Entry 60 - The Philippines: Manila, cocks, volcanos, stereotypes

Manila thriller

Manila is not much of a tourist destination. I knew this already, but hey, you live in hope. I mean, Phnom Pen is associated mainly with brutal genocide and mass graves, but nowadays it's a pretty pleasant place to hang out with some cool bars. Anyhow, I got my first hint of quite how far Manila is off the average tourist itinerary at Hong Kong Airport.

I'd spent an uneventful flight from London enlivened only by the necking of the couple next to me. This wasn't actually as bad as it sounds. For starters, when they weren't playing tonsil hockey, they were actually quite nice people. Plus, they were uncommonly good looking. He was tall and rugged while she was like a rangier, more amazonian Winona Ryder (this is good thing). When people are this pulchritudinous, you can almost forgive their public canoodles.

Then I changed flights. And, not only did I have the entire row to myself, but I was one of three westerners on the plane. One was a youngish British guy who was married to a Filippino. He was patronising his wife like you couldn't believe, talking to her like an unpleasant father might to a five year old. It looked like a mail order marriage that that desperately needed to be returned to sender. The other was an American who got rather upset about my putting my rucksack next to his laptop in the luggage locker. So upset in fact that I felt obliged to tell him my bag was full of porn and viruses.

Approaching Manila and you start to see why people stay away. It even looks rich in poverty and swampy even from the air. You come in over Laguna de Bay, a lake on the south side, whose horrendous pollution (and fish farms) are clearly visible from 6000 ft up. The whole place shrieks 'water and mosquito-borne diseases.' I'd also heard it was pretty dangerous, with vicious knifings a local specialty.

Actually it's not that awful: it's just a bit...well, there's no compelling reason to be there. Like most Philippine cities, it looks like America would if it was really poor. And not in a romantic sort of way either, just rampant consumerism without much money. I was staying in an area which was a bit Soho (London) might beif a a war had been fought there a decade ago and no-one had really cleaned up.

My hotel was OK. It had a Starbucks at the front of its garden for some reason, but given the usual quality of coffee in these parts, this is not the negative it might at first appear. Along with the decent-by-context coffee it also boasted a gay local guy who fancied me. He told me I was handsome. I thanked him and told him I was married. He grabbed my arm and replied imploringly that 'this is the worst day of my life.' It is an interesting - and, for me, entirely inexplicable - fact that the two groups who find me most attractive are foreign swishes and women over 45. This is my gift; I just wish I would re-wrap it and give it to someone else. In the meantime, I might set up a coaching service for bi-sexuals who fancy older women: 'No...say it like this...'

shock of the cock

Having slept off 60% of my jet lag, I woke for an early breakfast at a pleasant, but surprisingly overpriced restaurant opposite the hotel. There I fell into a lively conversation with the waiter about cockfighting, one of the Filippino national sports. I think this may have been somewhat to the the disgust of the British woman next to me, Valerie. This is, it's OK to love someone's culture, just not the nasty bits they're really, really into.

For her sake, I passed this off as being interested "y'know, in the cultural aspect of it, the fact that it's such an obsession here." She seemed mollified by this excuse for my bloodthirstiness (and it's only half a lie, I just happen to enjoy watching the sunday roast kick its best mate to death, too) and we fell into conversation. She was a granny who had sold her house and was spending her retirement travelling - and quite impressively. She'd been all over the shop - depite a badly athritic knee - and picked up a whole lab full of nasty tropical maladies.

Anyway, having eloborately sketched directions to the local cock-pit, the waiter told me that there were no cock-fights that day, so I went back to the hotel and booked a car to the nearest volcano. On the way to my car, I bumped into Valerie so I invited her along.

volcanic Cotswolds

Although the Taal volcano doesn't look like much on a map, situated as it is, just beyond the southern fringes of Manila's endless sprawl, it's a pretty casual geological formation in the flesh. The main crater - so vast it doesn't look like a crater - has a huge lake it in it. In the middle of the lake there is an island with the new volcano on it.

Scattered all around this rather stunning, verdant vista are the blingin' weekend retreats of Manila's wealthy elite. Money has certainly not bought them taste, although it has bought them rather nice gardens. For all the trashiness of their urban centres, Philippinos are great gardeners and garden centres line the road, while tropical blooms scent the air. This, combined with the gaudy architecture gives the whole a sort of Dallas meets the Chelsea flower show feel. It's not disagreeable.

