Living Large Part 2
This story, is turning into more of a eulogy to my pal Dick than I had perhaps intended. At the end of Part 1, we left Dick enjoying the delights of his 'Street
of Dreams", where the byword was, "You got the money, you got the Honey".
Dick was always a little full of himself, and made no apologies for it. A man's man, full of bravado and stories. In his prime he could keep a crowd entertained for hours with what he referred to as his 'War Stories'. Guys who had joined him for one drink often found themselves walking out of the bar where Dick held court many hours and much under the weather later. The stories were invariably always the same, but he was never short of an audience who seemed eager to listen and chat whenever they ran across him in one of the many bars that he frequented. As mentioned previously, Dick was a former American pro ballplayer. He was proud of his time and achievements in the game and that pride was always self-evident in all his daily dealings, business or social.
Strangely he was also effeminate in some ways, his love of a manicure and pedicure was legendary. His trademark appearance of a small pigtail on the back of an all-but bald head, tied with beads, allied to his huge yellow tinted aviator style spectacles, which I am convinced were more for image than his short-sightedness. And of course the inevitable cigarette hanging from his mouth. He also had a love of bright colours in his dress – yellows and pinks were always a favourite. Irrespective of how hot or humid it was, he always wore a closed neck sweatshirt, and/or an open long sleeved shirt and trainers.
For me, Dick and those like him always struck me as hard-bitten guys who had lived large, having led interesting, diverse and unconformist lives. With their past experiences, they would never have been able to ever fit back into so called normal society of their probably long forgotten home country. Over time, many that I met had 'gone local' … over the years I have met many like him in bars in obscure corners of the world. Invariably they would all have fascinating tales to tell.
One thing I liked about Dick was the fact that he wasn’t afraid to be himself. His attitude was, I am who I am, and if you don’t like it, then fuck you and your budgie. He played hard, worked hard, and was successful in the things he did, because, as he got older, he also got wiser, and grew to know what things in his life gave him the most value and pleasure. A classic example of this was his habit of smoking irrespective of what those around him were doing.
Dick was undoubtedly not without his faults. One of his 'afflictions', was to use a borrowed term, his Jasmine Fever – he had 'the sickness'. Although I would never have shared my opinion with him that his usual selection of female companion was rarely the most attractive available. As previously mentioned he collected and lost wives with amazing regularity … certainly after he relocated permanently to Manila, his choice was exclusively for the Filipina, many of whom, "did him bad" (again to use a borrowed term). During the 17 odd years of our friendship he went through at least 3 wives that I can recall.
For all his hard-living ways, arrogance and self opinion, he had a real soft spot for children. I first saw this manifested in the bars whilst we lived in Saigon. On our regular evening outings to the bars and restaurants, there was a small girl of I'm guessing, 8 to 10 years old, who every evening would do the rounds of these establishments in District 1 selling flowers. Dick would unquestionably ask her how much she wanted for each bunch and then buy her entire stock and tell her to go home. I subsequently found out that he had traced the child's parents and made a financial arrangement with them to pay for her education with monthly money transfers.
On a trip back to Vietnam in 2011, although reminding myself of Dicks admonishments of, "don't look back unless you plan on going that way". Prepared to be disappointed, I set out on a trip back down memory lane, by trying to find the bars and restaurants that we used to visit.
Predictably, all these years later Saigon had cleaned up its act and the many girlie bars and houses on ill repute had disappeared. However one restaurant did remain, an American style place, that whilst I can't recall its name, did serve the best meat loaf I have ever tasted. We used to frequent this restaurant on a regular basis as Dick had a bet with us, his expat compatriots, that he would to use his words, "come hell or high water, I will bed the beautiful Miss Purr". Miss Purr was the cashier and was indeed beautiful, however like many Vietnamese women was ultra-conservative and not easy, failing to succumb to Dick's charms. When we eventually left the city Dick had to pay out large sums to us all, for the loss of his bet.
