Of Cancer, Golf Balls and Impunity in the Philippines

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Pock. Pock. Pock.

Seven men had just trooped onto the sheltered beach carrying golf clubs and two plastic bags of white balls. It was low tide, and a stretch of sandbars was visible. Nastasia, my 26-year-old daughter, and Ken, my sister’s husband, stood behind them, ready to wade into the water.

The group, an assortment of Filipinos and foreigners, set down golf balls on the sandbars to practice their swings before sunset.

Pock! A ball flew in a slow, stupid arc toward the waves. Pock! A white kid (we learned later he was Australian) knocked another ball. It rose up to the sky, teeny-tiny, and then dropped into shining water.

Pock! Pock! Pock! Three more golf balls struck the sea, and raced to its bottom.

I walked to the sandbars.

“May I ask how you will retrieve those golf balls?”

I was addressing a middle-age, Filipino-looking man with shorts, muscle shirt and mustache.

“Oh, we do this all the time,” he said.

“Don’t worry,” said the Australian teenager, swinging his club. “We swim out and collect the balls after we play.”

He took another worthless aim. Pock!

“So you count the number of golf balls and make sure you retrieve every single one?” I asked.

“Oh, no, we can’t do that,” the older man said.

“This is a public beach — owned by the Filipino people,” I said. “This sea is not yours. It is not your private golfing range. Other people want to enjoy the ocean. Burying your golf balls in it doesn’t make sense.”

The teenager glared, his club stuck in the sand. Three generations of bad amateur golfers — one older Filipino, two pairs of thirtysomething mestizos, the Australian teenager and one blond child — gathered around me.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time,” the Filipino said.

“That doesn’t make it right,” I said. “That makes it more wrong.”

“We’re going to pick them up,” the teenager said. “We do this all the time.”

I went back to the house and saw Carmi, the caretaker, staring at the scene I had made. “I talked to them,” I explained, “because it’s not right.”

Carmi stood still, unspeaking, and I worried that I had just harmed not only my unknown hostess but also her staff, who had to live with these dumb neighbors. Then Carmi nodded.

A bit later, a large, snow-haired gentleman came up to the house, smiling, with the seven-man posse from the sandbars.

He told me his name, as if I was supposed to recognize it. I did. He came from an old Manila family, which must have held rights to this sugar cane land once.

“We’re from the house across the street,” he said. “My children moved to Australia, but they come home at Christmas. You know, we always swim out and get those golf balls back,” he assured me.

“I hope you do,” I said.

The elderly man and the seven bad golfers returned to the water and swam lazily, as if the golf balls would return to their hands simply because they willed them back.

I touched that area where a lump, not quite the size of a golf ball, had once nestled in my razed, amputated breasts. There are other kinds of threats like cancer that lurk and one might want to surgically remove — like these golf balls in the sea, little symbols of the callousness that threatens the natural and political ecosystems of the Philippines.

The round, white-haired patriarch plopped one ball into a plastic bag, and then, with arms crossed, stared at me, the mere guest on his beach who had dared question his right to despoil it.

Hitting golf balls into public waters is the least of this country’s ills, but it is a mirror of them. History has shown Filipinos that those who believe they own the land, who’ve “been doing this for a long time,” have no compunction about harming it. From Spanish goons to American generals to our present oligarchical thugs, the Philippines stretches out like a sandbar waiting to be defiled.

It is not the lower classes but the middle and upper classes who have remained steadily behind President Rodrigo Duterte, despite the heinous extrajudicial killings committed under his rule. More than 20,000 Filipinos, mostly among the poor, may have died in his campaign against drugs. But with the wealthy behind him, Mr. Duterte’s government can run the country with impunity.

In 1887, the novelist and surgeon José Rizal diagnosed the effects of the ruling, owning classes, Spanish and Filipino alike, in his revolutionary novel of anticolonial rage, “Noli Me Tangere” (Touch Me Not). In its dedication, entitled “To My Country,” he writes that, “In the history of human suffering are cancers of such malignant character that even minor contact aggravates them” — and that hoping for the Philippines’s good health, he will do for the country, through his novel, what the ancients did with their infirmed: place them “on the steps of their temples so that each in his own way could invoke a divinity that might offer a cure.”

The mission of Rizal’s novel remains unfinished. Malignant characters persist.

The sun was setting on the glimmering beach, invoking neither divinity nor cure. The seven golfers had gone home. Nastasia and Ken returned from their swim with four balls. Many more still lay in the bay.

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