The Ballards - Syndicate







 

We flew to the Philippines over Easter 1999 to see our friends who were living in Metro Makati, a suburb of Metro Manila, the capital of the Philippines, and a metropolis of 1.7 million people living at an average density of 112,000 per mile², which is pretty crowded by any standards.

To arrange as cheap a flight as possible, we organised, through Airline Network, a convoluted 24-hour jaunt from Heathrow to Amsterdam Schiphol, Dubai, Taipei and finally to Manila. Never again. By the time we arrived our bodies didn't know whether it was morning, night or the middle of next week...

The Amsterdam-Taipei legs were aboard an ageing Eva Air Boeing 747-100 where we were fortunate enough to get front-of-block seats, allowing us at least some legroom.

We stopped at Dubai to refuel: popular with international flights I suspect because of their relaxed attitude towards night flights (the airport is 20 miles from the nearest house) and their cheap Avtur. At the airport is a huge Duty Free area selling, amongst other things, raffle tickets for a Mercedes S-Class and amongst the high-vaue items (not that cheap, actually), a section resembling a mini-supermarket selling cheese, eggs, milk, Rice Krispies, baked beans and other low-rent items. I couldn't decide whether these were luxuries for Moslem pilgrims.

Out on the tarmac was a plane-spotters' paradise. Ever wondered what happened to all the old narrow-bodied airliners you used to fly on when you were kids? Well, they're still flying, and they're here. Caravelles, BAC 1-11s, Tridents, DC-9s, 727s and Russian equivalents, Tu-154s, Il-62s and worse, in bizarre airline livery: Air Iran, Yemen Charter Air, Syrian Bus & Coach lines, and the inevitable Aeroflot. I swear I saw them sticking some chewing gum on one of the engines to fix a fluid leak...

We watched the sun come up over India. Quite a sight. At the end of every leg, the cabin attendants would parade at the front of the cabin and the passengers would applaud them. Our first taste of the Orient.

The comfortable, but very long and exhausting set of flights finally terminated in Manila, where we emerged in to the heat, humidity and smell of the Tropics. This was to be an interesting experience...

Driving through the congested roads from the airport in to central Manila, we saw many hundreds of children lining the roads, literally living in the gutter, with nothing other than the clothes they were wearing. I was told they were often thrown out of the house as young as 6 years old to live by begging or any other means by the sides of the main roads.

 

The Philippines offers the most frightening contrasts in standards of living: tower blocks have helicopters landing on the roofs at the top and children living in the gutter at the bottom. From the perspective of a Western visitor brought up in a middle-class environment and only ever having seen the US (at length, but thatís another story) and Europe, this is scary. The government and business machinery are utterly corrupt: the only route to advancement is via venality. Apart from the Catholic church, no social consciousness whatsoever appears to exist at any level. Definitely a cultural shock. It's not every day you see people bathing in raw sewage or people living in the gutter, owning only the clothes they stand up in (which often doesn't even include a pair of pants.....).

One of the main problems is the complete lack of contraception caused by the 90+% Catholic faith (which recently outlawed Geri Haliwell's UN-sponsored condom-advertising mission, one Cardinal Sin [not that's not a misprint] stating that condoms were the work of the devil).

I am not one to judge, especially against the Catholic Church, but the fact that the illegitimacy rate is 85% or so means that an awful lot of babies are born into very fragile relationships and extreme poverty. These children are then pushed out in to the world to fend for themselves at 4 or 5 years old - literally abandoned on to the streets. No wonder they are prey to paedophiles (often Western), prostitution, drugs (not sophisticated stuff, mainly opium and alcohol) and generally a pretty poor quality of life.

 

Metro Manila takes about 5 hours to cross by car: it is a huge and sprawling metropolis with little defined "downtown" but many "edge cities" with business areas and defined urban, suburban and shanty areas.


The humidity was stifling, and the heat exhausting. The sun was a physical force on the back of the neck: not that bright through the smog caused by the gridlocked traffic, but very strong.

