Friends, we have come to the end of this here sojourn. And what a ride it has been. Literally, I think, once in a lifetime.
Thanks for journeying with us. Those words are easy but behind them is sincere appreciation. I have been surprised how much it has meant to us to have you read along (and occasionally comment). So to wrap the whole shebang all up… i want to tell you about our amazing final adventure and then after that, sum up a bit. And we’re done.
(Before I do, if you’re into Twitter, my new address is PeterDDowney )
PETE and MERE’s FINAL ADVENTURE:
We came in low over the coast, with a sudden frightening turn in a twin propellor plane to the island of Panay, and then an outrigger boat across the strait to Boracay. The alternative was a ferry boat from Manila, but every couple of years one of these sinks in an unexpected typhoon and lots of people die.
Hiked in the blazing sun for what seemed like hours. The ground underfoot was grainy, sun-bleached and barren. Nothing can grow here. Every so often we were ankle deep in water broiled warm and silky by the sun, occasionally stepping over coconuts and dead things.
Passed a rocky outcrop where locals had constructed a statue of their matriarch god-mother, where visitors leave offerings or some coins (and have their photo) in the hope of a blessing. Locals came out desperate to get us to sell us something or get a few pesos.
A colourfully dressed local woman offered us a place to rest, and a cool drink. It is hard to resist Filipino hospitality. The drink brought relief – a combination of fruits with ice. We have had to be so careful with not drinking the ice but she assured us it was okay. She also brought us food, a potato dish, crusted with salt, and another dish of a golden-brown cooked thing that once lived in the ocean.
We needed a place to stay and found one in the shelter of a cliff. Got a room built up high to avoid any rising waters, for only $60 a night with breakfast thrown in.
Actually… I’m not saying it right… maybe it’s better if I just show you some pictures…
Oh, hardy har har! Yes, a little comedic moment at the end. For those of you (and there are many) who are concerned that we have just gone too hard and haven’t had a chance to relax, never fear. Our last ten days are obscenely decadent, a cliche of pacific paradise featuring dappled sun through palm fronds, margaritas, splashing in warm lapping waters, orangy sunsets that look like paintings, long slow breaths, kindle time (Steven King and Victor Hugo), incredible foods and a kind of salty boredom that leads to sleep at the strangest of moments.
We have met some great people over the past weeks, and I am well aware that we are only visitors, tourists even, who come and go and make some passing observations. Soon, I’ll go back to “normal”. Their work and lives go on. God is doing good things here in the Philippines. (But a shout out to all who head overseas to do amazing things…) It has been a privilege to see it and I hope it has somehow changed me.
But right now, the sun is setting and and there is a waitress about to bring me the latest special on the TJ cocktail menu.
Folks, in this, my second final blogpost, I thought it would be nice to reflect back on the past weeks, in part to help remind me of a range of inspiring and interesting people we came across in our travels. A little tribute if you will, kind of like at the end of Survivor when they reflect back on all the people who they have spent time with, except that I haven’t voted anybody off the island. I think of this as a little gallery of memories. I hope you are as touched and inspired by these people as we have been… Cue stirring music….Thanks for making it this far and sharing along the way. One more post to go… (And never fear: PeterDDowney has just joined twitter as i have decided to continue to annoy people with my witty and banal reflections on life.)
(Yeah, yeah, look it up…).
As we get close to the end, I want to introduce you to two local blokes.
Bloke 1: Mark Pedder.
Along with his wife, Christine, Mark (ex-Adelaide) has lived and worked among the people of Baseco for over a decade.
He runs church services and several bible studies every day. He has raised up and trained local pastors and youth pastors to run studies and activities in the community. This week, Mark will de-worm over 5000 kids.
They run a “Birthing Better Babies” program, now with over 100 fat, healthy, breast fed babies having been born, thanks to vitamin supplements, education and a hygienic place to give birth. Each fortnight, they put a few pesos in envelopes and give them to kids (who have applied) to allow them to buy stuff for school, in addition to a school sponsorship program, where $90 or $250 AUD a year puts a local child through elementary school, or high school, respectively. They have 300+ kids on their books.
