A PHILIPPINE JOURNAL
Vignettes, Vice & Verse
(Re-edited with additional material June 2002)
A journal of the Philippines
by Robin Sharpe
Produced with no government or corporate funding whatsoever.
PREFACE TO THE SECOND EDITION
Most of MANILAMANIC was written ten or more years ago in slightly more liberal times before the twin tragedies of the Butler decision and our child pornography laws. Even then I deliberately left some material out of the original 1994 version. Now however, having been acquitted for more bizarre writings and convicted for my pictures of naked boys I am introducing new material which more completely documents my experiences. MANILAMANIC is a personal journal about certain of my experiences and observations in the Philippines during the 1980s and early 90s. It is also a travel back in time/place to where boys were not subject to indoctrination with gender politics and subject to message propaganda about drugs, sex, race, homophobia etc.
The Philippines have the freedom that comes from being loosely governed and politely corrupt. Personal relations are very important. Justice, however, is uncertain. I call the Philippines my land of alternate absurdities but by the same token it is my land of alternative sanities. Beyond the insensitivity, vulgarity and corruption of the elite, and those they license to rape, pillage, kill and torture, it is a decent country. The people are generally easy going and tolerant relying on their own observations rather than experts and precept.
After the Filipinos one great striving for nationhood was brutally emasculated at puberty a century ago. When the U.S. Army fought its last Indian war in their newly I purchased colony, the country lapsed into passivity. The first republic in Asia centred in the Tagalog region of Luzon tried to organize a constitutional government, resolve internal differences, set up schools and fight the better equipped and more experienced Americans. It held its own for a while but was overwhelmed in a series of savage campaigns where hundreds of thousands were slaughtered and deliberately starved. The Americans however won support by offering commercial advantages to the elite and by coming to the aid of the Catholic Church which was threatened by a nationalist schism. New to imperialism the Americans wanted to be loved by their little brown brothers and while doing little to develop their colony they succeeded in winning the affection of most Filipinos. Today, unlike the Thais or Vietnamese, Filipinos have little national pride and reserve their loyalties for family and provincemates. They lack the aggressive commercial mentality of South or East Asians. The Filipino ideal is prosperity without progress. Progress creates problems, it is disruptive and it is the poor that suffer. What nationalism the Filipinos have is focused on Jose Rizal, who, martyred by the Spanish inspired his countrymen to revolt. The Americans found him a convenient national hero for their new colony. Rizal was however a remarkable man with many talents. Theres no rush to see the Philippines. Its not getting spoiled for us western tourists as Bali supposedly is. Actually with our growing poverty and extremes were becoming more like them than they are like us.
Vancouver, June, 2002.
Gays use the term, post liberation era, referring back to the Stonewall riots. Most Filipinos outside the elite and the Americanized middle classes are living in what might be called a pre-repression era. Baklas are common in provincial towns, and by baklas I mean the obviously gay, often in an effeminate sense. While they cluster in certain jobs theyre open and integrated, and Ive seen lots of good natured and spirited banter back and forth with straights who seem to know them very well. Twice waiters in small towns have asked me to buy votes for themselves in the local Queen of Wherever contest. I once dated last years winner in Puerto Galera. Baklas are accepted by ordinary people including the greater number who are bakla, but not baklas. The word is also equivalent to gay. Baklas are similar to the berdache of North American Aboriginal cultures. Baklas take care of the young boys who get extremely horny and who need to learn more before they marry supposed virgins, and they serve married men who need a change but dont want to be unfaithful to their wives thus preserving marriages and strengthening the family. A gay child may be welcome as he maybe better able to support his aging parents having no children of his own. Baklas are integrated and provide useful and rewarding community services leaving little room for homophobia. I realize I paint an overly idyllic picture, I wish only to sketch the idea of a pre-repression society. Several years ago I was looking for a barber in Bontoc, an isolated town in the rugged Cordillera. I met some boys I knew and they led me upstairs in a dingy building on the main street to a gaudy hair stylists salon where I was introduced to four campy baklas. Everybody seemed to know each other well and there appeared to be much hilarious teasing and innuendo going on in words I did not understand. The boys stayed and admired my cut when the stylist was finished. After, one of the boys boasted that he sometimes get free cuts. Later another confided that he would go to the salon, when titi wont say no. I was pleased to hear that the baklas were doing their job. I had a glimpse of pre-repression times.
Remember that modern gay liberation first blossomed in Germany just before the Nazis took power. How secure is the present flowering of gay life and culture? How effective is gay rights legislation and public anti-homophobic propaganda going to be in the long run in changing peoples attitudes and behaviour? As effective as the billions spent in the War on Drugs? I believe that if gays do not have a vision beyond liberation, beyond safety, equality even in such hetero follies as spousal rights, and acceptance as a respectable subculture which is a very dubious aspiration to begin with, we are doomed to remain objects of popular derision if not abuse. We will always be whining.
Only as a valued and integral part of society, only when liberation becomes a meaningless concept, can gays find true security. If you like horny husbands thats fine, and if you like showing young boys the ropes, thats fine too. And if you just like each other, well, thats great. As a subculture, the gay world would melt into society enriching it and helping it to heal some of its wounds. That is a vision that can be retrieved from the past, a vanishing past.
Vancouver, April 1994.
THE CORNER 1984
Say, Peso....peso, and hold out your hand like this. the neatly dressed mother coaches the baby girl in her arms. The ruddy faced Australian drinking next to me at the Corner hands over a few centavos to be rid of her. Say Thank you to the nice man.
Im sitting at the Corner down at the mama sans fast food wondering if I should have another beer. San Miguel is The beer here, many places stock no other brands. It is good and it is cheap, certainly by our standards, as little as a quarter a cold bottle at cheap eateries. And it must be fairly lite, how else can I explain the vast quantities I am able to consume. Of course not being acclimatize here I tend to sweat a lot. This explains how a while ago when I was outdrinking a tableful of college students most of them had to go pee three times before my first.
Men urinating in public by a wall or pole are a common sight everywhere in Manila. I sometimes find it a necessity myself as there are very few public comfort rooms or CRs as they call them. Along streets where all other signs or notices are in English you will see, BAWAL UMIHI DITO, which means dont urinate here. The other common Tagalog notice is BAWAL MAGTAPON BASURA DITO which means dont dump garbage here. Your nose and eyes soon tell what the signs mean.
While urinating men are ubiquitous, such women are rare. For a while I toyed with the idea that the women here must have much larger bladder capacity. But aside from my observations I could find no support for this theory. The explanation I was told was that women were much more tied to the home with their family responsibilities and do not venture so far away. And also, they drink a lot less beer. But then its much more difficult for women to urinate modestly in public because they are anatomically impaired in this respect. Maybe this, as much as being mothers, homemakers and prime caregivers, explain my observations. Anatomy is destiny, at least where there is a shortage of public facilities. I decide to reward myself for this profound insight with another beer.
However, before I am able to act on this an ordinary looking old man asks if he can join me and buy me a beer. Well certainly! He introduces himself as Lito and hands me a card identifying himself as an assistant with the Ministry of Tourism. I assume his title is something bestowed upon him by President Marcoss ruling KBL party as part of their system of patronage. It may help him to direct a few pesos his way. He tells me how much Filipinos like foreigners (which is generally true) and seems sincere in his efforts to help me. Lito warns me, Many Filipinos are bad people, robbers, pickpockets, especially children. Im enlightened to the dangers I might expose myself to if Im not careful. But dont you believe what you hear about the government, it does much good.
After our beers are served the old man leans forward, Perhaps you like a girl, a young girl? Not like these around here but real clean, very clean. I decline with a gesture but Lito continues, Lots of nice Chinese girls even and maybe only about two hundred pesos.
I am a bit more emphatic but politely add, not at the present time.
You like boy maybe? Many boys. I shake my head. You be careful you have boy in your room, they steal. Better take one only each time.
No thank you. Im beginning to suspect Im being set up for some scam or extortion.
What you like? he raises his voice. I make my apologies and leave, not finishing my beer. Anytime you need me, I be right here.
I head south along Del Pilar stepping off the high curb to get past the crowds. A ragged street kid, looking nine but older touches my arm and points to his belly, Gutom, hungry. Seeing no other beggars around I give him some coins. He looks up at me hopefully, Me gowidyou?
I tell him Hindi!, no.
The plaintive expression returns to his eyes, You no like me? Its like Ive hurt his feelings. I think its a con, he couldnt get past the guards at most hotels or pensions, if not for his age certainly for his rags. He should know that. However, I reward his initiative with the rest of my coins.
A TIMELY QUESTION 1985
I ask a Filipino, What time is it?
He takes my question seriously
pondering before answering
Do you mean right Now
The Corner, Queens Corner to some, or simply Santa Monica in the language of the street is the heart of the Mabini area, Manilas sexsport zone. But its the street east of Mabini, Del Pilar, a kilometer long strip of bars, girlie bars, restaurants and cheap hotels that give the area its character and reputation. Both streets are named after heroes of the aborted revolutionary struggle for independence almost a century ago against Spanish colonialism and later the American invaders who pioneered many of the techniques they were to use with less success in Vietnam seventy years later.
On Del Pilar at Santa Monica which is little more than a lane is a small plaza, one of Imelda Marcoss civic beautification projects. Late at night it becomes a bedroom of the street for urchins, beggars, vendor beggars, trickless hookers and hustlers, crazies and not infrequently destitute foreigners. At present an alcoholic, and proud of it, doctor from Nova Scotia, a cheerful, witty and hopeless man sleeps there, nursed by a too old lady of the street who has fantasies of marrying him. He has a badly infected foot and can barely walk. Our embassy has offered to repatriate him but he refuses. I give him money for antibiotics although Im sure itll go on booze.
Across from the plaza are several narrow beer and fast food stands where gay expatriates and sex tourists gather in the evening to exchange gossip and watch the passing scene. At the first stand where beer costs an extra peso, smartly dressed mabini boys, as they are called, hang out having most of their drinks bought for them. These are the elite of the mabini boys. Curiously, binibini is the term for Miss in Tagalog, the language of most Manilaquenos, though not of most Filipinos. Some of these boys live with foreigners and most have foreign lovers who send them money and visit periodically, and sometimes take them for vacations in places like Germany or Australia. Their English is usually fairly good and they joke and tease openly but are not necessarily Lito, whom I know a bit, comes over acting very friendly and polite. Do you remember me Sir? Of course I do, and I remember he ignored me the last time I said hello. And I also remember hes been living with my Australian friend Malcolm who recently introduced us again, and who after a litany of complaints said what a nice boy Lito was and how I might like him. I go to my province, maybe tomorrow, when my money comes, maybe you let me stay two, maybe three days? He looks at me sweet boy faced. Its not that I dont like discards, or that I feel its my turn to be rude, but that hes well passed his peak at twenty two and Im told not much fun in bed, No.
Other boys, mostly younger in their late teens, and not as well dressed or groomed wander by and back and forth seeking the friendly attention of tourists. Raymondo, an amiable street veteran whos worked the corner since he was twelve greets me, high fives. I tease him about his pants saying they do nothing for his ass. For the last month Ray has been wearing drapes, pegged wide kneed zoot suit trousers, a style of the forties. Theyre certainly unique on the streets of Mabini which is what matters for Ray. I buy him a coffee. Business is bad, he tells me he hasnt been with a tourist for weeks. Ray is not as young or smartly attired as he once was but there are also simply fewer tourists around the Corner. Moral imperialism has forced Filipino authorities to crack down on presumed pedophiles and the more serious of them have moved to Thailand which has traditionally resisted all forms of imperialism. Lack of customers is the main problem of boy prostitutes in the Philippines. Raymondo looks at me hopefully , You like I go wid you to your room? Well not for old times sake anyway, I decline. I know young boy, very pogi (good looking), you like to meet? I give him a few pesos, enough for a meal at one of the stalls and get a genuine smile as he saunters off.
Then there are the beggars, the shineboy beggars with a rag and a can of shoe polish, the cigarette vendor beggars with a handful of half full packs selling singles, and the full fledged no pretence beggars often maimed or crippled. Some have been around for many years. Most of these beggar boys would probably like to go wid you too but whatever their puerile appeal most are too scruffy to take anywhere, and some may be dangerous. Prostitution would be a giant leap upward for them.
Tourists interested in younger boys have to be more discreet as the Corner is closely if not judiciously watched. There is the barangay tanod, unarmed neighbourhood police with limited powers who provide basic social control in their barrios, but keep their eyes open for opportunities. Not long before my own time, expats tell me, some of the tanod would arrest a popular boy and put him in the lockup in the tiny barangay outpost in the lane behind the plaza. The boys buddies would go around the tourists at the Corner collecting bail to get the boy out. Youd still have to negotiate with the boy, whom the tanod could only hold until midnight. The arrangement at the girlie bars on the strip is similar in that you have to pay a bar fine if you want to take the girl out, and its said they, unlike the boys, dont have too much choice.
Pepito, a big bellied tanod who bounces at Raymonds Fast Food, a popular place to drink and pick up young girls has been very friendly since I was caught red handed with a joint several years ago. He likes to joke about it and I like to remind him of the time when all the tanod was jailed briefly after an Australian was set up with some drugs and his embassy made an issue of it. However generally, if caught in some indiscretion, it is best to deal with the tanod on the spot as prices escalate drastically when uniformed Metrocom police become involved. I found this out the hard way.
More dangerous are plainclothes operators, a few may be cops doing their duty but more will be cops, ex cops or pretend cops hoping to catch you, or set you up with drugs or a minor, and see how much they can shake you down for. The Corner can be a very dangerous place for gullible and unwary tourists particularly if their tastes run young. Younger boys risk being ripped off for their earnings or spending time in the primitive juvenile detention centre. And then periodically there are great politically motivated round ups of all the young street kids they can catch and the Corner is quiet for weeks. In the somewhat paranoid environment of the Corner both men and boys talk among themselves, networking of sorts, and arrangements may be made with little more than a nod and a wink.
Jing is one of the younger boys who pass by the Corner to see if any foreign friends are there. He innocently strikes up a conversation with me in the plaza in his limited English. What country you come from? I have to explain where Canada is, and having done that explain that its not part of America but independent, and with intended but unappreciated irony I add, like the Philippines. Ive heard that Jing has been featured in some of the many documentaries about child prostitution made in Mabini and ask him about his film career. Three times now, maybe more. I cry like sad, get more money. Jing claims to be fourteen and probably is though he looks younger and stands less than five feet. He keeps wanting to know what hotel I stay at and my room number. When I teasingly ask why he wants to know he replies, Some hotel not good for boys, I tell you good one. and he names a few. I end up giving him money to go rollerskating in Luneta and to take a friend whom I now notice waiting on the sidewalk. He asks me to come and watch him later.
A few evenings later Im strolling Luneta, or more properly Rizal Park where the countrys greatest national hero was executed by the Spanish, igniting the revolution that was only defeated by the American invaders whod paid Madrid twenty million dollars for the privilege. An obelisk monument marks the spot. This large central park in what is otherwise an almost parkless city is a legacy of the English who in 1700s proved how easily the old walled city could be taken from the land side through the cover of the settlements clustered beside it. Defense dictated a wide greenbelt. Towards the other end of Luneta is the skating rink, two large, wide concentric paved circles with a huge illuminated globe and fountain jets in the middle. For a few pesos anyone can rent skates for half an hour. Families, foreigners, the occasional movie star and boys five to sixty, and token girls, do. Later in the evening its a place to cruise young boys.
I see Jing skating and am impressed by the style, attitude and grace of his movements as he effortlessly weaves his way forwards, backwards, ducking through other skaters. He sees me and after a few more turns around the centre island with its globe and fountains he skates over to the low fence where Im sitting. He has a different friend with him whom he introduces. We shake hands and I send the friend off to buy soft drinks. Jing wants enough money for another half hour skating for the two of them. I ask him why hes so dirty and he tells me hes sleeping in the park; he doesnt want to go home to his mother who lives in a tough squatter area. Jing is however cheerful and optimistic, Friend come for sure tonight. They both thank me as they leave to renew their skates.
I go down to the Corner as I often do late afternoon and notice hardly any kids around. An expat acquaintance tells me that thered been a roundup of the street kids in Ermita the day before, apparently over a hundred were taken in. These happen periodically in response to embarrassing exposes in the foreign media or simply political pressures to do something about the problem of child prostitutes and pickpockets. Therell probably be an article in todays paper about it and some unflattering comments about foreign pedophiles.
Im on perhaps my second beer when Boyet, a crippled beggar Ive made friends with hobbles over. He tells me about boys running, shouting, Bagansi! with the police chasing them and how hed managed to hide. He tells me Jojo is one of those in bagansa, which is what they call juvenile detention. Im sorry to hear this as Jojo is one of the brightest and most cheerful of younger boys hanging around the Corner, sometimes as a peanut vendor or shineboy. Hes a husky, good looking and confident child fond of joking. I often give him a tip, buy him a soft drink or give him a few pesos to buy rice.
Im curious to see the bagansa having heard various tales about it including Boyets where he made his escape on crutches. Recently I read an article about it in the newspaper. Food was the major complaint and theres admittedly little for recreation aside from a basketball court. The kids are simply dumped there until their sentences expire or theyre bailed out. Jojo as a vagrant, a curfew violator and suspected prostitute, hes only twelve, is in for three to six months Boyet figures. Vagrancy, abolished as an offense in Canada decades ago, is a very flexible charge here and it doesnt appear to require actually laying formal charges in the case of juveniles.
Boyet doesnt think he can get Jojo out but agrees to find his family so I could visit him and see what could be arranged. I give him a hundred pesos for transportation and to buy himself some decent clothes. I dont see the clothes but he eventually comes back with Jojos brother, Roberto, and a cousin, Ferdinand, and we set off for the detention centre. I dont get to see very much, just a courtyard with boys looking out a second floor window, but Ferdinand speaks to a guard and tells me it will cost a hundred pesos, five bucks, to get Jojo out. I give the guard the money.
Jojos released the next morning and Im invited to go along with him and his brother and cousin to his uncles place in nearby Pasay City. We take a couple of jeepneys and then a tricycle, a 500 cc. Kawasaki with a sidecar, into a sprawling squatter area. Jojos uncle Demetrius remembers the Japanese occupation during the war and is enthusiastically pro American, fondly recalling General MacArthurs, I shall return bullshit. We drink beer and argue politics. Its a good time but I have to leave early to catch my bank before it closes. When I leave Im asked to stop by a neighbours house and Im led upstairs to a room where theres an a tiny ornate white coffin with a glass top set in front of the household shrine. Inside is a little doll like corpse and Im asked to sign a scroll and make a contribution to the funeral costs. Jojo rides back to Mabini with me in a jeepney and gets off at the Corner.
I become acquainted with Ponso, a slim and street smart lad of sixteen whos been around the Corner for a while. The word was that he was fun, and some Filipino boys can really get into the very fun of sex, hedonists really, but I was warned to watch him closely as he has sticky fingers for things he likes. He becomes an occasional visitor in my modest pension room and Im soon invited to visit his family. They had a small house in a walled compound that they shared with two or three related families. His familys project of pride was a pig they were raising for sale in a tiny stall at the back. They fed it on scraps, scavengings and rice bran. I was introduced to a parade of aunts, cousins, brothers and a couple of tough looking uncles who looked me over. I was taken to see a colicky baby who needed some modestly expensive medicine which I offered to pay for. Filipinos are prone to share their good fortune, as I was for Ponso, with family and friends, and their families very sensibly like to know the foreigners their boys are associating with.
One Saturday night shortly after I met Ponso we were playing backgammon and chupa ang titi when he tells me he has to go to sleep very early. Whatever for? I wanted to know. I told him Id been thinking of a lazy morning and a late breakfast at Rosies after. I go to Mass and Confession, five oclock in morning. Curious, and slightly apprehensive I asked him what he would confess. He appeared to think. I looked him in the eye. After an awkward moment he blurted, Bahala na which can mean whatever. I asked him if he would tell the priest about us. Oo (yes), he replied, I tell all, pero walang problema. I come back for breakfast.
Ponso was interested in tattoos which can be risky things to bare in the Philippines. I bought him some transfer tattoos and helped him apply a large stylized eagle on his lean muscular chest and after he eagerly posed au naturel to show it off. He was learning consumerism and wanting petty luxuries. I was not as generous as I could have been and once he pilfered a few small items including my nail clippers. I confronted him and he admitted it without much in the way of excuses. Then, as if this would repay me, Ponso told me I could fuck him in the ass. Im not much into fucking anyway and told him not to worry about it. I was quite happy with chupa ang titi si Ponso. However he insisted, he wanted it as penance. Our attempt at anal sex was unsuccessful and soon abandoned.
In Manila the ravages of time and war have been kinder to the dead than the living. Before the Spanish arrived in the 1570s it was already a trading city ruled by powerful datus and fortified with palisades and bronze lantaka or canon. It possessed the amenities of European civilization long before Shanghai, Montreal or Boston appeared on maps. But the Second World War, particularly its liberation, saw Manila destroyed on a scale often compared to Warsaw, and there is little old left in this old city. The Poles meticulously rebuilt the historic core of their capital city but Intromuros, the old walled city once called the Pearl of the Orient, was not, and block after block of tidied rubble and ruins remain fifty years later. The citys old cemeteries are however surprisingly intact.
A few blocks east of the raucous, throbbing tourist belt in Ermita is 200 year old Paco Park where two high, circular, concentric stone walls of crypts enclose a quiet oasis of paths, gardens and pools shaded by giant acacias. Weddings are held in an old stone domed chapel and stands sell souvenirs and refreshments. Paco Park is a uniquely charming and serene place in the middle of the noisy, ugly and polluted city and worth the small admission charge. I often took pictures of friends there. More interesting is the huge Manila North Cemetery and the adjoining Chinese and La Loma cemeteries. Together they are far larger than any park in the city but their presence was obscured by high walls, sometimes capped by squatter shanties, and the flatness of the city. Then suddenly with the opening of the Metrorail, Manilas elevated rapid transit line, the cemeteries became one of the citys most prominent and interesting features. The public who may have always used the cemeteries for picnics and outings can now overlook the walls of this sprawling necropolis and see the picturesque splendor of its monuments, pagodas and mausoleums displayed on the gentle rises that parallel the line for three stations. Twice I spent a day with young tourist guides exploring the tombs of national heroes and the subdivisions of palatial mausoleums of wealthy commercial families. There is also a small Manila South Cemetery where I met squatter families and young boys showed me an eroded portion with many bones, a skull and a mummified male body that had become exposed. Hundreds of small angel statues and crosses populated an overgrown childrens section with the office towers of the Makati financial district in the distance.
