Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Philippine Ingenuity

There is little capital in the Philippines. Money is scarce or non existent for the vast majority of the population. Especially true in the provinces, people have by necessity become very inventive in order to keep vehicles and other everyday devices going.
I am endlessly amazed at Filipinos ability to repair anything with virtually nothing.

Coming from a so called first world country, it is easy to look down on this type of obsessive frugality as backward or somehow less worthy. However, having lived in Dumaguete for a few years, I have come to admire the inherent intelligence and ingenuity of Filipinos. Comparing to the western world of our ancestors when life was hard, there are a lot of parallels. Have we in the West gone soft, and become lazy? Why make a tool from a discarded pc of re-bar when we can go to a discount store and buy one? Our great grandfathers would burn an old house to retrieve the nails before moving west to greater opportunities. Maybe we just forgot how to be frugal. Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating going back to the 19th century, but perhaps we have lost some of our inventiveness and "common sense" over the years.

Filipinos waste nothing. Little is thrown away. I watch my wife cut up cigarette cartons from her Sari-Sari so the pieces can be used to write down songs from the Karaoke. I had my cars steering repaired and instead of buying a plastic bushing the mechanic made one on his lathe from a better material for less money than the commercially available part. When I asked him to fix a rough running engine, he cleaned the carburetor, the spark plugs, and the air cleaner. It ran great after that “tune-up”. Any first world shop would simply start replacing parts and charge accordingly. I paid roughly 300 Pesos for this service.

We had our store remodeled last year and I had a first hand opportunity to see Local carpenters work. A master carpenter here does not have a pick up truck full of tools. He does not even have a truck. A small bag carried in one hand has all the tools he needs.

  • A hammer with a steel pipe for a handle
  • A hand saw
  • A stone chisel fashioned from a masonry nail stuck through a pc. Of rubber hose
  • Hack saw made from a bent pc. of steel re-bar
  • A bubble level made from a length of clear plastic hose
  • One wood chisel
  • Tape measure
  • Hand carved chalk line box with coconut charcoal chalk
  • Wood plane self made from local hardwood (they buy steel blades for 30 Pesos)

True to the ancient journeyman tradition of Europe, these itinerant craftsmen keep their most important tools in their head, fashioning work benches on site as needed, and improvising other tools on the fly. It is a lost art in the Western world, but very alive here in the Philippines.

The working style is different here in the Philippines. Workers tend to cluster together and use a cooperative style. In the west we are used to dividing tasks and working individually. It is amazing to watch, Filipinos seem to communicate with out much talking and everyone seems to find a spot to fit in.
The Banana leaf is an integral part of Filipino life. Used for everything from food wrappers to concrete barriers. It is one of the materials of choice no matter what task is at hand.
Some city workers were digging new storm sewers near our place a few months ago. Artfully hand dug trenches lined with rocks and capped with concrete. Wood was used to make forms for the top of the hollow sewers. large cracks remained between the wood caps. I wondered what they were going to use to cover the cracks so concrete would not leak through. Enter the Banana leaf! The workers just ambled across the street to the nearest Banana grove and ripped off a few leaves and placed them in the trench!

Bud Bud is a delicacy made from rice and coconut milk. Carefully pre cooked in a large pot, the sticky concoction is then wrapped in Banana leaves, rolled between the palms and steamed. The Banana leaves act as a sort of burrito shell, except that it is not consumed. When finished you unwrap the rice and eat it like a candy bar. The Banana leaf does impart a flavor to the rice which is very nice.

I have come to appreciate the simple solutions that Filipinos bring to everyday tasks and problems. Truly, everyone can learn something from this more with less philosophy. In this world of diminishing resources, it has relevance for all of us.

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