Christine and Mark often spend time wandering around, talking to people, helping out where they see the need. They are the local apothecaries of burn creams and bandages. They tend to boils and burns. A woman’s husband was going into hospital. Mark asked if she had food for her family. She said no. “Come see me and I will give you some rice”. After the recent floods, they stuffed 100 plastic bags with groceries, and just went wandering, handing them out to people who were in need.
Mark has tatts, a shaved head, and he calls a spade “a shovel” if you get my drift. He wears a singlet and thongs to church, because in this community of the poor, he wants everyone to know you don’t need good clothes to be part of church. Without drawing too much of a long bow, he channels the picture I have in my head of Jesus wandering around, hanging out with the outcast and dispossessed, doing good stuff for people and sharing the Kingdom of God.
Meanwhile, just down the road a ways is…
Bloke 2: Apollo C. Quibonoy
According to his own 24hour tv channel here in the Philippines, televangelist Apollo C Quibonoy is actually the “appointed son of God”. He is the incarnation of Jesus, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, the alpha and the omega. He has a church called, “The Kingdom of Jesus Christ, the Name Above Every Name, Incorporated”.
Quiboloy is rebuilding the Garden of Eden in “the new Jerusalem”, Davao City, called “Covenant Mountain” and this is God’s new headquarters on earth, the new temple where God’s spirit will dwell and reign over the earth. Because it is God’s new residence, there are lots of rules about what you do there. (http://www.kingdomofjesuschrist.org/tger/rules.html). There are dress rules. No boisterous laughter, and you need to ask for assistance “if you feel to urinate”. You can’t touch the plants, because they are holy, but you can purchase holy seedlings “at affordable prices” at Gate 2.
If you donate, you can become a “Covenant Partner” (and get a signed Covenant Partnership Certificate), you get to go to the services in the Jesus Christ Kingdom Cathedral but you can only go the next step to be a “Covenant Citizen” if you really put down the credit card.
Once a citizen, you get to wear the uniform. Everyone must wear the same sparking white and sequined outfit. Men have to have Donny Osmond haircuts and the women, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis bobs, and sequined two piece outfits reminiscent of Pan Am stewardesses circa 1955. Worship music is strictly limited to God’s favourite style – 1960’s middle America country and western, with slide guitar and foot tappin’ violin.
Anyway, thought you’d just like to meet these two guys. Don’t know about you, but i know who’s getting my cash.
All public transport vehicles in the Philippines (taxis, jeepneys, tricycles, trucks) are required by law to have a sign on the back of their vehicle asking “How’s My Driving?” with a phone number, presumably so one can report a driver for bad or dangerous driving.
This is ironic and humorous in the extreme. I am trying to imagine what a phone call report would actually sound like…
“Hello, is that the How’s my Driving hotline? I’d like to report some bad and dangerous driving.”
“Certainly, Po! Please make your report, sir!”
“Ok, um… well, I was in a taxi this morning. This guy drove at incredible speed down narrow alleyways, causing pedestrians to jump up into windowsills or dive into doorways. He didn’t slow down at cross streets. Just went straight through, without looking. He bobbed and swayed and nudged his way through dense traffic with his foot down, often with millimetres to spare, squeezing us through spaces that the laws of dimensional physics do generally not allow.
“He made random u-turns, blasted his horn every few seconds and totally ignored any traffic signs or traffic lights. And he played his radio really loud. Celine Dion, full volume.
“He overtook directly into the path of oncoming traffic, swerving out of the way at the last second. He drove in between lanes, cut others off and merged when it wasn’t his right to do so. He careened around corners on two wheels, and frequently would grab for the crucifix dangling from his rear vision mirror and massage it vigorously with his thumb, before crossing himself and mumbling what I presume were prayers for survival.
“Despite being a professional driver, he seemed to not know where he was or where he was going. Each turn into a side street came up as a sudden surprise. He turned right from the far left lane, across four lanes, suddenly making us perpendicular to the flow of dense fast traffic, now swerving around us with horns dopple-gangering and the terrified faces of other tourists pressed against the glass of their own cars blurring past us. His navigation system was not a street directory or GPS, but rather frequently winding down his window and yelling at people on the street for directions, which were often contradictory or confused at best, leading us to circuitous routes and sudden changes of direction. One guy gave him advice, and after a few left turns, he wound down the window again and asked the next bloke for directions… it was the same guy!
