Manila Vanilla

What it's like to be a U.S. Fulbright scholar, basketball player, journalist, and the whitest man in Metro Manila.

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Location: Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines

New Yorker by birth, shipped across the globe to the world of malls, shanty-towns, patronage, corruption, basketball and a curious burnt-toast smell that wafts around at dusk

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Me and Darvin Ham at the Astoria Plaza Hotel in Pasig City. Documentation that I'm one degree of separation from CTCing with Rasheed Wallace.

Chasing Darvin

Chasing Darvin -- The story of a young boy who has a tragic accident while having a little too much fun with some Jello in the shower and becomes paralyzed from the waist down. But he finds a new friend -- a flourescent green lizard named Darvin. And in Darvin, the boy finds new meaning in life. Until one day, he rolls over Darvin during a game of tag. The end.


Chasing Darvin -- The story of a 23-year-old journalist tracking down an NBA veteran in the streets of Manila. The player is flying back to the United States that night, and the writer has only a few hours and even fewer facts about his targets whereabouts. He's Chasing Darvin, but will he find him?

Which story is real?

The picture below gives away the already-obvious answer to that question; it also resolves the cliffhanger at the end of the latter "Chasing Darvin" blurb. But it wasn't a cakewalk. Pitiful as this sounds, I cruised around Manila this afternoon half-pretending I was on some Jack Bauer 24 mission.

I knew Ham would be on a plane by 10 tonight. I tracked him down at his hotel this morning. We scheduled a meet. Tony Roma's steakhouse in Makati. 1:30 p.m.

It's 2 in the afternoon and there's no sign of Ham. I've done three sweeps of both floors of Tony Roma's, and the staff is starting to get suspicious. I keep loitering outside. Ham will be arriving by car. Traffic is awful in Manila. A half-hour is hardly considered late. Not throwing in the towel yet.

2:30 -- Ham is still missing. He's only been here one week, so he doesn't have a cell phone. No way for me to figure out what's going on. Maybe there was miscommunication. I check nearby Outback Steakhouse. Have they seen any 6'6'' guys today? No, but there are some fat Aussies in short khaki shorts plying their trade with some Filipinas with dollar signs in their eyes.

3:30 -- Suspicion at Tony Roma's has turned into sympathy. I am a loser. Call the hotel. Is Ham in? No. Has he checked out? Not yet. I have two plays left. The hotel, and if that fails, the airport. I'm in this one for the long haul.

4:15 -- Walked in wrong direction down Shaw Boulevard. Sweating bullets. Low blood sugar. Stop at 7-11 for imitation Oreos and water.

4:30 -- In Hotel lobby. Ham just arrived. What a break! Ask receptionist to call his room, watch him dial ... 2703! The line is busy. He must be online. I head to the elevators. Wait. Assuming he didn't intentionally ditch me at lunch, I probably have some good will coming my way. Do I want to squander it by banging on his door unannounced.

4:45 -- Waiting in lobby. What's another ten minutes after all this. Call again. Bingo. He had an "impromptu" meeting with Talk 'n' Text general manager and had to skip lunch. My guess is that he wanted to make sure the money was coming through. He'll be down in a few minutes.

5-7 p.m. -- Darvin Ham is a cool guy. Gigantic, tree trunk legs. Drinks vodka pineapples and likes ultimate fighting. He sounds a little upset over the way his time out here played out, but he's also got bigger fish to fry. He came out here because he was tired of waiting for a call from an NBA team and he figured it'd be a nice way to play his way into shape in case a team wants to sign a veteran stopper before the playoffs. It's also his first chance to visit Asia.

But things weren't so smooth on the court. He was placed in the same nearly impossible situation into which most replacement imports get dumped. They're brought in on short notice to join a brand new team. They're expected to score huge numbers and dominate games despite jet lag, different styles of playing and referreeing, and a lack of familiarity with teammates.

Ham may have had it even harder. Joining a team in the middle of a playoff series is rare, even for the PBA. There is no learning curve. If he doesn't win immediately, the season is over. In fact, that's what happened. Talk 'n' Text split games three and four and lost game five in overtime. Ham improved with each game and started to look like he was taking control of parts of the fifth game, but between the triple teams, refs giving him a hard time and telling him he's "not that good" and a hungry Air 21 team with some very hot shooters, Ham never got the chance to show his best stuff.

It was like "hooping in handcuffs," he said. Welcome to the PBA.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Mistaken Identities

Men on a mission -- but for what?

Whenever you pass a middle-aged white man in Manila, you're faced with that all-too-common conundrum: Was he a missionary or a sex tourist?

Based on looks alone, it's almost impossible to tell the difference. Despite the sizable moral gulf separating the two, die-hard Christian missionaries and sweaty-palmed specialists in the missionary position look surprisingly similar.

