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, July 25, 2006

The Hyper-Realism of Dolphy

Almost exactly a year ago, when I was preparing to move to the Philippines, my Tagalog tutor in New York suggested I immerse myself in some Filipino films. She sent me to the New Manila Food Mart on 14th Street and 1st Avenue and told me to ask for anything starring Dolphy, the stage name of famous Filipino comedian Rodolfo Vera Quizon.

Dolphy posing with his comedic forefather.

I don't remember the title of my first Dolphy film. It hardly matters since they all share the same template: Dolphy is a loveable, slightly pitiful goof who stumbles into every slapstick mishap imaginable while winning over a pretty young Pinay with his good-hearted ways. Every five minutes, Dolphy's pants fall down for some reason or he tries to help someone fill a pothole and ends up cementing his foot in the ground. Dolphy seemed like a Philippine analogue to America's Ernest P. Worrel, the legendary buffoon played by the late Jim Varney, whose mishaps included having a turtle stuck to his nose and confronting a child-hunting troll with Bulgarian Miak when he was supposed to fight it with milk.

Half a year in the Philippines, however, has taught me that Dolphy isn't so ridiculous after all. In fact, I'm beginning to think Dolphy movies are actually some kind of hyper-realistic comment on life in the Philippines. Laying on the couch my Manhattan apartment, feeling in control of most of my life's moving parts, I couldn't relate to Dolphy's films. The most ridiculous things kept happening to him. He'd play with a yo-yo and immobilize himself with the rope. A cat on the street would jump on his back and he'd start screaming and running in circles. It seemed like a total farce and I came away with the impression that Filipinos were very silly people. How many times can a man lose his shorts in one afternoon?

Well, Filipinos are pretty silly, but it turns out that the world represented in Dolphy films was more fact of life than slapstick fantasy.

Great day for a drive.

How do I know? Well, here in Quezon City, almost 10,000 miles from my New York control center, my life is beginning to feel like Dolphy's -- a random sequence of one mishap after another. Weather is a major player. Rainy season is in full-force, and everywhere in the country there is a hanging anticipation of what might fall out of the sky next. Honestly, it's far less harrowing in Metro Manila, where flooded streets and brownouts are de rigeur, but the chances of being buried in a landslide or having your home blown away in a typhoon are slim. It's still bad enough, though, that a taxi driver will touch the rosary hanging off his rear-view mirror and cross himself when the rain starts to fall in sheets and his visibility is reduced to almost nothing. Painted "God Bless Our Trip" messages and images of the Virgin Mary and the Santo NiƱo, which grace almost every jeepney seem pragmatic instead of quaint when a driver plows through a section of road flooded with waist-level water.

I got caught in Malate during a mild typhoon two weeks ago, and I didn't make it a block before wind blew my tsinelas (flip-flops) off my feet and sent me scurrying barefoot through the darkness to recover them. My slipper-related distress continued this week, when the thong between my big and index toes snapped in the middle of the street and forced me to walk home barefoot. Now, I carry a tube of super glue to put my tsinelas back together whenever something goes wrong. From my repairing my toilet with duct tape to holding my flip-flops together with crazy glue, jerry-rigging has become a way of life.

For those born here, that ingenuity is everywhere. You see it in the street basketball courts with a plywood backboard and hand-bent wire rim attached to a pole stuck in a garbage barrel. It's in the homemade toys sold in the provinces, where vendors can turn a soda can, a small rock, a rubber band and some string into a bird or catepillar that will scoot around your house when you pull the string. It's in the cab driver who can drive across Metro Manila on an empty gas tank by tapping the pedal, letting the car's momentum carry it until friction slows it down, then tapping again. You either make something out of circumstances you have no control over, or, like Dolphy, you make a joke out of them. Or both.

