Tuesday, January 27, 2009

In Which Bruce is Propositioned by a Lady-Boy

As if things weren't grim enough last evening--what with the loss of my longtime companion and hat--an evening at the net cafe turned out rather more interesting than planned.

As I came in the door, I was hailed enthusiastically by what appeared to be a group of young ladies. This is pretty normal for the Philippines where everyone greets foreigners with great ado. I waved back and headed to the front counter to arrange my computer. Where things diverted was when I approached them, and it turned out that they were guys in drag--with different relative levels of success in their ladylike appearance.

As I sat down at my computer, it was obvious the degree of fascination that I was subject to, and I answered questions about my age, country, and marital status. This also is quite normal in the Philippines where it appears to not be considered rude to ask questions about age and 'where is your missus?'

That was also okay, although after a few minutes of this I did try to signal that I wanted to focus on answering emails rather than questions. The girls/boys moved off to other pursuits, and all seemed to be calm. Then one of them came back. She/he was certainly the one who most appeared to be a woman, quite pretty in fact. She sat down next to me and quite forwardly asked me if I would like her/him to join me in my room that night. She/he asked me if I would like that, and suggested that she/he could fulfill my sexual dreams. I guess she'd/he'd gotten quite familiar with that line, as young Filipinos of both sexes and various orientations spend quite a lot of time online practicing sexual innuendo, 'cyber', and generally looking for a mate from a more prosperous country.

But how to answer such a question, or rather the inevitable follow up to my "No", the "Why". Considering that I wasn't even entirely sure of this one's gender--but had plenty of suspicions due to the fact that he/she (a) hung out with a bunch of less successfully dressed transvestites, (b) had a sort of modulated voice that didn't ring entirely feminine to my ears, and (c) most women in my experience are not quite so forthright when they want to bed you... generally engaging in 'engrossing' conversation until they are in your room and in your bed is considered a more proper move.

I was, strangely enough, concerned not to hurt his/her feelings too much. I didn't know if she/he identified as a her or him; I didn't know if it would be proper to just say outright that my orientation doesn't swing that way. I found, rather, that the simplest and most accurate answer was probably best: that I had quite a serious relationship going on back in China and thus was not currently available for one-night stands. That seemed to do the trick and she/he and her/his friends disappeared into the night looking for other sources of fun.

And now, it seems that odd/bad luck runs in threes. I'm feeling dizzy, feverish, and suffering in the bowels. That didn't stop me from visiting a coral-stone church today that possesses the largest bell (cast from coins) in Asia, but I do worry about my plan to cross the restive seas north of here on dilapidated pump-boats while ill. We'll see how that goes!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Hat Today, Gone Tomorrow

Tis unfortunately true. "The Hat", my ratty old fedora that has accompanied me to more than twenty different countries, is finally gone. As evening fell today, I riding in a bus, rushing through the darkness of a backcountry road here in the Philippines. Suddenly a gust of wind tore through the window to my left, clawed my hat from head, and then before I had even a second to react, sucked said hat out the bus door behind me. There was almost something comical in how quickly and completely my beloved hat was gone, disappeared into the jungly darkness. I'm not entirely sure whether I'd like to laugh or cry about this.

Of course it helps that my hat was probably nearing the end of its natural shelf-life. I'd discovered that the felt near the top of its frontal ridge was almost worn through. The top was dark with dirt collected between the fibres, and sweat had stained in a growing ring about the base of it. There's really no need to speak of the indescribable monstrosities said to live within the cavity itself... best not to wake sleeping demons, after all.

It also helps that my hat had almost escaped me quite a few other times as well. The first attempted escape was on the Makgadi-gadi saltpans in Africa. Aboard ships, trains, buses, and on precarious mountain slopes that hat showed that it had picked up an instinct for travel and constant movement from its bearer. I think when I replace my hat, I shall try to find one that comes with a descendable leather neck string so that great winds will merely garrote me, rather than stealing my hat.

I'm also able to put this loss into perspective. What with all the recent articles about asian ferries capsizing, there are certainly worse things one can lose than a mere accessory--however much that accessory may have been incorpated into one's persona. Things are just things, stuff is just stuff. I do try to buck the American trend towards endless consumption and acquisition, not to speak of the worship of stuff.

Anyway, to this fantastic hat, I bid a fond adieu! I hope that somewhere a young Filipino is enjoying you as much as I did. And I also hope that I will find a suitable replacement.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

On the Island of Negros

I'm forcing myself to give just a simple account of recent activities. I want to save the 'words dripping from tongue' narrative for a moment when I'm able to accompany those words with photographs.

