Saturday, November 25, 2006

In My Little Thatched Hut

Life goes on here in my nipa hut. It occurs to me that it’s been about a month since I moved in here, and although I think we've all lived in a bamboo house at some time in our lives, I ought to give a decent description for those people who, for whatever bizarre reason, have never encountered one (presumably out of fear of some deep-lunged wolf).

To start with, the word ‘Hut’ maybe a little bit misleading; it summons up images of a tent-sized group of bamboo sticks roughly assembled to form shelter (at least to my mind it does). ‘Bamboo cabin’ might summon a more accurate picture of things. It does, after all, consist of 3 rooms – a bathroom, a bedroom, and a kitchen / living area, as well as a decent porch.

The other day I was recalling my visit to Ireland, particularly a passage I wrote in my journal at the time. We had driven through a small village where I had my first glimpses of houses, each sheltered with its own thatched roof. I don’t know why I remember writing these particular words, but it went something like this: “It’s refreshing to visit a place in the world where people live with thatched roofs, not because it’s cute but simply because they always have.” Lo and behold, here I am 8 years later with a thatched roof of my very own, two skylights providing excellent lighting during daylight hours. Sadly, they do leak a little, but hopefully I will convince my landlord, Apple, to fix that before next rainy season.My house is almost as much window as it is wall, which provides excellent breeze at night and makes me very self conscious about changing clothes. Long ago, when I lived in Washington D.C., thick metal bars were placed atop all our windows to keep out potential burglars. My nipa hut utilizes a similar system, except in place of thick metal bars I have thick slices of (you guessed it) bamboo. That, and of course, there are no glass panels between my body and the outdoors. However, these are sturdier-looking protection than I could have imagined bamboo bars to be. If someone wanted to get in, they could, I mean my house is made of hollow sticks, but they would have to make some noise. To ward off the rain, or to give me some privacy, I have thick woven-bamboo window shades that I can roll down. Because they are heavy, they will serve me well in the wet season when hurricane-driven storms hit. Unfortunately their weight and thickness also mean that when it's not raining, closing them significantly raises the temperature of the house.In my kitchen area I have a cheap toaster which has not seen much use since I moved in. The only bread I’ve been able to find outside the city is wonder bread-esque, and whenever I do buy a loaf of bread, it inevitably turns green with mold before I’m finished with it. Aside from the low-quality of bread, I've discovered there’s also very little out there that I’d care to spread on a slice of bread that doesn’t require refrigeration. Butter, jam, cheese, cream cheese; these are all non-options. I could have a refrigerator if I wanted, but I would have too little to fill it with to justify the initial cost, and the added electricity bill each month. My neighbor gracefully allows me to keep things in his if I need to; an offer I only took up after the recent elections, when I brought home bagels and cream cheese to celebrate.

A cheap stove provides me with most of my nourishment. This isn’t the sort of stove you’re likely to find in America; essentially it’s a single burner with a tube running down the back to the small metal gas tank I keep under the counter. I had other options; there are electric stoves, but they prove hard to use during the infrequent brown outs. Charcoal stoves are also common, but in a house so flammable I opted for the flame easier contained.

The stove itself was likely purchased for the equivalent of $6 new, but the gas tank cost significantly more, around $30, to buy and fill. Sadly, the stoves in the Philippines aren’t quite as versatile as those in America. They have high, medium, and low settings but their range is so small that a more honest vendor might have simply have left them out in favor of an on / off switch. As such, Filipinos are in the habit of drowning their food in oil in order to keep it from being inedibly overcooked. I’m trying to avoid
that tactic, but it hasn’t been easy.

My house is equipped with two faucets, one in the kitchen sink and one in the bathroom. Sadly, for filtration sake the tank (which sits behind my landlord’s house) contains a good deal of limestone dust. I think this is supposed to sanitize the water for drinking and cooking, but in place of bacteria it leaves the unmistakable taste of ground aspirin. I really only use it for washing my dishes and taking my bucket showers. It leaves a white, chalky residue on my glasses, and more than likely in my hair. Such is life. For my basic water supply I receive a large blue tank of mineral water on a weekly basis for about $1/tank, and I keep that on my kitchen counter.

