Manila Vanilla

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

My Photo
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

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Portermania while deboarding the Princess of Negros! Before you can get off, they bum-rush the ship and demand that you allow them to carry your bags. For a price, of course.

Waffle Wars

The beginning of the school year in the Philippines heralds many wonderful things on Katipunan Avenue, home to two of the country’s top institutions of higher learning, the Ateneo de Manila University and the University of the Philippines Diliman.

New businesses are opening up and down the Avenue, bringing with them the chance to add Teriyaki Boy rice bowls and “New York style” Buffalo wings to my meager diet of chicken inasal, rice topped with squid and vegetables and Jollibee deep-fried pork chop meals.

Ask a man in any college town on the globe what the return of students means, and his one-word answer will be “girls.” It’s a universal truth. College women want to start off the semester on the right foot, so they got their wardrobes, their make-up and their accessories all looking right, and that new student glow will last for at least a month.

Starbucks is packed from three in the afternoon. Trios of wobbly women can be spotted group-hugging outside of local bars after closing. The start of classes has breathed life into the neighborhood.

But that breath carries with it a virulent contagion – Belgians!

This ain't Brussells. You're in my world now, pare.

A new school year also means a new crop of Belgian exchange students staying in the Katipunan condominiums and taking classes at Ateneo. There’s no other way to say this but to put it bluntly. Over the past five months, I have grown accustomed to having a monopoly on whiteness in Barangay Loyola Heights.

I’ve got the market on tall white guys cornered out here, and I’d like to keep it that way. But how am I supposed to do that with lanky, floppy haired Belgians invading my turf. On paper, their whiteness is superior to mine. I’m a skuzzy American taking advantage of the post-colonial mess the United States left behind in the Philippines. They’re Belgian; unless the women at the laundromat are students of Congolese history, I think the newcomers are getting a free pass on King Leopold’s vile colonial policies. Sure, the trust U.S. dollar is worth more than 50 Philippine pesos, but those damn Euros can buy roughly three bodyguards for every two I can afford! Worst of all, they’re new! What if the neighborhood is tired of me and my basketball tomfoolery? Everyone will forsake me and flock to the flashy waffle barons.

What am I to do? Should I hand out pamphlets detailing the Belgian government’s role in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and the help they provided Mobutu Sese Seko to become Zaire’s dictatorial head of state? But America had a hand in that seedy historical episode, too. Could I engage in some tricky arbitrage and manage to sink the Euro? Not a chance.

No clever scheme is going to prove that I am the preeminent foreigner in the neighborhood. So instead, I’m sending out this statement to all Katipunan Belgians:

Non, non et non. Bawal ang Belgian.

Hello, Belgians. You want to sit on the barangay throne, but first, let me ask you: Do you carry 40-pound bags of laundry around on your back, to the delight of everyone on the street? Do you walk home in bare feet on steaming hot pavement after you flip-flops break? Have you mastered the Philippine non-verbal communication, which includes but is not limited to, raising your eyebrows 263 times a day, making the rectangular bill sign in restaurants, sticking your arm out in front of you before passing between two people who are talking to each other and making loud smooching sounds to get the attention of bartenders? Do the street children in the neighborhood call you “kuya?” Do they jump on your back and chase you down the Avenue? Do you buy them siopao and pan de sal on the sly? You’ve got a long way to go, Belgians. Remember that. Go to your classes. Enjoy your high-rise condominiums. Go surfing in Siargao or something. But this strip of pavement we call Katipunan and its din of tricycle engines and jeepney horns, its smells of burning diesel, trash fires and fried chicken, that’s my turf, and I’ll be the one dispensing the white goofiness on it.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

A Boatload of Fun

Steven Spielberg has tried to make the definitive film on nearly every major topic. Schindler’s List took on the Holocaust. Saving Private Ryan covered World War II from the American soldiers’ perspective. Amistad tackled slavery. And Batteries Not Included pretty much wrote the book on robotic Frisbees with advanced cognitive abilities. I don’t share his saccharine, moralizing outlook, but Spielberg’s movies are always well-executed.