The past couple days I've been traveling across the length and breadth of the Philippine island of Negros. The name is derived from the small, dark-skinned aboriginal inhabitants who now occupy wild stretches of the volcanic highlands in the center of this and a few other islands in the Philippines.

The first day I hired a motorcyclist to drive me (and guide me) up to a couple ancient crater lakes festooned in jungle. There we kayaked in absolute solitude, caught a giant centipede with mirrored scales, and did a bit of trekking through the cloud forest. My guide also illegally harvested some young orchids from the trail we took, but I guess that's pretty much par for course in the Philippines.

The second day here I took a long bus journey up across the length of the island, in the shadow of a gigantic active volcano named Mt. Kanlaon. I had wanted to hike on the mountain, but this was obviously the wrong time of year. The top was shrouded in storm.

Today I find myself in a sugarcane plantation boomtown (once known as the 'Paris' of Negros) now gone bust. There are some lovely 'ancestral' homes which are more than a century old; also a 75-year-old swimmer/model/patron of the arts named Ramon Hofilenya who showed me around his family's ancestral home. He has an amazing collection of Filipino art, some from an untaught, unknown local genius who obviously mastered numerous painting and drawing styles... and kept some masterworks in his nipa hut where the sun and rain could damage them.

Tomorrow I'm planning to visit a church at a plantation... the church has one of the most amazing, detailed, frenetic religious murals in the world. Sometimes called the 'Angry Christ' mural, because the face of Jesus seems a bit wrought (with love, not anger, says Ramon).

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Beach Bum For A Few Days

Beach bumming in the tiny townlet of San Remigio (San Reh-mee-ho) has gone swimmingly the past couple of days, although oddly enough I haven't done any swimming. The reason for this is the terrible sunburn on my calves from a few hours of beach combing without sunblock--stupid me. The waters are inviting, warm, and apparently free of dangerous pelagics (sharks, stingrays) even as they abound in the beautiful crabs and shellfish that the locals fish for.

Otherwise, the tropical life is quite nice. The beach here is beautiful, and empty of tourists. A few old expat retirees live in town and slowly fade into senescence in paradise... leaving their young, Filipina wives with some (usually) decent money for widowhood. The few expats who beat their wives (the whole village is interrelated) are taken out to sea in a fishing boat, and never return to shore except as a sun-bleached, wave-polished bone or two. I wish we had such customs in America as well.

Yesterday afternoon and last night, many of my shells came to life and began to ponderously scurry about the room. I was awoken numerous times by the sound of a shell clattering on the floor, having fallen from the table where I put it and the rest. This morning I took care of the problem--after searching around for the escapees, one small shell with zebra stripes having crawled into the toe of my shoe--by dunking the suspected hermit crab realty in a small bucket of mixed water and bleach, then pulling the poisoned crabs from their homes. I guess that makes me the ultimate in bad landlords, huh?

Tomorrow I'll bid fond adieu to my hosts, Forbes and Cecile, and try to catch a ferry across the straits that separate Cebu island from the next island over, Negros.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Cebu, Philippines: Sinulog Festival

I flew into the Philippines a few days ago, coming down over fires in the mountain that were either lava flows or farmers burning their fields. But why would the farmers burn their fields at 4 AM?

My flight had left Shanghai half an hour after midnight. Four hours later in Manila I settled in for a four hour wait for my connection to Cebu. The flight was an hour delayed. Another hour later we arrived in Cebu... more specifically on Mactan Island where centuries ago Magellan landed, pacified most of the tribes, and then was himself slaughtered by the ultra-ripped (according to the statue on the island) chieftain, Lapu Lapu. I hope this isn't a bad omen for my trip in the Philippines!

I have arrived in Cebu in the midst of their biggest yearly festival, the Sinulog Festival. The deal is that a religious icon called 'Saint Nino' is carried through the streets as part of a massive dancing, drumming, bugling procession from one cathedral (right down the street from my pension) to the docks, carried by sea, then to a stadium where there will be a further dance competition. I probably don't have a prayer of getting into the stadium, but I'm hoping to catch some of the dancing procession tomorrow. I also got up/was awoken today by the 4 AM mass at the cathedral down the street which was followed by a procession of the icon (it looks like an American Girls doll, actually) plus drums, bugles, dancers, and half the population of Mandaue town. Exciting!

