Philippines -The Manila Envelope - Living and Working in Manila - South East Asia 1

Author: Sue Rogers
Date: 4th September 2000

Arrival in Manila

It seems that since I accepted my job offer in December the Philippines has rapidly become once of the most unstable democracies in Asia.

I am met by Maria, the school bursar, who has brought a mini bus in anticipation of me bringing vast quantities of luggage. My three smallish bags are loaded into this and we bump through the streets as I begin to renew my previous brief acquaintance with the jeepneys, tricycles and general chaos of the Filipino roads.

The house I remembered from the interviews is now beautifully renovated and we sit down round the pool with a bottle of champagne. The maids Sally and Malou are there as arranged and now giggle at me from the kitchen. Coconut palms tower overhead and I’m told that the gardener (when arranged) will climb up and fetch me down all the coconuts I want.

I tour the house – three bedrooms all with bathrooms and cavernous wardrobes. Master bedroom with huge dressing room and bathroom. Sitting room, dining room, kitchen, maids room, wet kitchen (for washing) and a long wooden floored room running the length of the house containing not much more than a 29” colour television.

Feeling like Rockefeller I am swiftly brought down to earth when the maids arrived to tell me that the previous occupant has removed absolutely everything from the kitchen including the waste bins and the oven shelves.

Shopping in Manila

In the mall with Malou. It is her job to do the cooking and shopping. Sally does the washing and cleaning. I think it is a good idea to take her to the department store and show her what I want.

Two exhausted hours later I come back and retire to bed. Every time I asked her a question Malou giggled and followed me nervously round the shop, scared to do anything. In the end I shopped while she watched. Everything on the list was on the opposite side of the shop to the preceding item and the soap powder for some reason is stored in the middle of the food section. I bought Woolite, pleased that so many English items were available. Later I told one of the teachers.

“You should have got two,” she said. “It won’t be there next time.”

It wasn’t.

Meat and fish is no cheaper than England but the prawns are huge and exotic. Fish like lapu lapu look good. In compensation, papayas are 20 pence each and there are wonderful mangoes too. Gordon’s gin is the equivalent of £1.50 a bottle and local rum is just 50 pence. I checked the prices twice to make sure.

In the evening I rattle around my mansion and watch Home Box Office. BBC World is available for round the clock news, but the picture is terrible. The story is that the Chinese jam it as often as they can.

Sleeping is going to take some getting used to. It’s hot and the air conditioner is on. Planes are taking off at the airport just over the way. There’s a mynah bird in the house over the road that wolf whistles all the time and a cockerel next door that crows throughout the night. No doubt I shall adapt eventually. This is a peaceful part of Manila.

The Maids

While I am at work there is a leak through the kitchen ceiling at home and the two rooms are flooded. When I arrive home the two maids are dancing around with mops like sailors doing the hornpipe. They get paid about £80 each a month and free food and lodging. I’ve borrowed a TV for them but they don’t seem very interested. They are beginning to talk to me now - Malou says she has a boyfriend. There is a spare room by the garage, which is bigger than their current room. There is also a room, over the road, which apparently is mine and which was rented out to an entire family before I came for 700 pesos a month (about £10).

There is some talk about the maids taking the bigger room. They posture and say it is up to me, so I ask which room they would prefer. They like both, they reply but the bigger room would be good for putting up their family if they want to stay. I decide to abandon that idea for the moment.

Malou is a very good cook. Her pumpkin soup and chicken with coconut are scrummy.

I just give Malou the money at the beginning of the week and she does all the shopping and pays the gardener. I’m still having trouble explaining that the amount of money left in the cash box should equal the difference between the receipts and the amount given however. It’s worrying how quickly one adapts to life at the manor. I’ve already started leaving my clothes on the floor because I know that Sally will pick them up. My knickers are all arranged folded in beautiful little piles in the drawers. I like watching the maids sweeping. They use a little twiggy broom in their right hands and move along balancing their left arm behind them like speed skaters.

Noli, the Car and the Traffic

Visit the site for the new school. It’s very exciting, as so much is happening at last. We are taken around in a four-wheel drive that bumps and lurches over huge ruts and bogs. The actual site is just like a scene from Antz ,with 300 workers swarming everywhere, carrying poles and materials. I have this strange feeling they will stop the instant we disappear.

