- 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
Like everywhere in the universe, water is very important in the Philippines, not least because the Philippines consists of seven thousand one hundred seven islands completely surrounded by the stuff. What’s more, we’re in the rainy season, when water comes down from the sky an ocean at a time in any of the twenty tropical storms that swamp the place annually. To the delight of mosquitos and rice farmers alike, the rains pool nicely, slowly seeping into the rich volcanic soils, engendering life itself. Also, death.
You see, despite water being all around, up and down, little of it is safe to drink. You know those hundreds of billions of dollars spent by NASA, the European Space Agency, Russia’s Roscosmos, and the China National Space Administration trying to find water on Mars and the moons of Saturn and under your grandmother’s mattress? I’m beginning to think it wasn’t purely a scientific undertaking. If you can’t find drinkable water here, there’s a problem. A very big problem.
I often have difficulty figuring out whether the water in any particular place is potable. I am leery of the line “It is safe for brushing your teeth, but not for drinking.” A little e-coli may be a little better than a lot of e-coli, but that ain’t good enough. With upcoming Olympics in Rio, I’ve heard repeated reports that the athletes involved in sports in Rio’s Guanabara Bay will be okay so long as they consume no more than three teaspoons of the sewerage that passes for seawater there. Even ignoring the obvious intake measurement problems, the athletes, too, are rather leery of this assurance.
I stick by the theory that any water you drink other than that to which you are accustom is likely to make you queasy, if not downright ill. Where in doubt, I try to avoid the water altogether, at which I invariably and promptly fail. Usually, I’m okay. Often, I get a little sick, with the runs or mild flu-like symptoms. Occasionally, I get sick as a dog. That really sucks at the best of times, and when travelling is the best of times.
Our pre-departure training sessions included a chat about travellers’ health concerns from, of all things, a doctor who specialised in travellers’ health concerns. She opened with a slide that read “Boil it, cook it, peel it, or forget it.”
“How many of you have heard this before?” she asked. Almost everyone in the room raised their hands. She nodded. “That isn’t surprising. Even the World Health Organization pushes this. It is nonsense.”
She had my attention.
“Recent studies have shown conclusively the number of travellers who can adhere to it for more than thirty-six hours is statistically insignificant. That is, there aren’t any. You can’t. You won’t. Your dishes will be washed in it. Your shower will be spraying it on you. Your toilet will be splashing it on you. And chances are, you’ll consume some ice made of it.”
I love it when a speaker silences a roomful of know-it-alls.
“If you are going somewhere with dubious water quality” she continued “get used to the idea that you are going to get sick. The good news is that you can prepare for it — and also you have some control over how sick you might get.”
Her advice was, if there are doubts about the water, avoid drinking it as much as possible. Be prepared, though, to deal with “travellers diarrhoea”, with stocks of Imodium, re-hydration formula, and yes, antibiotics. The best way forward is to gradually introduce oneself to the local critters in the water. After a month or so, chances are, you and the critters will get along just fine.
It actually made sense, pulling together seemingly contradictory advice in a unifying theory of water potability. I was most pleased.
I am less pleased that hot water from the tap does not exist in the Philippines. Even some of the fanciest hotel do not provide hot water to their rooms (see my 2014 review of the Manila Hotel at https://smilingkodiak.com/tag/manila-hotel). Certainly our hotel didn’t, nor would our new apartment.
The lack of hot water is more bearable than you might think. The temperature never dips below 20°C/68°F, and usually hovers around 30°C/85°F, so the water never gets very cold. Well, except when you are in an air conditioned building — every building has AC — which cools the water in the building’s pipes. Forgetting that for a moment can provide a most exhilarating start to one’s morning ablutions. For the most part, though, it is like jumping in a swimming pool on a hot day: difficult to work up the courage, but once in, a terrific relief. I find I am lingering longer in the shower, particularly after a sweltering run when it brings my body temperature back below brain damage levels.
If you look hard enough, you can find advice online that Metro Manila’s tap water is safe to drink. Then again, if you look hard enough, you can find online any advice you might be looking for. By contrast, knowledgeable people we asked unanimously warned us against drinking the tap water. “You may be okay for a while,” they reported “but sooner or later you’ll get a bug that will put you out of commission for a week or more — it may even kill you.” That struck me as melodramatic, but drove the point home.
