August 28, 2011

The Worth of a Grain of Rice

Yesterday a childhood friend of mine wrote on her Facebook Wall that she wonders if anyone sees the “good in life anymore?” because all people do is post complaints. I tend to agree with her, it is so easy now to voice our problems and inconveniences in a public forum. We are entitled to it right? However after living here in the Philippines, my perspective on the phrase, ‘life is HARD’ has changed. Here are a few stories to explain that change.

Last week we heard a local man, now successful in business, tell a story of growing up and his father owned a construction company. Every night his mother would invite a few of the construction workers over for dinner because she believed in sharing their blessings. One time, this young man asked his father why the construction worker ate ALL of the ligaments and fat off of their chicken, not just the meat; he saw this as distasteful. His father responded, “Son, not everyone can afford to eat chicken.”

Lady Hiva and I went to do errands at the chapel before doing our normal Saturday explorations. I happened to bring my Ipod with me and a few of the young men in the ward wanted to listen. It was fun to watch them try and figure out how to use it and which of all the songs to listen to next. I thought about how kids their age in America not only know how to use these electronic devices that inundate our lives, but they also complain when they ‘only have last year’s model.’

We decided to explore Divisoria, an area in North Manila proper, part of Chinatown. There are several malls and miles and miles of winding roads full of street venders. Hiva has wanted to go for quite a while, and today is the day! It was raining, but rain has never stopped us before! We were forewarned by some of the locals not to wear anything shiny, of value, or in our pockets because of the theft problems there.

As we rode in the taxi—we did not want to drive for Boeing’s safety—on a busy street through the center of Manila, we saw a man out in the rain crouched over in the middle of the street. Cars were parting around him and a jeepney full of people were stopped watching. When we got nearer, I could see he was scraping up rice off the wet and muddy road. It was then I realized he must have been riding the jeepney and his small bag of rice fell out of the open door in the back. My heart broke. That bag, no larger than a small grocery bag, must have been a whole week or months’ worth of pay. My mind quickly created an imaginary story of his hard labor to buy food for his children back home and then the shear panic to see that food scatter out onto the road. Here he was, drenched, muddy, and facing on going traffic to collect every grain of rice. We passed him slowly and I could not pull away my stare, I wanted to cry with him, for him. Now that is a hard life…something worth complaining about. But I guarantee you he never did. He was probably thankful to have the rice in the first place, then thankful for every grain he salvaged.

Divisoria is just short of chaos! People were everywhere! You can buy just about anything either in the malls or on the street. I was mesmerized by the hustle and bustle of people doing their daily thing—buying or selling…or both.

Again, I was the only white person for miles, so we drew attention. We are getting used to that now. It was fun to see their faces and nods of approval that we were willing to walk in flood water with them, or laugh at their jokes and stop and look in their stores. The prize, though, was having their photo taken! They would smile, pose, laugh and ask to see the photo as we passed. One lady selling vegetables asked why I was taking pictures of her and her friend sitting next to her said, “you should feel happy, your photo will go back to America!” (Or down the road to our house, but they did not know that).

These street vendors sell all kinds of wares. We even walked down Recto street, which is well known at work because you can buy any kind of fake document you want to there.They even have Christmas stuff out already!
Because of the rain, some people were packing up their make-shift stores for protection. Within minutes large tents and displays of products were folded, sorted and packed into a wheeled cart and pushed home.

Innovation abound in places like this. Instead of complaining that they do not have what they want, they make use of what they have. We saw flood water being channeled by man who only had a coconut leaf rake held together with duct tape; tarps used as jackets, roofs, or blankets; and my favorite was a street shoe store using a bucket tied to the second story window with a rope to convoy merchandise. When the customer needed a different size the boy on the street would yell up to the widow, the boxes of shoes were placed in the bucket and pulled over the street, the boy then jiggled the rope overhead until the boxes fell out and he caught them. Simple but amazing. We stood there watching for a few minutes and at one point the wind picked up and the tarp over the shoe selling boy dumped its load of rain water right on his head as he was trying to catch a box of shoes! His infectious laugh echoed down the street.

The malls, in contrast, were squeaky clean with white walls, white floors and white lights. Kind of hospital like. We wound in and out of stores. Hiva loved all the clothes and jewelry to choose from. I think we may find ourselves back to Divisoria sometime soon.  I did find the ad for a new employee interesting…most important: you are nice and pretty. Hmm…what if they cannot count money? I guess that is unnecessary if you have the looks. YIKES!

On our way back we walked through what they call Chinatown. A beautiful basilica overlooked a town square and of course people and cars zoomed everywhere. We tried to catch a taxi but they were all full. We ended up talking with the traffic controller, who apparently thought we were more interesting than directing traffic. I cannot blame him, from what I see people do what they want anyway. When Lady Hiva told him where we were from he broke out in his own hula right there on the street! It was great! He was wet from standing in the street all day, but he was happy—happy enough to sing and dance with some foreigners. Puts a whole new meaning to dancing in the rain.

So whether it is a new Ipod, selling fruit out from a cart, catching shoes out of a bucket, or doing the hula in the streets…maybe we need reevaluate if our “hard life” is really that difficult. So yes, I agree with my friend’s post, we need to see all the blessings we have. Sometimes that one grain of rice or last piece of chicken means is worth being thankful for.


  1. I love how their clothes have SLEEVES!!! Wish they would have stores like that here lol.....miss you two!

  2. I love your posts! It makes me miss the Philippines so much! And yes, we should always count our blessings and be thankful for them. I agree with you, having a hard life is a case to case basis. The streets of Manila will definitely give you a pretty good idea of the real meaning of that phrase for sure! :)

  3. Pe, there's a lady in one of the wards here that sews clothing for 200 pesos ($5.00) a piece for either top or bottom. She sews clothing for the missionaries here in Manila.