- 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
My last weeks in the Philippines are something of a blur. As our departure date approached, I had a growing, haunting sense of impending doom – irrational, yet telling. Each morning, as I prepared to leave the apartment, I heard myself praying “Please let me get out of here alive.” I wanted out.
Giselle, who went through orientation week with us nine months earlier, finished her assignment in rural northern Luzon a week before we finished ours. She had a couple days of debriefing in Quezon City before she left, so we and some other Aussie volunteers in QC took her out one evening for a farewell soiree.
We started out at rib joint. Over dinner, I let slip I regretted that in my nine months here, I never set foot in a gay bar. I was fine with that. The rest of the table did not see things that way.
“Why not? What stopped you?”
They didn’t wait for an answer. They began laying plans to right this wrong – immediately!
Frank and I are not timid about checking out gay bars. We have visited gay bars on five or six continents. I cannot count the continents with confidence because the bar in Tunis may just have been affectionately Muslim. If so, I must leave Africa off the list.
There are plenty of gay bars in Metro Manila, and the culture is very tolerant in a live-and-let-live way. Yet, Filipinos, and particularly gay Filipinos, have some peculiar concepts regarding homosexuality.
You see, there is a category of gay bars called “Macho”, which they apply to most gay discos and night clubs. I understand the customers who attend these establishments subscribe to the belief that only the “bottom” is gay. The “top” is still considered “straight”.
Relax. I did not publicly discuss my preferred positions as a young man, and I am not inclined to do so now. However, I will say that as a younger man, when I went to a dance club, it was always with the intention (or hope) of getting laid. Now, I am an older man. Frank and I have been together for thirty-two years. It has been some time since I went out looking to get laid. Consequently, I have little time for dance clubs, “Macho” or otherwise. I have even less time for men over the age of thirty who remain confused regarding their sexuality.
Some months earlier, I questioned two gay Filipino friends about this top/bottom “Macho” thing. They acknowledged it seems peculiar from a western perspective.
I asked “Where would I go if I just wanted to, say, have a chat with some like-minded gents in a gaudy room with a pianist leading a sing-along of show tunes?”
“Ohhh…” they responded together, exchanging puzzled glances — it was their turn to be perplexed. Finally, one of them answered “I think what you want is a ‘gay-on-gay’ bar.” They suggested one, but somehow, we never got there.
Back at the rib joint, the table identified a bar named ManKind, just two blocks away. None of us knew whether it was Macho or gay-on-gay, but off we went.
I had walked past ManKind a hundred times, as it was only one block from our apartment. It had the air of an institution of a sort, that is to say, it had been there for a long time and stank. As we approached that evening, the expression on the face of the hulking doorman resembled that of someone seeing a zombie for the first time. Indeed, it probably was the first time he had ever had a group of three lily-white men and two lily-white women try to enter the establishment.
His arms crossed across his sizable chest, he sidestepped in front of the doors, shaking his head. “Not open now.” There was throbbing music inside, but from all appearances, not a soul in the place. It was, after all, only ten o’clock. We retreated to the street.
I still regret never having stepped foot in a Manila gay bar. I have many regrets in life, seeing no tragedy in that. It seems to me those who claim no regrets are lying, deluded, or utterly lacking in initiative, perhaps all three.
The bar next door looked rather seedy, but hey, we had just walked two blocks and needed a drink. That doorman jumped up from his chair to open the door. Inside we found a dozen tables wrapped around a small parquet dance floor. The doorman snapped his fingers, awakening the barman to start the music. We sat down and ordered a round of beers.
There was only one group in the place, two men and two woman, sitting at a table on the far end. As soon as we ordered, they jumped up and started dancing. They danced in a rather elaborate fashion, with spins and dips and coordinated footwork – like pros. After the first song ended, one of the men came over to ask Giselle to dance, and his woman partner asked Frank to dance. They both politely declined.
It did not sit well with me, and not because nobody asked me to dance. One of the safety tips taught volunteers is “The Triangle of Doom”. Almost all avoidable grief experienced by volunteers, we were told, occurs when inside The Triangle of Doom. The three sides are: 1) Night, 2) Drunk, and 3) Unfamiliar.
I looked around the room: “Check, check, check.” I recalled numerous tales of woe – perhaps urban legend, but who knows? — where hapless bar patrons get an enormous bill for drinks they “purchased” without their knowledge or consent.
“We need to get out of this place. Now.”
The night ended at a rooftop karaoke bar a mile away. Night, yes, drunk, yes, unfamiliar, no. I had grown familiar with karaoke bars, and the place was close to St Luke’s Hospital, all too familiar. Frank braved a song on stage and got healthy applause. It was a good night.
On the way home, a fellow volunteer remembered that Frank and I were to depart later that week. “We have to get together again for that! The AMP Big Band is playing at Historia on Wednesday – want to go?”
To me, the AMP is an Australian insurance company, but I love big bands. These days they are very expensive to maintain, so a rare bird indeed. Also, Historia seemed the perfect place for a farewell. The second night we were in Quezon city, Historia was the place Fay’s husband Edward took us, kicking and screaming, to our eventual delight — right across the street from what was now our apartment. It was also the only place I ventured out in a wheelchair.
“Yes! Yes!” I shouted with uncharacteristic enthusiasm.
And so we did. A few nights later we grabbed our favorite table in the center, rear. I realized that AMP stood for Asosasyon ng Musikong Pilipino – basically, the musician’s union. It was a BIG big band – thirty or more players. Judging by the size of the crowd and the cover charge, these musicians must have been volunteers, or damn close.
I remember my high school band teacher, a union musician, telling me “Union musicians spend their entire life playing music that other people want to hear – not what they want to play.”
I found out this band played across the street from my apartment once a month. I regretted missing them the prior eight months. I can live with that.
The following day, our last day at work, we awoke with considerable hangovers. It was a very long day, made longer by the send-off our colleagues threw us. Once again, we sang karaoke into the night. One of the cooperative board members, a lovely woman, demanded I dance with her. I obliged. I think everybody regretted it. I am no dancer. Fried chicken arrived, always welcome when hungover. The drumettes turned out to be chicken necks, which taste a bit like spoiled paté, battered and deep-fried.
Our last official duty was an exit interview with the Philippine National Volunteer Service Coordinating Agency. Two teenagers, one woman, one man, interviewed us together. I suspect they were unpaid interns, but I wasn’t about to ask. They asked nothing about our work, preferring to concentrate on where we had toured, and how many friends and family had come to visit us in the Philippines.
“What did you like about the Philippines?”
“Good fish, cheap beer…”
“…and of course, the very lovely people.” Frank finished my thought.
“Was there anything you disliked about the Philippines?”
On hearing that question I suspect my eyes glassed over like a wild man’s, as my mind reeled with responses. I managed to control myself, and I smiled.
“Fried chicken necks.”
“Oooohhhh…” the young man intoned gravely. “Those are not good for you.”
Twenty four hours later, we were back in Melbourne.