Leaving the Philippines

In three days, I will be leaving the Philippines. Not exactly for good – somewhat anti-climactically, I’ll have to come back for a few days later this year before I fly out again. But I’ve largely cut my ties with the country, both logistically and emotionally.

My desire to leave developed slowly. The first time I lived in Manila, way back in – God, I’m not saying how long ago – my work circumstances forced me to leave before I had gotten my fill of the place. I spent the next two years in Vietnam trying to dream up a way to come back to Manila, and once I managed to finally move back with the option of staying indefinitely, it became awfully hard to tear myself away.

Right from the beginning – or at least once I got through my “everything is wonderful” phase and moved past the initial thrill of being on my own with my own money for the first time in my life – it quickly became apparent that there were some major pros and cons to living in Manila. The pros were obvious: there was the special energy of being in a bustling 24-hour city, a place that, more than even other megacities, truly never sleeps. With well over twelve million people somebody’s always going to be awake, all the more so when hundreds of thousands of them are working in call centres on all sorts of bizarre shifts to match office hours in North American, European and Australian time zones. There were the one dollar haircuts and the two dollar taxi rides, and the temptation – which I have mostly resisted – to simply pay other people to do anything that you consider even slightly inconvenient to do for yourself. Then there was also the temptation – which I completely gave in to, at first – to go out every single night and get totally soused on cheap beer and frozen margaritas at one of Manila’s kazillion bars, drinking yourself into oblivion while enjoying the energetic sounds of those famed Filipino cover bands. And then there were the people, who I still consider to be overwhelmingly decent, easygoing, good-humoured, and just generally fun. I’ve never had so many good friends anywhere in the world, and I seriously doubt that I ever will again.

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Manila After Midnight

The longer I’ve stayed in Manila, the more I’ve learned to dislike the daytime. During my first few months here I loved wandering outside in the middle of the day, soaking up the sun’s rays, sucking up the pollution, and celebrating my new life in a place without winter. With no hat or sunscreen, I destroyed innumerable quantities of precious collagen – that non-renewable resource that, once upon a time long ago, gave my skin its creepy-smooth texture. But a decade ago, who was I to care? I was young, indestructible, and drunk on the giddy joy of starting a new life far from home. (I was also quite often drunk on alcohol.)

After a while, I realized that the daytime in Manila is not exactly ideal. The sun takes its brutal toll on pale Scandinavian skin, and the air pollution wears away at a sickly Caucasian immune system. Eventually, one realizes the many advantages of staying inside with one’s dogs until the blazing midday sun makes way for soft, golden light around 5 PM – a wonderful time to take the dogs for a walk or go out to the market to buy some coconut water before the vendors close for the day.

More recently, though, I’ve learned to love the completely different world that is Manila after midnight. I’m not talking about the usual nightlife – I stopped drinking almost two years ago, I hate virtually all people, and I have better luck meeting women online than in bars, anyway. Rather, I’m talking about the night life – the unique life the city takes on well after sunset.

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The Rat-Hunting Diaries: Rolling with the TRP

The Tunasan Rat Patrol (TRP) is a crack force of one human (Bloggerbels) and two dogs (Bop and Chichi) who work tirelessly to keep one house in the Tunasan District of Muntinlupa City… well, if not exactly rat-free, then at least within an acceptable rat limit.

On the evening of Sunday, January 8th, 2017, the human member of the Patrol returned home to the Rat Patrol HQ to discover that the shower drain had been forced open. Unfortunately, this is a typical way for rats to gain entry into the house. But even more unfortunately for the rats, the TRP was on duty that night, and its canine members (the Spotters) began following their noses, hot on the trail of the rodent intruder.

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The Kalabaw Paradox

How how indeed! - S
How how indeed! – Source

Ever since the age of 14, I have devoted inordinate thought to the ethics of meat-eating. Around that age, my mother became a pescatarian; and I, being a hopeless mama’s boy at the time, was quite ready to emulate her example. It wasn’t a difficult decision, and not just because she was the only person I was living with at the time, as well as the one who cooked my meals. I had always loved animals – as a person with autism, I often found them much easier to relate to than people. And although I was certainly a gluttonous little porker, meat was never one of my favorite things to stuff into my greasy little piehole – you could’ve given me a bag of salt & vinegar potato chips over a juicy T-bone any day of the week.

My first memory of wrestling with the thorny issue of culinary ethics was from fifth or sixth grade, on the playground with my inseparable chum Dan. At the time the media was abuzz with the clubbing of baby (“baby”) seals in the arctic, and Dan indignantly declared, with a withering contempt far beyond his years, that the same people who bellyache about seal clubbing don’t care about millions of chickens being killed everyday. I had no answer to this at the time, but perhaps my eventual vegetarianism was a delayed act of spite – an “I’ll show him”, with my revenge exacted a few years too late. He did have a point, though.