Like ADHD or Tourette's Syndrome, a set of characteristics can be used to identify Jesus freaks and just-plain freaks. They're usually between the ages of 40 and 60, slightly overweight, graying and/or balding, bespectacled, sweating profusely and poorly dressed. Any of the following adjectives may apply to them: unkempt, nebbish, furtive, phlegmatic, pallid, slovenly and bedraggled. Some, but not all of them have grotesque, albeit minor, disabilities like one leg shorter than the other, a lazy eye, or a missing big toe on the right foot.

Does this look like the kind of man who would visit a country for cheap sex?

Most of the middle-aged western males I've come across here are just missionaries or professors. It's an ideal country for Christian relief missions since nearly everyone is Christian and over half of the population lives in poverty and needs whatever help the missionaries can bring.

But the Philippines' sex trade and bootie bonanza reputation make the idea of sex tourism extremely salient, and it's easy to assume every Caucasian you see is on the prowl. Plus, since the sight of a couple cute 19-year-old Filipinas sitting in a wheelchair-bound gastric bypass candidate's lap isn't exactly rare, you can't help but wonder.

It all makes me wonder what people think of me. I'm much younger than the prototypical coochie hound, but does everyone have the same mindset that any white guy in the Philippines is here for the cheap sexy massages? The sexy masseurs certainly seem to think so.

Can you really blame this guy for seeking out greener pastures in Southeast Asia?

I'm usually asked, in this order: "are you a marine? are you a basketball player? are you a missionary?" Well, I play basketball, and I'm kind of a student who's studying Philippine basketball -- strange as that may sound -- so that assumption is close enough to keep me happy.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Ham comes to Manila!

Nothing would make me happier than to report that Patrick Renna, the youthful virtuoso who lit up the silver screen as Hamilton "Ham" Porter in The Sandlot was spotted touring some of Quezon City's seedier karaoke/girlie bars on Kamias Road. Sadly, that did not happen.

The truth is almost as good. I've written previously about the unpredictable careers of American ballers playing as imports in the PBA. Well, today I returned from a week-long furlough in New York to find out that the Talk-N-Text Phone Pals hired NBA veteran Darvin Ham to join their team for game three of their 5-game quarterfinal series against the Air 21 Express.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

At what point does the farcical terrain inhabited by PBA imports officially qualify as an alternate universe? Summer tournaments in the Bronx have tougher roster rules than this. The PBA should stop calling the players imports and refer to them them using the more accurate title of ringers.

I was told there was a deadline after which new imports couldn't be added, but if that date isn't set at the beginning of the playoffs, what good is it? Ham replaced Damien Cantrell (the great white hope of PBA imports, who was averaging a respectable 19 points and 17 rebounds) with the series tied 1-1.

Who will the teams bring in for a series-clinching game five? Latrell Sprewell is still waiting for a contract, and some creative lawyers might be able to whip something up that includes enough multi-million dollar incentives and sweeteners to feed the legendary hunger of the starving Sprewell family.

Somewhat ironically, Ham -- a member of the 2004 Pistons championship team -- had a miserable first game. He scored only 16 points on less than 37 percent shooting, and was clearly outplayed by opposing import Shawn "the Incredible Bulk" Daniels, who looks primed for a career in competitive eating once his basketball days are over.

Ham's undercooked (!!!) performance wasn't really that surprising, however. Most replacement imports who fly across the world and try to drop Shaq numbers 2 days after arriving in Manila fall flat. As far as Ham's body was concerned (assuming he flew in from somewhere in the Eastern Standard Time Zone), Wednesday's 7:30 p.m. tip-off in Manila felt like 6:30 a.m. Having lived through Philippines jet lag myself, I can say that for almost two weeks it's nearly impossible to stay awake between 5 and 10 p.m.

Needless to say, Ham was not breaking backboards like he did in his Texas Tech days or showing off that amazing reverse 180-degree dunk he did in the 1997 NBA dunk contest in his PBA debut. In fact, Ham looked bummy. It's probably unfair to expect a guy who spent most of the last 9 years playing 15-20 minutes per game with nothing to concentrate on but hustling, defending and rebounding to show up and remember how to be a dominant scorer.

But that's what they expect here, and Ham's meager output, along with a few embarrassing strips and blocks from Daniels' quick hands and a loss for Talk-N-Text probably have the team managers thinking about another replacement.

Their expectations may be unfair, but their logic isn't entirely off: If you you wake up every morning and kiss an NBA Championship ring, you probably shouldn't be getting beasted by a player I've described as a black Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.