Wednesday morning we finally met our co-workers from our host organisation. Rody, quiet tall gent about forty, was to be my supervisor, whilst Vanessa, a colourful young woman, was to be Frank’s. One of the first things out of her mouth was “Have you been sick yet? All the volunteers get sick when they begin.”
We had not. Yet. Perhaps not coincidentally, since arrival we had maintained a h
ealthy supply of drinking water in six litre jugs. No doubt, we had been exposed to exciting new bacteria and viruses of diverse nuance through other means (showering, dishes, etc.). We each had suffered bouts of sore throat, cough, runny nose, upset stomach, irregularity, dizziness, forgetfulness, body aches, confusion and financial irresponsibility. Yet there was nothing I could call “ill”. These symptoms could just as easily be attributed to stress, or the horrifying air, or middle age. As for adverse effects from the water, I had no expectation we were out of the woods.
At lunch, Frank and I were seated at a table with Rody and Vanessa, who had their backs to the door. A disheveled, perspiring man with squinted eyes entered the restaurant, shuffling towards our table, a beggar from all appearances. My eyes darted about expecting the waiter or security guard to intervene, but no one did. As he reached Rody’s back, he raised his open palm in my direction. “I am Ernesto, I am very ill.”
Startled, Rody, jumped to his feet. “Sir Ernie!” Rody blurted. “You made it!” Rody introduced our new boss. “Sir Ernesto, this is Sir Kodiak and Sir Frank. [to us] Sir Ernesto has the flu, I did not expect him to make it today.” I shook his sweaty, virus laden hand, resisting the urge to wipe my hand on my pants leg. After a brief chat, I excused myself to scrub up in the “comfort room”, as they call it here.
Luckily, first impressions are not always accurate impressions. Ernie was having very bad day. Every subsequent indication was that he was a capable, effective, and passionate advocate for the poor.
In the afternoon Frank, Giselle, Gordo and I were sworn in as volunteers, taking an oath of which I recall not a word. The ceremony was the official “hand-over” by which the Philippines government transferred us to our respective host organisations. A government bureaucrat made a tremendously dull presentation which featured us staring at his backside while he faced the projected powerpoint slides, mumbling each projected word. Government bureaucrats share much the world over.
Frank and I agreed with Rody and Vanessa that we would commence work the following Tuesday. Things were falling into place: we would finish orientation Friday, move into our apartment on Sunday, settle in Monday, and start work Tuesday. That left Saturday free, to which I looked forward.
The big event of the week was Thursday’s inauguration of the newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte has raised hackles worldwide by making numerous outrageous public statements. He has a tendency to encourage extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers and addicts, untroubled by the Rule of Law or other such theoretical baggage. He’s made some mind-bogglingly misogynist remarks, such as suggesting that, as Mayor of the town where a good-looking woman was raped, he should have been offered first dibs. Around the world, the media has taken to presenting him as another Donald Trump.
Filipino’s are hopeful that the similarities will end with idiotic public statements. Americans should be, too, because Duterte got elected. There is reason for hope, though, as despite his glaring faults, Duterte seems to have actual policy ideas that might help things — including those around the environment, housing, public transport, and communications, to name a few. He is making all the right noises about these things, anyway. Every time he speaks off the cuff, though, the newly formed and powerful Department of Clarification must spring into action. For now, we and the DOC hang on his every word with bated breath. Time will tell.
Watching the inaugural address fit nicely into the day’s orientation program on the Philippines’ culture, politics, and geography. A former political prisoner gave us a pleasantly left-leaning overview of the country’s challenges, particularly regarding the poor. He noted that since 1986, 146 journalists had been murdered in the Philippines, more than in Afghanistan or Iraq, which made me wonder what happened where in 1985.
America’s role in the development of the Philippines was discussed in some detail. As you might expect, industry was the chosen tool of American imperialism, with the governments imposed by the USA— before and after the US “granted independence” in 1947— rather dismissive about the “for the people” part, much like the Spanish before them. To their credit, unlike the Spaniards, the Americans did not make a habit of forcibly enslaving the locals. Instead, bondage was achieved by the threat of starvation resultant of a narrow, export crop-focused economy, thank you Mr. Dole of pineapple fame.
