Readers' Submissions

Living Large Part 3





You may recall in my previous missive of Living Large, in Part 2 I had been introduced to the various pleasures of The Philippines by my friend Dick.

I received a commanding email from him in the August of his 70th year, which started with, "Make sure you get your ass over here to Manila for my 70th birthday in November – it's going to be the mother of all parties". Had I known what was in store for me then, perhaps I would not have gone. Alternatively I should most certainly have embarked on a strict training regime for an event that lasted 5 days … it was indeed the Mother of all parties. I certainly was not prepared for the marathon that awaited me.

It all started harmlessly enough on the Thursday evening of my arrival from Bangkok on his Street of Dreams ….

"Meet me in Bottoms" said Dick when I phoned him to tell him I was in town. Bottoms being the bar where he had decided to hold court that evening.

I had arrived that evening at around 5 or 6 PM from Bangkok on the national Filipino airline PAL. On all previous occasions I had always flown Thai Airways, but due to the much cheaper fare offered had elected to fly PAL on this occasion. I normally fly business class, as that way you are usually assured a decent seat with space aplenty, decent food and service and are generally treated just a little bit better than when travelling in the back of the bus. Also, one of the big draws for me is the access to the business class lounge pre-flight. I guess I should have realised that there was a reason why PAL was not a member of any of the large global airline alliances, as their 'business class' lounge was merely one of those tired pay-on-entry shared facilities, with warm beer, 10-day old sandwiches and stale potato chips.

Boarding the aircraft, I soon realised why the PAL flight was that much cheaper than the Thai option. The aircraft itself was what appeared to be one of the original Airbus 300 or 310 series circa 1970/80's, the seat one of the old reclining types, with the armrests held together with duck tape, and no in-flight entertainment, with the 'business class' toilet out of order. The flight attendants were equally old as the rest of the fixtures and fittings. Sadly the food was along similar lines – equally old and tasteless – in other words typical Filipino food. The biggest disappointment for me was that the beer wasn't even cold, so had to make do with a G & T, with local ice (the latter never a wise option!) I vowed there and then never to wooed by a cheap fare on another little known Asian airline. Mind you I did still have to endure it all again when I returned to Bangkok the following week.

For those readers that have travelled through Manila airport, I'm sure that they will agree with me when I say that it has to be one of the worst in the world. It's old, disorganised, dirty, overcrowded and lacking in many of the basic facilities that we have come to expect in the 21st century. Once through the surly immigration and customs, I hastened to the car hire/limo facility directly opposite the arrivals exit. Having previously had experience of the usual rip-off by local taxi services, I had the foresight to pre-book and pay a car to take me to the New World Hotel in Makati.

So … to Bottoms on The Street of Dreams. When I entered, I found Dick ensconced on a banquette surrounded by 5 small sparsely attired Filipina beauties. Apart from the mischievous glint in Dick's eyes, it all looked so innocent and normal – at least for Dick. If only I knew what lay in wait for me these next few days, I probably would have done runner there and then!

We were shortly joined by a couple of Dick's local expat friends and very soon repaired to a nearby American type diner for supper, where we were again joined by more party members. Dick announced that tonight would be a 'quiet night', with the real celebrations planned for the morrow. From here, the party started as it meant to go on … it was the start of one of those debauched marathon bar hopping weekends, that one only has a vague memory of afterwards. I cannot for the life of me recall how many bars we visited that night, but we did his Street of Dreams justice and probably contributed to a year's worth of tourist spending. I do recall at one stage being surrounded by 2 or 3 delightful Filipinas who tried to talk me into bar fining them both for a threesome. Knowing that I had never having previously had explored this option, Dick tried unsuccessfully to talk me into buying the package on offer. Fortunately tiredness and sense prevailed and I must have left the bar to return to the sanity and peace of my hotel, a little after midnight.

Imagine my surprise when at around 3 or 4 AM, I was awakened by my room phone, with the receptionist announcing that I had some guests waiting downstairs. Quickly dressing, I went down to the lobby to be enthusiastically greeted by the previously scorned girls from the last bar, but now their numbers had grown to 3! Well, what could I do? Being the polite and good host that I am, I had to invite them up to my room. It seems that Dick had wanted to break me into the weekend in a harsh manner and had paid the girls to come and 'take care' of me.

