21. Not Fighting City Hall

  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

I was staring at a worksheet, lost in thought, trying to figure out how to estimate the salary of a grocery store manager in Metro Manila. Vanessa dropped an opened letter on my laptop, obscuring both screen and keyboard, interrupting me mid-wild guess.

“We have to go to this.” she said. “Frank, too.”

Frank came across the room to read the letter over my shoulder.

Mayor Herbert M Bautista

Dear community development organization,

The Philippine National Volunteer Service Coordinating Agency has advised the Office of Quezon City Mayor Herbert M Bautista that your organization hosts foreign nationals as volunteers in Quezon City.

On behalf of Quezon City Mayor Herbert M Bautista, we request that you attend an informational interview with the Quezon City Community Relations Office, 5th Floor, Civic Center Building A, Quezon City Hall Compound at 2 pm on Wednesday, January 18, 2017.

Thank you for your cooperation.

God Bless Us All!

It was not signed.

“That’s today! When did we get this? What’s this all about?” I asked, perplexed.

Vanesa shrugged. “No big deal. They do this. We will go after lunch.”

Only two blocks from our office, The Quezon City Hall Compound covers a square kilometre, home to every imaginable municipal bureaucracy, as well as many national agencies and non-government organisations such as the Red Cross.  There is always a buzz about the place. If it isn’t a Barangay election, it’s a voter registration drive, or a business filing deadline — some event filling the labyrinth of streets with hot, sweaty, patient but irritable people. Even the Post Office is busy. Once I witnessed the funeral of a former mayor there, a procession that would have been right at home in New Orleans. Another time I watched the National Bureau of Investigation bussing hundreds of men off to prison, all in bright yellow NBI jump suits, all who had “turned themselves in” out of fear of Duterte’s “War on Drugs” (more on that later).

Vanessa led us through the hurly-burly with a sense of purpose that instilled confidence. Clearly, she had done this before. At the Community Relations Office, a woman greeted us and asked what we were after. Vanessa explained, showing her the letter. The woman looked puzzled, flipped through a desktop diary, found nothing, and made a phone call.

Quezon City Logo

“I don’t think he is expecting you…he isn’t back from lunch yet.” She escorted us into a corner office, seating us on a threadbare couch. . A massive desk, nose-high from where we sat, took up most of the office. It was covered with stacks of papers on which I could read the words “Urgent” and “Priority” stamped beneath a layer of dust. The office walls were covered in awards, certificates and trophies, as well as photographs of a stodgy man being presented awards, certificates and trophies.

A few minutes later, the stodgy man himself appeared, visibly startled to find two balding middle-aged white men sitting on his couch. He introduced himself as the acting under deputy provisional adjunct of something-or-other, then turned to Vanessa, asking “What can I do for you?” He smiled broadly and his eyes gleamed.

“We received this…” Vanessa responded, thrusting the letter at him.

“OHHHH!” he announced knowingly. He turned to me. “Then, what can I do for you?”

Clearly, none of us had any idea what we doing here. I had promised myself I would keep my mouth shut, but that is a promise I seldom keep.

“This wasn’t OUR idea…” I blurted, a little less than diplomatically.

Stodgy man did not like that. His eyes narrowed, creases now covering his face. He leaned forward. “Then what can you do for me? What are your qualifications?”

“I’m a CPA, Fellow of the Institute of Company Directors, a certified project manager and certified in training and assessment. But my plate is rather full at present.”

Before stodgy man could unleash his next salvo, Frank interjected. “I’ve been talking to some of your people, and I see you have done some great community engagement here. What are your current priorities?”

Instantly, stodgy man was all smiles and gleaming eyes again. He started talking about himself, going on for thirty minutes, pausing only to direct his underlings to fetch this brochure or that promotional DVD, all of which Frank accepted with heart warming praise. As we backed out the door, nodding and smiling, he presented each of us with a hundred page, full colour, hardcover coffee table book of local photography.

I still don’t know what the meeting was all about.


The coffee table book made frequent reference to art works and artefacts on display at the National Museum of the Philippines, most of which was housed in grand old buildings just outside Manila’s Intramuros. Suddenly we were wracked with guilt that we hadn’t stepped foot in the place. That Saturday we took the train into town to do so.

