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Farewell to Manila

21 May

There is such a thing, when playing hide and seek, as being too clever for one’s own good. In which category I would have to place depositing oneself in the deep end of a swimming pool by night, breathing through a snorkel, commando style.

Yep. My son has definitely watched Dr. No one too many times.

And, it appears, Jaws too.

As he put it, “I’m not sure I’m quite equipped for midnight swims. You see, when you’re underwater, breathing with a snorkel, and it’s dark, you don’t have many senses left to remind you there’s no sharks about.” Continue reading

The Museum of Doctor Rizal

21 May

Manila is not a spiritual city. It’s one of those big, dirty, urban sprawls, expanding organically, growing without control, the beating heart of an archipelago, maybe, but a cancered one at that.

12 million? 15 million? Honestly, who’s counting?

Manila long ago outgrew its natural ties to earth: the river and the Bay. Before its roadways are completed, they are already too narrow for its needs.

High-rise condos with names like Knightsbridge and Gramercy spring up cheek-by-jowl with squatter camps where families fresh from the countryside learn that, unless you’re educated, connected, local and (most often) lucky, the streets of the big city are paved with shit, not gold. Volunteer fire brigades wail down canyons of mouldering concrete to fires that can burn for days.

It’s a maze. A consumerist maze. From the delis to the junkfood to the sari sari store.

Emo ergo sum.

But if the city has a soul – and I’m not sure my own city does — I guess it flits and murmurs through the mirrored shadows of the Rizal Museum, in Fort Santiago, the old colonial core. Continue reading

The Inflatable Waterpark

16 May

Ek biki inflatable waterpark, Santa Rosa, Philippines

The magic of childhood. Or something.

[tweetmeme source=”@mummy_t” only_single=false]

This technicolour dream palace is indisputably special. Possibly a little “special needs” too.

What is it?

You may well ask. For this, my friend, is an inflatable waterpark.

Occupying 5000 square metres of apple-green Astroturf in the middle of nowheresville, Luzon, EK Biki comes complete with dangling sharks, inflatable dragon slides, slightly forlorn clownfish and, weirdly, an Olympic-sized paddling pool.

All, like the giant hamster’s wheel and spinning top on which Z spent many happy minutes scrambling, entirely blow-up.

To add a further note of the bizarre, it caters entirely for non-swimmers. Continue reading

Working Girl

16 May Bright white explosion as a firework goes off in the night sky.

Bright white explosion as a firework goes off in the night sky.

[tweetmeme source=”@mummy_t” only_single=false]MJ’s been working bars since she was fifteen. Standard shifts. 6pm to 6am. She was an Avon Lady before that, but this pays better.

She’s seventeen, now, she says, almost eighteen, and works in, or more often, outside of, a tourist bar in downtown Manila.

Nothing slick. But nothing especially seedy. It’s sort of a tent, with some wall hangings, a few tables, a bar at the back, Poker Face on repeat on the stereo, and MJ bouncing and jiggling on the pavement in shorts, vest and hightops, with a big smile and a big, big laugh.

Your drinks cost the standard. Forty pesos for a beer, or thereabouts, twenty-odd for fizzy pop. Her Red Horse super-strongs, when she joins you at the table, cost two hundred pesos. One hundred goes to MJ, one hundred to the bar.

And on that steady stream of Red Horse, a hundred pesos a pop, MJ is keeping three adults and eight children. Four full siblings. Four half-siblings. Her dad, her stepmom and, lest we forget, herself.

And hormones don’t come cheap. Continue reading

Full-Contact Management

14 May

We have Doc McGhee, the rock ‘n’ roll svengali who kept Motley Crue, Jon Bon Jovi and Kiss on the road, to thank for the term full-contact management. That’s punching people…

Now, I’ve been considering training as a scuba instructor over the next year or so. It seems like a nice lifestyle, a good string to one’s bow, relatively stress-free, combines easily with other occupations, and the like.

Sure, I’m not the best diver in the world. But compared to earning the money required to spend a lot of time underwater, acquiring a profession which gives you free diving and free time in which to do other things makes a lot of sense from where I’m at now. (Z considers it a “cool job”.)

Then I met Matt… Continue reading

Assertiveness Training?

14 May

In most of South-East Asia, haggling, in its various shapes and forms, is part of everyday life. And I’m really impressed by how Z has mastered this vital skill. If a little unnerved by the implication that he feels himself now the man of the family.

