The Philippines: Things I Remembered One Morning on Waking
When she was twelve years old, her mother’s boss tried to rape her. Her mother was out of town, and the young daughter was cornered by the boss as the hour approached midnight. He made his intentions clear. She had the presence of mind and courage to send a knee into the middle of his groin, and then she ran for home as fast as she could through the dark rainy night.
Years later, when she was working in Manila as a cashier in a restaurant, she looked so promising to her boss that he said he would pay for her to go to college. But her mother, living poorly in a poor home in northern Leyte, and someone who could not appreciate the value of a college education, told her daughter that she could not accept money from her boss to pursue her education. She could not do so because the boss might try to rape her as a previous boss had.
She never went to college. She began working in a factory in Manila packing frozen foods, and then began working as a bargirl when three of her older bargirl sisters coerced her into leaving the factory and doing what they were doing. In the very same bar.
It was one of those accidental slips that could have happened to anyone. My father was sitting in his car at a gas pump in his eightieth year. A car in front of him had pulled in front of his car and the man, a Filipino, began pumping gas. My father’s foot slipped on the gas pedal and he hit the man in front of him. There was a lawsuit, and because my parents had inadequate insurance there was a legitimate claim by the now permanently injured Filipino, a lawsuit of sufficient size that it would force my parents to sell their home and lose just about everything they had spent a lifetime acquiring. I came into the picture and got a crooked attorney to throw all of my parent’s assets into a partnership to protect them from the lawsuit; but of course it was legally too late because the accident occurred before the partnership was formed. In spite of the judge and the opposing attorney seeing through the transparently bogus gambit, I gambled in the judge’s chamber by offering the Filipino family a fixed sum of money when both my parents died, the key issue that of saving the house for them. My offer was accepted and my parent’s home and other assets did not have to be sold. My mother lived for so long—she is still alive—that the Filipinos finally wanted to settle, and I settled with them for about half of the original amount I had originally agreed to pay them.
It was many years after this incident that I made my first trip to the Philippines. I often wondered if this lawsuit against my parents would color my perception of Filipinos and the Philippines. I do not think it has, not at all; and in fact the Philippines along with Cambodia ranks at the top of countries in Southeast Asia where I like to spend time.
It is the chaos that so enchants and grabs my attention. Walking the streets of Manila—the dirty alleys and edges and broken pavements of Ermita and Malati– is like walking through an indescribable mess of half-naked people and boiling food and pounding noise and pieces of broken cement that seem likely to explode or begin flying in every imaginable direction. It is a kind of urban landscape where someone who is even a tad paranoid about being mugged or put upon will not last five minutes. It is that kind of urban landscape where one feels that all of your visual and mental senses are on high alert. It is, for me, all one great fucking adrenalin rush.
Safer than a pedal trike? Are you kidding…?
Want a real trip? Get in a pedal trike and take it for a couple of miles at midday in the busiest part of Manila, a trip in which the pedal trike—not a motorbike trike– is on the wrong side of the road and is literally driving right into a continual stream of oncoming buses and jeepneys and taxis and motor-driven trikes. From the moment you see how the trip is going to unfold, what you had not had the foresight to imagine, you cannot help but be aware of the fact that if a single vehicle coming directly at you does not swerve to the right or left you will not—ever—have an opportunity to remember what happened.
I didn’t do this by design–not really. I just got trapped in a busy part of the city where I simply could not get a taxi, and in a moment of desperation in which common sense fled, I took a pedal trike. And when I got inside the tiny death trap, with no more protection other than one thin sheet of metal between me and the outside world, I did not imagine that the young kid pedaling in front of me would head directly into oncoming traffic, and for the next three miles or so of the trip that I would simply sit back and relax.
Would I take this trip again?
I’m a bit crazy at times, but not that crazy.
In Manila there is a national museum, and it has a collection of national art, and you can wander into these huge galleries with spotless and glistening diamond shaped hardwood floors, and no one is there but you. You go into a second large room and look at more paintings and drawings, and no one is there. And the same thing happens when you go into a third and a fourth large room. And this is happening on a Saturday when you would think that there’d be, at the very least, a couple of dozen people with an interest in viewing, if only for a half hour or so, some of the country’s best art. But then on a moment’s reflection, you realize that the very idea of art is not something that ever comes to mind when you are poor.