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Playing with Water

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Playing with Water

  Playing with Water

  Passion and Solitude

  on a Philippine Island



  Jane Stephens

  Armour, poison, camouflage and a hidden way of life are very common in reef dwellers. In the labyrinthine world of tunnels and crevices, where soft-bodied and vulnerable creatures hide, specialised carnivores amongst the crustaceans, worms and molluscs roam as well, living their whole adult lives there and continually stalking their prey. This largely concealed world within the reef is an extensive, vital and thriving one.

  Charles R. C. Sheppard

  A Natural History of the Coral Reef

  It is a convention of Western thought to believe all cultures are compelled to explore, that human beings seek new land because their economies drive them onward. Lost in this valid but nevertheless impersonal observation is the notion of a simpler longing, of a human desire for a less complicated life, for fresh intimacy and renewal. These, too, draw us into new landscapes. And desire causes imagination to misconstrue what it finds.

  Barry Lopez

  Arctic Dreams

  I am a man of curious temperament who prefers on most occasions to be dumb. It is a selfish trait in my character which I try to master. Whenever I walk or travel I am generally silent; I like to observe the scenery closely, and sometimes I lose all consciousness of myself in it. The old proverb ‘Two’s company …’ does not hold true in my case; it would be difficult for me to find any second person who could walk with me and would be happy if I did not talk.

  Chiang Yee

  The Silent Traveller


  Title Page





  Part One: Tiwarik and Kansulay

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Part Two: Manila

  Chapter 7

  Part Three: Tiwarik and Kansulay

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12





  About the Author

  By the Same Author



  It is only eleven years since I wrote Playing with Water, which concerns living in a Philippine province. Yet when I came to re-read the book the familiar landscape it evoked took on the quality of a dream, or of something pungently recalled from a far-off summer in childhood. This was partly surprising, since I still spend time each year in ‘Kansulay’ where things have scarcely changed. Most of the people I described are still there, doing much the same things, older and no richer. The village’s water problem is worse, the river having finally shrunk to a rivulet. Many people were blaming a copper-mining company that hoarded increasing amounts of water for its own use behind dams in the hills. Then in early 1996 there was an accident at the mine which caused an ecological disaster. The province’s major river system was killed in a matter of days, suffocated beneath millions of tonnes of waste slurry. Although ‘Kansulay’ was not directly affected, being on the outermost fringes of the disaster area, its water problems now feel as though they are no longer curable at local level but have to do with events beyond our control. One could say, therefore, that while ‘Kansulay’ remains largely the same, its prospects have become still more equivocal.

  The book’s central section on Manila presents a slightly different case. A decade ago I wondered whether it sounded too jarring a note, interrupting as it does the bucolics of the rest of the book. Now I am glad it is there because today I recognise still more clearly how large that city bulks in the psyche of even the most rural community, representing as it does the myth of escape, the promise of opportunity – all the sad, hopeful centripetalism of the developing world. Manila remains very much the same city as the one I described, although certain things have improved. Today’s capital is not so visibly decadent as it was during the last years of the Marcoses. (One obvious difference is the recent removal of the child sex industry from public gaze.) Perhaps in those days I was incapable of giving an affectionate portrait of Manila – maybe of any city – but this chapter still reminds me of the end of an era, a phrase that vainly begs one to define exactly what it is that has ended. Today’s traffic and pollution are worse; the T-shirt slogans are less wittily political and now often have a vapid New Age ring to them; there is more money about for the prospering classes; the beginnings of a genuine economic hopefulness are in the air … Plus c’est la même chose.

