Entry 64 - The Philippines: Manila - sex tourists and shopping malls

pearl of the Orient

I’d got up bright and early on sweet little Mariduque, bid Josie and the cook a fond farewell and shared a tricycle with the sex tourist and his bit of skirt up to the local airport. This, incidentally is one of those airports that no-one could possibly object to living next to. In fact, it is more of a handy place to graze your cow than an actual airport.

I think there were three flights are week. And, as these are only with the rather shaky ‘Asian Spirit’ Airline (local joke: you leave as an Asian, arrive as a spirit), there is a real possibility that, in the very near future, there will be no flights per week.

Nonetheless there is an unnecessarily large and elaborate terminal building. My guess would be that in the 60s, 70s and 80s about 60% of international aid went into airport terminals on the grounds that maybe these places would turn into tourist honey pots. Plus they would also be conveniently built by first world contractors firms who had contributed generously to re-election campaigns. But hey-ho, there’s nothing like a lack of decent beaches, a load of toxic mine tailings and a few NPA commies in the hills to keep a place unspoilt and an airport terminal unused.

Anyhow, the very real possibility of Asian Spirit bending the rules to convert me from a European into a spirit notwithstanding, I arrived in Manila on cracking good form, relaxed, combative even. A couple of hours later and I wanted to kill something.

Manila was once known as the Pearl of the Orient and famed for its gracious colonial architecture and elegant streets and plazas. Then it was bombed flat in World War II and not much reconstruction of any quality has taken place. It is a mix of either modern slums or old slums - and these are the nice bits. This general sluminess is clearly visible from 6000 ft up as you come into land - entire communities constructed apparently of garbage. Oh yes, and it’s got an engaging swampiness about it too, situated as it is on the low land between the egregiously polluted Manila Bay and the egregiously polluted Laguna de Bay lake.

b(r)ought the girlfriend?

My street was actually in the boho quarter. Like everywhere else this had a certain slumminess but, in a nod to being alternative, there was a sort of faux-hip bars and restaurants vibe going on. On my first day I walked the length of my street to the mall (for hanging around shopping malls is probably the best recreation on offer). En route I was offered ‘very young girls’ four times. As the done thing in Manila appears to be to squire a girl less than half your age (55 and 20 is pretty normal) they would have to be very young indeed for me to fit into this pattern. Sadly I’m quite sure that all I’d have to do would be to ask.

I was actually in Manila to meet my girlfriend. Now, there may seem to be nothing odd in this. Many other people are in Manila to meet their girlfriends too. But the difference was my girlfriend had been my girlfriend for five years and was flying in from London. Even at the place I was staying, a relatively pleasant small hotel, everyone else seemed to be, well, basically whoring. I was starting to wonder if there were any regular tourists in the whole place.

As a backdrop to all this pimpcentric activity, we had the usual third world pollution coupled with 100% humidity and 35 degree heat. Twenty seconds outside of A/C and I was drenched in sweat; an hour and my own aroma was indistinguishable from my surroundings. And there is little to do, little to see. This is why discerning types hang around shopping malls. Interestingly it is also why it is Manila loses narrowly to Jakarta in the Asian city desirability stakes: the latter has better shopping malls.

bully for me

So it went. I had a lot of time before Jane landed and so I went to the mall a lot. Oh, and on my way to my third or fourth shopping mall visit, I did have a couple of noteworthy experiences. Firstly, no-one offered me girls. I dunno, perhaps it was a religious holiday or something. Secondly, the security guard from my hotel tried to swizz me for admittedly not very much, although, as I pointed out to him, it was actually his job to prevent people doing this to me.

And, thirdly, I went to buy some water in a 7-11. When I got up to the counter, a skinny ugly little guy in his mid forties, European, with a sex-tourist’s pallor was having a furious altercation with the women behind the till. Seeing me standing behind him, he turned round: ‘They are so stupid in this country, they cannot understand the most simple thing. It is impossible to do anything. They are idiots.’

