04. Getting Down to Business

  1. 01. Giving It Away
  2. 02. Mind Games
  3. 03. Customer Service
  4. 04. Getting Down to Business
  5. 05. …And Not a Drop to Drink
  6. 06. The Commission
  7. 07. Service!
  8. 08. Instant Celebrity
  9. 09. The Pinoy Diet
  10. 10. Life As We Know It
  11. 11. Doctors’ Borders
  12. 12. Poor, Poorer, Poorest
  13. 13. Half Empty
  14. 14. Me and My Leg
  15. 15. Always Be With You
  16. 16. Going Underground
  17. 17. Decisions, Decisions
  18. 18. I Shall Depart
  19. 19. A Volcano within a Volcano
  20. 20. A Nod and a Smile
  21. 21. Not Fighting City Hall
  22. 22. Stasis in Places
  23. 23. Fond Farewells
  24. 24. Parting Shots

Orientation Day Two started much the same as Day One, except we took water with us on our jog.  Trotting towards Quezon Circle, we stumbled upon the offices of our host organisation, the place we would be working for nine months following orientation week.  It was a modest piece of real estate shared by several non-government organisations (NGO’s), fronted by a sheet metal door, padlocked shut this Sunday morning. Less than a hundred meters away was a Dunkin’ Donuts, IMG_3124also padlocked shut, as mind-boggling as that seems. Starbucks and Seattle’s Best were open just across the street — but we resolved to return for some Dunky when they opened at eight.

IMG_3142Quezon Circle was a madhouse. Just outside, the innermost traffic lane was closed for the exclusive use of lycra-clad cyclists, who whizzed and whirled past in a continuous pack three or four across. Inside, Christian leaders of numerous sects prepared their respective performance stages for services, while hundreds of families in their Sunday best competed for parking and filed in. The boxers and joggers still held sway in the respective districts, but now a thousand rogue Zumba-philes pulsed and gyrated to the throbbing strains of their goddesses’ guidance.


Orientation started promptly at nine, so it didn’t feel much like a Sunday. We four volunteers walked from the hotel to the office, where the orientation staff had anticipated our un-Filipino punctuality.

“Did you walk? Again?” Fay asked, incredulous. We all nodded, perspiration flying off our heads as and dripping from our soaked shirts. “Filipinos hate walking. Filipinos never walk.” she explained, bone dry.

Josh was wearing a T-shirt that read “There is no breaking the Filipino spirit”, which explains a lot for a t-shirt. I had to admit, if Manila traffic didn’t break their spirit, nothing would.

Josh introduced the concept of polychronic time. It differed from western concepts of sequential time because it is effected, for example, by hierarchy, weather and traffic. If there’s a meeting with the boss at three o’clock, three o’clock arrives when the boss does, usually after it stops raining, when the traffic lets up. “You’ll get used to it.” he instructed.

The highlight of the day was our first Jeepney ride. Jeepneys, as the name implies, are a derivative of the Jeeps left behind by the US armed forces after World War II. IMG_3149While those Jeeps are long gone, the tradition of elongating Jeep-like vehicles so that they uncomfortably seat about twenty Pinoys continues to thrive. The colorfully painted vehicles are the main form of transport for most Filipinos, particularly in the cities. At twenty cents for a ride up to five kilometres, the system remains entirely private and largely unregulated. One knows where a Jeepney is going only by knowing how to decipher the hand-painted signage on each vehicle. There is no map or guide to help understand the spaghetti clump of lines they form.

A Sunday night orientation event was billed as an opportunity to meet some other volunteers currently working in Metro Manila. Their availability — or perhaps their understandable lack of willingness to spend Sunday evening sitting in traffic — limited the turnout to exactly one such volunteer. Ken was quite helpful though, transferring his confidence in us to each of us in a way only another Australian could. Towards the end of the evening he mentioned he was a Minister of the Uniting Church. Of course, I mentioned our dear friend Clara, also a Minister with the same church. He knew her, having worked together briefly some twenty years ago. Small world!

Monday’s highlight was a scavenger hunt that, amongst much else, required us to take our firstTricycles tricycle ride (motorcycle with sidecar). I think I’ll stick with taxis!

Things started getting down to business. Offhand comments from the orientation team indicated that Frank and I were expected to move out of the hotel, or at least start paying for our accommodation, by Saturday. That was news to us, especially since the pre-departure briefing encouraged us to “take our time” finding longer-term lodging (“There’s no rush!”). We had been further assuring us that temporary lodging would be provided in the meantime.

Normally, the host organisation (not the orientation team) identifies a few reasonable options for accommodation. For whatever reason, in our case, Fay did the legwork. She showed us four unfurnished two-bedroom apartments that passed the considerable safety and security requirements, whilst being affordable at less than the 20,000P/month (A$600) we received as a monthly housing stipend. The obvious problem was they were unfurnished — completely and utterly unfurnished.