The traffic in Manila is terrifying. There is no lane discipline at all and everyone just goes for it. People hang off the back of jeepneys and crawl though windows. The scenery is equally disorderly. One second, millionaire villages surrounded by security guards; the next rows of shanties crammed along and under flyovers with children playing on the railway lines and in the rubbish.

Merville, the suburb where I live is a mix of both with big houses like mine and streets of tricycle taxis and little shops and bustle. My driver, Noli sometimes gives me a commentary. Noli is 55 and has 5 children, the youngest of whom is only 4. The car is a Honda Civic, black with tinted windows so no one can see in. I keep disgracing myself by trying to leap into the wrong car when I’ve arranged for Noli to pick me up.

All the roads round here are named after places. I get lost on the way to work driving myself and travel from Washington to Madrid via Rome instead of Athens. The journey home is even more exciting as it has become dark and the roads are full of cars returning home from evening mass. The tinted windows are hard to see out of and they then steam up. I only just avoid the water company hole in the road as a tricycle loomed up in front of me.

Decide to spend the afternoon relaxing quietly by the pool, but the days are no more peaceful than the nights. The neighbour is doing piano practice, the planes are still taking off, the birds (the mynah and the cockerel), are still in full voice. A full-scale basketball match seems to be taking place in the road.

Just as I’m beginning to doze off two workmen arrive to put lights all round my garden. They call them Christmas lights (lots of plain white ones). Apparently Christmas starts here in September.

Sitting on the terrace at night the new lights look lovely. They’re wound round all the palm trees in best Caribbean hotel style. I shall have them on all year whatever the neighbours say.

A cat has made my acquaintance. It’s very scraggy, mews continuously and piteously and has no eyes. I can’t decide whether or not to feed it. It’s obviously starving but I don’t want it as a permanent guest. I slip it some scraps of meat.

The Gardener

Try to get up early to go to school. I have asked for fruit for breakfast every day and salad for lunch, in anticipation of getting slim swimming every day. Mango, papaya and pineapple arrive with liquidised juice made from the same fruits. The pineapple is particularly wonderful and luscious.

My gardener, Leon, all gap toothed smiles, has started work today. £6 a day, but he says he can’t climb the palm trees. He has planted lots more shrubs - bird of paradise and other exotica. The hibiscus are flowering, huge and pink and the formerly straggly coleus are now a foot high.

Arrive home to find the cat asleep on the terrace.

The Bedroom at Night and Other Alarms

The nights in the big house feel very strange. Especially as I have discovered more fauna. A huge flying creature was leaping around my bedroom walls last night. I think it was only a cicada, but it made me jump and I slept all night with the sheet tight round me.

I find a resident’s association newsletter is distributed regularly. Today’s edition is warning about the Dugo-dugo gang who telephone houses and persuade maids to take money out to strangers.

“Do not be alarmed.” It says. “But rather take this advice seriously - do not attempt to call back this group and confront them. It may only endanger your lives!”

Eating In and Lunches Out

Malou continues to serve up delicious food – especially all sorts of fish with coconut and chilli or sweet and sour. I like the Filipino food though they put sugar in everything, even bread and McDonalds’ burger buns. I think the dentists do a roaring trade.

Lunch with a vice president from the bank. He and his colleague are great fun. Most of the Filipinos seem to have a good sense of humour and are very open. They ask all kinds of personal questions straight away. Are you married? Do you have children? Nolan seems like a good contact. He says he knows lots of rich people.

The food in the Chinese restaurant called The Good Earth is excellent too. I even try century eggs – buried in the ground for several days and a little ripe.

The Malls of Manila

Breakfast has now expanded to mango, pineapple, banana, papaya, melon and kiwi fruit. It takes me half an hour to eat it. I shall have to have words.

Shopping in the malls in Makati, the commercial quarter of Manila. They are huge and bewildering and none of the maps seem to bear any relation to the actual location of the shops. Am now the proud owner of a VCD player that I didn’t know I needed and a video tape player that I did – both for £76.

