Tag Archives: manila

Saints and Cheeses in the Philippines

25 Nov

More of my Philippines ramblings appearing now on the London Mag site:


Tragedies of Exile Part II

10 Oct


As I leave the post office of the University of the Philippines, a hirsute giant in a Panama hat rushes over to me. His breath is supernaturally bad. His ginger beard is spiky with sweat. He clamps a sweaty hand to my shoulder. “Name’s Bryant,” he says in fast and frantic Californian. “You a writer, man?” Before I can answer, he talks over me. “I’m a writer, see this?” He opens up a kit bag full of poorly-printed self-published books.

I try to ask him what he writes, but he talks over me again. “I’ve had the damnedest luck since I came to Manila. I wrote a PhD and they failed me ‘cause we had an argument. That wouldn’t happen in countries like ours, would it?”

He then proceeds to loudly chastise a number of well-known Filipino authors and intellectuals. ‘X’ lacks grace, ‘Y’ is arrogant. ‘Z’ is a feeble copyist of Bryant’s favourite American writer. I look nervously around in case one of these people happens to pass by. I wonder if Bryant is less a victim of his damnedest luck than of social ineptitude, especially in a culture where anger and confrontation are taboo.

I ask him why he doesn’t return to the US.

“A little money issue.” He points to his kit bag. “So you’ll buy one of my books?”

I make the excuse that I don’t have any cash on me.

He doesn’t seem to hear me. “Maybe you could hook me up with a publisher in your country? The publishers are real unfriendly here.”

A chubby Filipina in mirrorshades appears. She wears an embarrassed, spaced-out smile. “This is my girl,” says Bryant. “She’s a very talented photographer.” He takes out his phone and shows me a series of unbelievably clichéd island sunsets. “Perhaps you could help her get an exhibition?”

I tell him it’s not really my area.

“Damn,” Bryant sneers and scratches his beard.

I say goodbye before I become another victim of his damnedest luck.


Coop wanders the homestay he runs with his Balinese wife Ida. He is topless, a bypass scar leading from his chest to his bathtub belly. He natters in Aussie monotone, a cigarette pivoting in his mouth. “The thing about Candi Dasa, right, is we’ve got the best beach in the world ‘cept no one knows about it … Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall got married just up the road … My wife’s a bloody whizz in the kitchen, it’ll be just like your granny’s cooking back in England …”

Coop worked as a baggage handler for Qantas until a heart attack made him re-think everything. Wanting a new start, he flew to Bali and never came back.

In Australia he’d been a nobody. “It was hard for a bloke to get on,” he moans. “Too many immigrants taking all the jobs.” With no concern for hypocrisy, Coop built a successful business here in Bali, putting his “raconteur’s skills” (his description not mine) to use. He reminds me of Ronald Merrick, the colonial policeman in Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet novels. Merrick felt his grammar school education and lack of connections impeded his career in Britain, so he moved to India where he found it easier to excel. Thousands of real-life expats would agree with him. As Sriskandarajah and Drew observe, ‘For some middle class families, living abroad is a social aspiration. The experience of foreign living and culture may be a way to redefine themselves in the social hierarchy.’

Like Merrick, Coop despises the indigenes. He has a particular problem with those taxi drivers who dare to ask him for a 12,000 Rupiah (about 90p) tip. He doesn’t seem to respect his wife much either: she is slaving away in the kitchen while he hangs out half-naked, smoking and swigging Bintang beer.

A creaky old man in a rugby shirt enters the homestay. “This is Clive,” says Coop. “He’s a Kiwi, but we’ll try not to hold that against him.”

Trailing behind Clive is a Balinese girl young enough to be his granddaughter. She is in fact his new wife. I don’t believe her claim to have children from a previous marriage. Clive has three grown-up sons of his own. They too have a penchant for the oriental lady.

“My eldest married a Japanese,” he says. “My second a Vietnamese. But my youngest, well, he’s been a disappointment to me; he married an Australian.” Coop tuts at the comeback. Clive winks.