The train trip required we switch trains at a point where stations are connected by a pedestrian bridge that runs along the edge of the Manila City Jail. It is hell on earth at the best of times, and with President Duterte rounding up hundreds of thousands of suspected drug addicts, this is not the best of times. Depending on the report you read, the jail is somewhere between five and fifteen times over capacity. It is rumoured that at times prisoners must sleep in shifts on the basketball court because there isn’t enough room for them all to lie down.

The Manila City Jail is largely run by the convicts, a prison governance structure strangely common in countries of Spanish heritage, particularly in South America.  It isn’t in a particularly horrible part of town, but its immediate surrounds are a micro-economy dedicated to supporting the jail. It is difficult to know where the jail ends and the free world begins. We traversed it, up above on the pedestrian bridge, looking down on it much as a visitor to a Disney property might view wild animals in from a monorail.

Arriving at the cluster of buildings that house the museums, we first saw a line snaking out the door of a grandiose, yet unsigned building. “This has got to be it!” I said. It wasn’t clear which museum it was, or what the line was for – a tour group? Tickets? Entry? A few people seemed to wander right passed the line and go inside, so we thought we’d give it a try.

Big mistake. Two guards, both armed with automatic rifles, screamed as if we had thrown a grenade at them. Instinctively, we both raised our hands in international sign language for “Don’t shoot!”

“Sorry, sorry!” we squirmed in unison. “Where’s the entrance?”

One of the guards pointed to the back of the line, to which we scurried obediently. After counting the number of people in front of us – fifty-six  – I ask the young man in front of us “What museum is this, anyway?”

“This is the Museum of Anthropology. It used to be the Museum of the Filipino People.” he answered, knowledgeably.

Much as I like anthropology – and I do — we had come to see the National Museum of Fine Arts. The line was not moving, and anyway, at the front of it were two angry blokes with rifles. We decided to move along.

The National Museum of Fine Arts was right across the street, albeit a street one risked one’s life to cross. The imposing building served as the Legislative Building, housing both the House of Representatives and the Senate, until Marcos closed it down under martial law. Today, the Senate’s home is a drab office building it shares with the Government Service Insurance System in Pasay, while the House of Representatives lives in the National Government Center in Quezon City. Both are in Metro Manila, but neither is actually in the capital, Manila.

The entrance to the National Museum of Fine Arts is a grandiose foyer of soaring columns, marble floors, and elaborate chandeliers, with no signage whatsoever instructing visitors. Much to our horror, our entrance was greeted similarly to our attempt to enter the Museum of Anthropology. We were expected somehow to know we had to go down a narrow hallway to check our bag prior to entry. Sheesh.

Once in, we took the lift to the top floor, level four, as we usually take in museums from the top down. Alighting the elevator, we found the fourth floor gallery covered with rubble. The lift, which had closed behind us, didn’t respond to our button-pressing calls for it to return. Climbing through the construction debris we came across a worker who led us to the stairway down.

The museum was worth the trip. Good art is good art, and I had learned enough Philippines history to appreciate the not-so-good-but-interesting art.

Afterwards we took in a quick lunch in the Intramuros. I bought a half-dozen of my favourite, near-indestructible Filipino hats from a street vendor, driving a hard bargain at ₱100 each. Then we happened upon the Plaza Mexico Ferry Station which had a sign – yes an actual sign! – promising that the Pasig River ferry, about to leave, would deliver us up river to a train station near home.

The Manila Central Post Office

The Pasig River ferry was probably my best “discovery” in Metro Manila. Even most of our co-workers didn’t know about it. In many ways, the Pasig River is why Manila exists.

Manila Indutry

It was the highway for hundreds of years before there were highways. Today it is horribly polluted – possibly the most polluted river in the world – so you want to stay towards the center of the boat, and keep your mouth closed. But it was like stepping back in time a hundred or more years. Suddenly, the lay of the land made sense.

Best of all, it sails straight through the Malacañang (Presidential) Palace and its surrounding military establishment, which occupy both sides of the river. Guards board the ferry as it enters the palace area, giving each passenger a wary once-over. There is no better way to view the palace, or understand the City of Manila.

Malacañang Palace
Home to the people “served” by the Palace, the Post Office, and Industry


On Monday, Vanessa dropped another letter in front of me with a giggle. “Guess what?”


District Director Guilermo L T Eleazar of the Quezon City Police District has been advised by the The Philippine National Volunteer Service Coordinating Agency that your organization has international visitors serving as volunteers.

The District Director requests they attend a Quezon City Police Security Briefing at 1 pm on Thursday, January 26, 2017 at Quezon City Police Department HeadquartersCamp Tomas Caringal, 21 Makadios, Diliman, Lungsod Quezon, 1101.