  The biggest change in any of the book’s landscapes has been to its principal setting, that magic isle ‘Tiwarik’. In brief, ‘Tiwarik’ is no more; it no longer exists. At the beginning of Chapter 12 I ploddingly gave all the reasons why I thought it could never become a touristic ‘paradise island’ (too small, too remote, too nondescript, completely lacking in fresh water and a stable beach …). I suppose I was trying to convince myself of its immunity, which makes the subsequent ironies particularly mocking: that the one term I omitted from my confident arithmetic was money and its power to overcome such minor drawbacks; that even as I wrote the chapter, a Japanese businessman must have been negotiating the island’s purchase. Within a year or two, construction of an exclusive resort had begun. A road was blasted up the cliff and the first vehicles ever to set wheel on ‘Tiwarik’ were grinding up from the little cove, laden with cement and water for the building of a clubhouse, villas, tennis courts, a swimming pool, a miniature golf course. When I returned to ‘Sabay’ to find all this a fait accompli, ‘Tiwarik’ had been banished for good to wherever it is that vanished landscapes go, as if it had never been more than an invention, an act of solipsism. I described the island’s transformation from lump of rock to parcel of real estate in the ‘Islands’ chapter of Seven-Tenths, but since then have lacked the courage to go back. I keep in touch with my former friends and diving companions from ‘Sabay’, but only by meeting them on neutral ground in other towns along that coast.

  There seems to be no simple rule for dealing briskly with nostalgia. At the very least we note the inevitable passing of places, their very mutability undercutting our fatuous sense that when we first glimpsed them they were in some way original, unchanged and ‘unspoiled’. To the honeymooning Japanese couples who have spent time on ‘Tiwarik’ in the last eight years, the island is no doubt as pristine in its views and associations as it still is in my memory. Other places I mention in Chapter 12 (especially Manaos and Labuan) have been similarly transformed. I remember Labuan Island off Sabah as a backwater, sleepy and civil, very like a province in the Philippines, with the endless jungles of Borneo lying just over one watery horizon. In 1992 Labuan was declared an international tax haven, an enterprise zone with a new airport and infrastructure to cater for Southeast Asia’s investment boom, while the jungles over the horizon have since proved neither limitless nor eternal. In its small way, ‘Tiwarik’ is also a part of this pattern.

  Since this book was written, then, certain externals of the landscape I depicted have changed. Yet in most other respects so little has altered that there is no need to amend the text. I have therefore left it, with whatever its shortcomings, except to correct some minor errors, punctuation, or the odd typo. The prices I note on p. 89 and pp. 274–5 are now quite definitely out of date, but I decided to leave them, too. The kilogram of rice which in 1985 cost six pesos in ‘Kansulay’ may now cost twenty-four, but the relativity of prices to wages remains largely unch
anged and rural poverty has, if anything, worsened slightly. Observing this, the author himself now believes even less than he once did in that sacred cow, Progress, and her hallowed calf, Development. Witnessing the arrival of electricity in ‘Kansulay’ was to see a revolutionary change of living conditions which were assimilated in a figurative afternoon. The speed with which novelties wear off, leaving the sum of contentment stubbornly unincreased, is a reminder (hardly needed in this consumerist heyday) that we are all of us fundamentally unappeasable. The people of ‘Kansulay’, like those of ‘Sabay’, often look back to the recent past when ‘things were better’. They see no necessary irony in those ‘better days’ having been at a time of Martial Law and the Marcoses’ now discredited regime.

  James Hamilton-Paterson,

  April 1998


  In the middle Sixties I lived for a year in Libya during which time I made several friends among the personnel of the huge American air base outside Tripoli, Wheelus Field AFB. Two of these were a couple in their late twenties. He was an engineer from Dayton, a large gentle fellow besotted with fast cars. His wife was a Filipina whom I first met when I stopped to help her change a wheel. From that incident a friendship grew which effectively ended, as such things often do, with the expiry of our respective contracts. One night we were sitting in a car I had bought with her husband’s help, a 1956 Ford Fairlane with tinted windscreen and automatic transmission. We were not far from Base, on the edge of semi-desert across which drifted the scent of orange groves from some Italian’s plantation. She looked up at the silhouette of a date palm and said: ‘We have coconuts at home, not dates. Every day my father makes beer from coconut sap.’

