When I get stressed out with the pressures of life in the west – stuck in traffic on the M25, the boss on my back about this month’s targets, getting home after a 13 hour day and listening with disbelief to my wife complain that I don’t do enough to help with the housework, etc., I yearn for the simple life expressed in these lines of Omar Khayyam:
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread - and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness -
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, trans. Edward FitzGerald
But could I really hack it if I was given the chance? Would I miss the upside of life in the west – the freedom that owning a car can give, the rewards of a well paid job, the pleasures of helping around the house – only joking about the last one. I am now divorced and have it to do it all myself anyway (and wonder what all the fuss was about).
I had a chance to put it to the test this summer when I was planning to stay with my Filipina girlfriend for two months. When I expressed my concern about paying hotel prices for that length of time, she suggested that I stay in her house. I jumped at the offer. It was just what the doctor ordered: a chance to live the simple life – and easy on the bank balance.
So I got to thinking about my basic requirements: for ‘jug of wine’ read ‘crate of San Miguel’ – one of the finest beers in the world, and a product of the Philippines; for ‘loaf of bread’ read ‘Philippine food’ which my girlfriend is adept at cooking. The biggest change is ‘book of verses’ – I decided to update that to a ‘laptop with wi-fi’. This would enable me to access thousands of books of verses, millions of other texts, and serve as a general window on the world. I added a guitar to Omar Khayyam’s list, because as a keen musician I’d be lost without it. I have a travel guitar which can easily be dismantled to fit in a suitcase, so I decided to take that. The ‘thou’ of course, is the main thing and remains unchanged – if you’ve got the girl, what else do you need? – I suppose that is the point Omar Khayyam was making. Having got it all worked out, I decided to write my update of his poem. Here is the first part:
My laptop with wi-fi beneath the bough,
My guitar, crate of San Miguel – and thou,
Are all I need to live contentedly
(I think). I’m coming soon, so we will see
If your Province is paradise enow.
I felt pretty confident I could hack it – more than that – enjoy it, and looked forward to relaxing far away from the pressures of modern life. But the reality was a bit of a shock. Her ‘house’ was a bamboo shack with living quarters upstairs and a sort of cowshed underneath. But the worse surprise of all was that there was NO ELECTRICITY! (There was no toilet either – but that’s another story). She had often told me how poor she was, but I didn’t believe that anybody could be so poor that they didn’t have the basic amenities of life – at least in a country like the Philippines. My carefully worked out plans were ruined at a stroke – as I explain in the continuation of my poem:
Your bamboo shack has space for pig and cow,
Where I can play that ’ole guitar, and how!
But what use without electricity
My laptop with wi-fi?
A crate of San Miguel – but not cold – ow!
No air-conditioning to cool my brow!
I was now reduced to a level below that of Omar Kayyham because at least he had his book of verses. However, it wasn’t that bad, because the ‘thou’ element – the girl – was just as wonderful as ever:
I feared your Province would be misery –
And then you stripped and got in bed with me –
Ah! Paradise! I shan’t be needing now
My laptop with wi-fi.
So that was OK then! But when the lovemaking was over, I still had to find ways to entertain myself. The first thing I had to learn was to slow down. My pressurised job meant that every moment of the working day was packed, and I often brought work home. As a result, I felt guilty if I wasn’t packing every minute of my spare time with the other things I wanted to do – socialising, sports, hobbies, etc. I was simply unable to stop and do nothing.
I started out in the same vein, trying to fill each day: a trip to the beach, a trip into town, an hour on the guitar, an hour writing (with a pencil in a notebook – doh!) but gradually, the heat, the culture, and my girlfriend’s easy-going ways slowed me down, until after about two weeks I found I was able to sit around doing absolutely nothing for long periods of time.
I learned a lot from that. However, I have to admit that such a level of existence is too basic for me. So by the end of the summer, I had paid for electricity and internet to be laid on, and bought a fridge and TV. My girlfriend thought she was in heaven (I lost her to the TV for a few weeks – especially to a game show called Wowowee) and I was back to an acceptable level of existence of which the high points were internet access and a chilled San Migs. Even with all that extra spending, my costs were still a lot lower than staying in a hotel, and I came to believe that I had the benefits of both worlds. I had learned to slow down and relax, but still enjoyed the essentials of western life. Not paradise, perhaps – but paradise enow.
© Bysshe, 2008. All rights reserved by the author.