Discovering what utopia means in one of the most unlikely places — a remote island in the central Philippines.
The 1982 New Year’s Eve festivity was well under preparation for the young people on a small barangay beside the city of Biliran called Burabod. The teenagers and a few young adults have dressed up for the occasion — or at least prettied what little clothing they had.
The sun was setting and it gave its effervescent goodbye across the oceanic horizon. It festooned a copper tinge above the treeline giving way to a striking blue background of the sky. The waves skipped happily, dotting occasional white blotches as they moved toward shore. The water lightly touched at Burabod’s seawall which stilted up high and ended where the basketball court started. A kerosene lamp was set-up on a pole in the middle of the court. An old vinyl record player was off to the right attached crudely to a car battery. There were only two or three records available and the songs were played over and over. The sound equipment bellowed above the capacity that the speakers could handle. The skips, cracking and feedback emitted were distracting. No one cared about this except me.
The sun quickly disappeared and the darkness set in. The kerosene lamp could only make outlines of the bodies moving around the lamppost. As the dancers danced, all that could be seen was the white gleam of their teeth from their wide smiles.
These smiles were from people whose homes were made with some basic wood frames while others were of twisted concoctions of leaves, rope and bamboo. Often the house-floors were just trampled sod and the living quarters were frequently shared with their pigs, chickens and dogs. They had no electricity, no water or indoor plumbing. One had to walk a distance to one of three community taps — an amount for a whole community which is typically the minimum for a Canadian house consisting of three or four people. These dancers had little to bank on for the future — opportunities for success or moving up the economic ladder were like winning a lottery. There were few, if any, old people in this small town because little were lucky to live that long.
The smiles gave me a certain existential crisis. The level of poverty would have devastated the bravest Canadian into silence. Yet these Filipinos defied the poor stereotype. Yes, they knew they were economically poor, but it didn’t break their spirit.
The answer was found in their spirit of community — they said we instead of I. Their whole life centered around using the plural instead of the singular and this transcended the great challenges confronting their lives.
I didn’t believe the power of this at first and searched Burabod for the same ubiquitous sadness that seems to pervade so many of my hometown places in the lower mainland of Vancouver, B.C., but rarely could find it. It caused yet more consternation. How could these people be happy when they had nothing and in my world, where everyone had almost everything, were not?
This experience profoundly effected me. It made me realize that happiness is difficult, even unachievable, when pursued in the singular. A significant part of belonging and being loved can only begin in the plural, and when this utopia is achieved, the environment does not dictate as loudly, and at times, doesn’t matter at all. ■
This article is dedicated to Nanay and the late Tatay de la Rosa, who so warmly took me into their Barangay Burabod home for four months in 1981.