Sunday, January 30, 2011

Flippant About the Philippines

It has become my standard practice, perhaps even a tradition, one is excused to say, to report early each year on another trip to a distant land in search of sun, beautiful beaches and warm company. Vacationing with our daughter and her family for the Christmas season has become an established practice, ten consecutive years being in my judgment adequate to solidify the claim for such a practice as a sort of tradition. It is in the spirit of such a tradition that I seek now to report about our three-week trip to the Philippine Islands. Over these ten annual trips we have functioned as travel companions and babysitters to our two beautiful granddaughters, Malaika and Laiali, the trips always preceded by a lengthy sojourn with my son’s family to entertain and run around with our other two grandchildren, Hatim and Callia, in the lovely California Autumn weather.

The relaxed and worry-free travel has encouraged in me a certain irresponsibility and superficial sophistry that allows the identification of each country we have visited, as well as many we have not, with a single overall characteristic or image in a classic free mental association style: China is a country of youthful energy, Costa Rica a peaceful nation of nature preservation emblemized by a nesting turtle, India evokes the image of Taj Mahal and beggar children, with South Africa the image of a giant Mandela flashes across my mental screen, California has Disneyland and Israel brings up mangled corpses of Palestinian children superimposed over a borderless map. But you have to be flippant about the Philippines if you want to give your reader a flavor of the country and its people. The Philippines seems to lack a single solid identifying characteristic: It is a tropical green island nation with poor but extra friendly smiling people. Then out of the blue a far-fetched iconic image materializes: Mahmoud Abbas. Yes, the president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA.) Don’t panic! Seriously! I will explain:

I just read a piece on the Internet by an astute political analyst about America’s relationship with the PNA. He claims that America’s plan for Palestine has been one of making the PNA an American security arm. The model after which the PNA is being fashioned is the one in which America has shaped democratic Philippines. That is to say that it will always be a subservient agency dedicated to serving the security needs of the USA in the region. Except that the PNA was intended to serve as a security mechanism to aid America’s major defense contractor in our region, Israel. Secret documents just aired by Aljazeera expose the method in which such shaping of the PNAs behavior has been practiced: It amounts to making it dependent on the USA for its continued survival but punishing it sternly if it strays from the straight and narrow path. It is reminiscent of a workhorse with blinders, except that ours block not only the sides but also what is in front. A current trick question Palestinians ask is: What animal has two eyes and sees just as much front and back? Formerly, the surprise answer used to be ’a blind horse.’ You already know the new answer.

In preparation for our visit to the Philippines I rejected the temptation to leaf through the standard tourist guidebooks and instead read a couple of classic novels, “Noli Me Tangere,” Spanish for “Touch Me Not,” the revolution-inspiring novel by Jose Rizal, the acclaimed father of the uprising of the Philippines against three centuries of Spanish colonization of the worst kind, and “Don Vincente,” by F. Sionil Jose, part of the Rosales Saga quintet depicting the social turmoil following the overthrow of the Spaniards and their replacement by ‘the enlightened’ Americans then the brief Japanese occupation of the WW II and what followed afterword. From this brief introduction and from what I saw and experienced over a three-week period I came to see the island nation as a characterless actualization of America’s globalization dream: A mass of consumers poor enough to strive non-stop for American goods and the American lifestyle, sustaining a thin crust of corrupt rich who do live the coveted American middle class life. Don’t misunderstand me, please: I am not exempting myself from this generalized condemnation of the better-off few. On the contrary, I admit to enjoying the servitude of the hard-working poor slaving at an average wage of no more than a hundred US dollars a month to provide excellent and luxurious accommodations and services to tourists like us at high prices, even when these are reasonable by comparison to facilities of equal luxury in Europe and the USA. The generous returns from such enterprises go to the European and American owners with a smattering of successful local entrepreneurs. An established and well-accepted fact tells the whole story in a nutshell: The law of the land prohibits the ownership of real estate in the Philippines by foreigners with the exception of citizens of the USA. Several European resort owners at whose facilities we stayed seem to have gotten around this hurdle by marrying a local, all of those that I can now recall being European males married to Filipina woman. In the posh middle class neighborhoods of Manila, the capital, one enters a shopping mall and is transplanted, body and soul, to USA suburbia with its standard fancy outlets and restaurants. One is excused in feeling a sense of abhorrence at the steep economic gradient between the haves within and the have-nots without. I couldn’t but assume that such vast gap underlies the heavy security precautions on display at the entrance to such facilities or upscale hotels, the privatized security providers being another stroke in the socioeconomic collage that spells out this reality of globalization in practice. As we used small airports for our internal flights I noticed more than once the sniffing dogs guarding the security of the public asleep. Not at the gate to the private hotels.