“How are we supposed to furnish these places?” I asked her. “We don’t know the language, where to shop, the prices…it will take forever.”

“Oh, it will not be hard, just go to SM Mall, buy a package, have it delivered.”

I interpreted that to mean there must be one-stop stores selling packages for furnished apartments.

“Then I’m going to have to do some research online tonight…” I told Fay. She suggested a few websites.

IMG_3130That evening I was disappointed to discover that one-stop stores selling packages for furnished apartments were an invention of my wishful mind. There was no such beast. Based on the apartments we had seen, we would need a bed, fridge, couch, table, chairs, microwave, air conditioner, and a stovetop or hotplate. Near as I could tell, the cheapest of each was likely to run about 80,000P (A$2,300). I had to figure it would cost that much again for all the little things (sheets, pillows, flatware, plates, cooking utensils, etc., etc., etc.). This was way beyond our $2,000 settlement allowance. Even if we decided to afford that — we certainly could — it still meant a whopping amount of time shopping for the next several weeks, not to mention then waiting for deliveries to arrive. Worse still, in nine months we’d have to get rid of it all!

It occurred to me that if we spent an extra ten thousand or even fifteen thousand pesos a month — beyond the housing stipend — for a fully furnished place, we’d still be better off after nine months than if we bought all the stuff. What’s more, we’d avoid all the shopping, delivery and disposal headaches.  Back online with a revised price range, I found a couple candidates. One was a small one bedroom apartment, nearby but very small. The other was a two bedroom furnished flat in a high-rise near the Araneta Center, about four kilometres south of our future office.

We rose early Tuesday morning to check out the potential neighbourhood before orientation resumed. If it passed muster, we’d try to make an appointment to see the place.

Nia Rd Informal Settlement4On the way there, we walked right into our first “informal settlement”. There are thousands of these ramshackle “shanty town” communities in the Philippines. Informal settlers, as squatters are now called by the politically correct, tend to occupy any scrap of land they won’t get chased off of. Sometimes it is abandoned or disused private property, sometimes government land reserved for future use, and sometimes parks and even cemeteries. Most worrisome, they settle and build in dangerous areas such as flood plains, putting their lives in imminent danger. Folks in that circumstance are to be the particular focus of our volunteer work.

Nia Rd Informal Settlement6This informal settlement was surprisingly well established. I couldn’t call it well-designed or aesthetically pleasing, but neither was it temporary.  Sheds of corrugated tin, plywood and cinder blocks rose as high as five stories, with retail businesses on street level and tenanted housing above. Judging by their well weathered signs, most of the business were of long standing. Nia Rd Informal Settlement Creek2 Predictably, the community clung to the banks of a creek, at the moment just a trickle, more an open sewer than a river. After a heavy rain, it was, no doubt, a raging torrent.

This early Tuesday morning there were few people around. Those that were greeted us with a smile and a sing-song “Good morning, sir”. Make no mistake, there was considerable rubbish and squalor; most of these people were quite impoverished. But some were not, possibly professionals or managers who chose to live there. It was home.

There were some disturbing sights: filthy naked toddlers wandered through traffic and played on the rubbish covered muddy banks of the fetid creek.  More than once foul odours made me gag. Yet I did not feel fearful of, or threatened by, the locals, as has been the case so often in the more developed slums of “first world” cities. This may have been naïveté — although I am not often called naive. Ironically, as we left the settlement area, the first street we crossed was New York Ave.

Twenty minutes later we found the building with the furnished apartment, one of several modern high rises around the Araneta Center arena, the main attraction of an area of shopping malls and entertainment complexes.  Taking a different route back to start orientation Day Four, we confirmed it was a full hour’s walk, and unpleasant walk at that —not an optimal solution to our accommodation conundrum.

I had emailed Fay the night before to tell her of the two furnished apartments we were considering, also mentioning that we would check out the one near Araneta in the morning. Arriving at orientation, Fay met us at the door, looking a bit relieved to see us.  “The Araneta apartment is not good for you.” she began. “I will show you the other at lunch today, that is better.”

“Yes, we just were down there. The neighbourhood looks okay, but it is a bit far away.” I reported. “Is there something else wrong with that area?”

“It is not good for you.” she repeated. “I will show you the other apartment at lunch today, that is better.” Obviously, there was something wrong with that area, but Fay was not about to tell us. Later I Googled “Worst neighborhoods Quezon City”, which led to a list of the twenty most crime-prone barangays (http://manila.coconuts.co/2015/09/16/list-top-20-crime-prone-barangays-quezon-city). Guess which topped the list? It was as if they had an arrow pointing at the very building we were considering.

