- 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
“You know, Frank and I are living and working together. Lest we drive each other crazy, I thought it might be a good idea if we worked different hours. I’m a morning person, so I thought I might work, say, eight to four, while Frank might work, say, ten to six.”
Vanessa chuckled. “Come to work at nine-thirty. Nine-thirty is better.”
I had been in-country long enough to recognise this as an absolute, unequivocal “No.” I also realised there was no point in arguing about it. There was a reason, probably a good one, but I would have to figure it out on my own.
We set out at nine o’clock on a sweltering Tuesday morning for the thirty minute walk to our first day at the office. East Avenue is no picnic at the best of times, during peak hour it is hell. Bear in mind, “peak hour” applies to eighteen hours each weekday. It didn’t take long to figure out the reason “Nine-thirty is better” is that the staff struggles to get there any earlier. Several of them had commutes of two hours each way, longer on bad traffic days.
This morning we were amongst the first to arrive, greeted warmly by the admin staff who were expecting us. The quarters were basic but functional. We were shown our work space, better than several closets I had been crammed in as a bookkeeper. The other staff straggled in, each saying “Bad traffic”, which is more often than not how the locals say good morning. Sir Ernesto was the last to arrive, launching straight into a program of organisational introductions and orientation.
Ernie gave the history of the organisation, and his views on the political realities unfolding subsequent to Duterte’s election. Depending on how Duterte’s words manifested themselves in acts, the organisation could be headed for unprecedented success — or oblivion.
As with most groups serving the urban poor, ours has leftist leanings. These leanings are relatively innocuous when compared to the communist factions involved in a shooting war in certain regions scattered throughout the Philippines. Fifty years ago, the communists split, one faction loyal to Maoist doctrine, and one rejecting it. They have been shooting at each other ever since, taking control of geographic areas when it suits. As you might expect, the government frowns on this, but in frustration, gave up on peace talks some time ago. Duterte, who has good relations with the factions, has promised to start the peace talks again. Hope is in the air.
Ernie had other things on his mind. No one had told him Frank and I were American as well as Australian. He explained that sometime back, one of the factions had raised a fuss with an organisational partner of ours because they had a volunteer who had worked for Ford Motor Company — surely a CIA agent, they suggested.
I mentioned that I once worked for the Ford Motor Company.
“It is funny —,” he said, shrugging, “…but also it is not funny.”
Towards the end of the day, Ernie tabled our assignment descriptions, which he had drafted, and had passed a juggernaut of bureaucratic scrutiny. “These…” he began tentatively, shuffling them in his hands “…may need to change. We may need you for different things. Is that — okay?”
Frank and I looked at each other, smiling, perhaps smugly. We knew it would be difficult to accomplish half of what was described there in nine years, much less nine months.
“However we can help, we want to help.” I said. “As for those — Pfffft!” I waved my hand dismissively. “In nine months, we will declare victory and run away. Isn’t that what always happens?”
Ernie didn’t answer, but I saw the outline of a smile betray his poker face.
Walking home, we took a detour to stop at the post office. We came across the Nia Rd informal settlement, a seething community astride another feted creek. Commerce was at full throttle at five o’clock in the afternoon. We witnessed our first cock fight right on the street; fast and furious, noisy and gory, perfectly legal.
The cock fight didn’t bother me nearly as much as the pants-less five-year-old boy sniffing the collar of his grubby T-shirt. It had come up that street kids were often addicted to sniffing a rubber-cement-like substance which they kept under their collar. It got them high, to be sure, but more importantly it made them feel less hungry. He held out his hand, begging for money, but I had no food, and strict instructions never to give money. The kid would pass any money on to his keeper, only encouraging those that enslaved him. I resolved to keep a couple packets of crackers with me in the future.
The post office was staffed by private security, helpful and pleasant, and public servants, slow and surly. I sent an express package to Australia for the equivalent of A$30. Two weeks ago, that would have seemed cheap. Today it was a fortune.