Western men have long been enchanted by Asian women. In the 1880s, the Irish-Greek Japanophile Lafcadio Hearn wrote, “the most wonderful aesthetic products of Japan are not its ivories, nor its bronzes, nor its porcelains, nor its swords, nor any of its marvels in metal and lacquer – but its women.” Today, in Thai villages of 500 families, some two hundred women are married to American and European men. For many, love is now the holy grail of expatriation.

Candi Dasa is no exception, Coop assures me. He mentions a retired Dutchman who’s just moved into the area. “He’s bought the land, he’s built the house, now he’s looking for the girl. He’ll find one no worries, bloke like that.”

After Clive and his missus retire, Coop reveals a darker dimension to expat relationships. “That bloke you just met,” he says with the shamelessness of a gossip, “he had another Balinese chick before that one. Got her pregnant. One night they were staying here and she wouldn’t, you know, sleep with him. So he yelled at her, really upset her. Then he drove down to Kuta for a ‘takeaway.’ Know what he meant by that?”

I think I do. “What did you say to Clive?”

Coop shrugs. “Well what can you say? None of my business, mate.”

It dawns on me that Coop’s industry is a dirty one. The imperatives of hospitality have made him a coward. He’ll let someone behave like that so long as they’re a paying customer. I wonder if he’d react differently to a Balinese man doing exactly the same thing to his girlfriend. Perhaps not; business is colour blind.

Coop finishes his eighth bottle with a burp. I feel for his poor wife. He’s already had one major heart attack and he’ll have another if he carries on like this. Then Ida will be back on the scrapheap, waiting for another white sugar daddy.

Now slurring, Coop mocks a guest he suspects of being gay. I call it a night and go to my room. I realise I’m next door to Clive.

Ambrose Bierce’s wry definition of ‘exile’ could well apply to an expat like Coop or Clive: ‘One who serves his country by residing abroad, yet is not an ambassador.’ Australia and New Zealand are well-served by Coop and Clive residing 1,500 miles away. But by the same logic, I feel sorry for Bali.




The expats I interviewed were all fleeing some personal tragedy – failure, guilt, ill health, bereavement – as if the physical act of travel could elude their internal demons. Whether this is possible is an open question. Annisa was disappointed with her ancestral homeland and alienated from other expats. Clive, Coop and Bryant were surely doomed.

Meanwhile, Lily seemed to be coping best with the tragedies of exile. She’d embraced the host society and was curing her melancholy by helping others. With her sense of adventure and fondness for boats, she might well appreciate Mark Twain’s positive angle on expatriation: “So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”



Turning My Family Green in Bristol (2010)

12 Jul

A year ago, my partner Donna, six year old Daisy and I were living in Manila, one of the most polluted cities in the world. Our road was so traffic-choked that everything in our apartment smelled of diesel. In the distance, huge chimneys pumped heavy metals into the air all day long. To my horror, I discovered that we were breathing in the equivalent of twenty cigarettes a day and shaving a decade off our life expectancies. The authorities had neither the funds nor the infrastructure to address these problems, so they were only getting worse. When my work stint was over, we came back to Britain determined to live a better life, if not exactly The Good Life.

Bristol seemed like the perfect choice. Its reputation for green spaces, cycle paths and general eco-friendliness preceded it. We got rid of our car and immediately noticed the savings on petrol, MOT, repairs and so on. We also cut our rent by moving to a flat in Hotwells without a parking space. This is a great part of town, within walking distance of Clifton Village and Down, the river and – sometimes at a stretch for Daisy this one – the city centre. All was going well until we realised that the nearest school with a free space was three miles away in Bedminster.

We started taking the bus. It seemed simple enough: a forty minute journey with one change in the city centre. However, we didn’t bargain for the Manila-like traffic jams (minus the smog of course) that blight both Hotwell Road and Redcliffe Hill first thing in the morning. Worse still, random vehicles – an ice cream van, a pink limousine, a Bentley – would park at our stop and dissuade the bus from pulling over, making us late for school almost every day. We got depressed. We questioned whether the government was serious about helping people – like us – out of their cars and onto public transport.

