Thursday, December 17, 2009

Smogtown baby

Some places stick with you long after you leave them, but not many literally stick to you. Manila does. Bum around the metro for a few days and you’ll be picking the city out of your fingernails and rubbing it from your eyes, coughing back up all the black poison air you’ve swallowed.

Last week I stood at the border between Manila and the Outside. The boundary should have been invisible, just a line on a political map, but in actuality it was all too clear. What I saw: on one side of me, a brilliant blue sky spotted by a few bright scudding clouds; on the other, a forbidding dark grey wall of smog, solid as any of the concrete and steel that’s been haphazardly thrown up on what used to be a jungle island.


Much of the steel goes to Makati. This is the district of Metro Manila where the rich people live. There’s no wall around Makati, but in my head I always imagine it as having one. When Typhoon Ondoy hit in September, one national newspaper devoted a large article to a big-name Filipino actor puttering around in his boat and saving people. Reminds me of Sean Penn in New Orleans after Katrina – except that the people this guy was “saving” were his equally famous and rich actor friends. Salamat sa Dyos!

Outside of the delusion district, Manila is one big reality. It’s dirty, certainly, but not dirty in any conventional way: there’s something sticky and unwashable about the filth in Manila, a tropical adhesion which coats the jagged sidewalks that look vomited up by some cement volcano, the few sad and scraggly trees, the glossy posters advertising the girls at a GRO bar. The madly colored jeepneys can’t escape it, and even that other universe, the domain of those with means, is stained with it – glance up at the Hyatt hotel in Malate during daytime and you’ll see what the flashy neon distracts you from at night: a creeping, insidious blackness spreading across the flat, dull facade. The desperation of the streets has become too dense, and can only diffuse upwards.

Those streets look bad and smell worse, bathed in a solution of chunky stagnant water and urine, spotted with dead dogs, live rats and human excrement. They are a home for many, and I know I’m trespassing when I step over sleeping bodies on my way to buy my coffee or take pictures with my expensive camera. As an American, as a white person, I don’t belong here.

But: as an American, as a white person, I do. Manila is a terrible place for many Filipinos, but a haven for all those westerners looking for kicks. As I’m browsing the ubiquitous stands of pirated movies, often the first thing I’m asked is “Porn, sir?” When I’m offered a woman – if the seller is discreet; sometimes they’re blunter about the services they’re peddling – how can I tell them that I’m not interested, that I’m not one of them? A few dozen years, many pounds and a significant amount of personal grooming might differentiate me from the grubby old white men looking for a young Filipina to wrap themselves around, but to many ManileƱos there’s no difference at all. If I’m not interested, maybe I’m just being superior; if I can’t spare a coin for a begging street kid, maybe I’m just being greedy.

Begging? Not good enough in Manila. In a land of so many competing have-nots, even the penniless and powerless must have something to sell – broken trinkets, wood carvings, dejected flowers.


One of my favorite images of the Philippines involves a child and a flower: in a park in Iloilo, I watched as a little girl spied a pretty flower on the ground and tottered over to investigate. Her irritated mother called her, but the girl ignored the shrill, annoyed noise: she had something more interesting to heed. The most important thing in her world at that moment was admiring a flower, and I envied her singlemindedness.

And one of my least favorite images of the Philippines involves a child and a flower: they were both on the wrong side of a taxi window. The girl, standing with torrential Manila rain running down her ragged long hair, beckoned for me to buy her soaking sampaguita flowers. The cabbie reached back and locked my door, and I looked away: just another smogtown baby drowning.

I’ve complained often about a lack of privacy in the Philippines, but my life is shuttered and soundproof compared to the drama staged every day in the streets of the capital. Countless times I’ve ducked my head away from something I’ve seen, something my western mind views as shameful. I quicken my step and mutter an apology when I turn a corner and a woman is defecating on the sidewalk in front of me; I avert my eyes and scuttle by the old man taking a bath from a public faucet along the baywalk.

And they are shameful, these things: not the fact that they are done but because they are done out of necessity, a lack of choice. Confined to malnourishment, illness, poverty, the poor of Manila’s ignored and unpoliced streets face only one law, that of mandatory debasement.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Electric Radio Machine!

It shames me sometimes to think that, not too long ago, Peace Corps volunteers didn’t have cell phones or the internet. (They did have motorcycles, and that assuages my shame somewhat.) Not only do I have these things, my kids have these things. My orphaned and neglected children have Facebook accounts. They ask me for Friendster “codes” and I have to admit that I don’t know what they’re talking about. They show me how to do things on my cell phone. The only thing that recently has made me more feel out of touch was when The Office started making pop-culture jokes that I don’t understand.

I don’t begrudge my kids their Friendster and Facebook. Really, they use these websites for their actual purpose – making and communicating with friends. I mainly use Facebook as a repository for interesting and/or ethnic names in an attempt to make myself seem more worldly. I routinely cull the Smiths and Joneses.

Just the fact that I can use Facebook in a developing country – every day if I really wanted (which I don’t), since my center has an internet connection – shows how the world has changed since the Peace Corps was inaugurated in 1961.

In my head, New York City in 1961 was a little hamlet bustling with horse-drawn buggies. Australia had not yet been discovered. Sears & Roebuck catalogues, instead of featuring the newest iPods and Android cell phones, had black and white drawings of state-of-the-art manual wheat threshers, and on the back page ran a splendid, hand-colored advertisement for the “revolutionary new communication medium – yours for only $XX plus shipping and handling – the amazing Electric Radio Machine!”


