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, September 24, 2006

Envelopmental Journalism

I enjoy travelling. I'm a writer. I studied journalism in college. So when an Arts and Culture editor at the Philippine Daily Inquirer asked me to cover a festival in Bohol, one of the most famous of the Philippines' 7,107 islands, I jumped at the opportunity.

The Tagbilaran City government offered to fly me down and pay for me to stay in a swank resort on Panglao Island, a beachy mound connected to mainland Bohol by bridge. I would be reporting on the annual Sandugo Festival, which commemorates the blood compact between Miguel Lopez de Legazpi and Boholano chieftain Sikatuna in 1565. The pledge of cooperation these men sealed by drinking each other's blood is heralded today as one of the first peaceful interactions between East and West and the opening up of the Philippines to Spanish influence. Every year, Bohol celebrates its footnote to world history with a day full of dancing capped off by a reenactment of the blood compact. And why not? As long as we try really hard not to think of the 300 years of Spanish subjugation followed by 50 more of American compassionate colonialism ushered in by this moment, it seems like a jolly moment of cross-cultural unity. If I were lucky, I might even have some time left over to tour Bohol's several natural wonders, which include white sand beaches, the powerful Loboc River and the Chocolate Hills, a geological miracle that must be seen to be believed.

Sign me up! Aren't you envious? This is why many people want to become journalists. To see the world. To learn about different cultures. To accept lavish gifts in the form of airfare and resort stays from local governments in the Philippines. Uhh, wait. I don't remember that last one from the Medill School of Journalism honor code. In retrospect, I probably should have seen that breach of American journalistic ethics as the giant red flag that it was. I didn't, however, because I'm not in America, and Philippine news sources don't have funds to pay for their reporters' travel expenses so they instead accept these junkets from local governments and resorts looking for publicity. But hey, it's better than not covering the festival at all, right? I'm not so sure anymore, but what I can say with total certainty is that when I passed through the gate in the Philippine Airlines terminal that led me to the plane, I must have missed the engraving above the entrance that read, "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." I was stumbling into the world of Philippine envelopmental journalism.

Why do they call it "envelopmental?" It's not some kind of deep immersion reporting. The term refers to the fat envelope of pesos reporters receive from whomever they're covering. Unfortunately, it's hard for journalists to earn a living without accepting the payoffs, which undoubtedly compromise the reporters' objectivity. But newspaper salaries seem just a notch or two above those of cashiers at Jollibee. In my case, there was no envelope of cash, just a free round-trip air ticket and two nights in an upscale resort that costs more than $100 per night with carte blanche to ransack the mini-bar.

Part of me feels bad because the Tagbilaran City government showed me such wonderful hospitality and really tried hard to woo me and the two other reporters who made the trip, and I had a miserable time from start to finish. I'm just too fresh out of journalism school. All the arrangements made to pamper me and make me feel special instead made me feel like a terrible hack.

Let's start with the resort. It was absolutely beautiful, with cute stone pathways leading from the rooms to the outdoor restaurant, pool and all the way down to little beachside cabanas on the resort's private slice of coast. It was the kind of place I imagine I will love staying in when I'm 55 years old and no longer have the energy to explore a place on my own. My favorite thing about traveling in the Philippines is getting outside of whatever flophouse I'm staying in and wandering around. I like finding the local basketball courts and getting into games, high-fiving people who drive by on motorcycles and yelling "What's up" to everyone who says "Hi, Joe!" to me. The Flushing Meadows resort (I have no clue why it's named after an unremarkable Queens neighborhood) was not the kind of place for a traveller like me. It's more like a lavish roach motel for tourists who, due to age or personal preference, don't want to wander around dusty, smoggy Philippine baryos looking for adventure and mischief. Once you go into the resort, you don't come out until your vacation is over. Between the pool, private beach, top-knotch food and aircon rooms, why would you ever want to leave?

Another force was tugging at me and keeping me from saying "Fuck it!" and just leaving the compound to explore on my own. It's the high value Philippine culture places on hospitality and getting along. They aren't uniquely Philippine values, but one feels a much stronger obligation to conform to them here than in New York, where you can still tell people to go to hell without offending them. Tagbilaran Mayor Danny Lim very obviously wanted us to enjoy the high life at Flushing Meadows. If I struck out on my own to go check out the rest of the island, particularly some of the "low" life I'd find there, it would be like telling Mayor Lim to take his resort and shove it. Everyone would lose face and it would be unbearable. I just couldn't do it.

