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Surreality, Gumption, and Happiness in the Philippines

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There’s a railroad track a little over a hundred linear feet from my family’s home in the poor Manila suburb of Sampaloc. The miles of squatter shacks lining both sides of the railroad track are gone, bulldozed since the rail line was contracted out to a Japanese company which, rumor has it, will make the train bigger, faster, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

And here and there, squatters begin to put up shacks of vinyl tarp, scrap wood, sheet tin, and cardboard, populating the sides of the railroad track once more. But there’s a difference. This time, there are dozens of gardens being grown on either side of the track. It’s a hopeful sign.

….

The smartly-dressed young lady escorts us into one of the shorter skyscrapers in Makati, the rich section of Manila. The building seems to be owned by some company out of Kuwait. Her office looks as if it were slapped together haphazardly, but it’s been there for some time if the pile of discarded computers in a closet are any indication. We speak to her manager about hiring nurses and we’re quoted five thousand dollars per head up front, and we do all the stateside paperwork of course. Perhaps we’ll do it…perhaps not.

The young lady lives with her mother and father in a destitute slum thirty minutes away (if there’s no traffic). I’ve known them for years, my wife has known them for over a generation. The young lady’s salary is 10,800 pisos per month – which equates to slightly over 200 dollars. She spends 80 pisos on her commute in each direction and gives all her remaining salary to her mother, who gives her a small allowance to use for lunch during her ten-hour days at work.

….

We take a taxi from the Renaissance Hotel – which hotel is nice, easily nice enough for three stars, perhaps even four – to a suburb of Manila about fifteen miles away as the crow flies. The trip takes close to an hour…and that hour, like combat, is filled with long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. We’re riding in the back seat, and this taxi – like most – has no seat belts in the back seat. I know that odds are there won’t be a collision, and odds are even greater that even if there is a collision my wife and I will have little or no injury…but such knowledge is of little comfort as our driver – let’s call him Johnny Testosterone – continues to wager our collective physical well-being that the other vehicles will react precisely as he assumes. Out of all the hundreds of thousands of taxi drivers in the Metro Manila megalopolis, we get the Tom Cruise Top-Gun wannabe, out to prove to all and sundry that he is indeed bulletproof and immortal.

Much of the way is lighted by fifty-foot billboards (one such billboard is thirty stories high on the side of a skyscraper (I counted)). The models on the billboards are, by modern-day American standards, impossibly svelte — but thanks to the lifestyle and diet, here in Asia such are often the norm rather than the exception among the teens and twenty-somethings, which is precisely the demographic the majority of the billboards seem to target i.e. ‘Guess’, ‘Bench’, ‘The Gap’ and the like.

I don’t get to see all the billboards — Johnny T. seems to be having entirely too much fun as he plays sideways chicken with commuter buses, tour buses, the ubiquitous jeepneys, and other taxis, threading vehicular needles at ballistic speeds, and when I look at him I don’t think his heart rate ever exceeds that of a somnolent librarian.

After about forty-five minutes of motorized malevolence courtesy of Johnny Look-Ma-No-Hands, we’ve had enough. We have him drop us by a mall about fifteen minutes from our house – we’re not eager for this kid to know where we live (he might bring unsavory friends) – and we ask him how much the fare is. He says “Bahala na kayo po, kasi walang meter na ako” – which roughly translates to “Whatever you think is best, because I didn’t start the meter.”

In other words, the kid’s gambling once more — this time on our naivete since my whiteness is natural and not due solely to his driving, and my wife’s accent after close to thirty years in the States marks her as obviously no longer local. Johnny thinks that we’ll pay him more than what we would have had he used his meter…and if I were the only one in the car, he’d be right. But I’m not the only one in the car. My wife is the one who handles the money, and for good reason. There’s an old military saying – “Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way!” That’s my wife with finances — I learned long ago to sit back and keep my mouth shut. We Americans are largely clueless when it comes to bargaining, haggling over prices, but most Asians have made it a form of High Art. When I see my wife begin to bargain stateside, I have to cover my mouth and walk away, hiding my laughter because it’ll ruin everything, and watch from a distance as she slices, dices, and makes julienne fries of the normal American business modus operandi. I’m telling you, watching her at work is a thing of beauty…and she smiles sweetly as she begins bargaining, not because she’s being nice or kind, but because she knows she will get precisely what she wants. She and I are always quite serious about playing fair (financially or otherwise), not just by the letter but by the spirit of the law — it’s a religious thing — but she leaves victims of her fiduciary scorched-earth aggression like flotsam and jetsam strewn along the byway. If she were a guy, you’d hear clang-clang-clang as she walked — the guys reading this will know what it means….