Here is my most absurd Dolphy moment to date. It was a Saturday morning and I was sitting at the downstairs table, eating a bowl of Mueslix. I heard something hit the ground pretty hard next to me. I looked over, expecting to see that one of the towels I hang on the upstairs railing had slipped. Instead, there was a plump, ash-colored rat lying on its side and twitching. A tiny spot of blood was on the floor in front of the rat's mouth. I wish someone else were around to hear the noise I made, because it's hard to describe on my own. It was kind of like an elongated "whoa" stretched into a "HOLY SHIT!" "Whoooolllly Shit!" If the rat decided to take the plunge a foot to the right, he could have landed in my bowl of cereal, or worse, on my head.

As Monifah would say, "do you really want to touch it?"

What is one supposed to do when a 10-inch rat with a 10-inch tail plops to the ground next to you? After the obligatory double-take, I had to figure out how to get it out of my house. My first instinct was to treat it like the cockroaches and butiki lizards that occasionally expire on my kitchen floor -- grab some tissues and chuck the sucker. Thankfully, common sense intervened. I had to find out just how dead the rodent was before I started trying to handle it. It had been lying motionless for a few minutes, so I stood up and stomped the ground a couple feet away to see if the rat would react. How dead was it? Not at all dead. It popped up on its feet and ran behind a nearby bookshelf. I decided to shoo the rat out the front door with a broom. I grabbed my wimpy green broom, propped open my screen door and moved the couch and chairs against the walls so the rat would have a clear route to the outside. Then, I started waving the broom under the bookshelf. The rat popped out the other side and ran into a corner. When I tried to nudge it around the corner and into the path, the rat made a little noise and hopped at me, like a tiny, ugly horse rearing up on its hind legs. When it hopped, I leaped, and screamed and waved the broom around madly. By now, the ruckus in Unit #7 had attracted the attention of my neighbors' maids, who gathered outside my front door to see what was making the 6'3'' Amerikano yelp and dance at 8:30 a.m. After a few more aborted attempts in which the rat got stuck in the same corner, ran under the couch or just went in the wrong direction, I was able to sweep, hoot and holler it through the door, much to the delight of the maids, who were in near hysterics over the scene they had witnessed. It wasn't Dolphy Tuesdays on Cinema One, but the antics were the same. It was Rafy Saturday, and I was getting my best lesson to date on the country's power to turn any moment into an absurd mix of Ernest P. Worrel and Salvador Dali.


Anonymous Anzuhalten said...

The way you described your 'rat dance' pretty much resembles dolphy's antics in his many movies. At any rate, to prevent any similar mishaps in the future, just put lots of fly catcher paper around your unit. It works man, i've tried it. Rodents get stuck on it. No need for wimpy brooms and the whatnot. When the rodent gets stuck on it, you can simply bash its head with a chair and you can throw the fly catcher paper along with the dead rodent's limp body away. I suggest you also solicit for advice from filipinos, in this blog, about the top ten ways to get rid of rodents and other pests.

10:55 AM  
Blogger Joey said...

the more and more i read your blog, the more I realize you are becoming Filipinized. earlier in your blog you sounded american, and now you are starting to sound like a filipino. hillarious! so what happens when you are done with your grant, do you write a book?

3:09 PM  
Anonymous jhay said...

I admit that Dolphy is a living legend of Philippine TV. I bet he would reach the age of 90+ before finally kicking the bucket.

8:38 PM  
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11:26 AM  
Anonymous RAY THE PIZZA GUY said...


7:52 AM  
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7:56 PM  
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10:03 AM  
Blogger Jules said...

OMG.. your post is really funny... like a comedy revue... harharhar

12:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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Chinese and Russian Military scientists, these reports say, are concurring with Canadian researcher, and former Asia-Pacific Bureau Chief of Forbes Magazine, Benjamin Fulford, who in a very disturbing video released from his Japanese offices to the American public, details how the United States attacked China by the firing of a 90 Million Volt Shockwave from the Americans High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) facilities in Alaska
If we can recollect a previous news when US blamed Russia for the earthquake in Georgio. What do you guys think? Is it really possible to create an earthquake by humans?
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9:13 AM  

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