“And look, I’m not sure, because I had my eyes shut, but I’m pretty sure he destroyed the awning of a market stall with his left side mirror. When I opened my eyes, there was part of a fish on the windshield. And, um, again, I can’t be sure, but I think we hit a couple of pedestrians. ..”
“Excuse me, Po! Sorry to interrupt you, sir! You said you wanted to report some bad and dangerous driving… could you please now get to that part…?”
How’s My Driving? You’re kidding, right? Because that’s the way everyone drives in Manila. All 22 million of them. And all at the same time. Essentially, to qualify as “a bad and dangerous driver”, you have to either run a packed school bus off a cliff, or drive into a petrol tanker at 150km/h and take out two city blocks. Everything else? All bets are off.
One good thing… our experiences in taxis, jeepneys and tricycles have brought us both a lot closer to God.
My perception of “the poor” has changed.
Coming into this trip I had something of a picture of an imaginary line. I, a wealthy westerner, would cross this line from my world of income, education and comfort, and step into the world of “the poor” which is called “a slum” and where people live desperate lives “in poverty”.
Thing is, it’s not quite as black and white as this. I mean it is (obviously) in a general sense. If you compare a typical house and resident of Baseco to one in Balgowlah, sure, the gap is extreme.
But within the microcosm of Baseco itself, there is a lot more nuance and subtlety; generalisations about poverty don’t hold much ground. There is a variety of existence here.
Some people do actually live in woeful conditions, in collapsed tents made out of garbage.
There are emaciated kids left to wander all day while their parents are out, and hopeless adults sitting in the dirt gambling the few pesos they have or buying locally produced crystal meth, which is cheaper than rice. Prostitution and crime is rife and within two days last week, three people were shot and killed, two of them young teenagers.
We met one little girl who had been “given” to a woman because the birth mother couldn’t look after her. Check out her photo below… and then the photo, beneath, of her shoes… the coolest boots in Baseco!
But there are lots of families who work hard, some making do with anything that comes in front of them. Dump trucks turn up all the time to dump their rubble, and kids, women, grandmothers, men all start scrambling through the mud and rock looking for reo bars or plastic or bits of wood or anything else to sell. Others run stalls or carts in the colourful markets on the outskirts of the settlement.
Others collect driftwood from the bay and burn in it in giant firepits to make charcoal to sell.
Other families spend dawn to dusk peeling garlic for a few pesos. They send their children to school, dressed in impossibly immaculate and pristine uniforms. School runs from 6am to 11am. In classes of around 80-100, you have to pay (bribe?) the teacher extra to get your work marked, or get a report, or to sit by the coveted fan. Most of them want to go on to college.
The young women of the church we visited were funny. Fashionable.
Some of them live in places with tiled floors and besa block walls, a tv and “western” toilet (even if it does just drain and seep into the ground. There is no sewerage system in Baseco for 100 000 people.)
Curiously, lots of people in the slum seem to own massive sound systems and an endless supply of 80s rock hits and crooning anthems. I cannot describe how bizarre it is wading through septic swamp, claustrophobiad on every side by rotting wood and plastic sheet dwellings, with a deafening Bon Jovi soundtrack rattling your teeth with ever slippery stinky step.
The youth of the church are like any bunch of young Christians I’ve come across. Earnest, enthusiastic, loving community, engaged in running kids’ programs.
Their clothes are cool, the girls have pierced ears and make-up and there is nothing they love more than striking a pose for their next Facebook profile pic. One young woman came to church (in the middle of a septic swamp) wearing an immaculate nurse’s uniform. She is a student, and would not be out of place in the halls of a university in Sydney. Another guy I saw walked out of the slum wearing a black suit. This is probably one of the most surprising things. People live here who have jobs where you wouldn’t think for a minute they live with eight others in a one bedroom shack with a muddy floor and a roof made out of packing crates.