I like to think of myself as the Steven Spielberg of Philippine minutiae. As far as I know, I’m the only person on the planet to devote thousands of words to topics like riding buses in Southeastern Luzon, the lifestyles of American import players in the PBA and the science of throwing long bounce passes to Filipino basketball players. Next up: traveling by sea in the Philippines.

Combining beautiful panoramic views with Ellis Island-style living conditions, the fresh scent of the ocean with the stench of urine and a completely unpredictable pop-culture mish mash, there really is nothing like boat travel in the Philippines. If you can spare 12-18 hours of your life (not an enormous commitment by local standards) and are willing to endure mild discomfort, it is an experience you can’t miss.

To give an idea of the size of these boats, witness the majestic "GOTHONG," which shared the waters with us.

The Princess of Negros, operated by Negros Navigation, is a big boat. Prior to this moment, the biggest boat I had ever ridden was the Staten Island Ferry, so I can’t offer a lot of perspective, but there were easily 500 passengers aboard the princess and there was room for many more. Some context: The island of Negros is a major sugarcane producer in the Eastern Visayas. Negros Navigation runs boats between Manila and Negros and other islands in between.

The passengers’ first act after boarding the ship is finding somewhere to sleep. It’s not exactly a mad scramble, because all the accommodations suck. The options include metal frame bunkbeds on open-air deck that resemble the quarantine quarters at Ellis Island and two-inch thick plastic mattresses laid out on the floor of air-conditioned rooms. The temperature is actually preferable outside, where the breeze and cool night air make for pleasant resting conditions. Unless, of course, the ship passes through a storm, which is likely and means anyone outside will be pounded by wind and rain. Indoors, passengers are exposed to the familiar deep freeze air-conditioning that chills bones and provides a glimpse of what it feels like to be cold-blooded.

Big Sly still gets love in the Philippine seas.

Ahh, but the entertainment options are spectacular! There are televisions planted in convenient locations all over the ship, and whoever chooses the films is a true connoisseur of American junk. During my return trip, the line-up included Rambo II: First Blood, Rambo III, Bring it On, Gone in 60 Seconds, Beauty and the Beast II and The Chronicles of Narnia.

Rambo III was a wonderfully dated nugget of recent history, in which John Rambo reluctantly leaves his tranquil new life in a Thai Buddhist monastery to save his old ‘Nam commander, now a P.O.W. of the Soviets in Afghanistan. Stallone pals around with the Mujahedeen and helps them take on the Ruskies; if only Rambo knew that 15 years after he headlined this soft-core anti-Soviet propaganda film, his hard-line Islamic homeys would be attacking American cities. At the end of the credits, viewers are treated to an ironic dedication “to the brave people of Afghanistan.”

But there’s a limit to the number of crappy movies every person can endure. One could watch Stallone’s taut pecs jiggle with the firing of a machine gun 703 times without any problems and then snap on that 704th repetition. Two or three bad films might offer a humorous, idiotic diversion, but sitting through an entire marathon of them could qualify under the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The Negros Navigation brain trust anticipated the Rambo/Disney fatigue factor, and so they loaded the boat with more tacky entertainment.

There might be a secret link between the boat’s motor and its karaoke machine, because someone was belting out a tune during literally every moment of the journey.

What better way to start your day than with the Ying Yang Twins chanting "Go ahead and start and make that pussy fart and whistle while you twerk."

But the real magic occurs on the top deck, where people can sit at tables and on benches and watch the islands pass by while a DJ plays music. And during my trip, the DJ liked to keep people on their toes with a mix of piercing dance tracks, Filipino love songs and Dirty South booty rap. At 6:45 a.m., like a sleeping cartoon character led to the kitchen by the smell of roasting turkey, I heard a loud thumping and dragged myself up the stairs to the top deck. Lo and behold, the DJ was blasting Whistle While You Twerk.

After breakfast, a handful of the boat’s crew members changed into street clothes and performed N’Sync-style line dances to assorted pop songs, including what is becoming a de facto replacement for the Philippine national anthem, The Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps.” Here is some video. How can you not be entertained by these blinding, fast moves?