Congestion on the highway from the airport
is a familys begging opportunity
The taxi driver comments
about the new Filipino president
I have no pesos yet
for the skinny girls hand
reaching in the open window
A robber was killed at my pension house a few days ago. I was out of town and missed it but heard all the details when I got back. It seems that a drunk tried to hold up the desk with an icepick but was stabbed by one of the guests, a husky young Filipino. I was told he was bound hand and foot and left on the lobby floor. Apparently he was not bleeding much. He pleaded for himself and said he had a family. Through the night various people cursed and kicked him and in the morning he was dead. The owner came over, the body was put in the trunk of his car and dumped in an estero, a drainage canal and that was the end of it.
This morning I heard a commotion in the courtyard of the large house next door which is also some sort of lodging house. From my rooms window I could see a man tied to a chair. Several people where gathered around. A woman stood in front of the helpless guy, swore and spat on him then kicked his shins a few times. A minute later a man punched his face a few times. A roomboy told me that theyd caught a thief. After a while most of the people left but ever so often someone would come out and curse, kick, punch or slap the poor guy. His torture was not that severe or interesting and I gave up watching after maybe fifteen minutes. A few hours later when I returned from some errand the guy was gone. The roomboy thinks they let him go, but hes not sure.
Ordinary people here cant afford police services and so to speak take the law into their own hands. Many police, and also some fire departments, operate on a fee for service basis. There are instances, documented in the press from time to time where firemen negotiate before turning their hoses on peoples burning or threatened properties. It often costs money to have a complaint followed up and investigated. I once reported a lost wallet (Id merely misplaced it) to the police. For some reason we had to go to a different precinct station, but first I would have to buy gasoline for the police jeep we were to ride in. How about stopping for something to eat on the way? I gave up. Crowds often catch and beat, sometimes fatally, purse snatchers and other petty criminals.
Another time near Zamboanga, in southern Mindinao, I had a camera stolen by my tourist guide who talked my hosts into letting him have it as he told them I needed it. I went to the local police and a detective was assigned to the case. We spent a couple days together visiting the island where my camera was stolen, going around to various haunts, sometimes the drinks were free and sometimes I paid. I was invited home for dinner and met his family. The thief turned out to be an escapee from a prison farm. We visited his fathers house and other places where he was known. We never found him or my camera but the detective was certainly a great tourist guide.
Puerto Galera, They call it paradise, is one of my favourite places here. It has a large intricate harbour with sheltering islands, over twenty assorted, mostly idyllic white sand beaches, good coral reef diving, mountains with waterfalls a short hike away, and one of the most picturesque towns in the Philippines. And its only five hours and five dollars by bus and ferry from downtown Manila. Almost anywhere else in the world a location like this would have become a major tourist destination, a Puerto Vallarta or Phuket, for example. From high on the hills behind the view is reminiscent of Pender Harbour on the Sunshine Coast.
As it is there are perhaps a hundred small resorts, mostly clusters of nipa thatch beach huts, but no major ones although there have been rumours of Club Med and five star establishments for years. A lot of the business is sex tourism. Many of the girls from the strip in Ermita will suggest to their clients that a few days at nearby Sabang or White Beach is what they need. In former years Puerto was also renowned for its eager young boys. In the harbour there are usually about twenty yachts, some from Europe, Australia and America. In the mountains are the primitive Irayan Mangnans and bands of Communist guerrillas. There has been a significant amount of fighting lately with unknown casualties.
On my first of many trips to Puerto Galera I am accosted on the ferry dock by Cedric, a crusty old Englishman whos promoting his nipa hut resort near White Beach. We get on a crowded jeepney and I manage to find a place to sit down on the roof among the boxes, sacks, crates of beer and pop being delivered along the way and also a few home bound schoolboys. They warn me to watch out for the power lines and crouch right down when I see one coming up. There are also overhead coconut fronds which can give you a nasty swipe. The view and breeze are magnificent compared to the confined inward facing seats below where passengers have to breath the dust from the road. White Beach is a scenic, bumpy, swaying seven miles along the coast. Cedrics place is a mile beyond the end of the jeepney run and we hike along the rocks and beaches. The huts are tiny but well appointed and set in a manicured coconut grove facing a typically idyllic beach. I meet his Filipina wife, several children which suggest that the arrangement is more than a business convenience and a few other guests. He is a retired military officer and one evening entertained me and other foreign guests with tales of the campaign in Burma when the Japs were threatening India. Hes not popular with the locals and there are rumours that he mistreats his wife. A few years later I hear he was murdered but it s not clear whether it was one of his wifes relatives or an NPA assassination intended to enhance their local support.
A couple of days later Im making my way along the beaches and headlands from White Beach to my nipa hut when I meet Noel, his older brother and two friends, all typically friendly and curious Filipino boys. After the usual, where are you going and where are you from, questions Noel brightly asks, You like buy kabuti?. His grin more than the substance in his hand tells me what kabuti is. Of course Im interested, and on examination it looks like cubensis, the tropical mushroom beloved of the Aztecs. The handful is twenty pesos but for fifty I can have them cooked in an omelette at his uncles restaurant. I ask if I could take their picture and they all eagerly pose arms around each other and playing to the camera. After Ive taken a few shots Noel asks if Id like to take some bold pictures. Im interested, theyre all cheerful and handsome lads. He confers with his buddies and says, Twenty pesos, all. They strip and pose again arms around each other and showing off. I didnt expect Noel to be hairless and years later he tells me he used to shave, for the tourist.
That night I lie naked out on the dark beach, wiggling down in the dry sand and gazing at the infinity of stars blazing above, and I have a place within the matrix of all. However, such an existential existence gets boring after a while, and besides Im getting cold, so I go looking for his uncles restaurant and find Noel there. I get to know him and his friends. I often eat at the large thatched open beach restaurant and play ping pong with him and his friends. Once when a storms expected I help him and his brother drag his banca high up on the wide beach. Noel becomes my local guide, he introduces me to relatives and other foreigners he knows. We walk up hills where farmers have cleared plots for camote, a starchy sweet potato that is the staple of the poorest. He takes me up to a small waterfall and we splash in the shallow pool. Further into the mountains he tells me that there are bands of Communist guerrillas, the New Peoples Army, sometimes referred to as Nice People Around. A couple of times he visits me in my hut in the early evening. Hes confident and playful within the limited sexual repertoire he allows himself. Then, its his idea, I move into a cheaper and larger nipa hut owned by a cousin in the centre of White Beach.
The beach is a favourite place for the girls who work in the bars of Mabini to bring their tourist friends for a few days of sun and fun. Other girls work the beach and restaurants. A few marry foreigners; I got to know one couple well. Noel and his friends start dropping by, they share some mediocre maryjane with me and show me how to make a water pipe with a half full beer bottle and the hollow stem of a papaya leaf capped by a small piece of perforated aluminum foil. You put your lips around the top of the bottle and suck. We drink a lot of beer and pop and they show me how to play puso where you arrange your cards into poker hands. Some boys come around by themselves if they suspect blow jobs are available. Im not sure how the theory of exploitation works. I return to Puerto many times but usually stay in the Poblacion, town centre, where I sometimes meet Noel after school.
There are many festivals listed in Philippine guide books but everyone whos been there says, Go to the Ati-Atihan. Its in Kalibo, a small city on Panay, the big island south of Mindoro. Backpackers I meet in Puerto Galera tell me its like a mardi gras. Caught up in the enthusiasm of others I decide to go uncertain as to the exact dates and connections to get to Panay and what to expect. Its not until I reach Roxas six hours by crowded jeepneys and buses from Puerto Galera do I find I am a couple of days early. However, I have just missed the rice boat to Tablas where there are good connections to the small resort island of Boracay and thence to Panay. The next regular boat is not for three days and Roxas has little to offer in the meantime. I am not alone. In the restaurant of the forlorn beach resort I meet a taciturn German tourist and a tall black Peace Corps worker who have also missed the riceboat. The American, Paul, suggests that we hire a boat to Boracay. He speaks Cebuano, the local dialect and negotiates at considerable length with a fisherman to take us across to Boracay. Its not cheap especially after the German backs out, but even in the Philippines time is money. We set off on the eight hour journey just after four in the afternoon in a banca with the fisherman and his teenage son neither of whom speak any English.
Its a choppy sea with small scudding clouds overhead and the occasional flying fish skipping along beside us. Paul shares a joint with me, my first in many days and the trip becomes magical as the brief tropical twilight caresses the scene. I learn a word, pakikisama. Its Tagalog, not Cebuano. Sama means with and pakiki denotes sympathy or cooperation. The words meaning can be shaded to suggest many things; getting along with, going along with and may be either virtuous or connotate corruption. I liked the way it sounded and Paul said the word defined Filipino culture.
The wind dies down as the sky darkens, the night is silky. I drag my foot in the warm slippery water creating a luminous wake. In the sparkling biophosphorescence I see the first nebulas forming after the big bang. No land can be seen and the clouds obscure the constellations of the stars although many glitter in between. The Moon, a perfect half moon, rides high overhead and I realize the fisherman is navigating by it keeping a constant angle to the chord. Paul tells me about himself and the Philippines he knows. The only thing Filipinos fear fears is being alone. He describes his work in Antique a coastal province in Panay. He loves the country and the people, and is bitter that the CIA has compromised the Peace Corps for its own ends.
Gradually the dark mass of Tablas comes into view and we start to parallel its coast south towards Boracay. In the moonlight I can make out gray cliffs and pale beaches guarded by undercut limestone formations stretching for many miles. It is a beautiful, serene, misting trip, others might call it spiritual. We see no lights until we are crossing the narrow gap to Boracay and halfway down the island we see the lights and hear the beat of music. We are put ashore by a loud disco. The spell is rudely broken. Were just in time for a drink before bar closes but too late to find a hut. Paul takes off somewhere and I crawl up under a coconut palm by the beach, not the safest thing to do, wrap myself with my dirty laundry and spend a damp, cold sleepless night.
In the morning I discover that Boracays beach is as perfect as the brochures claim, its white sand tinged pink from the sprinkling of red coral grains. I spend the day exploring, sleep, and next day climb up on the roof of an overcrowded bus heading for Kalibo. Three hours and several checkpoints later we enter the drab town of mostly wood and thatch buildings. Kids march along the small citys streets practising their steps, playing drums and dancing. Im told that barrios from many miles around send groups to the Ati-Atihan whose origins go back to pre Spanish times. It celebrates the legendary occasion when after accepting gifts the aboriginal black Negritos ceded the lowlands of Panay to the incoming Malays. There was supposedly a celebration at the time and it is common for people to smear black on their faces. The town is packed with visitors including a sprinkling of tourists. A young man in black face I meet takes me to his fathers hotel where for 25 pesos I can crash on the mezzanaine floor. His father, an outgoing civic booster decides I need a black face and I follow the two of them out into the street and a few doors away they lead me into the back of a restaurant where he rubs his hands on the bottom of big pot and them smears a beard on my face. In the morning I wake to sound of drums and groups are already parading and dancing around the plaza. Kids have already set up stands selling junk food, cigarettes, beer, rum and small toys. Others sell religious artifacts
I pass a boys dance team getting ready finger painting white and gray designs on each others deep golden chests and backs, and they welcome my camera with smiles and poses. A group of maybe forty women in long red and gold banded dresses carry the whimsical slogan UNKNOWN across an automatic checkout sticker banner???? Another group dressed in prison stripes carry banners proclaiming WE WERE FRAME UP and WE ARE INNOCENT. Size ranked teams of mostly boys dance in elaborate hand crafted costumes. Many wear scant, stylized savage costumes and have blackened their bodies as far as the eye can see. Others are dressed as gorrillas and butterflies. A few teens incongruously smoke. Costumed individuals roam about dancing and gesturing on their own. I see The Devil, a Give peace a chance dove lady, a gaudy drag clown with coconut shells and a Kill a Commie for Christ soldier. Its fun and a lot of work. People party and a lot of kids probably experience booze, sex and drugs for the first time. I meet the owner of my hotel wearing a golden wicker crown. Beside him is his queen and good friend with a wig, padded bra and a fountain of magenta feathers sprouting from his head. More men in drag pose for me, its a fun costume in pre-repression times and the real baklas are probably amused. There are photos of Jose Rizal, the national hero, in drag. military cadets have drag parties, and its all innocent of gender politics, equality concerns and serious homophobia. Boys, boys of all ages dominate the scene. But in between groups, or anywhere about, people can and do join in. The line between participant and observer is blurred, very blurred. The hotel owner has hired a band and all his friends and customers are invited to join and I drunkenly wiggle my way around the plaza. A boy with a big red swastika on his cheek invites me play a some gambling game with dice and a board. I make a losing contribution. I meet a young blond restauranteur from Vancouver. A giant thirty foot tall inflated plastic bottle of Thiodan insecticide dominates one end of the plaza. I take photos promiscuously. At night a ten foot Santo Nino statue, globe in one hand and two fingers raised on the other, is carried through the square. Then, a visual non sequiter, I see a motorcyclist arrive carrying a huge Canadian maple leaf flag. At the conclusion next day I line up with all the others whod taken part in front of the Church at the other end of the plaza and we enter to be individually blessed by a priest.
In Puerto Galeras Poblacion I meet and became friends with Malcolm, an older Australian whos trying to make money writing pot boilers, a Mills and Boone romance at the time. Im just beginning to write PETERS PATH, my second novel. We both live in nipa huts near the narrow, flotsam strewn windward beach of the Poblacion. The settings idyllic and the large picturesque huts have generous porches but were quite primitive. Malcolm over the years has lavishly landscaped his beachfront hut with orchids, hibiscus and sansevieria. Mine, part way up the hill, has a shielded rock circle with a grate for cooking. Its almost like camping. Local boys offer to find sticks for me to make my fire, and they light it for me and volunteer to run down to the market if I need more food. They invite themselves for dinner. They show me how to cook rice, rinsing it thoroughly first, and eye balling the water just right. And I would need more ulam, flesh, to go round for my new dinner guests and they come back out of breath with chicken or mangled hunks of pork. After, theyd volunteer to buy soft drinks, and beer for me at the sari-sari store. At other times if I leave my door open boys may drop by, occasionally my hut is full of curious boys examining my possessions, asking questions, and bantering amongst themselves. Once about five of them pull out their titis and play with them while prancing around my room. Its a delightful tease. The smallest is not yet circumcised and one of the others suggests I smell his titi. It stinks. He may be making a point about why they like being circumcised. Typically younger boys never retract their foreskins allowing the secretions that create the smelly smegma to protect it from infections. In an unsanitary environment this may be healthier than regular cleaning. Perhaps fortunately, I have no entertainment, not even a radio, which discourages them from hanging around too much. The two older boys casually proposition me.
Malcolm was once a well known puppeteer but he became embittered with Australia resolving never to return. He has traveled and lived in Asia for many years and while having little affection for the Philippines he ended up here because it was cheap, congenial and he likes the older boys. Most of the time he has a lad around twenty staying with him who entertains us with his singing and guitar. Later the intelligent and ambitious boy meets another Australian, a friend of Malcolms, who falls in love with him and sponsors him as an immigrant. Malcolm tries to be philosophical about it. He recalls the good old days back in the 60s when he attended great homosexual orgies in the single mens barracks of the rubber plantations of Malaysia. He knows many tales from the heyday of Pagsanjan Falls in the 70s when the resort town a few hours from Manila was a major centre of boy sextourism. The trip up the rapids to the falls, and the handsome young boatmen who paddled, pulled and lugged the narrow craft upstream has been a tourist attraction since the 20s. By the 70s the town had a reputation for its young boys, perhaps most of whom were involved with the growing sex trade. Boys commuted from nearby towns to hustle there. Tourists, mainly middle aged men from Europe flocked in bringing a unique prosperity. Not only did businesses profit but much of money spent went directly to boys and their families. They built houses for themselves and sometimes the boys families. Boys were lavished with luxuries, fancy clothes, bicycles and ghetto blasters, their school fees were paid, and there were sacks of rice for their families. Money stayed in the community. The market power of boylovers even influenced local politics in their favour for a while. I only see Pagsanjan much later after a Communist hit squad has assassinated the laissez faire mayor and the righteous have regained control. Studying what happened in Pagsanjan, particularly from boys perspective, could be very instructive. Once in Manila Malcolm meets a boy that a friend of mine had brings back from Pagsanjan. They talked for a while and the boy showed him a picture in his wallet of his father, then Malcolm guessed his name and discovers that he knew the boys father intimately over twenty years before.
He follows the affairs of the Philippines and Puerto Galera with amused cynicism seemingly privy to the affairs of husbands and boys. One day sitting with Malcolm on his porch he points out a teenaged boy walking along the beach. The boy stops in front and looks around before proceeding. Malcolm says he only comes down to look for tourists when he has to pay his school fees. Other boys, really wanting something, a minor luxury to them like a neat T-shirt or a cheap watch, will seek the price of a gift. They know what they are doing and bargain. Its very informal, men and boys meet, learn a bit about each other, and then whatever.
THE NOTARYS SON
The most curious boy, in more than one way, that I meet is Romy, the rather plain son of a notary public who lives across the street from the lodging house Ive moved into. He looks about thirteen and acts shy. Hed seen me at a gay friends house and starts following me. He comes into the compound and watches me while I wash my clothes at the laundry sink. Hed watches me cooking at the outdoor grill and follows me into my room to watch me eat but never wants more than a soft drink for himself. He starts coming by a couple of times a week occasionally bringing his older sister. Hes not very interesting company and has to be prompted to say anything. Then one day after Ive finished eating he catches my attention and emphatically points at his crotch. Im not all that surprised. Its something he cant verbalize but his intent is clear. I tried to question him but he insists, pulling out his titi and using gestures he demands to be sucked. He refuses to take off any clothes or show any feeling. The routine is soon boring. I feel exploited. After I started refusing him he seldom dropped by.
AFTER THE PEOPLES POWER REVOLUTION 1987
At the Corner I get into a conversation with an Australian tourist whose tastes run to young girls.... I dont believe in giving them very much. If the cops dont grab it, they just spend it with their friends. What good is that I ask you? The ones I like, I always get their teeth fixed. God knows most of them need it. You look here now. He shows me before and after pictures of two girls just in their teens.
THE SANTO NINO
A ceasefire with the NPA rebels is negotiated and there is a palpable, though misplaced euphoria in the country. Travel becomes less dangerous and I decide to go to Negros, the wealthy/poor sugar producing island where the rebels control much of the countryside. I travel south by inter-island ferries and buses and spend a few days in Iloilo on Panay. This decaying provincial town was once prosperous textile centre but was ruined by Nineteenth Century globalization. In a museum I see an exhibition of Santo Nino (Holy Boy) images and statues. There were hundreds of them some centuries old. They ranged from small carved anatomically correct ivory dolls to richly garbed, life sized statues of ten year olds. The Santo Nino is worshipped by many Catholics in the Philippines. His image is everywhere. His statue, often with a globe in one hand and a wand in the other, is common in household alters, taxis and jeepneys and his adoration rivals that of the Virgin Mary. The popularity of the Santo Nino goes beyond his religious significance. I have purchased statuettes in souvenir stores for tourists. Originally I assumed the Santo Nino was the Christ child but then I read the actual account in an article by Nick Joachim, a well known Filipino writer. It is the story of the Holy Child of La Guardia which occurred in southern Spain in 1491 when the Moors and the Jews were being expelled from the peninsula. A beautiful blond Christian boy was supposedly missing and two Jews and six Conversos, Christian converts from Judaism, were charged with killing the boy, and using his heart in secret Jewish rituals. The defence lawyer argued that his clients were innocent and pointed to the lack of a corpse. Apparently however, this fact was not in the accuseds favour for the inquisitor ruled that the child was so perfect and pure that his body ascended straight to Heaven. The lack of a corpse was proof of the boys holiness and the iniquity of the accused who were promptly burnt at the stake. The case was publicized by the Inquisition throughout southern Spain and helped convince Queen Isabela and the public that drastic action against the Jews was required. The publicity, essentially anti-Semitic hate propaganda, led to the growth of a cult surrounding the holy boy, or the Santo Nino as he was known. Thirty years later Magellan hurried left a Santo Nino in the islands and when many years later the Spanish returned they found him being worshipped. And after the friars had burnt their literature and felled their sacred trees the islanders with the help of the Santo Nino easily adopted the formalities of Roman Catholicism.
I continue on to Negros, long an island of sugar and insurgents. In Bacolod the main city the rebels have come down from the hills with the ceasefire and huge political murals have been brightly painted on walls. In the central market I am talking to a couple of women running a stall when I notice a scrawny boy possibly thirteen watching me. One of the women tells me hes a prostitute and not supposed to be in the market. I take his picture before they shoo him away. Later I meet the man who runs the tourist office and over a beer he tells that boys usually hang out by the tourist hotel on the plaza. I never checked out his recommendation and after touring a sugar mill I went on to Mindinao. In Iligan, a pre-rust steel smelting city, a boy tells me my hair is ugly and I find out that his father is a barber. During my ten peso cut friends of the boy arrive and I end up taking them to a karaoke bar where two of them sing for me as the bouncing ball makes its way across the lyrics on the screen. In the morning the barbers son comes around to my hotel to take me on a tourist hike around his city. A couple of days later I head to Marawi, which I am told is the centre of Muslim culture in the Philippines. I find a shabby plaza with a neglected statue of Jose Rizal, the Tagalog, and a huge unfinished mosque with scaffolding black with age, dominating the centre of this lakeshore city. A wealthy Muslim in a big car with what look like henchmen stops and questions me. He does not know what to make of my answers, he may think I am some sort of agent, and after making some self important comments he leaves graciously. I take a jeepney out to the new university campus that Marcos had built as part of his policy to gain support for his Muslim policy. Boys approach me as I look out on its beautiful lakeside location, a failed allusion to the lakeside campus at Madison Wisconsin, but in its own right nicely done. After formalities a sensuous, soft faced adolescent boy, looking appropriately clad in a pink Physical T-shirt, offers to show me the architecturally conscious mosque. I follow the boys into the tiled ablution area for men where we are soon castigated for removing our shoes. We retreat and I decide to return to Iligan.
Back in Manila my young friend Joseph is tripping out on solvent in my room. He pours more poly, nailpolish remover, on a handkerchief and looks at me as if it was none of my business, and it isnt really. I watch as he arranges and rearranges little toy feather birds and the crumpled pages of a komic book entertaining himself as if on acid. When he notices me looking he tells me to go back to my writing. He moves around, sniffs, immersed in his fantasy. Occasionally he utters a sentence meaningful only to himself. Its a game I find out, Superdolls. Then he becomes fascinated with shoes and he snorts as he plays and rearranges them.