The highlight of the messy, turnover-ridden game was a Philippine broadcaster, who had a ball clowning both imports -- Ham for his lackluster performance and Daniels for his incredible bulk. This line, which the sportscaster said when their respective coaches subbed Daniels and Ham into the game simulataneously, brought it all together: "Where there is Ham, Shawn Daniels is never far behind."

Ahoy, Bison! How'd you like to be a Purefoods Chunkee Giant?

I'm looking forward to what NBA journeymen and former NCAA All-Americans the PBA can call upon for the finals in February. The anticipation has me giddy! Who will they resurrect? Bison Dele? Joe Forte? William Avery? Sergio McClain? Alaa Abdelnaby? Lenny Cooke? Corleone Young? Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf? Anderson Hunt? Donald Williams? The possibilities are downright tantalizing.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Bootleg Paradise and Engrish DVDs

This will not be news to anyone familiar with Manila, but the flea market-style tiangges at the Greenhills Shopping Center put New York's Canal Street -- and any other U.S. discount/bootleg Mecca -- to shame.

This is about 0.5 percent of the action to be found at Greenhills.

The designer impostor versions of name brand sneakers were better than anything I've ever seen before. I didn't really examine them, but none of the obvious signs of fakery -- backwards swooshes, not-so-subtle misspellings like "Reebock," and never before seen color combinations -- were there. The Lebrons looked very much like Lebrons.

Greenhills boasts a few hundred five-foot by five-foot stalls selling fake Lacoste, fake Louis and some combination of real and fake pearls that I'm not qualified to assess.

But forget all that stuff. The real draw is pirated DVDs. Due to some inexplicable kink in Philippine copyright law or the way authorities choose to enforce it, selling bootleg DVDs is more illegal than selling homemade Lacoste polo shirts. Instead of hawking their wares on the Greenhills premises, the DVD vendors stash their merchandise in nearby hideouts.

To get to the movies, then, requires a leap of faith. You need to leave the shopping center with one of the sinister-looking teenagers who lean against the wall and hiss "DVD" at passersby. After leading you down a dark alley next to a local Metrobank, he will bring you into his ramshackle abode, made of aluminum siding and spare two-by-fours and filled with cigarette smoke, a few thousand DVDs in plastic baggies and a Filipino family of seven.

Lonley Planet: Philippines will probably advise you not to follow unknown teenagers down unknown alleys. But Lonely Planet doesn't know how badly you want those good Malaysian rip-jobs. And if you have to risk getting jumped by a dozen 5'4'' teenagers wielding sharpened spoons and wet banana leaves to get some $3 DVDs, then doggone it that's what you're going to do.

At least that's what I did. And it was worth it. I wouldn't be a proud owner of School Ties if I had to pay its U.S. retail value. Now, I can't wait to watch Brendan Fraser's special brand of Jewish, gridiron magic while I curse that priggish WASP Matt Damon.

The funniest moment of my DVD splurge came shortly after I arrived in the salesman's house. He assured me that his DVDs were "all original." Yep, nothing says "genuine" like standing next to the vendor's mother in a squatter home and rifling through stacks of DVDs while she cooks garlic rice. When I asked what he meant by original, he explained that the DVDs were "from Malaysia." Oh, right, "original."

The sweetest nectar that comes from the bosom of Asian video piracy, however, has to be the back-of-the-box descriptions, written in the finest Engrish money can buy.

Thanks to Rex the DVD pirate, I'm looking forward to multiple dates with Jack "Bower".

Now, I present to you, straight from Malaysia and blissfully unedited, descriptions of 24, seasons three and four:

Season 3: "In the very strong and fatal virus in the dissemination infection of Los Angeles, the terrorist requests the government at release the in custody and big poison thunder i 6 hours Receive, willet virus spread to the whole city otherwise. Anti fear the troops mission is huge, fearing with anti of the right bower the leader elite cannot no longer Ina conflict for throwing in this field alive withlu assasi nating, selling illegal drugs, scandal, scan dalous story, bloodyly with natural affection quarrel, in limited time Uproot the enemy, stop the disaster."

Season 4: "This quanreply, thistn liitted the third quarter inside the herdin drug addiction that infect by, leave anti fears small cent brigade (CTU), beginning is the United States defense secretary (William's is virtuous ten thousand impersonation) work. Will have moreover the some new appointee show up, among them pack the some CTU in is newly arrived with the work, and a flock of all new bad persons. The enemy of the is a rightness of husband and wife who come from primarily Middle East, they hatch the all new improbity plans, among them wife's dime is from acquire because the nominative n supporting to reach...."

YES! Never before has anyone distilled the allure and excitement of 24 into gripping phrases like "big poison thunder," "scandal, scan dalous story," "flock of all new bad persons" and "all new improbity plans."