emptied into the sea. This part of Royal Valley was a flood plain.
The House, Royal Valley, Davao
Chuy brought the taxi to a halt in front of a one-story, unpainted house on our right. It was ten feet from the road. I looked at my watch. The digital numbers showed 3:15. Then I looked at the house.
It was a simple structure, starting on the ground with a foundation of concrete and finishing in the air with a mix of corrugated iron, wood beams, and plastic sheets. It had been built from surplus materials.
From the open, front door, a man emerged. He approached the taxi. “I’m Bonifacio,” he said to me, as he shook my hand. He had a broad face, dark skin, and grey hair. I knew Bonifacio worked as a forklift driver for San Miguel Brewing, one mile to the west on MacArthur Highway. According to Rachel, he had been a forklift driver for 37 years. She said he had purchased a lot in Royal Valley for 20,000 pesos (425 dollars) in 1998 and built the house himself. “I’ll be right back,” Bonifacio said. He started walking down the road.
I took Imelda’s groceries; Gia took Maria’s. We followed Imelda and Maria into the house.
It was as hot inside as it was outside. The house had one window in this front room, with no cross ventilation. The tropical heat stacked itself in layers. There were no fans.
From the front door we passed through a living room with a table and two metal chairs against a front wall and a sofa on a side wall. Then we entered the kitchen, where Gia and I placed the four grocery bags on a small table. Imelda and Maria started to remove the food. The room had one window.
While I watched, Imelda placed a black pot on the grate of a large, iron stove and started washing and cutting up the vegetables and dumping them into the pot. Simultaneously, Maria started cleaning fish. She discarded the heads and tails and intestines and cut the meat into chunks. Then Imelda opened a compartment of the stove and inserted charcoal into it.
“You use charcoal, not butane gas, for your stove?” I asked.
“If I have 700 pesos to buy a canister, I use gas,” Imelda said. “Today, I didn’t have the money.”
“Who usually cooks?” I asked.
Maria spoke in a low voice in Visaya to Gia, who translated into English. “Bonifacio fixes breakfast,” Gia said. “Maria prepares lunch and dinner, and Imelda does a special request, such as a pork adobo.”
I saw two mattresses propped against a wall. Rachel had told me that Imelda and Bonifacio used one to sleep on the floor in the living room and Maria and Arnold used one to sleep on the floor in the kitchen. The seven children and grandchildren slept in the bedroom.
In the far corner of the kitchen, I saw two doors, both of them closed.
I opened one door and glanced into the interior of a bathroom. A sink, toilet, and shower occupied a tiny space. The room had a small mirror above the sink but no shelves. I wondered how 11 people could use one bathroom.
When I opened the other door in the kitchen, I found myself looking outside. In a small yard, I saw clothes hanging from a wire. Blouses, shorts, and undergarments were drying in the sun. I stepped into the yard. Several plastic buckets—blue, red, and green—sat on the ground. The family used this area for washing clothes.
Thirty feet away, the yard terminated in a bank of dirt, weeds, and bushes. I took several steps forward. Beyond the bank of bushes was the creek. The water was fast-moving. A series of paper cups and plastic containers was caught in the leaves of the bushes. Suddenly, I heard Gia speaking. “The children can’t play in the water. They’ll get sick. By the way, Bonifacio has returned and wants you to join him in the front room. He bought beer.”
I hesitated. The creek was high because of the rains, and there were now dark clouds overhead. If it rained again and if the creek rose another foot, it would flood the backyard and, possibly, all of the rooms in the house. I followed Gia back inside.
In the front room, when I sat down in a green armchair in a corner beneath a window with a view of the street, I thought it would be cooler, but I was wrong. To my right was a doorway, which provided a glimpse into another room, a bedroom. I could see vague shapes in the room.
“My daughter and Imelda’s daughter sleep on the bed in there with their babies,” Bonifacio said. “Anthony and the two little girls sleep on the floor. It’s crowded. We didn’t plan it. People just showed up.”
In front of me, Bonifacio sat on a chair and stared at the floor. On the table next to him were a 1-liter bottle of Red Horse beer and two glasses. Bonifacio poured the beer and handed me a glass.
A small girl emerged from the bedroom. When she saw me, she walked over to me, took my hand in her two hands, and pressed the back of my hand to her forehead. It was Lila, Martha’s second daughter.
A tiny TV in the opposite corner suddenly flickered on and off again. “The power does strange things every day. We can’t depend on it,” Martha said. She looked at me.
Bonifacio watched. He said nothing.
I could hear the rain coming down hard on the street in front of the house. When I turned to look out the window behind me, I saw the water filling the potholes in the street.
The Rain, Falling Hard, Royal Valley, Davao
We sat in Chuy’s taxi on MacArthur Highway parked near the bridge over the muddy and swollen Davao River. We watched the water as it rose.
“The storm is dangerous,” Gia said. “It could flood Bonifacio and Imelda’s house. They would have to pack up and leave since nearly everyone in the house sleeps on the floor. Their house flooded last year.”
“What was Maria upset about?” I asked. She had been crying in the kitchen while I had been standing outside, in the back yard. When I came back inside her face was red and her eyes were dark.
“Armane and her baby have disappeared,” Gia said. “Martha found a note from Armane at the bottom of the closet in the bedroom while we were at the market. Martha and her daughters were taking a nap when Armane left.”
“What did the note say?”
“That Armane was going away with her boyfriend and would not return. She didn’t like living with her mother and father and the rest of the family.” Gia was quiet for a moment. “But the most serious problem is that Armane is a bad mother, and her baby is sick. Maria and Imelda think the baby will die if Armane does not get help.”
“I’ll tell Rachel,” I replied.
“Rachel already knows. She can’t do anything.”