22. Stasis in Places

  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

The last two months in the Philippines were undoubtedly more fun than the first seven. There were several reasons for that.

For one thing, it was rather freeing to know that a bureaucratic stalemate made implementation of our planned work impossible. Rather than wandering in a fog of uncertainty, I now had a good idea what was going on: very little. Where once there was confusion and frustration, now I employed much eye-rolling and shrugging.

Another reason was that the wet season turned into the hot season, which morphed into the hot HOT season. We attended an increasing number of events at resort-like venues: retreats, planning meetings, congresses, exchanges, and the occasional piss-up.

A retreat to Baler was particularly memorable.  Baler is a beach town, a six hour drive from Manila, on Luzon’s east coast. In recent years it has found favor with the international surfie crowd, so it has been undergoing an economic and developmental awakening.

Travel arrangements, as usual, were vague – well, non-existent, really. Frank and I were expected to come along, but even the day before departure we still had no information about transport or accommodation. Only by being rather pushy did we discover this was because there were no travel arrangements for us. The small inn was fully booked with our co-workers, the “real” employees: fair enough. As for transport, my lingering leg injury made it impossible to sit crammed in a minibus for six hours, so there was no transport either. But nobody had had the nerve to tell us.

It was actually a good thing. We made our own arrangements on a luxury bus. We booked a hut at the Nalu Surf Camp, right on the beach, not far from the hub of retreating, the in-town CnF Inn.

On arrival, our accommodation turned out to be quite basic: a mattress on the floor of a thatched hut with no furniture. The floor, walls and windows were porous enough to admit every hungry mosquito. It was nothing like what we had viewed online.

“I can’t sleep here – I’ll get eaten alive…” I muttered. Frank agreed. The folks at Nalu Surf Camp were cooperative, if disappointed, refunding our deposit in full.

A hundred meters down the beach we checked into the very chic Costa Pacifica, a four star hotel, at four times the cost. I dreaded disclosing such luxury to our colleagues staying at the modest CnF Inn. By comparison, the Costa Pacifica was literally an embarrassment of riches.

There was no cause for my apprehension, though, as our fellow travelers were delighted to use our hotel’s facilities. A mob of us frolicked by the pool and on the beach with the hotel management looking on, wary but silent.

I do not think I have ever before been to the beach with workmates. It was very, um, revealing. I even took my first – and my last – surfing lesson. No, I did not manage to stand up. Surfing is not for husky middle-aged men with gimpy knees. But at least I tried.

Our luxurious surrounds eliminated any pretense we could make to being “one of the gang”. At work, Frank and I would make token attempts to fit in as part of the group, despite it being patently obvious that we weren’t. For example, nightly we went home to a high-rise apartment with a swimming pool and a fitness center, and our co-workers, well, didn’t. But in Quezon City, work was work, and home was home. Here, it was in your face, and plain as day: we were richer than they were. They were completely okay with that. And of course they were, I realized, feeling silly that I had not seen it coming. They knew it all along. They saw it coming.

That evening the group was to reconvene for dinner and conviviality at the inn. We used the Costa Pacifica’s car service, which happily offered to cart us anywhere around town we wanted to go, and to pick us up on call as well. Even though it was a small town, our driver had never heard of the CnF Inn. After some inadvertent sightseeing — which included a highly advertent visit to the beer store — we found the CnF Inn tucked away on a side street, about a kilometer out of the town center.

The CnF Inn was small place, five or six rooms attached to the owner’s residence. The complex wrapped around a parking lot with a half dozen parking spaces, two of which were occupied by picnic tables, presumably where we were to convene.

Nobody was around. Frank and I sat at one of the picnic tables, cracking open beers, not as cold as we would have liked. Slowly our colleagues emerged. The dozen or so women were sharing one large dormitory room, while the men shared the other rooms, three or four in each.

Before long, the tables were full, including a colleague who proved to be a talented guitarist. We all howled easy listening folk tunes into the night, killing me softly. At one end of the car park, the elder male leaders alternately argued politics and napped on damp upholstered furniture.

