- 01. Giving It Away
- 02. Mind Games
- 03. Customer Service
- 04. Getting Down to Business
- 05. …And Not a Drop to Drink
- 06. The Commission
- 07. Service!
- 08. Instant Celebrity
- 09. The Pinoy Diet
- 10. Life As We Know It
- 11. Doctors’ Borders
- 12. Poor, Poorer, Poorest
- 13. Half Empty
- 14. Me and My Leg
- 15. Always Be With You
- 16. Going Underground
- 17. Decisions, Decisions
- 18. I Shall Depart
- 19. A Volcano within a Volcano
- 20. A Nod and a Smile
- 21. Not Fighting City Hall
- 22. Stasis in Places
- 23. Fond Farewells
- 24. Parting Shots
It’s almost ten o’clock. I am waiting for an eight o’clock workshop to start. I started this morning at home with avocado on toast and coffee. Since arriving two hours ago I have had three cups of instant coffee with artificial creamer to accompany the breakfast provided, a triple-decker sandwich of baloney, chicken, cream cheese and mayo. A little later, morning “marienda” — food shared at the morning tea or coffee break, usually some sweet bread or other sugared snack — was two packaged chocolate frosting covered cakes. Lunch is approaching and I’ve already doubled my daily recommended calorie intake.
I gave up calorie counting about four weeks ago. Even with the best available internet connection, it still takes over an hour to enter my food intake and activities into caloriecount.com, on which I’ve relied for years. The experts say that of twenty-three Asian nations, the Philippines has the twenty-second best internet service. Only Afghanistan has worse. Somehow, that tidbit of information evaded my grasp when selecting the country to benefit from my volunteerism.
Mom used to call me a good eater. Put it in front of me, I will consume it. It’s a problem, particularly in a land where they are constantly putting food in front of you. Wary of this, one of my first purchases here was bathroom scales. They are cheap scales, but I judged them accurate to within five pounds. I knew this because on first use the scales told me I had lost five pounds, and there was no chance of that being true.
When I stop calorie counting, I gain weight. It is that simple. I know this. I have now put back on the five pounds I never lost.
You may sense a level of grumpiness from me today. I am feeling fat, which starts me on a downward emotional spiral. My clothes don’t fit. I sweat too much. It is too hot here. It is too humid here. There is nowhere to run or bike or walk, no fresh air, no open space, no ocean. Our apartment is so small there isn’t even room to stretch. Frank and I bump into each other, the walls, and every sharp corner constantly. There is hardly TV reception, much less internet. The streets wreak of rubbish and worse. The trickling waterways are open sewers. The open sewers are open sewers. Mosquitos attack constantly. The desperately poor are everywhere except behind the high walls of gated communities full of angry self-righteous hypocrites. The traffic is incessant, making getaways painful if not futile. Public transport is inadequate at best, not a reasonable option in general, dangerous at worst. The air approaches unbreathable.
My next volunteer position will be in Monte Carlo helping the neurotic rich develop self-esteem. What the hell am I doing here?
Deep breaths. That is what I am doing here. Deep breaths.
Hey, the meeting is starting!
Today was not my first meltdown, nor do I expect it to be my last. A few weeks ago Frank made a simple request of me at work. In response I bit off his head: “I just wasted two hours working on that shit and I am not about to spend another fucking minute on it!” As I finished this verbal flourish, Ernie wandered by, looking embarrassed for me. I realised that I had never talked to a co-worker like that before.
Frank responded evenly “You need to take a day off.”
Ernie re-appeared, poking his head in. “Yes. Yes.”
They were right. My meltdown was nothing that couldn’t be fixed by a day moaning in self-pity beside the swimming pool. Then, as now, I fiddled with my calendar until a day of swimming pool moaning fit in. I was already starting to feel better.
Lunch was served. As usual, plenty of rice, a small whole fish staring me in the face, a chicken dish to go atop the rice, soy sauce, vinegar, and something that looks like chicken gravy which I have learnt to avoid because it always turns out to be a fishy sauce that makes me gag.
Rounding out the required meeting feedings, afternoon merienda was, as usual, a savoury dish of sautéed noodles buried in shrimp, sliced egg, and other tidbits. It is another meal in itself. I don’t know how anybody who eats that at four o’clock has any appetite for dinner before nine. Of course, with the traffic requiring lengthy commutes, many of those present wouldn’t have dinner before nine o’clock, if at all.
The food in the Philippines takes a little getting used to. Rice is served at most meals, in one form or another. Mostly, it is plain, good ol’ fashion white rice with a variety of things to heap atop it, with pork, chicken, and fish dishes leading the parade. That’s fine with me, I like rice. In fact I like most all starchy foods: potatoes, pasta, bread, couscous. This can puzzle Pinoys. Why eat that other stuff when rice is available? When I bring lunch to work I find myself explaining it: sandwiches are easy to make, easy to transport, easy to store, and easy to eat
Another staple that pervades food here is sugar, one of the country’s main crops. The Filipino sweet tooth is surpassed by none. It is tempting to blame this on the prevalence of American foods, both fast and packaged, which are notorious for adding more sugar and salt than anybody needs. More likely, though, sweetness is not popular because of American foods, rather the American foods are popular because Filipinos like sweetness.
The home-grown Jollibee fast food chain purveys a popular “sweet spaghetti”, a linear version of Franco-American’s SpaghettiOs. Shakeys — yes, the American pizza chain Shakeys — serves a pizza featuring “sweet baloney”, which cannot be an American invention. It can be difficult to find bread that doesn’t taste like cake — those breads often carry a “sugar-free” warning label.