I am too much of a gentleman to report on the sordid details of what remained of the night, suffice to say that I slept very little. After receiving a further tip, my companions eventually left mid morning, leaving me literally 'all shagged out', but with my education greatly enhanced.

I had received a text from Dick instructing me to meet him that evening for the main party at around 6pm at Banditos – another bar on the street of dreams. This was his official 70th birthday party and to ensure that all guests would literally have the time of their lives, Dick had bought out the whole bar. Now for those that are not familiar with what such an arrangement entails, it means that everything (and everybody) in the bar has been pre-paid – and by everything, I mean everything!

There must have been approximately 50 expat guys, many like myself having flown in from far and wide. To ensure that we did not get bored just drinking and generally talking shit, Banditos Bar had I was reliably informed ensured that some 70 odd girls were on tap and available for our pleasure. To ensure our privacy and that no riff-raff would enter the bar during the course of the evening he positioned his very visibly armed bodyguard outside the door. The music had also been pre-selected by Dick and was thankfully all 1960 to 70's rock n' roll numbers. He like me, believed that the last decent music written was in the mid 70's. He used to joke that Don McLean has written and performed American Pie to mourn the last of the decent music, with its famous line "… the day the music died …"

I wish I could recall what actually transpired that night at Banditos, but memory and decency does not permit me to report. There was at one stage two sisters I recall … The photos that I still have probably do not bear too close an inspection!

The next day I barely made it to the lunchtime children's party that Dick was hosting at the nearby shopping centre for some of the many Manila local orphans. On a previous trip he had taken me to see the famous Manila North Cemetery, where thousands of homeless and destitute people have established an entire village living alongside the dead. One of these days, I have vowed to write further stories on some of the places that Dick had introduced me to over the years. It was from this 'village', that he had collected some 20 or 30 children, arranging to host them in a local chain restaurant to help him celebrate his 70th. That was another thing about Dick, he always tried to give something back.

It was here that I met one of his long-term expat friends who was married to a Filipina, with whom I got into conversation, initially commiserating with one another over our respective hangovers. We then got to talking about living in The Philippines and being married to a local woman. He told me that at the behest of his wife, he was in the throes of building a house, of what sounded gargantuan proportions, with I think, some 6 or 7 CR's. For those who are unfamiliar with the term CR, it stands for 'Comfort Room', the uniquely Filipino name for a toilet. He also confirmed what I long suspected about the Filipina woman, that she was an extremely high maintenance option, having little comprehension of money management. Seems that even if you are married to one, she is of the indisputable opinion that all farangs, including you, her husband, are immensely rich with unfettered access to your own personal money tree.

But back to the celebrations. Dick announced that later in the afternoon we would be driving to Angeles City (AC) some 80 kms north. I asked "why", to which he replied that he had organised another birthday bash there tomorrow night. So AC here we come …

I have previously reported in earlier submissions about AC, so will not again repeat what has already been said. On arrival, we booked into The Wild Orchid Resort hotel, which although purporting to be a 4 star, I would personally rate it as a decent 3 star, in other words nothing exceptional. It does however have a reasonable restaurant serving western food – a big plus in AC. This allied to a large and pleasant pool area, complete with swim-up bar. Once again, surprisingly more expensive than its Thai equivalent.

Tired from my previous evenings exertions and extra-curricular studies, I decided that a power nap would be the order of the day. Accordingly I arranged to meet Dick downstairs in the bar early evening, from where we would repair to supper and some of his favorite bars. I did ask what he had in mind for this evening and was assured that tonight would be a quiet evening – like most things in Dick's life that would turn out to be a relative statement!

Whilst I do recall that we started out the evening at The Perimeter Road end of the adult entertainment area, we slowly worked our way back down to the pedestrian enclave of Fields Avenue end of town. Whilst I can't recall the bars that we visited that night, I do know that I woke up the following morning with a warm and soft Filipina hand exploring the nether regions of my body. After staying for a late brunch, she was paid a tip, where after Dick and I settled down to a quiet beer drinking session around the pool. From our location in the shade of a pergola type structure we had an excellent view of other expats and their bikini clad companions from their previous evenings expeditions. There was indeed some very pleasant scenery on offer that afternoon.