Dinner was presented beneath a blaring television in an open-air lounge area attached to the owner’s residence.  The centerpiece was a massive fish, perhaps a meter long, grilled to perfection over coals before my very eyes. There was an array of side dishes, mostly cooked vegetables, including steamed okra, of which I had grown quite fond. And rice. Plenty of rice.

Our volunteer work included planning the establishment of consumer stores in the new housing complexes that would house the members of the movement. The idea was to sell staples to the members from a cooperative-owned store so the members could keep and re-invest the profits in their cooperative. Frank and I helped put together the business plans. In doing so, I came across the mind-blowing statistic that the average Filipino family of five consumes forty-five kilograms of uncooked rice per month. In imperial measurements, that’s a hundred pounds of uncooked rice, which makes about three hundred pounds of cooked rice. If you do the math, you’ll find that’s ten pounds of cooked rice per day per family, or two pounds of cooked rice per day per person.

I was skeptical about this statistic, so I followed up with some research, determining the amount of rice sold in the Philippines, dividing that figure by the total population. That exercise yielded a figure a little higher.

Over the nine months I spent in the Philippines, at countless meals, no matter how much rice I consumed, there was always a Filipino baffled by how little rice I consumed. “You don’t like rice?”

The fish was grilled, the vegetables steamed, sautéed and boiled, a cauldron of the hot rice was positioned, a variety of sauces and deserts appeared, all was placed on a banquet table. The air was rich with fabulous aromas and the impressively on-pitch serenade of two dozen Filipino voices.

Then the food sat there, untouched, for an hour or so.  I watched longingly, hoping somebody would start things. Months earlier, as a newly arrived foreigner, often I would be handed a plate, ushered to the banquet table, expected to start the boodle fight (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boodle_fight). Not tonight, though. The food grew cold. Finally, one of the male elders approached the food. A moment later, most everyone was in line to eat.

This gap in time between food being ready and it being consumed happens with alarming frequency. I have to assume Filipinos don’t care for hot food all that much, which might be the result of such a hot climate. Anyway, it was still delicious when we got to it.

If you asked me “What is your idea of a great party?”, I would not answer “Sitting in a drab motel parking lot singing along with a guitarist playing 1970’s soft-rock while drinking warm beer and eating cold fish.” Yet, it was a great party.

Around midnight, it started to rain. The party decomposed abruptly. Frank and I tried to call the hotel for our ride, but the circuits were busy; not unusual. What was unusual was that when we managed to get through, nobody answered. In desperation, Frank remembered he had the hotel concierge’s card, bearing a mobile phone number, to which he sent a text. No response.

An hour passed.  Somewhat inebriated and now soaking, I did not react well to the circumstance, cursing in ungentlemanly fashion.  With nowhere to stay, we decided to walk the two kilometers back in the heavy rain. As we left, just outside the inn’s high front wall, there sat our hotel’s car and driver. He had been there for forty-five minutes, he said, in response to Frank’s text. It had not occurred to him to confirm he was coming, or to see if we were waiting inside.

In the morning, the rain continued to bucket down. The group activity for the day was a trip to Dicasalarin Cove, a private beach nearby, spectacular and beautiful by all accounts. There would be a scenic walk along the beach to Dicasalarin Point, followed by a beach picnic, and then a hike to a nearby waterfall.

Before breakfast, we told the concierge about our group’s plans, asking what we should wear or bring. Her face twisted into knots. “Oh, with the rain, you would like to do something else today I think.” She went on to imply the beach might not be open. From experience we knew this was the Filipino equivalent of “You are out of your fucking mind if you do that today.”

We still had an hour before the minibus would pick us up. I sent a text to the trip organizer, passing along the concierge’s dire warning, and suggesting they confirm whether the beach would, in fact, be open.

“Okay, sir.” came the reply text.

At breakfast, I texted again for an update. “Is the beach open? Are we still going?”

The answer was cryptic: “Okay, sir.”

Breakfast was the most marvelous looking eggs benedict I had ever seen. It was stone cold and tasteless, though, as if the chef had seen photographs, but never actually eaten eggs benedict. I should have known better, what was I thinking?

The rain fell even harder; a thunderstorm flashed and rumbled just offshore.

“Frank and I have decided we will not go on the beach outing today.” I texted.

“Okay, sir.”