The newspaper reports that Manila police and firemen are to be given a refresher course where they will be trained to not remove valuables from crime and fire victims. Reminds me of the signs by the check-outs in Safeway Stores: Our staff have been trained to not doublebag. I suppose it can be quite difficult.
The soils no good
The roads not near
An farmers fear
An sometimes people
We want prosperity
Schools and electricity
Our children want the dignity
Of Adidas on their feet
Cut down the jungle
Slash and burn
No more poverty
Its our turn
Well have a party
And grow maryjane
We want prosperity
More food and TV
Our children want the dignity
Of Adidas on their feet
Defend our land and liberty
Join the band of insurgency
Fight the military
And kill the Gringos men
We want prosperity
Guns not charity
Our children want the dignity
Of Adidas on their feet
I have a pleasant room albeit on the sixth floor of an elevatorless building. And its not particularly cheap but its bright and breezy with its door opening onto a wide, tiled terrace where the labandera washes and hangs the laundry to dry by day.
In the evening it is a cool place to make and have dinner and drink, a favourite pastime of mine. Often I have guests, boys who help with the cooking and cleaning up after. From the terrace a spiral staircase leads up to a parapetted, almost private roof where someone has left a homemade set of bodybuilding weights that some of the boys like to play with. At night with a bright moon and Manilas low hazy skyline all around you it is like a pinnacle in some other planets desert. By day its mostly dreary rusting rooftops with a surprising number of trees preserved by poverty and uncertainty from development. Low mountains more than half encircle Manila at a distance but they are seldom even smudges on the horizon because of the smog.
I might well have taken the room anyway but after following the sixteen year old roomboys ass up all those stairs I was not in a critical mood. I simply told bright and breezy, wholewheat wholesome Arnold Id take it. I get to know Arnold and the guard Rohelio better by plying them with beer in the tiny lobby after hours. On the second such evening I notice Arnold getting a lot of friendly attention from a fourth floor Japanese tourist. After the tourist leaves I inquire if hes bakla, gay. Arnold says No and immediately asks me if I am. I decide to be honest with the young lad and own up to my sexual orientation (in very general terms). Me bakla also. Arnold beams, and Rohelio bakla also. Apparently we are all bakla and they begin offering each other to me. It becomes a hilarious competition but soon only the other one is bakla, then neither, then both again. After a while when I leave Arnold quietly suggests I come back later when I know hes off duty. I return on time my glands salivating hormones. Arnold tells me to wait one minute. He reappears with an older boy, Jaime. Oh my god, such a queen and what a slut! What can I do? Well I am a polite person.
Arnold wants to know exactly what Jaime and I did up in my room, but he declines my offer to show him. However hes soon bringing me a newspaper and hot pandesal to go with my coffee every morning at eight, and saving the extra pesos for school. Arnolds very curious. Door open he begins to explore my room and possessions, and like many youngsters here is fascinated by my typewriter and seeing his words, usually his name, in print. Arnold remains shy in my always door open room but down in the lobby with Rohelio for an audience, he becomes an outrageous tease. He loves to pose, often cutely, and is delighted with the snapshots of himself I give him. Sometimes hell push down his waistband or unzip his fly and stick out a finger, or pretend to kiss Rohelio.
I come back from the store and Arnold, curious, checks out the contents of my bag, a typically Filipino gesture. Oh, four eggs (also the term for balls), he declares, now you have six. Me two eggs only, and Rohelio also two only. How do I know he has two, I demand proof. Arnold pulls out his waistband and peers down, Yes, two only. Together we have ten eggs. I suggest we make a big omelette. You be the one to cook? he laughs at his own joke. For a while there are new egg jokes every day. What has one ball and ten eggs? - A basketball team. Pretty corny and juvenile, but lots of fun. You like to kiss me? Arnold puckers up ten feet away. I blow him one as he wiggles and moans. Now I kiss you. he blows me one, You like? I kiss him again as I leave. Back from the store I pretend to take back my kiss from his cheek. You do not like me anymore? and he mock weeps. Arnold just celebrated his seventeenth birthday. I gave him some expensive ointment and special soap for his incipient acne. Hes a very curious boy. Gay? Who knows, but probably more fun still a virgin in either case.
CHRISTMAS BEACH PARTY
When I go to Puerto Galera I always look up Noel at White Beach. I met him when I first came here when he and his friends were selling magic mushrooms on the beach that theyd picked up in the mountains. I havent seen Noel for three years as on my last trip hed been off in Dumagete, the guest of a foreigner. I find him at his uncles restaurant, hes changed, he still has a smiling boyish face but the slender adolescent body has undergone a Charles Atlas like transformation, not quite FLEX MAGAZINE material, but very impressive on his five foot frame. We have a quick beer, hes working on his brothers charter pumpboat or banca, and we arrange to get together for more later.
I have another beer and look out across the strait between Mindoro and Luzon, the posts, bamboo lattices and the ragged nipa eaves are dark, almost black against the blue and white glare of sky, sea and beach outside. The views like some impressionist painting with its hard edges and pure colours. I try capturing it on film though I know Ill fail. Its unusually hot, bright, and still for this shady, warm, breezy clime, a good day for drinking beer. Later when its cooler I walk along the beach, a wide and in places wild feeling beach that reminds me of those at Cape Scott or along the West Coast Trail. Noels brother Emilio, who has the banca, is organizing a Christmas Day picnic excursion to Bikini Beach well beyond the roads end. Christmas is Noels birthday, hell be twenty. Theyll roast a pig and therell be all the booze you can drink. It seems like a good way to avoid Christmas bullshit and the seasonal depression that accompanies it. I agree to join the party.
The next morning there seem to be more than the usual Filipino quota of delays and Im disappointed when I find out that Noel wont be coming. But I know the others and enjoy watching Allan, a well tanned youngster who acts as a gofor and poses heroically but unconsciously standing on the bow. I feel somewhat better when we arrive at the isolated beach, a perfection of brilliant white sand, palm fringes, guardian rock formations and jungled slope behind. Helping to set things up and a couple of drinks allow me feel better still. A little liquor makes me more like the person I like to be. Too much is another question. Therere eleven of us foreigners, Four Italians, a French Canadian couple with the rest Germans and Swiss and myself. Im the only native English speaker although its the language we all use. I exchange travel tales with a pleasantly intense globetrotting lady from Munich and an Italian backpacker tells me about his trip through India. Young Allan climbs a palm and in what looks like a dangerous operation twists and hacks off a few coconuts which he expertly opens with a bolo after just piercing the kernel so that we can drink the milk inside. Emilio and Tony impale the pig and make a crude rotisserie over a pit of coco husk charcoal. Alan helps me empty a cigarette and fill it with some ganja, a procedure often necessary in a land where any rolling papers are difficult to find and gummed ones impossible. We drink, eat and drink and the afternoon babbles on. The only thing we run out of is rice. At dusk we set off back to White Beach in a festive mood, most of the overloaded passengers standing up and singing. We havent gone far when the banca slowly, very slowly at first begins to tip and capsizes. Theres general amusement, no panic, as people jump into the water. Slow motion surreality. Fortunately were close to shore and we all make it to a beach easily.
The boys rescue what they can, my camera in its case and my shoulder bag seems okay but over two dozen beer and the rest of the rum are sadly lost. The overturned banca is brought into shallow water. The consensus seems to be that the outriggers must have become waterlogged. They have to be unleashed before the boat can be righted. We soon have a good fire going to dry out our things and huddle around. Too bad about the booze but its too dark and deep to dive for. Im beginning to think were there for the night when Emilio hails a passing small fishing banca and gets a ride back to White Beach. Hes soon back with a larger boat to tow us and we resume partying, Noel joining us, at his uncles Restaurant. The whole incident seems remarkably unexciting.
It did not occur to me or the other passengers that we should demand compensation for our inconvenience and minor losses, it was after all an adventure of sorts. In Europe or North America Im sure we wouldve considered legal recourse. What we did not expect however, was that the boys, Emilio and Tony felt that we should help them pay for having the boats damaged engine rebuilt. But this is the Philippines and most of us chipped in.
BAREFOOT BEGGAR BOY
Barefoot beggar boy on a Third World street
Scars on your face, sores on your feet
You point at your belly and mumble, Me eat?
Dont put me on
You want to buy some solvent, the beggars treat
Barefoot beggar boy arent you keen
For some fancy Ray Bans and designer jeans
And to eat at McDonalds, not rice and beans
How about it?
Some material dignity, you know what I mean
Look at those other boys smart and neat
Brand new Reeboks gracing their feet
Bouncing to the rhythm of the disco beat
Not bad eh?
Waiting for some queer into young boy meat
Barefoot beggar boy theres the sextrade scene
But youre so skinny and your bod aint clean
And your face is etched in a plaintive mien
Lets face it
Peddling your ass can be only a dream
Christians invite you to a hymn sing song
More people in the plaza to show theyre strong
And if you beg forgiveness you can join the throng
But you know its sinning not hunger thats wrong
But barefoot beggar boy you can come with me
Ill groom you and clothe you for the economy
And youll never lack drugs or go hungry
Off with your pants
So I can educate your ass and set you free
The second time I get busted for maryjane is the day after the first time. It was in almost the same place and in a similar situation, but much more expensive. The second time Im with Louie, an easy going boy from the Corner who looks old enough not to raise any eyebrows at my pension. A couple of times weve played pusoy in my room and hes spent hours curiously examining my possessions and asking all sorts of questions. He tells me he very much likes maryjane gets me some for me. After what happened the day before, which I realize was sheer stupidity, I am extra cautious. Roxas is a very wide boulevard with slender coconut palms allowing good visibility in all directions, I assure myself for the second time in two days. I check the low beds of flowers I must have neglected the day before and Louies a second set of eyes. Filipino marijuana is similar to the common Mexican of the 60s, not very potent but it works. Boys can buy a gram in a tiny ziploc with two gumless papers for ten pesos. They charge tourists double, about a dollar. Louie shields me from the breeze off the bay as I light a joint. After a good toke I pass it over to him and its just got back to me when three tanods surround us and grab our wrists. Its like theyve just materialized.. I cant believe it. They begin leading us back to the barangay outpost. The day before I had suggested that we should be reasonable and discuss the matter, and the contents of my wallet, some three hundred plus pesos had been sufficient. And theyd even left me with twenty pesos in case I needed to take a taxi. We shook hands and parted amicably. This time I have about a thousand pesos on me which I dont want to give up. I look the tanod over, theyre small wiry guys and two look as old as me, and there are two of us. I abruptly shake them off and run a half a block to a busy street with Louie beside me. I see an aircon restaurant closed to the street and we enter. Its much more opulent and expensive than those I usually patronize but Louie deserves a treat for sticking with me and we order chicken lasagne from the Mediterranean menu. Ill order wine later. I am wondering why the order is taking so long when a tanod comes in and looks around the otherwise empty restaurant. Im ready to deal. However the tanod quickly reappears with a uniformed Metrocom policeman. The maitre de is very sympathetic and protests in vain. At the barangay outpost I try lying. The captain wants to know if I am calling his men liars? I certainly wouldnt want to do that. The captain explains that the situation has become difficult because now Metrocom is involved. I offer them all the money in my wallet. They have an animated conversation in Tagalog and seem to come to some agreement amongst themselves. I am to go with the officer and two tanods in the white police jeep. Our first stop is the hotel where I have safekeeping envelope in their vault which fortunately can be opened. I take out my folder of travellers cheques and remove one for a hundred dollars U.S. They really could have demanded more but didnt. Then I am driven to a money changer on Mabini and negotiate my travellers cheque for pesos. The police complain that I didnt get a good rate and should have held out for more. They divide the money among themselves and the officer offers me a ride back to the Corner. I decline, its only a couple of blocks. The next day the tanods are unusually friendly and make sport teasing me about the bust.
My German friend Mark rented the second floor of a house on the outskirts of Bontoc, an isolated town in the Cordillera region of Northern Luzon. I stay with him for a few months over the time he has the place. Except for the rice terraces the country is reminiscent of the Okanagan with grassy hillsides and pines not unlike the ponderosa. The impressive terraces were started over two thousand years ago and are probably the only world class wonder in the country. In places they ascend a mile in elevation up mountainsides with the terraces often less than half as wide as theyre tall. They were begun when most of the fertile lowlands were sparsely inhabited. What brought the Igorots to these mountains with so much flat land available is a mystery. Possibly the healthy, more stimulating climate, and the availability of game which they originally only supplemented with rice may be how it started. The building of terraces may also have been a cultural enterprise bringing status to the builder. They were part of a larger Malay culture which practiced wet rice cultivation, headhunting, animism, juvenile male circumcision and piercings for the men. Headhunting was part of a miniature international political system which allowed neighbouring settlements to coexist and develop a tribal culture without chiefs or central power. It gave some of the benefits of a state without having to have a state. The government was people you knew. Headhunting was a sport of ambitious young men who found heads useful for a number of things including impressing the girls. The heads could be from little kids or really old folks, it didnt matter, it was a numbers game where all heads are equal, but it caused trouble with the neighbours who might retaliate. This led to alliances and usually peace pacts cemented by intermarrying. The peoples of this part of the Philippines werent subdued until after the American conquest a hundred years ago and do not share the Spanish/Catholic traditions of most Filipinos.
I took a bus up to Bagio, the only mountain city in the Philippines and sometimes called its summer capital. Bars and restaurants are panelled in pine and some have fireplaces, frosts are not unknown. The road north is not paved and generally keeps to the mountain ridges, the higher elevations which are valued for growing vegetables due to their cool nights. Lowland tropical vegetables are often dwarfed, tasteless caricatures of those grown in temperate gardens. Bontoc, six tortuous hours away is like a dingy Wild West town surrounded by rice terraced mountainsides. One of my first impressions of Bontoc is seeing young men and teens doing their laundry doing their laundry in the Chico River. We drive out on to a sandbar in this Similkameen sized stream to where the seasonally low water swirls amongst huge boulders. They squat scrubbing their fancy sports shoes, logoed shirts and jeans and rinsing them in the current. After pressing them on warm flat rocks to dry in the Sun they modestly bathe and swim in the fast flowing channels. When the boys dress and leave they look as fashionable as their urban cousins. Elsewhere on both sides of the river trucks with whole families are doing their laundry, bathing, removing sand and picnicking.
At least thirty miles of tortuous, eroded mountain roads separate Bontoc from the paved highway system but its the hub city of the Cordillera an isolated and rebellious region. Bontoc was about as far as the Spaniards got in their 300 plus years. Roads are often not open, at least to the army, and too dangerous for regular buses. The New Peoples Army, the Marxist NPA, and a splinter group, the Cordilleran Peoples Liberation Army, the CPLA led by the rebel priest, Father Balweg, control the roads north and west into the remote Igorot heartland, uncontaminated by lowland settlers and having difficulty understanding that they are Filipinos after having being told theyre not. I hear a recent true legend repeated about the three Swiss travellers who innocently and unknowingly violated some holy place and lost their heads. I wondered if they might have been ritually sacrificed. Holdappers, as they are known here, are my main fear. They may be genuine bandits claiming some rebel affiliation for effect, or they may be genuine rebels merely collecting a revolutionary tax to redistribute your wealth. Or again they may the AFP, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, disguised as rebels as part of some psywar ploy or perhaps in full uniform with their name tags displayed. Results are similar.
Dinner is a big occasion at Marks and friends, mostly boys, are frequent guests. One of them, Cuthbert, takes care of his place when he is away and acts a houseboy. As the water pressure is only rarely enough to reach our kitchen tap he keeps the large tank over the sink full by carrying up buckets of water from below. He lives in a nearby squatter area, but his house is much more spacious than ones I know in Manila. I go there with him when he has to attend an all night vigil beside the casket of some elderly relative. I do not stay too long as it is boring and every few hours I would be expected to make another donation. The boys often bring friends and we prepared minor feasts, the boys help carry water, cook, run errands to the stores, and wash up. The standard of English is high in the mountain provinces is high as a result of American and missionary schools. I learn about their perceptions and concerns and the conversation is interesting and often entertaining. They knew we are interested in them, that we liked boys. They liked us for liking them but remain cautious. Mark claims he had no lust for any of them, he would suffer, no one could replace this boy hed foolishly lost. He now sought only platonic relationships with boys and I was to keep my hands off them. We spend a lot of time working on and arguing over bizarre movie scripts involving post apocalypse scenarios.
Id become interested in the local mountain history and culture from my readings and gathered certain ancient practices including headhunting still occur in remote areas. I was particularly interested in the former custom where children from well before puberty began staying in gender segregated houses; ators for boys and ulans for girls where they would sleep and be taught the lore of their group. They were not like residential schools as the schooling was not regimented and they would still eat at home and contribute to their families livelihood. I questioned the boys about it. Most of them I found out had relatives, uncles and grandparents who still lived in traditional upland villages beyond road end. Two of the boys took me on hikes up to their ancestral villages. I met uncles, grandparents and drank warm beer which is packed into even the remotest settlements.
Maligcong, which is mentioned in some guide books, is a hamlet of a few hundred with a magnificent setting on a ridge surrounded by steep rice terraces. It overlooks Bontoc and the Chico valley. The traditional raised, log, plank and thatch houses were dark with age and smoke and a few newer structures were clad with galvanized iron. Each house has a large stone walled pit where they keep pigs. Human excrement is disposed of in the pit, theres a place to sit, and pig manure is collected for fertilizer. The hamlet retains a sacred grove of large benquet pines. In the lowlands the Spaniards cut down the sacred trees and groves as part of converting the islands to Catholicism. Maligcong has preserved its ator which is on a slightly raised plaza paved with rough stone and furnished with stone benches. In times past trophy heads were displayed on the lopped branches of a small dead tree. The boys slept in a long, low, narrow and tapered thatched structure at the back. Inside it was quite dark and I had to stoop. Most of the width was taken up by an open plank bench across which the boys used to sleep with the bigger boys at the wider end. The boys would stay there until they married, usually in their late teens. The ator was the centre of peer life and where the men would meet to discuss public affairs. I did not hear any first hand accounts of ator life but other sources suggest that teens of both sexes led promiscuous lives before marriage with universal adolescent homosexuality leading to near universal adult monogamous heterosexual relationships. Acts we would define as sexual abuse were probably rampant but not traumatizing as children in North America are taught to interpret them.
Through the boys I heard of Howard who among other things was a tourist guide and spoke a few local languages. Cuthbert who knew him took me to his modest but comfortable house. Some of the boys did not particularly like him as he did not keep his hands to himself. However I found several boys hanging around his place. In a few days I arranged to go with him and Cuthbert to a remote mountain village in the Province of Kalinga-Apayao, a rebellious mountain region where government never really got control and where the legendary, now German tourists lost their heads. Apparently they were disrespectful. The locals in the region with the help of the rebels had recently forced the government to scrap plans for a major hydro-electric dam on the Chico River which would have flooded a number of settlements. Howard, Cuthbert and myself catch an old bus early in the morning. The road down the valley is one of few classic scenic drives in the Philippines. Its rugged, Okanagan type country with much of the lesser slopes terraced with rice paddies and small well tended orchards of coffee. The steep, compact villages are quaintly exquisite in their tidy settings. Cuthbert has me look down the embankment at the carcass of an army tank ambushed by one of the two guerrilla armies active in the area. We get off the bus by a small cluster of stores and a few huts. Its the stop and drop off for a pretty village across the river, and far down a steep trail I notice a footbridge to the other side. As we are a couple of hours early for our rendezvous Howard suggests we visit the village while we wait. We make it across the narrow bridge and are surprised that we see no one when we approach the settlement. After a few minutes a woman screams at us from a high window. We are being cursed. The people are unfriendly and suspicious of strangers, perhaps especially foreigners, and we turn back, driven away. We hang out at one of the small stores on the road and after a while Howard leads us inside and out the back we meet Ben, our escort who carries a what I believe to be an AK-47 rifle. The trail starts out as a narrow but engineered grade that doesnt, and I suspect deliberately, connect to the highway. Im told it goes most of the way to their first village. It may have been part of some counter insurgency program but was never completed. Our escort Ben says he can hike up it in three hours, I assume five at least for me. I take pictures of the trail and the small mountains, some gleaming with grasses in noon Sun. I surge ahead eagerly at one point and encounter three armed men coming down who simply pass by. Ben tells me after that I should always stay behind him because I could get shot.
Howard had stocked up on cartons of small boxes of wooden matches which he explained would be useful as gifts. They are a currency of sorts. I thought it was an enormous amount even if we were giving them away. When we stopped to rest at the brow of a grassy ridge where one large lone pine tree provides some shelter we found a few others relaxing. One man was cutting shavings from a pitch soaked branch hed chopped off the tree. Howard offers the man some matches in exchange for several shavings and lights one, I am amazed how brilliantly it burns. Two old women come over and gesture greedily that they want matches too. Everyone gets some matches after that. We just start up the trail when I am accosted by a man wanting to light a cigarette. I have no matches on me and pass him my lighter which he innocently keeps. Matches, portable instant fire starting devices, are revolutionary technology and can make life so much easier for people. They make an ideal luxury gift. Lighters would soon create a litter problem for people who arent used to disposable, non degradable items.
Later the trail becomes an irregular path through hillside rice terraces, many recently planted with shoots, and leads us to a deep side valley we have to cross to reach the village which we can glimpse high up on the ridge across from us. When we reach the bottom Ben insists we swim in a pool that has been encouraged below a small waterfall. Cuthbert, more modest than the rest, watches us splash and fool around for a couple of minutes before we start up the last and steepest section of the trail. Near the top we find small children bathing beneath a makeshift shower of bamboo pipe. The blackened raised houses are clustered close together and the paths between them are almost gloomy. A typical house is made available for us. It has walls of wide adzed pine planks and a thick cogon thatched roof that slopes to near the floor, there are no windows. The wide plank floor is lustrously polished. They ask if I would like a soft drink or a beer. Ten pesos for beer seems very reasonable at the altitude and Howard and Cuthbert seem to agree. I offer to buy one for Ben too. And when I suggest we have some more my hosts tell me to wait a minute. Half an hour later I think theyve forgotten but Howard explains that the village has run out of beer and someone has gone to a village higher up the mountain which they think has some. Would I like to try some basi, a rice wine? A woman retrieves from a corner a large, ornate, blue and white ancient Chinese crock, undoubtedly an heirloom and probably worth a fair amount in the urban collectors market. It could be several hundred years old. She removes the lid and presses a ladle down into the porridge like contents of the crock and it fills up with a clearish, and I find potent liquor. I am not disappointed when they only find two bottles in the other village, as Im liking the basi. Several of Bens comrades visit our house to see, watch, get a glimpse of, and perhaps talk with us, but few drink and none more than a token sip of friendship. In the linguistically influent situation we perform, or at least I do. Cuthberts very quiet and Howard is talking to someone he knows. I think theyre Communist rebels, not from Conrad Balwegs breakaway group. They are too naive to disbelieve the simple truth of my purpose there. I try to impress them with my nobody-ness and attempt what I think are simple questions, but language problems, their barely rudimentary English, limits our communication. Neither Howard or Cuthbert understand the local dialect. We are not able to talk philosophy and politics. After asking I take some social pictures. Howard tells me that he paid a modest revolutionary tax for our visit.