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Celebrating Manila’s Cheap Coffee Renaissance

Obligatory photo to accompany article: Hockey legend Paul Coffey. Source: http://hfboards.hockeysfuture.com/showthread.php?t=1641273
Obligatory photo to accompany article: Hockey legend Paul Coffey. I’m not saying he’s cheap, though; I have no reason to believe he is not a perfect gentleman. Source: http://hfboards.hockeysfuture.com/showthread.php?t=1641273

Something wonderful is happening in Manila right now – something that too few people are commenting on, even as that effervescent, unmistakable sparkle of magic fills the air! That is, cheap coffee is starting to get really good.

For too long, coffee in Manila has been divided between between the dodgy and the highfalutin. On the dodgy end of the spectrum, you could plop yourself down at the local corner store and order a sachet of 3-in-1 instant coffee mix for a few pesos, and get an incredible sweet coffee-like beverage that is more palm oil and sugar than actual coffee. (I will make an exception for Kopiko Brown and Black, two instant coffee mixes that contain even more empty calories than their competitors, and don’t get much closer to tasting anything like actual coffee, but do have the significant advantage of actually tasting really good.)

On the other end of things, there has long been no shortage of places for the beautiful people and those who wish to be seen as beautiful to plop down more than 100 pesos for a cup of actual coffee or, more popularly, a shot of espresso and 500 calories of sugar and whipped cream. When you want to take the best possible selfies while also getting a bit of caffeine in the process, Starbucks, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, and their various competitors are always there to satisfy your cravings. I personally avoid these options, not just because of my pathological cheapness, but also because I am opposed to paying western prices or higher for a cup of coffee that is being served to me by people making decidedly less-than-western wages. All the more so in a country that grows a good amount of its own coffee, if only anyone would bother to drink the local stuff – which I can say isn’t the best coffee I’ve had, but is actually pretty damn good! (Please, support your local barako farmer!)

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On Animal Cruelty and the Virtues of Keeping My Mouth Shut

My neighbours a few houses down seem like nice enough people. We greet each other pleasantly from time to time, and I remain grateful for the time, back when I was originally house-hunting in the neighbourhood, that they let me step inside their house and use their landline to call up the owner of the house that I would eventually rent. They also run a tailoring business out of their house, and I have to assume they did a good job of fixing the hole in my jean pocket, although I haven’t actually worn the jeans since I got them back.

Unfortunately, my neighbours also have two medium-sized dogs that they keep confined in very cramped cages, not much larger than their bodies. I don’t think this is from simple lack of space – their house, while not lavish, looks reasonably roomy and comfortable. But the dogs probably aren’t pets in the way that westerners would understand; they’re treated more as living burglar alarms, which is a fairly common practice here. I do hear the dogs bark from time to time, as you probably would if you had to spend your life inside a small cage, but the noise isn’t really much of an issue – mostly I just feel bad every time I pass by the house and witness their deplorable living conditions. (I won’t be posting a photo here, both because I’d rather make a boring post than a painfully sad one, and also because I don’t want to make my otherwise pleasant neighbours wonder what kind of malfeasance I’m involved in.)

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In Defense of Manila’s MRT

MRT
Probably not a good photo for an article with the title “In Defense of Manila’s MRT”. Source: http://mrt3.com/index.php/news-page.html

When people talk about how bad the public transit in Manila supposedly is, they like to hold up the MRT as an example of all of its supposed dysfunctions. It’s so crowded!, they say. It’s always breaking down! Sometimes it even falls off the tracks! It’s a death trap!

Well, I came not to bury the MRT, but rather to… OK, not praise it, but at least offer a measured defense of it. So let me speak up on behalf of the MRT, since trains and tracks cannot speak for themselves:

It is absolutely indispensable. Manila’s train network may be woefully inadequate, with 14 million+++++ people being serviced by a total of 3 train lines (LRT1, LRT2 and MRT) with only 44 stations in total. (Compare Mexico City, a city not known for its cutting-edge infrastructure, still managed to build a whopping 195 metro stations.) And of the three train lines, all of which suffer from malfunctions, random aircon breakdowns on hot afternoons, and severe overcrowding during rush hour, the MRT is the worst: in spite of being the busiest of the three train lines, it has the smallest cars, and suffers from the most technical glitches. Being roughly pushed into a jam-packed MRT car at rush hour as the humble air conditioning struggles to keep up with the sheer outpouring of body heat is quite the experience indeed.

Nonetheless, the MRT has always been the most useful mode of transit for me in Metro Manila. For one thing, it runs along EDSA, a road which provides access to most of Metro Manila’s main commercial centres, and which you could credibly argue is the single most congested thoroughfare in the entire country. An MRT ride, though sometimes traumatic, can potentially reduce a 2 hour road journey to 25 minutes. The ridiculous 40 km journey from my home in Muntinlupa to my occasional workplace in a far-flunt area of Quezon City is only made bearable by the MRT, along with my dear friend the Skyway. (However, on a not-unrelated note, I’ll be quitting that job soon, because traveling 40 km in Manila will never not be hard.)

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Expressway Jeepney Gate Galleria

Keen-eyed Bloggerbels readers will know that when I go to Alabang, I usually take a jeepney. And in the course of many trips to Alabang to eat delicious and inexpensive S&R Pizza (before I went gluten-free), drink coffee at the nicest McDonald’s in the Philippines (the one on Commerce Ave), or visit the public market to buy beef bones for my dogs (THEY LOVE IT!), I noticed something interesting.