We had the day to ourselves, which was just fine by me. After a leisurely breakfast, we exited the restaurant to find our colleagues, fifteen or more, crammed in the minibus outside the lobby. I poked my head inside the vehicle.

“What are you doing here? I texted that we weren’t coming an hour ago…”

“The Costa Pacifica is the only place that sells the beach tickets. We have to buy our beach tickets here.”

Sure enough, inside the organizer was at the concierge desk, the concierge on the phone, presumably trying to figure out whether the beach was open.

We went back to our room. We watched CNN for a while – Trump had done something unbelievably ridiculous, hardly “news” – and we caught up on our email. An hour later, the rain had stopped. We decided to go for a run on the beach.

Changed into our running togs, we exited the hotel to find the minibus with our colleagues still sitting in front.

I was incredulous.  “What are you doing here? Why are you still here?”

A couple of them shrugged. None of the fifteen knew why they had sat in a minibus, engine running, for over an hour.

It was a good metaphor for the Philippines. The bus is gassed up, the engine is purring, the driver and passengers are on board, ready, willing, and able — but they are not going anywhere, and nobody knows why.


Back in Quezon City, our focus turned to the hand-over of our work to those who might eventually use it after our departure. Of course, “those” would be the same people with whom we had worked all along, diligent and intelligent people who had far too much to accomplish already.  There was no one else.

Organizational stasis was an ongoing theme. I developed the opinion that our ambitious NGO was stymied by its need to overreach, which it perceived as a moral imperative. Every fire, flood, need or crisis birthed another promise of support, another body of work requiring an army to accomplish where only a small platoon was available. “How can we not respond to this?” they would ask rhetorically. Psychologically, just the promise of support – in practical effect, little more than an expression of comradeship – was as important to the organization as it was to our would-be beneficiaries. Sadly, a promise of support is not the same thing as actual support.

As for my projects, it became clear — to me, anyway — that the National Housing Authority (NHA), an entrenched and enormous government bureaucracy, might view our work as a threat to their bread and butter, the status quo.  The NHA, it seemed, had an internal culture that tended to hinder any competing developmental concept until it starved or smothered. I had no evidence of any untoward behavior, yet I saw the NHA’s need, motive and opportunity to squelch. Paralysis seemed inevitable.

Organizational culture is always difficult to change. In entrenched and enormous businesses, it is almost impossible. There is no shortage of examples: Enron, Arthur Andersen, Wells Fargo (well, pretty much every other bank, too).  Recently Volkswagen and Uber have been trying to mend their wayward ways. I wish them luck.

I was not about to hold my breath waiting for the NHA, nor even my own host organization, to see the light of day. But as I said earlier, understanding the reasons behind the lack of progress was liberating. Realizing it was beyond my control or influence, I could relax a bit, and roll with the punches. A little, anyway.

In that spirit, I gave some ardent advice as to why certain of our undertakings were likely to end in fiasco. I proposed alternative approaches achieving much the same ends at far less risk.

For example, volunteer cooperative boards were expected to run the consumer stores. Generally, these boards comprised of members with no board experience, no retail grocery experience, no business experience, and no cash management experience.  Simultaneously, these same board members were expected to oversee the construction and establishment of housing for thousands of their members, despite having no experience in construction or housing management. By comparison, Moses parting the Red Sea was a cakewalk.

As politely as possible, I suggested that, since retail grocery sales is the most competitive industry on the planet, it would be wise to start off, at least, with professional management. I also voiced concern about ensuring that the sales proceeds – likely to create an enormous pile of cash in some back room — would be properly re-invested, and not dispersed as profits (or worse).

I submitted these and other recommendations in written form to my boss. To my surprise, at a planning meeting of the board overseeing the entire movement, he started to read them aloud!  As I tried to crawl under the table, Frank whispered in my ear “Everybody looks relieved…”

I looked around the room – he was right. Heads were nodding. The Chair of one cooperative said straight out “We don’t want to run the store!” Everybody knew it, but nobody wanted to be the first to say it.

After further discussion, several recommendations were tweaked and accepted. It was quite gratifying. I felt like we had actually accomplished something, if only stopping insanity. In the end, my most valuable contribution was stopping some pretty stupid things.