“How many copies?” asked a diminutive man dressed in loud flowery board shorts and a dishevelled t-shirt. “Four of each…” I said and handed over the papers. The photocopier machine or Xerox as they call it in the Philippines was randomly placed at the end of a dirty alley. An object’s name is invariably always associated with a brand. Colgate not toothpaste, Hershey’s not chocolate- get it?
The concrete walls of the shack were close to black. A calendar of a half naked girl on a white horse hung askew. A rickety desk fan struggled to blow air. The street outside was noisy and busy with traffic blocked a kilometre down. It was a 15 minute walk from my apartment. I was counting the coins in my hand when three men came into the shop. A man with a denim jacket barged in. His skin brown, stretched and wrinkled from the sun. His posse stayed close behind. Pretty hot and humid for the get up, he looked like somebody out of Django or the Wild Wild West. We said nothing. He suddenly opened the flap of his jacket. A greying (once) white shirt lay underneath full of sweat marks exposing a tanned leather holster strap. His eyes looked wild from drugs. The photocopier man hid under the machine. It was a dead end. I mustered up the courage to speak and remain calm. With a weak smile I asked, “Pare, asan ang baril?”(“My friend, Where’s the gun?”). He looked down surprised and confused. The holster was empty. His companions burst out laughing exposing their gummy Meth mouths. They dragged the goon out of the stall. An embarrassment for would be robbers. I walked home shaking. It makes for a funny yarn but looking back, quite a dodgy situation to be in. Was it just a bad day at the office or a typical day in Pasay?
Pasay is a dense city south of Manila named after a princess of the long-gone Namayan Kingdom. A trade hub during the 12th to 14th centuries, merchants from across Asia came to barter their wares with the natives. It’s also the city I’ve called home for the past eight years after moving to the Philippines from India. I was born in Manila to a Filipino mother and Indian father, and felt it was time to revisit my roots. Pasay might not seem like the obvious choice of a place to settle, but I liked its grit and close proximity to the airport. These days, Pasay could be anywhere in the world, with its casinos, luxury hotels, and shopping centers.
The Philippine archipelago was named after King Philip II of Spain. It is the only predominantly Christian country in Asia. Its 5% Muslim population are concentrated in the lawless southern island of Mindanao. Colonized by the Spanish and Americans, the republic is closest to the American form of democracy and constitution. English however remains the main mode of communication next to the national language of Tagalog. Spanish was never integrated into society and remained exclusive, spoken by the colonizers and elite. Other than Catholicism, Filipino names reflect a strong Spanish influence. Imagine the name Juan Jose oozing with macho Latino vibes paged over the airport PA- a wiry South East Asian man turns up at the check in counter! From the moment your plane lands into the world’s worst airport you are pushed and shoved through the immigration line to the taxi stand; just to fall in line again to experience the world’s worst traffic. In some instances travel time on land takes longer than your actual flight.
A recent article released by Forbes warned-if basic highways and infrastructure were not upgraded immediately the traffic woes would worsen. Metro Manila is at risk of being uninhabitable in the next four years. Then what is it now? It is a running joke that the Filipino love affair with the automobile runs deep. It comes before the wife, mistress or kids. Easy access to loans will see an annual growth increase of 500,000 cars by 2020, the bigger the SUVs, the better.
A work meeting may last 15 minutes but it can take three hours for a distance of 3kms to get to by car or via public transportation/post war Jeepney. The lack of roads, bicycle lanes, railway connections and skyways will just elevate the chaos and congestion. Pedestrians are an afterthought. Some have ventured into buying motorcycles on the hopes of zooming through the packed roads- Vietnam style. However the recent law passed against “no two men riding in tandem” have put people off. The term- Riding in tandem has taken its own definition in Filipino English. As a noun it refers to crimes carried out by more than one person, usually two men on a motorcycle. From petty thefts, to murders- easy access to guns and hit men make it eerily similar to most banana republics.
From across my apartment the view of the sea is close to nonexistent. One would have to go to the 21st floor of our building to get through the skyline. A tragic concrete jungle; in less than a decade I have seen the reclaimed area of Manila bay (once sea and fields) fill up with an assortment of buildings. No greenery or parks to show for. Majority of the establishments are constructed along the main highway without proper planning. The President himself attended the last Casino inauguration- so there doesn’t seem to be a problem.
Metro Manila is the main city for work but people continue to find homes farther away from the business district or capital to save on expenses. Presently rows and rows of minute condominiums remain empty because it is too expensive for an average family of 5 to live in. The logistics of more than one person existing in a 21 sq. foot apartment is baffling. Less than half the size of what I’m cooped in now. The poor planning and constant construction brings everything to a halt. A small downpour brings flood water to knee level outside these buildings; with a typhoon-waist deep or higher.
There are a little over a 100 million Filipinos, 10% work abroad, mostly women. With the Catholic Church meddling and not legalizing birth control, the numbers will continue to rise. At the moment the Philippines has one of the fastest growing HIV cases worldwide. Next to Iraq it is also holds the title of world’s worst place to die. The upper 10% families control majority of the wealth while more than a quarter lives below the poverty line.
The future is bleak.
The sudden influx of South Korean nationals is puzzling. Apparently here to learn English but rarely hear it practiced or spoken. The once vibrant convenience store below me that sold an array of local knick knacks is now Korean owned- over flowing with Kimchi, Soju and Spam. As one enters the lobby we are to present identification cards issued by the administration for our own safety. Two armed security guards are assigned to each building. I share elevators with mainland Chinese and South Korean casino dealers. Dressed in crisp white shirts, a black coat with a brass name plate of (guessing) their name. The idea is to bring in the high rollers from their own countries to gamble, no questions asked. The casino next to us is all over the news for allegedly filtering millions of dollars of hacked funds. Nobody flinches.
There is at least one drug bust, prostitution raid and illegal online gaming scam or murder suicide every other month. I’ve added a third lock to my door. The most tragic as of late-a South Korean man thrown from a couple of floors above, his body bounced through a tree to the pool area then down to the neighbours’ compound. The police could not get a statement from anyone in our building. None of us trust the authorities to get involved. Majority of the cases are paid to remain unsolved.
“Don’t you fear for your life, maybe it’s a sign to move?” a friend asked.
“Worry all the time, but what are you going to do?” I reply.
Another side of the city doesn’t ensure safety.
There is little difference.
For people like us who can’t afford to just get up and leave; it is what it is.
Each day is an uphill battle.
Until the government realizes that success and modernity does not entail the latest shopping trends, resort living and slot machines my city of Pasay and the rest of the Philippines will remain a failed state.
Progress is attention to research and development, infrastructure, good wages, health care, public transportation, agriculture, legal investors, industry, art and culture.
The Presidential elections are up in a couple of months. The country has been ruled by a succession of corrupt and unreliable leaders. We can’t forever be reminded of the past 30 years- where one sees no improvement. It’s time to live in the now.
If nothing changes within the next 6 year term or another natural, man-made disaster doesn’t flatten us- here’s hoping the last one out gets to pull the plug.