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

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Bicologues Vol. I: The Royale Treatment

Bicol (pronounced BEE-coal, with accent on the first syllable) is the Southeastern-most region of Luzon, the large island in the Philippines that's also home to Manila. I went there a week ago to help Peace Corps Volunteers conduct the Bicol Mobile Education Tour (BMET), a series of workshops to help local high school teachers bone up on basic subjects like reading, writing and oral communication in English and pick up more specialized skills in library development, low-cost instructional materials and teaching to students with learning disabilities.

Map of Luzon. Bicol is the region near where it says Sorsogon.

But astute readers may have already noticed that I'll be writing a series of posts about Bicol, and, since in real life I had to get to Bicol before doing anything there, I'll focus on the trip there before moving onto the workshops or the region.

The overnight bus from Manila to Bicol takes about 12 hours. The traveler has several options when buying his or her ticket to Bicol. On the upscale Cagsawa line, you can travel Business class, Royale class or Royale Elite class for respective prices of 700, 750 or 900 pesos ($14, $15, $18).

It's hard to explain just how quickly you can turn into the world's biggest miser living in the Philippines; case-in-point, I was outraged by all three astronomical fees and considered instead sharing space with people and their chickens on a standing-room only bus with no air conditioning and an unhinged, bleary-eyed driver who's been driving 18-hour days for who knows how many years. And as I would learn, "driving" long distances in the Philippines often means playing chicken and blind passing on serpentine two-lane highways.

Thankfully, I decided I could afford the good bus, where the tickets cost enough for the drivers to make enough money to stay hopped up on speedballs and alert enough to deliver you safely to your destination. And I went all out -- Royale Elite class with seats like La-Z boys.

It was a good decision. The people at Cagsawa understand something very elemental about human nature: When you shell out the big bucks to traverse this glorious archipelago, you want to do it on the most over-the-top, stretched-out phallic symbol available.

I shit you not.

The Royale Elite bus is taller and longer than the other buses in Cagsawa's fleet. It's fast, powerful and covered in Astroglide. Well, not the last part. But that's only the beginning. If and only if you pay for Cagsawa's Royale Elite treatment, your bus will have the words "King Long" emblazoned in chrome on the grill, and you will ride King Long all night.

Another indicator of jet-set status on Philippine buses is the air-conditioning. The higher the price, the more aircon you get, and King Long's A/C is so needlessly powerful it's like having the spirit of Imelda Marcos and her thousands of shoes frozen into your bones.

There are vents all over the bus spewing gusts of icy air. With each passing hour, it gets colder and colder. Around midnight, the halfway point of the journey, the temperature is in the low 60s/high 50s. Just to remind folks, the climate in the Philippines is such that it anything under 85 degrees is considered extremely cold. 900 pesos may not be enough to fly to Minnesota, but it will at least get you 12 hours on a bus that feels like it.

My man Marshall Applewhite rode King Long all the way to eternity.

In this rolling, penis-like refrigerator, you can tell who the experienced travelers are. They're the ones who carry an extra bag with sheets and blankets that they wrap around their entire bodies, adding layers as the temperature drops until they are completely mummified. If you could be randomly beamed up onto one of these buses à la Star Trek, the temperature and shrouded passengers might make you think you had been transplanted on some kind death wagon fortravelingg long distances with mass casualties and minimum rotting. If the passengers were all wearing Black Nikes, maybe you'd think you were riding the Hale-Bopp comet with thelovablee crackpot members of the Heaven's Gate cult.

The one thing missing on King Long was a bathroom, so the bus had to stop every few hours for people to satisfy various earthly needs and for those foolish enough to pack just a sweatshirt and no down comforter to stand outside and try to raise their body temperatures above 95 degrees.