Now we have a solution: an adult-sized bike with child’s ‘tagalong’. It looks like something from a Victorian circus, but I don’t mind because I don’t have to pilot it! Instead Donna pedals her heart out up the hills of south Bristol, hoping that, one day, Daisy might pedal too instead of just sticking her arms out and shouting ‘Wheee!’ Nearing the school, they must brave cars driving on to the cycle paths because the road is too narrow, other cars parked on double yellow lines and speeding hypocrites who shout at them: ‘What you’re doing is so dangerous!’ So far, though, nothing bad has happened and Donna has kept her cool. I think I would have lost mine by now…

After an uphill struggle – literally and metaphorically – my family’s attempt to turn itself green is paying off. We’re no longer ‘blowing so much smoke around the world’ as Daisy puts it. I’d recommend the experience to anyone, but with two words of advice: watch out for cars and make sure your co-pilot pedals!

(Originally accepted by a magazine in Bristol that shall remain unnamed, paid for and then not used. Oh the injustice!)

Animal Avenue – Surviving a Megacity with a Four Year Old

18 Jun

Had Darwin lived long enough to visit 21st century Manila, he may have been intrigued by Katipunan. Day and night this anarchic, six lane boulevard is the arena for a lethal competition between diverse species of vehicle and pedestrian. Only the fittest survive. Just before my arrival, there’d been a few hairy incidents. A massive pile-up had demolished several cars and a trendy cafe. An official of the National Prosecutor’s League had ploughed into two teenagers, killing them instantly. A street kid had been squashed by a yuppie reversing his Toyota Fortuner outside the International House of Pancakes. I’d been warned that Manila drivers seldom check their wing mirrors.

Traffic police are a rare sight on Katipunan, but when they do pull someone over they’ll say something like ‘I am Noynoy Aquino’ or ‘I am Jeric Raval’. Such assertions might seem mad; Noynoy Aquino is the President of the Republic and Jeric Raval is a film star, the Filipino Arnold Schwarzenegger. The unsuspecting motorist will wonder if the policeman is suffering from a personality disorder. The more savvy motorist, on the other hand, will know that this is coded language for a bribe. The amount you’re expected to hand over depends on the fame of the celebrity mentioned.

My friend Joel told me about his own perilous encounter on Katipunan. As he was crossing the junction with Esteban Abada Street, a yellow taxi squealed to a halt. There was barely a cockroach’s antenna between its bumper and Joel’s knee. A policeman bounded over as Joel realised that this was his fault for jaywalking. The policeman drew his pistol. Joel started to beg: ‘Please, please, po. I have a wife and young children. I’m a Professor of English Literature at Miriam College.’ But rather than getting Jeric Raval on Joel, the cop stuck his gun through the window of the taxi and told the driver to watch where the fuck he was going. The driver yelled an obscenity back and sped off.

As J G Ballard proposes in his classic novel Crash, there’s something about the automobile that unchains the id, reduces men to beasts. Speeding, road rage, car crashes – hardly the behaviour of evolved, rational beings. But on Katipunan, the naked violence of animals can spread beyond the cars and into nearby places like the Greenbelt Mall. A week into my stay, this was the scene of a tragicomic shootout. The local mayor and his bodyguards were eating lunch when a posse of small-time crooks ran past. Mistaking them for potential assassins, the minders opened fire, killing one. The other crooks ditched their plan to rob a Rolex shop and fled the mall. This, sadly, was not a singular occurrence. A cursory surf of Google News will throw out such cheery headlines as ‘Hell hath no fury: abandoned wife kills 2 in mall shooting’ and ‘Love triangle shooting in mall leaves boy brain dead’.

