Last year when we came to the Island of Marinduque we visited a young mother by the name of Lisa, but she goes by the nickname of Pefai (happy person). In the interview she told us how the Manna Pack Rice was saving her family. She was nursing a new-born baby and had four children clinging to her side. Her husband had left her for another woman and was in Manila. I remember how disturbing the interview was to me. Her face was stressed, weeping as she spoke. You could hear the desperation in her voice and see the pain in her eyes. She told the story of how she goes clam digging several days a week and washes laundry to make enough money to feed her children. 11 months later we are back to do a follow up story. We wanted to show her doing the clam digging for the movie.
To set the stage, I want you to know that I lived in Alaska when I was in my 20’s. I have been clam digging in Seward, AK on the Kenai Peninsula. It was a memorable experience of walking along the ocean with my dog Tanna, the rugged mountains and the vast wilderness. And so, I had this very romantic vision of clam digging. I thought to myself, “I can see it now. We will be on the beach at low tide. There will be a wide expanse of sand to walk. The ocean will be receded and gently lapping at the shore. Children will be skipping along helping their mother find clams. The sun will be low on the horizon with colors of red and orange in the sky…It will be picturesque and wonderful for the movie.”
I would be in for a different kind of adventure however.
This year when I see Lisa, it is a joyful reunion. Her demeanor has totally changed. She seems happy and the children are healthy. In her broken English Lisa kept saying “muddy.” She wanted us to wear slippers (flip flops). We tell her that we will be ok with our shoes. Out we go, walking across a pasture where the caribou (long horned oxen) and goats are grazing. There are rice fields interspersed. The animals are tied so they cannot get into the rice fields.
Fr. Jim, Peter and I follow Lisa and Amaldos. The others stay behind. My nickname for Amaldos is “two tooth”. She somehow got a crush on me last year. It must have been my American rock star singing or playing the guitar. Needless to say I am a happily married man and was not he least bit attracted to her. I was hoping I wouldn’t see her this year, but as luck would have it there she was smiling a big “Two Tooth” smile. So this year she casually mentions to me that, “husband…dead…two years.” I think, “Yikes…I mean…sorry to hear that…HELP!” It has provided the group with much laughter at my expense.
We walk across the rough pasture, water snakes and spiders lurking below. She says it is one kilometer. We get to the edge of a mangrove and I think, “Ah, the ocean must be just on the other side. We’ll make it just in time for a beautiful sunset.” Lisa tells us how the ocean rose two feet and flooded her home as well as destroyed the crops last year. Once in the mangrove we arrive at a small stream with steep muddy banks. There is barely any water in the stream. The women take out their machetes and start slicing the muddy ground. Hmmm, “What are you doing?” I ask them. They respond, “Searching… for clams.” In my mind I think, “This cannot be. Where is the ocean, the beautiful beach, the waves?” They are slipping around barefoot slicing the mud. This goes on for several minutes and then Lisa says, “Oii! Got one!” I walk through the mud and get next to her as she picks up a small clam about two inches long. I declare, “That’s it?” She says’ “Yes, it is clam!” My quintessential vision of clam digging has been shattered. We are standing in the mud, under a mangrove, mosquitos are buzzing us, surrounded by spiders and snakes, slicing the ground with a machete that could take your head off, searching for needles in the proverbial haystack.
This is clam digging!!!?
Ok, I can go home depressed now.
After about 10 minutes of this, I tell her that we should go back because I have enough pictures. Lisa shines a flashlight to find our way out of the mangrove. When we get to the opening, it is much brighter. I am amazed at how dark it was under the mangrove trees. She tells us that it takes about four hours to find enough clams to fill a bag (about the size of an apple bag). She can sell it for 100 pesos ($2). We start across the pasture and Lisa says, “We go river, ok?” She says it’s just over through the coconut trees. I did not think we needed to see more clam digging, but we accompany the women to the river past another caribou and it’s calf. When we get to the river they begin washing the mud off of their hands and legs. I am relieved. All they wanted to do was clean up. Lisa tells me that this is also where she will wash cloths for 200 pesos ($4) a client.
Once we are back at her home she has a banquet prepared. Crab, fresh coconut juice, macaroni salad, rice and banana chips. She must have spent a whole weeks wages on the food. It’s almost completely dark now and we must go. Everyone is waiting in the vehicles. There is another stop we must make. Lisa packs up all the food to send with us. Father Jim blesses Lisa, Rudolpho her husband who has come back, and their children. Fr. Jim asks if she can pray the Lord’s Prayer in her own language. She misinterprets what he says and begins a spontaneous prayer in English. She joyfully thanks God for Risen Savior Missions, for the Manna Pack Rice, for the love she has experienced and for the hope to carry on. A lump forms in my throat and a tear finds the corner of my eye. I consider the meagerness of her existence. The difficult work she must do, the scarcity of food.
How can she still find joy?