Tuesday, March 07, 2006


(Wrote this last year, had reservations about posting it, but why not, I've got nothing else to say right now)

There's a geriatric band in Manila Airport cranking out a version of the Stones' "Out of Time", before launching into a jazzy take on "Rock Around the Clock". Behind them, a cracked white sign, and in blue bubble letters, "WELCOME TO BIRD FLU-FREE PHILIPPINES!!" The walls are plastered with old skool-style mugshots of terrorist suspects and numerous warnings ; "DEATH PENALTY FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS IN THE PHILIPPINES" *** "PASSENGERS FOR CONNECTING FLIGHTS TO SINGAPORE ARE REMINDED THAT POSSESSION OF BULLET SHELLS FOR SOUVENIRS, JEWELLERY OR PERSONAL DECORATION IS ILLEGAL" *** "CIGARETTE LIGHTERS SUBJECT TO INSPECTION"

Strains of the band, now romping through "Get Off Of My Cloud", start to fade, the corridor towards passport control is dimly-lit, humid, 8 painfully long queues squeezed between hospital-green walls, murky in the shadows. Idiotically join one of the human rows marked "OFW" (Overseas Filipino Workers) until an official says to move into a queue leading to a desk marked "Mabuhay" (hello there!). A day and an age. And then out, more signs, "GUNS DON'T DIE, PEOPLE DO - BAN THE GUN IN PUBLIC PLACES" **** "FIREARMS FORBIDDEN IN AIRPORT". First contact, no shit, a cop comes up to me with a smile, wanting to know if I've got a Filipino girlfriend, and then asks if he can ponce a fag off me.

The taxi driver's more interested in James Bond, demanding to know who's replacing Pierce Brosnan. I haven't got a fucking clue, I lost interest after Roger Moore packed it in, I sort of say. The driver's concerned that they might appoint a wimp to play 007, and that he hopes there'll be loads of car chases in the next one - at which point we run into our first security check. A mirror on a stick is run underneath the car, the boot's opened up, IDs are handed over and squinted at. One of the cops just slams the boot down and thumps it, and we take off again. Past crammed taxi buses, Biblical quotes meticulously hand-painted on their sides. A Catholic majority of 80% vs frequent bomb attacks and raids by members of Abu Sayyaf and, on a more deep-rooted scale, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, in the southern islands. Religion is about to get way fucking weirder over here....

Into the heart of Makati, lorries sway and discharge black billows of smoke, what is it with SE Asian kids and swastika T-shirts? White, black and red, no quaint little Sanksrit lucky charms here, boys and girls. Maybe Belsen and the Blitz lose their identities, shed their victims by the time they make it over the wire. Bad boy symbols, the nazis as rock n roll fuck-youism eternal. Topman used to sell Vietcong T-shirts a few years ago, 16 year old runts shuffling around Brent Cross Shopping Centre, trying to absorb radical chic by adorning themselves with the name of one of the bravest working class communist armies ever. Reproduced so shabbily. And in Saigon, eternal black and white posters of a smiling 14-year old village girl, "NUMBER ONE AMERICAN KILLER" proudly inscribed underneath her xeroxed memorial. But -

Blokes wander around, in and out of the traffic lanes, squeegee merchants, selling fishing rods on the side. In case sir wants to go out to the islands. Why wouldn't one? I mean, why spend your time in Manila, this blackened hub, when you could be relaxing by the volcanoes and white sands? The Lonely Planet guide reassures readers, "Look past its grimey surfaces, and you'll find Manila's hidden treasures". Is that what they tell the Japs and Yanks about Peckham? Look past the families who sit with their backs to brick walls, one wirey, communal toothbrush lying on the cracked pavement, this is their evening out. They'll sit there and not move until the kids fall asleep, and then maybe grab some sleep themselves. Streets where passing cars flip down their door locks.

I remember the taxi driver ("Be careful, don't go off with anyone, they'll shoot you if you're on your own") as I'm walking around, on my own. Out of earshot, naked kids piss on the dust, and someone with a meat cleaver is getting het up, looks like 2 Filipinos ready to kick off with each other - end up taking a left turn, past the wrecked shell of a car that could easily have lain there in its mangled state for 20 years.