I wasn’t around back then, so these are just guesses. Regardless of their accuracy, the fact remains: things have changed. I’m in the Philippines and I’m writing this on my laptop computer. I can use my cell phone at any time to cross the nine thousand miles between “home” and home. (It’s way too expensive for me to do that much, though.) Wifi access is an hour away in Iloilo City.

I use all these things, but I sometimes feel guilty that I do. Every new communication apparatus gathers our little human islands closer together, stretching the skin of the earth tight and snipping off the excess, throwing it out into the void from which mysteries and riddles cannot escape. It seems like the world is shrinking so fast, and with it the spirit of adventure, the sense of the unknown lurking just over the horizon.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Earth, sea


Monterey, California


Monte Cristi, Dominican Republic


La Jolla, California


Malibu, California


Siquijor, Philippines


San Francisco, California


Biloxi, Mississippi


Gulfport, Mississippi


Guimaras, Philippines


Palawan, Philippines


Honolulu, Hawai’i


Wailea, Hawai’i


Ka’anapali, Hawai’i

Venice Pier

Venice Beach, California

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Admit that the waters around you have grown

And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone

If your time to you is worth saving

Then you’d better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone

For the times, they are a-changin’.


7107 is a very important number to Filipinos. It represents the fragments of a whole – the bits that, when put together, form a country and a people. 7107 is the number that gives life and livelihood to 90 million Filipinos: it is the number of islands in the Philippine archipelago.

It’s a number that, thanks to rampant environmental abuse, may need to be revised in the not-so-distant future.

El Nido, Palawan

As an American who has known the same number of states his entire life, the prospect of losing one seems bizarre – even the states which I don’t like to publicly admit are actually such. (“Oh, Texas,” I tell Filipinos, “That’s still part of Mexico.”) But if one dropped off like a gangrenous toe, we Americans would still have plenty of space to dump the refugees. Filipinos have no such luxury.

Living on islands has made me realize the real urgency of the environmental crisis. I live in Iloilo, a low province. If ocean levels rise a meter or two from melting polar ice and warming-and-expanding seawater, I don’t know that my town, which is miles inland now, will still be above the waves. And the Philippines does not have room for expansion: they’ve got almost a third of the American population in an area the size of one of our bigger states (and not Alaska or Texas, either).

It’s popular to blame global warming on large industrialized nations – Russia, increasingly China, and especially the US. It’s a trend which is, depressingly, apropos of the recent past. The Philippines of course has its own environmental sins – and they are, relative to the nation’s diminutive size and global stature, fairly massive. Stewardship of the earth here is, to blatantly generalize, a joke.

Manila Bay

The sad fact is that the citizens of the Philippines, aided admittedly by centuries of exploitation by outsiders, are ruining their own home in many ways, and that sucks: a beautiful country is being drowned in garbage and choked in smog. But the US and Russia and China, among others, are ruining other people’s nations as well, and that’s downright un-neighborly.

“Green living” is becoming mainstream, and on an individual level that is a wonderful thing… but it will only go so far. The world needs institutional change now. It needs the powers that be to stop using an imagined, manufactured “uncertainty” about global warming as a hedge against endangering their own interests. It needs countries to act: to recognize that without sweeping changes, the future earth will not be the world we know. It will not necessarily be a good place for humans.

The situation is deadly serious. The excesses of a few nations worldwide are literally drowning their little cousins: the Philippines, the Maldives and other island chains are at risk of losing major amounts of land, in the best case, and disappearing altogether in the worst.

It’s difficult to imagine, because in our post-MAD world nations don’t disappear like a magician’s dove. What could possibly result in the complete loss – as in the outright destruction - of a country?

In 2005, I flew out to California for my sophomore year at Pepperdine only a day or two before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. I stayed up late every night, anxiously reading any news I could find online about the hurricane. One thing spooked me more than anything else: an alert advising people to abandon ship at once, because in the aftermath of such a powerful storm – sans power, water, medical care, and everything else we generally consider necessary these days, like designer clothing and espresso-based specialty beverages – conditions would “make human suffering incredible by modern standards.”

Bay St. Louis, MS

That’s a bold pronouncement to make, especially by NOAA. But they made it. And Katrina didn’t turn out to be the end of New Orleans, but during those long hours while the levees fell and bodies swirled in the filthy eddies, I remember reading apocalyptic predictions that New Orleans would become the first major urban area in the United States to be destroyed – and utterly unrecoverable.

The New Orleans metropolitan area has fewer than two million people. When Katrina hit, there was fear, and hysteria, and outrage when people who could have been saved weren’t saved.

Where is the fear now, and the hysteria? Where, especially, is the outrage? In just a few days will begin the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, where a successor-treaty to the Kyoto Protocol will begin to be formulated. But who or what will speak there? Corporations and their politicians? The deep pockets stuffed with dollars, yuan, rupees and euros? What about the voices of the more than four billion people who don’t live in China or the US or Russia – or the hundreds of millions living in those three countries whose own voices are drowned out in the relentless cacophony of clattering machines and shouting traders, the high-pitched shriek of Progress at Any Cost?

Progress indeed: the progression of gases into the skies and metal and plastic into dying forests. And the progression of the sea to recover what it once owned fully. Since we obviously cannot take care of our land, the ocean will take it back.