Six women sit outside a rural Philippine home. They talk about life, death, and the pandemic. One of them does not speak Filipino. Some know English.
A middle-aged woman is grateful a tumor is benign.
An older woman exposes her stomach and reveals her colostomy bag for colon cancer. She laments the sky-high price for a surgery she likely will not have. The cost is the equivalent to $6,000, and it may as well be 6 million.
A young woman breast feeds a nine-month-old child and listens. The baby wears only a tank top.
Another young woman occasionally smiles at discussion points, but offers no contribution to the discussion of illness.
Another middle-aged woman lifts her shirt to show her double mastectomy scars.
The homeowner, the matriarch, stretches her legs out on the bamboo bench and leans against a tree, the smoothed bark reveals she’s leaned there before.
The breast cancer warrior makes a joke about a former hour-glass figure, everyone laughs. Because it’s life. Because sickness and death are parts of human life, and these women accept this.
Cancer can be cut out, or it can’t. Babies need to eat. Men will always be men. And the pandemic? Well, the pandemic is what it is.
I am the woman with the mastectomy scars. I am the woman who cannot speak Filipino. I am the educated white American who hit the birth lottery jackpot with a life of material privilege.
In an indirect way, the pandemic put me here to swap stories and show my scars to women I hardly know. To women who do not have Western material privilege. No matter. I respect them for their life wisdom. We are sisters on Earth and this fundamental unites us.
However, I cannot understand why they go barefoot on dirt and in mud.
My friend Edenia invited me to her mother’s modest rural home, the front door always open. I meet several family members and neighbors and friends. All women.
Edenia and I followed all health protocols on the several-hour journey to get here: beyond cities, through rice fields, onto the dirt path that leads to her mother’s land.
We arrived with gifts for her family. Some groceries, some school supplies. There are two packs of diapers because I urged her to put two in the basket thinking surely, one cannot be enough.
I had wanted to buy Edenia’s nine-month-old grandson a teething toy or a cute new baby outfit. But she declined, politely, and said none of that was needed.
As the baby is breast fed by Edenia’s daughter, he is naked from the waist down. I wonder why he’s not wearing a diaper.
Rambutan is a popular fruit in this Philippine countryside. Some of the women go to gather small branches filled with the fruit from some unseen tree.
Edenia holds her youngest grandson. She hasn’t been ‘home’ here for a year or more. Work and responsibility, and limited funds prevented visits. It costs less than $10 round trip from where she lives.
The baby makes some noises. It’s the first time I’ve heard him babble. Edenia is happy to hold him. To look at him up close. He is now wearing shorts, but still no diaper.
The baby urinates. His shorts are soaked, it’s permeated Edenia’s pants. For a moment, I think she looks embarrassed. She explains he only wears a diaper when they go out, but not here at home. They don’t go out too often.
Now I understand why one batch of diapers was enough. The diaper pack cost $3.
The women come back with sacks and sacks of sweet fruit — all covered in ants. Edenia’s mom squats on a coated sheet and busies herself with plucking prickly-looking fruit off of small branches. Rambutan in a sack, refuse into a bucket.
Ants crawl all over her hands. She brushes them off when they become too much of a nuisance, but otherwise, she doesn’t seem to mind.
I lean down to try to help. But I can only add a few pieces of fruit to the sack before I feel dozens and dozens of ants on my arms and hands and it drives me so nuts that I declare I can no longer stand the ants crawling all over me and I absolutely must stop. I brush them off and a few of them bite me.
The matriarch simply smiles and soldiers on.
For hours after this, I find ants on me. In my hair, on my eyeglasses. They are soldiering on.
We eat free-range chicken for dinner, prepared by Edenia’s daughter. It’s delicious. The bird had walked on earth a couple of hours ago. Then it was nicked in the neck, bled, de-feathered and prepared for cooking. Now, it’s covered in coconut oil gravy, I eat it and a pile of sticky rice with my fingers and a spoon. It’s the tastiest chicken I’ve ever eaten.
The other young woman washes dishes. The kids play games in front of a TV with a picture so awful its only screen colors are lime green and neon pink and shades of gray. Sometimes, some of the kids try to sneak up behind me and scare me. And sometimes, it works.
This tells me the children accept me. I am the strange, large white woman with no breasts, who speaks only English, who brought them candy.
At bed time, I sleep in the kids’ spot. They normally share a bed in the home’s single bedroom. Their bed is a thin mat on a short wood platform.