This is the place to bring up a unique phenomenon, that of transvestite male Filipinas: At a resort where we stayed, owned by a Dane who, upon learning that I was a physician, introduced himself as the son of the inventor of vein stripping surgery, the cook was named Amanda. She was of overly muscular build and doubled as a masseur but sashayed in a convincingly feminine way; her fellow women kitchen workers seemed to take her as a total equal. I asked a veteran European resident of Manila vacationing at the resort about the country’s male transvestites and he opined that this was an accepted and traditionally tolerated practice and that, to his knowledge, some 20% of Filipino males undergo such behavioral sexual conversion. He ascribed this to the simple economic principle of supply and demand, starting, to his opinion, around the major American military base at Subic Bay. There simply was such a high demand for female companionship that the custom of male transvestites thrived and spread out to the rest of society. It then flourished further due to the greater job opportunity for Filipino women care providers in the international arena, a fact supported by formal statistics showing the country to be heavily dependent on the money transfer from such employment abroad.

I checked with a popular tourist guide: No exact figure was quoted but it was stated that the practice was indeed common and that it was looked at with kindness by society despite the doctrinaire Catholicism of the country. In fact, this resource stated, the feminine dress and body language did not necessarily imply true homosexuality. Rather the phenomenon is taken by all to be that of the heart of a girl residing in the body of a boy, what leads naturally to their genre being known as “boy ladys.” I wanted to speak about the subject with Amanda but my wife warned against it in light of what she had read about the pride and social sensitivity of Filipinas. I did the next best thing and enquired about this from a local friend who accompanied our party for several days. He concurred about the commonality of transvestite behavior among males but thought that the demand for their companionship was highest among Japanese young men tourists. He supported his statement with the assertion that many such transvestites wind up traveling with their rich Japanese lovers to Tokyo where they undergo an all-expenses-paid combined sex-change operation and wedding celebration. Later I googled the topic and learned that there is an official organization for the group in Manila and that they hold an annual beauty contest at which a queen is elected annually.

Despite my son-in-law’s jibes about my attentive focus on Amanda’s behavior, I did not submit to a massage from her nor have I lost much sleep over what part of all this to buy into. Still, it does seem that there is some validity to the socially-based reverse penis envy phenomenon, though one could support the opposite point of view with equal validity: It is a well-established fact that Filipino women are traditionally known to be entrepreneurial and very often the bread winners in their families. Presumably, this is based in the preferential status of the husband whose favor is to be gained and loving approval to be sought, won, and maintained by the dutiful wife in the face of the ever-present threat of the socially tolerated concubine. The wife, it is assumed, is to blame if her husband feels neglected enough to seek a concubine or two. Hence the constant and often furtive effort at excelling in a side-business in addition to house duties.

And another bit of Philippine tradition brings that nation close to the Arab heart, that of strong and binding family loyalty. Family relatives, including those gained through godparents, are the back-up team and the responsibility of a person at all times. American-style individualism and privacy concerns take a low position on a Filipino’s list of priorities. Additionally, the folks are known to be quite touchy about anything that might be interpreted as publicly insulting. Reportedly, fights are often started on basis of what is interpreted as an unkind look in a public arena. I experienced none of this myself, but my wife warned me repeatedly about it in light of my constantly darting eyes at so many public and not so public spaces. One last connection to the Filipino people that I experienced on this trip and that I need to mention here is that of meeting more than one young woman that would greet me in Arabic. They had worked or were still employed in the Arab Emirates.

The Philippines is a nation of over seven thousand islands, the archipelago having been united for the first time by the colonial Spaniards who ruled it with a holy iron fist for over three centuries, the natives being treated with heartless disdain that gives slavery a bad name. It is reliably reported that the Hispanic clergy not only conducted themselves in the most worldly manner, accruing massive wealth, multiple wives and many descendents, but also discouraging the natives from learning Spanish, the language of the master race, for fear of the rabble becoming too uppity. Such transgression was commonplace to such a degree that having priestly blood in one’s veins became a mark of distinction, Imelda Marcos, for one, bragging of such honor in her days of glamour as the country’s first lady. In my mind she stands out not only for her famous collection of thousands of pairs of shoes but for two additional distinctions: While she and her husband, Ferdinand, were still ruling the Philippines as their dictatorial private fiefdom, they enjoyed the full backing of America under Ronald Reagan. As Reagan’s envoy, George Bush the father famously thanked the couple for their defense of democracy. This reverberates deeply with me for its setting the stage for George Bush the son, as president of the USA, to anoint Ariel Sharon, probably the most belligerent man in the history of the Middle East, as “a man of peace.” Furthermore, with her husband’s fall from grace, Imelda escaped with him to Hawaii where she associated with, among others, the exiled family of King Farouk of Egypt. When I would visit Hawaii each summer I would hear reports about both royal families from a Palestinian friend of mine who had settled in the Islands and who was a connoisseur of good times and special wines and hence had the temerity to rub shoulders with such has-beens.