Katipunan’s history is soaked in blood. The word itself means ‘association’ in Tagalog and refers to a revolutionary cell founded in 1892. Having lost faith in peaceful protest, its leader Andres Bonifacio was committed to the violent expulsion of the Spanish. After several disturbances in 1896-97 – including a massacre of Chinese-Filipinos close to the modern site of the avenue – Bonifacio sort of got his wish, but not quite. The Spanish were driven out, but rather than the Philippines achieving independence, the United States arrived in 1898 as the new colonial authority. Half a century later, Katipunan was reduced to rubble as the Philippines changed hands between the Japanese and the Allies. As the historian Jose S Arcilla writes, ‘Manila was the second most devastated city after Warsaw during the Second World War’. This explains the plethora of postwar, Art Deco-ish tower blocks all along Katipunan. They remind a philistine like me of Gotham City.

One such tower block – Loyola Heights Condominium – became home for my partner Donna, my four year old daughter Daisy and I. Our apartment had two bedrooms and a lounge – the height of luxury in a country where even middle class families squeeze into one room. When Donna started working at the Isis NGO, Daisy and I began exploring Katipunan. It was better than its reputation had implied. At first, anyway.

Ribbons of bougainvillea brightened the traffic islands and Spanish Flags burst across the skywalk. By mid afternoon when the fumes had built up to a pallid mist, these flowers would shine through, conveying a sense of hope. Well, to me, at least. All the nasty smells – sewage, particulates, burning plastic – were somehow offset by siopao (rice flour buns) and chicken balls frying in pavement skillets. Well-groomed men in shorts sold cheese-flavoured ice cream from pushcarts and helium balloons of Disney characters. Skin-whitened, jewel-studded old women stopped and asked us if we needed assistance. Students of Ateneo de Manila and the University of the Philippines (the Oxford and Cambridge of the country) thronged in Mexican-style cantinas, their laughter competing with the buzzsaw riffs of The Eraserheads and other OPM (Original Pinoy Music) bands. The students’ bonhomie was infectious: it always cheered me and Daisy up. Even the street kids – half Daisy’s size but twice her age – would beam at us as we approached the glaring, day-glo frontage of a 7-11.

As we strolled, I noticed a contrast between the rumpus of the road itself and the dullness of the buildings flanking it. Insurance companies, autorepair shops, banks, language schools, fast food joints. Only the latter appealed to Daisy. No wonder, given the sneaky ploys these establishments used to lure the kids in. On Katipunan there were in-house fun fairs and failed actors dressed as bumble bees, promises of toys and crayons and children’s parties. I’d like to say that I rose above all this, that I resisted ‘pester power’, that I was a responsible dad… But no.

The best – or the least worst of the bunch – was Shaky’s. Attractive teens wearing red uniforms and Tony Blair grins skittered between Lego-like plastic furniture, serving pizzas the size of lorry wheels. On one occasion, a Tony Blairess called Pixie apologised as she delivered half a pig on dough: ‘Sorry, Mister, this not as big as you have in your country, no?’

‘Actually,’ I replied, ‘I’ve never seen a pizza this big or unhealthy anywhere in the world.’

One lunchtime, our flirtation with Shaky’s came to an abrupt halt. Daisy and I were sitting by the window watching men chainsawing a tree that had got tangled with an overhead line. I handed Pixie the bill, but Daisy wouldn’t turn away from the window.

‘Time to go, bay-bay!’ sang Pixie, but Daisy continued to treat us to the back of her head, which was now bowed against the glass.

More than a bit concerned, I took her arm and gently pulled her round to face us. She’d scrunched her eyes shut. Sweat was dripping off her brow. The window was streaked with multicoloured vomit. It was as luminous and cartoonish as the furniture. A crowd – amongst them hungry street kids – was gathering outside to stare at the brilliant lime green of the peppers, the blinding yellow of the mozzarella and the dazzling pink of the ham.

Pixie went for help. I fed Daisy water and mopped up what I could with a napkin. An army of grins with mops appeared. I made apologies – in the customary English way – and left a 700 peso (about £10) tip. This was three times the cost of the actual meal.

