Diary April 2013
After a short sojourn back in Baghdad, which was a gloomy affair and not worth wasting ink on, I arrived in the Philippines a couple of weeks ago and relieved to be out of the open prison that is the UN in Baghdad.
The Philippines, made up of thousands of islands, drifts from one natural catastrophe to another. Earthquakes, mudslides, typhoons, volcanoes – it is all here. It was occupied by Spain for generations – and took its name from one of the King Philips’. When the Spanish left, the Americans took over and English is widely spoken along with their own local language.
I had forgotten what south-east Asia looks and feels like. While I couldn’t point out the Philippines on a map before I came here, it reminds me a lot of parts of Indonesia, with the same vegetation, traffic jams, architecture and propensity for unabashed consumerism. This makes sense when you do look at the map and realise its proximity to China – a hop, skip and a jump and you’re in Beijing.
Touching down after the long flight, the chaos of the arrival hall in Manila was a bit of a culture shock. It was manic. People were milling around with no obvious queue for passport control and an hour later I reached the booth and where I had the passport stamped. I can’t figure out why there is such chaos, there is no fingerprint or iris scan like most other countries. I probably should have booked a wheelchair – that queue seemed to be moving a lot faster.
In typical UN fashion they put me in to an expensive grotty hotel, with 20-Watt bulbs in the room so you couldn’t see just how grotty the room is, but I did notice the cockroach catchers strategically placed around the bathroom. The ants scurried over my papaya at breakfast the next morning and the waitress noticed them just as she was putting the plate down in front of me.
On my first evening my colleague Ivy, (a Chinese/Indonesian based in Australia), brought me around to view the place where she stays- a hotel and apartment suite. Finding my way back that evening became a little fraught, as I couldn’t remember where my hotel was located and nobody I asked had ever heard of it. I am not sure whether it was just my pronunciation that nobody could understand me or whether I just have difficulties understanding the Filipino accent. It took me the best part of an hour to eventually find my location, which was five minutes on the other side of the road. I stuck out the grotty hotel for another two days until I just moved in to the hotel where Ivy has her apartment.
Filipinos are paranoid about electricity and go around after you unplugging everything, kettles, laptops, air conditioners. You arrive back to your hotel and every single electrical appliance is unplugged. There must be a lot of fires but it has to be more to do with poor wiring than anything else. Look up at any electricity pole anywhere in the Philippines and it’s like a spaghetti junction. I’ve seen some streets where the wires almost hit the ground there are so many hanging off the poles.
Manila has no centre but made up of barangays, villages – and my local village is Bel Air Barangay. Bel Air and village in the same sentence just doesn’t seem right. The office in Manila is based in a modern skyscraper in the heart of the business district, and there are several restaurants, a museum, a chapel and a gym in the building.
The Filipinos are not really in tune with fine dining, but I suppose it’s handy to run out and get a sandwich at lunchtime and the Korean restaurant wasn’t at all bad. McDonald’s and KFC are ubiquitous, a bit like Dublin before all the pubs closed down, where directions were once based on what turn you took after what particular pub; expect of course in the Philippines it would be either McDonald’s, KFC or Starbucks. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many fast food joints in my life and it is reflected in the numbers of overweight Filipinos spilling out of them. At least though there is choice and I can’t complain if I compare to the auld crap dished up in Baghdad on a daily basis.
The Philippines closes down for Easter. The laundry, the shops, the taxis – there is nothing open from Thursday to Saturday evening. The mall did open on Easter Saturday but most small businesses remain closed until Sunday and people escape from Manila. It makes travelling around the roads out of the city a lot more manageable for those who venture out, especially if you have to contend with the stress of daily traffic jams in high heat and humidity.
This is the only Christian country in the region and the population are 90 per cent Catholic. Other Christian religions vie for sinners and the biggest competitor is Iglesia ni Cristo (INC), started by a Filipino who left the Catholic church. When the Protestants didn’t do it for him he set up his own version of Christianity. INC reminds me of McDonald’s with the same style of distinctive church every couple of kilometres. There is of course a big Muslim population in parts of Mindanao in the South, where they want to cede from the main Filipino government. They’ve managed to kidnap more than a few Irish priests over the years and it’s not a particularly accessible area, especially when a typhoon hits and the people who require assistance are put out of reach when the rescuers are in danger of kidnapping or indeed murder.
On Good Friday we hired a car and driver and headed to San Fernando, a fairly industrial town about 100 kilometres north of Manila. It’s not a place you’d normally visit as a tourist, except around Easter when visitors from around the world and locals come out to see the re-enactment of the crucifixion. Along the streets of San Fernando men walk in procession, with bare feet and bare upper body’s with heads covered with black cloth bags. Some wore a crown of thorns and they whipped themselves as they walked along.
We arrived just in time to see these men in the throes of self-flagellation making their way along the street. Old women came out to give them water and juice and they lifted the black cloth to take the drink. It was impossible to get to the front of the procession without becoming splattered with blood and with no umbrella and wearing a white shirt, I didn’t risk the splattering. Even if I had an umbrella with me, I don’t think I would fancy a blood-speckled brolly. The men stopped, I assume outside their individual home’s, where they prostrated themselves. One young woman took off her shoe and patted, (as opposed to beating), the penitent relative on his wounds. Outside the front of the church, they came to a stop and tossed their crowns of thorn on the roof before dispersing.
While the self-flagellators most likely made their way to the local hospital for some pain killers and dressings for their wounds, we moved on to see the re-enactment of the crucifixions, which was held near the basketball arena. A couple of hundred people gathered to watch the events. The arena has a corrugated roof and no walls, to protect people from the scorching sun. Men sold ice cream and water from bicycles and did a thriving business as the heat of the afternoon began to take its toll. The proceedings took place outside, with relevant gospel readings and hymns blasted through megaphones.
‘Jesus’, dressed in white, was raised on the cross and they used ropes rather than nails, thankfully. They also provided him with a little platform to stand so he wasn’t hanging off the cross. Only one sinner, dressed in red was raised beside him. They had a bit of difficulty with the third cross and it came down as fast as it went up. I assume they hadn’t assembled it properly – probably should have gone to Ikea.
I expected it to be a more gruesome affair. I suppose if there were a few screams or shouts from the self-flagellators it would have made it worse and certainly Jesus didn’t seem to be having that much of a hard time. When they took him off the cross (using a ladder), they put him on a stretcher, but I didn’t go see if they buried him alive, nor did I go back on Easter Sunday to see if he rose from the dead.
There was a piece in the newspaper coming up to Easter warning people of the potential damage caused by hammering nails through your hands and the consequences of hitting the wrong spot. The weekend newspapers then pictured a screaming Jesus who was literally nailed to the cross, so I was glad not to witness that particular crucifixion.
The remainder of the day was spent in Tangatay, a volcano South of Manila, where they charge outrageous prices to take a small boat over to the volcano. Rather than feel as if I was indeed going through self-flagellation by paying the €50 for the 10 minutes boat ride, I found a restaurant selling beer and happily viewed the volcano from the bottom of a beer glass. Nothing like a nice cold beer all the same after day of flagellation, fast food and crucifixions.
Until next time.