But back to Johnny T. My wife replies sharply, “Oh no, ano ginagawa mo! Magkano? Bahala ka na!” No, what do you think you’re doing? How much is it? It’s up to you! (My apologies to any Pinoy who see my errors in spelling and translation) And they go back and forth like this for perhaps a minute…and then my wife hands him 360 pisos — a little over seven dollars for a forty-five minute ride — perhaps half what we should have paid, and it’s a stinging insult, but that’s all she paid — just enough to avoid any complaint with the police, but certainly too little to cover his gas at local prices, much less his time. Why? The kid not only took chances with our lives, but he had the impertinence to think that he could get her to pay extra. Just who did that kid think he was?

This time, the kid gambled and lost. As for myself, I thank God yet once again for my Darling. I love her, cherish her, and am inordinately proud of her.

….

The crew will show up in a few minutes to continue painting and fixing up the house – it needs the TLC badly since I’m not here to take care of it on a day-to-day basis. The supervisors get paid about $100 USD for ten days’ work, and the workers are paid P300 per day — a little over six dollars. Minimum wage is P380 per day — a little under $8 — but we can do this since we’re paying for their commute and food and all tools and materials, and they of course keep the tools. It’s a good deal, a win-win proposition.

The crew is all family or close friends, and are as trustworthy as one could expect…and I’ll expound upon that in a moment. I know I can trust them because I learned long ago that one gets what one gives. I give them my respect and courtesy and friendship and loyalty – and I do so sincerely, for they would immediately see through any falsity on my part — besides, I never could keep a poker face. In other words, I try hard to treat them as family — and they do the same for me in return.

As I said, they are as trustworthy as one could expect. I can trust them implicitly with the lives and health of me and mine, and I can trust them not to break into anything that I have locked…but by the same token I must take care to make sure I leave nothing laying around such as cash, jewelry, passports, et cetera, because if I did so they would be tempted, and if due to their lives in poverty they succumb to such temptation it’s really not their fault, but mine. It’s my responsibility to make sure they are not subjected to such temptations.

….

At first I thought they were swallows since they swoop-and-loop crazy fast, but they’re actually fruit bats. Living with bats seems a bit Gothic at first, but now it’s just pretty cool. I really don’t like the ants – they’re called ‘langam’, pronounced ‘lun-gum’ — because they’re everywhere if you’re not careful with your food (and they bite).

As I was typing this I heard a bicycle horn — every morning a guy rides through the streets selling ‘pan-de-sal’, freshly-made rolls (much better than biscuits). I called out from the upstairs window and he of course stopped (“white guy calling out means more money for me!”) and waited for me to come downstairs with some cash. Our maid – my wife’s cousin (and of course we treat her as close family too) – was waiting to pay P100 (about 2 dollars) for fifty rolls, two pisos per roll. I said never mind I’ll pay, and she said no she’ll pay, and I said come on, kunwaray ka pa! (“you’re saying no, but you mean yes (but in a nice way)”). So I hand her the P100 bill and she waits for the guy to hand her a plastic sack of pan-de-sal. He hands her a full bag and she says “Sinabi ko for P100!” He had handed her about half what she wanted, and she of course saw it. He smiled and handed her the rest, and she smiled and we all thanked each other.

You see, it’s no malice, nothing personal — he’s just trying to make the most of what he can, because he’s certainly not rich and compared to many locals I am seen as rich (but I’m certainly not!). He’ll be by again tomorrow and the same scenario will likely play out again…and I’ll be glad to see him and laugh with him.

