Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Favourite thing, that a customer has said to me, this week

Upon surfacing, directly in front of the hotel, after a Night Dive:
"You mean to say, that you knew exactly where we were for the whole dive?!"

Nb. My light failed in the first 10 minutes... and I didn't have a back-up (slap wrist!) which left me navigating in the dark. My response?
"Yes, of course I did!"

The truth? Ummmm, yeah! Well... sort of... mostly... more or less! Let's just say I was not surprised, but quite pleased, to see the hotel when we came up!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Forks and Spoons

Traditionally, Filipinos eat with their hands – Malay style – they scoop a ball of rice with their clean hand and dip that into whatever sauce or dish they have. Of course times change and these days all Filipino restaurants provide their customers with cutlery, although I notice my Filipino work colleagues eat their packed lunches (rice and a little something) with their hands. We all take packed lunches to work; there are no budget food places at our end of the beach. I take a sandwich, and for the first week, one of my colleagues would always offer me some of her rice, obviously very concerned that I did not have a 'proper' meal. A meal is not a meal without rice, as everyone knows.

When Filipinos do use cutlery, they use a fork and a spoon. This was something that, for me, took a lot of getting used to. When I first arrived in the country I thought the waitress had made a mistake – being English, obviously I said nothing! After a while you realise that eating rice and sauce this way is much easier – but cutting meat with the edge of my spoon was something I struggled with for some time.

I've been here nearly 10 months now. I eat at a number of favourite local restaurants, with my fork and spoon and, honestly, it’s not something I’ve given any thought to for ages. Tourist restaurants will give you a knife, local places a spoon – one adjusts.

Then yesterday, I tried out a new Filipino café: looking at the menu, I was surprised to see "Bacon, eggs & baked beans on toast". Yum! Baked beans!

When the food came, it wasn't bad! The bread was sweet, of course. They had added sugar to the beans, of course (Filipinos like their beans and their spaghetti sauce very, very sweet) and the bacon was overdone, of course (English style bacon would be considered raw over here). But what really threw me was trying to eat it with a fork and spoon. It seemed, somehow wrong to be eating 'English food' in this way. I was all thumbs – just as I was back in January. Whilst trying to cut my bacon I flicked one rasher onto the neighbouring table. For some reason, I couldn’t work my fork and spoon! Suddenly I felt like a stranger in a strange land, once again. (Although, if I really want to feel 'foreign' I just think about Balut.)

It's the little things you see – the little things that catch you out. One of my English friends has recently started dating a Filipino. She has, of course, told him lots of things about her homeland, but only one thing has really startled him; caught his imagination and completely intrigued him... and that is brown eggs. He has never seen a brown egg and he is not entirely convinced that they exist. It’s always the little things.

The other day I was chatting with a friend from work (the one who kept offering me rice): she asked why I didn't live in England. I said that people in England spent too much time thinking about money. She considered this seriously and replied "here in the Philippines, we think mostly about food..." she thought for another moment and added "and enjoying our lives."

Sunday, October 14, 2007

a character

I have recently started a new job – I am now the Dive Instructor for a posh resort at the classy end of the beach. Staying at the resort at the moment is a woman whom I want to tell you about. I don’t know her name but I feel I should give her some title, because she is an Amazon! I think she might be Dutch or German – her English is excellent, but there is a trace of an accent. She is tall, slim and muscular with long legs, high cheekbones and piercing blue eyes. Her fair hair is cropped quite short into a sharp, 30’s style bob. She spends most of the day on the beach – she likes to sunbathe (on the sand, without a towel) in a tiny, lilac string bikini and matching swimming cap. She also swims often and is obviously very fit. She is very polite to everyone and, by the way the waiters fuss around her, I’m guessing she is a good tipper, but she is quite imperious in her manner. It is clear, from her bearing and her attitude, that she expects attention and that she was once very beautiful.

She is old – I would guess in her 70’s, possibly even 80’s. Her skin is wrinkled and sags over her muscles; she has many age spots and dark, thick-looking skin that has seen far too much sun. Next to our dive shop is a little hut where the towels are kept and where the waiters often sit for a break. This morning she came over to get a towel and stopped to fix her swimming cap. Two waiters on their break started chatting and giggling in Tagalog, I guessed it might be about her. After a moment or two, she gave them a sharp look and then thanked them for the towel, very politely, in Tagalog. Both waiters looked horrified and blushed bright pink, as she strolled away, head held very high.

I can’t help but wonder: am I looking at a distant echo of what I will become? I am 35, but dress the same as I did at 20 and I’m in better shape than I was then. I am starting the feel my body begin to age, but so far have opted to ignore it – safe in the knowledge that I am fit and toned and so can still stroll around in my bikini without shame! At what point, if ever, should a woman start to age gracefully?

I like her. I respect her for swanning around in her lilac string bikini! But I see other people staring at her in surprise. The young men look disapproving of her decision to expose so much wrinkled flesh. I see the looks of scorn from the plump, middle-aged matrons that lounge on the sun beds, while their young nanny’s run on the beach with the children. I do hope that behind their scorn is just a tiny bit of jealousy.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Waste of time (and space)

I was in a bar last night waiting for a friend. Sitting at a table behind me was a large Australian man. His look and demeanour screamed 'idiot-tourist': he had a cheap 'Boracay' t-shirt fresh from the market; shiny, fake Nike shorts and a shiny, sunburnt nose. He was rude to the bartender and when his drink arrived he got his mobile out and started bellowing into it. He was talking to a friend back home about a woman he had met. It quickly became obvious that this girl was a prostitute he had been 'keeping' for about a week. He was not happy:

"I’ve been doing my bit!" he said, "I’ve taken her out and bought her some clothes but she won’t f**king make me breakfast in the morning! She’s just lazy!" He went on to describe how he’d met her in bar and was impressed by her English, so offered to take her on as his 'girlfriend'.

