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10:36 PM August 22nd, 2013

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By: Michael L. Tan, August 22nd, 2013 10:36 PM

The rceptionist and the barbers literally jumped to their feet when I entered the shop, thankful they had a customer. It was the fourth day of rains, and shop owners and staff everywhere were clearly depressed, a cabin fever caused by a combination of being cooped up indoors and a lack of customers.

I’ve intentionally been using different barbershops lately, weary of places where a suki (frequent customer) relationship means that the barbers get too familiar and constantly try to persuade you to get extra services: manicures, pedicures, facials, antidandruff, antibalding, hair dyeing, cellophane or whatever.

Paradoxically, I’ve found too that barbers and other staff actually become more candid with each other when they don’t know the customer, almost as if the latter’s anonymity creates safe spaces for them to discuss personal matters. This rainy day when I was getting a haircut, the absence of other barbers seemed to create even more of these safe spaces for them to talk.

We anthropologists love to eavesdrop into conversations, not so much for  tsismis  or gossip as to get a feel of what people’s main concerns are.  Kuwentong barbero  or barbers’ tales can run a whole gamut of issues, from politics to love life, with very strong opinions about the concerns. You just never know what you’ll hear, and often enough, it’s not so much the content of the story itself as the “subtexts,” the commentaries people have about life, that are so captivating.

‘Doc’

Barely had the barber started with my haircut when one of his co-barbers walked into the shop. He was reporting late, and explained that he had to go to a “doc” first. He actually used the term “doc,” who seemed to be someone the other barbershop staff knew. Apparently, the barber had some skin problem, and here I’m being literal with the translation—eruptions with water inside. The barber said he had actually suspected “kulam” or sorcery when his body first erupted with the boil-like lesions. They were itchy, and they covered different parts of his body.

Then he went to see this “doc,” who explained it was an allergy. I was intrigued by a reversal of diagnoses. Usually, a patient with skin problems will go to a physician who will explain it is an infection, or an allergy, and if the problem persists, the patient then goes to a traditional healer, who will perform a ritual involving candle droppings or  tawas  (alum) in water. The healer would then read the wax or alum and say that he sees the figure of some human being, presumably someone who, out of anger or envy, uses kulam to afflict the patient.

With this barber, a self-diagnosis of kulam came first, followed by a traditional healer correcting him and saying it was an allergy. The barber said it looked like he might have gotten the allergy from eating fish. I was tempted to jump into the conversation to ask what kind of fish, and if he had previous experiences of allergies to fish, but kept my silence.

The barber described the “doc” as magaling—galing being a combination of being knowledgeable and skillful. I cringed as the barber described how the “doc” incised the eruptions to let out the water, but again kept my silence.

My barber took over the conversation, agreeing that this “doc” was magaling, not just for skin eruptions but also for all kinds of venomous bites from snakes and dogs in particular. This “doc” had once treated him for a dog bite, and the barber was certain the treatment saved him from rabies. He was aware of how expensive rabies injections were, and said that with this “doc,” you didn’t have to pay for the shots.

Such stories explain why we continue to have such a high death rate from rabies. People think that a dog bite causes rabies… unless a good traditional healer can be found to take out the venom. In reality, you get rabies only if a dog has already been infected, and then bites you. Many dog bites do not involve rabies, but people don’t know that and attribute a “cure” to a traditional healer.

My barber went on to talk about how expensive the treatment of bites can be, and how we have to be always prepared for medical emergencies. He said he always had a fund of P15,000 in the bank, not to be touched except for medical needs.

“It’s difficult,” he explained in Filipino, “to look for money only when someone has gotten seriously ill, or if you have an accident. You have to have ‘emergency’ money on hand, so you don’t have to borrow, or to go to ‘Charity’ (Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office) or to a politician.”

He then cited his own experience with some medical condition where he had to be operated. The receptionist now joined the conversation, saying how she once had “appendix” (appendicitis) and how her family had to go through a desperate search for money for the operation. She was covered by PhilHealth, she said, but for only 20 percent of hospital costs. My barber said, “No, 20 percent is too low.

PhilHealth should cover 30 percent.” I wanted to butt in and explain PhilHealth reimbursements are not based on percentages of hospital costs but are fixed amounts with a maximum cap.

But I was happy to hear my barber had a P15,000 emergency fund. You rarely hear about such provisions from lower- and middle-income households. Health emergencies always seem remote, especially when family members are all young. And then the emergency strikes and people have to scamper around because their savings are so small.

Now, the weather

As expected, the discussions about health care began to drift. The barber who had just walked in began to help with my hair, which startled then amused me: Imagine having two barbers working on you. Talk about slow days.

Then the inevitable came: the weather. The staff talked about the latest they heard from the radio—of towns submerged, of relief efforts, and the latest weather report. The idea of having more of these rains until the end of the week seemed particularly depressing.

Then my barber proposed: “These are bakla rains, lalakas, hihina (get stronger, then weaken). They’re the worst kind of rains because they just keep going, but can’t make up their mind whether to stay or to leave, whether to strengthen or weaken.”

Ha, I thought, something to write about:  bakla rains. A few days earlier a market vendor was trying to get me to buy  bakla  crabs. It would be a mistake to translate the term to “gay rains.” Bakla  is not so much a gender term here than a way of describing the uncertain and the ambiguous. It’s not surprising “alanganin,” or uncertainty, is also used to describe gay men.

For a haircut on a lazy rainy day, it wasn’t too bad learning about  bakla  rains and sorcery and traditional healers of allergies. Metro Manila has them all, the stories making life a little less dreary.

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E-mail: mtan@inquirer.com.ph

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