In the morning, quite urgently as usual, I have to take a shit and Id forgotten to check things out the night before in my basi stupor. I find one of the rebels, a young guy, sexy looking but too old and hairy for me, who points to some to some small bushes nearby. Its not very private but I cant wait. I squat. OOOHHHH. A pig trots up to me. I hear more behind. Theres three and another coming. One is snortling around my ass. I remember reading that China has become the leading country in penile re-attachment surgery because of situations like this. I decide against letting the pigs lick my fingers. Cuthbert and I explore the village. Besides rice they grow beans on their terraces which they use as a cash crop as they eat few. They also grow maryjane. Near the centre of the village we come across a large pile of drying plants and men, armed rebels stripping the flower ends off branches which they collect in huge aluminum bowls. They offer me a handful of the small kolas. Ive heard that the Philippines supplies much of the Japanese market. In the mountains pot sells for as little as a nickel a gram. Its not that potent.
Noel, my muscular young friend from Puerto Galera, that beach blessed corner of the island of Mindoro, comes to stay with me. He wants to check out the job scene in Manila and see the big city on his own for the first time. Predictably theres not much worthwhile for a twenty year old beach boy used to a good life and who despite a magnificent physique stands only five foot two. Noel does however speak English quite fluently as a result of his contacts with tourists, especially the Englishman who tutored him personally for eight months when he was twelve. He and his brothers have done well by foreigners whove paid their school fees, bought them clothes and expensive gifts, and helped their parents build a better house. One of his older brothers has set up a small charter boat operation with a long time foreign friend providing the capital. The father is not unconcerned about these relationships and has always insisted that his sons never suck the foreigners cock or let themselves be fucked. In a reversal of roles I become Noels tourist guide, introduce him to rollerskating (there are no smooth hard surfaces in Puerto), and of course take him to the Corner. Its a typical evening; tourists, hookers, soulsavers, and the usual people of the street, a few pesos here, a few pesos there to those who are becoming regular customers. We take our beers across Santa Monica to the little plaza and find a bench to sit on. I lecture the first urchin to approach me on his need to upgrade his begging skills. Pero, gutom, like say ongry. he protests. Ricardo, a dark wiry lad about fifteen with a proud bearing and soft Malay features sits near us. We all shake hands. Ricardos a polite and patient beggar who I often give a bit extra. Another reason I like him is that despite the fact hes been around the Corner for years he speaks practically no English and I get a chance to work with my meagre Tagalog Ive been neglecting to study. I offer to buy him a soft drink but he indicates he would prefer a beer like us. I hesitate because of his age, the law says twenty one, but laws can be taken too seriously and being a natural corrupter of youth I buy him one anyway which he sips discreetly. A couple of other old young friends join us, more beers, and after a while Noel excuses himself for some call of nature. Ricardo brings up the subject of money and I in a perverse sadogenerous mood switch the subject to Filipino history. I hold up a hundred peso bill, about five bucks, and tell him he can have it if he can say whose pictures on the front. Jose Rizal. Unfortunately for Ricardo its Roxas whose puppet presidency was engineered by General MacArthur just after the war. I work down through the bills in my wallet; the fifty, the twenty, the ten and the five, and Rizal is the only answer I get. Finally I bring out a one peso coin and Ricardo blurts, Mabini. Mabini, a polio cripple who was the premier and so called brains of the brief revolutionary government of the First Republic at the turn of the century. He was exiled by the victorious Americans and his face is on the ten peso bill. Rizals head is on the one peso coin.
Noels been gone an awfully long time and Im just starting to worry when hes escorted back by a tanod. I quickly slip Noel most of my money and find out that hes been busted for drinking in a public place. The boys have concealed their bottles but mines in front of me. I go back a few yards to the barangay outpost, little more than a shack with a wood barred holding cell at one end where a couple of boys in their early teens are confined. The officer in charge is obviously drunk and is more interested in pawing the teenage hooker clinging to him than talking to me.
I make the point that people always drink in the plaza. It is only legal for foreigners to drink there. and he quotes some presidential decree from the Marcos era. I ask if that means that foreigners have more rights than Filipinos. That is the regulations. he informs me getting a little arrogant. He also tells me Noel could be charged with urinating in a public place and quotes fines in the thousands and months in jail. This is absurd, what are alleys for anyway?
Its an attempted shakedown of course, my first in several years. Im sure the tanod saw other Filipinos, probably including young Ricardo drinking in the plaza but they are all locals, either paupers or connected. But Noel is a stranger and obviously my companion and responsibility, an ideal situation for them. However at this point Im not ready to make an offer. I go over to Raymonds Fast Food, the sleaze bar pick-up joint for young girls where Pepito is the tanod on duty. He doesnt think theyll formally charge Noel, but he can be held until midnight. Its only eight and I dont want my young guest from the provinces to spend the evening in the lockup. I go back to the tanod outpost and speak to the officer in charge as if we were both reasonable men. Hes not impressed and threatening to raise the stakes he says that he may have to consult a superior officer.
Back at the Corner an English expatriate of many years advises me to see the owners of the stand where I bought the beer. Ive met them briefly and find the wife at Johnnys, a gay bar they also own a couple of blocks away. Lucille listens, tells me to wait and returns with Noel twenty minutes later. She sits and has a drink with us, not letting us pay. Things were apparently very straightforward, shed have been back sooner but had other business to attend to, and if shed known that Noel had given them money shed have got that back too. There are paths in the jungles of Manila.
Afterwards Noel tells me he became very scared when one of the boys Id seen there, a solvent boy, was given a nasty beating with a cane before they let him go. This way of dealing with juvenile offenders, quick on the spot physical abuse, may be more humane than involving them in the long and uncertain processes of the judicial and custodial systems. It may also be cost and result effective just as some would claim that it often worked well in Canada in the not too distant past. Beatings are painful, but unlike our culture, kids here are not encouraged to traumatize abuse. Its an aspect of machismo that protects people. Abuse is not a big problem, its the abuse of abuse that is. Newspeak makes it difficult to express ideas accurately.
Im having a beer at one of the Corners cheaper stands when Boyet, an old customer of mine, hobbles over on his crutch, grabs my arm and pleads, Robin, I want to go home. This isnt the first time hes asked me but its the first time Im sympathetic. Years ago when he was maybe seventeen Boyet was one of the more cheerful and interesting beggars around. We would talk, joke, meet his friends and after a while I would buy him a simple meal or give him a few pesos. I learnt that polio, long ago eliminated in most parts of the world, had withered his leg and that he had relatives in Pampanga, a nearby province speaking a different dialect.
Not long after I met him he told me in tears one day that he didnt like being a beggar, and that he wanted a chance. I could understand that. He wanted to be a businessman and explained what he needed. Theres a loud Australian around the Corner who tells the story of how he gave a beggar boy two pivoting wheels, the kind they use on push carts, and how this kid put made a cart from scraps and started scavenging garbage and now had three little kids working for him. Ah yes, venture capital will solve the worlds problems! So I gave him about twenty dollars to set himself up as a real cigarette vendor with a proper box and stock.... The next day Boyet tells me the police robbed him while he was sleeping in the plaza - a plausible story, especially if hed advertised his good fortune. I was disappointed, and despite his pleas I did not repeat my generosity. Since then Ive both tried and refused to help him, once being screwed around for my efforts.
Time, the hard life of the street and the peculiar demands of begging have taken their toll. Boyet seldom smiles or chats anymore, and the reflexive pleading expression seems permanently etched into his face. For years now Ive usually just given him enough to get rid of him, Ive got other mendicant customers to think of. And hes often sniffing solvent or poly as they call it, the beggars drug of choice at ten pesos a bottle. Perhaps unfairly, with a beer in my hand, Ive used this as an excuse not to be more generous and considerate. I wish I didnt ask myself these kinds of questions. I should understand that if ones a beggar, forced to sleep on the street, go unbathed and unable to afford booze, that maybe solvents not such a bad idea after all. Ive always assumed that solvent is very brain damaging, but an American acquaintance here tells me its not, at least compared to glue. With so much drug education these days, accurate information is scarce. Certainly the street kids you see on solvent - some as young as seven - seem happy enough playing, joking, drunk dancing and occasionally masturbating in public. But sometimes they get violent and do things they normally wouldnt.
Two weeks ago Boyet showed up at the Corner with a dilapidated shoeshine box making another stab at being a shineboy. Unfortunately I was wearing canvas shoes so I gave him fifty pesos for more polish, but this venture did not last long. A few days later he pleaded, Robin, I want to go home. No. What would you do in Pampanga? I ask. Boyet wants to stay with his sister and maybe raise chickens. I know hes very unhappy but I cant really see him doing it, I know hes tried before and tell him so.
Three days before the particular evening Im approached by Scarface, a hardened street child who pulls back a bandage to show me a deep cut near his elbow where someone had stabbed him. He also has a prescription from a clinic and wants fifty pesos for antibiotics. As hes a regular customer I give him the money but insist that he show me the pills and the receipt, or he loses his credit rating. Hes no sooner back with the proof than Im called over to the plaza where I find Boyet with his face swollen and swathed in bandages. Someone has slashed him with a broken bottle and he also needs antibiotics, another fifty pesos. I find out that they both had been doing solvent and gambling, that thered been a disagreement over ten pesos, and that Boyet had stabbed first. When three days later Boyet repeats his plea, Robin, I want to go home. I agree to help him. Hes at his wits end and will have a four inch scar across his cheek for life.
Late next morning Mario, my current young companion who also knows Boyet, and I meet him at the Corner. First we feed him in a restaurant normally off bounds for beggars. Next a bath. I know that the Ermita Church at the north end of the strip has public showers for ten pesos but for reasons not explained Boyet cant go there. We decide to try the showers at Paco Market, a short jeepney ride away, and off he goes with Mario but Boyets soon back unwashed. He has Bahala Na Gang tattoos on his shoulders, a souvenir of a stay in jail, and doesnt dare strip because the markets some other gangs turf. Finally he goes down to the foul waters of Manila Bay to bathe while Mario buys him a new T-shirt and shorts.
Fed, washed and newly clothed Boyet looks much better and we set off to Divisoria, Manilas sprawling central market which congests the streets for blocks around, to catch the bus to Macabebe, Pampanga. Ive heard, or rather read about Macabebe, it has a long tradition of providing mercenaries to suppress the frequent rebellions of their fellow Filipinos, although of course they never look at it that way. The Macabebe Scouts organized by the American invaders were very effective in the long and savage war against the infant republic which had just thrown off three centuries of Spanish rule. General Antonio Luna, by reputation the best general the Filipinos had in their war against the Americans, wanted Macabebe burnt to the ground, wiped off the map.
It takes the old wood floored bus with plywood shutter windows almost an hour to escape the narrow, chaotic streets and make it onto the North Luzon Expressway, but in less than three we arrive at Macabebe, a typical town of the flat central plain of Luzon. We get out in the town plaza and buy some mangoes and santols to take to Boyets sister. A forty peso tricycle ride to her place ends on a dirt road in a countryside as bleak as photos of Saskatchewan a century ago, only the shack is made of bamboo and palm thatch instead of sod and poles, and the flat barren fields are the dry stubble of rice paddies harvested months ago in this one crop a year region. A few chickens, two goat kids and a pig tied up in the shade of a lone scrawny tree are the only signs of life.
Then Boyets sister and some others come over from a neighbours to greet us and were invited into the small dirt floored shack with a raised cubicle for sleeping. Theres no electricity and water has to be carried in. His sister lives with her husband and two children, a camera shy boy of three and a girl on the verge of walking, and shes pregnant again. Were served Nescafe and cold pandesal. A young uncle is sent off on his bicycle to buy potatoes as they assume that, as a white foreigner, I do not eat rice.
The conversation is in Pampangeno with Mario understanding little more than me. The heat is oppressive, its not just me, and we move to the shade at the back of the shack - leaning, squatting, the children crawling around their father as mother french fries potatoes for me in the torrid cooking lean-to. The worst heat of the day over we walk the hundred yards or so over to the only other houses around in the prairie like scene, a cluster of three much better ones where many of Boyets relatives live. One even has a tiny sari-sari store in front selling warm beer and soft drinks, cigarettes, candy, Master Brand sardines and little else. Were introduced to aunts, cousins, in-laws and Boyets skinny, magnificently wrinkled grandmother. More people keep appearing; curious boys who seldom get a chance to meet a foreigner, shy dalagas (unmarried girls) staying near doors and standing on stairs, other women just watching with uncertain looks and various faces staring out windows. Filipinos are an intensely curious - wed say nosy people.
A small swarm of preteen boys, clean, healthy, natural country boys with unblemished limbs gather round me. One calls out, Take me!. Others join in, Take me, take me. My perverted mind relishes the unintended entendre. Shoot me! They excitedly chatter and pose as I blast them with a few rounds from my autofocus. I would like waste more film on them but suddenly Im in demand. Yes, Ive brought an extra roll for such a contingency. Everybody gets into the act, even granny, all sorts of different groupings and I have to be part of some of them. The low angle of the Sun provides excellent lighting. A fun time, a role I like playing ever so often and I promise them duplicate copies.
I turn down the invitation to stay the night. Boyets sister would insist I have the best bed in the place which would not only add to their already overcrowded situation but embarrass me. And I figure the mosquitoes would be bad. Shortly before I leave I unobtrusively slip Boyet a hundred pesos, a mistake I realize later. Last thing as we board a jeepney on the highway, Boyet, beggar to the core, asks Mario for pocket money.
We come back through Malalos where the government of the First Republic of the Philippines, and all of Asia, convened in 1899 when the Americans controlled Manila and little else. It didnt last. Today its a typical larger town in the central Luzon plain and produces marble for construction and statues. There are statues all over the Philippines, most it seems of Jose Rizal, the great national hero whose writings and actions helped inspire Filipino nationhood. He advised against armed revolution but his martyrdom fueled it. Unfortunately the revolution failed, was crushed, and this might-have-been-sanely-prosperous country has become an international beggar inviting in more troubles. The first republic in Asia is in danger of becoming its last colony. Boyet was back on the Corner in two days. After all Id given more than enough for the fare.
Im snacking on some barbecued chicken intestines at Raymonds Fast Food listening to this eloquent oldtimer sweet talking this veteran lady of the street like getting theres more than half the fun. He must be in his seventies and by the way he talks, I suspect, a Canadian. Its not that we have an accent or anything like that but we do say certain words in certain ways. Hes telling her about his condo in Calgary which has a Jacuzzi when I feel my basket patted in passing. I turn and looking up at me is Trixie, a little hunchback hooker whos been around since her early teens. How is Mr. Robin? she asks holding out her hand. I tell her once again shes not my type or gender. You have one cigarette? I tell her truthfully that Ive quit and it aint easy when theyre only fifty cents a pack. The impudent child sticks out her tongue and poses, giving me her most sultry look. I give her a few pesos and she moves on to a stereotypically drunk Australian. I watch the elderly Canadian leave, his dear Ly-di-a clinging to him.
A few days later Im nursing a beer at the Corner when the old Canadian codger offers me another. You arent Canadian by any chance? he asks, I couldnt help but hear you talking to that girl the other night. He introduces himself as Martin, a retired dentist from Lethbridge. He mainly wants someone to talk to, Lydia, it seems, has stood him up again. By the third beer hes pretty philosophical about the whole business and more pleased he can still get it up at seventy six than concerned about the hookers infidelity. I gather he had a good romp while it lasted. I tell him theres lots more where Lydia came from and he finds this exceedingly funny, laughing till he coughs himself red in the face.
I meditate on the problem of horny old people, lacka-nooky we used to call it. While Mother Nature provides ample pedophiles for the young shes pretty stingy with gerontophiles aside from the occasional nut house case who rapes seventy year old ladies and gives others the thrill of feeling sexually endangered. However dirty old men dont even have that vicarious compensation. Already feeling somewhat politically incorrect I order another beer and let my synapses float downstream. Im deep into a reverie of senile depravity where boy scouts do more than just help me cross the street when my good friend Mark interrupts, and ruins it all.
He wants help. A friend of the friend hes housesitting for is arriving a week earlier than expected. Were to meet him at NAIA, Manilas international airport named after Ninoy Aquino, Corys husband who was assassinated there in 1983. All we know is that Geoffrey is gay, lame, rich and seventy years old. An attendant wheels him into the Arrivals Lounge and he spots our sign immediately. He has an aloof bearing but an easy smile and when he rises with the help of a big silver tipped cane and we see hes well over six feet tall, a still impressive man looking like some country squire in his Harris tweed jacket. He insists on walking and carrying one of his bags to the car.
Back at the house of his absent friend Geoffreys anxious to go out on the town despite his jet lag and gout. My treat. he insists persuasively and off we go. Mark and I dont really know the club scene that well, we cant find the one thats supposedly the best out in Cubao and the one we like were sure is far too tame. Geoffreys heard some wild stories about Manila, probably tales from the seventies, outrageous times and fondly remembered by survivors on all sides. Well, there is ADAMS 12. The place has its fans.
Except for the first time Ive only seen it to show others, like now. Geoffreys leg is really bothering him but he tries not to show it as we pass through the young hustlers waiting outside ADAMS 12. Inside the naked dancing boys are in the middle of their masturbation act as we are led through the dark, seemingly crowded room to the far right side beside the stage. Most of the boys, a cross section of legal age Filipino youth, have difficulty keeping it stiff as they whank and sway to the loud beat swirling their tongues around in mock ecstasy. Geoffrey is as transfixed in culture shock delight by the mindless routine as I once was.
But the jacking acts soon over, the disco lights come on twirling and strobing, and boys and their lovers, and more boys dancing take over the stage; bouncing, twisting, wiggling boys, boys showing off, boys proudly advertising themselves, and boys mingling, cruising to be cruised. As about the only obvious foreigners present we get our share of attention. Were sitting right by a speaker and the volume allows for little more than nudges, winks and the signal that brings more beer to our table. No deals are made.
From our place at the side we can see into the backstage area where a couple of the naked dancing boys are relaxing in their briefs. Geoffrey decides he very much likes one of them, a well built macho looking but prettily detailed lad whos soon smiling back at him. Geoffrey finds he can have the boy, Adolf, right now and hes raring to go, says he hasnt been so horny in years. However, it can only be short time as Adolf has to be in the cocksucking act in ten minutes. He turns to us for advice. Mark suggests he might want to check out the short time fuckroom first, and as Geoffreys leg is worse I agree to take a look. The fuckroom is a cubicle way around the other side, off the puddled, reeking C.R. as they call their johns, but its no worse than most you find in the Philippines. Whatever else is said about Imelda Marcos, she apparently did bring the C.R.s in the presidential palace, the Malacanang, up to Western standards. The fuckroom doesnt smell much better and isnt much bigger than the old mattress with its scrunched up sheet. Im sure Geoffrey wouldnt like it and he arranges to engage Adolfs services later getting a few brief pats and a kiss In advance.
I find the cocksucking act full of exquisite and cheap irony as Adolf is pinioned a few feet in front of Geoffrey and two other boys force their sham hungry lips on his hard to keep hard cock. Im pleased that after all these years theyve finally introduced some minor elements of choreography and drama into the cocksucking act. However the boys do not understand erotic dancing, they could learn a lot from, proud to be a Canadian, the naked dancing girls who perform with so much dedication and style in our peeler bars and pubs. We leave soon after the cocksucking act, Geoffrey paying the club an extra fine as Adolf will miss the fucking act at 1 AM.
I didnt get a factual report on what happened in bed - nor did anyone else. What we do get is a lot of nonsensical ranting from someone unable to maintain their emotional detachment. Youd think Geoffrey would have learnt something in all those years. Hes talking about getting Adolf an apartment where they can both stay when he visits, and to help him with his English, a private tutor whom he refers to as she. Hes obviously, stupidly in love. I envy the fool his follies and hope they last for a while.
We never do get Geoffrey down to the Corner, hes busy all the time, and when his friend does arrive they go off to Thailand with Adolf and another boy. A few days later Im leaning against a wall in the plaza across from the Corner watching the world and the boys go by. Maybe Ill do some shopping. I feel my basket patted in passing. How is Mr. Robin? Trixie sporting fancy new shades inquires. She tells me shes going to Puerto Galera and shows me her sexy new swimsuit. You like? But she has to go,
Sorry. and catches up to Martin whos flagged down a taxi. He grins and waves to me - I figure Ive got a long time left myself.
Filipino macho has a definite masochistic cast; its not what you can dish out that counts but what you can take. Every Good Friday in the slums of Manila and in scores of Christian towns hundreds, if not more Filipinos get themselves crucified, many actually being nailed to a cross. This year for the first time women have won the right to be crucified, and one them along with a detail shot of the nails piercing her feet is featured in a Sunday supplement.
A few years ago I spent the latter part of Holy Week in the town of Orani, Bataan about four hours from Manila as the guest of a friends relatives. Starting Maundy Thursday flagellantes with impressively bloodied backs whipped themselves through the streets following the route of the Stations of the Cross. Penitentes, their faces shrouded and carrying huge crosses, made their way from station to station prostrating themselves in front of each. Usually one or two buddies accompanied the penitentes lethargically beating them with rattan canes. Young neighbourhood boys, each with his own stick or belt were more enthusiastic and gleefully ran after them getting in several whacks of their own. In the house where I stayed eight year old Oliver played penitente, wriggling on his belly across the kitchen floor using a broom as a pretend cross while his older sister spanked him with a stick.
The christs, flagellantes and penitentes are mostly young men doing penance for their sins or trying to give up drugs or criminal ways. Its making a statement I suppose, and young men I talk with claim it works. Most couldnt afford shrinks in any case. It is an honour to be chosen to play Christ and theres no shortage of applicants.
