Flores de Mayo

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Less than 24 hours ago, I knew nothing about Flores de Mayo. I learned a fair bit from the Wikipedia article, and when I was done reading that article, I knew I had to watch my Filipino friends hold their own Santacruzan: the procession of … um … Virgin Marys? OK, the article isn’t really clear, and my friends didn’t say a lot about the history. They were too busy decorating umbrellas and making arches and dressing up in debutante finery.

They decided to have a competition, where each one of their teams would present a couple–the woman and her escort (or in one case, two women and their escort)–and they would parade around their work space. Then distinguished and distinguishing judges would evaluate them on a 100 point scale. I was lucky enough to be present during the event, and immensely honored to have been asked to be a judge.

We were asked to judge them on several points: poise, beauty, construction, crowd impact, and sophistication. I gave them all top marks for beauty for they were all beautiful, and I felt it would be more fair to judge them on the effort they put into their costumes and banners, etc. I had to leave before I could learn the results of the judging. Who won doesn’t really matter to me. They all had a great time.

One other note about the pageant: a couple of other Americans were invited to participate in the pageant. We chatted a bit about the experience afterwards, and it was really great for the three of us to have been included in their uniquely Filipino event.

And for my closest Filipino friends, Nezie, Val, and Leslie, this blog post is for you. Because you expected it.

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Temporary and Permanent

In my previous trip to Manila, I had described the city as “tearing itself apart”. Many of the physical aspects of the city that led me to make that statement are still here (shocking, I know, since it was only 18 months ago), but I’ve got a slightly more nuanced view now.

Rather than tearing itself apart, I would characterize it as a city that lets itself crumble. I don’t know why it is letting itself crumble–they have an insanely large workforce with, I’lll guess, millions that are under employed. And labor is cheap here, relative to other parts of the developing world (which is why I’m here). And Filipino businesses treat their labor as cheap–how do they improve customer service and sales at stores? Put more people on the showroom floor.

Here’s an anecdote experienced in one way or another by every one of my American compatriots. I have a thing for blue socks. It’s a bit of a story beyond the scope of this post, so if you don’t know it, just understand it makes sense for me to go to a department store and look for blue socks. In the SM Department store attached to Mall of Asia, I had a hankerin to find a new pair of blue socks. I walked into the men’s accessories department (socks, underwear, belts, wallets, etc) and was instantly greeted by four sales associates. Blue socks? No problem! “Here, sir, look at this?” “What about these?” “Sir!” “Over here!” “These are very nice.” I tried to clarify… crew or mid-calf length, business appropriate, Filipino themed? Yeah, I know that last point was a stretch, but when I had six or seven sales associates each ripping open packs of socks to demonstrate how wonderful their sock pair was, I had to walk away. Too. Much. Attention. “Just let me fucking look at the socks!” I wanted to scream.

I assure you, gentle Americano reader, my anecdote is not unique. I and others have experienced it many times. In part, this customer service attitude is what makes them an ideal location for off-shored contact centers. But it makes my point–humans are a cheap way for them to solve a problem. In the men’s accessories section of the SM Department store, I counted no fewer than 15 associates. In the US, the same space would be staffed by maybe one person. Assuming they weren’t on break.

So how is it that a city with a massive workforce, ready to work, can’t seem to keep its self from deteriorating? I honestly don’t know. But these pictures are the things I’ve noticed as “permanent structures” that have become temporary due to decay and neglect.

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Pole being supported by wires, rather than the other way around.

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Crumbling steps of the Cultural Center of the Philippines theater complex, as an example of crumbling concrete everywhere.

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Disarmed statues along Roxas Boulevard. Look too closely and your heart will be broken by the leashed, malnourished dog at the feat of the boy. I know not of his fate.

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Statues among rubble. The rest of the promenade has been restored. Sort of.

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The vacant and nearly forgotten Cultural Center of the Philippines.

In contrast to this “neglect” that is omnipresent, I also see a lot of “making do” with the resources available. There are many times when structures or barricades or general infrastructure are put in place as, I imagine, a temporary solution to a problem. But due to a lack of funds or willpower, those temporary solutions have essentially become permanent.

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Concrete barricades, colorfully painted, in place to protect the street vendors present every day.

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This way through the intersection has been closed for at least a month. It shows no sign of opening, and no sign as to why it is closed.

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“Check point” signs are everywhere. There is no “check point” ahead. This sign and barricade had been added to close a section of road that has been ‘off limits’ for years.

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18 months ago, these signs and ‘tent’ were more prominent in the road, though never staffed, and never were we stopped. Also, see that the tent is made of recycled vinyl sign material?

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Tarps sheltering I-know-not-what. For years.