The traffic was mainly Jeepneys, a heavily modified version of the traditional WW2 Jeep. Nowadays, of course, they bear little resemblance to the original vehicle and are universally fitted with Japanese diesel engines that produce clouds of choking exhaust fumes. They are all fitted with vast quantities of decorations including a disturbing number of Jesus statues intended, I understand, to ward off accidents...


I had the best haircut of my life in a downtown Manila hotel: in a reclining chair with a big cup of real coffee my hair was washed, massaged, cut, then vigorously washed and massaged again, all for £1.50. I emerged feeling like a King.

Being the East, Feng Shui is a dominant force in building architecture in Manila. So much so that on the boards outside building developments, alongside the names of the principal funders, architects, builders and so on, was the Feng Shui expert. Bizarre.

Manila pollution is awful. For weeks after we came back we could still taste the diesel fumes in the backs of our throats and any exertion brougt up diesel-tasting phlegm. I dread to think what it does to the lungs of the people who live here permanently!

There are no traffic rules. Red traffic lights, Policemen with whistles, traffic signs and parking restrictions are routinely disobeyed by all vehicles. Having said that, no one drives very fast and there is none of the high-tension European bullying at the traffic lights. There are no traffic lanes whatsoever, so over- and undertaking are meaningless concepts. Jeepneys stop when they need to and no one cares.

In an attempt to improve the semi-permanent gridlock on the main ring road around Manila they are building a second layer of motorway above the existing road and a light rail system in the middle. The works for these projects cause even more traffic chaos. Knowing how corrupt the economy is I dread to think how substandard the reinforced concrete in these elevated works is: do the architects build that in to their stress calculations when designing the structures?

Railway lines run through the centre of Manila.
Few trains run, but those that do regularly run over the sleeping residents of the permanent way, such is the pressure of humanity within the city.
As a consequence the railway lines are where the poorest of the poor live.

We visited a department store of 11 floors in a shopping mall and I have to say that the combination of very low ceilings (the Filipinos are very short), uneven floors indicating shoddy construction and some noticeable give in the floors gave one a strong feeling of claustrophobia and fear that the whole pack of cards would collapse as indeed these stores do occasionally...

The basement of the department store was a brilliant concept I have seen copied elsehwere: a one room multiple-outlet fast food emporium with shared seating area. Not everybody wants the same food for lunch so around the outside were McDonalds, Sbarro, Jolibee etc with a shared seating area in the centre: very space-efficient.

At the mouth of Manila Bay is the island of Corregidor, famous for being flattened during WW2 (twice, as it turns out) and for being where General Douglas Macarthur said "I Shall Return" (actually it was on arrival in Australia following his reluctant exit from Corregidor by PT Boat on the orders of the US Government, which ruins a perfectly good story, but you have to admit, He Did Return, in some style, to beat the Japs all the way back to the mainland...).

 

You can't go to all the way to The Philippines and not visit somewhere you read about at school, so I booked a catamaran day trip to include lunch, and must have been the youngest there by 50 years at least.

Basically, before the Japs could invade The Philippines in 1942 they needed to knock out Corregidor, so they pulverised the island before invading. The Filipino-American defenders retreated in to the Malinta Tunnel and staged a valiant defense.

What is not mentioned so much (a case of the victors writing the history books) is that in 1944 exactly the same thing happened in reverse with American bombers pounding the Japanese defenders in to submission. There is a curious lack of Japanese memorial or Japanese visitors.

It was full of bandy-legged old US Veterans in groups wearing baseball caps with things like "VA-1212 Death or Glory" and a picture of a ludicrously overburdened A-6 coming at you at Mach 0.9 out of the hat, or "Miami Dodgers" - I mean who on earth are they?

At lunch they all stuck together making aeroplanes with their hands and machine guns with their walking sticks - "neeeeeoooowwww, yeah, Chuck, I was lyin' on the ground just here when this Zero came in, machine guns a-hammerin', then he was pullin' up and I got him right in the prop boss with my M1 carbine, dang'd if I didn't....".
A race apart, the Americans. Especially Veterans.

I felt very left out so went and sat under a tree, ate my peanuts and had a snooze.