I gave him a mild, conspirational smile and glanced down at his wallet which revealed him to be a native of Deutschland. Then I stood about an inch from face and said ‘So why don’t you fuck off back to Germany?’ Wounded, he slunk out of the shop. It’s always nice to be able to stand up for people – and, as bullies who are physically smaller than me are few and far between, such opportunities are to be seized and cherished.

I suppose I ought to try and find a couple of nice things to say about Manila – in order to stem the hate mail I get whenever I slag off somewhere genuinely lousy. Well, the crime’s nowhere near as bad as I’d been led to expect. In fact, I really wasn’t frightened anywhere. Whether this was reflected the real state of the street or I was simply cloaked in my own stupidity I have no idea. Oh and most people – from waiters to Jeepney drivers were genuinely nice and helpful. Manila may not be much to look at, but the people are astonishingly friendly. Nice sunsets too, but that’s the air pollution for you.

I had a little work to do that morning, specifically attend a cockfight for the FT (read about this in the next entry). A brutal and macho place, but again I couldn’t fault the friendliness of the people. A self styled ‘cock-doctor’, Francisco Federico took me under his wing and gave me the run of the ring. In between ministering to injured roosters, he told me everything I wanted to know about cockfighting.

Later (and still pumped from watching the Sunday lunch kick its mate to death) I headed south to the airport to pick up Jane my girlfriend. As with so many airports the world over, Manila’s officials have used terrorism as a pretext to treat people exactly as they’ve secretly always wanted to. Thus waiting for arrivals is basically out in a cage in the carpark. True, you have access to food, but this is Filippino fast food and you have to be very hungry before you want to eat a sugar coated hotdog or whatever the delicacy du jour is this grub forsaken nation.

Anyhow, Jane arrived and how nice it was to see her. In the normal ‘I love my girlfriend sort of way’, natch, but I was also getting kind of lonely, for someone, anyone who shared my background, belief system, cultural goalposts, etc. That’s the thing about the Philippines. A few hotspots aside, there aren’t many tourists at the best of times – and I was here on the cusp of the rainy season visiting a part of the country that no-one really went to. Hence my being constantly mistaken for a missionary.

Moreover, while most Filipinos speak a bit of English (and Tagalog is vagely intelligible if you have a bit of Spanish) so you can chat away, you know how it is – limiting. It’s all very well having interesting, groovy and new experiences. But it’s something of a downer if there’s never anyone you can turn to and go ‘Wow, now that was pretty casual.’

Actually, with Jane’s appearance Manila improved somewhat. We checked into a rather better hotel, which, coincidentally was in a far grottier looking part of our street and met a few guys who were definitely there to have sex, but, at least they were youngish and doing it with people, roughly their own age. Also Jane found a decent restaurant. It wasn’t the best place I’ve eaten but it served local food that was pretty good. I even kind of enjoyed the bitter gourd dish, though I’m not sure whose idea it first was to cook with the principal ingredient. As its name suggests, its chief characteristic is an outstanding bitterness.

object, no money

Anyhow, with Jane collected and the cockfight visited there was little to do but lounge around the pool while the same age sex tourists frolicked with their squeezes, before heading north. This actually presented something of a problem. For although Manila is not an easy city to like, if you want to hit the northern rice terraces, it is not an easy city to leave, either. Thus far the rugged corrugated landscape of the northern cordelias have precluded the building of any sort of useful airport and the roads are terrible.

Taxis are extremely reluctant to do it (wouldn’t you be?) and, while it is possible to hire a car and driver, as one guy in my hotel put it: ‘On those roads you want to be in a big bus, not a small taxi.’ Then he stopped and smiled: ‘Also that way if it goes over the edge more people will die, so you will be on the news.’

In fact the journey – around 12 hours – pretty much has to be done by bus: there’s no way round it. And there are few things in life more depressing than a problem that cannot be solved by throwing money at it.

June 14, 2004

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