The first stop in Candalaria, Quezon province, is pretty routine. If you haven't eaten, you can grab a bite at the lovable Chinese fast food chain Chowking. You can use the bathroom, buy some water from vendors outside the restaurant, blah blah. But the next stop, at Roberto's 24-hour café in Naga, is something special. Naga's most enterprising small businessmen know you're coming, and they're waiting for you.

Taho, the perfect 3 a.m. pick-me-up.

After the bus pulls in around 3:30 a.m., as soon as you step off the bus you'll be greeted by five guys carrying big sticks across their shoulders with a bucket on each end. TAHOOOOOO! They're selling taho, a sweet treat made of bean curd (taho) mixed with liquefied raw sugar and tapioca balls. For reasons unknown to me, taho can only be served from these two buckets -- one for the curd, one for the tapioca/sugar juice -- and it must always be announced by a loud call of "TAHOOOOO!" I had been living in the Philippines long enough to be extremely familiar with the taho routine during my Bicol trip, but the idea of eating it at 3:30 in the morning in near total darkness at a rest stop just scares me.

Show me another country where people need to be reminded to "avoid stepping on the rim." Welcome to paradise.

Roberto's was also remarkable for it's bathroom, which even by Philippine standards was filthy and smelly. Every surface was covered in urine, possibly because everyone using the bathroom was unthawing from seven hours in Royale Elite class and couldn't use the arms and hands to aim a little closer. And there, right above the toilet in Roberto's stall, was a pitiful public service poster encouraging "Pinoy Toilethics."

Shortly after 6 in the morning, I arrived, frozen and famished, in Tabaco City, and began my first day in Bicol.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Finally made it to the big time. Read my article.

Hoax of the century: I dunk.

I'm foolin' nobody.

Maybe someone needs to believe in it before it can actually be called a hoax. Me dunking may be the great hoax that never was, in that case. As soon as I showed the picture of me dunking to my friends, their immediate reaction was "How'd you do that?" "Was it a low hoop?" "Did you get a boost?"

Then I posted the picture on my online networking profiles, and the skeptical E-mails came pouring in. One of my college teammates wrote: "Get up Rafe! Did your ups increase or is that a low hoop?" I pleaded the fifth.

My friend who played on the Sciences Po basketball team with me in Paris during our semester abroad and whom I regularly fed alley-oops to wrote a message titled simply "hahaha" and added "Nothing like getting yourthrow-back-Shawn Kemp-on while the villagers watch in awe." I think by "getting your Shawn Kemp on" he means doing coke and gaining 80 pounds, because I'm more likely to go down that road than dunk a real basketball on a regulation hoop.

I can't get no respect.

Death Wish XVIII

I was recently the subject of an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I was honored. But there has been some collateral damage. After E-mailing the article (hosted by the excellent NCAA blog Double-A-Zone) to my family and friends, the pleasant replies started bouncing back to me, and almost every one had a little plea for me to be careful.

Some of the hoods and ruffians I've encountered on Nia road. Bravery is my middle name.

Why? Well, the piece makes much of the fact I sometimes play basketball in "fetid slums" full of "drugs, thugs, and prostitutes." There's even a charming paraphrase from some of my advisers and Filipino friends, who've told me I'm "a fool ... to venture into these kinds of places alone, or at all." It's all basically accurate. And I understand the concern. Thinking back to my life in New York, if some Finnish guy who was interested in dice games told me he was playing Seelo in Springfield Gardens or Brownsville, I'd start arranging his funeral.

Diddy just wants to make you dance. I just want to make you dunk.

If anything, playing ball in these supposedly scary neighborhoods has just made me question how dangerous they really are. If you don't go in looking to start trouble, you probably won't find any. I go for a basketball game. We clown around, dunk on a rickety, 9 foot rim supported by children sitting on the bottom part to weigh it down, and that's it. Laugh and go home.

But the article makes me sound like the second coming of Rambo-journalist Robert Young Pelton, and a lot of people were too busy worrying about me to pay much attention to the cool stuff in the article about my research.

I still feel pretty special for being the subject of such a sweet article.