Friday, July 9, 2010

1,000 Insect Bites

Week 1:  Bilog Story Series

 “Where are we going today, Boss?” asked Bilog.  “Housekeeping,” answered Nakamura-san.

Bilog was asked to report for work unusually early.  At 5am Bilog was on the company truck on its way to San’ya to pick up other workers for that day.  Bilog was one of the company’s “regulars” which meant that he had an assured seat on that company bus for daily work assignments.   Bilog’s stomach started grumbling, and he knew he needed his daily dose of caffeine.  

“Boss, I’ll get off first and grab a drink from the vending machine.  I’ll catch up with you at the next corner.”  Nakamura-san reminded Bilog, “You better be at the last corner, or I can easily fill up your seat with other workers.”

Bilog jumped off the truck, and ran for the nearest vending machine.  He had been with this current company of his for the past 5 years already and while he knew his Boss could be harsh at times, he had carefully cultivated his reputation for reliability and he knew his Boss would save a seat for him.

 “You. You. You,” Nakamura-san shouted as he was picking the youngest-looking, healthiest-looking among the many day-laborers standing at the street corner.  In no time, the 7-seater, mini-truck was full of workers for the day’s task.

 “Boss, here’s your coffee, “ Bilog exclaimed as he jumped back into the company truck, placing the favorite drink of his  boss into his hands.  He knew how to please Nakamura-san with  these small gestures.  Nakamura-san handed him the exact payment.  Bilog knew his Boss wasn’t expecting a free drink.  Nothing was free in Japan.  Nakamura-san appreciated Bilog's thoughtfulness.   As Bilog got back on the truck, and into his “reserved seat,” he wasn’t surprised that it was already full.  San’ya was the second biggest day laborer market in Japan and supply of eager workers, most of them not having worked for many days, was plenty.

“Today, we will have to get rid of some materials from previous demolition work sites,” explained Nakamura-san.  “Which ones, Boss?,”  asked Bilog, knowing that they had done a number of demolition projects over the past week. “The ones that cost too much to get rid off properly.  Contracts are getting harder to get nowadays, and so this is my only way to save some money,”  Nakamura-san answered back.

Sitting in front of the truck with Nakamura-san, Bilog quietly listened to his Boss’s litany of problems caused by the current downturn in the economy of Japan.  His business of demolition was always affected by the downturn or upturn of the economy.  If the economy was good, people had extra purchasing power and wives could easily ask their husbands for a kitchen renovation, or an additional guest room or even a completely new house.  Businesses expanded branches, renovated shops with new themes in preparation for higher sales given brisk spending by deep-pocketed customers.  And, demolition companies were full of work in the good times.

The demolition business was a highly-regulated activity.  Extracted building materials had to be classified and disposed of properly.  And that cost money, as designated recycling centers accepted materials only if they were completely segregated and packed properly.  Proper segregation meant more laborers, which meant more salaries had to be paid.  To save on costs, business owners, when times became really desperate, chose to haul non-segregated, extracted building materials out to the suburbs where they had unofficial “dump sites.”  

 “Hey Bilog, tell the workers to split up into two groups. Send one group to the far back, and the other group can start off-hauling this load I have now,” Toshiro-san said.  They had arrived in the unofficial dump site, a 1.5 hour drive away from Tokyo, tucked safely up a remote village sitting on the side of a mountain and its thickly-covered forest.   Toshiro, Nakamura-san’s trusted local employee, and Bilog’s work-buddy, had been hauling demolition refuse into the site since the day before in preparation for today’s operation.  

Speaking in Japanese, Bilog began giving instructions to the workers for that day.  The workers were composed of Japanese and non-Japanese workers, mostly Chinese, Indonesian and Filipino workers.   Japanese was the language at work. 

 There were two heaps of extracted building material and the one nearer to the mountain forest edge was ready to be “processed.”   Toshiro and the other half of the workers were still unloading his current load into the second, smaller heap.  Bilog took it upon himself to lead that group at the far back part of the dumping site.  This was not the first time Bilog had done this, and he knew that the “processing” needed an experienced hand.