Dick then informed me that we were set for another buy-out-bar evening, this time at Angel Witch, which is notable evidently for its selection of classic rock n' roll music. The evening followed along the same lines as the one in Manila, with largely the same crew, plus a few additions in attendance. The same privacy was once again ensured by his bodyguard on station outside the door, with Dick having to approve all entrants. I'm not sure if it's something to do with the 'country air' of AC, but our local companions for the evening were a lot friendlier and far less inhibited that their Manila sisters. Suffice to say that another great party was enjoyed by all, with Dick enjoining us to take full advantage of the many pre-paid facilities offered of Angel Witch.

There did seem to be a seemingly continued disappearance of both guests and local hostesses, the party therefore ended at a relatively reasonable time. I suspect however, that few of us enjoyed uninterrupted slumber that night, with considerable horizontal athletics taking place at the various hotels around the town.

A text woke me, instructing me to join a few of the lads for lunch at the local sports bar, whose name escapes me now. Fearing for my liver, I arrived in trepidation. Fortunately it seemed that all other attendees from the previous few days were also feeling the pace, so a quiet, if beer sodden afternoon was passed.

Many other guests had already left to return to their respective homes, leaving a few hard core participants to keep Dick company. Having planned to return to what I had now come to think of as the sanity and quietness of Lower Sukhumvit the next day, renowned for its recuperative qualities to one's health. Dick, like many of us was normally fully aware as to when he's had enough, but keeps on going just to make sure and was therefore insisting that we have, "a last drink". In his book a "last drink" would invariably be a full evening's bar hopping expedition. Knowing that it would have been pointless and rude to refuse, I girded my loins (and my liver) for the last stand … this whole weekend was beginning to feel like Custer's last stand at The Little Bighorn … I just hoped that I did not end up like Custer and go down in action! Thankfully I survived the evening, but declined the many offerings of the local Filipina's, reasoning that even with the full support of the local pharmaceutical industry I would be total inadequate and useless.

After a quick breakfast with Dick the next morning, I boarded my pre-booked car to take me back to Manila airport and what I hoped would be a few days of sanity and recuperation in Bangkok, prior to returning to work in The Middle East. On checking-in for the PAL flight, I requested my usual aisle seat for myself and an outside wing seat for my liver in the vain hope that it would freeze dry en-route. I cannot report on the return flight as I slept the entire way. A final comment to Dick was that his invitation, "to get your ass over here for my 70th birthday", should in fact have come with a health and safety warning, as it had indeed been, "The Mother of all parties".

However a closing comment on this once-in-a lifetime Living Large weekend, one that will certainly stay with me forever. Once through the madness and mayhem of check-in, immigration etc of Manila airport and ensconced in the 'business class' lounge. (Now I know why PAL was banned from European air space in those days) I reflected on my few days of debauchery and excess. Yes, I'd had a ball, but was pleased to be leaving The Phils … the ever present feeling of a lack of personal safety never left me for a moment – except perhaps when I was too drunk to reason with myself!

There were several mad weekends and trips with Dick, one being his annual hosting of the Superbowl weekend in Pattaya. Supposedly revolving around a golf tournament, with he used to tell me, the most experienced female caddies of all times – experienced in what I'm not sure! I Being the inveterate gambler that he was, he would lay bets with his bookie in the US as to the results of the various games. I suspect that the real reasons for the trip was the opportunity to explore the many delights of sin-city on sea.

Another was the time when he had a 12-month long-term assignment in Bangkok, where he rented an apartment directly opposite Renoir or was it Monet's in the dead artist's Soi 33? Talk about popping out to pick up a take-away from your local!

The Philippines was not only about fun and debauchery though. On the one trip we visited Banaue in the Cordillera Mountains, some 7 hours drive north of Manila. It's famous for its UNESCO protected rice terraces, some as old as 2,000 years and reckoned by some to be the 8th wonder of the world – a truly amazing sight.

