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

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Lost in Translation

In the latest chapter of the Philippines' never-ending brouhaha over extrajudicial killings and disappearances, UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston delivered his final report on the killings, blaming the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police for most of the dastardly deeds. This is not news -- his preliminary report said the same exact thing and it's what just about everyone assumes -- but rather another opportunity for posturing on all sides, with leftist groups trumpeting their cause, the military proclaiming innocence and the Arroyo administration feigning ignorance while promising justice. But, amidst the thick miasma of self-righteousness, you occasionally get a gem like this quote from opposition Senator Francis "Chiz" Escudero in today's Inquirer:

"Many of the extrajudicial killings that happened there were just five kilometers away from the nearest police or military camp. The modus operandi is always the same: the perpetrator wore a bonnet, was on board a motorcycle, and used a .45-caliber pistol. And until now, not one suspect has been arrested. In these circumstances, I am not surprised that the findings point in the direction of the Philippine National Police (PNP), if not the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP),” Escudero said in Filipino.

When you see that bonnet -- start running. 'Cause when you see that bonnet -- I'm coming.

Come again, Chiz? Little Bo Peep is out here in Sorsogon riding on fools! Capping Communists left and right and her bonnet ain't even shift an inch. I would love to hear Escudero's quote in its original Tagalog form to see what word the Inquirer translated to "bonnet." Father Leo English, the author of one of the best English/Tagalog dictionaries on the market, tells me that there is a word, "bonete," taken from Spanish, but it's hard to imagine Escudero really describing a bonnet-wearing assassin. The more common Spanish loan word for hat in Tagalog is "sombrero," which also brings silly images to the not-so-worldly, raised on Looney Toons American mind. Maybe if the AFP changes its story and blames the killings on Yosemite Sam, Alston and the United Nations will buy it.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

PBA Home-cooking

It's hard to find people involved with the PBA who have a lot of confidence in the league's referees. Cynicism is the rule, and the officiating is as much a running joke for PBA insiders and observers as are the league's wacky mascots, lethargic cheerdancers and corporate-sponsored team names. Players and coaches enter games with a mindset that at-best, the refs will blow obvious calls. At worst, they fear the refs will totally screw them. Even when this happens, the one-sided calls are common enough that members of the losing side just shake their head and move on. It takes some truly shameless refereeing situation to provoke an emotional reaction, and that's what happened last week at the end of the Purefoods Tender Juicy Giants' 87-86 win over the Alaska Aces.

Purefoods came into the game with a 7-1 record, the best in the league. Alaska, champions of the most recent import conference, were 4-3, but both teams expected a hard-fought game. Purefoods is one of the three San Miguel Corporation-owned jewels in the PBA's crown. The team, along with Barangay Ginebra and the San Miguel Beermen/Magnolia Beverage Masters, are among the league's oldest franchises and its most popular. When teams from outside the San Mig empire play one of them, they expect the balance of the calls to go against them. The refs were doing a surprisingly good job until the final seven seconds of last Wednesday's game. Alaska benched league MVP Willie Miller for arriving late and got off to a slow start. They fell behind by as much as 19 points but were able to claw back in the third and fourth quarters to take a late lead. Up 86-85 in the final minute, they needed one defensive stop to hand Purefoods its second loss. That's when the refs' worked their magic.

