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, 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.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad to see you're rocking your Michael Che overseas.

11:36 PM  
Anonymous NYC Teacher said...

Hey M.V.--now that you're hitting the boondocks and finding courts everywhere, as well as all kinds of villager age groups & sexes playing ball, let me ask this: the World Cup has begun--have you seen any soccer fields in the villages? Or is it strictly basketball? The Philippines must have a soccer team, no? Have you asked people why they play bball more than soccer?

9:22 AM  

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