On Good Friday we followed the procession to the local hill of Calvary. Mary Magdalene comforted the first Christ when he collapsed under the weight of the huge cross he carried. Elaborately costumed Roman centurions tried to flog him to his feet but he was exhausted. A second Christ took over and was brought before Pontius Pilate. A crowd, perhaps mostly children, gathered around as the drama unfolded. The master of ceremonies with a loudhailer handed the nails to an assistant who carefully hammered them through the christs hands. His expression was closer to ecstasy than agony. The cross was then raised and devout young men prostrated themselves in front. I was told the christ will be taken down after an hour or so. In Orani I may have been the only foreign visitor but in the larger town of San Fernando, Pampanga, crucifixions have become an important tourist attraction.
But much of all this is pretty fraudulent and wouldnt faze a true tit clamp addict. The sterilized, smoothly tapered stainless steel nails are carefully driven between the bones and special foot rests take almost all the christs weight. The bloody flagellants are phonier still. They first have many small cuts with a razor made in their backs so they dont need to beat themselves very hard to keep a good flow going. I found this out afterwards at the municipal swimming pool when I noticed the series of fine cuts but not much in the way of bruises on their backs.
But all this is childs play compared to fraternity initiations, and fraternities are much more widespread and powerful compared to North America. The media here is righteously outraged, three young men and boys died from brutal hazings within one week. The case thats attracting the most attention involves the seventeen year old son of an undersecretary, equivalent to a federal deputy minister, who died from heavy beatings during his initiation into the most illustrious fraternity at the countrys most prestigious law school, The Ateneo. The boys many injuries were detailed in newspaper diagrams and included fractured ribs, skull and kneecap, badly bruised kidneys, pulped buttocks and other massive contusions. It may be true that he died of a heart attack, but that was because it could no longer pump blood through his clotted system. One of his pledge buddies remains on kidney support three weeks later. The fatal beating was concluded at the house of another undersecretary who allegedly was an enthusiastic participant. Several prominent citizens have been charged.
Several years ago the son of a prominent general died during hazing at the Philippine Military Academy, their copy of West Point. The senior cadet who was convicted of his death, John Rualo Castriciones, has written an interesting book about the case in which he admits punching the victim six times in the stomach for an infraction of etiquette shortly before he collapsed. Medical evidence indicated that the boy was already suffering from a concussion, serious injuries to his kidneys and testicles as well as massive bruises from previous beatings. The young author describes how as an idealistic boy anxious to be admitted to the academy, he worked to build up and toughen his body for the ordeals he knew he would face as a plebe.
Masochistic machismo is widespread. A few years ago I met an accounting student who had a large, ugly round burn scar on his chest. He told me a red hot, big old peso coin was placed there to sizzle as part of a fraternity initiation at a small provincial institute. Since then Ive noticed quite a few initiation burn scars on boys and men Ive met.
Alberto is a diminutive, fourteen year old hustler who looks younger until you notice his skin lacks the softness of most kids his age. Life on the street is sometimes hard. His mother lives in Manilas richest suburb in a poor squatter area that Alberto prefers to avoid. Hes smart, assertive and is said to steal from those foolish with their money or valuables. One evening in the plaza I notice a round, not yet healed scar on his wrist, and very curious I ask him about it. Ten centavos, make hot with fire, put there. His English is limited but I find out it was part of his initiation into the AKRHO fraternity, a boys street gang. He explains he also had the insides of his forearms strapped until they were raw and his clothed buttocks and thighs paddled thirty three times. His most telling comment is that his mother was very angry because she had to take care of him, it was five days before he could go anywhere on his own.
The boys street fraternities have their meetings and rituals, provide belonging and protection for their members and may help with legal and medical problems. Some are connected to the major criminal gangs like Sique Sique Sputnik, Batangas City Jail or Bahala Na, but not all. I discover that my young friend Joseph Ive known for years has a similar but less obvious scar on the back of his hand. Josephs initiation into the C.B.s included a variety of rituals, tests and ordeals including a paddling that left him crippled for days. His fraternity also admits girls who get beaten with a belt instead of a paddle. Later on Joseph says he got to paddle some pledges himself which was more fun. The most interesting thing about the C.B.s is that the initials stand for Crime Busters and that they are sponsored by the city, are supported by prominent media personalities and work with the police to fight drugs and crime. Although the C.B.s helped with medical costs once, he quit because he says they were corrupt. He shows me how hes carved an X into the round burn scar.
The severity of the initiations no doubt enhance their meaning for the participants and probably encourage, challenge other boys to join. There is nothing inherently abusive or degrading about painful physical ordeals although the potential obviously exists. Even corporal punishment as I remember it, getting the strap in school more often than not raised ones status among ones peers. It was not something to always avoid. Those abused or victimized by the practice were those who freaked or cried and they were at least partly responsible for their own plight. Interestingly, Filipinos never had our traditions of spanking and strapping children in the first place although the Spaniards and later the Americans tried to enlighten them.
Circumcision is an ancient tradition and part of the masochistic machismo of the Philippines. Sixteenth century European chroniclers in the region noted elaborate penile mutilations including thick gold or tin rods transversely piercing the glans. This custom survived until recently in Borneo. There is some debate among scholars as to whether the men did this to themselves for their own pleasure or because they couldnt get laid otherwise.
I first became aware of the nature of their custom many years ago when I was visiting Victor a straight friend in a provincial town in Zambales (not far from the then dormant Mount Pinatubo). I noticed his younger brother Ricky, about eleven, was wearing a flimsy dress. The boy cheerfully explained that hed recently been circumcised and couldnt wear any tight fitting clothes for a while. I politely accepted his offer of a look and he opened his dress, pulled back the small bloodstained bandage and showed me the lightly scabbed and healing cut on his cock. An uncle Id met on a previous visit had cut him and two friends in a secluded place by the river two days earlier..
In the provinces boys customarily have themselves circumcised in the years just before puberty. Many boys believe that girls wont fuck boys who arent cut and that it hurts more if you wait until your titi really starts growing. Theres probably a lot of peer pressure and older boys whore supot, uncut are open to ridicule. Typically a group of boys, friends or barkada mates agree to get cut together. They tell friends, brothers, probably their father according to my sources, but not their mothers. They approach an older youth or man trusted as a circumciser. They will pay him a few pesos or give him some tobacco or rhum. It is not something done to boys by men as it is in certain African, Melanesian and of course, our own culture.
Friends and brothers may get to watch. Often the boys are given guava leaves to chew, a bitter distraction during and supposedly a good poultice for their wounds after. Immediately after the cut or cuts the boy is tossed in a river or is ass smacked into running to get his circulation pumping and distract him from the pain. One young man Ive known for years told me he and a friend did each other when they were fifteen. It is a moment of truth, the pain is intense but fairly brief and it often takes two weeks for full recovery.
Circumcision is more a folk tradition than anything else in the Philippines. In the cheap Mabini art galleries you can buy paintings of cute boys fooling around in the line up to be circumcised and Ive seen explicit pictures of the operation among the winners in a photo competition at Harrison Plaza, a major mall. I have also seen the slides of a professional photographer where about ten boys were cut on the occasion. It seemed like a festive occasion with boys grinning, making chop-chop gestures and mugging the camera. Some of these pictures show a boys buddies affectionately hugging him, holding his hands or otherwise soothing him as his foreskin is cut. They have a charm and I would certainly feel privileged to observe.
The operation varies by region and ethnic group with only certain mountain peoples not practising some form of it. There are two types of circumcision practised; the inappropriately, it seems named, german cut which is what we practice in Canada where a ring of skin is removed, and the so called flower cut which is not technically a circumcision and where the foreskin is merely slit in one or more places. The flower cut, particularly where only the top is slit, results in a large and sometimes ugly lump of flesh dangling beneath the end of the penis. Some boys take advantage of this and later on make an incision in which they implant one or more ball bearings or rosary beads. They say it increases their pleasure masturbating and claim that girls like how it feels.
Circumcision is inevitably seen as a test of a boys fortitude, at least by his peers, and the social consequences of failure to take it in stride even with a few tears may be high for a while. Expertly done the cuts take only a few seconds and being forced to swim or run after means the intense pain dominates the consciousness only briefly. However one young man told me of his growing horror as it took the old man over a minute and six taps with a mallet on the back of not very sharp blade to sever his foreskin which was stretched out on a flat stone. And its not rare for boys cocks to end up less pretty than they might be.
Circumcision is a significant event in a boys life but it has no religious or formal connotations, or change his status or treatment. Most in the community will probably neither know nor care. Because healing takes so long its often done at the beginning of school vacation at Easter. Black Saturday which follows Good Friday is a favourite date.
There has been a trend towards infant circumcision among the wealthy and Americanized classes and it is increasingly performed by doctors using anaesthetics. It is probably also becoming a little bit easier in urbanized areas for a boy to keep his foreskin intact if he wishes. In the slums and poor barangays of Manila where traditional arrangements have broken down the city periodically organizes mass circumcisions where hundreds of boys are done at a time.
A DIFFERENT TRIP
I run into an older Canadian I met years before in Hong Kong. Hes married a Filipina he met in a bar in Mabini and lives in a house by the jeepney stop at White Beach where I rent a room. On one of my trips to Manila I learn that Victor, my oldest Filipino friend was staying with an aunt in town. Like most Filipinos he has traveled very little in his own country although hes been to Hong Kong and worked as a refrigeration technician in Saudi Arabia on labour contracts. Wed traveled together before with him acting as a guide and once on a piney bluff overlooking the endless mountains of the Cordillera I told him he was in Canada. I invite him to spend three days with me in Puerto Galera. Joseph whos been staying with me in my pension room wants to come too but he can be difficult and I didnt want him around with Victor. I pay the pension rent in advance and give Joseph money to join me in four days after Victor had returned to Manila. Victor and I leave. Joseph however cant wait and joins us the next day. He says quite realistically that he would probably would have spent the fare money otherwise. Victor, whom Id know for seven years was surprised to learn of my interest in boys but like many Filipinos was unconcerned and accepted our relationship and the two of them got along well.
Joseph is great fan of drugs and had heard about magic mushrooms but had never done any psychedelics. When he arrives in Puerto and a boy offers to sell him some he cant be deterred. I have reservations about Joseph doing mushrooms, as he tends to be clueless, unselfconscious, and occasionally belligerent. But I dont try to discourage him, it would be futile. As an old hippie who takes Timothy Learys set and setting to heart I try to be responsible. I dont think he appreciates my wise words. He has his share of the kabuti cooked in an omelette at the restaurant. Thirty minutes later hes tripping out. His minds blown again and again, and hes eager to share his awesome psychedelic insights with anyone available. Im embarrassed but I unable to convince him to cool it. Soon all my neighbours will wonder whats happening.
I manage to entice him down to the beach where therere fewer people. I steer him to the left towards a rocky section intending to cross over to the next more isolated beach. Joseph doesnt want to go along the path because people shit near it and he cant see in the dark. We decide to wade around. Its all very trippy, theres a big fuzzy moon and we can see the dark outline of Luzon. The sea is calm and twinkles with highlights and dozens of big protruding boulders are like tumbled chains of islands. Im getting off and indulge in visuals as we plow waist deep through the shallows. I try to turn Joseph on to my trip but hes in a different and apparently delightful world. He climbs up on one of the boulders and conjuring up the name of some superhero he leaps from it. This is fun and I join in. Eventually he tires of leaping from boulders and we head back. Hes still bubbling with energy, hes not into taking it easy. What to do? He wants to go to the disco half way up to the road. We set out through the avenues of tall coconut palms but find the disco wont open for a while. We continue to my place by the road. Theres nothing to do he complains, hes not in a space to play cards or backgammon. Then he goes to buy a Sarsi at one the stands at the jeepney stop out front, and doesnt return.
I become concerned, I realize I should have stayed with him, and feel guilty. Joseph is very stubborn and could easily get into trouble, or he could embarrass the both of us. I begin searching for him with increasing desperation. He isnt around the only store still open so I check the just open, near empty disco, and then all the stands and restaurants down at the beach. Then I go back to boulders and down the beach the other way. When I cant find him I start asking people I knew. Most have seen him but not recently. The mushrooms are working their magic on me in unwelcome ways. I feel horrible, Im wallowing in fear and guilt over what might have happened to Joseph. Back in my room I lie down and let the guilt and potential shame trample all over me for a while. But then two angels with flowing robes and infinitely wise faces looking like the saints in Sunday school pictures appear before me. They console me and forgive me. The psylocibin allows my imaginings to conjure magic. I make another circuit down to the beach and coming back check the disco again. Joseph finds me. Hes having a great time with some new friends and he introduces me as his father.
Mario, my current young companion, and Joseph, an old young friend, are regular dinner guests. They also do most of the work. I do the supermarket shopping and send one of them over to Paco Market to buy ulam, flesh, and gulay, veggies. I used to try to organize, chop onions and whatever but now they even set up the table and chairs on the terrace while I relax, beer in hand and watch them prepare the whole meal. Should we be missing something, or run out of beer, one or the other will volunteer to run down to the street to fetch it and back up the exactly one hundred steps.
We eat well and leisurely, dining by moon, star and candlelight. Sometimes we invite friends and Arnold, the roomboy or Rohelio if hes off duty, may join us for a drink after. We relax, exchange stories and smoke cigarettes the way they should be smoked, slowly and reflectively, savouring the peculiar high of nicotine. Later on I go for a stroll perhaps visiting a friend or stopping by the Corner where I may run into the boys again.
Then for two days they dont show up, and coming back early from the Corner, Rohelio tells me that the police were by with Joseph in handcuffs looking for me. He and Mario have been busted for maryjane. Apprehensively, I walk the three blocks over to the Precinct Five Station. Optimistically I take one thousand pesos, about forty of our bucks. Im introduced to a cop in Civvies, Pfc. Lazard of the Integrated National Police sitting behind a desk in a storeroom.
The boys are brought in, theres three of them including Ramil, whom Ive never met, but who was the one in actual possession. However Joseph has stupidly admitted knowledge of the drug, implicating himself, but has fortunately refused to sign the charge sheet which would have amounted to a confession. Pfc. Lazard tells me it is a special case. He asks me if I know the severity of the law. Yes, as a matter of fact I do, a few days earlier the Supreme Court of the Philippines upheld a life sentence for someone, obviously a poor man, who sold three joints, one gram to an undercover narc. Murderers seldom get more than ten here.
We have a polite and friendly conversation. Lazard tells me hes already worked six hours overtime because of the special nature of the case and that he misses his wife and children. He shows me a snapshot and I politely comment on what handsome young sons he has. Tomorrow the boys will have to be booked into the main Manila City Jail and unfortunately he laments, prices are much higher there. I offer him the one thousand pesos Ive brought.
Its obvious I dont understand the situation he informs me sympathetically. They need twenty thousand each, a total of sixty thousand. I plead my all too real poverty, I simply cannot pay their demands. But then Im a tourist and by definition rich. If Im to believe him, my humble room rents for more than his official salary. I begin to realize its a special case because the accused has a foreign friend who presumably cares. If I hadnt been involved I think Joseph and Mario would probably have been released after a few unpleasantries, but Im not sure. I want them out. I feel I have to negotiate. I claim I barely know Mario and couldnt care less about Ramil, but I will do what I can for Joseph. Pfc. Lazard is very understanding and despite the personal sacrifice involved he will wait up until midnight for me to return.
I go back to my room, up all those stairs once again, and pick up the last thousand I have in my stash. What to do? I phone my friend Mark, the German expatriate whos survived here for many years with no visa and little money. Ah yes, Nilo, why hadnt I thought of him myself? Nilo is a really corrupt cop whos helped a few of my friends over the years. I check the strip and inquire at the Corner but hes not around. I spend a couple of hundred on taxis trying to locate a relative of Marios out in Cubao who supposedly has connections. No luck. I go back to Precinct Five just after midnight and offer Lazard two thousand pesos plus the modest sum in my wallet.
Its not enough, he explains that at this stage there are just too many people involved and the shares would be too small. The arresting officer gets the biggest share, and there are two others somehow involved, and what does that leave for him? Not very much and his poor wifes waiting for him at home. And the Precinct Captain, they have to give him something. He will be very patient, he will wait until noon tomorrow when he knows Ill be able to cash a travelers cheque; five thousand for Joseph, fifteen thousand for all three. But then they want to be rid of all three so its just five thousand pesos which is half of all Ive got left.
When I return with the money next morning Pfc. Lazard is just folding up his cot which he keeps beside the desk in the storeroom. He tells me that the mosquitoes were very bad during the night and that hes worried about his family. I count out and he recounts the money dividing it into different piles which he puts in different pockets. I suggest he buy his wife some flowers and take her out to dinner. He thinks its an excellent idea and thanks me. But we mustnt forget the jailer, he should get at least two hundred, and he does.
The boys are released and I buy them breakfast at a cheap carindera nearby. After they were arrested they were given a fairly standard beating, body punches and faces slapped with a rubber sandal when they refused to sign the charge sheets admitting their guilt. They were also made to strip for a tattoo search and Ramil with a Bahala Na Gang tattoo on a buttock earned a few extra punches. Joseph was humiliated, he has a giant cock and, extremely unusual for a Filipino his age, hes supot, uncircumcised. Everybody had to take a look at it and the girl who runs the jail canteen insisted on handling it as well.
I splurge on dinner, boneless chicken breasts in a gingery sauce with ampalaya. Mario supplies an after dinner joint. Later on the strip I run into Nilo, the really corrupt cop. Hes very sorry I didnt find him the night before. He tells me he could have got the boys released for less than one thousand pesos and wouldve only charged me two thousand.
The boys owe me a big favour according to Filipino custom. Utang na loob or debt of honour is something they take seriously although Im not sure how far it applies to foreigners. I think about it, there is someone whose arms Id like to see broken, but then I usually just think about vengeance. And Ramil, with his heavy gang connections is back in jail within days on another marijuana charge.
BONTOC MOUNTAIN BOYS
Mountain boys are strong and pretty
Long lashed eyes with steady gaze
Proud mountain chests and attitudes
And sturdy mountain climbing legs
Mountain boys are independent
As in the ators of the past
When boys left home pubertally
Apprenticing to be men
Mountain boys know who they are
Confident with graceful poise
Loving pleasure and adventure
And keeping up their pride
Mountain boys still meet in shadows
As of yore discussing war
Not of ancient head taking battles
But AFP and NPA
M-16s and more
Back in the Philippines after a year and a half Im not anxious to see Joseph. My letters havent been answered and correspondence from friends in Manila mentioned he was back into sniffing solvent and doing other drugs, presumably shabu, the cultural equivalent of cocaine.
Shabu, or ice is what movie stars get busted for here. Joseph, I was told, looked awful, teeth rotting and was acting belligerently. I wouldnt avoid him of course, Joseph long since more son like than sex object has become a cherished, if sometimes exasperating friend over the years. I will always remember the boy, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, a sleek, loud and stubborn, tall, well endowed mestizo. I am perhaps some sort of surrogate for the U.S. Marine father hes never seen but is intensely curious about and someday hopes to find.
The day after returning to my land of alternative absurdities as I call this country, Im informed that Joseph is in Philippine General Hospital, the victim of a vicious stabbing. I go to the dingy trauma ward of the huge sprawling hospital to look for him. A sympathetic clerk at the admissions counter goes through their records with me, page after page of names and, if I care to read them, gory details. We check alternative pages for a while until he has to attend to some more urgent business. Many more pages and over a week back in time I stop as Im getting in the way. Despondent, I trudge back to my pension house.
Maybe my informations wrong, maybe.... My busy homecoming to the Philippines keeps me preoccupied. Two days later walking along a bleak section Del Pilar south of the strip, now largely shut down by Mayor Lims crusade, I hear my name called in a raspy voice. I turn and see a gaunt, wild eyed youth beckoning me. Oh my god! It takes a second before I realize, or admit its Joseph; sunken crazed eyes (the result of medication I find out later), eroded black teeth, and hes so skinny - I dont think I looked pleased to see him. But hes overjoyed, and weak and feverish, and when I belatedly hug him he complains of sores, bedsores.
I go back with him a few steps into a gloomy, walled beer garden Id not noticed before, the Manukan sa Ermita Chicken House and we sit down with two friends of his. Im soon reassured, his friends seem genuine and concerned about his welfare. And Joseph is drinking Coke, No beer for one week, he solemnly explains. I find out he was only discharged a few hours ago after two weeks in hospital. Hed received four deep stab wounds resisting a mugging and both his heart and a lung had been punctured, accounting for his raspy voice, and both his chest and abdominal cavities had to be opened to stop internal bleeding. He pulls up his shirt to show me the scars some of which are still draining and bandaged. The incision on his belly is over a foot long. Now I look same like you. Joseph jokes. I laugh, laugh and laugh, tears dripping from my face. (My own belly scars are legion) He really is my old Joseph.
His friends are both bakla, I soon realize. Buboy, a student nurse wants Joseph to stay with him for a few days while he recuperates. Joseph however, insists on going back to his girlfriends in a nearby squatter shanty. Shed visited him in hospital and raised the modest sum for his hospitalization. Not a good place. Buboy tells me. Joseph is in no condition for the hard life of the street but hes stubborn and determined. Buboy jokes in broken English to effect that he is headstrong but body weak. Joseph laughs until his gut hurts too much. Finally I give him a few hundred pesos, for the girl, and he agrees to go home with Buboy and Jun, the other boy. I promise to visit him the next afternoon.
When I arrive at Buboys place in Pasay, a miniature dwelling in a typical yardless postwar house that has been subdivided, Joseph is visiting his sister a short jeepney ride away. Jun is there and I meet Anthony, a cute boyish lad of nineteen who has just returned from a seven week holiday in Britain courtesy of his English lover. Still bubbling from the trip he passes around packets of souvenir photos. I see Anthony posing modestly in Trafalgar Square, bemused before the Tower of London, grinning beside the Cam, reflective in front of some ancient gothic college, and Anthony bundled in an overcoat with October snow on the Scottish mountains in the background. And here and there are pictures of his lover, a slightly craggy, decent looking fellow in his forties.
Buboy serves tea, a rarity in the Philippines, in the small sala. The door to the hall is open, a necessity during Manilas regular six hour brownouts when fans are useless. Judging from the large number of women and children passing by I gather that the boys are the only baklas in the building. The occasional curious neighbour stops by to have a few words and look at the Canajun visitor.
When Joseph returns I spring for some barbecued chicken which Jun offers to fetch. Joseph is looking and feeling better, the wildness in his eyes less noticeable. A few days later he starts staying over in my tiny cubicle at the pension explaining he cant get enough rest at Buboys, but he goes there everyday to have his wounds cleaned and dressings changed.
