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

Thursday, February 23, 2006


The man on the right is the most popular player in PBA history, although in this picture he looks like a Filipino George Costanza. Bobby Jaworski, the bad boy of the PBA and proud owner of the hairiest legs in the Philippines, served as Ginebra's player/coach until 1998, when he was 52 years old. He's a sprightly 50 in this photo.

PBA Photo Bonanza

I bought these vintage PBA photos, taken in the mid-1990s by BingBong Ortiz of Malaya and Manolet Santiago, at a wonderful antique stand in Tiendesitas, a shopping complex offering a wide variety of delicacies, crafts and clothing from all over the Philippines. They capture a lot of the PBA's unique qualities -- the dominance of imports and the quaint rules limiting foreign players' heights; the over-the-top passion put on display during Philippine basketball games and the endearing sloppiness and haphazard play that occasionally takes over games. Enjoy.


Being too tall, as in 6'6 and 1/8'' in Jarvis Bashnight's case, can also be a problem in a league where short men make the rules. If Jarvis just slouched a little he might have had a job.


This is how the guys in my neighborhood react when my team loses a game at the neighborhood court.


Playing above the rim isn't as important in a country where many men top out at 5-foot-5.


Loving the classic Pennys on Reyes in the foreground.


Orange soda (Sunkist) or Philippine beer (San Mig)? It's a toss-up.


That's what I'm talking about, Kenny Travis! Glide by your little brown brothers.


San Miguel Beerman Andre Spencer must have been drinking some of the company product, because he's throwing a wrap-around pass to his teammate. That's not his job! Is he afraid of Ronnie Thompkins? You're an import, Spencer. Act like it and put the ball in the hole. In the immortal words of my high school basketball coach, Campbelle Austin, "Score, boy, score!"

Monday, February 20, 2006

Philippines' First Straight Model

The list of still-thriving, ass-backwards attitudes in the Philippines that can be linked to the American colonial legacy is crowded like the customs hall at Ninoy Aquino International Airport. There's the undying love for spaghetti covered in ketchup masquerading as marinara sauce and the non-stop craving for canned corned beef and luncheon meat. There's also the passion for American television, where Jag and similar dregs are weekly primetime highlights on the RPN network. Few things are more baffling, however, than the Philippine ideal of beauty.

Anything pale is hot. European and white American features are all the rage. I get complimented on my skinny nose on a near weekly basis, sometimes by complete strangers in malls or on the train. You'd think I would have a standard response by now, but "I like your nose" is such a gonzo compliment that it never fails to startle me.

Nothing says "glamour" like the porcelain complexion of a lamprey dame.


Skin-whitening is an industry and a folk-science among Filipinas. It's hard to find a bar of soap in a drug store that doesn't claim to lighten skin. Since I sport a farmer's tan pretty regularly, I'm more than slightly frustrated by the lack of normal bathing products. But no fashion-conscious Filipina worth her salt will rely on beauty products alone to whiten her skin. A whole host of seemingly dangerous folk remedies exists for those who truly want to kick it up a notch. My neighbor, for example, likes to scrub herself with an Ajax-like floor cleaner for that extra light complexion. I haven't heard of it yet, but I suspect there are women attaching lampreys and leeches to themselves at night to rid themself of blood and the pesky color it brings to their skin.

This of course, applies to many, but not necessarily a majority of women in the Philippines. There are enough, however, to make it noticeable, especially considering the cosmetics market's oversaturation with whitening products and how common it is to hear otherwise gorgeous girls complain about being too dark.

But there is a silver lining in the white-is-right, West-is-best cloud hanging over Philippine pop culture. Well, if you happen to be White and/or from a Western nation there is. Every pale face with a pulse who walks through one of the malls in Makati gets approached by modeling agency talent scouts who offer work in print and television ads and at promotional events.

Sloth didn't stop working. He became Manila's top model and the Philippines' face of Baby Ruth.


It doesn't matter how flawed you are. They'll work around your third-degree facial burns or your nerf football-sized goiter to find what's beautiful about you. Maybe it's your hands, or just the palms of your hands because you've got hairy knuckles. It doesn't matter, because for some reason, seeing a blond guy reclining on a beach sells Champion cigarettes better than seeing a Filipino does. Even if that blond guy is Sloth from Goonies.

Allow me to express some half-hearted liberal guilt over the role America has played in developing the Philippines' Western fetish. Boo-hoo. Sob. Ahem.

I'm not going to wring my hands, shed some tears and vow to fight the system. I'll leave that for the independently wealthy. Instead, I'm gonna make the Philippines' identity crisis work for me. If I can get myself on a couple billboards on EDSA, I'm down. What do I need to do? Dress like a viking and wear Right Guard deodorant? No problem, I already do the former and switching from Old Spice should be easy enough. I've never smoked before, but I'll choke some carbon monoxide down if I get to travel to Chile and shoot a commercial for Hope cigarettes.

This attitude landed me an appointment at the Icon International Modeling Agency. Although I wasn't so cocksure about the opportunity when I first visited their office. In fact, I was worried enough that the talent scouts who spotted me -- big, gay Clyde and his frumpy sidekick Maureen -- were actually operatives for a kidnapping ring that I sent the address and contact information they gave me to a friend and told him to start worrying if he didn't hear from me 48 hours after the meeting. I steeled my reserve with the thought that I'd never modeled before, nor had I ever been kidnapped, so either way I would get a new experience out of it.