Wednesday was an unexpected public holiday, Eid al-Fitr, the last day of Ramadan, observed for the first time in the Philippines. Only days earlier it had been declared by Duterte, who hails from Mindanao, the southern island where Muslims are found in their greatest number, although still a minority.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Mindanao is the one place in the Philippines we are forbidden to visit. The Filipinos to whom I’ve mentioned this no-go policy think it is ridiculous, as Mindanao has some of the most beautiful places. I have no frame of reference to judge by, and in any case it is a moot issue. There are plenty of beautiful places to visit.
Our apartment is only a block away from an MRT station. The MRT is an elevated train that flies over EDSA, perhaps the busiest road and therefor biggest traffic jam in Metro Manila. We had been warned against taking the MRT for a variety of reasons: there were pickpockets, it was crowded, it was uncomfortably warm, it was unreliable. Just like every other subway system in the world outside of Singapore, Japan and China. We decided to take our chances, paying our fifty-cent fare for a one-stop express door-to-almost-ShopWise-door. It was a lovely service on this holiday.
ShopWise was pleasantly quiet when we went in. We marveled at the many American influences, not least the dominant market position of Spam, and the presence of canned pumpkin pie filling. They had real, American all-beef hot dogs. Although Australia beats America hands-down in the sausage department, Aussie hot dogs are simply awful, so I purchased a half dozen franks with emotional relish. In a remarkable demonstration of Un-Americaness, the hot dog rolls were also sold by the half-dozen. (In America, hot dogs and rolls are sold only in numbers whose lowest common denominator is eighty or higher.)
The store clerk entourage reconvened, each member reminding us of which items we had chosen but not purchased three days earlier. Two hours later we had accumulated a large shopping cart-full of everything known to mankind, which made sense, because now all of mankind was standing in line in front of us. It took another hour to check out. Criminy, there’s a lot of people in this country. There’s something to be said for keeping nations to thirty million or less. Er, fewer.
Our booty necessitated a taxi ride home. On arrival, carefully gathering all our purchases, Frank left his wallet on the cab’s rear seat, realising this the moment we walked in the apartment door. Our hearts sank. It is a terrible feeling to realise you have lost your wallet.
A couple things ran in Frank’s favour. For one, he had been using a “mini-wallet”, basically a business card holder containing only the most basic of wallet essentials: cash, license, one credit card, and his Philippines National Volunteer Service Coordinating Agency card (PNVSCA for short). As it happened, he was flat out of cash. We weren’t driving anywhere, so the Australian driver’s license was no major loss. Frank had a couple other credit cards, so that loss was no big deal. Neither of us had any idea why we had a PNVSCA card, but somebody said we should carry it, so we did. That was probably the thing that mattered most.
Frank got on the phone to cancel the credit card. I have lost more than one wallet in a taxi, and have a spookily good memory for numbers, so as always, I had made a mental note of a taxi’s registration number, UWT-246 (University of Washington Tacoma, I had told myself, and 2-4-6, that was easy). I went down to our building’s front desk to ask the receptionist how to contact the taxi company. The maintenance man, overhearing the question, asked what colour the taxi was — it was white — and ran out, down the street, returning with a phone number off a taxi. Service!
Not that it helped. Nobody answered.
Frank was a bit shaken up by the ordeal. Something like this reminds one how a momentary lapse of judgement or a hasty decision can screw up your life. He beat himself up over it all evening. Soon he realised this was an “incident”. As required, he reported it to the in-country management team by email.
In the morning we were stunned to receive an email saying Robert’s wallet had been recovered. A subsequent taxi passenger had picked it up and called the PNVSCA. Amazing as it may seem, the bureaucracy actually put the good samaritan in touch with the in-country management team. Now the in-country management team was telling Frank their driver would pick him up at ten o’clock for a forty-five minute drive to the posh suburb Antipolo, where his wallet awaited. Talk about service!
Antipolo revealed itself a leafy maze of gated communities. Frank and the driver arrived at the nominated address, a rambling mansion on a sizeable, manicured plot of land. The help ushered him into the sitting room, Mary-on-the-half-shell and crucified Jesus looming on the walls. An elderly woman shuffled into the room, introduced herself, and sat down.