Nights out on the Town

Nights out on the town, visiting ex pat bars. We move location to fit in with various happy hours (3 till 9 at the Shangri La). Most of the male staff have decamped to Heckle and Jeckyll where West Ham is playing Man United live on the big screens. Some spectators are wearing their West Ham gear and happily sing, “I’m forever blowing bubbles” somewhat affected by too many San Miguels. Home at one.

Malate, the thriving nightclub area, full of bright lights, thronging people and little balconies. It reminds me of the North Laine area in Brighton, where you can sit and watch people in the street below. .

Then on to Politixx, the transvestite show club, where men of varying degrees of attractiveness dress as women and mime to songs such as Shirley Bassey, Whitney Houston, dance and attempt to embarrass the audience. The quality of the acts is variable but it is fascinating and colourful,.

The Menagerie

Yet another addition to the menagerie. Open a kitchen cupboard door this morning and a large mouse jumps out. So much for the cat, but maybe he can’t do much with no eyes?

I arrive home at seven to several surprises. My menagerie had numbered four, but three are now dead and one of those had been wrongly identified. The pest man has been and a cockroach and two mice have now been accounted for. The cat is still here and is mewling while I demolish the superb jumbo prawns in sweet and sour sauce that Malou prepared.

I am able to eat dinner on my terrace to the sound of Van Morrison. The new sound system has arrived and been installed. The speakers connect up to some outside. The initial noise is absolutely mind blowing until I realize that the amplifier that has been attached (the system itself already has 260 watts per channel) works so that setting 0 is actually the loudest volume. Still I now know what to do next time the piano practice or basket ball game starts.

I swim to the sound of music. Now my garden is just like aforesaid Caribbean hotel with four sun beds, four tables, eight chairs and piped music too. There is just enough light to swim in the dark, though with goggles on I have to be careful not to crash into the ends.

Filipino Manners

One problem I am increasingly coming across is the Filipino propensity to try to soften the blow. It bad manners to say no say you don’t know or even worse that you are wrong. Even if you misdial on the telephone you get a message saying “The number you have called is not yet in use ...”

Nicknames are very common here and are often used formally. There are hosts of Bings and Bongs as well as Girlies and Babies. A Baby tried to sell me a laptop last week.

A dinner party. The guests are discussing the Filipino propensity for understated politeness and co-operation and recall an event during the coup here a few years ago:

'A couple’s house had been commandeered by the rebel party. They had very politely been asked to leave, but had been assured by the rebels that the furniture would be looked after. In return for this, the rebels were presented with all the food in the fridge. Overcome by this generosity, the rebels offered to forward all incoming phone calls. The couple moved in with friends, gave the rebels the number and the calls were duly forwarded. They soon received a call themselves informing them that this group was now going off duty but that the next shift would similarly forward calls. As the rebel leader was speaking there was the sound of gunfire in the distance. “Excuse me”, came his voice. “I have to return fire”.'

Jesus

Jesus has been in my life twice this week. It turns out that this is the name of the pest man. My cockroach has reappeared with reinforcements. I don’t mind the scuttling on the wall and in the bathroom so much and I can even cope with the antennae waving through the hole in the skirting board but the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the uninvited visitor on my bedside table was the last straw. Jesus’ ministrations seem to have been successful. All is now quiet.

Makati

Into Makati to do some shopping. I’ve started sitting in the front of the car now. Noli seems to think this is not very dignified but I can see where I’m going and I’m less likely to be sick.

The tricycles are motorbikes with sidecars that have seats on three sides. They often carry six passengers, two on each side Like the brightly coloured Jeepneys (converted jeeps) they have names like “Carmina” and often carry religious slogans such as “Jesus saves”. The Filipinos are a very religious people and most go to the Catholic churches. There is a massive turn out on every saint’s day or festival.

In town I manage to navigate round the Glorietta Mall. “Revlon Flex? Maybe next week Madam.” Christmas carols everywhere in September and a huge dress-up-your-Hello Kitty competition in the middle of the mall. Try to buy a desk lamp and a clock radio in Landmark. The lamp takes half an hour – every thing you purchase in here has to have a handwritten receipt that you get from the assistant, then you queue up at the cashier and then again at the claims counter. “Clock radios – maybe next week”. I think about buying a card but can’t face it all again.

