Archive for June 2011

Hey, How’s the Philippines?

15 June 2011

Good question. Rather than go Toqueville and write you a framework to understand a country that I’ve been in for two weeks, all I’ve got are snippets, observations and postcards:

The People
Filipinos really are just the nicest, most good-natured people on earth. Unfailingly friendly, agonizingly polite, and ever-ready to smile, the people I’ve encountered in Cebu seem to take endless delight in sharing a laugh with friends. And rather than the “Chinese laugh,” which is more often than not a facade over some kind of awkwardness or discomfort, the Cebuano laugh is a genuine laugh at the hilarity of the world and the joy of sharing it.

The Food
The food here is very, very heavy. The extent of the cuisine can be divided among four food groups: seafood (baked scallops, fried squid, noodles in shrimp paste, barbecued fish with head attached), chicken (fried, barbecued, feet), rice (white, sticky), and pork. Pork in all its glorious forms: fried pork belly, grilled ribs slathered in sauce, sizzling diced pig “mask” served under a fried egg, entrails and other bits stuck on a stick and barbecued over an open coal fire by the side of the road.

And there is lechon– the national dish if there is one. A few nights ago I had dinner at a place that was having it’s “dry run” dinner service before their actual opening on Thursday. They have a very happy prancing pig as their logo, and a charred brown pig with its body carved to pieces on the counter. This is lechon: a slow-roasted whole pig, chopped into bits and chunks and served glistening in its own fat. The real delicacy is the skin, brown and crispy, more decadent than bacon.  I ate half a kilo.

The Language
Tagalog is the language of Manila, but nobody speaks it in Cebu. Cebuano, rather, is the language of the Central Visayas. Spoken, the language is sprinkled with English and words that sound an awful lot like Spanish. Many people also speak (and to a greater extent, understand) English. Sometimes I hear kids talking to their parents or each other in flawless English.  For the most part, people here speak a peculiar kind of English that is heavily accented but highly colloquial. Thanks is probably due to the American entertainment industry, which pervades.

The Pervs
One of the more uncomfortable (repugnant might be the better word) parts of living here is belonging to an ethno-racial group dominated by fat, bald, weather-beaten, red-faced old men who’ve come to the ‘pines to find a wife (that being the charitable interpretation).  I feel like a creep by association. I see them walking around with girls 40 years their junior and I try to give them the benefit of the doubt– perhaps they’re born pedophiles, who, rather than succumb to their vile nature, come here for a girlfriend who’s 19 and looks 14. And while I’ve been solicited by prostitutes all over the world, the favored product of the local street hawkers is new to me: small boxes of Cialis & Viagra.

The Public Transit

The Gays
I can’t really speak to the rest of the country on this, but Cebu has to be one of the most gay-friendly cities on earth. At the clinic where I work, many of the male staff are gay and out, and around the city, gay bars abound while meeting a transexual is as ordinary as noodles for breakfast. In the words of one colleague, “It’s really just not a very big deal here.”  All this is especially remarkable given that this is a devoutly Catholic country.  Abortion, for example, is illegal (though currently under debate in Manila). But the gays can do their thing. Update: It’s worth noting, I think, that despite the country’s remarkable tolerance toward homosexuality, there is no gay marriage, and it’s not very likely to happen anytime soon.  Also, as another illustration of the traditional Catholic nature of this country, the Philippines is one of the few countries where divorce is still illegal (though this, too, is under public debate).

The Gambling
Filipinos love to gamble. Slot machines, bingo, lottery tickets, cockfighting– you name it. And if you’re watching a sporting event, the first question from a stranger is not “who are you for” but “who did you put your money on?” My colleague Dave came dancing into the office last week, celebrating the thousand pesos he’d won picking the Mavs over the Heat in game 3 of the NBA Finals.

Let me know what else you’re wondering about, and I’ll tell you all about it. Also forthcoming: pictures of the various meats described above.

The Island of Bohol

14 June 2011

Another week, another stressful weekend of roaring around the Philippines on motorbike and waking up on the beach at sunrise.

