I live in a place called Cubao, on the edge of a slum, and every corner literally teems with people and activity.
The road in front of our house has been ripped up to replace drains with bigger pipes, broken bits of road are piled high on either side, leaving one dusty lane for vehicular traffic. This has all been done by bare-chested men with tiny shovels. No digger in sight. This will take forever, my mother says grimly. My brother-in-law palms a bit of cash over to the men so that they would tidy up our frontage, widen the path for cars.
On the pavement in front of my neighbour’s gate, the tricycle drivers await passengers. There’s a man standing there shouting out their availability – he gets a few pesos for his pains. A boy of about 11 with a wooden box on his arm is selling the drivers cigarettes by the stick.
Two of my mother’s neighbours have set up shop, tables covered with plastic table cloths, pots of food, selling lunch to passers-by. They’re a bit like lemonade stands, except these are adults trying to make a living. They spoon the food into plastic bags for the customer to take away.
In England, the struggle to make a living happens invisibly, quietly, behind closed doors.
In the Philippines, it’s in your face.
I remember my own struggling, as a young reporter earning a wage barely enough to cover my expenses.
It was an exciting time in the Philippines, the decline of a dictatorship and the start of a new era.
I went everywhere, witnessed history in the making, then went back to the camaraderie of our news room to assemble the magazine. I was writing!
On Thursdays, everyone stayed until the wee hours of the morning, putting the magazine to bed – it came out on Fridays. These were pre-digital days, so the galleys were typset, laid out by hand, then filmed. And any corrections were stripped into the film later.
Afterwards everyone piled off to an all-night breakfast place for hot bibingka (pancakes made with coconut and salted eggs) or tapsilog – a breakfast of cured meat, rice and eggs.
It was a fantastic job. No hour was too late, no distance too far to gather information, no story too dangerous (it wasn’t courage, just youthful enthusiasm).
I felt blessed even though the money was only a little better than peanuts and not as tasty.
My friends and I got around the tricky problem of making ends meet in various ways.
Too proud to live with my parents, I shared a one-bedroom (bedroom is a relative term ) flat with other girls who worked for the same magazine. On some nights there were three of us, on others there were five. We all slept on mattresses laid out on our sitting room’s pocket handkerchief floor.
It helped that press conferences in the Philippines always involved some kind of catering. By attending at least three conferences a day, I covered all my meals. When my best friend and I wanted to sample a new restaurant, we would order one coffee and sit there for an hour sipping the one cold cup.
To supplement my income, I wrote press releases for a friend who was a publicist. I interviewed pop stars and drew a weekly cartoon strip for a woman’s magazine. I scripted small talk for a pop singer to do between songs. I dubbed in the voices of American extras who had moved on before their movies had finished. When I realized I could get paid for pictures as well as words, I acquired a camera and took photographs when I was on assignment.
No job was too small, as long it meant I could continue to be a reporter.
My work was not a struggle even if I struggled to make a living because I was doing it for love. It’s one of the great things about my new, second career, writing for children.
The JK Rowlings and Stephenie Meyers of the children’s book industry are incidental. Yes, there is money in it – but money is not why children’s authors write.
In the main, we don’t do it for money. That’s why we are the lucky ones. We aren’t wage slaves. We do our work for love.
Doing things for love is the best way not just to make a living, but to have a life.
Even if it’s a struggle.