I meet the girl, Marlou, a friend only. Joseph says. Really? Shes a pretty and pleasant girl a few years older than him. He claims to like much younger girls. We eat in a cheap open front fast food on Santa Monica and take pictures of ourselves in pairs. Afterwards, Joseph wants me to know that Marlou prefers much older men. And he knows a much younger boy I might like to meet.
Well the boy Joel, a pedicab driver, isnt all that young, but he is very pogi, a term used for handsome young males. And I am into lightly fuzzed upper lips animated with words and expressions but I cant understand a word he speaks. We drink beer and nibble on inihaw ng bangus, grilled fish, the specialty of the Manukan Chicken House. I imagine his lips nibbling other things. I sense hes very inexperienced, an exciting characteristic in itself, a shy boyishness. What a magnificent sex object, such smooth gold complexioned skin and lovely, lively eyes. I assume his barkada buddies have talked him into it, explaining the things he shouldnt let the tourist do to him, and the things that he may have to, and how much money he should expect for what. I think: Your buddies want you to do it although you know theyll tease you about it after. Aw come on Joel, just go out there and do it. And I want you to do it. Come on Joel, I want to slowly remove your clothes and run my fingers lightly over your glistening naked body, I want to lick you from your nipples to your knees, I wanted to feel your length against mine, I want you to react, to become very excited, I want to take my time and slowly build you up to an intense and joyous orgasm. I bet your buddies told you it would only take two minutes and youd have lots of time after to buy something and go see your girlfriend. Id like to kiss you on the lips as you linger in relaxation after coming; nice sex objects let you do that. But I can hear it now, The fuckin queer, he tried to kiss me ON THE LIPS! I am almost broke, Joel speaks almost no English, and I suspect, poor job training. Does one need excuses to say no?
A week later my certified check finally clears and I buy Joseph new teeth. Dentistrys both inexpensive and cheap in the Philippines. Josephs recovery is rapid and soon hes looking great again. No more bad drugs he promises. I think hell stick to it for awhile if hes reasonably happy. And how come I never got the letter he sent me?
Watching the American election
on Filipino TV
a bright young college student
befriended me with questions
about my own country
I made it plain Im Canadian
and a student of his histry
We lamented how his land had bled
but when U.S. results were evident
he smiled at me and said
Now Clinton is Our President
In Manila I stay at a pension, an old mansion divided into tiny cubicles behind the Hobbit House, Manilas best known folk rock venue. Freddie Aguilar, the Philippines most widely acclaimed composer/singer performs here regularly. I have several of his tapes in Vancouver. Its a pretty run down pension, rat and roach infested, but its cheap and congenial and Ive known the woman who runs it for over eight years. The compound also includes two bars, an open restaurant where I often eat and accommodation for the staff. Most of the staff, in keeping with the Hobbit House motif are dwarfs.
The dwarfs are performers, waiters, doormen and kitchen help. There are several families which include normal as well as dwarf children. Big Boy is eight years old, two feet tall and quite shy. Most are not. Richard and Jonathon pester me every time they see me with my camera. Pictuuure, pictuuure, Mr. Robin. The other day I was around the back picking up a bucket of water for a dipper bath as the pumps dont work during the daily brownouts and I find them having their own bath clad only in suds. Pictuuure, pictuuure. Alas I had no film. At other times dwarf and other children invade my room being most fascinated with my typewriter.
The Corner alas, is no more. The sacred intersection of supply and demand for young male flesh is dead. A week before I arrived Manilas new mayor, General Alfredo Lim shut down the entire strip and just before peak season. Lim, a favourite of former president Cory Aquino is well known from his former stint as a police chief. Suspects being questioned by him would regularly make a grab for Lims pistol and get themselves shot. Policeman Lim has served as a model for Pinoy Dirty Harrys in Tagalog action flicks, the mainstay of the local film industry.
The girlie bars, nothing as sophisticated or revealing as Vancouvers peeler pubs, the beer stands where the boys used to mingle, and many of the karoake clubs, video lounges and restaurants catering to foreigners had their licenses suspended and 2 by 4s neatly stencilled: CLOSED - CLOSED and BY ORDER CITY MAYOR MANILA nailed in an X across their entrances. The doors open inward however. Even such well known institutions as Rosies, a large authentically styled 1950s, chrome and neon restaurant, mainly patronized by well to do Filipinos was temporarily closed. Mayor Lim also has some unflattering things to say about foreign tourists, and placards in his crusades have carried messages condemning white monkeys, a reversal of historic racist terminology. I would gladly grant them this incorrectness if they would grant me mine.
Raymonds Fast Food, a straight intergenerational meeting place before, looks like it may reopen. It is being renovated so that it no longer opens on to the street, to deny the interface where customers can easily communicate with puerile lady entrepreneurs. Regulations and the responding design are increasing the need for pimps in the market. But then the whole world is being restructured so that it more and more rewards manipulators and middlemen rather than the providers of goods and services.
Ancient ideas, that have failed so often that the excuses for their failure have become refined into tests of righteousness, populate the poliscape. Its not that thinkings so hard, its because youre told that you dont have to and that it would be a lot of work if you tried. And there are always crusaders and moralists to do it for you. Laws against prostitution, whatever the legalistic niceties, are designed to protect the sensibilities of those whod never purchase or offer the services of the industry, not those engaged in it including the victims, whoever they might be.
Only the so called Australian Mafia, and the clubs it controls were able to stand up to the mayor. Australia is a significant regional power in Southeast Asia and plays its cards cynically to maintain its influence. A few other bars have been able to get court injunctions and reopen, at what cost I dont know in this land where everything has a price.
And the beggars, Boyet amongst them, are more desperate than ever. There used to be good times when occasionally some tourist through generosity or con would turn a few hundred pesos his way. I see him less often but try to give him more each time. Scarface has become a complete pest, I avoid him, and his mother who sometimes washes laundry lost two of my shirts. Its bad all round. I run into Pepito, the tanod who once shared in some special taxes I had to pay when caught with a joint and always teases me about it. He used to bounce at Raymonds and tells me to be very careful because many policemen have no money now.
Del Pilar is half deserted during what used to its busiest, most raucous hours. Bar girls, many of whom live on the premises, peer out past the crossed 2 by 4s. Others are working the street, or enriching bugaos (pimps) instead of bar owners. Its a buyers market Im unable to exploit. But where are the boys? Not at the Corner, the corner proper is dead, one of the six beer stands has reopened as a three minute passport photo service for those who want to leave the country but the rest are vacant except for the mama sans at the far end, no longer selling beer but the cheap rice and ulam to the people of the street as it always has. Later I notice that theres still a few older, expensive Mabini boys at Johnnys, a couple of blocks away. And classy pick up joints like the Question Mark are still operating, but ADAMS 12 has moved to Pasay City.
As for boys, theres still Luneta, or more correctly Rizal Park, and its magnificent skating rink, one of Manilas rare public delights Ive described elsewhere. It used to be the other place where you could meet, treat, get to know and maybe take home boys. Not as many boys now, but the bugaos are still around, prospering from repression as always. Mostly they just reconnect old acquaintances, but they may point out some nervous kid from a poor barrio that theyve in some way broken in, and ask if you like him. The flood of boys has been stopped, how and why Im not sure, or the costs?
The more serious pedophiles and boylovers left for Thailand, now also becoming dangerous with new morally acclaimed crackdowns encouraging extortion. Sri Lanka, a paradise lost due to its long and savage civil war may again, I hear, be opening up. And at least one pedo left for Guatemala City to compete with the death squads for the bodies of boys.
The teenlovers whove stayed have houses in the suburbs where, they tell me, boys are very curious, grateful for small gifts and willing. But you have to learn their tastes, their music and maybe spend hours playing pusoy, a poker/rummy card game with them. It helps to have a car, or better still a motorbike for cruising, theyre not that common. Some boys justify themselves after with a macho racist twist by saying theyd never do it with another Filipino. It was an interesting story.
Mayor Lim has visions of Del Pilar lined with boutiques and craft shops to encourage tourism, completely denying the main reason tourists come here. This ugly impoverished city has little else going for it, except its famous sunsets, a winner by default. I remember Vancouvers civic leaders mouthing the same Hookers scare off tourists line around EXPO 86. What are we famous for anyway?
And greening is in. The mayors wife Ming has taken up the cause. Throughout the tourist belt and elsewhere crews are jackhammering small holes in the already narrow and uneven sidewalks and doomed saplings, or maybe just branches are inserted. Few last more than a week and all it means is more things to trip over.
Im confused, Id automatically assumed, along with most people I know, that the mayors crusade against prostitution was simply an elaborate shakedown of a type not uncommon here, but now Im unsure. Too many bars have been closed for too long, too much readjustment has occurred, too many businesses have moved, hopefully infecting the outlying municipalities.
Angeles City may Phoenix-like rise from the ashes, Mount Pinatubos in this case. Angeles was the service town for the giant American air base at Clark Field, it was full of restaurants, bars, hotels and girls, and it was by Filipino standards, well infrastructured. There was talk of converting the base to an industrial park, IF the Americans pulled out. All the facilities were there; roads, power, water and huge hangers that would make fine factories. However Mount Pinatubo accomplished what the Filipino politicians lacked the nerve to, it got rid of the base, rain soaked ash collapsed structures not designed for a snowload in the tropics and the cost of repairs exceeded their value in the New World Order. The Americans simply abandoned the base with no more talk about rentals or payments.
Filipino military sent in to guard the base made sure that the looting was orderly. Even the equipment for digging up buried power cables was there. Macdonalds and Wendys shut their doors and went back to where they came from except for those that worked there. The whole reason for Angeles City was gone, but there were still the hotels with their aircon rooms, the fancy bars and motels with their swimming pools. Some local businesses and entrepreneurs cut their prices drastically and I hear ugly old Germans and Australians in Manila discussing the bargain pussy and other amenities available in Angeles City. Girls, and a few boys, in cooperation with small local businesses are putting together a regional development plan to cope with the dislocations of our increasingly global economy. Hows that sound? A ghost town fighting back with real live flesh. Theres a rumour Rosies might open a branch there.
Back to Mayor Lim. His crusade is probably popular; insecure wives are reassured and national sentiments assuaged. Filipinos have been embarrassed by exposes in the foreign press, particularly in regard to child prostitution. And the sex trade offends the Americanized upper classes, the few but vocal nationalists and a lot of the religious. The American bases were supported by a majority of Filipinos. The most common and least politically suspect reason for opposing them was because of the sex trade they generated and the threat of AIDS. Its not a gay issue here particularly. Getting rid of the bases might have been a rite of passage ritual for the Philippines, something they desperately need, but they were cheated by a volcano.
A while ago Mayor Lim announced he was going to investigate the Charities Sweepstakes. Then the press announced that hed won five million pesos first prize, megaloonies at $250,000. The rumour that he doesnt buy tickets proved untrue when a reporter later revealed that the mayor bought the ticket on the morning of the draw at lottery headquarters. More recently Mayor Lim turned sixty four. Cardinal Sin, Prelate of Manila, helped him celebrate with a pornographic book burning at City Hall. The mayor announced that he is setting up an elite police force composed of idealistic young men and women and there will be brand new cars, motorcycles and communication equipment for the others. Its not only pedos who use vehicles as bait.
Occasionally the grime, pollution and aura of decay of this ugly and unloved city are submerged beneath the vibrant life of the street. This evening, still sodden with a stubborn flu and trying to finish reading an ethnographic study of the Aetas of Mount Pinatubo, I hear the sounds of firecrackers. Nothing unusual in that, they get a bang outa bangs here, and any occasions an excuse. Then I hear approaching, the clear amplified voice of a womans singing and I fall into its thrall. I understand no words and cannot place the type of music.
Putting down my book I go out and down to the street where I see ranks of children a dozen across slowly proceeding down Mabini as far as I can see. Girls are to the left, boys to the right, all neatly attired in white shirts/blouses and dark pants/skirts, and each one carries a lighted candle that makes their faces glow as they chatter, giggle, nod to acquaintances or smile at me. A few older boys sport cigarettes. A couple of blocks back I hear and then catch sight of a brass band and behind that, though I wont see it â€&Mac247;til later, is a flower decked float bearing the image of Nuestra Senora de Los Remedios, Our Lady of Remedies. The procession turns at the corner alongside historic Malate Church and ends in the plaza in front which faces the boulevard and Manila Bay. The church is one of the few and among the oldest surviving Spanish era structures in this repeatedly razed city. Over the bay in full glory is a dramatic stageprop sunset that Manila could be proud of. The heroic statuary of the plaza is silhouetted against the orange and purple sky and the front of the sturdy sandstone structure, and the childrens faces, are bathed in the magic glow of the brief tropical twilight.
Its almost too much and then boys start setting off firecrackers and rockets. One near me launches one rocket after another, hand held, I could see his technique. They soar to a hundred feet, higher than the churches bulky towers. Others use simple stands, perhaps less safely. A few go astray, one exploding prematurely like some miniature Challenger Shuttle and two make short arcs into the crowd which shrieks, then laughs, but only moves back a few steps. It is no Symphony of Fire, as Canadians have become bespoilt to, few are more than simple exploding rockets, but its here, right here, and deliciously dangerous. Filipinos are not unduly oppressed by the burdens of precaution. Only survivors deserve pity.
The float arrives stopping in front of the churchs ornate wooden doors. The image of Our Lady of Remedies is carefully lowered and carried into the church dedicated to her and her home for centuries. Attendants aboard strip the float of its abundant white flowers and toss them to the jostling crowd of grabbing children who triumphantly carry them away as if they were bridal bouquets. This I can all see and understand, but whats the occasion of this celebration, I know of no holy or holiday. I ask an old well dressed man (They usually speak the best English) whos watching with quiet amusement. Im told its the conclusion of the annual barrio fiesta, It is much fun for the children. And so it is.
It all comes together. On flu fogged trips to purchase medicinal rhum at a sari-sari on Remedios Circle, two blocks the other way, I remember passing temporary food and gambling stalls and talking to a boy running a crown and anchor like game with big dice. He had an innocent swastika painted on his cheek and smoked a cigarette like he really enjoyed it. I played and l lost. And I remember the streets and even, or especially the narrow alleyways of the adjacent squatter area are strung with streamers decorated with carefully sorted, plastic bar soap wrappers. An incredible amount of work that must have required a community effort very rare in Canada these days.
The crowd gradually disperses, pimps and solvent kids will take back the plaza with its heroic statuary and I head back to my pension on Mabini to finish my book and rest. I read a banner at the back of the church for the first time, it proclaims the 404th Malate Barrio Fiesta. At barrio fiestas the local rich and powerful briefly mingle with the common tao and families splurge beyond their means indebting themselves til the next one. Children play and operate gambling games and likely first drink and fuck. The righteous, reformers and zealots of sundry sorts condemn the barrio fiesta as impoverishing and wasteful. But then it is much fun for the children.
huddle in alleyways
playing games with rubber bands
coins or stones
Petty fortunes to be made
and spent with friends
Gambling is a life skill
best learnt young
Im on one of my increasingly infrequent strolls through the heart of the tourist belt when I see that Padre Faura Street is blocked off at Del Pilar by a stage improvised from a flatbed truck trailer which is backed by a giant ALIM banner. The logo is the now familiar crossed 2 by 4s, CLOSED - CLOSED and BY ORDER CITY MAYOR MANILA. The painted cross is not very artistically superimposed over the words PROSTITUTION and IMMORALITY. Beneath the acronym ALIM is spelt out: Alyansa (alliance) Laban (against) sa Imoralidad sa Maynila. Interestingly, it is also the initial and name of the mayor, Alfredo LIM.
A truck pulls up and about thirty adolescent army cadets in white shirts, khaki pants and big black boots pile out and arrange themselves in a loose rank facing the stage. When they see my camera they demand to be shot and mug outrageously, posing, laughing, and punching and grabbing each other. I hear the sound of music and see in the distance two jeeps approaching with TV cameramen facing backwards. And there in modest civvies, flanked by a few well dressed women and a heavily bemedalled military type is, Im told, Mayor Lim. What I take to be bodyguards, including the tallest Filipino Ive ever seen wearing a black suit and homburg, make their ways along the sidewalks.
A boys band follows the rank of dignitaries, and behind them a straggly procession of children bearing home made placards, many in Tagalog, and carrying lighted yellow candles. Some skip to the music occasionally breaking into disco steps with a bit of naughty ass wiggling. Most turn to look at me and some wave or jiggle their placards hoping to be shot. A few barangays or barrios are taking part. AGE DOESNT MATTER/BUT AIDS IS A BIG MATTER proclaims a Barangay 667 sign. Then red skirted majorettes twirl their batons in a cute if clumsy display of pubescent pulchritude. Ranks of Boy Scouts and the clowning cadets seen earlier are interspersed with clumps of adults and another band.
At each of the 2 by 4 barred doorways the parade slows and someone, usually a child, places a lighted candle on the sidewalk in front. I see Mayor Lim himself do the honours at one bar. Sometimes the resident girls can be seen looking on from behind the crossed 2 by 4s and press cameramen move in with their instruments probing and flashing as if they were weapons, not recording devices. I follow the parade down to Malate Church and around to my pension house on Mabini where still feeling weak from the flu I decide to rest for a while.
Half an hour later when the jeepneys are running again I go back to Padre Faura. Ive missed most of the speeches which I wouldnt have understood anyway although the reactions of the crowd, never large and now dwindling, wouldve been interesting. Its soon time for the awards for the best placards. The winners names and their barangays are announced. Congratulations are extended by the dignitaries as each child comes up to the stage to shake hands with the mayor and receive an envelope (probably a cash prize). The last and possibly grand prize winner is a lovely, beaming Barangay 667 boy about fourteen in black shorts revealing comely fleshing out thighs and a hugely oversize white T-shirt with the sleeves and bottom slitted and twisted into tassels like a buckskin jacket which jiggle in front of his soft golden belly. I join in the applause.
After the boy descends from the stage several foreign picture takers, all suspect I suspect, crowd around the winsome young winner. I wait my turn. The placard is boldly lettered in a childs careful but untrained hand: CALLBOY (embellished with red shorts and a tank top numbered 69) / CALLGIRL (with a red mini-skirted dress) / GO TO (Unhappy faces in the Os and legs marching into) HELL (surrounded by flames). Im not able to capture the boy quite as I wish even on film, and I run out of that too soon. That night thinking of the placard I imagine what clever, dextrous fingers the boy must have.
SIGN OF THE TIMES
Tall wire bundled columns of rebar
some abandoned investors dream
pierce the hollow block shanty
on a marginalized lot along Del Pilar
The sign once proclaiming
a luxury condo tower
has been recycled
in the squatters humble dwelling
A mother and her nine year old son move into the room next to mine. He seems to be a very precocious child and is soon calling me Mr. Robin although I have trouble figuring out what his name is. A few days later I meet what can only be his twin sister, an equally charming and curious child with long hair tied into a pony tail. Her name, Im a bit confused, is either Michelle or Roselle. I ask about her brother whom Ive only seen a few times but I dont understand her reply.
I notice after Ive been away for several days in Zambales that Roselle, everybodys calling her that, has become the darling of the young women who live and work in the compound. She also starts hanging around my open door, a scant two feet from her own, wanting to talk and practice her English. Im impressed by how well she speaks what little she knows. Its almost as if shes picked up her English from native speakers. I begin using a childs picture dictionary book Ive found useful for vocabulary and she picks up new words easily. Other people in the pension including an American expatriate and his Filipina wife also help the child, who doesnt go to school, with her English.
I have my suspicions but you cant just peek in a childs panties, at least not anymore, and shes careful to not let me look too closely at her pony tail which I tell her looks nice. She wants to get on with her English lessons. Her mother, a plain but pleasant woman who keeps an eye on her child explains matter of factly after that the boys name is Jason and that he likes being a girl. Everybody seems to completely accept the childs cross dressing and cross behaviour.
Jason loves posing for my camera and is delighted by the pictures of himself and dwarf friends I give him. We play pusoy with a couple of girls from the restaurant, I get him interested in backgammon and we continue erratically with English lessons. Returning after another absence I find Jason and his mother gone, running out leaving behind almost a thousand dollars in debts and unpaid rent. Shed borrowed money from many in the building, the policemans wife next door on the other side lost the most, I lent her less than ten. Im with the roomboy when he breaks into the room, most things are gone but the books and games I lent Jason are all there on the bed.
CHRISTMAS GARDEN PARTY
I was not in a good mood. I came to Puerto to get away from the polluted air of Manila, to find some solitude and to do some writing. I like Puerto Galera, its beaches, its ambience, and I have friends there. However I bring along my young friend Oscar whom Ive known for many years, and Joseph whod promised not to come, takes a different route and is waiting at the pier when our ferry docks. After an initial outburst I refuse to speak to him for days. He stays at my friend, Mang (a term of respect for an older man) Rodgers in one of the nipa huts in his jungle garden back yard where wed both stayed a couple of years before.
My lack of solitude is bearable until Oscar falls madly in love with Maricel, a lovely schoolgirl whos as pretty as any boy of fourteen, and he becomes completely useless in bed. He tells Maricel hes single when one of the delights of Oscar is that hes married with three children. When its several days past his one week only I send him back to Manila with an extra hundred pesos for him to make peace with Edna, his wife, another friend of many years.
Temporarily boyfree, I find my solitude and winch my way through the bogs of writers block. However four days later Oscar quite unexpectedly reappears at my door. I gather things arent too good on the home front. Well, maybe it serves me right, the lowdown husband rustler I am, but Im unhappy about the threat to my time and my wallet; Oscars a heavy eater and a beer snob. And Im pissed off because he used the money for Edna to pay his way back to Puerto. Fuck! Lets face it, basically Im an uptight opinionated prick and any easy going, forgiving, what the hell qualities I may exhibit are strictly acquired characteristics.
I know Mang Rodger has invited me to a Christmas garden party at his place, and we did discuss something about me taking pictures which Id said Id do. I often do this and give away many of the prints, its a good way to get to know people better in the Philippines where they still have very formal concepts of posed photography. But on the day of the party, the 23rd, I was still angry and busy channeling its latter stages into a snarky conclusion to another Manila letter.
And then too, Rodgers brother and next door neighbour, Mang Maynard, a graying, retired, gay school teacher had come around looking for Joseph who was hiding in my bathroom at the time. I understand hes been coming on to both of my boys. Maynard and I talk, and before he leaves we drink an obligatory rhum to celebrate the season. Were all alcoholics. Id have been happier if hed brought along one of his three teenage sons who are home from Manila where they are all studying in colleges. I go back to my typewriter and its after sunset when Joseph returns to fetch me to the party, and, oh yes, dont forget the camera. My new automatic has no film but my old manual FTb does. However the flash attachment doesnt work so I go out to buy new batteries. The attachment still doesnt work so I go out to buy film for the automatic, but by then the stores are closed. Off I go the party with no camera and at least an hour late.