That same trip we took the boat trip out to Corregidor Island in Manila Bay. This being where the Americans and Filipino allies made their last stand against the Japanese invasion of The Philippines in WWII. Today the whole island is a living museum, with most of the many gun emplacement batteries still intact, alongside the bombed out ruins of what was once a large and thriving military base. It's like a living time capsule. Those captured here were ferried by boat to the other side of the Bay, to Mariveles where they were joined by the survivors from the battle of Bataan. This was where infamous Bataan Death march started. Both Dick and I had an interest in history, of which the many Philippine islands have in abundance, particularly of WWII vintage. So on one of our several trips to Angeles City, rather than take to usual uninteresting but direct drive there, we decided to follow this infamous route. As one drives along its nearly 100 kms route, it's hard today to imagine what conditions must have been like for those poor souls as they were literally marched to death. There are however, commemorative stones every kilometre or so along the route, marking the fallen.

On another trip we took to the air, courtesy of the low cost airline, Cebu Pacific, visiting the southern islands of Cebu. We then went onto Leyte, where it is said that the most beautiful Filipino girls come from. A fact to which I can readily attest! Also of course it is famous for its role in the WWII re-conquest of The Philippines by General MacArthur in 1944. Today life-size memorial statues of him and his entourage mark the spot where he waded ashore, saying, "I have returned". The resultant ensuing Battle of Leyte was the largest naval battle ever fought. From here we flew to the incredibly beautiful island of Boracay, which is rightly famous for its long white sandy beaches – a true paradise on earth. But Boracay is in itself another story for another day!

A year or so prior to his death, he decided to marry once again. This time to his long-time live-in Filipina girl friend. I recall asking him at the time, what number this one was with the reply being a typical and predictable Dick response, "I think it's number 8". I suspect that he was perhaps equally confused as to the exact the number of times he had been married.

The last time I saw Dick was that night in Bangkok, where we started this story in Part 1, a few months before his death. I had originally planned to fly out to The Phils to spend some time with him there, but he had insisted that we meet in The Land of Smiles. I think in his heart of hearts he knew that this trip would be his last.

When I met him at the beginning of the week, I was quite shocked at his appearance. The once robust Dick was now significantly thinner, his skin sallow and a flat dullness had replaced the once taunting sparkle in his eyes. This and the always present cough which seemed to continually drain him. He was looking older than his 74 years and burdened by life’s woes. But having said that, although obviously sick, there were moments when he was the same old mischievous Dick, with a devil-may-care attitude. I would like to think that he had enjoyed this Thai trip, that it had done him some good and felt privileged that he had chosen to share his last holiday with me.

Although he could have moved back to the US, where I'm convinced he would have received far superior treatment for his cancer. But at the end of the day, I'm confident that America no longer held any attraction for him, he'd been away too long and his love of Asia was too strong. One of his favourite sayings and email sign-off's was, "…just another day in paradise".

At the end of the day, I believe he knew his time had come, and decided that enough was enough, for him and those around him. On his last birthday – his 75th, he wrote a note to his last Filipina wife, which she very kindly copied me on after his death. Having studied journalism at University, he always had a way with words; the note said all the things that he was feeling, at a time when he could look at his life, from end to end, saying those things that he felt needed to be said. Few of us ever get around to saying the things that should be said, or want to be said to those closest to us – he did! … I have kept that note, as it so eloquently sums up his attitude to life and how he felt about his friends and family.

Dick was one of life's real characters who had literally, ‘lived life large’ both in The Philippines and elsewhere around the world. I was fortunate enough to have had his friendship and shared some of his adventures. He was hard bitten, to some extent a social misfit, and definitely in many ways, stereotypical old school.

Although I have only travelled to very few locations in The Phils, many of which are indeed beautiful, personally I never really understood his and many other westerners fascination with the country. I suspect however that he and the many others that I met had contracted the sickness – Jasmine Fever. But I guess at the end of the day, all of that is somewhat academic as he was living the dream as he saw it – his dream. Also he got to finally pass away in what he would frequently describe as, just another day in Paradise, which is probably what he would have wanted.

R.I.P Dick – I hope wherever you are, you're kicking ass and taking names.