Thank you in advance for your cooperation.

God Bless.

“What the fuck? What is going on here?”

Vanessa shrugged. “They do it sometimes. At least this time we know a few days before.”

Police Major General Tomas Caringal, inscription below reads “…a man whose hands touched so many lives…”

The police in the Philippines are not to be trifled with. Happily, I had not had any reason to, and would have preferred to have kept it that way.

During orientation seven months earlier, we were lectured at length regarding what to do in various emergency circumstances. One of those circumstances was “theft, robbery, assault or other criminal activity”, in which case, we were to call our lecturer, Joshua. That seemed strange to me.

“Shouldn’t we call the police?” I asked.

There was a pregnant pause. “Sometimes.” Joshua responded, carefully. “But call me first.”

Five days after Joshua’s lecture, we watched Duterte’s inaugural presidential speech. He made it clear he would support the most aggressive of police actions in the “War on Drugs”. Since then, the police and their nominated vigilantes have been killing over a thousand alleged drug addicts and dealers each month. The number of dead surpassed 8,000 as our “Police Security Briefing” approached.

Daily, the papers have several stories of such killings. Each news account ends with almost identical words: “The suspect pulled a gun and aimed it at police who shot him in self-defence.” There have been countless cases documented where the suspect alleged to have pulled a gun was already handcuffed or in a jail cell. One unfortunate South Korean businessman killed in this way was promptly cremated, his ashes flushed down a toilet bowl, causing an international kerfuffle.

Without further scrutiny or trial, it is impossible to know how many of the alleged drug addicts and dealers were, in fact, drug addicts and dealers – not that that would justify summary execution.  Further, it seems inevitable that many of the dead were drug dealers that competed with corrupt police, or persons who “knew too much” about police activities, or worst of all, complete innocents in the wrong place at the wrong time, like that South Korean businessman.

Fearing execution, hundreds of thousands of addicts have turned themselves in. The justice system is overwhelmed. Quezon City Jail, a mile from our apartment, has 12,000 inmates in a facility designed for 1,000. Most who turn themselves in are not jailed, but are told to mend their ways or else, then set free. Many of them are subsequently shot dead.

Despite all this, Duterte remains wildly popular, if you believe his approval ratings, which stay well north of 80%.  Many of the poor support him, reporting their barangays feel safer; the middle class supports him because they fear the poor; the rich support him because they own him.

The people we work with do not support him. Many of them can and do relate stories of innocent acquaintances or neighbours shot dead.  Almost all of them bravely participate in political rallies opposing this “war on drugs”, their safety at such protests guaranteed by, you guessed it, the police. I was grateful that we were prohibited, as foreign volunteers, from participating in political rallies, because frankly, I am not sure I have the nerve.

Now, it seemed, they had come for us.


Thursday finally arrived. Getting out of the taxi at police headquarters, gunfire from an adjacent firing range startled me.  I was thoroughly unnerved. Inside, the woman who greeted us knew why we were there. Not a good sign. She sat us in the break room at a table in front a TV carrying a replay of a women’s indoor volleyball match, which is about as good as TV gets in the Philippines.  We waited for what seemed a long time.

In front of us was a large white board, demarcated in rows and columns. The columns represented the day of the month, the rows were labelled “Arrests”, “Shootings”, “Shabu (sachets)” [that’s methamphetamine], “Marijuana (kg)”, “Assaults”, and finally, “Deaths”.  The board was full of numbers, but my focus stuck on the deaths, which totalled seven so far this month. That seemed low, as I was sure I had read about more than that in Quezon City since the beginning of the month.  Maybe they recorded only certain kinds of death, for example, the deaths they wanted recorded.  I considered taking a photograph, but thought better of it.

In reality, we waited only about thirty minutes. A clean-cut pot-bellied man in his fifties with black plastic rim glasses and lunch in his teeth introduced himself as “SPO2 Garcia of the PCRG”. Later I deciphered that to mean he was a Sergeant with the Police Community Relations Group, which would have been nice to know at the time. He looked us over for a minute, then asked where we lived and worked. We told him.

“You’ll be fine. Quezon City is very safe. One or two armed robberies a week. You are bigger than the criminals, so you’ll be safe, they will leave you alone. Don’t do anything stupid.”

That was our security briefing. We shook his hand and thanked him profusely as we ran towards the door.

“Oh, and don’t do drugs!”