  The wistfulness, the ‘we’ told me she was not talking as a naturalised American. The way she spoke hinted at an unknown rurality, a place of great difference whose language I had heard her use to her children but which I knew annoyed her husband because it sounded ‘native’ and excluded him. With that interest which exiles often feel for each other I wanted to see her real homeland, wherever it was her father made coconut beer. While we were talking the F-4 Phantoms were taking off thunderously in pairs, their afterburners and navigation lights floating up over the boundary fence into the soft North African night. They were bound for bombing ranges and training grounds deep in the desert, for they were practising war. The great build-up had come: everyone was going to Vietnam. Re-Up Now! was the slogan printed on the inside cover of the book matches sold on Base. Re-Enlist! Don’t be left out! Don’t miss victory! Think of your career! I owed my Fairlane to this injunction which had been obeyed so briskly by the car’s previous owner he had let me have it for $100 the day before he was posted back to the States.

  A few years later I finally made it to South-East Asia myself. I was a journalist, a freelance writer, a drifter. In the grip of that monstrous magic war I visited nearly all the principal countries of the area, certainly those in some way actively drawn into the Vietnam conflict. The notable exception was the Philippines. I knew that President Magsaysay had committed the Philippines to the covert war in Vietnam; I knew that President Marcos had reneged on his own campaign promise and had committed the two thousand-strong Philcag. I knew about the US bases in the Philippines, about fabled Manila and R&R, and I knew about a girl’s father who made coconut beer. Yet I never went there. Always something cropped up.

  Ever since then that country has had for me something of an air of unfinished business: unfinished in 1979 when I finally went for the first time and unfinished today in my regular commutings, my residences which now take up more than a third of each year.


  Tiwarik and Kansulay


  The places a writer writes are always somewhere else. He may describe a journey, a foreign land; but no matter how faithfully he disposes his rocks and trees, his tokens of difference and the humdrum exotica he comes to love, certain delinquent breezes drift through landscape and writer alike dishevelling things at their root. One of those breezes is no doubt what John Clare overheard beneath Salters Tree:

  The wind in that eternal ditty sings

  Humming of future things that burns the mind

  To leave some fragment of itself behind

  while another, less mystical but no less mysterious, blows up from the writer’s own past and causes everything in his eye to lean imperceptibly in a peculiar direction. A third breeze is the one which in a sense blew this book into being by carrying me unerringly if wanderingly on a journey which began at a scarred school desk and ended thirty-three years later on the island of Tiwarik.

  One June day in 1953 aged twelve I sat in a classroom and drew a map. I deduce this because by some fluke a single exercise book of mine survived all the burnings and sheddings of clutter and turned up last year. It is full of references to the Coronation of that month as well as badly done French exercises and pencil drawings of aeroplanes and islands. When it so unexpectedly came to light I turned it in my hands as if it were a teacup dredged from the Titanic: a trivial object made weighty by the mere fact of having survived a long-ago disaster, the very implausibility of its physical presence having me turn its pages with a disbelief almost bordering on reverence. On the penultimate page I found a sketch which made me sit straight down on the floor and stare and stare. For there on the ruled paper was a drawing of Tiwarik, an island in the Philippines I had first set eyes on only two years before. True, the map was not correct in every detail, but in its main features – outline, peak, a grassfield – it was probably as good a map as I could have produced at that age had I been drawing it from actual memory.

  This discovery made a silent concussion in my life. For a week I was bemused. It was like a twist in the plot halfway through a novel which suddenly makes new sense of events and at once invalidates one’s presumed understanding of the narrative. What had happened? Had I had some psychic prefiguring of a place I was destined to visit? Or once having invented somewhere had I doomed thirty years of my life to discovering its analogue?

  There is a third possibility which I now think is the most likely explanation. The shape I drew was not dreamed up that far-off June day but had existed for me since infancy in a rudimentary way. Maybe if I had been asked to draw a picture of my own mind I might have imagined it looking something like that – a damaged poached egg with uplands and downlands and immense bluish distances. From that earliest moment when its outlines wavered and turned milky and became firm I was not in search of a physical counterpart for it, not even unconsciously. But when I stumbled on one called Tiwarik Island there was an instant of profound recognition. Later the chance finding of my boyhood doodle showed me a shape I had once seen so clearly and had later forgotten.

