Excess and extremes – find it all in the Philippines


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I was just one day in the office in Manila before the first typhoon of 2014 came trundling down the Pacific and crashed into Northern Luzon, striking Manila, Albay and Bataan.  It was a bit of a baptism of fire and hopefully not an omen of things to come over the next few months.

Almost 100 people lost their lives in the typhoon and luckily it avoided the areas hit by Typhoon Haiyan on 8 November 2013.  There are still millions of people left homeless in the wake of Haiyan, believed to be the biggest weather system to ever make landfall. Another typhoon hitting them at this time would be catastrophic and indeed I don’t suppose they will be as lucky when the next weather system strikes.

In a typical Filipino fashion, everything and everybody is called something different to their original name.  The most recent typhoon was known internationally as Rammasun, but known locally as Glenda.  Super-typhoon Haiyan also had a different local name – Yolanda.  Confused? Good, because that’s only the start of it.  Every single Filipino I know uses a different name to their birth name.  The lady who cleans my home is Virgi, short for Virginia, but not her real name, which is something like Rachel.  Then I thought, maybe Agnes, one of the senior members of our staff in OCHA, that it was her original name, until I realised she is Maria Agnes…Maria being her first name.  Eio from UNDP is Eliot etc.

When I arrived back to Manila the level of in-your-face consumerism once again struck me.  The route from the airport to the city is just one massive billboard after another.  The latest craze according to one of the billboards is for men’s beauty.  “How to have thicker eye brows,” with a picture of a young Filipino male with bushy brows, followed by ads for deodorant that promise to whiten the underarm skin as it reduces odours.  I feel bad enough that deodorant is sprayed/rolled under the glands, but mixing it with whitening chemicals… holy moley – just asking for trouble.  There’s an obsession with white skin – it always amuses me because Caucasian skin wrinkles and ages more quickly.

Outside my national work colleagues who are well used to working with international colleagues, often times with a healthy and justified disrespect; there are many Filipinos who see having a Caucasian friend as a desirable thing, almost like owning a Mercedes or a pair of Gucci gloves.

My Irish friend here at the moment (Lu) likes to play golf and spends her weekends on some of the golf courses around Manila.  She had befriended a woman, in her sixties, who is the epitome of the Filipino wantabe upper middle-classes.  I’m not sure whether Raquel just never went out in the sun and used an umbrella like a sun shield (as I do now) or whether she could write a guidebook to cosmetic surgery clinics in the Philippines. In fairness has an amazing figure for a woman of her years.  I met her when Lu was invited to a Rotary party for the president’s birthday (husband of the Rotary president, I may add).

Raquel picked us up with her car and driver, dressed in little black sleeveless, over the knee number (dress) and we headed off to Quezeon city.  She had her ‘grand daughter’ with her (her friend’s daughter).  The child had just celebrated her seventh birthday and was sporting a pair of high heels, in a little yellow dress with matching handbag, containing her iPad.  All a bit too much for me I have to say.

We arrived at the party house.  The owner runs a wedding business, so there were old white Mercedes all parked alongside the house, decked with plastic flowers.  The almost empty room was like a big barn, with between 25 and 30 large circular tables and the music was blasting out of the enormous speakers. The glass look-alike see-through plastic chairs were around each table, draped in blue polyester material, matching the tablecloths.  Upside down umbrellas hung from the ceiling and there were several enormous chandeliers, lighting up the fake cherry blossom trees sprouting out of the walls.  We were told the party started at six but when we got there at 7 pm we were among the first guests.

I glanced over at my friend and indicated that 30 minutes was probably enough time to stay.  Several Rotary people joined the table and made some small talk about humanitarian assistance and the good work they are involved in.  When it was time to eat, there was a decent size buffet but I’m reluctant to tuck in on these occasions because of the abundance of monosodium glutamate used in the Philippines and it would be a bit of an understatement to say I don’t react well to MSG. One lady at the table was talking about diets and how she had lost 7 kgs recently. She proceeded to take out a food weighing scales and weight the meat from her plate. She actually cut a piece of meat into small pieces because she was able to have another 20 grammes.  It’s just amazing the sad, sad people you bump into some days.