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More road modifications by way of temporary barriers. Barely enough to prevent a determined car from passing through.

Manila seems to be a city both allowing itself to crumble and making do with what it has. A city of will and of way. Of rich and poor. Of hard-work and of good-enough.

Mabini Street and the Manila Zoo

P1010815‘Twas an evening like many others for me in Manila–7AM and nothing to do. I could either read a book I was no longer interested in, or watch wealthy kids unknown frolic at the resort pool. I’ve taken a few ambles from my hotel, and the sights that the city bestows upon me never leave me bored. So I pulled up the trusty Google maps, and noticed a smallish green-space called “Manila Zoological and Botanical Garden”. The space outlined on the map wasn’t significantly bigger than the hotel property I’m staying in, so, for some reason, I didn’t really think “Oh, that’s the Manila Zoo**” but it was. I imagined some kind of urban park with extra stray cats, and fish that hadn’t yet been spit onto a fence. OK, maybe that’s harsh, and maybe I didn’t put much though into it. I just plotted my course and walked.

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God Bless Us and our lean-to hovel

It didn’t take long before I was way out of my element and into the you’re-not-from-around-here zone. I’ve walked through uncomfortable parts of Manila. I’ve been stared at by Filipinos for being white and tall and wealthy, and this walk was no different. As soon as I crossed Roxas Boulevard and left the neighborhood of the chain pizza shop and the Krispy Kreme, I was in poor-but-not-squatter-slums-Manila.

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The streets are crowded, the Jeepneys are close and belching, and there’s little separation between sidewalk and road, if any. As is typical, I drew a few glances, and a few people asked me to take their pictures.

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The common thumb-and-index finger “peace” sign of Pilippinas

And then Lou asked me to take his picture.

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I’ll call him Lou because I really couldn’t quite catch his name. He said it to me a couple of times, but it never stuck, and I couldn’t quite tell what he was saying. Anyway, above is Lou. He immediately became my Mabini Street friend, leading me along the way, talking with me about World War II, and inquiring about my business in the Philippines. When I told him that I was just exploring, he said something like “Good! I didn’t have anything to do today!”

So we wandered up Mabini until we were next to a wall of the Zoo. I told him that I wanted to see inside, and he immediately offered to go in with me. I paid 200₱ (about $4.50) total for us both to enter.

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Wow, an elephant right near the front entrance, thought I. Actually, I was struck by how much the interior of the zoo looked a lot like the streets that bordered its walls–crumbling, dirty, and lacking funds for skilled maintenance. This isn’t entirely meant to be a review of the Manila Zoo, so I’ll summarize by saying that is was not an oasis in an urban jungle. It was merely a neighborhood in said jungle.

Lou really wanted to show me the monkeys. I don’t remember why, but our first loop of the zoo took like ten minutes as he was trying to find the monkeys for me.

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Something about monkeys wrestling on cracked concrete near a clogged storm drain made me think of the world outside the zoo’s walls. Who was living in the cage?

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My tour guide continued to lead me through the zoo, through I had to whistle at him periodically that I had stopped to take pictures of the animals. At one point we talked about buying some water, and he used the words “I buy for you” and I thought for a moment that he intended to reciprocate a little bit of the zoo entrance price (not that it was any big deal to me). When we finally found a vendor that was open that early, I learned that he meant “I’ll make the purchase with your money”.

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A river of sewage runs through it.

We made a couple more laps around the zoo, and I insisted on a selfie with Lou, despite the awkward sunlight.

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The biggest advantage of the tiny zoo is the intimacy with the animals. The crocs where within harms-reach. I dared not torment the ostrich as I have with so many birds before. One lion charged us as we walked by and I was a bit surprised and relieved that the cage held.

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Caged, and sad.

P1010909 P1010883 P1010924 P1010928 P1010938 P1010944Lou and I left the zoo with a lot of morning still to burn that night. We continued up Mabini Street, with Lou bringing up the topic of traveling to far-off Filipino provinces. I mostly indulged his broken-english discussion of such provinces right until he led me into a travel agency. He then started urging me to purchase a ticket to some far flung island. Um no. Thankyouverymuch, but no.

We continued up Babini Road, and I continued to pause to capture moments you just don’t see every day in the states.

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In case you were wondering, this is where Skynet starts.

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I wanted to get to Rizal Park, mostly because I knew how far that was, and it seemed like a bit of an accomplishment. When we got there, Lou still seemed to think that we would be taking some sort of vacation together. He was nice and all, but not really the type I would think about hanging on the beach in Cebu with.