Here's what you're watching in the last 6.9 seconds of the game. After a Kerby Raymundo missed jumper, Alaska Center Sonny Thoss and Purefoods guard Brandon Cablay got tied up with the loose ball and the refs called a jump ball. Alaska must have felt pretty confident with the 6-7 Thoss jumping against 6-footer Cablay. It's possible that the tension of the moment affected the referee, because his first toss sailed about five feet to the side of both players. Thoss never came close to the ball and Cablay reached out and caught it. Boom -- that should be a game-clinching violation. If one of the jump ball participants catches the rock, then his team forfeits possession. Well, that would be an anti-climactic ending to a pretty exciting game, so the referees took a cue from the playground and called a do-over because of the bad toss. That's nice enough for pick-up games at the Loyola Heights barangay covered court, but at the country's highest level of professional basketball, it's embarrassing. The second toss was equally bad, yet, presumably because Thoss tapped it out of bounds and the possession stayed with Purefoods, the officials let the game continue. Now, with less than 6 seconds to play, Purefoods inbounded the ball from beneath the basket. Kerby Raymundo received the ball on the baseline and took one dribble towards Alaska defenders Thoss and John Ferriols. He had nowhere to go, so he jumped in the air, double-pumped the ball, looked to pass, saw no one, and landed. There's really no room for interpretation with this call -- it's a travel. No one knocked the ball out of Raymundo's control or tied him up in the air. He just jumped up and came down. When he landed, with about 1.5 seconds left, everyone stopped for a split second, anticipating a whistle. None came. Like someone who stumbles and does a quick hop-step to play off his goof, Raymundo acted like nothing happened and quickly shoveled the ball to Romel Adducul against the suddenly passive defense. Adducul dropped in a lay-up at the buzzer, the refs counted the shot, and Purefoods ran off the court in a hurry.

Alaska's players looked stunned like the members of the 1972 U.S. Olympic team that got jobbed in the final seconds of the final match against the Soviet Union. The coaches, on the other hand, stormed over to the officials' table and started raising hell. Head Coach Tim Cone was loudly berating Perry Martinez, head of the PBA's technical committee at half-court and assistant coach Bong Hawkins reared back like he was going to break a clipboard over one of the refs heads WWE-style, then caught himself and slammed the board to the floor. Cone followed Martinez and the refs into the tunnel and kept cursing them in front of sportswriters and TV cameras for five more minutes. His furor peaked when Martinez promised to review the call, like that meant something, and Cone shot back: "What the fuck is that gonna do? They're still 8-1 and we're 4-4."

The word for this kind of fixing is "luto," the Tagalog root for words related to cooking. Like "they cooked the books," but instead they cooked the game. Later that night, I bumped into Alaska players Poch Juinio, JunJun Cabatu, Willie Miller and Jeff Cariaso at Metrowalk, and they couldn't stop talking about the game. They blamed themselves for falling behind early, but mostly decried the refs' hostile takeover of the endgame. Poch kept saying how the game was "mahirap makalimutan" -- hard to forget.

What made the greatest impact on me was how upset the players were over the game. PBA players have a reputation of being motivated mostly by money; the characterization has some truth to it, although, by and large, the players are not the greedy hoops mercenaries they're sometimes depicted as. Yes, they play for money, but they also play to win, and that kind of loss smarts in a way that money can't sweeten. On top of that, players like Juinio and Cariaso have been in the league for more than a decade and Miller is a two-time MVP; cooked games and horrible officiating are nothing new to them. Their dejected response to this game shows just how bad the refereeing was.

Even Purefoods knew the win was a gift. I heard rumors of a handful of their players admitting that Raymundo's move was an obvious travel, and Coach Ryan Gregorio's sheepish comments to the press about the last play are pure comedy:
“I was closing my eyes and I was praying. Honestly, I didn’t see the play. I thought my prayers were answered with that last shot."
You know something is fishy when a head coach won't take credit for the game-winning play.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Bad Santa

A kind shopkeeper at a sari-sari store on Xavierville Avenue gave me this poster, which needs little analysis. A couple observations. For all the fans of the old Upright Citizens Brigade show on Comedy Central, remember the Santa Liqueur sketch? It was funny because the idea of Santa giving his special liqueur out was totally outrageous. Well, apparently not in Manila, where Santa arrives in his red tricycle, handing out tagay shots of Tanduay rhum. Please note the frightening intensity in Santa's eyes in this poster. He's staring at you with a hypnotic, glazed look that says, "Drink this rum or I'll shove a lump of coal up your ass." He reminds me of the evil portrait of Vigo the Carpathian in Ghostbusters II. I guess that makes me his lackey, Janosz.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Great Names in Philippine Basketball