America’s post-colonial influence is oft-discussed and oft-denounced here. As an American, the Americana that makes its way into Filipiniana makes no sense to me. The mechanism behind the cultural filter seems so random, like a blindfolded orangutan pointing to items on a list. Popular exports include Spam, Barry Manilow and, of course, basketball. If you see a common thread, let me know.

Finally, there is much opportunity for adventure and self-discovery aboard the Princess of Negros, especially in the bathrooms. These boats keep very tight schedules, making two or three round trips between the Visayas and Manila Bay every week. That doesn’t leave much time for clean-up, and nowhere is this more obvious than the restrooms.

I searched high and low but found it hard to observe much cleanliness in the Princess of Negros' bathroom.

The Princess’ men’s room had signs posted inviting people to “Observe the Cleanliness,” (not my quotes) and I’m convinced they were ironic quotes. If you are within ten feet of the ship’s bathroom door, you smell urine. Actually entering the bathroom is disorienting, which creates a vicious circle situation where the smell inside and the rocking of the boat on the choppy sea make peeing straight – not exactly a strong suit of the male gender under ideal conditions – quite challenging. You just want to get out of there as fast as possible, and focusing on details like hitting bowl will only prolong your stay.

When I boarded the ship, I vowed that I would never, ever take a seated position in the bathroom. Around 5 a.m., I found myself breaking that promise, and while I’ll spare my audience the experience of reading any details about the ordeal, I will say that the memory will stay with me forever and despite my best efforts, I wasn’t able to observe the cleanliness.

Video: The Kobe Twins

I caught this short video of two cute little basketball fans on the boat ride from the Visayas to Manila. Not to overstate the cultural significance of this footage, but scenes like this are everywhere in the Philippines, and after you've seen hundreds of people dressed in jerseys, dozens of games played in moving traffic and improvised courts popping up in every imaginable place, the broad appeal of basketball here is hard to ignore.

Spreading Joy (and Smuckers)

The Fulbright program is all about cultural exchange. When the House and Senate Appropriations Committees vote to keep the government money flowing to Fulbright scholars, they’re not thinking about making some goofball’s oddball dream about studying basketball in the Philippines come true, they’re thinking that sending a handful of bright kids abroad will improve America’s image across the globe.

Americans eat the darndest things.

Well, Senators Clinton and Schumer, feel proud of me because I’m doing my part. While on a 14-hour boat ride to the Visayas, I introduced that exotic American delicacy, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, to a couple of Filipino friends. With the look on his face stuck between caution and disgust, one of them said he’d tried peanut butter on bread and jelly on bread, but never thought of combining the two.

Warily, he opened his mouth wide and plunged into the vast unknown. “This is really good!” he said. It wouldn’t be a true cultural exchange if it were only going in one direction, and I’ve tried Pinoy treats like sisig, a sizzling platter of pig jowls and ears, puwit, also known as skewered, barbecued chicken ass, and the vaunted balut, a hard-boiled egg with a partially developed duck embryo inside. Now, having fulfilled the cultural obligations of my grant, I can spend the rest of my days in the Philippines raping and plundering.

Photo Essay: Bizarre swellings occur in the Philippines. Scroll down to see more! Posted by Picasa

This was completely unpredictable. Eight hours earlier, I absorbed a bump on the shin in a basketball game. Suddenly, it was inflating to grotesque proportions. Posted by Picasa

Things didn't seem so bad after I saw this poor fella's predicament. John Kruk's canine equivalent is living in a heretofore unknown circle of hell out here on the Pacific Rim. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Bicologues Vol. II: Volcanic Ballin'

You know you're in Bicol's Albay province when you see Mt. Mayon peek out from the clouds. And when teenage girls start dancing in Cats costumes.

When I introduced the Bicologues series, I never intended it to arrive in monthly installments. What can I say? True to form, my blog installments are on Filipino time. And since Bicol is in the provinces, the customary lateness gets exaggerated.

To get everyone back up to speed, my stated purpose for traveling to the region of Southeastern Luzon called Bicol was to help the U.S. Peace Corps run workshops for Filipino teachers. Specifically, I was called in to teach writing courses.