On our way out, Daisy giggled and called me ‘A big fat pooh pooh bum.’ I took this renewed cheekiness as a sign of recovery.

Shortly before reaching home, we were nearly killed. As the pavement was disappearing into two parking spaces outside the Jeff Gonzalez Auto Emporium, an SUV backed towards us at top speed. I picked Daisy up and dodged into the other space, treading in a puddle of oil. The SUV was blaring out the karaoke national anthem of the Philippines: the risible ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ by Bonnie Tyler. This only added to our humiliation.

I put Daisy down and banged my fist on the tinted driver’s window. The anger was burning up from the pit of my stomach and into my eyes. I had always thought ‘seeing red’ was just a metaphor, until that moment, when I was literally seeing red. Everything was a bloody hue. I stood there shaking, panting, feeling the control drain away from me, my free will evaporating like steam into the air. Instinct overrode any concern for safety, consequence or the law. I wasn’t thinking, I was feeling, and the feeling was this: a fucking idiot has almost killed my child and he will suffer. As a lefty peacenik, I’m embarrassed to admit to ever feeling like this. But feel like this I did.

I banged again on the window, my knuckles going numb. The window zipped down. Inside was a group of well-dressed yet profoundly frightened people; VIPs, probably big shots in Manila society: off-duty lawyers, actors, executives. They cowered, mouths like black holes, as if I were threatening them with a gun. ‘I’m so sorry, sir, so sorry, so sorry, so sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry…’ Who did they think I was? The only white, unarmed carjacker in Manila? With his four year old in tow?

It was a pathetic sight, and I was appalled by my own capacity to affect someone like this, to frighten. Whatever switch had flipped in me flipped back. It was like instantly sobering up from a state of intoxication. The burning sensation vanished. I caught my breath. I relaxed my fist – which was now hurting like an absolute bastard.

I looked to Daisy. Her back was turned. She was eyeing up Dunkin’ Donuts. I hurried her away, thankful that she had missed this.

 Originally published in the London Magazine, April-May 2012

©2012 Tom Sykes


The Terminal Beach: A British Family Travels in the Wake of Ondoy

12 Jun

Throughout my time in the Philippines, I never got over how early and suddenly the night would fall. Our coach was on Bacoor Bay at 6pm when the rowdy ocean to the west and the brush-covered mountains to the east fell black. The girls were already asleep, Daisy face-down in Donna’s lap. I looked at the other passengers. Some picked their noses, others jiggled to iPods. A huge woman ate a huge buko pie.

We were heading for Nasugbu, a beach recommended by Lonely Planet. After only a week in Manila we needed a break from the heat, the noise and the psychotic driving. The journey would take us through both remote countryside and the economic heart of Luzon – a contrast that intrigued me.

Our coach hit the Centennial Road. On my map this throbbed like a vein through the scrotum-shaped peninsular of southwestern Luzon. Nasugbu’s position on the map was arguably the boil hanging off the lower edge of the scrotum. I didn’t know how I’d come up with this nasty metaphor. I hoped it didn’t augur badly for our trip to the seaside.

The driver put on a CD of eighties pop. There was a malfunction and ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ played in fast-motion; Kylie Minogue abducted by the Chipmunks. Donna started awake. “Where are we and what on Earth’s happening?” she murmured, eyes cemented with sleep.

“It’s all right, darling,” I said. “Soon be in Nasugbu.”

The landscape grew taller, more built-up and better-lit. We passed townhouse developments with picket fences and controlled explosions of flowers. Checkpoints subdivided every road. All the curbs were yellow-striped. The coach pulled up at a Berlinesque wall signed CAVITE EXPORT PROCESSING ZONE. Beside it was a hammer-shaped monument with WELCOME written vertically down it. Over the wall were vast slabs of factory and warehouse. Looking at this post-industrial scene, it was hard to believe that the name ‘Cavite’ was derived from the Tagalog word for creek.