….

We took a trip to Baguio today. It’s a famous tourist spot in the mountains, and is the location of the traditional ‘summer palace’ of the president. Due to the elevation – I’ve yet to determine it, but it seems at least 4000 feet up – the air is significantly cooler, and the vegetation is reminiscent of some of the nicer parts of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

The flatlands between Manila and the mountains of La Union province strongly reminded me of the Mississippi Delta — the lines of trees alongside the ditches that border the fields, solitary tin-roofed shacks in the middle of the planted crops, and the children running along the dirt roads…there were even mimosa, willow, magnolia, and pine trees — each sightly different from the ones that grew on our one acre in the Delta of my youth, but the close relations are obvious.

As I sit marveling at the similarities between Bulacan province and the Mississippi Delta, the other passengers on the bus are watching ‘Slumdog Millionaire’…and I realize that just as I was gazing in wonder at the countryside so like that of my youth, the other passengers had to be watching in wonder at the many similarities between the world of ‘Slumdog’ and the life of the normal Filipino.

Baguio itself is memorable — it’s waaaaaay up in the boondocks (which word is actually from the similarly-pronounced Tagalog ‘bundok’) and is not a small city – the population has to be well over a million. This is remarkable since there are only three two-way roads that provide logistical support for this city, and those roads twist and turn on hairpin curves bounded by thousand-foot cliffs on either side. And if that weren’t enough, add to it the Filipino tradition of passing slow vehicles at every opportunity, including on blind curves. It was fairly obvious to me that in Baguio, one either became a very good driver…or one didn’t drive for long. My youngest son said the next ‘Fast and Furious’ movie should be based in the Philippines…but using the regular drivers.

The next day we went to La Union (pronounced ‘La Oonion’) and stayed at a beachfront resort…but the term ‘resort’ is used very loosely indeed. The toilet seat was broken and could not be used; the point-of-use water heater for the shower was completely unusable, as was the shower head – we had to use the ‘tabo’ (“tah-bow”), which is a large bucket and a pail, and such is actually the normal and quite effective way of bathing here; the doors could not have withstood a strong kick; the bed was a thin foam rubber mattress; getting an extra towel was an exercise in futility; hucksters prowled the beach practically begging one to buy ice cream, pan de sal, flowers, swords and machetes, and balut (“bah-loot” – Pinoy claim these are great for the libido…and that belief in and of itself should alert one that these are an ‘acquired taste’ – preserved fertilized eggs in various stages of embryonic development from lumpy to crunchy (ugh!) – crack open one end and slurp away, they say…but I’ve yet to do so)…

…but the resort — ‘Long Island Beach Resort’ — proved to be the most enjoyable, most romantic time we’ve had since Kauai twelve years ago. The water was warmer than in Hawaii and just as clean, the beach itself was as nice as any on O’ahu, the sunset was one of the most magnificent sunsets I’ve ever seen, and unhindered night swimming among the stars (and lightning far to the south)…all these combined with the off-the-beaten-path provincial atmosphere to make for a truly unforgettable afternoon and evening.

Come to think of it, I’m told there’s a Pinoy saying that if one dreams of poop, money is coming. That’s why one of the Philippines’ biggest exports are nurses – the butts are stinky to wipe…but the pay becomes very nice indeed as long as one can ignore the smell. Such applies to our night at the resort – as long as we ignored the problems with the room, we had a truly wonderful time.

And on a side note – one time my youngest son opened the door while I was changing the poopy diaper of one of our medically-fragile foster kids. He didn’t miss a beat and quipped, “Mmmmm – smells like money!”

As we were checking out, we met the owners of the resort – whom we suspect are distant cousins of a close friend of ours in the states. It turned out that they were selling beachfront lots, so we had to go see what they were offering (we knew we couldn’t afford it, but hey – we’ve both been realtors before. How could we not go have a look-see?). There was a 450 sq. mtr. lot about 70 feet from the waterfront, and this lot was going for 50K USD. There was a 1000 sq. mtr. waterfront lot that was going for 150K USD. Yes, we drooled over the lots – and the only reason we didn’t eagerly sell all our worldly goods to get one of them was that it was simply too far away from family in Manila – and being close to the family means more here than in the States (yes, that IS a true statement). But drool we did.