So I started thinking about how to get rid of Lou. He had an agenda, but I’m not sure I really understood it at that point. He had no money and thought I would be entertaining him for the day. It was approaching 10AM at night and I was ready to catch a cab back to my air-conditioned hotel room. When Lou noticed that I was no longer following his lead, I told him I was done, and that I wanted to give him some money for his time. I offered him 200₱, and he indicated that he had some sort of infection going on in his ankles, and the prescription cost 500₱, and could I give him 500₱, please. I gave him 300₱ (his ankles weren’t bothering him enough to slow him down) since I didn’t have enough to give him 500₱ and catch a cab. I then set about finding a cab back to my hotel.

The first cab wanted 200₱ as an unmetered fare. I told him to f-off. I know that game and won’t play it. I’ve been told that cabbies do that to Pilippinas as well. The next honest cabbie got my fare. My pillow welcomed me. It was clean and cool, so unlike Mabini Street.

 

** The domain name manilazoo.org is for sale, if you’re interested. I can’t find an actual website for the Manila Zoo.

 

Trekking Pinatubo

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sunrise from the road, not Pinatubo

On my previous trip to the Philippines, I had gone to Taal Volcano and had really enjoyed it. In looking for other day-trips, I targeted a trip to Mt. Pinatubo as a good possibility. The biggest challenge is that an individual can’t really join an existing tour schedule. You have to book the tour and the price per person depends on the number of people in your group. If I went by myself, it would cost $270. Fortunately, I had 6 colleagues who were willing to go with me, dropping the cost to only $65 each.  The tour we chose to get to Mt Pinatubo (last eruption 1991) departed Manila at 4AM. This might seem like an ungodly hour, but for those of us working the night-shift, it didn’t feel too bad. The primary advantage is that we were not stuck in traffic for the first 2 hours of our drive, although there was a surprising amount of traffic at that time.

We rode in a nice air-conditioned van from Manila to the end of paved roads in tiny Saint Juliana where we transferred to 4×4 jeeps. Before we could leave, however, everyone over 40 had to have their blood-pressure checked. Being the oldest one in our group, my tender ego was bruised, but my pressure was 100/70 and I was good to go.

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Our path followed the O’Donnell River valley, crossing the river many times.

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The valley is a barren ashen wasteland. The tour described this part of the trek as moon-like, and they were not kidding.

 

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Its not really visible in these pictures, but the ash was kicked up by the traveling jeeps, and got pretty much everywhere, making it somewhat hard to breath at times. We were covered by ash by the end of the trip.
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At one point we stopped for a group picture, at what I’ll assume is a common stopping point. First the group pic, taken by our driver, whom evidently didn’t know how to deal with tall Americans.

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The reason I assume it is a common stopping point, is that there was a gaggle of kids waiting to take pictures with tourists.

P1020155 P1020149The kids then asked for money. I think that “money” was the only English they knew. At first, I thought I didn’t have any coins, so I pulled out three 20P notes (worth about $0.50 each). In hindsight, I’m pretty sure this was a mistake. I tried to give the bills to the younger of the kids, but they probably got robbed in their sleep later. The way the kids transformed from smiling-take-my-picture-angels to money-demanding-demons was a bit startling to me. But given that they probably subsist on pennies a day, any opportunity for more rice in their bellies probably needs to be met with aggression for survival’s sake.

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“Take more pictures of us!”

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“Give me money!”

After an hour-long jeep ride through the river valley, we got to our drop-off point for a short hike to the crater lake. Again my ego was hurt to realize that expectations were lower for me.

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P1020233 P1020282The view was fantastic, and the weather was beautiful. We stayed and explored a bit from the upper observation area, and down by the lake.

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You get a lot of pics because I just couldn’t decide which one I liked best.

We also did a few group shots.

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This time our driver didn’t cut off our heads!

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There was a European tourist (I couldn’t quite place his accent) who was flying a top-of-the-line quadcopter drone over the lake.

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I asked if he would take a picture of our group and send it to me. He took a few pics, and I gave him my card… so far no pics.

On the way back, I kept taking pictures, trying to capture the scope and feel of the valley. The white hills are all volcanic ash. According to our driver, this used to be a forest.

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This is a very rural part of the Philippines, and we saw a few Filipinos going about their daily lives, rather used to the tourists in the jeeps going by.P1020457

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As one of my colleagues put it, this girl gave zero f*cks about us seeing her nakedness.

We ate lunch at “Alvin’s Place” where we got a traditional Filipino lunch of chicken adobo, talapia and vegetables. There were two more white cats, and this one just melted under my attention, falling asleep as I scratched his chin.

P1020501Alvin’s also had a couple of chickens (dinner for future guests?) as well as what they called ‘Filipino Eagles’.

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This one had an injured leg.

This one had an injured leg.

And they had a basketball hoop. I’m not sure it was regulation height.

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