When it comes to bargaining, Z has a number of disadvantages to overcome. His age. His size. His voice, which is still rather piping, with a slight, cute lisp. And his hair, which he is growing. Not for the first time. But certainly for the longest: he’s at curly-headed moppet status at the moment. (I give the look five minutes once his dad arrives in Hanoi with the clippers, but that’s by the by.)

But here in the Philippines folk tend to take it in good heart. Back in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, he halved the price of a tricycle ride to the proper fare instantly, and got a nod of respect and recognition from the amiable driver, by saying loudly and clearly, “That seems VERY expensive to me.”

So too, yesterday in Manila. Show me a city in the world where a metered taxi won’t take the piss when they think they can get away with it, and I’ll show you a police state. Continue reading

Full Fathom Five…

13 May

Imperial Japanese Navy ship AkutsishimaThere is a sepulchral magic to a shipwreck. Viewed from underwater, with russet filigrees of sea ferns flourishing on the fractured edges of a shell hole in the side, lettuce corals unfurling from a rusting crane, the gossamer fins of lionfish undulating like silken flags outside a propshaft, a wreck is one of the most awe-inspiring sights the planet has to offer.

The battle of Coron Bay might have faded into history. Just another skirmish in the closing throes of the Second World War in Asia, where US Helldiver pilots annihilated a Japanese supply convoy hiding in the Calamian Islands.

After the raid, in September 1944, it took weeks for some of these monsters to sink. They drifted, crippled, on the currents for many miles. Others went down almost instantly, taking many of their crew with them. Some have never been found.

Z and I visited three of the ones that have. Continue reading

Learning to Dive

9 May

View of Barracuda Lake in the Calamian Islands, Philippines

40 degrees centigrade below the surface!

We are still in Coron. That’s Coron Town, the meandering if unbeautiful little port of Busuanga Island, not Coron, the island, across the way. As is the thing to do in the Calamians, we’ve been diving.

There are many amazing things about scuba. There is the feeling of weightlessness — neutral buoyancy — whereby you move through the water in whichever direction you like, slow and lazy as an astronaut.

Then there’s the closeness to nature. You will, and do, see more of nature on a coral reef in a 30-minute dive than anywhere on land bar, say, the Serengeti or the Arctic during one of their great migration.

And, in coral, you are right among the life. Fish (and sea snakes) swim up to you, past you, around you, without the slightest fear, amid coral gardens picked out in technicolour.

It’s extraordinary. Not just coral reef. But lakes, rivers, quarries, kelp forests too. And a world that you have to experience. And I’m so, so glad that Z loves it too. We just need to get him qualified… Continue reading

Kirche Kuche Kinder

9 May

Every so often, while eavesdropping — or, perhaps, a more polite term is, err, “people-watching” — one comes across conversations that one, quite literally, couldn’t make up.

Ever since we met Klaus in Marinduque, I’ve been interested in those mutually advantageous marriages that a certain type of gentleman procures in the Philippines, and elsewhere in South-East Asia. I’d interpreted them, essentially, as an extension of sex tourism.

But the chap at the next table to us at our diving place the other night was looking for something rather different. Very much, in fact, the traditional kirche, kuche, kinder, with a little nostalgie de la boue, the desire for a primitive, Gauguinesque life among the natives. Or, as we say in English, unreconstructed sexist oaf seeks compliant light-brown slave.

I zoned into their conversation at a tricky juncture. “No, no,” the chap was saying. “You won’t like Norway. Let me tell you. All the Norwegian women will be jealous of you.”

Like any decent eavesdropper, my head turned to assess this self-described paragon of male beauty. Continue reading

Cargo Boats and Commandos

8 May

I’m a great fan of authenticity in travel. Travelling, where possible, as the locals do, which, given the wealth divide in the Philippines, means either with the driver(s) in the chauffeur’s seat(s), and the maid(s) and/or nanny(s) looking after the nippers, or (on our budget) by a spectacular range of public transportation.

Now, cargo boats are a mode of transport that are rapidly disappearing. Many of the big boats on the most popular worldwide routes now function as exclusive, floating hotels for baby boomers who still retain their 60s fantasies of tramp steamers, with a la carte dinners at the captain’s table, marble en suites, and the whole shebang.

So I was really excited to be taking a bona fide cargo boat from El Nido, Palawan, to Coron, in the Calamian Islands, which cluster a hundred miles or so north-east. So was the young master.

Well, he was until we boarded.

It would be fair to say that, for Z, there is such a thing as too much authenticity, and that that thing could be best expressed by reference to the good boat Josille. Continue reading