The neighbors were from Switzerland, Sweden, England, Australia, and of course the US. Our neighbor would have been the Swiss – and the house was magnificent! It was truly waterfront (even had its own retaining wall for when the storms come). I really don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say a similar house in an similar location stateside would have cost over five million, but here it cannot have cost them more than 500K USD all told, property and complete construction combined. All that for a tenth of the price – nice!

The property owner took us back to the bus stop…and along the way, what should I see along the road but a VFW post! There it was, an honest-to-goodness American Veterans of Foreign Wars post…and it felt really good that I had the right – the right! – to go in there and have a beer.

After discussing the real estate deal and doing our best to recover from the ensuing depression, we traveled back to Manila, normally a seven-hour ride by bus, but we just happened to be traveling on the single heaviest traveling day of the year for the Philippines – Sunday night at the end of the Catholics’ ‘Holy Week’…which meant that we were sitting in a cramped seat for nine hours. There was no toilet on board, and only at the six-hour point did we get to stop to use the CR, short for ‘comfort room’, the local term for restrooms. Thankfully we had not drunk much liquids by then and we didn’t do so on the bus…and in retrospect I don’t remember seeing anyone selling water on the bus, and now I realize that this was by design so the bus wouldn’t have to make several stops for the passengers to use the CR. Maybe that doesn’t sound quite kosher, but there is a certain pragmatism to be considered. But in any case, if one travels by bus in the Philippines, make doggone sure to get a reservation on a ‘deluxe’ bus – they’ve got bathrooms and water!

But as with most other experiences in life, one tends to forget the hardships and remember the good times, and when it comes to our adventure this time in the Philippines, we’ll always think back to a magical night on the beach at La Union.

….

So there we were at Fort Bonifacio Global City, signing the papers for the condo. It’s a pre-construction deal that costs about 160K USD and won’t be ready for occupancy until 2012 at the earliest. It’s going to be tough to pay for it since this will be in addition to all our bills stateside – we’ll probably have to let the foreclosure on our house stateside to go through – but one has to decide what is best for the family in the long run. My youngest son put it best – it’s cleaner and quieter in the states, but there’s no close family there. Here, there’s close family.

The office we signed is located in the commercial development section of Global City. A nice and safe walk will take me by Krispy Kreme, Starbucks, Seattle’s Best, and a host of restaurants including Mediterranean, Vietnamese, French, Thai, Brazilian(!), Creole(!!), Mexican, and several others. What really shocked us was the lack of any Filipino restaurants! Irony, thy name is progress….

A couple blocks away is one of the local malls — a small one by local standards. It wasn’t an upscale mall…and I could almost sniff what I’d been looking for, yes I did! The first floor was a maze of eateries and clothing stores and kiosks selling jewelry of questionable authenticity, as were the second and third floors…and the more cheap places I saw, the more I was certain I’d find it! And on the fourth floor , the entire fourth floor it was, in spades – bootleg software! Oodles and kaboodles of it, every kind of software I could want (with one exception). There was the latest MS Office (of course), every database and productivity program I’d ever heard of (and lots I’d never heard of), tons of PC/Xbox/Wii games (which are an obsession I unsuccessfully try to hide from my family), moviesmoviesmovies and even tons of anime (another too-juvenile personal favorite)…everything made of bits and bytes (all ranging from $1 to $10) that I could have hoped for…

…except for that ONE exception mentioned earlier – PS3 games. I guess the hackers and crackers in Asia don’t have easy access to Blu-Ray writers yet, but it’s only a matter of time.

But there’s a flip side to the coin of easy access to perfectly functional bootleg software — since the Philippines doesn’t have a truly reliable system of collecting income and sales tax, they have to collect their taxes by other means…which means that imported products – including cars and especially electronics – usually cost twice what we’d pay here.