Religion apparently was pounded into the natives’ primitive heads and sinful souls through scare tactics and rote memory, such that on occasion illiterate headmasters ran their schools relying entirely on brute force. And the affairs of the entire country were managed in proxy via the Spanish colonial administration of Mexico. I am at a loss as to how to avoid demeaning the Filipinos for the crimes of the Spaniards: It does seem to me, from my most limited vantage point as a visiting tourist, that the country, even today, lacks the social cohesion of a nation: The official language of the country is English, which, though it is taught in schools, still is spoken by a select minority. India suffers from a similar colonially-based contradiction in terms of language. But India had unifying historical and cultural roots that seem to be lacking in the case of the Philippines. Since, because of my Israeli passport, I have not visited Malaysia or Indonesia, the closest country with which I can compare the Philippines culturally seems to be Thailand. Again, Thailand has a longstanding history of independence as a cohesive unit despite the many encroachments by neighboring enemy countries and the resultant historical border adjustments. This is lacking in the case of the Philippines, a country which seems to have gained unity and nationhood through the aggression of colonialism. Indeed, its independence came about through the interference of seemingly helpful outsiders hiding selfish motives and colonial ambitions. Prior to Spain’s aggressive colonization the archipelago seems to have been a collection of separate native Malay groups with varying degrees of language similarity and the classic north-south gradation of skin color that can be discerned still today. With little need for apology, given Europe’s penchant for justifying the theft of the world’s riches with the selfless need to civilize and redeem the natives, Spain stuck around for three frightful centuries ending with enough intelligent natives questioning its motives to rock the boat and demand independence at the risk of martyrdom. At the turn of the nineteenth century the USA came to the aid of the Filipino rebels to turn around at the moment of victory and try to subjugate them to its own expansive dreams, liberal and enlightened as these may have seemed to the new masters. With that the enchantment of the Filipino elite with the former Spanish masters and their ways gave way to the total worship of all that is American, a total cultural surrender that thrives to this day. True the Americans introduced an extensive public educational system, albeit English language-based. Then the Japanese empire-building mania led them to supplant the Americans with a logical appeal to Asian pride and pan nationalism. The ill-conceived and heavy-handed bloody interference lasted only few years before the victorious Americans returned, this time with true concessions to Filipino nationalism and liberation dreams. Except that by this time America had devised its own model of remote-control style of occupation with all the required military bases that victory necessitated and justified. All of the Philippines became, as if, an extension of America’s military bases and a human and physical buffer zone around them.

This history of continued subjugation, vicious or benign and direct or otherwise, and my own limited, twisted, selective, and expedient understanding of it is perhaps the cause for my occasional disorientation while on this trip: In my days I have seen Filipinos in groups, usually of young adults, in various parts of the world: I recall hearing the rapid-fire Tagalog language in the marketplace in Nazareth and at shopping centers in more than one European capital. And of course there was the Filipino population of Hawaii with their typical rendition of the letter ‘f’ (which their native language lacks) as ‘p,’ thus being known locally as ‘Pilipinos.’ In fact, as an intern at Queens Medical Center in Honolulu, I had the pleasure of providing medical care to a large group of single old Pilipino men who apparently came to Hawaii as indentured plantation workers and never had the chance to return to their native land or to be fully absorbed in Hawaii’s multi-ethnic society. In old age they lived in dorms in downtown Honolulu and formed distinctive cliques in their lonesome old age. For a while I was quite close to several individuals in this group. Still, I always viewed Filipinos as an out-of-place collection of individuals, even now that I was the intruder in their country. This led to the repetitive strange psychological phenomenon that resembled that of ‘deja vu:‘ I would be in the back seat of a taxi, waiting for my change at the cashier in a shop, or waiting to be served in a restaurant and all of a sudden the thought crosses my mind that I was looking at a Filipino individual. It then would take me a moment or two to remember that I was in the country named the Philippines and that everyone around me was a Filipino. I have traveled to many countries and this never happened to me anywhere else. The only explanation I can come up with for this strange feeling is that I am psychologically denying the Filipinos a country of their own; they are citizens of the world, the domestic aids and caregivers to all of humanity.