Having lunched in Leslie's restuarnt on the rim (great view, great name), where Valerie displayed an unexpected talent for puddings, we headed down into the crater, where we hired a boat and struck out for the island. Twenty drenched minutes later we were on its blackly volcanic beach.

It is normal here to take horses up, but as a horse allergy sufferer, I cannot. So I elected to walk, after having told my boatman for about 15 minutes that, no, I didn't want to give him more money to act as a guide on a trail that was about as obvious as a motorway. I do believe that, when in tourist spots, one should behave as a tourist. That is, not find the pikiest possible way to do everything, a la Lonely Planet - and put something back into the local economy. However, when someone you've already paid (and fairly handsomely) starts whingeing at you to accept a service you neither want nor need, you do feel the local economy is taking the piss.

Perhaps mindful of the gay chap from the night before, I decided to run up the volcano in 34 degree heat to reinforce my manly credentials and self-perceptions. It took half an hour and earned me a lot of odd looks, but no-one made a pass at me -probably a little too sweaty and trashy. At the top, the views across the lake are rather splendid (still no unwanted advances) and you can also see another caldera and within it another lake, with its own tiny island. This makes the small island..wait for it an island, within a lake, within an island, within a lake, within an island (Luzon). Somewhere in the US, they claim to have the highest order of this phenomenon, but I think the Taal volcano may just have the edge in what is a rather pointless set of geographic coincidences. I suppose to be really sure, someone could dig a pond in the smallest island then chuck a rock in the middle of it.

Somewhat knackered and sporting a matching pair of blisters from my volcano running I returned to Manila for my tenth sub-adequate meal, the Philippines being the exception to SE Asia's normal great grub rule. Local stuff is bad and so are the imports. This rough repast was a pizza of rather egregious cheesiness at a place called Bar Havana. It was, I suppose authentically Latin American inasmuch as their pizzas are awful, but verisimilitude is not necessarily a good thing.

The waitress gave me a brief burst of excitement by greeting me with 'Hola Que tal?' Cool, I thought, someone who speaks Spanish, so I replied "Muy bien chica, hablas espangnol, me tambien..." Before realising that she habla'd only 'Hola, que tel;' because she worked at Bar Havana. No hay mas parablas.


No matter - my meal was further enlivened by my table being being between to other sets of foreigners, who, as it turned out were staying at my hotel. I briefly thought there could be some conversation here, but no. Proving that you should never underestimate how useful stereotyping is, the two Germans behind me were reassuringly, inflexibly rude.

The trio of Americans in front were rather more three dimensional than this, being stupid, rude and loud. They also had a way of describing stuff like they'd only just realised things could be like this, e.g. "Gee, if people's parents aren't rich and they don't give them SUVs and Gold Amexes they have to walk everywhere and clean the streets for a living.' Well, I would love to think that the note of permanent surprise in these borderline-retarded apercus was some sort of clever rhetorical device. But, I fear these epiphanies were as genuine as they sounded. What it is to be an moron - every day the shock of the not really new.

The next day I cabbed out to Manila airport while my driver chatted about the various nationalities. He told me that he too found that the abovementioned stereotypes were a good guide. Rather charmingly the Philippines recieve so few British tourists that he had yet to divine our national stereotype. But he needn't worry...with San Miguel at 16p a bottle and cheap airlines aplenty it's only a matter of time.

Then we moved on to the Filippinos. I said that I found them very friendly; this is true, they are probably the friendliest people on earth. He agreed, adding that they were emotionally sensitive and romantic, to a man. Was he romantic, I asked? Oh yes, he replied: he was 31 and had eight kids.

departure loungeing

Manila's airport is no great cop (and the food is dreadful - a brie, ham and jam (!) sandwich for breakfast) but it does have one notable innovation. For a sliding scale starting at a fiver, they offer a pre-flight massage. Well, I had twenty minutes to kill, so I scored a massage in the departure lounge: it was friendly, emotional and senstive.

Then it was time to leave. Fairwell Manila, it was, well, fair-to-poor. As I left this most febrile of capitals behind, I was reminded of General MacArthur's famous words, 'I shall return.' But only beacuse I really have to.

June 4, 2004