Let's take a closer look at my patron, Mayor Dan Neri Lim of Tagbilaran City, the provincial capital of Bohol. I know next to nothing about Mayor Lim's politics and/or policies. Nine times out of ten in Philippine politics, a government official's policies are irrelevant, especially with local government leaders. Their goals in office are to promote business in their fiefdom, so that they can funnel that money into their friends and families' local enterprises and eventually grab a cut for themselves. They're a self-aggrandizing bunch, and they're easy to find shaking hands at wakes and kissing babies while sponsoring weddings. Mayor Lim seemed cut from the typical small-time Boss Man cloth. Rotund, jovial and with a sinister resemblance to Venezuelan head-of-state Hugo Chavez, Lim is a master at shaking your hand, asking how you're finding your stay and then scurrying off to court someone more important. He was kind and courteous, but that didn't stop the hairs on the back of my neck from standing up after meeting him. His nebulous sleaziness became more concrete as the weekend went on and I witnessed Mayor Lim do things like delay the departure of a Cebu Pacific flight to Manila so he could slurp fish heads with local business leaders in City Hall before boarding the plane. It didn't help that many of the people I approached to interview told me to just make sure I wrote something nice about the mayor.

Reporting my story may have been the most frustrating aspect of the weekend. I seemed to have misunderstood the journalist's role in the little public relations waltz we were doing, because I don't think I saw the other two writers covering the festival pull out a notebook once the entire weekend. Several of the organizers and and creative directors of the reenactment who I approached to interview seemed genuinely weirded out that a reporter was asking them questions. I had to chase Mayor Lim through a crowd of post-festival revelers to get a tiny quote from him. The expectation, it seemed to me, was that us reporters would enjoy our stay, watch the festival from a stuffy VIP booth filled with various guests of honor -- local celebrities, a beauty queen and sweaty, overweight occidentals -- and then write a description of all the pretty things we saw, attributing it all to the tireless efforts of Mayor Lim. I'm not a theater critic, however, and I had no intention of writing a sourceless account of the event as I saw it. Unfortunately, there wasn't much of a story there, and I ended up focusing on efforts made to distinguish this year's Sandugo reenactment from past festivals.

If the reporting was the most frustrating, the most horrifying part of the weekend, hands down, was my roommate at the resort, a frisky, homosexual writer for a Manila women's magazine. Since I knew no one else on the island, I was stuck with my escort. I was dodging advances like Pernell Whitaker slipped punches. Compliments on how I was better looking than some Hollywood actors, invitations to watch bands together in Manila, massage offers, he was throwing everything in the arsenal, and I deflected it gracefully. Until, that is, my roomie had a few drinks and came home late one night. I was sound asleep and woke up with his hands gripping my ribcage. "Are you ok, Rafe?" he said. "I think you need a massage." Outwardly calm, I was freaking out on the inside, I told him to go to bed, then hid in the bathroom long enough for the tipsy missy to pass out, then slept soundly the rest of the night.

Quite a weekend. I went for a simple writing assignment and ended up questioning my chosen career, my journalistic self-worth and my sexual orientation. But you know what, when the Inquirer cut me a fat check worth roughly $37, I knew it was all worthwhile.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

PBA Draft Follies, Santa Lucia Woes

The PBA draft isn't a thrilling event. In this year's draft, there were ten teams, two rounds and about 15 guys who would definitely be drafted, and the afternoon's only suspense came from wondering if Gabby Espinas would be picked before or after Mark Isip. There was some human drama due to the fact that 56 players were eligible and only 20 would be picked, but that excitement was deflated by the fact that Filipino basketball fans follow most of the draft hopefuls from high school to college to the semi-pro Philippine Basketball League and they already know, for the most part, whose names will be called and who'll be left sitting behind the stage wearing PBA Draft polo shirts and dejected looks on their faces at the end of the day. Fil-Am players are more of a wild card because they aren't as overexposed, but this year's crop was small and unlikely to surprise anyone. It included Kelly Williams, a sure-shot #1 or #2 pick, and Chris Pacana and Don Dulay, two little-known point guards who were borderline 2nd rounders.

That said, it's a real testament to this country's basketball fixation that thousands of people crowded into the Market! Market! mall's activity center on the afternoon of August 20 to watch the event. I don't want to make too much of the crowd, because admission to the draft was free, and the sight of a couple dozen tricycle drivers crowded around a game of bottlecap checkers on the sidewalk is anything but uncommon. Thousands of people would be sitting around, watching the minutes tick away at Market! Market! on any Sunday afternoon, but it was hard not to be impressed by the crowd that assembled for the draft. The ground floor was packed like a rush-hour MRT train, so that everyone had someone else's forearm pressed into his back or resting on his shoulder. The four upper levels of the vaguely octagonal ampitheter had similar mobs leaning over the railings and looking down on the draft. One glance at the crowd -- mostly men between 14 and 40 dressed in some combination of shorts, t-shirts, jerseys, sneakers, flip-flops and baseball hats -- and it was easy to see why practically any basketball game with referees can get televised in the Philippines. The audience is ripe and ready to be seduced by advertisers.