They are people who work in brand shops in the big malls, or in the supermarket checkout, or waiting tables in a nice local restaurant, or as a check-in attendant at the airport. They have make-up, clean hair, immaculate uniforms, articulate conversational English. But they live in… “a slum”.
The grand conclusion? The world isn’t as black and white as i thought it was.
Friends… thanks for reading along over the past month or so. Have appreciated your prayers, support, best wishes, emails and comments while on our little sojourn. This part of our trip is soon to be over. And so is this blog.
For us it has been at times and in turn eye opening, bizarre, exciting, challenging, hilarious, scary, inspiring, sad… In particular I look at people (missionaries / NGOs) etc who aren’t just doing the little few weeks visit thing, but are committing to people and communities, outside their comfort zone, for years. I look at them in a new light. Kudos.
There’s one or two blogs left in this old laptop (and my brain) and after that we’ll be grabbing some R&R.
So as Frankie said, “and now, the end is near…”
…Tips for Enjoying Filipino Cinema
The Philippines is a great destination for the film-lover. They have huge multiplexes and giant screens, all the latest global blockbusters, and a ticket is only $4.00. But to maximise your cinema experience here’s a few things the first-timer cinema-goer should know to maximise their viewing pleasure:
- Arrive at the cinema 20 minutes early. Even if you are at the front of the queue, this is how long it takes the sales assistant to notice you, wave you forward, update her Facebook Status (“Selling a ticket!”), re-boot her computer, try to work out what you’re saying when you are holding up two fingers of one hand and pointing to the giant poster (of the movie starting in three minutes that you want to see) with the other hand, and then wait for two other assistants to come help her print the tickets.
- Prepare for a body search. If you’ve flown on a plane or visited the National Archives in DC, then a full body pat down and a hand scan by a guy holding a gun, will be nothing new. After all, things like the Declaration of Independence and the film stock of Katy Perry’s 3D movie must be protected from suicide bombers.
- With the highest population density of any city in the world, Manilans get agoraphobic if they aren’t close to others. That’s why once you’re seated, other new arrivals will, in an empty 300 seat cinema, choose to sit in the seats immediately behind, beside or in front of you. Strength in numbers.
- With the highest population density of any city in the world in this staunchly Catholic country, young Manilan couples have nowhere to make out. The cinema is the perfect dark environ to do so, sort of like they did in 50s movies or Happy Days. (Young couples are one thing, but seedy old ex-pats with their rheumy eyes, yellow teeth, scrofula and ill-fitting toupees canoodling with their diminutive gender-neutral special pals, is another thing all together.)
- The constant making and receiving of texts and phone calls throughout a movie is totally acceptable. It’s quieter in the cinema than outside, so many Filipinos in fact save all their calls and texts for the solace of the theatre. No need to turn your phone to silent either. In fact, do the opposite and turn it to the “outdoors” setting in case the movie is noisy and you can’t catch it ringing by the fifteenth or so ring. For some reason, the sound of cats meowing or shrieking is a very popular ringtone in the Philippines.
- If, during the movie, you become suddenly aware that there is a guy over in the aisle staring at you wearing night vision goggles, don’t panic. As part of a nation-wide film piracy crackdown, he is just ensuring you aren’t being naughty with your camcorder.
- Filipinos love their snacks. They will bring a lot of them into the cinema, all separately wrapped in an array of layers of plastics of varying annoying crinkliness, like a nightmare pass-the-parcel. Not wanting to make too much noise all at once, they will instead stagger and draw out the meticulous unwrapping and rewrapping process throughout the entire length of the movie, just loud and consistent enough for it to be annoying. And if they run out, they can actually have food delivered to them in the cinema from the surrounding take away stalls. Not only that, they get a phone call to tell them their order is ready. Awesome!
- Coughing is okay. If you have the desire to cough, don’t worry about covering your mouth or feel the need to leave the cinema. Just go for it. Begin by rocking back and forth while wheezing and gasping, before grabbing the seat in front of you and, like a man who finds himself unexpectedly tazered, fold yourself over the seat in front, belching and spluttering. Then from some dark place within, unleash a lengthy and desperate tuberculoid gargle like someone axphyxiating in custard, before collapsing back into your seat with a noise of satisfaction like a horse blowing a stern breath through closed horsey lips. If you do that, you’ll fit right in.