This EPZ (as it’s abbreviated) is a semi-independent state with its own tax laws and loose regulations. It has its own governing council and police force. Access is strictly controlled, hence all the checkpoints. Seventy thousand people work here in textiles, food processing, electronics and manufacturing. The pay is low, the shifts are long and the conditions dangerous. Anyone who tries to form a trade union gets kidnapped, hog-tied and murdered by aforesaid police. Only brave people try to form trade unions. Nonetheless, the region has a long tradition of radicalism. As the historian and Spanish-American War veteran James H. Blount wrote in 1913:

Cavite province has always been, since the opening of the Suez Canal,

about 1869, and the agitations for political reform in Spain which culminated

in the Spanish republic of 1873, quickened the thought of Spain’s East

Indies, the home of insurrection, the breeding place of political agitation.

The purpose of Cavite and the other 240 EPZs across the Philippines is to attract foreign investment. Indeed, IBM, Gap and Nike are all here but you won’t see their logos; they use regional subcontractors.

A dozen people left the coach and marched single-file to the wall. They reached for the ID cards around their necks.

We continued south through Silang, Cavite’s quiet, rural fifth district. I saw little but fields and churches with bell gables like decorated gingerbread. My friend, the poet Joel Toledo, grew up round here in the 1980s. Electricity was a rare luxury. His poem ‘Moth’ recounts what happened when Joel’s family switched the lights on for his grandmother’s funeral.

The harsh, yellow light recedes
and bursts around each footstep.
We all go up the staircase.
Moths of various sizes hug the wooden walls.

Joel now lives in a Manila condo with high speed broadband and cable TV. I wondered how many of those EPZ workers earlier had trekked from homes like the one in Joel’s poem to build parts for mobile phones and laptops. Statistically many would have; twenty six percent of Filipinos live with little or no power.

We hit silty terrain close to sea level, moonlit waves licking the road. The coach’s headlights fell on sugarcane spiked up like punk hairstyles and bubbly mango trees. Fish cages zigzagged along a hillside river that widened into a waterfall.

The coach stopped. I woke the ladies. As we were getting off, locals with Cavite EPZ ID cards were getting on. “Why are you going there?” I asked one man with a scar encircling his eye.

“No work here no more, po.”

“How come?”

He pushed past me without answering.

We stood outside Nasugbu Municipal Hall. Streetlamps highlighted its various shades of blue paint. A tricycle buzzed over.

“Take us to the cheapest room in Nasugbu,” I yawned. The driver nodded effusively as if that wouldn’t be a problem at all.

We passed street food stalls called POTATO HUGGER and CHINKY BUCK’S. They smelled stale and had few customers; maybe these two details were connected. Daisy pointed at a carousel – also short of punters – sparkling pink against the night.

We left the main drag for a barangay of shed-like abodes with plank roofs and iron gates. Further along were empty stucco bars with strobing neon signs. Our room was the flimsiest shed in the barangay. A Philippine Tarsier – the world’s smallest monkey – could have broken in.

We went to a resto-bar in the hope of food. Only ‘chicken lollipop’ was available. Daisy liked the sound of that – it had ‘lollipop’ in the title. She was less impressed with the reality: rubbery blobs of low-grade meat wrapped in tin foil. Donna told the waitress she was vegetarian. The waitress just smiled sadly.

A group of young people entered. Each one held a bottle of San Miguel and a cigarette. The boys wore beanies and hoodies. I couldn’t fathom why anyone would wear such garb in forty degree heat. I imagined one of them passing out midway through the set and being carried off-stage by a roadie, James Brown-style.

The girls wore short skirts and low-cut tops. Each one wanted a go on the videoke, but not one could sing. To make matters worse, they all insisted on ambitious eighties power ballads by Meatloaf, John Farnham and Bonnie Tyler. I’ve now heard ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ sung badly in several Asian countries and every time it makes me question the fundamental validity of Western civilisation. But I felt particularly sorry for the Philippines. We were exporting our crappy jobs to their EPZs and our crappy music to their drinking pits.