However I digress. On this my trip down memory lane, I was delighted to find that this wonderful establishment was still going and immediately hastened there for dinner. Sadly the meat loaf was no longer offered and predictably, the lovely Miss Purr was no longer at her place behind the cash register. However when I had finished my lonely dinner and sat at the bar nursing a beer, the cashier approached me and asked, "don't you recognize me". Thinking that this was a somewhat forward greeting for what was obviously a 'good' Vietnamese girl, I replied that, no, I didn't. Without boring the reader further, it seemed that she was the little flower seller of all those years ago. With the benefit of Dick's contributions towards her education, she had eventually completed her schooling, gone to University, obtained a degree and was now a wizz with figures.
During the time that I knew him, he would 'adopt' children, and attempt to improve their lot in life, primarily through education. He was a firm believer that if they had a decent education they had a better chance in life. He was also fully aware of the potential lack of decent facilities available to children from poor families in South-East Asia, and did what he could to make a difference, albeit for the few. In the case of the flower seller, he made a huge impact and a real difference to her life.
From 1997, when we first met, through to the time of his death in late 2014, we would bump into each other in different countries. Whilst I can't recall what we were individually doing in London, we once met for a pub lunch in Lancaster Gate, another time it was Atlanta (where I met one of his previous wives). In New Orleans we bumped into one another at a convention and ended up enjoying the delights of Bourbon Street together for the week that we were there. On a joint Mauritius assignment he arrived for a work assignment with a never-previously-met, on-line date, that predictably went tits up during the first week! Sometimes we would arrange to meet in Bangkok or Saigon, or I would go visit him in Manila, a city that I am not particularly fond of. These trips were normally when I was passing through South East Asia en-route to Australia and Papua New Guinea, where I was working at the time.
It was during one of these trips that he introduced me to Angeles City, in Pampanga province of The Philippines. Or as it's better known simply, AC.
Angeles City is a relatively small place with a population of approximately 300,000 people, located some 80 km north of Manila. Although fairly spread out, the main centre of attraction for foreigners is Fields Avenue and Perimeter Road. Before going on, we need to digress into the history of the City.
Angeles City is located immediately outside of what was once one of the largest US military bases outside of the USA – Clark Air Base. It also had a sister base, Subic naval base on the coast, some 60 kms odd to the west. Between the two bases they were home to close on 100,000 military personnel.
Typically what grows up around such huge military bases? Angeles City, once a small provincial town whose only claim to fame being that those poor souls on the infamous Battan Death March passed through it. However once Clark Air and Subic Naval Bases were established after WWII, AC naturally developed some serious 'adult entertainment' facilities for the base personnel, with Subic not being far behind.
Although I had been to Asia many times previously, I had never heard the term "LBFM" until I arrived in Angeles City. It transpired that it is evidently slang and a hang-over from the American Military days, being an acronym for, "Little Brown F**king Machine", referring to any type of Asian hooker.
Clark and Subic bases flourished, particularly as major logistical support bases for the US military during the Vietnam war. Then in 1991 an eruption of the nearby Mount Pinatubo volcano forced a full-on US evacuation of both bases. Urban legend has it that both Clark and Subic bases were closed and evaluated within a 10-day period.
My first impressions of AC was that it was nothing like I had imagined. Dick had told me many stories about the place, but nothing really prepared me for the general dilapidation, dirt and filth that was everywhere. I felt as if I had entered a slum or ghetto.
This generally seedy environment, allied to the omnipresent heat and humidity makes for a general malaise, its draining on one's constitution … the only respite being when one enters an air-conditioned bar. It is at this time when you realise the true reason for AC existence, as each go-go or bar is filled to the rafters with LBFMs! Put simply, AC is the largest sex supermarket in the world! Bars of varying sizes line every inch of the main Fields Avenue and a 10-minute walk away, you have even more on Perimeter Road. The latter, although a mere 10 – 15 minute walk from the main Fields Avenue is a definite no-no to walk to of an evening. To ensure our safety, we would either drive using Dick's car and driver, or catch a trike.
The best analogy that I can provide is that the town is a bit like Walking Street in Pattaya, but on steroids! In the same way as its Pattaya cousin, Fields Avenue is closed to all vehicular traffic of an evening, allowing for easy perambulation, albeit that one has to avoid the ubiquitous beggars and touts.
Fortunately, Dick with his first-hand knowledge, had booked us into one of the better hotels, which although basic was clean and more than acceptable, although much to my surprise more expensive than a Thai equivalent.
