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.


Blogger Joey said...

what the hell are you doing in bohol without even a mention of the UAAP finals?

12:09 AM  
Blogger space cadet said...

hear, hear.

linked you up to my blog, hope you don't mind.

12:04 AM  
Anonymous John Tringle said...

Hey Rafe. This is John (hang out at McS). I may do a short (and hopefully funny) interview with your Dad and was wondering if possibly you can do the same when you're back in town (be interveiwed, not interview your Dad ;)

Sounds like you're doing well and having fun. Hope to see you soon. Keep up the good work.


4:52 AM  
Blogger Christina said...

I'm glad you wrote this up. Good to know I wasn't the only one a tid bit frustrated with journalism in the Ppines! I hope you're doing well!

11:36 PM  
Blogger leonora estanque said...

I am a current journalism student at a university here in Iloilo. My professor asked as to write a term paper with certain topics and I chose envelopemental journalism for it is a long over due issue in the Philippine media and as i read different articles regarding this issue i learned how a journalist could forget the ethics he used to recite in class. so sad that many practices this just because the salary they earned isn't enough.

2:07 PM  
Blogger leonora estanque said...

I am a current journalism student at a university here in Iloilo. My professor asked as to write a term paper with certain topics and I chose envelopemental journalism for it is a long over due issue in the Philippine media and as i read different articles regarding this issue i learned how a journalist could forget the ethics he used to recite in class. so sad that many practices this just because the salary they earned isn't enough.

2:07 PM  

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