Nokia says "Don't shoot"
I'd heard quite a lot about the threat of kidnapping in the Philippines before I went there. Journalists are particularly popular as targets, apparently. Last year six of them were nabbed. But I wasn't travelling as a journalist; I was going under my own steam, to visit a friend. For some reason I thought this made me safe. I definitely didn't imagine that within three days of my arrival someone would have a go at abducting me.
It happened, not late at night as I stumbled drunkenly down the shadowy alley behind some random girly bar, but in broad daylight, 2.30pm, in the heart of the downtown business district. I'd been taking photographs of shop signs (this is the kind of thing I do on holiday) and now I was wandering through Greenbelt Park, less a park than a thoroughfare between malls, office blocks and building sites.
A man approached. Late forties, or thereabouts. A businessman: pressed blue shirt, slacks. He smiled at me and made some comment about the subject of my photograph. I grunted an unenthusaistic hello and carried on. He said he worked for Citibank, was on his lunchhour. His sister, he said, was a nurse in Reading.
This wasn't beyond the bounds of possibility. Most Filipinos have relatives outside the country; the Filipino diaspora is huge. They even have special word for people who work abroad, "Balikbayan"; at airport immigration, half the lanes are reserved especially for them. But my sister went to university in Reading, and I know it fairly well. Faced with a specific question or two my new friend began to hedge, and I began to suspect a hustle of some kind.
To prove his integrity, he handed me his business card. It was a Citibank card alright. Robert M. Simballi, Executive Vice President, Cash Department. But it had been photocopied onto a piece of paper and cut round with a pair of scissors. So a hustle, then.
I wasn't particularly worried. It was early afternoon, a public place. Other people were around. I thought at worst I was going to be asked for money. And anyway, I was bigger than Robert S.
"Have you seen the national museum yet?" he asked. I had, in fact, been half-looking for it. I knew it was somewhere in the neighbourhood. "Would you like me to show you where it is?"
"Okay," I said. I'll go inside, I thought, and lose you that way.
We walked out of the park the way I'd come, and crossed the street. But instead of heading in the direction of the museum, Robert M. walked up to a turquoise Toyota Corolla and opened the rear passenger door. "Get in," he said. "I'll drive you there."
The give-away wasn't the metallised, reflective windows. Nor the paper business card, nor his narrative inconsistencies. The give-away was the man already in the driving seat, the idling engine, the brake light being released.
"Get in," he said, a second time.
"I don't think so," I said.
"Come on," he said, getting in the car himself. "I'll take you." I looked at him in disbelief.
"Are you trying to kidnap me?" I asked, incredulous, unable to quite believe this was actually happening to me.
And then, suddenly, it wasn't happening. Realising I wasn't going to play, Robert M. didn't bother to reply; just pulled the door closed and disappeared behind the gold sheen of the mirror glass as the Toyota whirred away.
I'm still surprised he didn't he pull a gun on me. Manila is full of guns. I bought a jacket here, a kind of black photographers' vest-type thing with lots of pockets, only to discover later on that it was fitted with a shoulder holster. The pockets weren't for film and lenses; they were for gun clips, ammunition. At the entrance to restaurants, bars and clubs, signs exhort you to check your piece in at reception. ('You are welcome; your gun is not.') Enter one of the many malls or large hotels and a uniformed guard will sweep you with a detector and dig through your bag. If you look particularly suspicious - if, for example, you're wearing a black, paramilitary vest designed for carrying weapons - he'll pat you down. In a country with 114 private armies (that's just the ones that are known about) such security consciousness is not for show.
With it's mix of ultra-modern megamalls and heaving shanty towns, gridlocked traffic arteries and quiet backwaters, profound religious feeling and desperate street crime, Manila is like America without the rules. People are welcoming, but only after they've sat back for a while, taken the chance to form an opinion of the kind of person you are: an approach that makes sense in a country where a couple of dozen powerful families chafe along in a continual battle for prestige and control untroubled - indeed, protected - by the law, while beneath them countless factions scrum for whatever semi-legal or straightforwardly criminal pickings they can find.
In a country with over 7000 islands, well over a hundred private armies, and a 300-year-old Muslim/Christian civil war smouldering in the south (the one that the US has just conveniently redefined as terrorism), there's plenty of lawless pockets in which banditry can flourish - whether corporate or criminal. At one end, the US draws up treaties obliging the government to buy the defunkt secondhand military equipment it doesn't want and multinationals abuse the 'free-trade zones' to orchestrate the exploitation of workers in vast sweatshops while manufacturing streetsigns to show their social conscience; at the other end of the scale, textile piracy is rife, illegal arms are common, and people who are too poor to buy into the system sew their own logos onto basketball shirts.
Wherever you stand on this spectrum, officialdom rarely gets in the way. At election times, so many 20 and 50 peso notes are needed for vote buying that they all but disappear from circulation; taxi drivers have to horde them in order to make change. The quid pro quo is clearly visible on all sorts of local amenities, which are often proudly daubed with the message: 'from the pork barrel of…', followed by the name of whichever local dignitory has been responsible for getting the requisite funds to flow.
The local and the global are colliding here - in plain sight, for all to see. Maybe that's the difference between the first world and the second. In the latter, it all happens on the surface; in the former - more artful, more experienced - everything is hidden.
For that strata of society (i.e. the vast majority) which the guards on the mall entrances are there not to search but to exclude, hope exists in the form of Catholicism and/or cockfighting. According to polls, 99% of Filipinos believe in a deity, and how: one young woman I spent an hour happily flirting with in a shop physically recoiled from me in horror when I told her I didn't have faith; it was a possibility that, in her twenty-four years, she had never even considered. Go to church on the appropriate saint's day, and you'll see women prostrating themselves on the ground before battling through the crush for a touch of the icon.
Men tend to reserve displays of passion for a different context. It's hard to travel more than a few hundred yards and not see (or hear) an impossibly well-maintained cockerell stalking round his perch like a dissatisfied little prince. They look like living jewels, these birds, such is the contrast between the iridescent satin of their feathers and the prosaic dilapidation of their surroundings, and until the final three minutes of their lives they have undoubtedly the best time of any multi-cellular being in the Philippines. This ending is brutal, of course. You can see for yourself in a cockpit like the one in Pasay City, where each afternoon a couple of dozen of these creatures will be fitted with three inch razor spurs and dumped in a ring to fight to the death. The atmosphere's pretty much identical to what you find at the Catford dogtrack or the old floor of the London Stock Exchange; the real excitement isn't the blood, which is incidental, but the betting, which is furious and conducted at furious volume and pace. The bookies stand by the ring and use hand signals to communicate odds; the punters stand in a gallery above and lay bets by throwing little bundles of tightly rolled notes at the relevant bookie.
It's all very sexual; the tension builds to a frenetic level of hand-waving and yelling which instantly hushes to nothing as the birds are released. The fight, unless it's particularly thrilling, continues in silence, and the result is rarely greeted with much more than a murmur. Win or lose, you just carry on.
In Manila, it's the only option there is.
- Unpublished, February 2002