One of the main advantages that Angeles City and indeed the whole of The Philippines has over Thailand and elsewhere in Asia is language, as most of the girls speak good English. However I found after several Filipino trips that the local Tagalog language became quite irritating to my ear, with the high sing-song accent grating on me. It sounds a bit like a high pitched version of klingon with a Scottish accent.
One of the main problems in The Phils and AC in particular, is the ever-present and very persistent beggars and touts – they're everywhere! For a Catholic country, there are also huge numbers of illegitimate children everywhere, as most of the girls who are from the countryside have a rug rat to their name. These kids roam in packs, and one dare not give one even a single Peso, otherwise you are immediately mobbed by a marauding band of them. The Viagra, Cialis and Kamagra sellers drove me mad after a very short while, the only respite being when entering a bar. I eventually found that the best way was to walk in a very purposeful manner, trying hard not to look like a newbie and not to make any form of eye contact or look in their direction.
Dick had told me how I had to be careful when out walking in AC, so on my first trip I was probably overly cautious. Thankfully the company that Dick worked for provided him with a car and driver, plus an armed body guard, so we were rarely troubled by any local scam artists. Having the car and driver, we also were not forced to use the local public transport of Jeepneys, (based on the original US military Jeep) or Trikes (a motorbike with small covered sidecar).
However on my second trip to AC, when spending a few days on my own I was a bit more wary of my surroundings. I became very aware of my surroundings, what I was doing, where I was walking and who was following me. I ended up mostly using a trike to get around, the only problem here being the continual rip-off by the drivers. As a seasoned traveller, irrespective of wherever I have found myself in the world, I have always gotten an awareness and sense of my personal safety. Regretfully I have to report that on my several trips and travels throughout The Phils, I never felt totally comfortable from a personal security perspective. And this coming from one who has perhaps had exposure to what many would consider some of the more dangerous places on earth, certainly many that have had Western Foreign Office travel advisories levelled against them.
Regretfully outside of sex-on-tap and drinking activities, there was very little to do during the day in AC. There is the very Americanised SM shopping Mall nearby, with a fair amount of pleasant passing Filipina scenery and is therefore good for a people watching session. The shops are nothing special, except perhaps for a decent Starbucks at one of the entrances. Overall the mall is pleasant enough, but in stark contrast to the surrounding poverty.
The one day we splashed out by renting a helicopter from Clark to visit Mt. Pinatubo and flew over the caldera, which is now a lake. Another time, we took a couple of days respite from the pressures of AC, by driving down to Subic Bay and visited the bars there, including a couple of the floating off-shore ones out in the bay.
Subic Bay was as some readers will recall, home to a large US naval base, but was closed and evacuated at the same time as Clark Air base in AC in 1991 due to the volcanic eruption. Although a much smaller town, I believe that in its heyday it was the 'on-sea' equivalent of AC, with many bars and restaurants. Although pleasant and less frenetic than its inland cousin, it still has sufficient to occupy the visitor for a few days. I am of the opinion that if a bar has cold beer, decent snacks and some welcoming and friendly scenery to while away a few hours, then it really doesn't matter where in the world it is.
The beach location made for a wonderful and relaxing change from AC, and although the girls were perhaps not all 8 or 10's, they were far friendlier and a lot less demanding. We did, I admit, partake of some local take-aways. Once again, we were guided by Dick's prior local knowledge, as he has booked us into a basic, but clean and more than adequate hotel. He was equally well known and loved in this obscure little beach town, as we were greeted by screaming girls in every bar that we entered. The three days that we spent there I thoroughly enjoyed and if I were to return to The Phils in the future would perhaps take a few days out of any trip to revisit the town.
A final comment on The Philippines and AC in particular. The food is appalling – considered to be the worst in Asia! Elsewhere in Asia the food is normally tasty, flavoursome and well prepared, while most Filipino food is inedible to foreigners! Witness the total lack of Filipino restaurants outside of The Phils – I have yet to see one! Also the fast food culture has been truly embraced by Filipinos. On the few occasions that I was in AC, not being a lover of either the local or fast food, I tended to live on fried rice.
To be continued in Part 3 – Dick's 70th birthday bash…