Things could be worse and they soon are. Apparently Im some sort of guest of honour (or is it just my camera?) and theyve all been waiting for me to arrive. I apologize to Mang Rodger. There are over twenty hungry people including half a dozen small fidgety children. As many speak no English I desperately search my meagre Tagalog to express my regrets. My final embarrassment comes when Im formally served first with the now cold entrees. I feel about two inches tall. Food, Christmas music from a powerful ghetto blaster and an obscure place to sit allow me to partially relax. I talk to Joseph, see Maricel but not Oscar or Mang Maynard and wonder. We are all sitting in a large circle around a scraggly seven foot shrub decorated with lights and baubles. Under the Christmas shrub are a pile of wrapped presents. I pray that none are for me.
Filipino hospitality is genuine enough but it can be rather coercive and unpleasant. You may have to eat when youre already stuffed, drink when youve had more than enough and sit when youd rather stand. Or maybe youll be given a role to play when your hosts floridly explain to their friends what a great and famous person you are. It is no time for undue modesty as they lean forward to exchange a few words in their limited and formal English. Often I just play along but sometimes I cant resist an opportunity to make a bilingual pun or deliberately misunderstand something, and bringing out my awful grammarless Tagalog get them laughing for a couple of minutes. (Can you imagine doing that with the French?) Anyway you can always sit around and notice all those curious little things about people and their settings that you never would if you could understand what they are saying. My miserable mind gradually shifts from the pangs of masochistic guilt to the more trendy warmth of being an abused victim of, why not? Filipino hospitality.
Francis, a young church worker and organist proudly shows me the karaoke set up he and his friends have put together from their equipment. Mang Rodger is one of the first and gets a good hand for his rendition of White Christmas. Francis follows, strumming as he croons The First Noel. Its all very corny but with the singing, the chatter, a couple of Mindoro slings (gin, pineapple juice and Sprite) and being mercifully ignored by others I begin to feel better.
Through the branches of the Christmas shrub I see Mitchie, sweet Mitchie, the most pogi of Maynards sons. Joseph had said Id like Mitchie before he introduced us a couple of days ago. He was right, and I even fantasized some sort of trade with his father. I notice that Mitchie and the plump young woman next to him are wearing capes and red sashes and sit in special high back chairs. I have no idea what its all about.
Then I notice this plain looking, hard faced, thirty something woman going around yakking loudly at people. What an unnecessarily ugly woman! Why if shed just let her hair grow, or wear a bit of make up shed look so much better. And those white shorts just make her broad beam look broader. Im told her name is Pat and she seems to be one of those aggressive bitchy broads I can do without. Soon its like shes trying to take over the whole party, giving orders and making announcements in Tagalog embellished with English phrases. The crowd responds slowly with bantering back and forth and people begin laughing. I gather she must be entertaining even if she is a bitch. Even I feel a certain fascination.
It takes a while for me to figure out whats happening. Pat holds up a large card behind someones head with something written on it which they cant see, but everybody else except me and a few others can. Its a parlour game, like the ones they used to play in Victorian England and which survived to early television times, my own youth. I recall once playing a similar game. The card says something apropos of the contestant who has to guess what it says. He or she can ask yes/no type questions, anybody can answer and seemingly contradictory answers may be given. Joseph, Mang Maynard and Francis are among the contestants and the proceedings are hilarious without even understanding a word. And Pat, I realize shes the emcee with her gestures, expressions and what must be brilliant repartee is particularly hilarious. Each contestant in turn is put through, made to suffer bewilderment, teasing and often acute embarrassment until finally, triumphantly, and maybe with a little help they figure out what the card says and the audience laughs and applauds.
After watching Pat for some time I get the feeling that theres something funny, in another sense, about her but then I get lost in admiring Mitchie through the branches of the Christmas shrub. He has such a nice smile. Joseph had warned me earlier that I might be involved in some ceremony but it didnt really register. Now he nudges my arm, hands me a small hoop wrapped in glitter twine and tells me Im supposed to place it on Mitchies head when he gives the signal. I dumbly agree.
Pat is momentarily impassive and suddenly it dawns on me - shes a guy, a very talented bakla. How could I have been so completely fooled? - shortish hair, no make up and mens clothing actually. With no more than a good shave, movements and mannerisms shed convinced me she was a woman. My best excuse is that I mistook her belly roll for sagging breasts. I look at her again but I cant re-enter the magic of her spell.
Joseph gives me my cue and after a false start I walk across and solemnly place the hoop, a halo in my mind on lovely Mitchies head. He is now an angel. After I return to my place someone else does the same to the plump woman sitting beside him on the other high backed chair. I find out a king and queen of the season have just been crowned, a common Filipino custom. Is it better to have a monarch to dream about than an angel?
Music, loud music comes on, its dance time. Then an unscheduled brownout leaves only the stars for illumination. (Scheduled brownouts are for six hours every afternoon.) Small kerosene wick lamps are lit and we enjoy an old fashioned singsong as the guitar is passed around. I enjoy the mellow interlude and mix myself yet another Mindoro sling. Im doing fine, Mang Maynards doing fine but theres no juice left for the children.
The lights come back on to cheers and applause. Enough of this homemade acoustical sound, people want the real thing - people want to dance. Disco tapes are fed into the blaring ghetto blaster along with some rock and one Mike Hammer tape. An oldster shows off some jive steps, teenagers shuffle and wiggle and the hard packed clay floor becomes crowded. I dance with Mang Maynards gracious wife, I dance with Joseph, Oscars too shy. I dance with a tiny little girl in a frilly pink frock, and then with her little friend in white. Im having a great time, and Im subversively glad I didnt bring a camera to memory bank the event. Were down to just gin and water now. I dance and rest and dance. I dance with Maricel and Mang Rodger and Pat, but I dont ask Mitchie, I guess Im too shy.
NEW YEARS EVE
December 31st is Rizal Day which commemorates Jose Rizals execution by the Spaniards in 1896 in what is now called Rizal Park but popularly known as Luneta. This means that the banks are not open today and with a weekend following New Years it means the banks wont be open for five consecutive days. I shant go into why this should concern a near broke tourist. Anyway a patriotic holiday in the midst of the festive season is anomalous, especially the tragic martyrdom of the nations greatest hero.
While Spanish conquests defined the Philippines geographically, it was Rizal more than anyone else who defined Filipino identity and consciousness. He exposed the gross injustices and corruption of the Spanish regime, especially those of the friars in a way that Filipinos could grasp and discuss. In a scene in one of his novels exposing the corruption and venality of the Spanish officials and the priests the local saints image is being born through the town in an evening procession. Crowds line the street to watch the impressive liturgical ceremony and enjoy the choir singing. The faces of the choir boys are illuminated by the candles they carry. Other boys amongst them are pulling the bulky wagon strewn with flowers carrying the statue. As the procession passes a priest can be seen whipping the struggling boys to encourage them. He also gave them a vision of a future that unfortunately they seem no closer to now. To the end he argued against violence and for some form of sovereignty association rather than the armed revolution his execution helped ignite. He is almost universally venerated, his name is everywhere, there is even a Rizalista religion which believes in his second coming.
But Jose Rizal is an embarrassing national hero. What he had to say about the brutal, arrogant and rapacious Spaniards is just as relevant for the ruling Filipino elite today. And they are the ones who must give him the most vocal lip service to legitimize themselves. If you can imagine Nazi skinheads eulogizing Mohandas Ghandi you have the basic idea. But most Filipinos do not see the hypocrisy, almost every town has a Rizal Street and most have his statue in the town plaza. The Americans loved him, he had the good sense to die before they invaded the Philippines and was a safe idol for their new colonial subjects. Studying Rizals writings is compulsory for school kids so theyre pretty much bored with him by the time theyre old enough to think. Pity.
Rizal was a truly amazing man who has been ranked with Ghandi and Sun Yat Sen as great liberators of Asia. According to legend and popular reportage Rizal, a medical doctor among other vocations and talents, practised, trained himself in his cell so that when the firing squad shot him from behind he could twist himself so that he lay face up to deny the Spaniards the satisfaction of a traitors (face down) death.
Maybe Canadians are lucky they have no big time national heroes. If we have to we can dredge up Louis Riel now that hes rehabilitated but where does that leave us Anglos? Gin lovers may have a case in John A. MacDonald but that pretty well exhausts the supply. I mean we dont want to get into women and all that Laura Secord stuff now, do we? even if we do like chocolates.
Its also New Years Eve. Back in Manila and almost broke Im waiting for money from Canada which I dont expect for several days at least. Remittances are always uncertain, friends are unreliable and the Filipino banking system is like friends without friendship. There is of course Manila Express with offices on West Broadway and in Quezon City, very reliable with low charges but very unfavourable exchange rates which is where they make their profit. I usually end up using their services.
I start the evening at Malcolms, my Australian friend, a would be writer who may be finally making it with his memoirs. Ive known him through many years of expat poverty. This evening he is even more financially challenged than me so we drink low budget E.S.Q. Rhum (ninety cents a litre) with, for the special occasion, Coco-Cola which litro for litro costs almost the same. Outside the sound of firecrackers which has been unceasing since before Christmas becomes louder and more frequent. Fireworks are a passion here. Little children, mostly boys of course, play with Watusi, tiny friction ignited sticks which sputter and sparkle on the ground. They are safe except when ingested, but at least six toddlers have died this season already according to the press. Bigger boys of course want bigger bangs. Triangulos, or lolos (grandfathers), wick fused gunpowder enclosed in folded paper are the favourite and range up to four inches a side - superlolos. Our traditional, Chinese style red firecrackers are not common, probably due to the cost. Manufacturing fireworks is an important industry in some nearby towns and it seems that every year there are accidents in the small backyard factories where nimble fingered child workers are the main victims. Five, including some not yet in their teens, were killed in a recent explosion in nearby Bulacan Province. A boy assembling firecrackers was seen smoking shortly before the explosion. After the pop, pop popping of smaller firecrackers, big triangulos start going off in the short lane in front of Malcolms place. The explosions are deafening, we can feel the shock waves inside, Malcolm closes the windows glass louvres and we continue drinking.
Previous New Years here its been my custom to go down to the Corner to observe the raucous, deranged and dangerous festivities, exchange greetings with Filipino and expat friends, joke and jostle with the boys and peso my regular beggar clients. Everybody it seemed would be there; straights in drag between party hopping, crazies stoned on better class drugs than usual, adult boys dueling with roman candles, happy drunken sex tourists with their Filipinas and hordes of ordinary Filipinos, many adorned with the true glitter of cheap baubles. New Years Eve, ending the hypocrisy of Rizal Day, is a grand collective catharsis that more lays to rest the past than it does to welcome the future. Practical experience tells Filipinos that the coming year will likely be worse than the one just ending. And this year ends with most of the bars in Mabini closed and Mayor Lim ,as part of his campaign against immorality, has promised that no licenses will be renewed in the coming year. And no beer has flowed at the Corners stands for months.
Malcolms not going to the Corner, he stopped going months ago, and apparently no one we know plans to either. And tonight hes not even going to Johnnys, the popular gay watering hole. In the past Johnnys laid out a generous spread on New Years for a couple of hundred pesos up front. Tonight, I understand, it is merely open. I know Ill see some old faces there if not interesting new ones. Im already thinking about leaving, its after ten thirty, when Malcolm says hes going to bed early to take advantage of the brownout free days of the holidays to work on his book. I understand.
I set out on the palpably dangerous streets. You take your chances with errant rockets, jokingly tossed lolos that can rob you of foot, eyes or manhood, and stray bullets from the guns of celebrant soldiers, police and rebel assassination squads. However Im not afraid of being mugged, the policeman who robbed a bank yesterday would gladly shoot anyone who tried to mug me tonight. Profitable prey, rich Taiwanese and Japanese, favoured by robbers and kidnap for ransom gangs wont be out on the streets this evening. Jeepneys have wisely ceased operation and only the occasional taxi plies the smoke hazed streets. Half a block away a cluster of youths standing unseen in the gloom shout a warning, JOE! (a term for white foreigners derived from G.I. Joe). I sidestep the sputtering fuse, hear the deafening bang and feel the shock wave, and half collapsing, arms around my gut, I stagger, pretending to be hit. They love it and cheer me on. Farther along, on Mabini now, another cluster of boys is tossing lolos out onto the pavement in front of me. I raise my hands in mock surrender. They too cheer and let me pass,
Happy New Year Joe.
Johnnys is crowded; the usual clientele of better dressed Mabini boys, I recognize a few, and older foreigners like me. I say a few words to those I know on the open deck at the front but conversations difficult. The ambience is more loud than convivial. A young Filipino, his plumpness more than his clothes attesting to his middle class status, stands at the railing with a carton of Super Lolos, and one after another he lights them off his cigarette and gleefully tosses them into the narrow street. My ears are ringing and when I see him open another carton, I decide to see whats happening at the Corner a couple of blocks away over on Del Pilar.
The Corner is lively but not really back from the dead. There are no boys. Pyrotechnic fountains effervesce in the middle of Del Pilar where no vehicles now dare to trespass. Rockets soar to over a hundred feet in the air except for one that erratically ricochets from building to building across the street giving everyone a thrill. Small, slyly placed triangulos mutilate the plazas greenery and back of the plaza series after series of firecrackers illuminate and echo around the open upper floor of the multi storey Ermita Center. From high on the corner of the Firehouse Club, a huge Santa with a blinking nosed Rudolph nuzzling in his lap, mechanically nods his approval.
I stand in the plaza alone, watching, becoming stoned on the noisy, chaotic and exuberant scene around me, and think, nostalogize, of the Corner Past. I was in a Dickensian mood. The Corner Past, that sociable intersection of beer, good times and friendly flirting boys. The Corner Past when market mechanisms made great sense. I nod to a few familiar faces and meet up with a gay Filipino friend whos recently been infected with born again religion. Hes at it again tonight. I tell him to forget about all the bibletalk people are laying on him and to read what Jesus says. I explain that in my King James version Christs words are printed in red. Jesus doesnt say anything that should bother him very much. But hes very much burdened by self doubt and swears emphatically that hell never have sex with a man again. But soon hes fondly reminiscing about a handsome ski instructor from Whistler, B.C. and his beautiful cock. Moral imperialism is taking its toll.
I see Boyet, the crippled beggar and some of his friends across Del Pilar and cautiously make my way over as a toppled fiery fountain spirals into a puddle. I shake hands, wish them a happy new year, and to those I recognize I pass out five peso bills Ive saved for such a purpose. Normally I dont bother talking to Boyet anymore - hes all pleadings, but tonight hes smiles and small talk, and not reeking of solvent. Maybe theyve stepped up to cough syrup for the occasion. Bad drugs do a lot of harm and beggars, who need drugs more than most of us, would be much better off if they were supplied with free beer and marijuana, but such ideas challenge the fundamental absurdity of our drug laws which the third world has slavishly copied. Or is it more moral imperialism?
Suddenly the lights all go out, perhaps at the stroke of midnight I later realize, an unusual time for a brownout. Maybe its Mayor Lims message to the tourist belt for the new year. It wouldnt be the first time brownouts have been used for political purposes. Santa stops nodding and only firecrackers and rockets light up the Corner, now semi-surreal in the thick and pungent sulphury haze. Gradually the lights of businesses with their own generators come on, Santa nods again. The neon signs of the surviving bars have eerie, ethereal halos which I find perversely appropriate.
Im surprised to find out that the year is twenty minutes old. I thought it would be somehow announced. Things are still appoppin an abangin around the Corner when I leave, but half a block south the street is gloomy and seemingly deserted. I cut up to Mabini where I find my feet shuffling through the confetti like shreds of lolo wrappings. I can see no one but here and there firecrackers are still being set off from the shadows and I pick out glowing cigarettes near doorways. Eyes alert and looking fit as I can I march briskly, arms swinging, down the middle of the pavement through fog like smoke hanging in the air as after some awesome battle, and before I know it I almost walk past the iron gate to my pension house.
The newspapers report sixteen dead and over fifteen hundred wounded, most in Metro Manila. An article documents a reporters visit to an emergency ward. Photos more graphic than taste allows in the Canadian press show grimacing boys with mangled hands, a man minus a foot and other things I find uncomfortable. However a good time was had by most. Sarajevo with a smile. Happy new year!
Im broke, money is coming, by next Wednesday I hope, and until then Im living on utang or credit. My remaining pesos will buy a pack of local cigarettes and a mickey of cheap rum a day, but not enough to eat much on Sunday when the pension restaurant is closed. Unfortunately this leaves me better off than most of the people I know in the pension.
Right now I have a penniless young Englishman, Andrew crashing with me. Hes stranded here as Philippine Air Lines, which brought him from London, wont take him on to Sydney because he has no ongoing ticket, which could mean Australia wouldnt honour his visa (hes been deported before). PAL might have to fly him back to England. Initially he was staying with Bubbles, but she threw him out because he was getting in the way of clients coming to her room. Hes not a bad looking lanky blond lad, about twenty five and often horny. Im not complaining. Others give him rice they cook in the hall and sometimes I buy him breakfast on my utang, but he usually fends for himself during the day in bars and at the yacht club where he has hopes about crewing a ship to wherever. He talks about making money fucking rich old ladies but I think hell have more success with dirty old men.
My neighbour Jop, an middle aged Afrikaaner from Zimbabwe has fallen on hard times. A while ago I bought his last pair of good shoes from him, partly as a favour, but it was a good deal and I really like them. He tells the story of how he stalked and shot a large eland by himself when he was twelve, and for many years he was a guide for big game hunters. He came to the Philippines hoping to operate tours here, and did run booze cruises out of Boracay for a while. Hes fallen in love with the women here, he thinks it may be a type of racial discrimination as black women do not attract him. He is sharp, drinking with him the night I met him in the Hobbit House we rapped, talked in verse and had a hilarious time. Hes a wheeler dealer type, always talking about some multi million peso project, the latest being a chemical to stabilize and weatherproof dirt roads. He wants to go back to Africa and take his Filipina friend with him.
Last night Joseph shows up after a week absence. He tells me he was stopped by a policeman on Mabini looking for a holdapper, who proceeded to rob him as part of a search, and when he protested the cop busted him for vagrancy, as he had no money or visible means of support. The judge let him go when he went to court. He has a friend with him and we party with a longneck, a twenty sixer of ESQ rhum, green mangoes and bagaoon, a purple paste of fermented fish. Its taken me a while to acquire a taste for it.
This morning Oscar shows up. The money I gave him to get a drivers license so he could get a job has gone on medicine for his little girl, and he needs ten pesos to visit his father. Normally this would be nothing but right now it represents my daily ration of rum. I wont make it to Wednesday without borrowing or getting some loans repaid.
A fiery sunset spendored with Pinatubos hues
silhouettes the mountains back of the barrio
A solitary Venus gleams bright against the glow
as if a manger were below in this sad land
and stars begin to speckle the inky eastern sky
which expands into a vast blackness
blazing with stars
with always more between those just seen
giving a count on infinity
The hamlets unlit but by lamps
warm kerosene and cooler Coleman glows
marking the humble abodes
staking out the darkening hill
untriangulated points of peopling
beneath the heavens eternal geometry
Night, pure night
inorganic as an arctic winter
A little more than two hours of blackness
nine oclocking chronologically
the three quarters moon rises over Luzon
Its glow silhouettes the distant mountains of Laguna;
Macolod, Makilling and to the east sacred Banahaw
and soon illuminates the paths
through the jumbled nipa huts
and I set out in the nights morning
knowing my returning will be bright
The rebels in the mountains may be partying tonight
as only comrades can
in their uninebriated style
while the soldiers in the barrio drink free
on lowland Filipino hospitality
which they do not mistake for gratitude
Nice People Around contribute to the occasion
Mang Delano has some ducks the soldiers can shoot
victims for the also victimized
and he grills them after with his special BBQ sauce
and sends them back to barracks with doggie bags
and four long neck ESQ rhums
Higher up the moon looks almost full
the zenith will announce three AM
but before then
Ginebra San Miquel, warm Sprite and calamansi
dilute my blood
and invigorate my brain
Befuddled with the grammarless Tagalog
I try to communicate in
I state my final wisdoms
I have plenty and so must be choosey
no bureaucrat or academics so well endowed
or ultimately correct
when all is moot I shoot from the lip
at my addled audience
Near nights noon I begin my way home
through the lifeless looking hamlet
though its not
I have refuge
safe houses here and there Ive cultivated
and dogs that know me
My mind recalls the nursery rhyme
Girls and boys come out and play
the moon is shining bright as day
as I walk down paths in daytime
filled with laughing children
I reach the breezy shore
sit down and gaze
out at sea bright pitlamps blaze
a dozen bancas forming
a planetary system along the horizon
and in the morning
before the moons pale ghost sets
there will be fish in the market
and a new day to make sense of
Back in Puerto by myself. Purong and his family have a small room at the front of Mang Rodgers house. He collects bottles for recycling, mostly non deposit liquor bottles and the jars which people dont reuse as glasses. He picks them up in a bicycle with a sidecar which at other times serves as a neighbourhood playbike for up to ten kids at a time. The bottles are sorted and neatly packed in sacks which a couple of times a year he takes to Manila to sell for up to two cents each.
I get to know him through Rodger who acts as an interpreter at times as Purongs English is on a par with my Tagalog. But we also communicate by ourselves; nouns, adjectives and verb roots, which I memorize, and gestures on my part and his formal and business phrases, expressions and pantomime. I like him, hes got a sense of humour and if he werent missing his four upper front teeth hed be a handsome hunk, I suppose wed say. I bring him my empty bottles, plus any I pick up on the way over, and he or his pretty wife will insist on giving me at least one cigarette in payment since, maybe rudely, I said I didnt want any money for them. And occasionally we drink a lot of ginebra together.
One evening Purong tells me hes going to visit his bukid (farm) and invites me and Mang Maynard to come with him. Come to think of it Im bored and quite uninspired these days. O-o! yes. Purong offers to buy some film for my camera. I understand. Early morning a few days later we go to catch the jeepney for the two and a half hour ride to Calapan, the main city of Mindoro Oriental. However Mang Maynard has to make his apologies, his foot is very sore, too much ginebra he says. Oh well, my own private Tagalog immersion course.