The island is well done, I'm sure entirely with American money. It's not too dressed up, but it's informative and the guide was knowledgeable without being patronising. 10/10.


You do get a sense of the Big Band 1930s feel of the accommodation and the fittings: all ferro-concrete and Glenn Miller, bucolic low wing-loading US Army Air Force B-17s with tail-dragger undercarriages and pre Pearl Harbour US Forces. WW2 made America: of that there is no doubt.
They went from laid back 1930s jazz to Chuck Yeager in a pressure suit at Mach 1 in 6 years.
From there to "it's one small step for man...one giant leap for mankind" on the moon was just 22 years: what were these guys on?
Then it was Vietnam and downhill from there, via Iran to the Gulf War, but WW2 to 1969 was the best time America ever had.
Of course the United Kingdom simply stagnated during that period.....

Under The Presidio in San Francisco is a tunnel that takes US1 from the South end of the Golden Gate Bridge to central San Francisco. It is named the Douglas Macarthur Memorial Tunnel.
Why? Because it's just like the Malinta Tunnel on Corregidor: same shape, it's downhill all the way and straight. And about the same length. A rare and useless fact.

We wanted to visit Cebu, as we had been told it was very beautiful and relaxing. So 5am found us at Manila Airport once again ready for an Air Philippines A319 to Cebu.

The pilot started the left engine OK, then attempted to kick the right turbine over using the compressed air from the left engine. After an extended period of high-pitched starter noises but no combustion noises, he suddenly released the brakes, pushed back and taxied off across the apron towards the runway to windmill the engine in to life (all fair and good so far, this is normal practice). But after a mile or so of taxi-ing it still wouldn't start (water in the fuel?), so this lunatic turned on to the runway and firewalled the other fan. At about 120mph the recalcitrant engine lit with a thump, the pilot firewalled that one too (whatever happened to warming these thngs up?) and up we went with the right engine still surging and moaning. Knowing a little about engine outages at critical stages during take-off in Airbuses, I was just waiting for it to quit and for us to suffer an unscheduled airframe-ground interaction with some shanty towns a mile or so off the end of the runway.
Scary.

We stayed a long weekend in the Alegre Hotel in Sogod City (some "city": the nearest house was a mile away and the whole settlement consisted of a single street of shanty huts and small shops).

Our beach hut had a marble bathroom and the food was superb... for £70 a night per double room. Bargain of the year!

The hotel and grounds were elegant, constructed mainly of bamboo and beautifully maintained by a veritable army of sweepers ("hello Sir Ma'am" and a big smile whenever you passed).

I had sunstroke or something the first couple of days we were there so didnít feel great but the hotel soon made me recover. The menu was big on fruit and simple meals, and as it was so hot that was about all you wanted.

We spent a lot of time in or around the huge pool, and it never got very busy.
Some days we were the only ones in the pool, which was just lovely.

 

We did some scuba diving, seeing a Sea Turtle and associated Remora fish, and we fed the fish on the reef (nearly lost a hand there!).
My only regret was not taking an underwater camera, but we simply couldnít justify the cost (of a dedicated camera) or the risk to the OM-2 (involved in a cheap housing).

We went dolphin-watching as well but didnít see any dolphins, sadly.

Manila Bay is a natural harbour 50 miles long, surrounded by low hills and Metro Manila. It has a narrow entrance guarded by two small islands (of which the infamous Corregidor is one) and, as a result, is officially one of the most polluted bodies of water in the world.

Metro Manila and it's environs use it as an open sewer and industrial dumping ground in a similar way to many cities on coasts, in addition visiting cargo ships flush their holds in to the water; however due to the small passageway to the open sea, very little of the pollution ever escapes. It smells really bad, is covered in unidentifialble bits of half floating debris and has a permanent oily sheen.

And yet people, especially the slum families living along the shores, use it as a place to wash, to swim and to fish for their food in.