Friday, our last day of orientation, started off with a visit to the Bureau of Immigration. Each of us volunteers needed to get a process started to obtain an Alien Certificate of Registration. Without this document, we would be unable us to do things like open a bank account, or leave the country. Funny nobody mentioned that last part earlier. It would take one week, or perhaps two months, to get the certificates.
Anywhere in the world, the Bureau of Immigration isn’t a happy place to be. They are filled with anxious people at the mercy of an incomprehensible system. This one was right out of film noir. Lines of people waited for uniformed officials to rubber stamp (literally) dozens of redundant forms, each in quadruplicate. The forms were then rolled and placed in canisters so they might be sucked by vacuum tube to the office twenty meters down the hall. The subject of those forms would follow in haste, chasing their documentation on foot, hoping beyond hope to catch up.
A burly woman with amazingly strong hands fingerprinted each of us, contorting our digits as required without request or instruction, each finger four times. She must have man-handled a thousand hands a day. She must have one heck of an immune system.
The Bureau of Immigration is in the Intramuros, the genesis of Manilla within walled fortress built by the Spanish hundreds of years earlier. We took some time to tour it, and its premiere attraction Fort Santiago. Frank and I had visited here in 2014, and now notice
d that the fort’s refurbishment had continued at a snail’s pace.
In 2014, I h
ad purchased a fedora f
or $9 from a street vendor in front of the archdiocese’s cathedral. She claimed it was made from banana leaves. Later, I discovered the remarkable hat was indestructible. You could smash it up and stuff it in a suitcase, but it would spring back into perfect form. After many, many such smashings, stuffings, and springings, that hat was showing some wear, so I was delighted to find the same vendor in front of the cathedral. This time I bought three, negotiating the price to $5 each. Fay said that was still too much — but at that price, if I could lay my hands on a hundred thousand such hats, I might go into business distributing them worldwide. They are that amazing.
We were treated to a celebratory lunch at a lovely restaurant named Barbara. It was in an ancient building bearing many hallmarks of Spanish architecture. Strolling musicians serenaded us, and the food was quite good, too. It was a wonderful way to finish orientation.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the end of orientation. We had one more stop, at the embassy for a “safety briefing”. After a couple hours stalled in Friday afternoon traffic, we arrived to be lectured about the hazards of life in the Philippines. The ultimate buzzkill.
As the embassy folks saw it, the hazards to our well-being worth mentioning were:
- petty crime of an opportunistic nature, such as pickpocketing,
- numerous forms of “harassment”, each ill-defined,
- natural disasters including earthquakes, floods, and typhoons, and,
- political rallies.
I would say they were entitled to their opinion, but as public servants, if they were, they weren’t about to tell us. Instead they fed us the random slivers of debilitating fear-mongering that, over the decades, had been codified into law by political hacks in moments of self-serving grandeur. Okay, that was a little harsh. My point, though, is that the embassy folks statutorily avoided discussing the practical hazards to our well-being.
For example, there’s a fair amount of feces lying about the streets. Most of it isn’t human, but some is — not that it really matters. The gutter is often the cleanest place to walk, being flushed by rain regularly. Which leaves one walking in the streets, dodging traffic. If I don’t get hit by some vehicle in the next nine months — or maybe just scalded by a super-heated motorcycle exhaust pipe — it will be a miracle. If one chooses to brave the obstacle course called a footpath, eventually one ends up with a broken something-or-other from falling in an unseen open manhole. Street, gutter or sidewalk, there is no avoiding the feral dogs, most of whom are not rabid. And should one choose to take a tricycle, a jeepney, a bus or a taxi, little stands between one and death in the event of a bingle. Certainly not seatbelts.
Orientation ended. Gordon and Giselle had early morning flights to their respective assignments, so we shared our final evening together. We exchanged sincere promises that may or may not eventuate, saying heartfelt good-byes. You know how it is. Oh, and Giselle let us copy every episode of Game of Thrones to date. I have mixed feeling about that.
At sunrise, I rolled out of bed, determined to get out for a run before the heat set in. My knees buckled, I crumbled to the floor, aware that every bone in my body ached. What the…?