Filipinos' penchant for bestowing playful names to their children is a well-trodden subject for foreign writers, probably because it's an easy target for witticism and ridicule. To some extent, this is warranted; some names -- Ketchup and Cherry Pie come to mind -- are truly unfortunate. But there's also a cross-cultural mismatch in play. Syllables that sound normal and more or less attractive to Philippine ears don't ring as sweetly on Western ears (and, I presume, Japanese, Indian and Kenyan ears). These are the Buboys, Biboys, JunJuns, Nonoys and their brethren. The British writer Matthew Sutherland called these monikers "doorbell names" for their onomatopoeic qualities in a pair of articles that are constantly making the E-mail forward rounds in Manila. Laughing at the doorbell names hints at foreigners' attitudes of cultural superiority, but being silly isn't a crime. I'm aware that the nickname "Bong" just means "junior," but it still makes me giggle.

So, for my foreign readers who aren't treated to daily coverage of Philippine basketball and the Pinoys who don't bother following the sport, I'd like to run down some of the PBA's great names.

1. Tagalog names. Aris Dimaunahan of the Coca Cola Tigers is my hands down favorite name in the league. His surname, which means "can't get ahead of," could not be more fitting for a speedy guard. I remember watching him strip Willie Miller in the backcourt during a game last conference and seeing Aris look back at Miller as if he were saying "Dimaunahan!" he scooted ahead for an uncontested lay-up. Don Dulay, a Fil-Am rookie point guard on the Welcoat Dragons, also has a colorful name. "Dulay" means climbing around trees, from branch to branch, to pick fruits and collect birds' nests. Dulay, at 5-5, is one of the shortest players in the league, but he's quick and crafty as fuck and finishes well against the big players. It's easy to imagine his forays to the hoop as him skittering through the trees before flipping the ball past the lumbering big men's attempts to block his shot. On a related note, I met a taxi driver named Lyle Katakutan -- Lyle "Fear" -- in Cebu City last weekend, and if his son makes it to the league, he will catapult to the top of this list.

Racela, a member of Ateneo's 1988 championship squad, watching his college team take on La Salle in the first game of the 2007 semifinals.

2. Holiday names. The granddaddy of this category is Olsen Racela, the San Miguel-turned Magnolia stalwart (the San Miguel Beermen recently changed their name to the Magnolia Beverage Masters). The heady playmaker and ball-hawker extraordinaire Racela was born on All Saints' Day, hence the phonetic equivalent "Olsen." His brother Nash, an assistant coach in the league, was born on National Heroes Day. The third Racela boy wasn't born on a holiday so he was named Wally for "walang okasyon," Tagalog for "no occasion." The Barangay Ginebra Gin-Kings have a three-point specialist named Sunday Salvacion. I don't think translation is required for this overcooked Catholic name. Of all the plays in basketball, however, the three-point shot might be the best visual metaphor for the leap of faith, and Sunday's prayers are answered about 40 percent of the time.

3. The Greeks. To my knowledge, the only Fil-Greek of note is WWE superstar Bautista. There are, however a couple Greek gods and demigods playing for Welcoat. Neither comes close to living up to his namesake. Start with Jercules Tangkay, pronounced "Hercules." He was a hero in the minor league, the PBL, but hasn't cracked one of the PBA's worst rotations on the Dragons. Still, he's worth keeping around for comedic reasons like Nutty Professor memories ("Hercules! Hercules!") and the onanistic potential of pronouncing his name with a hard "J." Not far from Jercules on the Welcoat bench, you can often find Adonis Santa Maria, who wins the ironic name award for being one of the ugliest mofos in the whole PBA. It's like he's got Johnny Bench's catcher's mitt for a face. Needless to say, this Adonis doesn't have a cult of women burning incense for him; he does, however, have about four gay fans who shriek like banshees and wave a banner embroidered with Santa Maria's name when he scores.

4. Revenge of the Nerds. For me, these are funnier than the doorbell names. A lot of Filipinos have names that are extremely dorky by American standards, and I'm always tickled to see someone named Nelbert Omolon throwing down a tip dunk for Santa Lucia, or Kerby Raymundo dropping double-doubles for Purefoods, or Chester Tolomia banging threes on Coke.

Raymundo showing the Chinese that Kerby ain't no punk name.

