by Rowan Foggit
The proud owners of this website have kindly allowed me to fill a few hours of my life each month, and therefore a few minutes of yours, writing a column about the Philippines, Filipinos, Fillipinas, EDSA’s traffic, whether or not bagoong is fit for mankind to consume, and whatever else this Brit abroad decides is life-shatteringly relevant or irreverent.
I will endeavour to say as little about myself as possible when I write these columns, but allow me a little introduction first as this will hopefully enable you to see how I see things the way I do.
Born in North Yorkshire, I was whisked down to sunny Suffolk before my accent became irreparably ‘northern’. A few years at school came and went without me leaving my mark on academia and its institutions. I even failed to turn-up at one exam as there was a titanic game of cricket, a sport few Philippine-based Filipinos know exists, on the telly between Essex and Gloucestershire.
Fast forward to 1994, when during a 7-year stay in Hong Kong, I met a ravishingly beautiful, vivacious and wonderfully feisty girl named Betty.
I have an Aunt in Yorkshire called Betty and to me this quintessential English old-ladies name conjured up images of, well, old English ladies. Add to that those flesh-coloured stockings to which they are partial and never-ending "fancy a cuppa tea, love?" probes and you get the picture.
But this Betty looked nothing like a stereotypical, handbag-wielding granny to me which is not surprising as she hails from Nueva Vizcaya. Home for Betty when she was small was a barangay near a funny little town called Bambang (more of which another time as I can tell a tale or two about her relatives, carabaos, ginebra gin, a gun and a hasty escape).
We got on well despite her knowledge of English football being non-existent. And we holidayed together in the Philippines as often as we could which was great as I no longer had to put up with all the other San Miguel-addled foreigners in Boracay and Puerto Galera. Off we went to the Camotes islands where the children’s smiles and nervous laughs were a joy to behold. Little villages and tilapia farms of La Union were explored on foot, such as Agoo (try get an Englishman to pronounce Agoo correctly first time he reads it…); Bantayan’s perfectly flat egg-carrying roads and beaches were hiked; Bohol’s ubiquitous mud and Chocolate Hills were stickily traversed on motorbikes; Mount Apo was climbed; the lake inside the crater of Taal volcano was urinated in (sorry, but we’d had a lot of Beer-na-Beer for lunch; and somewhere, probably Malapascua island off the northern tip of Cebu, our first mestizo was conceived.
A number of other places of my wish-list remain to this day unvisited. Unravelling a map of the country one day, I picked certain places that I’d like see, among them being: Siquior, Batanes and Sulu/Tawi Tawi islands. Betty was none to keen on the first of these due to the fact there were witches, vampires and all sorts of unidentified ghouls running amok all over the place. Batanes seems to get blown away by a typhoon each week so this was put on hold. And the latter, which are possibly the most beautiful picture-postcard islands in the entire archipelago, remain out of reach for any foreigner who values his life, head and bank balance.
We were married of course by the time we’d been to these places and I’d become quite proud of my Tagalog proficiency. I fancied spending more time in the Philippines but Betty, perhaps like some of you reading this, had spent a not inconsiderable amount of time looking for a brighter or at least alternative future outside of the country, was quite happy living in Hong Kong. However, I dragged her kicking and screaming back from whence she came and we lived for a while in a small Makati apartment before number one son popped out, before removing to Paranaque.
Mestizo number two arrived 2 years ago during a period back in Hong Kong and we now split our time between a house we keep in Laguna, and the former British colony on China’s southern shores
I suppose by telling you this I am trying to say I have integrated myself a little into Philippine way of life, that I have become a little piece of the fabric that makes up your wonderful, manic and often mad country. For a Filipino to write convincingly about the British, their peculiar rituals, personal idiosyncrasies and the inherent madness of a good number of its inhabitants, I’d expect that person to have lived not only in the same country as them, but as one of them.
For clarity, I’ll take this a little further. When I jump inside a cramped jeepney on its way down Pasong Tamo, I don’t just see brown faces smiling back at me. I see the daily struggle they have to make ends meet, the mouths they have to feed and their sense of despair at the injustices and corruption they suffer from. When boarding a Philippine Airlines flight, I observe not only the domestic helpers bound for life with a foreign family in Hong Kong, Taiwan or the Middle East, but the sacrifices they make and the families left behind, their menfolk consuming remittances on tanduay and bingo, and the way they themselves are often maltreated and misunderstood by their employers.
And when I get stuck in traffic on EDSA on a Friday night and it takes me 2 hours to get from the South-not-so-Super Highway to Ortigas, I see yet again that I must be completely deranged to have even attempted to traverse such a route on a Friday night when it’s raining, and it’s pay-day, and it’s midnight madness sale night in Glorietta, and I’ve been stuck in the same place before and sworn never, ever to let it happen again.
So although I may be able to see what goes on in the Philippines and read between the lines, I am still a foreigner (or a "Joe" as we get called in the provinces), albeit with a Filipina asawa and Eurasian anaks. And being a foreigner means I still pull my hair out when the traffic snarls, yet Betty shrugs her shoulders. And I still have 95% of taxi drivers trying to extort double the actual fare from me due to the colour of my skin and assumed weight of wallet (reverse racial financial discrimination we can call this phenomenon which I think is a fine and equitable system of wealth re-distribution).
And I have taste-buds that grew-up loving Sunday’s roast beef with Yorkshire puddings, gravy and soggy vegetables, chicken tikka masala from the Indian down the road, and No. 36 with chips from the local Chinese takeaway. I did not grow-up on balut, bagoong, caldereta or aroz caldo.
I am now researching material for a work of fiction. It’s in its infancy as a project but is coming on nicely. The subject matter being the Moros and their long claim to land, mixed in with a drunkard British naturalist, Spanish aggressors, a pretty Muslim girl and a fanatical Jesuit priest.
That’s enough about me. It’s Friday night and I’m off down the pub. Okay, it’s not really a pub but a bar in Makati that allows me to drink as much San Miguel as I wish between the hours of 5 and 9pm for about P150. This is a scandalously small amount to pay for the destruction of my liver and brain. My mates in the UK have to pay a high multiple of this amount to inebriate and damage themselves. But perhaps it will not take them 2 hours to get to the pub!
by Rowan Foggit