I have encountered some unexpected difficulties keeping a bamboo house clean; namely that one man's shelter is another bugs' dinner. This means that if I don't dust things off almost daily, a thin but constant layer of bamboo dust is on everything. There are also tiny black dots that I can only assume are insect droppings spread about everywhere. These things mean that even my clean dishes and utensils often need to be washed again before I use them, and anything I leave on the bottom row of my spice rack is covered in dust. It certainly makes my spices less appetizing to use.

The residents of my house are not confined to countless insects and myself. In addition I play host to numerous house geckos about the size of a finger, and two Tokay geckos. Tokay are the second largest species of gecko according to wikipedia, and look quite bizarre. From nose to tail, they’re roughly the length from my wrist to my elbow. From afar they appear either green or brown, but to see one up close you realize they are actually covered in raised bright-purple dots. Wikipedia has a great picture

Initially I thought there was only one in my home, and that he moved about between the ceiling above my kitchen area and my entrance area, but this is not the case. Recently I discovered that there are actually two, each claiming their own portion of my house. Some volunteers hate or fear them, but personally I think they’re fun, if only I could potty-train them (especially the one in my kitchen area). The primary reason many volunteers dislike them, I suspect, is that they can be very loud at night. Their mating call comes without warning and is startlingly loud. It could easily rival the loudest frog I’ve heard, and I’ve been witness to some very loud frog calls.

Putting aside my housemates for the moment, my house is decently furnished. The bamboo furniture is much nicer looking than I was aware bamboo furniture could be. I’ve got two chairs of this quality, and one woven bamboo couch that folds out into a bed; modern technology at it’s best. My living area is host to two tables. My dining room table is unfinished and rather unimpressive, but functional. I keep it covered with a green table cloth. My shorter living room table is much prettier. I understand it was built by the volunteer who had the house constructed, and it’s a much nicer wood than bamboo.In my bedroom, my clothes lay on bamboo shelves that were cleverly built into the wall. Sadly, this move seems to have been a bit short-sighted. Who wants to dust the bamboo off their clothes before donning them in the morning? Aside from that, mosquitoes will happily amass atop exposed clothing over time. I don’t know why that is, but I’ve certainly discovered that it’s true. So for the moment I do my best to cover my clothing with a rain jacket, but in the long term I will definitely want to buy a larger plastic covering.

The whole house is raised off the ground by what I’d estimate to be 3 feet. I’m lucky in this regard, because many nipa huts have dirt floors, or more common, dirt floors in every room but the bedroom. My floor, like the rest of the house, is made from thick strips of bamboo. If you’ve been lucky enough to visit my parents’ house in Maryland, don’t envision the bamboo floor we recently had installed. That flooring is polished, entirely flat, and fits seamlessly together. You might not have even realized it was bamboo if no one made mention of it. If you step on my floor, you won’t be left wondering.

For one thing, although they’ve been treated and flattened, the bamboo strips are not and never will be particularly flat. They came from a cylindrical plant, and they look like it. When you step on them, it’s not like stepping on a wooden plank so much as it is like walking sideways through a particularly thick bamboo forest. The other difference is that unlike my parents house, if you bother looking you can see the dirt 3 feet down. The cracks between the bamboo strips aren’t huge, but in daylight they’re not hard to see through.

The exception to this style of flooring lies in my bathroom. My bathroom stands out from the rest of the house, as it is made largely of concrete. If you’re wondering why, imagine the effect that daily showers might have on the floor and walls of a bamboo room. This isn’t to mention that my clothes sit on the other side of an adjacent wall, and the risk of drenching them daily would be high. The concrete in the bathroom doesn’t stretch very tall; just under four feet from the floor would be my guess. After that the bamboo takes over again to meet the roof. Under foot lies a very nice blue tile floor. On an aside, although carpeting is virtually unseen in this country (wet season would not be kind to it, nor would the thick dusty air in the dry season) there is some very beautiful tile adorning the more affluent houses.