A word on my pension: basically I'm sleeping on a cot in what is really a storage closet. Not as bad as it sounds, and probably one of the cheapest deals in town during the current festivals.

Comparisons between China and Philippines from first impressions: Filipinos are very friendly, much more laid back, relaxed. Generally easy to get along with, which is nice. Most of them also speak at least a bit of English which surprised me (but perhaps shouldn't, considering the country was occupied by the Americans for a while) but definitely makes getting around easier, and means that I've had some good conversations with taxi drivers, slum kids, fellow passengers on the jeepneys, etc. Definitely the country is less developed than China (which is saying something), but also in some ways more affected by western trends, particularly foods and stores. I've been recognizing hardware store brands from America, not to mention the barrage of places offering pizzas, hamburgers, mexican, etc, ranging from high-end restaurants through fast food to family run places. It's nice to be able to buy burgers, hotdogs, and pizzas on the cheap again (not overpriced relative to local food, as they are in China); although I'm spending most of my time enjoying the Philippino food thus far.

Jeepneys: Perhaps the oldest of these were originally jeeps left behind by the American forces... I have no idea, actually. But these are an awesome alternative to a formal bus system. Basically these low-slung jeeps that are all individually decorated and graffito'd by their owners fill in for the lack of city buses. So cheap, too! 10 pesos takes me from my location in a suburb, all the way to downtown Cebu. That's about 1.5 Yuan, or 20 cents US.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


I have to say that my experience of taking exams is now a much more happy one than my experience of giving them. With a few exceptions my students did rather terribly on the mock IELTS exam that I gave them. I'm currently wearing my fingers to the bone marking and writing up their end of semester grade report, but for what? Like I say, most of these students plainly didn't come to class, work hard and participate if they did come to class, and generally make the most of the class. Oh well. I guess they'd all get A+ grades if Blizzard proctored exams on Azeroth's bestiaries, best skill synergies for various classes, or estimating the undead population per square mile of Lordaeron.

What's more, some students really did think they'd get away with cheating in my exam. MY exam! Well, unfortunately for them, it seems they cheated off of people who got wrong answers, so it generally did not help their scores much. It may have actually hurt their scores, since they spent less time actually considering the questions and answers written before them.

Now, considering all the China hype lately, particularly the people in the West who are running scared of a resurgence of Chinese might (a few hundred years overdue, really; but that's what bad economic and social policies will do), I find these students a bit underwhelming. In other words, if these are the cogs in China's growth machine, I don't see a threat. Many of these kids are the children of rich people (i.e. the children of the communist party, as well as of business people). Their parents have been paying lots of money to send them to the BCIT program, because of the alleged chance for these students to augment their 3-year technical degree with a 4th year at BCIT in Canada. As far as I can tell, only 2 out of 126 students actually make the cut.

That's sad.

The real sad thing, however, is that a decent (somewhat larger) proportion of these students are smart enough to have gotten to Canada (they need a 5.5 on the IELTS exam) if they'd studied a bit more.

Back to the cresting wave of the 'Chinese resurgence' and the relative lack of oomph here at this college, I think I should clarify an important point. Although these are rich kids with good guanxi (connections) that will assure them important jobs in government and business, these are hardly the cream of the Chinese crop. The cream of that particular harvest is generally sent abroad en masse, mostly to various universities in Europe, N. America, and Australia. Hence the misunderstanding that leads us Westerners to stereotype Asians as being ultra hardworking and ultra smart. No, China in particular and Asia in general is one vast Darwinian survival of the fittest machine. The underachievers and the less intellectual never make it past the Chinese (or Japanese, or Korean, or Indian, etc) borders. If they happen to have some money and influence, they usually end up being processed through diploma mills like the one I'm employed by. Thanks to increasing numbers of the wealthy in Asia, of course, there are quite a lot more students who fall into this quality. Thus, although there has been a great surge in college attendance in places like China and India, most of the students (and most of the colleges built or expanded to hold them) are unemployable by international standards. The expanded or recently created colleges also reflect the expectations and quality of the students they process, so these colleges are also somewhat slipshod affairs where it becomes rapidly apparent that no one cares to maintain quality or standards.

It does make more a generally laid back place to work, however, other than the marking period wherein I must finally process all these laconic drones so that the college may expell them like pent-up flatulence into the workforce.

I should note that my students are also, for the most part, nice 'kids' possessing sunny, playful dispositions. Those relative few who attended my classes regularly I had a fun time teaching and I will surely miss them, even if I don't hold out much hope for their future prospects.