The teaching was pretty successful and reminded me how much I enjoy holding court in the classroom. But in blogworthiness, it was fairly uneventful. I would be remiss, however, if I failed to devote a few sentences to the principal of Tabaco National High School, the charming lad who runs the school that hosted the Peace Corps teaching workshops and its volunteers, myself included.

You reach, I teach. I promise, I teach a little bit of writing, too.

Hiding inside the shell of this ordinary high school administrator was a flamboyant devotee to Broadway musicals, especially Cats. The feline fetishist Mr. Hyde found more than a few ways to make his presence felt during the 3-day workshop, starting with the opening ceremony. What started as a standard meeting to welcome teachers was took a surreal turn when a sound system piped in the overture from the beginning of Cats and about 20 leotard-clad 14-year-olds with whiskers drawn and their faces pranced into the assembly room and started performing the opening scene of the musical.

It was a surprise welcome planned by the principal, and – mission accomplished! – I was pretty damn surprised. But I wasn’t upset. An amateur Cats performance by adolescent girls beats the typical Philippine welcoming ceremony, which consists of juice, some delicious ensaymadas and 40 minutes spent reading the names of everyone in the room and thanking them for attending.

Heaven is a playground.

Surprising as it was, it didn’t really strike me (or any of the Peace Corps Volunteers I asked) as bizarre to have a Cats-obsessed principal spring a performance on us unannounced. I guess it’s hard to shock people after they’ve eaten pig face, barbecued chicken ass and duck embryo. Living in the Philippines seems to develop in people a heightened appreciation for the absurd, so when the Jelical Cats come out, one thinks, “Ha! Of course that would happen!” instead of, “Who are these madmen?”

But this episode of the Bicologues is about my bread and butter – basketball. Tabaco and Legazpi are a couple of the bigger cities in Bicol’s Albay province, which lies under Mt. Mayon, an extremely-active, visually stunning volcano. Supposedly, because Mayon is almost perfectly shaped like a cone, its eruptions are predictable and relatively harmless.

In the fields behind Tabaco National High School was a decades-old asphalt basketball court in front of a crumbling grandstand. It’s miles away from the volcano, but with nothing but pretty bare flatlands surrounding the court, it appears to be sitting directly under Mt. Mayon.

The court in Barangay Don Collon in Donsol.

Running a few full-court games there with some local guys one afternoon (and blowing a few dunks, much to everyone’s delight) was like a religious experience. For me, it was the equivalent of a Buddhist monastery tucked into a misty Himalayan peak. Dribbling upcourt with the sun-setting behind a smoky Mt. Mayon as my backdrop, I felt like I stepped out of my life of asphalt, wires, cities and hardwood and into the hyperbolic beauty of a Terrence Malick film (which would explain the pseudo-spiritual jibber-jabber I’m writing). Bicol is a pretty depressed region of the Philippines, and it’s notorious for being battered by typhoons every year, but it was hard not to feel like the local players, the “owners” of the court, were lucky to be playing in such scenic environs. Then again, they probably thought I was lucky to have a bank account full of greenbacks.

And their footwear.

Basketball was everywhere in Bicol, just as it has been in other provinces I’ve visited like Batangas and Palawan. Courts are under volcanoes, cleared out of jungles and made by nailing a hoop to a coconut tree. People play the game on a more basic level. There’s not a lot of coaching available, so kids just mimic what they see the older players do and whatever they get to see on television. Some teach themselves the game successfully – they have quick crossovers and follow-through on their jump shots. Others appear to have learned the sport in a vacuum, with improvised, spastic-looking shooting and dribbling techniques.

But everyone plays, just the same, to take a break from the day’s work or just to kill a few hours of thick heat in the harsh summer. It’s hard for me not to feel at home in a country where so many people feel the same way as I do about basketball. On a jeepney, in a mall or under a palm tree, I see kindred souls.

The next generation of barangay ballers.

When the Tabaco workshops were done, I traveled with Peace Corps folks to Donsol, Sorsogon for a day to go swimming with whale sharks. The giant fish were amazing, of course, but I was just excited to see the boatmen of our small bangka cruising the ocean and spotting 50-foot sharks while wearing Indiana Pacers jerseys and red shorts with “MJ” printed over the knee.