The Sights of Manila

Then I ask Noli to take me on a tour of some of the sights of Manila. I live amazingly close to the sea, but it seems so complicated to reach it. Manila Bay is dirty and full of fish farms and very large ships waiting at anchor. The Westin Plaza Hotel has good views across it and is supposed to be the place to go at sunset. Nearby is the World Trade Centre. A bit further along is the Filipino Cultural Centre where Miss Saigon is shortly to open.

Rizal Park is a large pleasant park where the world and his wife walk. It’s named after a hero of the Independence movement who was imprisoned and executed at the end of the last century. His shrine and cell are open to visitors at Fort Santiago. This is part of Intra Muros, the old walled Spanish city. Horses and traps take visitors on tours round the buildings, gardens and fountains. Weddings are taking place in all the churches. All the major participants and anyone who has contributed to the ceremony financially wears white and they all sit on a dais together in front of the altar. I wander round the fort and then along part of the Bay. As so often I am the only white face among a sea of brown but everywhere I go I am greeted by warm smiles and eyebrows raised in greeting

As in all Catholic colonial countries the cemetery is a must see, a mini city, with its rows of elaborately decorated tombs.

Back along Roxas Boulevard bordering the sea to return to Merville along an airport back road. Typical Filipino street life here. Children squat in rubbish along the sides of the road and burn the odd bonfire. Everything is lively but dilapidated, poor, dirty and shabby.

Miss Saigon

The hostage crisis in Mindanao has made everyone very jittery. There could be a million dollars on our heads. The French Embassy has advised nationals not to travel - two French people were kidnapped. The British Embassy merely says be careful.

The Embassy has scored points on another front however. We are all invited to a Reception next week for the cast of Miss Saigon. Great excitement, especially from the male members of staff. The invitation says smart casual, which apparently is a Filipino euphemism for smart.

I have also received an invitation from the President himself. It’s to a special gala presentation of Miss Saigon. The papers declare that this is the most important function of the last ten years and that everyone is fighting for tickets. Formal evening dress this one says.

Off in my one decent long black dress to the Cultural Centre. Here all the Cabinet, theatrical stars and diplomats are assembled in full sparkling regalia. I am introduced to so many Ambassadors I immediately get them all mixed up. Finally, President Estrada and his wife arrive and after the national anthem they kiss to prove that all the rumours about their tiffs and splitting up are not true.

The performance has altered since London and the staging is spectacular. Lea Salonga deigns to appear –she has been, allegedly, throwing tantrums and Cameron Macintosh refuses to arrive while this is going on.

Afterwards the cast assemble in the foyer for photos with the president and his extended family. I talk to the composer, Schonberg – try to persuade him to bring Les Mis over next time. It’s a maybe.

Puerto Galera

A weekend in Puerto Galera on the neighbouring island of Mindoro.

A Haircut

Have my first Filipino haircut at the Peninsula Hotel. Three people do the highlights at once so it takes half the time and is also half the price it is in England
Working very late and trying to pack for Singapore tomorrow.

Politics in Manila

The political situation is deteriorating so badly that interest rates have risen by 4% to up to 20%. The Vice President has resigned in protest at the President’s alleged bribery scandal and there are constant calls for President Estrada’s resignation. There have been protest marches and more of his cabinet are denouncing him. Gloria, the Vice President and Cory Aquino have both been involved. Large marches and riots are planned and take place. There is none of the expected violence though an impeachment petition has been served. The feeling is that he has too large a majority for it to succeed, but a large section of the population want him to go and this is the way that Marcos was ousted and for similar reasons

There is undoubted poverty here, its hard to decide who to support, to know when a case is genuine and not contrived. I’ve heard the people defined like this ‘You couldn’t get taken to the cleaners by a nicer lot”.

I found out why Estrada is called Erap. When, as a fading film star, he was elected he promised to look after the poor, so he was dubbed Pare or friend. As he cannot spell and is generally considered not to be very bright however, it soon became reversed to Erap instead.