It is in this bathroom that I keep my large bucket. ‘Bucket’ might not actually summon up the appropriate image. If I chose to stand in it, I would be immersed waist-deep. This bucket may not seem like much, but it is vital to the functionality of the household. The most obvious use, showering (for which I use a smaller bucket to dip in the large bucket and pour over my head), is indeed very important. However, even more important is that without this bucket I could not flush my toilet. The toilets here are devoid of all the fancy plumbing you find in America, they are little more than porcelain holes that lead down into a personal septic tank buried deep in the ground. Some time, in the hopefully distant future, the tank will have to be changed, but they usually take 5 or 6 years to fill, so I’m crossing my fingers that this is a peace corps experience I will not have to endure.

I am very thankful for the volunteer who built this bathroom for one particular feature, let me explain. Filipino bathrooms appear very much like American bathrooms. They lack a showerhead and have a floor drain, but no one in America would have trouble recognizing the room for what it is. However, one aspect remains noticeably different: Filipino bathrooms always contain toilets, but typically are devoid of toilet seats.

Surely the same questions that I often ponder are going through your head right now: Do the locals choose to squat, or do they, perhaps, balance delicately on the porcelain? I’m not sure, I’m afraid I’ve never had the opportunity to bear witness. Regardless, visitors to my nipa will find a very nice, cushiony blue seat decorating my throne. After living in two houses where this was not the case, I can assure you such a thing is truly priceless.

Trash is as difficult a situation in my house, as it is in every house. Outside of the cities, there is almost no regular trash pickup in the Philippines. The widespread practice across the country is to pile and burn your trash; plastics, aluminum, and all. Various volunteers, especially in the environmental sector, have tried very hard to raise awareness of the consequences of this technique. Ie: “What are your feelings regarding cancer, sir? Brain damage?”. Unfortunately the inevitable question with no easy answer is “so… what do we do with our plastic then?” These trash fires, along with extremely low emission controls (on ww2 era vehicles) are almost certainly a contributing factor of this country’s skyrocketing frequency of asthma.

Fortunately for me, I am in a slightly better off area than most and we don’t burn our plastics here. I’m not sure exactly what we do with them, but they are pooled by the neighborhood and collected. As for batteries, well I can only say that I’m glad I have rechargeable ones with me. It prevents the serious ethical dilemma trying to dispose of them. Battery acid could and would eventually leak into the ground water.

So far as electricity goes, my nipa is well outfitted. Except for some of the extremely rural areas electricity is everywhere in the Philippines, and the number of areas that don’t receive it are shrinking every year. I’ve got a set of outlets in every major area of the house, except the bathroom. Although they pale in comparison to the sunlight piercing my roof in the day time, 4 bulbs hang from the ceiling to light up the interior of my house. They would be dangling, except by means of décor the wires run down through a bamboo tube fixed to the thatching. It actually looks very nice, but I’m afraid it’s difficult to describe the aesthetic appeal. In addition, I have one bulb on my front porch and one in the back of my house, which I leave on at night to deter potential intruders. Consequently, due to the numerous windows and cracks between bamboo strips, they also keep the interior lit better than I really care for while trying to sleep. I don’t really think the lights are necessary, but my landlord insists I leave them on and I don’t want him to worry.So this, ladies and gentlemen, brings me to the point of this post: in June of 2008, a mere 19 months away, I will be moving out and this house will be rented to the highest bidder. Don’t let the unsealed nature of the house deter you - the winters are mild here. So mild, in fact, that the season does not actually exist. A white sand beach, frequented by foreigners of all nationalities, is located a mere hour away, and local authorities ashore me – the oil is mostly gone. Rent here goes around 1500 pesos (roughly $30) / month before utilities and the locals are more than friendly. Act now!

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