5. Doorbell names. The PBA has its share of these. They are far more numerous than the other types I've discussed and include many of the best players in the league. Here is a brief list: Donbel Belano, Mac-Mac Cardona, Ren-Ren Ritualo, DonDon Hontiveros and Jondan Salvador.

6. The Best of the Rest. I can't fit these guys into a category, but I dig their names. Lordy Tugade on Magnolia -- I'm not sure about the religious connection with his name, but it's a good bet. His teammate Samigue Eman, whose father works for San Miguel corporation, and whose name is a contraction of "San Miguel." Eman was actually drafted by the San Miguel Beermen; it was match made in heaven until they renamed themselves to promote Magnolia's new line of health teas. Jimwell Torion -- this shabu-loving Tasmanian devil of a guard is currently out of the league, but watching reckless karate chopping defense and shameless ball-hogging was absolutely hilarious. He is sorely missed. Homer Se -- the definitive butcher, he will probably name his son Laimbeer. Topex Robinson -- I have no clue what the deal with his name is.

Finally, a disclaimer for anyone who might feel compelled to comment on the fact that almost all of these players' first names are nicknames. I know that. Olsen Racela's given name, for example, is Rodericko Cesar Escueta Racela, and many of the players mentioned here have similar Spanish-style compound names. I'm glad they use the fabulous nicknames instead.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Metro Manila's Worst Mass Transit Station

I'm a little too proud of how much I commute. I was raised in a New York State of Mind, except unlike Nas, mine didn't really include "gimme a nine and I'll defeat foes." For me, it was more like, "don't waste what precious little money you have on cabs." And that's where it started. Anyone taking a taxi was an affront to the Protestant Ethic: skip the quick fix, put off instant gratification for greater rewards down the road.

My crew can't go for that. No can do.

So I walked and rode trains and buses everywhere. I had an hour-long commute each way to school, starting when I was 12 years old until I graduated high school. In New York, that's pretty standard behavior, and it falls well within the bounds of reason. The Subway covers most of the city and they're often faster than rip-off taxis. My choice to commute in Manila, however, would be harder to peg using an economist's rational actor measurement stick. Commuting is still cheaper, but both forms of transportation are inexpensive enough to fall below my threshold of even noticing how much I'm coming out of pocket for. A long trip from my Katipunan stomping grounds to the Adidas gym in Fort Bonifacio, for example, would cost about 150 pesos in a taxi. The four-leg commute would cost 12 pesos for a tricycle to the Katipunan train station, 12 for the train ride to Cubao, 12 for the second train ride to Ayala station and 10 or 20 pesos from there to get to Adidas, depending on if I wanted to wait for the cheaper Fort Bus or speed things up by riding on the back of a motorcycle. All in all, that's 46 or 56 pesos. In dollars, that's almost $4 for a taxi versus about $1.25 to commute. Unless it's rush hour, the cab will take 30 minutes and the longer route 75-90 minutes. If you were to ask me in a survey, is an hour of my life worth $2.25, I would say yes. But if the cost of saving that hour means breaking a lifelong vow to avoid cabs unless it's past 2 a.m. and I'm somewhere between half-drunk and off my rocker, then it's out of the question. Creating arbitrary rules to live by seems like a prerequisite for manhood, and the no-cab code is one of mine.

The silver lining in my irrational cirrus is that I know my way around. I can recite the stops on Metro Manila's three train lines from memory, and I've "gone down" -- the Engalog diction for getting off the train, which comes from the direct translation of the Tagalog verb bumaba, which is used for getting off vehicles -- at most of the stations in the system. I'm familiar with a lot of jeepney lines, but knowing the entire network comprehensively would require a lifetime. And I know the ins and outs of the EDSA bus racket -- the trick here is memorizing the over- and underpasses at main junctions so you don't go sailing above or below your stop.