“Insert these sticks under heap,” Bilog said as he handed out the material. “Make sure you place it well into the middle of the heap.”  Bilog and his group of workers made a final inspection of the heap, picking up loose material scattered around and throwing it on the top.   Then Bilog lit the first stick.

The extracted building materials were to be burnt, the fastest, cheapest way to dispose of them.  It was also illegal.  Nakamura-san had developed a system to make sure that each heap was small enough so that the burning wouldn’t last long and the smoke wouldn’t disturb any of the nearby houses, which were few and far apart given that this was a remote part of suburbs of Tokyo.  Toshiro-san and Bilog were familiar with the procedure.

But, on that day, the wind was untypically strong.  Nakamura-san had failed to notice the wind factor when he checked the weather that morning.  “Boss, the smoke is getting blown far-away.  There may be complaints.  Should I turn it off,” Bilog asked Nakamura-san.   Complaints made by households signaled that the police would come.  Nakamura-san was well aware of this, but was willing to take that risk, considering that he was already committed to pay ¥10,000 to each of the 7 workers he picked up.  That, plus Bilog and Toshiro-san’s salary, an easy ¥90,000 would go down the drain if he aborted the operation.  

“No, proceed,” Nakamura-san decided.

With that cue, Bilog’s instincts went on maximum alert.   Eighteen years of being illegal in Japan had fine-tuned his police early warning alarm.  When the police come, they always cordon off the work site and question all workers, requesting for documentation and other permits.   Previous burning they had done at this remote dump site was controlled and they didn’t cause neighbors any trouble.  But this time, Bilog knew they were inviting trouble.

The first heap was burned to a crisp in about two hours, and the workers proceeded to the second heap.  Bilog stayed behind, as he was inspecting the ashes, making sure there was no possibility that any embers could be blown by the wind and land in forest grass, starting a fire.

Suddenly, and without warning, police cars descended into the dump site, surrounding them.  The police had kept their sirens off, wanting to use the element of surprise.  Quickly, the area was cordoned-off and the workers, most caught-off guard, were guided to one secure corner.

Two workers, however, one Filipino and one Chinese, were able to make a run for it.  “There, let’s go to the back where we can hide,” said the Chinese migrant worker.   Reaching the back, the Filipino called out, “Bilog, where are you, police have come.”  Bilog was nowhere to be found.  

“I knew this would happen,” Bilog said to himself.  He had run up the mountain even before the police arrived as he had seen the patrol cars coming.  Already expecting trouble, he had trained his eyes on the road leading to the dump site which he could see from the elevated standpoint of the second heap.  Now safely hidden inside the forest, Bilog could see everything that was going on down in the dump site.

“Stop,” shouted the police, seeing the Chinese and Filipino workers run towards the back of the dump site.  Ignoring the police, the two workers continued to run toward the back. 

“There’s nowhere else to run but into the forest,” exclaimed the Chinese worker.  The forests in Japan were well-preserved and as such quite thick, and they would surely be able to hide there, the Chinese worker said to himself.  The Filipino, however, had second-thoughts, “There could be wild animals and we don’t know how long we’d have to hide.”  They were both neophyte illegals, each being only less than a year in Japan.  The Filipino stopped saying “Go on ahead, I don’t think I can make it in the forest.”  The Chinese worker continued but eventually stopped as the incline became too steep and the forest was just too scary up close.

Bilog could see that the Japanese policemen were close behind the two fleeing workers.  Seeing the Chinese and Filipino stop, he called out to his compatriot, shouting in Filipino, “Hey, come on, continue going up, I’m here!”  The Filipino heard him, turned his head toward the direction of Bilog’s shout, “Where are you?  I can’t see you.”  The forest vegetation was just too thick, and Bilog had chosen his spot well.  “Here,” Bilog turned on his flashlight, waving and aiming it at the Filipino, hoping he would see it.  That move was risky, as even the police might have seen it, but for a compatriot Bilog was ready to do anything.

“I can’t do it.  I don’t think I can make it there,” said the Filipino.  “Think of your family, and the people you are supporting back at home,” Bilog tried to remind the Filipino worker of his objective in coming to Japan.  “You can do it!”

