- 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
The human mind is an amazing thing, particularly in times of stress. Usually, I thrive on stress, at my best when there’s way too much to do. There is a limit to this, though. In the weeks prior to my departure for Manila, I reached it.
In preparation for the flight I had reduced the sum of my worldly possessions to thirty kilos (66 pounds) in four bags (two checked, two carry-on), the Philippines Airlines baggage allowance. One might think that would simplify life, but my brain’s reaction was to render me incapable of remembering where I put anything. Worse, I became unable to complete any task without starting three others, a parabolic formula for a panic attack. I spent two full weeks frantically turning in circles, scanning tabletops, patting pants pockets, rummaging through manifold zippered baggage compartments, desperately trying to find whatever it was I had put down moments earlier when I instructed myself “Remember you put it there.”
All packed, Frank and I ended up well over the weight allowance. In what is sure to be the first of many such ploys, we played the volunteer card at baggage drop, grovelling for forgiveness of what would have been a $224 excess baggage charge. It worked a charm. Never underestimate the effectiveness of a good grovel.
The flight was a joy. Sure, the seats were cramped, the food mediocre, there was no in-flight entertainment at all, and the service spotty. It was a day-time eight hour flight wherefrom I had to arrive sober, so I couldn’t even get plastered. There was nothing to do but relax.
For eight hours I pondered the approaching unknowns of life in the Philippines. Having been raised a Catholic in America I was confident much of Filipino culture would be familiar. As a Spanish colony for three centuries, the Philippines was dominated by the Catholic church, and then an American colony for half at century. “Three hundred years in a convent followed by fifty in Hollywood” goes the saying.
I had many doubts. Would everybody really speak English? Were they old-school Catholics amen-ing this and kyrie eleison-ing that? Would their lackadaisically pacific attitude regarding time overwhelm my patience? Could I stand an entire year of one hundred percent humidity and high temperatures? And the traffic, my god, the traffic!
Most daunting, the actual work of our assignments was less than clear. The assignment descriptions were written to pass bureaucratic muster rather than communicate anything meaningful. I had an inkling we’d be doing something to help the urban poor, including those that had migrated into the city, such as farmers (a worldwide issue due to increased agricultural mechanisation) and victims of typhoons, floods, mudslides and other sundry disasters. I got the sense both Frank and I were expected to help these people up-skill and make a living for themselves. I hadn’t the foggiest notion how we might do that. How was I going to react to dealing with the extremely impoverished?
Oddly enough, none of this bothered me. For the first time in a long time, everything was beyond my control. Only time would tell.
We arrived in Manila an hour ahead of schedule, and proceeded through customs and immigration in no time. At baggage claim we met up with the two other incoming volunteers we had first met at pre-departure training. We would spend the next week with Gordo and Giselle for in-country orientation. Then, they would head off to far flung parts of the Philippines while we dug in for the duration in nearby Quezon City.
The blast furnace of Manila’s afternoon heat almost knocked me over as we left the terminal. On the far side of a security fence guarded by well-armed private security guards, dozens of taxi drivers waved frantically and hawked us enthusiastically. The van that was supposed to meet us was nowhere to be found — we were still quite early — so we hunkered down to wait in a shady spot.
Frank and I realised that this was the same spot we had arrived two years earlier on our only other visit to the Philippines. The terminal and its surrounds had been completely renovated, or re-constructed, really. A vast improvement. I looked leerily at a vast sea of stalled traffic in the distance. That did not look to have improved in the least.
Our van showed up a half hour early. We four volunteers crammed our considerable baggage into it, and headed off toward the hotel in Quezon City, less than twenty kilometres away. At first, being stuck in traffic was a chance to begin to understand Manila. Street vendors selling cuisine such as grilled intestines on a stick wandered between makeshift lanes of more-stop-than-go traffic. Giselle confirmed with our leader that dog was frequently on the menu in the province to which she was headed. To my surprise, that bothered none of us. An unusual group, I thought.
After an hour or so, the trip became a bonding exercise. For the next two hours we exchanged our stories, postulated which songs would be subject to our mandatory attempts
at karaoke, and tried to guess what lay ahead in general. Three hours in it went from bonding to bondage. The sun set and the world became a vast landscape of headlights, taillights, traffic lights, and the flashing lights of ambulances transporting victims sure to die en route.
After four hours and twenty minutes of crawling through traffic, we arrived at the Fersal Hotel, bleary-eyed and punch-drunk. In theory we could have walked the distance faster — although a walk in high heat with thirty-odd kilograms of luggage would not have been pleasant, either. I counted my blessings: somehow, I survived the transfer without peeing my pants.
Once checked in, the four of us headed out for dinner. The intimidating frenzy that is Quezon City enveloped us. The air was acrid with smoke from the open fires of street food vendors and the blue smoke fuming from diesel powered Jeepneys, all supplemented by the city smog of cars, trucks, buses, taxis and tricycles (motorcycle taxis with sidecars). Almost everybody on the street was smoking cigarettes. I noticed Marlboros on sale for the equivalent of A$1.60 a pack, which compared favourably to the going rate of about thirty dollars a pack in Australia these days. It was just possible that in this environment, filtered cigarette smoke might be cleaner than the air. I shuddered at the thought that taking up smoking again might prove attractive.
Every second person greeted us with a goofily broad smile, bright eyes and overly enthusiastic “Hello, Sir!!” or “Americano, Americano, hello!” As a cynical westerner I might have interpreted this as mocking sarcasm, or the lead-up to a sales pitch. But we had been told that we would be true oddities in these neighbourhoods, and to expect such greetings, which are sincere and friendly almost without exception. Some of the little kids may never have seen a westerner before, and the older ones were raised to call any white guy “Americano”. Most of all, though, it is just that Filipinos of any age will welcome strangers with enthusiasm and a smile. Given what they’ve been through over the past four hundred years, it is not only an endearing trait, it’s a bloody miracle.
We joined an impromptu party of local pedestrians forming at a crosswalk, then bravely followed their lead, gingerly wandering into crawling traffic to cross Kalayaan Avenue. We had been warned “The drivers don’t respect pedestrians”, and I was familiar with this game of Extreme Chicken from travels to Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok. Now it dawned on me that I’d be playing this dangerous game for nine months. My years of practice in aggressive jaywalking worldwide would come in handy.
The Trellis restaurant was just across the street, thankfully. It reconfirmed that the small quantum of strife and stress in life that is not mitigated with a delicious, inexpensive meal is dealt with quite nicely by decent beer at a $1.40 a can. “I can do this” I heard my brain say.
Back at the hotel, we tried to get our computers to work — believe it or not we had brought no fewer than four computers — and our new Philippines-based mobile phone SIM cards to register. That was a big mistake, causing an infuriatingly frustrating end to a difficult day. I gave up, collapsing into bed.
Frank pointed out that the bottoms of my feet were jet black from the hotel floor, causing his years as a white-gloved hotelier to emerge. “It appears we will need to adjust our expectations of cleanliness.”
I was too tired to move. I just closed my eyes. This time my brain made my mouth say it.
“I can do this.”