But, coming from the Subway-dominated world of New York, I'm a train man at heart, which brings me to the focus of this entry: which train stop on any of the three lines has the most disturbing beggars chilling in the stairwells. You can't bear living in the Philippines -- or several other developing nations, I'd imagine -- without developing a hardness to scenes of gut-wrenching poverty. That doesn't mean you stop caring, but if you cried over every barefoot kid with scabs all over his arms and legs, every wrinkled blind guy knocking on car windows for change and every family living in a shack of corrugated metal, your tear ducts would dry up in a week. Almost every train station has a handful of kids working the stairs or the overpass, all adorable, friendly and showing varying signs of undernourishment and worm-infection, and all trying to get some change from the passersby. In Chicago, these kids would be a humanitarian crisis. Here, they're an everyday thang.

This guy's pretty bad, but nothing compared to big head boy.

It takes something truly gruesome to break the seasoned commuter's forcefield of indifference. You won't find that on the newest LRT line, which runs along Aurora Boulevard between Marikina City and Manila proper. It's based on a Japanese model, which means a lot of cleanliness, a lot of guards and no scruffy homeless people in the stations. So, even though the line passes by the sleaziest corners of Cubao and its terminal station in Manila is situated between a shantytown the size of three football fields, the Manila City Jail and a street, Recto, which is known for bargain basement tattoo parlors with dirty needles, economy-class cathouses with dirty prostitutes and streetside document forgers who can cook up any diploma under the sun, the train stations are oases from whatever madness lurks outside. A betting man would look for the rough stuff along the original LRT, which cuts a North-South path through the heart of Manila. It's the oldest of the three train lines, as well as the dirtiest (although there are a few new trains running these days), the least reliable and the only line (I'm pretty sure) to have been successfully bombed, in 2000. While choosing the poorest major city in Metro Manila is sort of like picking the worst athlete at the Special Olympics, Manila proper takes the cake for the density of its squalor. Up here in Quezon City, the really brutal slums are on the outskirts -- Near the Payatas dump site, sprinkled around Commonwealth and in the QC/Caloocan wastelands of Bagong Silang and Tala -- so the lower poor live farther from the train lines.

But in my experience, distance and population density don't have anything to do with it. Some of the saddest sights I've come across anywhere in the country are at the Ortigas MRT stop, set in a relatively sanitized area along EDSA, with the malls, office parks, hotels and condominiums of Ortigas Center on the West and an empty no-man's land between San Juan and Mandaluyong City on the right. Ortigas is probably the second-most expensive place in the country after Makati City. Yet their train station has three regulars who are so hard to look that instead of attracting alms-givers, they make people speed up and look away. The first two are disabled children. There's a boy who sits on his mother's lap in the stairwell whose head is about four times bigger than a normal human head. He's quiet and well-behaved to the point that you wonder if he's even conscious, and his body just flops around in him mother's lap while she struggles to support his head, which looks like it will snap off if she doesn't hold it in place. Often occupying the same stairwell is another eerily quiet child, this one a girl who has a deformed eye. She doesn't open the eye, but there's a tennis ball-sized protuberance bulging under her eyelid and she wears a grim, Frankenstein-like expression at all times. I dread disembarking at Ortigas because I know I'm going to see these kids. When you look at them, a lump forms immediately in your throat and you have to look away -- their desperation is so bare and their situation so hopeless that you just want to get away from it as fast as possible.

Adam Sandler might say: "I'm crazy dead man! Give me pesos!"

And, around the corner from their stairwell, splayed out in the middle of the overpass, is dead guy. By the time you've passed through the gallery of pediatric horrors, the sight of dead guy is almost a welcome change. He is a relatively healthy adult male (he could probably use a shower, but he's doing all right) who lays face down in the middle of the pedestrian overpass with a cup in one hand. He doesn't move. He doesn't speak. He plays dead. You might even believe he was dead if he didn't hold the cup so perfectly upright. Honestly, by the time I make it to dead guy, I'm in desperate need of a laugh, and thinking of dead guy's gambit usually supplies it. Why would passersby choose to give change to a rotting corpse in the train station? What's the logic of pretending to be dead so people will give you money? Well, it might be this: After I rush through the children of Chernobyl stairwell and dead guy makes me chuckle, I'm grateful enough for his diversion that I end up giving him the change that I didn't give to big head boy or big eye girl. In essence, dead guy steals from the kids. Ugh. No more change for him.

Readers, those of you who know Metro Manila, what do you think? Which station has the most depressing pulubi?