At lunch we visited two one bedroom furnished apartments in a twenty-six story building called Symphony Tower #1, a thirty minute walk from work, and a four hour walk from any symphony.  Fay explained that other volunteers had lived here previously, and it was a good area. 20160706_093754The agent showed us the building’s swimming pool and gym on the top floor.  I am not a fan of either swimming pools or gyms, but in this hot, urban environment, it was particularly attractive.

The first unit was sparsely furnished with simple stuff, stark and modern but functional. It had all the essentials: air conditioner, bed, stovetop, refrigerator, couch, table, chairs, bureau, wardrobe. Both rooms — the bedroom, and the everything else room — were small, the whole place coming to about 330 square feet (30m3). It was a corner unit, so each room had a couple windows with decent views of the city, just above treetop level.

The second unit was even smaller, basically a hallway with one window at the end in a “bedroom” demarcated only by one’s imagination. This place was more fully furnished, with linens and an equipped kitchen but the furnishings were rather tired and daggy. Moreover, I could not see living in such a tunnel of an apartment.

IMG_3197We went back to have a second look at the first place. At this point, the landlord appeared. After some translated negotiations for additional furnishings, we agreed to take it for 20,000P ($600) a month — exactly our accommodation allowance.  Clearly, both landlord and agent gobsmacked that we were happy to pay such exorbitant rent, yet we had run the numbers, and it made sense. Most importantly, it relieved us of our biggest worry: a place to call home. We agreed to shift from the hotel to the apartment after completion of orientation on Sunday, five days hence.

It is difficult to overstate the magnitude relief the decision provided. In retrospect, we felt a bit railroaded, cornered into making a hasty housing decision. At the time, though, the skies brightened, a weight lifted from my chest, and what had been a tense and tedious orientation became a rollicking good time.

IMG_3129Back in orientation and freed from a sense of impending doom, I extracted my head from my ass long enough to see that Gordo and Giselle still had another two weeks or more of rampant uncertainty to endure. Their assignments were to be hours away from Metro Manilla, so they had yet to glimpse the community in which they would live, much less their accommodation. As the week moved on they increasingly showed symptoms of extreme stress, from general scatter-brainedness to gastro-intestinal distress. Both in their twenties, they were perhaps less aware of the connection between their heightened level of tension and their mental and bodily well-being. I tried to reassure them in a fatherly, subtle way — but I am neither a father nor subtle.

Allowed some free time that afternoon, Frank and I crammed ourselves in a tricycle for a ride to the massive shopping centre, SM North EDSA. As we arrived a huge cloud of black smoke hung over the mall. Fortunately, it was not from a fire at the mall, it was one “of suspicious origin” at an Army General’s nearby home.

The mall trip was to have the folks at the Apple store get Frank’s two-month old iPhone working. For some reason it was refusing to read any local SIM even though we had been repeatedly assured it was not “locked” to a network. Frank was promptly denied service, the timid geek at the Genius Bar sheepishly pointing out a policy prohibiting work on any Apple product purchased outside the Philippines. Really, Apple? Fuck you.

Frank now has a new Samsung.

That evening we were to meet our future co-workers by sharing dinner and a karaoke session. Well, videoke, technically. We had been warned many times that videoke was huge in the Philippines, completely unavoidable, so we had mentally prepared for it, giving some thought to the songs we would choose to perform. Dinner was an informal affair, a buffet banquet at the nearby Cafe’ Oley. The orientation team, the volunteers, and the staff from the various host organisations (including ours) arrived in dribs and drabs.  Each comer scooped out and consumed a plate of food as soon as they arrived. Some individuals ate alone, a table to themselves, without introducing themselves, but our co-workers made their introductions. .Forbidden to talk shop — that would happen tomorrow — we made small talk, everyone eating quickly, as if eager to get to the videoke.

A catalog of songs the size of a 1975 Manhattan phonebook was plopped down in front of us. Each Pinoy had a repertoire of their favourites, some had even memorised the eight-digit song numbers. Several performed with impressive musicality. They took it in good fun, but quite seriously, too. I recalled reading no fewer than six Filipino performers had been shot dead on stage for poorly delivering “My Way”.

I had done karoake only once in the past, years ago. I don’t have a horrible singing voice, but on that occasion I had chosen a Beatles tune (Penny Lane, maybe?) which turned out to be in a key demanding notes I was simply incapable of hitting. It was awful. I was booed off the stage.

I faced this evenings shenanigans with some dread. I chose better this time, MacArthur Park. The cake was left out in the rain and the cool green ice flowed down without embarrassment. I will note, however, that lengthy instrumental interludes make for some uncomfortable moments in karaoke.  Even Frank, whose singing voice I have long and cruelly mocked, did a respectable job belting out Abba’s SOS.  Much beer was consumed. Karaoke turned out to be a pretty good team building exercise.