The trauma went on for half an hour, the poor girls hardly helped by a screen showing a ball bouncing over misspelled lyrics. Occasionally, Filipino beauty spots would also flash up on the screen: the talcum powder sands of Boracay Island, Palawan’s subterranean river, the Pagsanjan Falls, Mount Makiling’s jungle soda springs. But no pics of Nasugbu. “Never mind,” I thought with tipsy optimism. “We’ll find the beach tomorrow and everything will be fine. Just fine.”

One girl embarked on an ill-advised rendition of ‘Wuthering Heights’. Daisy liked it enough to dance. Perhaps delirious from the heat, perhaps not, she combined Kate Bush-style twirls with punk pogoing. I had no idea she had ever seen Kate Bush dance or anyone else pogo.

Donna took her eyes off Daisy and opened her mouth to ask me something. Daisy stopped dancing and scowled at us. Apparently we had to watch in respectful silence the busting of Daisy’s each and every groove. Luckily she soon got bored and sat down.

The band came on and asked me for a request.

“Led Zeppelin!” I shouted, more tipsy now, if not drunk. In fact, I would have settled for anything other than more Bonnie Tyler.

Ou la la,” gasped the singer. The guitarist dropped his hands away from the fretboard. The drummer shrugged and didn’t seem to know where to put his sticks. I took all this to mean that Led Zep was beyond the band’s capabilities. Instead they launched into a kind of avant-garde free jazz take on Coldplay. I don’t think they intended to play avant-garde free jazz, it was just that the drummer couldn’t keep time and the guitars were egregiously out of tune.

Nonetheless I went to bed happy. Whether this had anything to do with the nine San Miguels and five Tanduay rums I’d imbibed is, of course, an open question. But all three of us were looking forward to a day on the beach, even if, so far, the portents hadn’t been great.

The next morning Daisy woke me up by jumping on my chest. “Get up, you puffy old man!” she ordered. We put on swimwear and walked the winding path to the beach, passing baubled citrus trees and hovels attached to hog pens. We sped up, raced each other, Daisy speed-talking in anticipation, her little eyes poised to catch the moment when the promised land would shine over the horizon…

…But it was not to be. Splinters of wood littered the sand like rice in between chunks of masonry, crisp packets, sweet wrappers, dented coconuts and ragged strands of rope. Further back from the sea, the trees were twisted into all kinds of nightmarish permutations. Beach huts had wall-sized holes in their… walls. Their roofs were missing every tile and the planks left behind resembled the spines of a fish after its flesh has been picked away. I was reminded of pictures of the aftermath of the battle for Corregidor.

I braced myself for tears from Daisy, but she just grimaced out to sea. No one said anything for a while. We may have been in mild shock. Even without all the debris, the shit-brown sand and squatter’s slum further along the shore wouldn’t have exactly made this place a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It goes without saying that there’d been no mention of these drawbacks in our Lonely Planet.

What had happened here? Typhoon Ondoy had wrecked parts of Manila a few weeks ago but nothing I’d read suggested that it had got this far south.

At that moment, an old Westerner with the narrow, tortured features of a Modigliani painting sloped by. He was holding hands with two Filipinas about Daisy’s age. The trio shared a family resemblance.

“In case you’re wonderin’,” the man grunted in military cadence – I guessed he was a Vietnam veteran as there are so many in the Philippines – “this beach took a real bad hit from Ondoy.”

OK, so the typhoon had come this far south. Nice of the travel agent to tell us about that. And the coach station staff. And the coach driver. And the hotel clerk.

I could hear the EPZ worker in my mind’s ear: “No work here no more, po.” Now it made sense. Of course there’s no work in a place that’s just been ruined by a natural disaster!

“It’s also off-season anyhow,” said the vet. As if the meteorological system itself wished to support his point, rain began lashing down.

“Just to add to the disappointment,” said Donna through gritted teeth.

“Most of the resorts are closed but you could try Casa,” said the vet, and walked on with his kids.

