By David Haldane
THE stench was overpowering.
Curious as to its source, I stepped out onto the veranda. And there, for the second time in as many months, beheld a sky full of smoke. Much like the last time, it seemed to be emanating from a large crackling brush fire feasting on a nearby hill. Unlike my previous encounter with deadly flames, however, these were across the street and seemed to be blowing away, rather than toward, the house.
“Ivy, honey,” I called to my wife inside, “can you come out here for a minute? What do you make of this?”
Shielding her eyes with her right hand, Ivy took in a sharp smoky breath. “Looks like another fire,” she said, stating the obvious. “Looks like it’s out of control.”
“Should we call the fire department?” I wondered aloud.
After a short discussion, we decided not to, and for several reasons. First, no one else seemed overly concerned. Second, the fire was not threatening our house or, it appeared, anybody else’s. And finally, just having summoned the local firefighters a few weeks before, we didn’t want to wear out our welcome. Instead, we decided that Ivy would cross the street to chat with the residents in closest proximity to the blaze.
Half an hour later, she returned with an astounding tale. Our neighbors, she told me, had admitted to starting the fire with the intention of burning their trash. Then, when the conflagration had escaped their grasp and begun licking its way up the hill, they had simply shrugged their shoulders and sat down to watch.
“What?” I gasped, “Are you kidding? They told you all that?”
“I told them that you are upset and concerned,” she assured me. “They just laughed and said that you must come from someplace that doesn’t have fires.”
In fact, I come from Southern California where brush fires – or wildfires, as we call them – are frequent and devastating. Where, every few years, expensive homes are utterly destroyed or sustain millions of dollars in damage, hundreds of acres of lush vegetation are wiped off the face of the earth and, occasionally, dozens of lives are cruelly lost. Where, if you admitted to doing what our neighbors had just described, you’d probably end up in prison.
Ah, but this was the Philippines where things are decidedly different. Where fires, at least in our rural provincial neighborhood, are seen as part of the natural order of things, and fighting one that’s not immediately threatening viewed as an errand for fools. Where, as I’ve written before, there prevails an attitude of bahala na which, roughly translated, means “whatever happens, happens.”
And so, the fire raged. Until, finally, it burned itself out, leaving a vast swath of charcoal black on a huge grassy hill that once was all green. I guess I can live with that. In truth, I suppose, I have no choice. But it is irksome to me that the neighbor who inadvertently scorched this once-lush patch of jungle appears to feel no shame.
There oughta be a law. Hey wait, I think that there is…
(David Haldane, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, is an award-winning American journalist, author and radio broadcaster who recently moved to Surigao City with his Filipino wife and their eight-year-old son. This column tells the unfolding story of that adventure. )