In our ambitious island hopping on this vacation we stayed at four different resorts selected for their diving facilities, diving and snorkeling being the main enchantment of the trip planners, my daughter and son-in-law. Getting to each resort involved flying back to Manila, flying out to the nearest airport to our destination, boarding a boat to an adjacent smaller island and finding our way to our destination, mainly by small boat or tricycle, both being amazingly efficient ways of transport though they couldn’t hold a candle to the national favorite means of transportation, the ubiquitous excessively stretched-out Jeep known to all as the jeepney, apparently another relic of America’s military presence of recent times. The local boats, however are original: a central hollowed hull extended sideways for better balance by two thick bamboo outrigger pieces of equal length attached to the central body by several cross-links of thinner bamboo. With midsized boats, the outrigger contraptions are attached such that cross-connections come down from atop the cargo and passenger central hull, giving the boat the overall look of a giant spider. I found this fascinating enough to rate several dozen photos to capture the spidery shape. I even felt personally insulted when one of our hosts, a less enchanted European resort owner, gave this traditional boat a failing grade for stability in rough weather by comparison with European sailboats. In fact, I found it to be so stable that for the first time in my life I needed no preventive seasickness medication. And I am so extremely sensitive on this matter that even writing about it now gives me a queasy and nauseous feeling.

I hope that you understand that I recount these adventures with much pride, for I fear the sea and, despite my ability to swim or to float around for hours if need be, I panic whenever I attempt to stand and my feet do not reach solid ground. Given such real reservations, it was no small matter that I didn’t only go snorkeling more than once but even was enticed to try scuba diving. The half-hour period that I spent in diving attire and with an oxygen tank on my back was the full responsibility of the German diving instructor who took me to the depth of some ten meters to inspect the wreck of a Japanese gunboat from WWII. Conveniently, my sinus headache, the physiologic outcome of the lack of pressure equilibrium between my innards and the liquid depths in which I was immersed, prevented me from extending my enjoyment of the reef and the rich variety of fish and sea life and from repeating the adventure again. What I found most striking about this existential experience was the ability of sea diving experts to contract the entire range of human communication to a total of three signals when submerged under water: a circle made with one’s thumb and index finger to indicate good comfort level, a quivering of the open hand to say “my condition is so so,” and thumbs up to say “get me to the surface,” the one signal I excelled at. Safe on land I found an explanation for the brevity of my diving experience. This time last year we were in Costa Rica where I learned to signal ‘thumps up’ to indicate comfort and full approval. That, I now claimed, was what I was trying to tell my diving instructor. Apparently, with his limited Costa Rican exposure, the young man thought I wanted out. What can you do? Not everyone is a world traveler who recognizes Costa Rican sign language.

Be that as it may, scuba diving over a Japanese gunboat has some other untoward consequences: Somewhere on that dive I must have come in contact with a vicious jellyfish. I removed my diving suit to find the skin of the whole front of my left thigh red as strawberry. Within the hour it started to blister, itch and burn. That night I dreamt the follow-up to my adventure: I climbed the steep cliff of the small island by the sunken boat in hope of rescuing any escaped sailors that may have hid in the jungle for the past sixty some years. Sure enough, there was one. But he turned out to be a Samurai and he slashed my left thigh with his sword. And a second frightful event, in reality and not in a dream occurred early on when the resort hosts encouraged us to raw out in their two small boats beyond the safety buoy. Just as we got there and as we jumped out of the boats for a swim, one of us broke the bamboo outrigger piece. As I rushed to climb into my boat to come to his aid I tipped the boat with my wife and three-year-old granddaughter in it over and we all had to be saved by a motorized rescue boat.

And one more embarrassing near brush with disaster: We celebrated New Year’s Eve with Filipino friends at the beachfront resort owned by their friends in Boracay, dubbed ‘the Waikiki of the Philippines.’ The food was plentiful, the music loud and the dancing wild, all led by a Brazilian singer and her Samba dancers. As the count down for the New Year started the whole width of the miles-long beachfront exploded into one massive and continuous bonanza of fireworks. We have seen New Year celebrations in a dozen countries; this was the wildest and brightest ever. Couples kissed and embraced nonstop and total strangers matched the closest of lovers in intimacy as they celebrated the occasion. And we were right there in the midst of it all participating fully. It left one with the thrill of youthful escapades and the prurient pleasure of having broken the usual bounds of good taste. Then came the surprising downside of the night to remember: The New Year issue of the Philippine Chronicle reported that a local TV station had aired footage of lovers lolling naked on the beach where we had spent a good part of the night. It further reported that the Parliament is considering passing legislation to criminalize such acts of innocence. What happened to freedom of expression!

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