The modeling agency was legit, but in some ways what I found there was just as disturbing as the warehouse with emaciated American idiots chained to the wall that I had imagined. The boys at Icon International Modeling Agency certainly make no effort to live down stereotypes about gay men and the fashion industry.

Call me straight, but I just don't see what the big deal with Liza is, other than her grapefruit-sized eyeballs.


Sitting in the waiting room was like walking through Chelsea alone. I was ogled, teased, hugged, kissed on the cheek and generally made to feel welcome in a way that went beyond the norms of the legendary Philippine hospitality. The TV/VCR near the visitors' couches had the following movie titles next to it: Cats on Broadway, Clueless, Ladies and Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael, Liza Minelli Live from Radio City Music Hall, Spice Girls Live in Istanbul, a Donna Summer VH1 concert, MTV's Mariah Carey Unplugged and Jurassic Park: The Lost World.

I'm not sure what that last film was doing with the assorted diva concert videos and showtunes. I thought someone in the office might have a crush on Jeff Goldblum. A friend of mine suggested they might need something child-friendly to entertain the kids while prepared chocolate milk/rohypnol cocktails for them.

But I feel bad making fun of the Icon boys. They were more than kind to me, and they were very professional. When I did my screen test, Clyde gave me the choice of not removing my shirt. There was no flirting, no touching, no nothing. Strictly business. I was treated with dignity and respect and made to feel comfortable. And damn it, they made me look good!

Of course, on my way out the door someone asked me if I could return the next day and pose in just a pair of briefs. But hey, where else would I even get the opportunity to refuse such a request?

Friday, February 03, 2006

Sweet Dreams are Made of These

Headache, nausea and dizziness. Do you want these? N0, but you can probably handle them. Especially if it will prevent a life full of cold sweats and malaria fevers.

How about difficulty sleeping, anxiety, vivid dreams, and visual disturbances? Now I'm starting to feel queasy.

Will my anti-malarial dreams be heaven or hell?


I don't like vague side effects that can mean nearly anything. Difficulty sleeping and anxiety -- that's pretty weird. But vivid dreams and visual disturbances, what do those mean? Is there any way to tell? Are my vivid dreams going to be of lovely Filipinas like Heart Evangelista and Angel Locsin eating strawberries and playing badminton on the white sand beaches of Boracay? Or will they be of Gary Busey wearing a chef's hat and "Kiss the Cook" apron while boiling my cat Sparky (R.I.P.) in a bubbling cauldron while he smokes a girthy Cuban cigar and laughs maniacally?

Which will it be? Call me paranoid, but the CDC probably wouldn't be warning anyone about the dreams if they weren't more like the latter.

Don't go anywhere. As Sticky Fingaz said, "B-b-but wait it gets worse!" It's time for what the "serious" side effects (what does that make the hallucinations and night terrors?). Seizures, depression, psychosis and in extremely rare circumstances, increased suicide rates.

On the bright side, that line-up definitely explains why the freaky dreams and apparitions of Lawrence of Arabia butchering camels aren't included. There are some people who enjoy having freaky dreams and hallucinations. But I haven't heard of any new druggie trends that involve foaming at the mouth, swallowing your tongue or deciding to listen to the voices urging you to lather up with some kerosene and turn yourself into the human torch.

The best of both worlds. Lariam -- it's like having malaria and tertiary syphilis at the same time!


What is this wonder drug? Lariam, also known as mefloquine. It's one of a number of anti-malarial drugs you can take when you're going to be traveling to tropical regions where the disease is present. And guess what, if I'm going to fully enjoy some of the wondrous rural areas of the Philippines, I'm going to have to suck it up and see if taking the drug will have no effect on me or send me through the proverbial looking glass.

Lariam is effective against a few strains in Africa that have developed resistance to other drugs, but for the Philippines, it's as effective as Malarone, which has milder potential side effects.

While the chances are slim, if you're unlucky, Lariam is the only malaria drug that will make you feel like you have malaria and lose your mind at the same time. I have weird enough dreams already. Just the other day I nodded out while reading a magazine on my couch and all of a sudden I was watching cockroaches dance on my lap. They were making little circular movements with their long antennae and then suddenly they hopped on my face. I could feel them circumnavigating my face and head and I could see their silhouettes through my eyelids, but I couldn't get them off. Luckily, one of my neighbors stopped by to pick up a bill and woke me up. But I don't need some pill that's going to make dreams like this worse and/or more frequent.

I also can't figure out why my doctor prescribed Lariam over the other drugs. Various members of my family have gone to him for check-ups and general physician type-stuff for years. The man should have taken care of me. To his credit, he did tell me that Lariam had some awkward side effects, but he didn't sit me down tell me that a handful of people have had long-term neurological side-effects like impaired balance and fine motor skills. I need to play basketball, man! If I can't, I'll really lose it. I guess I'll still be able to play, I just won't be doing a lot of dribbling, shooting or threading the needle with cross-court bounce passes on the break. Instead, I'll just be stumbling up and down court, guarding an opponent who looks unmistakably like Foghorn Leghorn and whom only I can see.

Great. If you see me out on the court like that, don't do me any favors and pass me the ball. It'll just smack me in the face, and I'll run off chasing the man-sized, biped rooster with the southern accent who just clocked me.