Jeepneys, quaint and colourful as they may be, are horrible things to ride in especially if youre six feet or more. Its cramped and feels stuffy sitting on benches, facing in. Unless you ride up front beside the driver, or at the very back, you get to see nothing except the other passengers. Its all very sociable and Filipino. I remembered the first time I took this trip nine years ago. Id bought some chocolates, a rare treat in the provinces, to treat myself on the trip. As I munched I noticed a child noticing me. So I offered heritorhim one, and I noticed there were more little children, about six altogether, and I passed out chocolates to them all and the parents made sure the kids thanked me politely. And then the chocolates began to melt and got smudged all over their nice, I remember it was a Sunday, dress clothes and I became very embarrassed.
In the country however, where there are no police around its common for people, boys and men anyway, to ride on top. Up there, with a few sacks of pig feed (or even a trussed pig) to arrange for your comfort, it can be glorious with the view and the breeze. Purong cannot understand why I like riding on top, its something foreigners do, even old foreigners. I selfishly give up my seat to a woman as the jeepney fills up, and join a few others up on the roof when it leaves. For the first twenty odd, twisting mountainous miles the road is narrow, unpaved, very scenic and badly eroded in places causing the jeepney to sway and lurch. Hanging on becomes more than half the fun.
From Calapan, almost every Filipino town is typical, we take a bus to Victoria and get out at a muddy open market where Purong buys fish, a sack of rice, ginebra and other provisions. He negotiates with a tricycle driver. I, due to some unwanted respect have sit in the covered sidecar where I feel like a hunchback, while Purong sits on the saddle behind the driver, a sexy looking guy, a kind that fags would like but too old for queers. Actually its fun for a while but then the dirt road starts up a gentle incline and we start slipping in the prairie-like gumbo. The rain gets worse. At times we have to get out and walk and even push the tricycle, the mud sucking off our sandals. When the driver calls it quits Purong tells me its not much further.
At the end of the road where lanes lead into the barrio we stop at the house of a military official who, I assume, keeps track of comings and goings. The NPA, the communist New Peoples Army is quite strong in rural Mindoro. I promise to send him copies of the pictures I take of his wife and daughter. Canadians are very welcome in Barangay San Gabriel. The land seems fairly lush, small coffee plantings, the ubiquitous coconut but mostly its subsistence crops, bananas, papayas and gabi but no rice.
Purongs hectare is half a mile to a kilometer down the yellow muck road. There are four kubos or huts, three grouped beside an open, hardpan like, and in the rain very slippery, yard where children, some with umbrellas, play despite the drizzle. I become confused with all the introductions but it seems that his mother and three of his younger daughters live in the smallest kubo, about seventy square feet including a cooking lean-to. Two older sons live with the grandmother who has a much larger house next door with a raised floor. I calculate that with the two small ones in Puerto Purong must have seven children which is close to the statistical average here. Ive met men whove apologized for having only five children.
While Purong attends to family affairs I amuse myself and the several children around by taking pictures. Older girls bring forth toddlers and babes in arms to be shot. My favourite is a boy about eight who poses shyly beneath a banana leaf umbrella. Among those eagerly posing is a young boy badly disfigured by burn scars. He is blind in one eye which looks like the ghost of one and an arm is withered. You know something could be done for him, at least to make him look better, if there was money. Its an unpleasant feeling. The boy, Jun Jun, is very interested in my camera and I let him take a few shots including one of me in my Seeds of Time T-shirt. Others want to use the camera too but no, its my petty, private affirmative action gesture.
We men, joined by a couple of uncles or cousins drink while the women and girls cook. A boy is sent off with a bucket to a neighbour who has a well, and consequently a water supply business. Children crowd onto a bamboo slat bed which takes up half the space in the tiny room. I sit on one of the two makeshift chairs beside the narrow table blocking the way.
After the formalities I cant follow the conversation and look around. The walls are patched with Ginebra San Miquel cardboard cartons. An old calendar Jesus bleeds from multiple wounds. The childrens feet are all immaculate, each nail perfectly trimmed to an oval sitting on the cushion of the toe, the girls and one of the boys have on bright, neatly applied nail polish. Everybody has pedicures in the Philippines, its something that older sisters, aunts and mothers do. Id be ashamed to take off my socks. The clay floor however, is damp, an orangy brown colour and on a cardboard bed beneath the table a terrierish looking bitch is nursing two miniature St. Bernard pups. Chickens, roosters and chicks, from egg size to what I guess must be adolescents, pass through as the woven palm frond walls have rotted away at the bottom. I am amazed by the colours and patterns of their plumage. The native chicken has unlimited varieties, I see enough in minutes to inspire a fabric designer for years. I notice an empty bottle of imported Gilbeys Gin displayed on a shelf and an old radio. They have no batteries for it but they can listen to a neighbours. The only item of any value I see is a Coleman filament lantern.
The rain temporarily lets up and one of the girls returns with Purongs tiny grandmother, and helps her climb up on the cot. I find out that Jun Jun is Purongs son, and that five years ago when he was five hot cooking oil had spilled on him. Ive noticed that he seems depressed and stays at the back behind the others. I doubt if he goes to school and life cant offer him much here. He catches my eye and smiles, I should be glad of the few minutes of fun my camera gave him but I wish I could be Jesus and heal him. I smile back but try to not let him catch my eye again.
Later there is more than enough to drink in an evening thats often tedious but never boring. I have my moments. How do you enjoy yourself after youve stopped having fun? Afterwards I sleep well thanks to the mosquito net in the other room at grannys. The darkness is total, I can just hear but not see the others and when I awake the boys are gone.
In the morning I go around Purongs hectare with him as goes on a harvesting spree. There are plenty of star apples but most arent ripe yet. There are calamansis, small kumquat like fruit used like lemons but sometimes sweet enough to be eaten whole. Papayas are always in season and Purong gives me a big one. Two bunches of bananas are ready and Purong, enjoying himself slashes the trunk high getting the bunch to bend low where he cuts it off. He lets me play with his bolo, the common half knife, half machete tool for heavy sharp blade tasks. I work with hand tools, I like to feel, swing, guide, whatever with a tool, and the bolo is such fun to slash with, and the banana trunk such a nice medium for cutting - sculpting, whatever. We visit the fourth house on his hectare several yards away from the others where Purongs tenant lives somewhat better than his family. More introductions, more children, more pictures. I pick and taste a peppercorn and a coffee bean.
We get ready to leave soon as Purong plans to visit his sister in Calapan on the way back. A wheelbarrow is loaded with the bananas and other harvests. Jun Jun whos taken a liking to me offers to carry my small bag now weighted with fruit but Purong says hes needed to help with the wheelbarrow. Purong is taking his oldest son, about eleven, back to Puerto with us and several others accompany us to where we can catch a tricycle. The rain has stopped making the going a bit easier and not far past the junction its dry enough that we wash our feet and sandals in puddles. Jun Jun walks beside me, his good side towards me, when its not his turn to push. I think up the occasional triviality to say to him and try to control my emotions. I am thankful when a jeepney arrives and takes us to Victoria.
Later I get back the pictures of the trip with extra copies for Purong. For the first time I take a close look at the good side of Jun Juns face and realize what a handsome boy he would have been. I hope when hes a bit older that therell be someone who wants to fuck him or give him blow jobs. Can a little abuse be better than none?
This morning, a Sunday, the Hobbit House restaurant is closed and I crave a coffee, a genuine brewed coffee, not the instant varieties which are almost universal in all but expensive restaurants. And of those that do, such as the nearby Dunkin Doughnuts, many use powdered creamers. Coffee is my main complaint here. Rosies, the 50s style diner on the strip, or whats left of it, is a radiant beacon for coffee lovers, although even they, during the regular six to eight hour brownouts have to resort to instant as they use electric coffee makers. They do not schedule brownouts on Sundays.
I hop on a jeepney and get off a short block away. Outside Rosies a cute beggar boy about eight valiantly tries to open the heavy glass door for me. From where I sit at the counter I can see him looking in the door, lounging against a lamp post or play boxing with an imaginary opponent. I enjoy watching this cheerful child of poverty.
But then another beggar boy a bit older comes along and peers in at the windowside booths. He presses his face against the windows making the stylized expressions and gestures of beggarhood bothering patrons. Its a hook, and no doubt works on occasions. He could be a handsome young man if he survives, survives begging. I notice the first boy still trying to be a doorman and holding out his hand. Halfway through my first coffee I need a cigarette and go out to buy a single from a sidewalk vendor, my way of controlling my habit. The boy is there, smiling rather than pleading, and struggling with the heavy door a palm upturned. I have a two peso coin ready in my hand to give him. How long will he, can he, work with such hope in his heart? A few minutes later theyre gone, perhaps shooed away. At least they dont send death squads after them here like they do in richer countries like Brazil.
Scrawny malnourished paperboys
brave the traffic and pollution
to sell tabloids featuring photos
of starving Somalian children
MANILA CITY JAIL
I was angry, I was pissed off and disappointed. I felt righteous, that most despicable of poses. It was such a colossally stupid and downright mean thing to do. I remembered my own loss of faith in justice and humanity when as a boy someone stole my first, and until recently only bicycle. The note Josephs pregnant girlfriend brought me from the Station Nine Jail openly admitted the heinous crime. I was outraged. My ex-sex object now son of sorts, Joseph, a conspicuous six foot Mestizo in this land of shorter, darker people had stolen the bike from the boulevard with the owner seeing him do it. He then sold it for less than half its value and treated his barkada to a glorious drunken party at a restaurant. Returning to the boulevard where some of his barkada squat they found the police and the owner waiting.
I was even more sanctimonious as two days before Id given Joseph five hundred pesos for his twenty-first birthday to buy some clothes he wanted and another hundred to pick up our laundry and to treat his barkada to a large bottle of Emperador Brandy. None of these things were done and I suspect that the local drug trafficking industry was the main beneficiary. Now dont get me wrong, drugs dont bother me personally, in fact quite the opposite, although I do believe that many people are constitutionally incapable of handling certain ones. Anyway, back to stealing bicycles which does bother me, I suggested to Josephs friends that they find a way to return the bicycle to its rightful owner plus anything he may have had to pay the police to take up his case. I made it clear I was not going to contribute to the cause.
Im not sure how, but the owner did get his bike back and was willing to drop the charges. And I was informed that for a mere five hundred pesos the police would let Joseph go. No. A couple of years ago Id paid over ten times that to get him and two of his friends out of a jail on marijuana charges, but theft, hed have to handle on his own. Besides the involvement of a foreigner tends to lead to inflation. Other things keep me busy and my conscience is not troubled.
Meanwhile Joseph is transferred to MCJ, Manila City Jail, the old Bilibid Prison dating well back into Spanish times, and the asking price for his freedom has been raised to fifteen hundred pesos. One of his barkada tells me I couldve saved a thousand pesos by getting him out earlier. I reply that Im saving fifteen hundred. I do however keep in touch with whats happening. Its over a week before I finally decide to visit Joseph. I go with his girlfriend, Marlou and we take along some clean clothes for him. I dont know what to expect, I have media images of tattooed gang members fighting or rioting and recall a tabloid spread of one gang paddling initiates in a display of masochistic fortitude, that most Filipino of perversions. On our second attempt we find the nondescript street off Quezon Boulevard in Quiapo leading to MCJ. It is a huge compound of rambling masonry shed buildings surrounded by a high, ancient stone wall topped by coils of barbed wire. It is in the heart of what still is in many ways the downtown core of Manila.
At the pedestrian gate I give Josephs name to a guard who merely stamps my wrist and lets me enter. Im not frisked or asked for ID Marlou has her bag and clothes checked by a matron. Inside its like a busy village, Im reminded of the prison in the movie, MIDNIGHT EXPRESS; there are many women and children as well as the mostly youngish inmates dressed in T-shirts, shorts and rubber slippers. Around a plaza dominated by a ramshackle watchtower there are several sari-sari stores and a couple of eateries. Vendors selling candies, snacks and cigarettes wander around. I dont see anyone in uniform although I later find out that armed police in civvies circulate and take counts of the inmates. The scene differs little from that just outside the walls.
We have to ask around to find Joseph and are directed to one of the shed-like cells. Its about forty by a hundred feet with large open barred windows along the sides. A couple of trustees with two by two sticks guard the entrance. Were invited in and offered a bench to sit on while some inmates go to look for Joseph. We are left alone, no one even tries to mooch cigarettes. Along one side is a double decker row of kubos, or cubicles built out of lumber scraps, plywood I assume, and cardboard. Theyre covered with meticulously applied blue, brick pattern wallpaper and look much brighter and cleaner than most squatter hovels. In front of a grotto style altar an earnest young man, a Bible under his arm, leads about twenty others in a singsong of old pre-rock favourites. Other inmates lounge or play disc pool and a small boy is fascinated by the abundant hairs on my forearm and gently pulls on them. Joseph arrives, only hes the wrong Joseph. This one is a blond fiftyish Englishman with whom we exchange a few polite words before he heads back to his kubo.
We wander around, making inquiries until we find the right cell block which is similar to the first but much gaudier inside. Red and purple, brick patterned wallpaper with a broad green band and several large hand painted murals decorate the sides of the kubos. The peaked ceiling is draped with the most intricate arrangement of coloured paper streamers Ive ever seen; theyre closely spaced, twisted looped, radiating from light fixtures, creating a festive atmosphere where children play, men play cards and women cook over small charcoal and kerosene stoves. There is no feeling of tension and I wander around freely while a trustee looks for Joseph. Theres an abundance of tattoos although its not a gang cell.
Joseph, my Joseph shows up and hes very glad to see me, and well, yes, Im glad to see him too. I have to tell him how angry I was, how strongly I feel about stealing bicycles. Joseph apologizes and tells me not to cry. The other inmates ignore us, its jail etiquette he tells me and he has one bring us a couple of Cokes from the cell sari-sari. I find out he has to pay seven pesos tax for each visitor he has, the money going into a fund to buy medicine. Overnight visitors cost twenty pesos (a dollar), and if you want to rent a kubo, theyre a bit bigger than a double mattress, you pay the owner about fifty pesos, which is less than any pension room Ive found in Manila. A folding cot is ten pesos in this hotbed of entrepreneurial capitalism.
The jail is largely run by the inmates. There are seven cells in the non gang side of the jail and each cell has from one to over three hundred inmates and is ruled by a mayore appointed by the warden. A man of good character and personal status, not infrequently a murderer Im told, is chosen. The mayores appoint the trustees, the guys with the sticks, and handle internal disciplinary problems. For serious offences; fighting, stealing, gross insubordination or dereliction of duty, the offender may be publicly beaten with a paddle which Joseph assures me is much heavier than the two by two sticks I see. It doesnt happen very often in this cell, but hes seen it occur frequently in others on previous holidays in MCJ. The mayores also run tournaments, on a shelf across from me is a basketball trophy donated by the Liga de Mayores.
Im introduced to other inmates including foreigners whore not unusual in Filipino jails. I meet Mario, a cheerful, talkative black Brazilian who says he was set up by a hooker pressured by real, ex or pretend cops. He says hes negotiated his freedom down to one thousand pesos which he doesnt have. Marlou recognizes him from Mabini in the tourist belt. She says shell try to get this black mestiza they both know, and who may have connections, to visit him. Lunch is served and Mario grabs a plate of soupy rice and a ladleful of what is allegedly chicken stew. He explains he has to eat the free food as hes broke. Im invited to join him but decline as Ive just eaten, an unnecessary lie. Then a vendor walks by with what looks like some great lumpia shanghai but I remember Im not hungry.
I meet a Canadian in his mid thirties, Laurence, who tells me he once owned a restaurant in Vancouver. He also claims to have been set up with drugs, enough to warrant a life sentence, and again a woman is blamed. He did not deal with the arresting officers at the time, its not clear if this was due to lack of resources or excessive demands. Anyway hes convinced in his case itll be cheaper to buy off the judiciary, hes already paid to have a sympathetic judge try him. Laurence is in good spirits, when he has money he can go out, with police escorts of course, to girlie bars and drink or whatever. At present he is poor and asks me about, babae, women, who might like to visit him. I ask him if he would like other visitors and mention my friend David, a Canadian journalist I recently met.
David is interested in interviewing Laurence, hes already been discussing a TV documentary with a Canadian network about a Canadian father and son team whove been sentenced to death on drug charges in Thailand which he plans to visit next. David wants some photos but as I expect when we go to MCJ three days later I have to leave my camera at the gate. I would love to take pictures, MCJ is an exotic setting, nothing at all like the austere and formal Canadian institutions Ive visited.
Inside were greeted by a covey of baklas, thick with make-up and mannerisms. Hello Hello HellO One is rather pretty and convincing, I almost wish I were straight, but I suspect it is the younger and more handsome David theyre interested in. The bakla cell is next to Josephs and I promise to visit them later. We find Laurence near the cell entrance in the shaded patio beside the ornamental pond which has a small doll house shrine with saints in the middle. The pond is stocked with catfish. The inmates also raise ducks, turkeys and chickens for food. An inmate is working with mickey mouse tools to enlarge the patio roof, the materials bought with the taxes on overnight guests.
I leave David to interview Laurence and look for Joseph. Hes playing basketball in another part of the compound and is wearing a T-shirt under his team tank top, like many of the others, in what even I find oppressive heat. I give him a message from his girlfriend and deliver the three kilos of rice hed requested as the free rice, hes complained is undercooked and hard, and hurts when he shits. Joseph introduces me to his friend Frank, a member of Sigue Sigue Sputnik, one of Manilas main gangs, each of which has their own cell on the other side of MCJ. Its apparently a different world, very tight security, despite which there are major rumbles which only end when paddles are put into massive service. Its time to leave, I rejoin David and hear Laurence complaining about how much hes having to pay the judge. Its a blatant fee for service system and not even discreetly under the table it seems. Its widely accepted here, as in certain developed countries, that the judiciary is the most corrupt branch of government, all the way to the top.
Before I leave I get permission from the commandante or warden, Major Morante, to bring in my camera next time. Hes a very reasonable man, he will give me an escort and only insists that I do not take pictures of the towers or unwilling inmates. I do, and am very pleased with the pictures I get. Most inmates are happy to pose and mug, especially some of the baklas. I visit Joseph three more times. Once Joseph tells me about the time he saw Scarface got a bareass paddling there after he fell asleep when he was on guard duty. From his description they seemed to less severe but more frequent than the paddlings that were administered in Canadian jails less than forty years ago. Afterwards Scarface was thrown into one of the stagnant algae laden fishpools and made to stay in for eight hours and then not allowed to wash until the next day. Joseph has one more court appearance left, a formality, before he is released when I have to return to Canada.
YOURE CRAZY TO BE HERE
Sauna city, two shirt and shower days
Diesel lunged by quaintly painted jeepneys
Blaring street cacophonopia
Graceful golden limbs
With canker sores
You and me
Hee hee hee ho ho
An English city visually
But what you hears not what you see
Cept on Tagalog bawal-ed walls
And possibly some student halls
YOU CAN LEAVE ANYTIME
Airline offices abound
Package tours to the Motherland
Ancestors never saw
Compete with twice weekly trips
To Ho Chi Minh City
Or maybe an extortionist
Will help you on your way
Traffic bends around the bulging sidewalk
Where burnt out squatters camp
A beggar lad
All limbs lopped
A victim of some vengeance?
Takes your coins with stubs
The vendor hordes of Santa Cruz
Goods tricely bundled
Flee yet another attempt
At civic beautification
Urchins of Ermita scamper
To the cry of Bagansi!
Calesa and cronycrat
Limoed in luxury
Trespass the jeepney jungle
Policeman play cops and robbers
Growing GNPs and poverties
And common ordinary disease
Peso astronomy for some
And the poor used to live fairly well
BUT YOU STAY
50s, 60s jukebox timewarp
Little kids dance
To the imported nostalgia
Nights ending with the lonely cry of Balut
Noosed by rumbling roads
Its giant wounded acacias
Rotting and regenerating
Disneyland of death
Were the living housed half as well
South Pacific seaside shanties
Embrace The Embassy
OR COME AGAIN IF YOU CANT
Except for its natural and man made calamities the Philippines rarely enters the Canadian consciousness. It is not one of Asias economic tigers, and seems unlikely to become one although not many years ago its people were among the best off in Asia.
Despite centuries of oppression by foreign and domestic elites, Filipinos lack the capacity for authoritarian discipline so beloved of global free enterprizers. The country has seldom been without an armed insurrection.
The Philippines is a backwater of Asia. It is a permanent frontier much like the Canadian North. No ancient empire ever arose there, or even bothered to conquer it. There are no stone temples or monuments as in most other Southeast Asian countries. Before the Europeans came the islanders traded products of the forest for Chinese pottery, their indulgence in luxury.
They were not even organized into tribes. Communities retained their independence through an ingenious political arrangement of head-hunting fuelled by feuds and young male macho, and its balancing institution, the peace pact cemented by intermarriage and oaths. Complex and often changing alliances allowed a fairly high level of development without central authority. Head-hunting was also a nasty type of population control long before it was really needed. However, the alternative of central authority with chiefs noblemen, armies and slaves could be worse. To this day Filipino loyalties lie with the family and provincial/linguistic groupings rather than the country.
Their luck ended when the Spaniards came in search of gold, spices and souls. Only the latter did they find in abundance. The lowlanders rapidly became good Roman Catholics without bothering to change their religion. But after the conquistadors had stolen the gold jewellery from the women and otherwise naked children, gold only came down in dribbles from the unconquerable Igorots in the Cordillera who mined it. It was not a profitable colony.
The Spaniards defined the Philippines geographically by what they could defend from the British and the Dutch, and it developed to the brink of nationhood under Spanish nurture and oppression. Unfortunately the Americans intervened in the Filipino Revolution with their typical mixture of savagery and idealism, and needed over fifty thousand troops to subdue the Filipinos where the Spaniards never used more than five. After a successful policy of subjugation by massacre, starvation and co-option the Americans set out to be the worlds best loved imperialists and succeeded again. Filipino national pride was emasculated and has never recovered.
Since the so-called EDSA Revolution of 1986, which restored the oldtime politics that led to the Marcos dictatorship, and which democratized corruption, the well-being of the people has continued to decline. What government they have is not only corrupt but incredibly inept. Meaningful land reform is democratically impossible and they are failing to develop a national language policy for their linguistically fragmented country.
But it is also a delightful country despite its problems. It is still the most accessible country in Asia for English speakers and one can travel on ones own and meet the ordinary people. It is, as they, Where Asia wears a smile.
Note: Robin Sharpe is a Vancouver writer who regularly visited the Philippines between 1983 and 1992.
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