- In Australia, we expect the various spools of film up in the projection booth to seamlessly interlink to form one continuous narrative. In the Philippines, they let a spool finish and flap around for a bit before kicking the next one into gear. This is more of a television experience, with little breaks to chat, catch up with others around you about missed plot twists or engage in any or all of Points 6, 7 or 8 (see above).
- Don’t be alarmed when the full cinema lights come on five minutes before the movie has finished. This is not an earthquake alarm. It is merely a courtesy to let you know that the movie will be finishing soon, in case you want to get your things together, like when a plane lands.
I hope you enjoy seeing a movie in Manila as much as I did.
First things first… a big shout out to Lumilipad kanggaro, QANTAS (via Capt EF), who let us bring over multiple heavy bags full of supplies, including crates of Combantrin, without charge. And again, thanks to all who threw cash into our Combantrin appeal. We are seeing it put to great use. Take that, you dirty pseudocoelomate! Pow, bang, squirt! About a thousand more kids this week will get treated, and there’ll be stock left over to last a little while to come.
Today was the second day we watched line after line of kids queue up to hoe into this stuff. I must admit I thought it was kind of a nice thing to do, but you soon realise it’s not just a bit of fun for these children and their parents, but something that significantly impacts their health and well being.
Things a bit flat this morning. Sadly, two teenagers were shot and killed last night in Block 9 – the drug block that we had been warned to stay out of. Our host Mark thinks this will bring the SWAT team in, and there’ll be a gun fight in the next few nights. (We won’t be near there). Despite the dour news, splashed out to a church building for a kids’ service.
Amazing what people have. This church is a spongy wooden floor the size of our bedroom (with holes – one girl disappeared for a while up to her thigh), in the middle of a stinky swamp, wooden slats for walls and corrugated foil for a roof. I was asked not to dance lest I cause the building to implode. I am not kidding. But that didn’t matter. Inside was a dynamic kids’ service lead in 35degree heat by energetic teen leaders, singing, dancing, praying, doing memory verses.
They carried in a PA and a portable generator to power the songs and the microphone. Really the amazing thing is how it was just so normal… could have been any church in the world. Afterwards, the kids left and the adults filed in. Again, despite the humble surroundings, it was as lively and as “normal” a service as you would find anywhere.
People greeting each other, singing, praying, listening to Mark’s talk. It was touching seeing people help others find passages in their bibles, when it was clear they could hardly read. They are so desperate to hear about Jesus’ teaching as a way of making sense of their lives. It is a very simple and palpable faith. Despite what little these people have, they give a few peso each week to support missionaries in Warsaw and a birthing program among aboriginal Australians. That’s right, they are funding work in my country. Head spin.
It is both disturbing and comforting to note that despite the poverty, teenagers the world over are the same. In the heart of the slum, what do you find teenagers doing? Facebook. The Philippines has the highest Facebook penetration of any country in the world. Go figure.
It’s Combantrin o’clock, and all is well. Except for the guy near us today who was shot and killed. I asked how long it would take for the police to respond. Our host, Mark, laughed. “They won’t,” he said. Man is killed. Police won’t come. End of story. Put the kettle on. Strange days.
Hiked (waded) out through the swampy passageways across slippery rubble and rocks through to a little shelter in the middle of humidity. A concrete slab the size of a bedroom, with a roof. A lot of hanging around.
Kids turned up, and we handed out Combantrin. The first hand out of many over the next days and weeks.
Roundworms are common in Baseco. Nasty little buggers like strands of spaghetti that fill up kid’s intestines and cause malnutrition.
Combantrin is made out of chocolate and the kids love it. Kills em dead in their tracks.
Thanks to everyone who contributed to our little “Combantrin fund”, chucking in money to allow us to buy hundreds of boxes of the stuff. We used a few today. More to come. So exciting to see something so simple be so appreciated by mums and kids. It makes a real and immediate difference. I know sometimes you put money in to something and never get to see the end result. Today, that was our privilege.