But the Filipino had reached his limit.  Unlike Bilog whose investment of eighteen years in Japan was worth protecting, this newbie Filipino was not as determined.

The workers on the dump site were rounded up.  All five of the non-Japanese workers were found to be overstayers.  They were summarily arrested, and were loaded into a back-up van that had subsequently arrived, and were to be brought to the Immigration detention center.  Pictures were taken of the illegal act of burning and Nakamura-san was also arrested.  After about two hours, the police had left with Nakamura-san and all the workers.

During all that time, Bilog was determined to stay in the forest.  He had more to lose, than the other workers arrested.  He was planning to finally turn himself in that year, and return home.  “But to what?” Bilog set himself off thinking again.  When he left the Philippines, his three daughters were just babies.  Now one was a registered nurse, and the other two were on their last years of college.  At best, relationships with his daughters and wife were strained.  He had not been able to send remittances consistently, and he couldn’t call himself a determined letter writer.  Even his calling home, in the past religiously done once a week, had stopped completely.  Bilog had no savings despite eighteen years in Japan.  “What would I do back in the Philippines,” he thought.  

Seeing the police leave the dump site, Bilog stayed hidden for a few more hours just to make sure the police wouldn’t come back or weren’t waiting for anyone hidden to come out.  The police in Japan were very smart, Bilog knew from experience.  “But I am smarter,” he motivated himself.   He needed all the motivation he could get to stay for hours amidst the thick forest foliage.  

Mosquitos were the main threat, next to snakes and even wild animals.  Never mind his hunger and his dehydration, as his water and food packed lunch were left down in the dump site.  Bilog was now five hours in the forest, and it was getting dark.  

“Hey Botchok, I am here in the forest hiding.  Just wanted to let you know where I am just in case I get eaten alive here by some wild animal,” Bilog called from his phone which he had by instinct kept in his pocket.  “What?!!” Botchok couldn’t believe what Bilog had told him.  They had been friends for three years already, since becoming an illegal worker himself.  Botchok had entered legally as a Trainee but because work conditions were really bad at the company where he was placed, he escaped from the company dormitory just before his contract ended.  And it was Bilog who helped him escape.

Botchok tried to put himself in the shoes of Bilog and see if he would be able to do that, if he were put in a similar position.   He couldn’t answer his own hypothetical question.  He had always admired Bilog and his determination to stay undetected in Japan.  But he also knew about Bilog’s family situation and often wondered what he was sacrificing for in Japan if he had essentially become alienated from his own family back home.  “Ok, call me if you want me to go there and get you, or when you’ve come down safely,” Botchok told Bilog.   Bilog knew he could rely on Botchok, which was why he was the one Bilog first called.
At 7pm Bilog went down from his hiding place.  It was still bright, being the mid of June, but Bilog knew it would be dark soon and the darkness would provide him more cover, just in case the police were still waiting for him.  He had to go back down to the dump site and walk back out through the main road as that was the only way out.  He didn’t think he could walk through the forest and come out on the other side.  That would have been suicide, he thought.  

He walked for about 3 hours to the nearest train station.  On the train back to Tokyo, he wondered why people were looking at him.  This was quite uncharacteristic behavior for the Japanese on the train, as everyone normally just minded their own business.  Then he realized why.  Looking down at his arms and feeling his facial skin, he saw that he had hundreds of insect bites and his skin had so many red spots.  Bilog’s adrenalin, pumped up to the highest levels, must have prevented him from feeling the insect bites.  Also his intense thoughts of his own situation in Japan kept his mind at another plane of reality.

“I am a survivor.”  Bilog knew that much about himself.  And he was proud of it.

As he got off the train, he was not surprised to see some police officers heading directly toward him.  The crowd was providing some cushion between him and the police, and he had a few seconds to think and act.  

How did the police find out about Bilog being on that train?  Why wasn’t Bilog surprised to see the police?  Did Bilog successfully evade arrest again?

[Next week:  Filipino Early Warning Network].

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