Estrada boasted on TV last night that one advantage he had over the last President, Ramos (now a national hero in comparison) was that he had never had a power cut. Today there is a black out over the whole island. MERALCO (Power company) deny sabotage (oh yes says everyone else) and also no to jelly fish in the works (last year’s excuse). The school has its own generator so school proceeds without problem but home is uncomfortable as there is no water there– the pumps won’t work. The power comes back at 4 and I get home and go upstairs to hear dripping water. The taps in my bathroom had been left on and have overflowed all over the cupboard tops and into my medicine drawers. Little packets and tubes are bobbing everywhere.

Current joke told at dinner: Estrada decides to disguise himself and go out among the people to see what they really think. So he cuts his hair shaves off his moustache and wears old clothes. He wanders out into the shopping mall and eventually into an electrical goods store. Goes up to the girl behind the counter, points to the shelf behind her and says, "How much is that TV up there?"
"Oh Mr. President," she says, "how lovely to see you in here"
Estrada is furious. "How did you know it was me?” he bellows.
'Easy," she replies. "It's a microwave oven".

The papers are full of the scandal and the peso slumps to 50 to the dollar. (Over 70 to the pound). It is the second worst performing economy in the world (Cypriot is the worst). Good for our pay packets as we are paid in sterling.

The anti Estrada rallies get bigger. there is one held on EDSA (a main thoroughfare ). They say 100,000 attended and were addressed by the aptly named Cardinal Sin.

Eventually the senate votes to impeach Estrada. It is expected to be a long process and he still says he is innocent.

Bohol in a Typhoon

A trip to Bohol and Cebu in the Visayas. There is a typhoon alert out in Visayas.

November 1st - All Saints Day

Back to Manila and a national holiday. All Saints Day is important and everyone spends the day in the graveyards having parties and visiting the graves of their relatives. The cemeteries are full of fast food vendors and lamp sellers.

Catch up on the papers. Estrada’s position has deteriorated and the peso is now the worst performing currency in the world. His “storm” is compared in the Inquirer with the typhoon, which hit Manila while I was away. Forty locals dead in landslides, 260 injured and many more missing. The kitchen has flooded again and a falling coconut has smashed one of the glass tables round the pool. Malou has left the glass to show me.

November 2nd - All souls Day and a Typhoon

All Souls Day today and another national holiday. Estrada declared this one at the end of last week. The speculation is that it is to try and buy him more time but according to the newspapers it doesn’t seem to be working. If I’d known before I could have spent longer on the beach. Especially as there is another typhoon on its way.

Noise from the wind begins to increase and I stay on the Internet trying to track the storm and look out of the window at the same time. The palm trees are bowing and bucking and the rain comes down in sheets. There is quickly a foot of water in the garden and coconuts are bobbing around in my new pond. Water again pours through the kitchen ceiling and into the dining room and Sally and Malou tried to keep up with mopping whilst hiding under umbrellas.

I eventually go to bed at 7 a.m. The garden is a mass of wreckage, leaves, nuts, undergrowth and the pool is full of vegetation. The cables outside are all down.

A bleak day. Very dark because of the weather. No power, so no water and eventually no telephones either. Roads all over Merville are blocked by fallen trees. Some streets are flooded up to waist height as creeks overflow and the tide comes in. There is a fridge upended in the mud up the road. Many of the shanty houses have collapsed or been washed away. Noli says that his house has lost the roof on the kitchen and the bathroom.

A quiet day catching up with work and trying to swim round the branches in the pool. It is cool enough to sit out in the full sun – I usually retreat under one of the palm trees. Phone calls from England. There are bad floods there too. The papers say that another 40 have died in Manila – landslides, floods and bridges collapsing. It was the worst typhoon here for the last 15 years.

Arrive home to find that Malou has disappeared. Her brother is very ill and she has gone to look after him. He had been taken into hospital with fever and vomiting. Off to Kathmandu for a conference.

Christmas Time in Manila

Finally back to Manila from Kathmandu. The heat is uncomfortable after Nepal. I have already swollen up like a balloon. Two of my jackets hanging in the wardrobe have got mildew all over them. The one bright note is that everyone seems to think I have lost weight. Appendicitis does have its compensations.