So we checked out of our cheap room and checked into overpriced Casa. The staff could not have looked more bored and when you ordered a pineapple juice they brought you a glass of water and a sachet of pineapple-flavoured powder even though there were actual, real, fresh pineapples hanging from all the trees in the garden. The only other guests were a log-nosed German and his pubescent Filipina squeeze.

We spent the rest of the day in the hotel garden, miserably going down the waterslide as the rain fell. Each time we climbed the steps of the waterslide we got to see the best view in Nasugbu: the rain lashing down on the typhoon-obliterated beach. Just as my mood had reached a hellish nadir, Daisy patted the slide with her little hand and said, “It’s nice sliding in the hot rain in the hot country, isn’t it?”

Somehow this comment from a sweet, innocent 4 year old seemed to compensate for all the disappointments of this doomed trip.

Originally published in the Philippines Free Press, April 2012

Missive #1

4 Apr

Pleased to announce that ‘Animal Avenue’, my story about a near-fatal encounter on a Manila highway, is appearing in this month’s London Magazine: http://thelondonmagazine.org/issues/aprmay-12/

The London Mag is Britain’s oldest literary journal which, back in the day, published the likes of Wordsworth, Shelley and Eliot. Not bad company to be in.

Escape from Manila

3 Mar

The streets were empty yesterday. Everyone was watching Manny “the Pac-Man” Pacquiao, the Filipino boxer and politician, in his latest televised fight. I should have travelled then.

But this is today and I have been stuck in a traffic jam for over an hour. The Virgin Mary smiles from the door of the jeepney in front, fumes slowly shrouding her.

The fumes smell horribly sweet and sour. The air-conditioning is broken and the sweat has glued me to my seat. The taxi driver hands me a polythene bag of Sarsi (a sarsaparilla-based soft drink) and ice. A kind gesture.

There’s Red Horse Malt Liquor on his breath, but he seems sober enough. He restarts the conversation, making two wrong assumptions about me: (a) I’m American and (b) I’m looking for a wife. “Already married,” I say.

“How many kids?” “One.”

He places his hand on his white-uniformed chest. “Only one?” he says, with a gasp. This is a Catholic country, after all.

At last a gap in the next lane opens. The driver stamps on the accelerator. We skim past a child in a Jay-Z T-shirt, trade horns with a tinted SUV. Then we hit full speed along Katipunan Avenue. Roadside barbecues. Basketball courts. Hip- hop blaring from KFC and McDonald’s. This could be a depressed part of the US, I think, but for other, smaller signs: “Cheerful cup cake Dental Surgery”; “S.D. Lucero – maker of artificial legs”.

“Can I open a window?” I ask, gulping my Sarsi. “Not good idea.”

He’s probably right. On the flyover near Balintawak station, I peer down at a chessboard of tin roofs. Shadow Manila. Where squatters live in homes made from stolen hoardings, bike tyres abd oil drums. Barefoot men napping under sackcloth canopies. A cockerel tied to the stilt of a water butt. Babies in cradles hanging from beams. A length of tape – “Police line, do not cross” – is looped over a mound of rubbish.

The flyover broadens into the NLEx Expressway . It’s lonely compared with downtown. There is an occasional tricycle (read Second World War-style motorbike and sidecar), the odd open-top truck packed with squealing goats, legs tied together. A bedstead on wheels.

Then the concrete blocks give way to palm trees and paddy fields flooded into swampland.

“Can I open a window now?” I ask. He winds both down. The cool air blasts in good, natural smells: pine trees, manure, orchids and burning charcoal.

Low-hanging clouds fleck the horizon like sea-spume, turning black as the afternoon wears on. The rain and the night fall together. On the roadside, peasant fires hint at things, while carabao (water buffalo) hides drip in the fields.

We arrive at Santa Maria, a village based around a pink Spanish church. “You sure you want here?” asks the driver. “Lonely here. Not much happen. Not much fun like in Manila.”

“Here is just perfect,” I reply.

First published in The Daily Telegraph 22/07/2011