The PBA is the second-oldest professional basketball league in the world, and throughout most of its 31-year history the league has emulated the NBA. Knowing this, I was surprised at how little hype and spectacle the PBA draft produced. The draftees were cooped up in a room behind the stage, away from the public eye, which meant fans didn't get to watch the players sweat and twitch as the number of remaining picks dwindled and they still hadn't been drafted. Moreover, all the draftees wore the same white PBA polo shirt, which meant no wacky suits. Kudos go to Talk-N-Text forward Harvey Carey, the only player dressed appropriately for the draft in an oversized lavender blazer with lapels as big as bedspreads. Sadly, no other players followed Carey's lead and wore Dick Tracy suits. Only the top three picks were interviewed after they were drafted, and all they said was "I want to Thank God," an appropriate response in this nation of devout Christians, but it doesn't rank high on the excitement scale. The Draft only took an hour, which was something of a disappointment considering it took an hour and a half for all the people to squeeze into their spots and another hour for me to weasel out of the stuffy mob.

The Santa Lucia Realtors, a team that has made a point of avoiding Fil-American players since the late 1990s Fil-Sham scandal, had no choice but to junk their all-Filipino policy and select Kelly Williams with the number one pick. If they passed him over, they would officially be anointed the league's laughing stock. Williams, who played for Oakland University in Metro Detroit, has an NCAA Division I pedigree, which is rare and coveted in the PBA. Most Fil-Ams ran a year or two of junior college ball at some school no one's ever heard of. If other players who've jumped from D-I to the PBA are any indication -- former Wagner player Danny Siegle, for example -- Williams is going to be a star. It certainly looks that way. At 6'6'' or 6'7'', he's the same height as most PBA centers, but he's quicker than most PBA two-guards. It's hard to think of anyone in the league who matches up with him physically. Once he develops a scorer's mentality and starts to nail his outside shot consistently, he'll be putting up major numbers.

But then again, there's always the Santa Lucia factor. No PBA franchise is as consistently bogged down with strange rumors and general infamy as the Realtors. The anti Fil-Am policy doesn't seem to be working as a competitive or marketing ploy. Their roster is full of over-the-hill stars with bloated bellies and out-of-control contracts. Kenneth Duremdes is a sure PBA hall-of-famer, but at this point of his career the odds are 50-50 that he'll end the season with more surgeries than field goals. Dennis Espino and Marlou Aquino are legendary big-men, but they lumber up and down the court like members of a real legends team. When the PBA released the list of draft-eligible players, one of the best ways to piss off draftees was to tell them Santa Lucia was interested in them. The team's practices are rumored to be lazy, boring two-hour shootarounds. Bizarre stories about the team's management abound, such as one about a former SLR guard who was doing plyometric training outside of practice to improve his quickness and jumping. Supposedly, when the coaches learned about his private workouts, they cut the player because they were furious that the guard thought their practices weren't sufficiently challenging.

Are all the rumors about Santa Lucia true? I doubt it. In most of them, there's probably a small nugget of truth wrapped in layer upon layer of embellishment. Still, no other PBA franchise has the same train-wreck reputation, and I have to think there's some reason for it. One of the craziest stories, that of Hawaii-raised Filipino Alex Cabagnot, is certainly true. Cabagnot played college ball at U. Hawaii-Hilo and was the #2 pick in last year's draft. After Santa Lucia drafted him, he fled the country, and had to be coaxed back by family and friends. He endured two losing conferences in the 2005-2006 PBA season, then went AWOL again over the summer. He was playing in California pro-am leagues and supposedly never returning to the Philippines. Santa Lucia threatened to ban him from the league for life, and even implied that he might never be allowed back into the country. A week or two ago, the prodigal Cabagnot returned once again, hopefully for good. The issues between Cabagnot and Santa Lucia have never been aired publicly, but they have to do with the team culture, the team's losing record and, of course, money. We'll probably never know the full story, but we can probably assume that Santa Lucia isn't the ideal team for a talented rookie to start his career with.

It remains to be seen if Williams will have the same problems. He's off to a good start with the team, and there's reason to believe that things will stay that way because the only gripe anyone has about Williams is that he's too nice. He works hard in practice, compliments his teammates and coaches and spends his time off the court bowling, producing gospel songs in his apartment and going to church. With his ability on the court and gentle nature, no one seems to be worrying about Williams' success.