As much as the fiscal conservatives reading this may shake their head in pity for the poor Filipino people who don’t have the ‘free-trade’ advantages that we do here, consider this – the Philippines are largely untouched by the global economic meltdown. Sure, thanks to the layoffs worldwide many OFW’s (‘overseas Filipino workers’, the largest source of income for the country) lost their jobs…but they’re a canny, crafty people who have a knack for finding jobs, and for starting businesses when jobs aren’t available. It’s not unusual for a Pinoy to have a job and still do two or more jobs on the side – they’re called ‘sidelines’. I guess this is one of the advantages of growing up in a poor country – one learns how to make things happen even in bad times…and as a result, the country’s economy has proven to be far more resiliant than those of the ‘developed’ world. If I were to compare them to a people in Europe, I’d say that their ability to adapt, bargain, connive, and thrive would stand them in good stead with those legendary businessmen, the Scots…who, as we all know, also came from poor, downtrodden stock.

….

I guess the Filipinos aren’t too crazy about Singapore. I saw several traffic signs – and these signs certainly looked like regular road signs – and unlike almost all other signs I saw, they were not written in English. They said “Likuan U” – which, I was told, means “U-turn”. But right below “Likuan U” was “Lee Kuan Yew”, the former Singaporean strongman who is credited with much of Singapore’s success. The traffic notice and the name are pronounced similarly. Whether this was a joke or not I cannot tell.

I noticed something similar along the roads – workers here and there wearing a torso cover that said, “Pulis Oyster”. It took me a while to get my family to tell me what it meant, but the “Pulis Oysters” are apparently cleaners. It seems they work for the police, but the shells of oysters are seen as clean, and the job of these workers is to clean the streets.

….

We came home to America back in mid-April…and as nice and clean and safe as America is, well, it’s boring here! But I know it’s not the country itself, but the plethora of family we left behind. Last week my nephew flew in and he’ll be staying with us. He’s a really good kid – our foster daughter says he’s got a ‘cute butt’ (and we’ve since been telling her that he’s already engaged (he’s not)). He wants to work here, adjust his visa so he can stay and get his citizenship…for despite all our problems, American citizenship is still the most prized in the world. My nephew loves America and will work hard and loyally here…but when he gets old, he’ll return to the Philippines. Why? America is the Land of Opportunity. All one really needs is gumption to make a good living here…and that’s why America is the place to be if one wants to earn a lot of money. But when it’s time for one to retire, the Philippines — or some other relatively safe place with big families and lots of smiles — is the place to be.

Two years to go…and — God willing — I’ll go home, but not to America. I’ll go home to my family in a backwater slum in a third-world megalopolis…a place where I can still be a good American, where I can still help people, and where I would still be sincerely appreciated for doing so.

Yes, life is good, thanks be to God.

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About Glenn Contrarian

White. Male. Raised in the deepest of the Deep South. Retired Navy. Strong Christian. Proud Liberal. Thus, Contrarian!
  • http://blogcritcs.org/writer/clarence-yu Clarence Yu

    Great article. Though I beg to disagree on the system of collecting income and sales tax — oh, the Bureau of Internal Revenue can be quite creative.

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    Bang up article Glenn! Your writing reminds me of a less bitter version of Moshe Saperstein. An Israeli humor writer who once wrote for the Jerusalem Post, who wrote essays on life in Nevé Dekalim in Gush Qatif, where he and Rachel had retired to live – and who wrote bitterly of being expelled from his home there by a criminal Israeli regime led by Ariel Sharon.

    He too, lives in a slum. Not by choice, or to be near relatives, but because his home was stolen from him.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Thank you both for the encouragement – it really does help. Maybe this is the better way to become published, by writing about experiences and ironies most Americans don’t see – instead of writing long, fictional epics on a grand scale and then watch the torrid pace of technology outdate everything one has written in a matter of months.

    Again, thanks!

  • Jordan Richardson

    Nice article, Glenn. I’ve passed this over to my wife’s family (she’s Filipino). Very unique, fresh perspective with great lively tone and sharp punches of humour. Well done!

  • http://joannehuspek.wordpress.com Joanne Huspek

    I’m going to have to bookmark this to read again, it was that enjoyable. Nicely done!

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