The party goers came in dribs and drabs and we were wheeled out and introduced to people as they arrived, like some sort of show poodles.  Everybody was told we worked in the UN and I grinned through my teeth and muttered a few words, jumping from foot to foot to just get out of the place.  We made our escape about 8.30 muttering excuses about having to work the next day.  As we left there were still only about three full tables out of at least 30 tables.

taco4bogdyedThe following week Lu and myself met or lunch in Fort Bonafacio, a popular shopping spot for the more wealthy Filipinos.  We sat outside a trendy gastro pub (not so popular with me after a dose of MSG), when a group of wannabes strolled past walking their dogs.  One of the dogs, a poor poodle, with more make-up and hair dye than Lady GaGa on a good week, passed by leaving me bewildered at the level of extremes I see most days in the Philippines.

Another friend, Anu, is here in the Philippines, having arrived six months ago.  It’s great to have her around – this woman is as solid as a rock, with a great sense of humour.  We went off to Tagaytay, over an hour’s drive from Manila and a popular tourist spot because of its beauty and big volcano.  We headed off to ‘gaze at our navels’ at some spiritual retreat house one Sunday morning.  No point in trying to negotiate the Manila traffic, even on a Sunday, so we rented car and driver to bring us to volcano town. I have to report it was surprisingly worthwhile and enjoyable.

tacloban 1On the way Anu mentioned that she had stopped at Maria’s Café to taste civet cat coffee – a coffee drinkers nirvana.  The coffee grows in the Mt Apo ranges, which is in Davao in the south, but obviously also grows in Luzon, north of Manila (at least I think we went north – I was never interested in the direction I was going). We were reliably informed these are the best coffee beans in the Philippines. However, what makes the coffee special it that it comes from civet cat poo – yes, there are farmers who shift through the shit of the civet cat and pluck out the coffee beans from the shit to prepare for roasting.

According to the web, civets are nocturnal cats that feed on the fleshy pulp of fruits like coffee berries. Only the fleshy pulp is digested and the beans stay intact. Proteolytic enzymes inside the cat’s tummy seep into the beans, making shorter peptides and creating shorten peptide as well as an abundance of amino acids, resulting in less bitterness and more aromatic chocolate taste.  Apparently the cats select only the best coffee beans; well that’s what I’m reading anyway.

According to Maria, the coffee shop owner, the farmers come in once a week with the beans and each farmer brings just one or two kgs with him – it’s what makes it so expensive.  We were assured that the bean comes out whole as the cat can’t digest the outer shell and when the farmer eventually finds the beans in the cat poo, they are thoroughly washed by the farmers before being roasted.

taco3catIt is said that the coffee is the most expensive in the world. People are reported to have paid up to $80 per cup for cat-crap coffee. They give free espresso cups of coffee in Maria’s with the promise that it will ward of sleepiness and banishes bodily aches and pains!  I’m not sure of the weight of the bag I bought, but I reckon it’s a mere 100 kilogrammes and cost +€20.  Maria was happy to accompany me to show me the coffee shop’s civet cat in a cage apartment, with the cat on the ‘bottom’ floor and a poor monkey on the top floor, hardly able to move.

It was a week of travel; earlier that week I visited Zamboanga in Mindanao, the Muslim region of the Philippines.  Last November 9th, a faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front decided to go on a bit of a kidnapping spate (something like 130+ people) around the town.  The Government responded in an effort to free those who were kidnapped and in doing so, many innocent people lost their homes as they were burnt down.

At the height of the conflict, 112,000 people were displaced from their homes.  About 25,000 of them are still living in the sports stadium and transition camps in terrible living conditions.  It all seemed so surreal when the stadium’s loud- speaker was playing Charlene’s I’ve never been to Me on full blast to people living in appalling degradation, with the stench of sewage permeating the air, choking me and everybody else throughout the stadium.

Up to 10,000 people remain in the sports stadium and I had the opportunity to visit to speak to people about their experiences.  Many live on the steps of the stadium and whole family’s on one step, about two feet wide. Their possessions amount to some cooking equipment and clothes – nothing else. Some have set up ‘shops’ around the compound selling small bags of washing powder and the basics such as rice and tinned milk.  The biggest fear is that there will be an outbreak of disease, not helped by the recent rains, which saw a lot of dengue fever in the camps. This is worrying; as it will likely affect children and old people the most. It is a terrible, terrible life and as usual, the most vulnerable are the ones who continue to suffer.

This week I head to Tacloban, where I had visited in November 2013 after Typhoon Haiyan to see what’s happening with the community down there.

Until next time…

Yours Fagan

Orla Presser









9 thoughts on “Excess and extremes – find it all in the Philippines

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