Visiting a slum for the first time? Here’s the general vibe…
Imagine you’re jet-lagged, suffering from sun-stroke and coming out of general anaesthetic, all at the same time. Then you drink a bottle of reisling in the midday sun, just before stepping onto the Rotor at Luna Park. Just as it fires up, someone tells you you’re adopted. And all the while you’re breathing through a sock filled with chicken and corn soup. Yep, walking into a slum is other-worldly, to say the least.
Baseco is roughly one square kilometre of rubbishy rubble, a muddy septic swamp where 100 000 people live. It is a catacomb of passageways and corridors between ramshackle dwellings, like cubby-houses made out of rotting ply-board, tarpaulins, hessian bags, string, bicycle tyres and handkerchiefs, put together with the tools from a child’s toy box.
While we wend our way through narrow alleys on carefully positioned rocks and stepping stones to keep our feet (and sometimes the bottom half of our bodies) out of the sludge, we also watch our faces as all the awnings and low roofs are at eye level, and made out of beams with rusty nails and dirty corrugated iron. There is a beach where instead of sand it is rubbish.
It is intense. Noise, movement, roosters, dogs, people everywhere. And while it is primitive and earthy, every second home seems to have some sort of amazing sound system belting out Celine Dion or some indefinable Filipino pop sensation or Christian anthem. We meet all sorts of people…
Little kids who appear out of dark holes and ask to have their photo taken with you. And their teeth are amazing. Or missing.
Little kids in pristine white uniforms on their way to school.
A pretty twenty-one year old, wearing an Angry Birds t-shirt. She is pregnant… with her fifth child.
A family sitting in their stoop peeling garlic. It will take them twelve hours to do a 15kg bag, for 50 peso profit (=$1.25 income for the day). This is possibly the most common industry we see around the slum.
Some “gangsta” teens wearing immaculately white basketball outfits.
A lot of women. With babies.
A guy wearing boxer shorts and thongs, chipping away with a hammer and chisel at a chunk of concrete the size of a coffee table, to get out the reo-bars, for resale.
A women’s Bible Study, sharing and crying and laughing together, and thanking God for all the blessings they have in their lives (I know, right?).
A pretty young woman with shiny hair and fashionable clothes, holding a baby. She is a person you would easily meet at a summer barbeque in Sydney, talk about work and church and kids and… except she is squatting on a pile of rubbish, using a metal hook to dig for plastic bags to wash and resell.
Some guys running a meth lab. Our host, tough talking and tattooed Mark Pedder, says he won’t walk here at night because they have attack dogs and M7 machine guns. And every few months, the SWAT teams come in and kill a bunch of guys, to keep them in line. Great.
A bunch of boys playing basketball, and then while you’re standing there laughing and taking photos, one of them strolls off court, drops his strides, squats down and does what he clearly needs to do.
Women hanging out in each other’s homes, with kids and adults just popping by to say hello.
It is a different world.
It’s good to be here, but it’s not easy.
Went to a servo to fill up the van and, as you do when on the road, popped into the bathroom.
The servo bathroom has a security guard, fully decked out in a uniform, vest and cap, and a utility belt with lots of dangly dangerous looking things on it. What really caught my attention, however, was what was in his hands… a monster pump-action shotgun.
I had to quickly reassess my plans to urinate all over the floor and shove some toilet rolls inside my shirt, lest I cop a blast of 12-gauge to the chest. Every official in the Philippines, it seems, is packin’ heat. Everyone has a service weapon on their belt.
There are armed guards at intersections, at every entrance to a shopping mall or department store or car-park or high rise or condo or school or cafe or shop. We walked past a Krispy Kreme and the guy on the door was packin a Kalishnikov. I even saw a guard standing menacingly outside a Chic-Boy (think “KFC”). Don’t take too many straws for your soda or the last thing you hear will be chic-chic-BOOM.
There is even a guy across the road from us outside a Lancôme boutique, and he has a fat semi-automatic slung around his neck. What’s with that? They expecting a black Ops raid to nick some Comforting Creamy Foaming Cleanser?