Sunday, 13 February 2011

Transporting the Soul

One of the books that I carried took with me on this Asian trip was The Dig by John Preston. I think it is a fine book, but I am biased. In my life the longest period that I have lived in one place was for fifteen years in a small Suffolk town called Woodbridge. Nearby is Sutton Hoo a place that became famous when Basil Brown unearthed the burial ship of an Anglo-Saxon king; a royal burial ship that quite remarkably had remained untouched since its incarceration some fifteen hundred years ago.

The book is semi-fictional tale of the dig from the points of view of Basil Brown, Mrs Pretty the owner of Sutton Hoo, and various other key players. There are personal details to give pep to a story that might otherwise not expand to a full novel; there is a sensitive portrayal of the dispute between the local amateur archaeologist (Basil) and the experts drafted in from Cambridge and London; and for me there is the added bounce of recollection: places in Woodbridge are mentioned that I once knew really well.

The treasure discovered in the Sutton Hoo burial ship was amazingly intricate and the find proved that the English Dark Ages were not so dark at all. However, what darkened the soul of Woodbridge was the transporting of the treasure to the British Museum. Naturally local people felt that it should have been held locally and displayed in the context of East Anglia where King Radwald had reigned. This loss is still felt, and the book explains Mrs Pretty’s odd decision to some extent.

In the Philippines boats are used for their true purpose: with more than 7000 islands boats are in the blood rather than the reverse. Rusty ferries ply between the islands and delightful bumboats buzz around them - their bamboo outriggers giving stability and character; their occupants mostly engaged in fishing of one sort or another. However, in this deeply religious desperately distributed country the serious business of transporting souls is left to the roads rather than the sea: roads that can be as choppy as the sea in some places. I find Philippine road transport fascinating, especially public transport. We have now travelled on pedicabs, habal-habals (literally pigs mating, actually multi passenger motorbikes), trikes ranging from motorcycle and sidecar to motorcycle and covered trailer, jeepneys (jeeps of astonishing length and decoration), vans with open tops, vans with air-conditioning, and an astonishing range of vintage buses. All of these heave, hiss, pant, roar, belch and grind along heavily congested roads mostly at speeds which are well below the limits of western countries.

Why so slow and why so congested? There are private cars here, but not many and they are not the source of congestion. The problem has much more to do with the strange uses made of the roads and in some cases their poor condition coupled with an almost complete lack of pavements. Here are a few of the uses that I’ve noted in the weeks that we have spent here:

1. Ambling (Philippinos do not walk and certainly do jog)
2. Drinking (overspill from the roadside bars and karaoke joints)
3. Chatting
4. Shopping (the shops often push right up to the road and at least one into it)
5. Drying (anything from rice to corn to coconuts laid on sheets or directly onto the road)
6. Grazing (usually tethered cows, goats, water buffalo, chickens)
7. Sleeping (I have had to circumvent a patchwork of prone dogs on some motorcycle rides)
8. Repair (anything from all of the vehicles listed above to aircon units and boats)
9. General retail
10. Urinating (mostly males who smile and engage you in conversation whilst peeing)
11. Parking (of course)
12. Watching (at regular intervals there are ‘resting stations’ for sleeping, chatting, observing)
13. Travelling in the wrong direction (can be very scary)

All of this slows progress to a speed somehow suited to this moist and hot climate and its cheerful ‘que sera, sera’ (in Tagalog ’ bahala na’) people, but does result in a constant beeping of horns from the lower orders and bellowing from the large buses and trucks. It is not the music to transport souls to, but, blended with the outdoor karaokes and discothèques, is the music of the Philippines.

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