Mansions poke out of Malate, houses surrounded by chainlink and patrolled by gun-toting youths in heavy padded jackets. The rich really do get kidnapped by the MILF, or just by bandits who've grown fed up with having and eating and doing nothing, while trucks pass through umpteen security checks to deliver freshly slaughtered pig and ripe melon to these palacial abodes...

And, as you soon realise once you've been to SE Asia a few times, even struggling to stay afloat on a £16,000 annual salary in Britain won't save your trotters either - sorry mate, over here you're rich. White face, blank cheques. Hit a main road and realise I'm completely fucking lost. And then see the bar where I'm meant to meet the one person I know in this entire city...

Box of Viagra, son? 300 pesos, three quid for a 10-hour stiff. And here's Angel, 18, bringing up a kid after the father was killed on a construction site. Welfare and child support? Ha ha ha...crazy Westerner, you. Sandy, 25, another kid to feed, 20 quid, yours for the night. Carol, 21, dressed as Wonder Woman, so named cos she was born on Xmas day, yeah right, but can go all night anyway, wanna try? Shane, 29, fully qualified IT programmer, born with two thumbs on her left hand, which signifies great luck over here ; but she's still asking me if I want t some 'boom-boom', cos her computer job's so shittily paid, she can't afford to keep her son in clothes.

We end up here, getting a load of bar girls pissed. Tell them I'm a priest. One of the girls turns a silk scarf into a makeshift kaffiyah and pretends to be MILF. And just muck about. Other girls disappear into the night with decrepit off-duty businessmen, sweat soaking their pink polo shirts.

A world where a rare Batman comic costs the price of a month's rent but a pack of cancer sticks comes to 40p ; I don't know whether I hated it or not. Once you get used to the throb of surrounding violence, it all becomes about technique, risk avoidance, not arguing back when a cop jumps onto the back of a taxibus, pushes across and asks you directly for the equivalent of 80p, just "because". A couple of Dutch teachers who'd lived over there for 8 years had just made the news, after a gang had stormed their flat and slit their throats. Nobody was really surprised or concerned. And with approximately 53 million ethnic Filipinos living on $2 a day, you pick up on the people's apathy pretty quickly. I didn't even care about the slain settlers myself, a few days in. It didn't seem like a big deal after Abu Sayyaf had bombed a passenger ferry and killed 100 Filipinos. The government shat its pants over that one, trying to downplay the incident, claiming a handful of minor injuries instead before the truth came out.

I was chatting to a bloke who seemed really shocked that I was surprised by the amount of security precautions in Manila. "But London got bombed too", he was laughing. "Yeah, but we don't have anything like this", I said, "they brought in security checks for a month after, then gave up. Nobody really cares, it's old news now". He thought England was rolling in it, I tried to explain we have poverty too, but this just had him politely amused.

You pass these small, printed signs that look like hoaxes, enscribed with slogans like "WOMEN, HONOUR AND OBEY YOUR HUSBANDS", and you realise they're actually for real. But the women get treated like shit, and there's a load of very angry kids out there. Like in Bangkok, Punk and Oi! are immensely popular ; I've never seen so many imitation "Punk's Not Dead" T-shirts in one place before. But here the anger's on slow-burn, not something to be pogo'd away and doused in alcohol, the old cliche' about 'human hand grenades' never seemed more justified. I left the place with an excited bloke in camo gear waving a leaflet around, inviting me to a shooting range - AK47s, not fucking golf - promising me a discount on 100 bullets which I could pump into paper mannequins, alongside parties of gurning, smug Western investors for whom squeezing the trigger against imaginary targets is the closest they'll come to feeling on top of the situation. Real targets shooting paper targets ; nah, didn't fancy it.
'ardcore. BTI travel guide services... maybe Lonely Planet should give you some work...
"what is it with SE Asian kids and swastika T-shirts? White, black and red, no quaint little Sanksrit lucky charms here, boys and girls."

Its actually an ancient religious symbol associated with Buddhism in the East... If the arms are facing left its a Svastika, or a good luck charm, if its facing right (ala the Nazis) its a symbol of power and the sun...


It's when it's black, in a white circle with red background, it looks more WW2 than traditional. Bizarre.
That could also be true.. proper Nazi t-shirts are quite common in Japan - but the religious and cultural associations might explain why they dont seem to mind the political symbolism...
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