The kids will sleep on another thin mat, brought in from somewhere else and placed on the floor of the main room. Edenia’s daughter has her own home nearby. But she will sleep here tonight with her baby son, because this visit is a big deal.
Edenia and a few family members sleep on the master bed near me in the bedroom.
My sleep area has newly washed sheets. An overhead fan is turned on to keep the mosquitoes away from me, and my hot flashes at bay. II turn onto my side to relax. My hip bones feel the wood bottom through the mat.
I think of my American white woman privilege. I feel humbled human gratitude for the grace of my hostesses.
My bed is against a thin, unpainted concrete wall with curtains instead of glass. I hear one-week old puppies whimpering as I drift off to sleep.
I have strange dreams, but I sleep well. Overnight I hear heavy rain make a racket on the tin roof.
Morning coffee is quick. I take my second cup on a walk through rice fields with Edenia, her daughter, and some of the kids. The trails are slick and the mud is thick from the rain.
My flip-flops get stuck with each step, then fling mud when freed. It’s impossible to keep my feet clean. I adjust. Flip-flops in one hand, hot coffee mug in the other. I am lightly walking, slowly walking, on slick earth.
We get to a family friend’s home and garden. It’s beautiful. There are more children here. All boys – about 10 years old. They regard me with cautious curiosity. They may not have been told of the strange woman who will come to visit with Edenia.
There is a tall basketball hoop near where the boys stand as they inspect me. I meet their stolen stares and ask them who likes to play basketball. They all smile, one tentatively raises his hand.
I ask who’s the next LeBron James? They all think that is hysterically funny.
No one here knows my former life, when I worked in media. When I witnessed LeBron go one from Akron high school to play for Cleveland then to Miami and then back to Cleveland. On this day, LeBron celebrates another championship. This time in Los Angeles.
I don’t tell the boys – or anyone else – that my husband met LeBron James in his former media, deadline-driven days. Our former ratings-seeking lives seem like a galaxy away from this rice field in rural Aklan Province on Panay Island in the Philippines.
My presence is overwhelming enough. They might think I’m from another galaxy if I tell them anything about my former dead life. So I move on.
Edenia shops on the property. The family friend chops down branches Edenia can take back with us to replant, to bear fruit.
Edenia knows practically every tree and bush. Her expertise shows. She brings me different fruits to try – things that look like tiny berries and fat grapes and odd, small apples. She tells me the names of everything. Later, I cannot recall any of them.
She looks so happy here. She tells me, “I miss this.”
We start the walk back to her mom’s and I slip in the mud and fall on my butt.
Edenia helps me up, guides me by my arm when we hit extra slippery slopes. I see her angling into a position to catch me, should I start to go down again. A family member named Princess Diana helps me as well.
I go slow. I dig my toes a bit into the mud. It helps me balance. I walk with a heavy step. This way is easier. It’s better. And It’s too bad I make this discovery a mere few hundred feet from our destination.
I make it back without falling again.
It’s nearly time to head back to where we live – another part of the province. Edenia works at the resort where my husband, his mother and I have lived since March 2020, when the ‘Rona rocked the world and locked down borders.
The journey back will take several hours, although the distance is not great. Things take longer here, with two-lane roads and pandemic protocols.
The main room is again tidy. The temporary bedding is gone from the floor. The women secure the bundles of rambutan and branches and other fruits we we will carry back.
Edenia sits with her grandson on her lap. He is gnawing on a chicken bone.
And then, I get it. A chicken bone is better than toxic plastic, and it’s free. I imagine there are natural solutions Edenia and these women have worked out for just about anything truly needed to live.
I’m proud of my revelation and want to share it with Edenia. To show her I understand more now. I expound: you could survive and thrive up here all on your own.
“Yes,” she smiles. “We can.”
They already do.
It took me 20 hours to figure that out.
Men are missing from the picture. Husbands and partners are either working in cities to send money home, or they are dead – figuratively and literally.
This is a group of strong, wise women. Of happy, healthy children.
I set the timer on my iPhone camera and run over for a picture with the family in front of the matriarch’s home, the special place where I was treated to a glimpse of rural Filipino life.
Later, when I look at the photo, I see we all are barefoot.
It took me two days to figure out why they go barefoot on dirt and in mud: it connects them to earth, to life, to now. They have heavy steps and light hearts. And they are so privileged.
Edenia is second from the right in the picture above. Her mother’s home is in Pocolate, Banga, Aklan, Panay, Philippines.
October 15, the day this was posted, is the International Day of Rural Women.
Thanks for reading, “Privileged to go barefoot in mud.”
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