All this and more for less than 8 dollars a day

Having a katabang (helper) is marvelous, I am not going to pretend otherwise.  But also, there are these little social implications and requirements and while it does free me up from cooking or dishes the days she is here (sort of, I still do breakfast dishes before she gets here because it’s a habit I cannot shake but hope to soon), it doesn’t exactly free one to do whatever one wants.

I am blessed to have had this current one recommended to me by friends and former missionaries here, so I know she’s reliable and I can leave the house while she’s here.  But a lot of people can’t.   Petty theft is a real problem here, and sometimes not so petty.  So lots of times, people who have a helper come one or two days a week cannot leave the house on those days until they are sure of their help, or until they are sure their valuables are inaccessible.  So I am more fortunate because I totally can leave.

I cannot leave the Cherub however because of her allergies.  I have explained them before, but corn and wheat are complicated when there is a language barrier and keeping the Cherub out of food is also difficult when there is a cultural practice of indulging children with snacks and goodies.

When you have a helper, you feel kind of awkward about having a jammy day.  Maybe that wears off when you become accustomed to it, or if you grow up with it.  But I feel funny about just wearing my pajamas and slouching all day when she’s here (that’s not all a bad thing, of course).  In the morning I brush my hair with a comb instead of my fingers, and I put it up in a ponytail and put real clothes on instead of the pink sleeping shorts with the owl pattern and a rubberband knotting one side of the waist to tighten it up (read keep them on, because I’ve lost weight since we got here and also because the elastic is shot but mostly because the elastic is shot), and an old white cotton t-shirt from the Men’s oversize department of Walmart.  I read books and ostentatiously take notes, and I do my Spanish and Korean lessons aloud instead of in my head, and also use the time to sew up the rips that show up in the seams of our pillow cases and pillows and clothes purchased here because they are flimsy and the tropical sun is hard on them.  There is always something to sew.

I have to provide a snack twice a day as well as food she’ll eat for lunch, which means I really need to have rice around even though I don’t want it for lunch every day.  She’ll cook, I don’t have to do that, but we’re still feeling our way around what she can make and what she thinks we’ll eat.  I have asked her several times what else she can cook, and the menu has not been terribly varied, and then she found out this week that I like chicken liver afritada very much, and she was shocked.  Hopefully, that was a bit of a break-through.   Also, when I say food she’ll eat, I don’t mean she turns up her nose and says “I don’t like that.”  But you know, I  can tell, and she’s working hard and food is important and I don’t want to give her food that is going to leave her feeling unsatiated and unhappy and even a bit gaggy (refried bean burritoes were not a hit with the previous gal).  And, keep in mind, it’s not really comfortable for her if I ask, “Tell me what you want and I’ll have it around.” There are other ways around this.

For example, during a more casual conversation I could talk about my favourite food since I’ve been here, and then I could ask her what her favourite foods are, and go about it in that more oblique manner. I could ask what our mutual friends, the family she used to work for, liked to eat and figure things out from there.   It’s hard.  I’m known as blunt and tactless among Americans, so you can imagine how much of a bull in a China shop I am here.

I do sometimes feel like a Victorian Lady of the House.   She comes and we exchange good mornings, and I explain what I thought we’d have for lunch.  At around ten I set out the first meryenda or snack.  At noon or 12;30 lunch is ready whether I want to eat it or not.  At around 2 there’s a second meryenda or snack, although she does not often take that one.  She washes dishes and  starts dinner, while I sit at the table and visit with her a bit about how her week has been, food, and I ask questions about my Visaya homework and she laughs gently as I try to figure out how to get the accent right.   She finishes dinner and leaves it on the stovetop, turning the gas off.  I’ll reheat it when we’re ready to eat, which is surprisingly early here.  She asks if I want her to start some rice.

She goes to the hall bathroom and I think does a quick spray with the cold shower nozzle (there’s no hot water heater for any water but the master bedroom bathroom), and changes her clothes.   We sit down and review accounts. She goes shopping for us at the palengke (pah ling key, with the g almost not heard), the open market in the morning before she comes to the house.  She gets better prices than we do, and I really cannot take the Cherub there.  Trust me.  Cannot be done. I couldn’t shop there and shepherd her at the same time, and teh floor is dirt and mud and vegetable or fruit scraps and very slippery in places.  So she goes over the list I gave her previously, notes prices, figures out my change, or conversely, what I owe her, and passes me the list.  I look it over and pretend I know what I am doing and then I say ok if she owes me, and she counts out the change, or I say, “So, I owe you 28 pesos?” and she confirms or explains it if I am wrong, and I pay her.
Next, I hand her the shopping list that I have already written, and she looks it over and asks for clarification if needed- usually on weight, as in do I want a whole kg, or half, or what of something, and sometimes my spelling, because I try to write as much as I can in Visaya.

Spelling- onions in Spanish are cebollas and in Visaya it sounds exactly the same.  So I heard it and have been saying cebollas for onions for months.  The thing is, I usually had to say it because I would forget to write it down.  She would have the list and the pen and as she was going over it, I would add, “Oh, and cebollas, I forgot.  4 cebollas, pulong cebollas (red onions).  One day I remembered in time and wrote them down.  Oh, my.  The confusion.

In Visaya it sounds like the spanish word, but it is spelled sibuyas, and it’s sibuyas  whether you have one or ten (the pluralizer is another word you add before the word, so more than one is mga sibuyas) .  Also, I may still be spelling it wrong.  The i and e aren’t all that different in sound, and the o and u often sound the same to me as well, but this is still an improvement over a word that looks like cab-bol- lass at best.

She will also look it over and tell me if something on the list is out of season, or ask if I want some particular fruit or vegetable newly in season, or if I would like to try some fish this week.   She will also tell me we are nearly out of laundry soap or I need more tomato sauce if she is to make afritada again, or I need fresh garlic (she doesn’t like to use the dried stuff).  Those are things I buy at a regular grocery store.

Anyway, we review the lists, I pay her and make sure she knows I have written down I much I paid her.  I thought this was kind of rude, but our language teacher tells me no, it is reassuring. It tells her we take the money seriously, we are not careless with our money , and that we are not going to have an argument someday where I accuse her of of claiming I’ve given her 20 dollars (1,000 pesos) when really I only gave her ten dollars (500 pesos).  So I write it all down in a little notebook for that purpose which I now have misplaced and have to scramble to find.

And at last, she gets up to leave and we say our thank-yous and good-byes and she steps out to the patio to put on her shoes and I go to the door and wave good-bye and close the door and I am at once truly thankful and delighted that my floors and dishes and bathroom and laundry are clean, and very likely the windows as well, and maybe even my fans, and on alternate weeks my patio, and supper is made (at least the main dish and the rice), and I sink down to the barely-cooler-than-the-ambient-temperature-of-a-sauna-tile floor (because she doesn’t like the air conditioning on, so I am sweating and have been for at least the last hour) and along with my gratitude and delight, I am also relieved and I absorb the silence and solitude into my very introverted soul,  combining both deep gratitude and deep relief in the same.  I may also stretch out a languid foot to the fan and turn it in my direction as I stretch out on the floor and try not to dissolve into a salty puddle in this heat.


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