Along with rice and sugar, the other big cash crops are corn, pineapple and coconuts. The Philippine Coconut Authority (www.pca.da.gov.ph) is headquartered nearby in a proud building on Quezon Circle, where Congress was supposed to be built. First things first.
The national dish is adobo, chicken or pork marinated in vinegar and spices, served with rice. It has a pleasant, subtle flavour. Not one for much of anything pleasant and subtle, I tend to smother it in hot chilis, to the horror of adobo connoisseurs. Filipinos do not like spicy food, generally speaking.
Vinegar is a common cooking ingredient, which is okay by me, too. A happy side effect is that vinegar-based foods are widely available. Dill pickles, pepperoncini, pickled jalapeños, and pickled anything, really, are readily available. We had some difficulty tracking down balsamic vinegar because it covered only a small portion of the entire supermarket aisle dedicated to vinegar.
Deep fried foods are omni-present. Ordering a “tuna salad platter” I was shocked to receive chunks of tuna, battered and deep-fried, served atop a single leaf of cabbage, smothered in a super-sweet mango sauce. Fried chicken is very popular, too. It appears at meetings on my lunch plate twice a week, right next to the rice and the sauce to avoid. It can be of excellent quality, though KFC has a large presence, too. Fried bananas, spring rolls, dumplings, you name it, they deep fry it. It’s like Alabama.
I was happy to find clam chowder, although it bears little resemblance to the New England chowder I love. The same nearby restaurant had onion rings and massive pork ribs, all difficult to find in Australia.
In a previous post I mentioned the popularity of Spam, as well as the presence of excellent hot dogs (I cannot explain why they do not play baseball here). Processed meats are big business, with canned corned beef in highest demand. Every family goes through dozens of tins of the stuff each month, every restaurant menu has corned beef on it. Even with the high temperatures, the sky-high salt content must be a concern — never mind the fat content, or the preservatives. I would guess you could exhume many Pinoys twenty years after death, finding little decomposition.
You may have noticed I haven’t said much about vegetables. That is because they are nearly non-existent in the Filipino diet. A woman I work with — a healthy-looking, smart thirty-year-old — takes pride in the fact she does not eat vegetables at all. I have watched, she doesn’t, and it isn’t difficult for her to avoid them. Often a meat or fish dish has just a few stray veggies mixed in, always thoroughly cooked and easy to pick out.
A restaurant side order of seasonal vegetables is likely to arrive battered and deep-fried. Last night, in fact, I ordered the grilled fish and vegetables, all of which came breaded and grilled and smothered in mayonnaise. There is no such thing as a Big Green Salad. A small green salad is a rarity.
They grow a lot of vegetables in the Philippines, but I have to presume they export most. Vegetables are available at the markets, but not cheap. We have taken to hunting down basic salad components, scrubbing them in bottled water, and having just salad for dinner — which is plenty of food after a four o’clock merienda feast.
Any day now some quack Floridian doctor will “discover” The Pinoy Diet, using shoddy clinical research to reveal the health benefits of a high salt, high fat, high sugar, deep-fried everything, no vegetables, heavy smoking, no walking diet. I want to believe! So do a lot of fat Floridians as well as fat Filipinos. I predict a best-seller.
Unfortunately, the reality is that diabetes is soaring. It is the country’s fourth leading cause of death. Life expectancy in the Philippines is a full ten years less than in the USA. Mind you, Americans do not lead particularly healthy lifestyles, nor are they particularly long-lived. Filipino men are most prone to dropping dead, with a life expectancy of 65. Unusually, men outnumber women by 2% until the age 55, at which point men start dropping like flies. There are only 73 Pinoy men for every 100 women over 65.
The unhealthy elements of The Pinoy Diet reflect the enjoyable things poor people can afford. For many, eliminating salt, fat, sugar, deep-fried foods, and smoking, then adding vegetables and walking to their regimen would leave their lives unbearable. These “sins” are a small payback for the long hours of toil they put in to survive. Indeed, it is too small payback, because exposure to the statistics demonstrating how they are shortening their lives does not influence them to behave differently. Regarding longevity, they are voting with their diet.
The statistics are backed up by our experiences. Since arrival we have been constantly aware that we are oddities on the street, attracting considerable attention, usually treated with remarkable respect. That is mostly because we are white, or “Amerikanos”, or of European descent. Whatever you want to call it, most days pass without my seeing any other white person, save Frank. In the neighbourhoods where we work and live, I am certain I haven’t seen a dozen honkies in the eight weeks we’ve been here.
Yet that is not the entire explanation. What I have come to realise is that I am really, really old here. Half the country is under twenty-three. Last week, an MRT platform guard insisted we go to the boarding area for women, the disabled and the elderly. It appears most guys my age are almost done dodging the grim reaper.
Speaking of dodging, I have started jogging again. Even with the traffic and open sewers, it does wonders for my attitude.
A few days ago, I jogged past a hungry kid begging for money. I gave him one of those restaurant packets of saltine crackers I have taken to carrying with me. He was genuinely grateful, devouring it on the spot. Another country with hungry kids on city streets simultaneously experiencing an obesity epidemic.
A few years ago in New York City, after failing to finish a huge steak dinner, I had the restaurant “doggy-bag” it. Leaving the restaurant, a street person approached me, asking for spare change. I offered him half a steak dinner. He barked “I don’t want your garbage!”