Bohol1Bohol4The Chocolate HillsBohol2Bohol3

The Chocolate Hills


Lady Luck

13 June 2011

In less than a month, Thais will go to the polls and either throw out the government that has ruled without a mandate for over two years, or give current prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva the stamp of popular approval he’s been lacking. While the incumbent Democrat Party still seems to be ahead in the polls, a plurality of voters remain undecided, and the most dynamic candidate at the moment is undoubtedly Yingluck Shinawatra. At the head of the ticket for the challenger Pheu Thai party, Yingluck also happens to be the youngest sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled prime minister who was overthrown in a 2006 military coup (Thailand’s 18th in the past century).

When the media talks about Yingluck, there are a few points they never fail to hit: she is rumored to be a “clone” of Thaksin, she has very little political experience, and she’s very “telegenic” (read: hot for a 43 year-old). She’s a businesswoman by trade, having run a telecom company formerly held by her brother. Also like her brother, she’s had her share of legal difficulties, with accusations of insider trading and perjury chasing her around.

Abhisit Vejjajiva and Yingluck Shinawatra impress voters with their coffee-making skills.

And yet, despite her (considerable) wealth and pedigree of power, she (again like brother Thaksin) is a populist. Her campaign platform calls for lowering the corporate tax rate, but it also calls for raising the minimum wage, improving access to education, and institution of price controls that would benefit the poor.

That peculiarity is at the heart of the broader contradiction in Thai politics. You have the yellow shirts– they’re urban, establishment middle class, tending to include the military, the media, and (quietly) the monarchy– who support the conservative, stable, status quo elements in Thai politics. And you have the red shirts– mostly working class, mostly rural, devoted followers of billionaire media & telco mogul Thaksin– who have won every nationwide referendum in he past decade, and yet have been pushed out repeatedly by coups and court rulings.

Thaksin swept into power in a landslide in 2001, and his government was the first to achieve reelection in Thailand’s seven decades of democracy with another big win in 2005. A year later, he was ousted out by the military and the yellow shirted coalition, who saw him as corrupt (probably), a challenge to the power of the Thai monarchy (maybe) and indulging in economic policy too redistributionist for their liking. A free election was contested in 2007, and the winner was was thrown out less than a year later by the constitutional court for being paid to host a cooking TV show while serving as PM. Then came Thaksin’s brother-in-law, who lasted three months before the court intervened again, and dissolved the whole party. Since then, it’s been Abhisit, ruling courtesy of a parliamentary vote.

Thaksin is still in exile, but remains the dominant political figure in the country– and there’s obviously not a whole lot of guile in having your little sister run in your stead. And so the the election is breaking along political lines identical to those that have divided the country throughout the past five years. In 2008 and again in 2010, these divisions resulted in protests that closed the airport, shut down parts of Bangkok, and left dozens dead– mostly red shirts at the hands of the police. It will be a hard fought battle once again: notwithstanding the pleasing binary I offered in the first sentence above, in all likelihood, neither party will win an outright majority of the 500 seats in parliament, and whoever emerges with the plurality will get a shot at coalition-building.

From the perspective of a democratically-minded observer, it’s rather galling the way the red shirts seem to keep winning elections and yet keep finding themselves disenfranchised at the hands of the entrenched elites. And Yingluck does make an appealing candidate on many levels, though it’s impossible to see her except in Thaksin’s enormous and problematic shadow.

But I won’t pick sides on a policy or political level; the real victory will come if Thailand can come out of this election peaceful and unified. If you think American politics are polarized, you ain’t seen nothin. Many are already forecasting another round of protests and violence regardless of who comes out on top– if not yet another outright coup attempt. It’s unlikely that a political chasm so deep will just disappear, but hopefully both sides will find a way to bridge it and assent to a government by the people. For five years, Thailand has been governed without popular consent and if this election yields only further acrimony and unrest, the country will surely backslide further in the coming years.

Filipino Morning

8 June 2011

Wrote Chloe:

Whenever I travel to a new country, my mind feels a little “fuzzy” for the first few days. The fuzziness comes from adjusting to a new place where I’m not familiar with the language, the streets, the customs, the way things work and look. As I’m inundated with new experiences, thoughts, smells, sounds, tastes, and more, I need a few days to start to sort out each new aspect. It’s easier when I go somewhere where I know the language–my adjustment in Lima has been faster than it was in Nepal–but I’ve still decided to describe my first few days in Lima via photos rather than words while my mind sorts everything out!

Which is exactly how I feel.  I’ll continue to do the same.

Tiny Cebuanos

3 June 2011