The traffic in Manila is terrible – everyone's out for Christmas. Beggars and street vendors everywhere. Masses of Christmas lights and amazing tableau at the entrances to all the villages. Most of the houses are covered in lights and some have their own tableaux – reindeer, crib scenes. Some actually look quite good.

Go home and try to sort out my stacks of work. There‘s a cockroach in the den. My legs are already covered in mosquito bites. Ask Malou to summon Jesus.

Give Sally and Malou their thirteenth month pay. All pay here is divided into thirteen months so you get double at Christmas. After they’d got it they immediately make holiday requests. We had agreed they could take holiday whenever I’m away which is quite a lot. Now Malou says her boat home only goes every Wednesdays so can she go this Wednesday? (I leave for Vietnam on Saturday). Sally suddenly tells me that her sister is getting married on January 13th and can she have 2 weeks around then!

Carols at the Embassy in the evening. Mince pies and mulled wine, very strange in the heat.

December 22nd

Vietnam. Leave a pile of packing out for Sally to deal with. Am very pleased with the small number of things I’ve cut it down to until Sally comes down to ask which second bag I’m taking.

Back To Manila - January

There is Noli as usual and I return to Sally asking me when she can go on holiday.

Sally rings me at work to ask about her holiday. I relent and say she can have longer with no pay (her idea). I get home to find she has left, having helped herself, a week in advance, to her fortnightly salary from the shopping money. Now I have to decide whether it’s worth the hassle of sacking her. Good maids are hard to find and Malou might want to leave to be with Sally.

Malou’s culinary offering tonight was interesting. Aubergine stuffed with fried mince and garnished with six prawns. I hope she doesn’t try it again.

The tortuous soap opera that is the impeachment trial has begun again. The Filipinos are glued to their TVs every night, but the plot is incomprehensible and never ending.

The streets are full of rubbish. All the tips in Metro Manila have been closed down due to the protests and now the rubbish is piling up in all the streets. The villages are alright as all our garbage is still being removed but no one is sure where it is going. We suspect it is being added to the huge heaps along the suburban roads. Children are skipping around playing in all the mess and every so often a pyramid is set on fire. The fumes are not pleasant. The TV says one heap in one day is worse than one month’s worth of standard factory output!

A huge rat ran up my wall tonight. It's twice as big as the cat. Jesus to be summoned yet again.

Politics in Manila Continued

Demonstrations are again building up all round the country and Estrada's trial has totally lost credibility. Sinn is leading the movement to get Erap to resign and another mass has been held at the EDSA shrine, totally blocking the main highway. It seems that the people will stay there until they get what they want. The peso has now fallen to 56 to the dollar and 81 to the pound. We are rich.

As businesses close for the day or shut early many more of the more affluent Filipinos are making for Makati and streaming along EDSA. There is a real buzz of excitement around.

Into Makati through the demonstrations. Very little to see, just some banners and groups waiting on street corners and all quite calm, but the crowd is building up again at the Ortegas shrine on EDSA. Reference is constantly made to the last bloodless revolt – they are determined to do the same thing again. They will stay there until Erap goes. I keep getting text messages updating me on the situation saying, “Pray for us”. Texting is getting bigger and bigger here and anti Erap messages have been escalating across the airwaves for some months.

Kalibo

Kalibo for the weekend with Elaine. The biggest festival in the Philippines is held there annually - the Ati Atihan.

The British Embassy in Manila

To the Embassy for a tour with H.E. ,the birdie song still going round and round my head; I didn’t expect the building to be so big. It takes up three floors of a tower block and is the eighth largest British visa issuing post in the world.

A Massage

Work at my desk. Clouds of mosquitoes have congregated in the well and keep attacking my legs. They have gorged so much on me that they are very fat and lethargic. I can squish them easily and my own blood is streaked down my legs just like the D.H. Lawrence poem. At least I have my massage to look forward to. I have finally tracked a home masseuse down. She doesn’t turn up. Eventually a phone call. “Emergency ma’am, neighbour heart attack, pregnancy, new baby, am in hospital in San Pedro. Tomorrow ma’am”.

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