These unfortunates swim and wash in the same water they use as a loo: water that would have been long cordoned off anywhere in the West. I'm sure if I had fallen off the junk in to the Bay I would have needed a stomach pump, but they the fact that these people look healthy is a lesson in how humanity can survive and prosper under the most unhealthy and adverse conditions imaginable.
Have we in the West become over-sensitive to hygiene issues?


Traditional Filipino life goes on against the backdrop of modern commercial methods.

Once out of Metro Manila (and this takes a long time by car), the countryside becomes a mixture of hills now denuded of jungle, and rice paddies anywhere flat. On many of the roads you suddenly come across hundreds of yards of rice spread out and drying on the concrete.

The main highway North from Manila is a wide dual-carriageway with split-level junctions, which winds pleasantly across the fields for 20 miles or so before ending, abruptly and without signposts, in a narrow concrete road at right angles to the dual-carriageway. From then on the roads are a great deal more primitive, although mainly concrete and of sound construction they suffer from sudden dislocations between sections, especially at administrative boundaries and bridge approaches.

We hired a car with driver against my judgement: I was sure we could drive ourselves but sitting in the back, mentally driving, once I had had a dozen serious mental accidents with the locals, one involving a roll down a steep bank in to a river, I gave up and decided the driver, after all, was the sensible choice.

As we drove North, the scenery became more like I imagine Vietnam to be (it just needed a few heavily-armed Hueys whop-whopping at treetop height across the valleys with The Rolling Stones blasting out from the door gunner positions to complete the picture...).

I pondered on this until I realised Apocalypse Now was shot in the Philippines, and of course it's the film we all associate with the conflict in ďThe NamĒ (stand up all of you who donít think a visit to ĎNam would mean B-52 empennages sticking up out of the jungle every few miles? I rest my case...).

Other good Vietnam war films are Saigon-Year of the Cat and The Deer Hunter. Good Vietnam war books are Chickenhawk by Robert C Mason and A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan.

 

People were universally pleased to see Westerners; we were constantly waved at by old and young. It got a bit embarrassing after a while...

We entered the province of Nueva Vizcaya, a big rice-producing area with a surprising amount of heavy articulated lorries carrying rice.

We passed a number of posters and towers exhorting the people of Nueva Vizcaya to produce more rice and stride forward for the good of the country, or something like that; very Soviet in it's tone.
Knowing the (continuing) flirtation The Philippines has had with Communism, I wondered about the tone of the local Government, but I suspect it was more likely a left-over piece of accidental cultural overspill.

 

The local Filipino language, Tagalog (with the emphasis on the second syllablle, so tag-a-log) is utterly uncomprehensible but most Filipinos, even in the upland, speak very good English.
Tagalog is a static language rapidly being overtaken by English; no new words are being created, so the newspapers are full of phrases like "pati sa jueteng kumokotong mobile phone na sila diyan Internet Talagang CD-ROM drive".


The locals all ride in rickety motor-rickshaws, based on Honda 50cc mopeds. These look absolutely lethal as they buzz along, emitting clouds of 2-stroke fumes and usually filled with at least 4 people plus chickens etc.

North of Manila, in the mountains, are the world-renowned rice terraces in Banaue province.


Banaue is an 11 hour road journey from Manila, and the town is built on steep hillsides overlooking a river that winds it's way through the town.

Despite news reports to the contrary, people really do farm these terraces. The oustanding engineering feat is that each terrace has running water from the terrace above.

Considering the terraces are 1,000 years old or more and the technology is quite primitive up there, even now, that's impressive.

We spent the night in Banaue before venturing up in to the mountains early the following morning. We spent an hour in a Jeepney on an unsurfaced road and found out how the Filipinos really travel: those Jeepneys are really small if you're a 1.96m Westerner.

We went to visit Banga'an, a remote village unapproachable by road - we would have to walk.

The walk down was OK, Banga'an was spectacularly uninteresting close up (aren't so many things?) but the walk back was extremely steep.
The heat and midday humidity conspired to make us puffing, sweating machines. I survived only by fantasising about calling in an F-4 air strike on the VC in the village, then being airlifted out by Huey to my base where a cold shower and an even colder Coke awaited me.....

The horror... the horror....