Express jeepneys that are fortunate enough to take the South Luzon Expressway to Alabang instead of the horribly congested National Highway are required to have a gate covering their back entrance, one which can be locked shut while on the expressway – unlike most jeepneys, where you just hold on tight and try not to fall out of the back. I eventually realized that each one of these jeepney gates is, as with many things in the Philippines, unique, custom-made, and in many cases quite endearingly improvised. Each one has its own mechanism for locking, too: Sometimes involving hooks, other times wire or even string. All this uniqueness can often be quite bewildering for the passengers near the rear of the jeepney, who are asked with shutting the gate as the jeep nears the expressway.

And so, with the crappy camera that I carry around with me in my man-purse at all times, I have endeavoured to document all the shapes and sizes of jeepney gates that valiantly prevent passengers from bouncing out onto the expressway between the Susana Heights and Filinvest exits.

Aside from the crappiness of my camera, allowances also have to be made for the fact that I took most of these photos from inside vehicles that were rocketing down the highway, bouncing all over the place and shaking uncontrollably while trying to squeeze out every ounce of juice they could muster from their refurbished tractor motors. Oh, and I had to do it while trying to not look like a total weirdo creep – something that’s not very easy to do when you’re taking out a camera and photographing God-knows-what inside a crowded vehicle full of strangers.

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A Huge Election

It’s election time in the Philippines! I have a lot of unsolicited opinions about politics in this country, but in writing this post I am aware that I am walking on thin ice. When I last landed in Manila, the immigration counter prominently displayed signs informing visitors that they would be deported for participating in any political activism. Unlike the immigration cards which declared “DEATH TO DRUG TRAFFICKERS UNDER PHILIPPINE LAW” years after the death penalty was abolished, I knew this was no joke: I have indeed heard of foreigners being summarily deported for joining in protests. (Not that I’d want to traffic drugs here, anyway – the prisons here don’t seem like very nice places to hang out for a few years.) So, you won’t see me waving any placards this election season. Instead, I’ll take the safer ground and write about the election from a cultural perspective, as a recurring event of monumental significance. I’m not trying to advocate for or against any candidate or position – I just want to share my utter fascination. (more…)

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Car Talk with Car Man

Hey there, car fans! Car blogger Car Man here with his first installment of Car Talk with Car Man.

When you meet me, the first thing you will notice about me is my car. It is the latest model of car, four doors for easy entry and exit, with a slick black paint job and heavily tinted windows. The tints are crucial because nobody who’s not in a car is worthy to gaze upon the majesty that is Car Man.

Car Man lives in Muntinlupa City, the South. The South is car country. Down here, we love cars, and Car Man is no exception. We have the South Luzon Expressway, built so that our cars can go FAST. In fact, that’s why they call it an EXPRESSway. Ha, ha! Just a little car humour for you from Car Man, the car guy.

As you might guess from his name, Car Man goes everywhere in his car, with no exceptions. Some people may say, “Car Man, having a car in Metro Manila gives you more options, but aren’t there times when it might be easier to not take your car? For example, when you have to go to Greenbelt or Glorietta by yourself, wouldn’t it be more practical to take a comfortable aircon express bus for 40 pesos than to spend 160 pesos each way on toll alone, plus gas and those hefty Makati parking fees, plus the stress of freeway driving and Makati traffic?” But of course, Car Man knows that “practical” is just another way of saying “too poor to take your car everywhere all the time, no matter how inconvenient it is”. If Car Man started occasionally travelling in vehicles that were not cars, he would no longer be Car Man. And aside from the loss of status, can you imagine all the paperwork involved in legally changing his name to Bus Man?

Besides, do you know how much car Man makes? It’s a lot of money compared to someone who makes a lot less money than him! True, he may spend a quarter of his income on gas, toll and car loan payments, but that is a small price to pay for the freedom and status that come with being Car Man. Even if Car Man sometimes has to borrow money for his mother’s diabetes medication, at least he always has money for toll. Because really, once you make a certain amount of money here, you have to be a Car Man. Once you’re in this income bracket, you need to hang out at the kinds of high-end places where Car Men are expected to hang out, and you need to go there in your shiny new car. It is important to give clear, frequent indicators of what socioeconomic class you identify with. Otherwise, what would your friends think? They might think you’re kuripot or jologs or baduy. Car Man is none of those things; he is a cool guy with a car. Hey ladies, check out my car! Let us engage in sexual intercourse in the back seat of Car Man’s car.

By the way, do you know what Car Man hates? Jeepney drivers! They stop abruptly in the middle of the road to pick up and drop off passengers, without considering the inconvenience they cause to Car Man and other men and women in cars. Jeepneys and buses are obviously the sole cause of Metro Manila’s traffic problem. If each person in those jeepneys and buses were driving their own Pajero, the traffic problem would disappear.

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed the first edition of Car Talk with Car Man, and I look forward to talking cars with you again soon. I’m Car Man, and I love my car. Because in Metro Manila, there is literally no other way to travel.

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