  The effect of finding this sketch has not been to make the intervening years an irrelevance or a pilgrimage, a waste of time or a purposeful trek. All that has happened is that everything I have done, all the countries I have lived in and passed through, now seem congruous and coherent. That is all. There is no meaning to it but it is consistent in some way. I could not have planned it or done differently. It was neither willed nor unintended. To have discovered that, at least, produces from nowhere a billowy sense of freedom. It is as if until that day came when I was to crouch alone on Tiwarik with monsoon rains drumming on my back and deliver myself of a great dying worm I could never have been truly carefree.


  I first set foot on Tiwarik during a mis-timed fishing trip in 1983 when a friend and I pitched a wind-whipped tarpaulin on the beach and huddled beneath it for two days and nights. The island was for us merely a blob of land amid a churn of waters, our view of it occluded by grey squalls of rain – actually the tail-end of Typhoon Litang – and reduced to the stretch of coral shingle on which we crouched. Behind us amorphous shrubbery rose steeply to unseeable heights. We were wet through and cold, for the tropics can be cold in a way which has little connection with thermometers. The temperature does drop, of course, but the
perceived cold is as much the effect on the spirits of being denied the usual blaze of noon, the languid air drifting through the walls of one’s wicker hut and up between the bamboo slats of its floor.

  We would leave our tarpaulin to haul the boat higher up the coral strand until the tips of its outriggers nosed into the thorns at the cliffs’ foot. Then we hurried back to shelter and threw ourselves face down once more, scrabbling absently into the coral fragments, sifting branches, twigs, chips of sponge and brain from the millions of infant conchs no bigger than mauve seeds whose inhabitants had long since predeceased us. We passed many listless hours examining this graveyard by day; by night the incessant clicking of hermit crabs and their plucking at our toes and hair reminded us there was no flesh which this shore might not absorb. A moment’s inattention and it could digest us too.

  On the second occasion I arrived alone and for months, during which Tiwarik Island was reborn and became alive for me. The day was blue as I crossed the strait, the water blue and purple beneath the keel. Clear under the silent glass into which my paddle dipped as into lacquer lay the squares and minarets, arcades and loggias of the sea floor which linked Tiwarik with the mainland. Had I known it then I would have been terrified, enchanted, that one night in the future I would make a reverse crossing down there, working amongst its spires and crags and over its plains and stinging pastures by the light of a torch and with a thin polythene air-hose stuck in my mouth.

  Of course the island could not assume an identity before it had acquired a position. My memory of that first visit was of a lost and roaring beach nowhere in particular. The view then had been what any stranded tourist might have seen. But a traveller works to let a place into his imagination (or maybe to chip it free) else he becomes weary and discouraged by an endlessness of mere location. Even on that first unpromising landfall something of Tiwarik’s significance must have struck me. It was after all an inveterate childhood sketcher of imaginary islands who had watched the South China Sea fling tons of coral chips into the air and tried to light driftwood fires in the lee of the boat to cook rice. Even that partial view from beneath the flapping eyelid of a tarpaulin had been enough for the boy within: he had recognised from a series of glimpses an entire terrain and the man without had had no choice but to return. The jungle, the cave, the pathways later to be dotted by his feet across the grassfield, all were already there in his head. Conventional child, though, he had once pencilled beacons on all his islands’ high points to light when the speck of a schooner appeared at the universe’s rim. He could not have guessed that in later life rescue was the very last thing he would want; that, on the contrary, in his desire to be lost he would long to light an anti-beacon of enchanted kindling whose invisible smoke would envelop his world and render it transparent. The island’s image would waver and be gone, leaving the captain of the distant schooner thoughtfully to push together his telescope and enter ‘mirage’ in the ship’s log.

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