Frank had expected a quick, businesslike exchange. No such luck. Tea was served. This was a lovely but lonely lady, eager to chat. Thirty minutes later, he had heard the inventory of her entire family, down to great -grandchildren and up to grandparents. A piano teacher, she then started a recital of every student she had ever taught. Eventually Frank had to excuse himself, cognisant the driver was waiting outside. Mission accomplished, though: wallet recovered. Faith in mankind got a bit of a boost, too.
Speaking of faith, the old lady was the first overtly Catholic person we had come across. The Philippines is billed as an extremely Catholic country, so this is something of a surprise. In preparation, I had boned up on the Nicene Creed to see whether I could recite any of it in good faith. (No.) Happily, it hasn’t come to that. Most everyone is Catholic, at least genetically, but nobody talks about it, and my sense is few actually attend Mass. I had planned to suck up to some local priest so I might use the piano every church has in its basement, but come to think of it, I haven’t even located the local church yet. Note to self: get on that.
Thursday we went back to work. The first typhoon of the season brushed past the northernmost tip of the Philippines, bringing plenty of weather to Manila. Walking to work we got absolutely drenched, our umbrellas rendered useless by the winds. At one point it rained so hard we could barely see across the street. We ducked into the first open storefront we could find. It turned out to be a barbershop, and Frank needed a haircut.
We were still near the beginning of the wet season. This one has been unusually dry, the passing typhoon breaking a typhoon drought” whatever that is. Most commonly, people recognise two season here: hot and wet. Some folks say there are three seasons: hot, hot wet, and hot hot. Still others point to a fourth season that can happen any time of year: election.
No doubt, the Philippines is a robust democracy, with turnout regularly surpassing sixty percent. They had the Presidential election in May, the President serving one six-year term. By all accounts the electioneering tactics employed here would make Richard Daly blush and Tammany Hall crumble. Votes can be and are bought, cheaply. With four levels of government, there is always an election in the offing. There are thousands of barangay (villages), each of which elects its own Captain and officers. There are hundreds of cities, the mayors of which have their faces and names plastered everywhere. There are dozens of state-like regions whose role I haven’t figured out yet, and from all appearances, neither has government. And then, of course, there is the national government.
The USA had significant influence in drafting the constitution when the Philippines achieved independence in 1946. Not surprisingly, it looks a lot like the US constitution. There’s a President who had too much constitutional power to start with yet keeps getting stronger, a House of Representatives and a Senate who do not much of anything, and a Supreme Court that hands down courageously momentous decisions to little effect. Many Filipinos are oblivious to how American their system of government is. One historian I spoke to admitting to having no idea where the “first 100 days” concept came from. (I think FDR was the first to count it that way.)
There are many uniquely Filipino aspects to their democracy. Instead of amending the constitution, they tend to throw the whole thing out for a clean start, but end up with the same thing. Right now they are thinking about convening a Constitutional Assembly, fittingly referred to as a ConAss, to create a federal system, states and all.
A bizarre thing about the Philippines Congress is that all the political parties jump on the bandwagon of whoever wins the Presidency. While they may disagree with this policy or that, they fear being left off the gravy train operated by an all-powerful President. Of course, this ensures the President remains all-powerful. This does have the advantage of enabling the President to actually govern, but it is a little scary. Right now, literally, there is no opposition, honourable or otherwise.
The current constitution provides for several commissions: Election, Human Rights, Public Service and Audit. The Commission of Audit, the official watchdog organisation, has an entire Quezon City neighbourhood named after it (Philcoa). They have the unenviable task of monitoring all of government without exposing any corruption or incompetence that will embarrass the President, who can make their lives quite miserable should he choose to. As you can imagine, this is an exceedingly and increasingly difficult task.
Thursday evening our furniture delivery from All Home arrived, as promised. I had expected a bunch of flatpacks, and planned to spend the weekend assembling them. I was stunned to discover the furniture arrived assembled — and well-assembled at that. Service!