This is a common arrangement struck by the 'better' prostitutes: no payment is made for sex, but the man is expected to buy everything the girls might need for the duration of the agreement. This includes all their food, nights-out (the smart girls will get commission from bars and restaurants) new clothes (which the girls return to the shop the following day) and sometimes even rent and school fees for their children. When I was in Mindoro, a man I was diving with told me how his girlfriends’ parents had lost their house in a typhoon and he was paying to re-build it. I thought this was a little odd because it wasn’t typhoon season at the time. A week later I heard the same girl telling another man the same story. The following day I asked her about it – she laughed and said, “My parents loose their house about once a month, whenever my boyfriend have the money!”

A lot of Western men, who are embarrassed about using prostitutes, prefer to have a 'girlfriend' but they end up paying a lot more! I’m told that the 'girlfriends' who are good hustlers can make around p30,000/month (the average graduate salary is p8,000/month). The girl I met in Mindoro told me she was supporting her parents and putting her four brothers and two sisters through school with her earnings.

But I digress – this particular 'girlfriend' was apparently not up to scratch. The Australian said he had expected her to clean the flat and do his laundry as well, he was angry that she didn’t seem to think this was her job. She apparently wanted him to get a cleaner. It seemed his friend was trying to placate him and in response he admitted that: yes, the bedroom stuff was f**king great and she was "good enough to show the boys". Then he said,

"Cos’ I’m looking at this as a job interview!" (I’m not exaggerating, he used those exact words.) He continued, "I mean, if this is what she's like after a week, what kind of wife is she gonna be? I’ve got three kids back home that need looking after – I’ve got no time for a lazy bitch! Nah mate, it’s no good! I’m gonna have to chuck her out and start from scratch with another one. F*cking waste of time…"

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

A charming way to describe a leaky roof

"Of course you can leave your things here, but please to know that when it is raining outside, it is also raining inside"

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Culture Clash

Sunday was a tough day: I had a frustrating lesson in Filipino etiquette, which I must confess, I find incomprehensible at times. It’s only an ‘ordinary’ work anecdote, but here it is:

I had a Night Dive booked, it was the last dive of a Course and my student was flying home the following morning. The dive had been scheduled for a couple of days, but when Sunday came, the weather was ugly: grey, windy and rainy. I don’t think any of us really felt like diving, but it was my students’ last day – we had no choice. Although the weather was bad, there are sheltered areas on the backside of the island where it’s still safe to dive and that’s where I was planning to go.

At 4pm on Sunday afternoon my Boat Captain dropped a bombshell: he told me our boat was not licensed for Night Diving, and we couldn’t go. He apologised and shrugged. I know our boat does Night Dives – so I suspected he had a hot date he didn’t want to miss, or maybe he just didn’t like the weather - neither did I, but I wasn't very impressed. I was also surprised – usually this guy is a hard worker and very enthusiastic. I told him we had to go. He insisted the boat was not licensed and he would get a large fine, our Shop Supervisor agreed this was the case – p10,000 they said, an enormous amount. I sighed, and said I would get another boat. They both nodded earnestly, safe in the knowledge that the chances of me getting another boat at 4.15pm were very, very slim indeed.

I called my friend L, who is the Manager of a Dive Shop further down the beach. He confirmed that there is no such license. We just have to give a manifest to the Coastguard. I told the Supervisor, who pretended that this was news to him and promptly busied himself in the filing cabinet. Moments later he told me, with a shrug, ‘so sorry’ but they had run out of the manifest forms and so I couldn’t dive tonight.

“But the manifest needs to be given to the Coastguard” I said.
“Yes,” he replied, “but we have no more forms”
“The Coastguard will have forms,” I said “take the names and fill out the form there”
“Ah” he said. He shuffled his feet and stared at the floor, then he said he would call the Coastguard.
“It takes a long time to get approval” he told me, “many other dive shops tell me this. I don’t think we will get approval tonight.”
“We don’t need approval,” I said “we just need to submit the manifest”
“I do not think this is correct – from who did you hear this?”
“The Manager, L, from C Divers”
“Ah” he said.

He called the Coastguard, spoke to them in Visayan (the local dialect) then told me, very apologetically, that the Coastguard said we couldn’t dive. “So sorry,” he shrugged. I asked to speak to the Coastguard. He spoke again into the phone, this time in English “I have an Instructor here who is insisting,” he said, and passed the phone over, looking nervous.

“It is very bad weather!” said the Coastguard “not nice for diving!”
“I agree,” I said “but I have a course to finish, we must dive tonight”
“Oh” he said “but it is not safe to go deep!”
“We’re not going deep” I said “five metres”
“But you cannot go far!” he said, “there are waves!” I wanted to tell him, it's the ocean – there are always waves! I realised my Supervisor had asked him to talk me out of it. I sighed, “We will not go out far – only to five metres depth”
“You could shore dive,” he said.
“That is not safe” I replied, “there are waves and many sea urchins
“Ah… yes,” he said.
“So we will bring down the manifest…”
“Yes… but… it is very bad weather!”
“I know, but it is still safe to dive at Tambisaan, isn’t it?”
“Yes… but, diving late at night is not safe.”
“We are not going late, we are going straight after sunset. So I will get the manifest to you now…”
“Yes” he said sorrowfully. The Supervisor and Boat Captain looked crestfallen. I hung up. We all looked at each other. “Please take the names to the Coastguard” I said.
“Ah” said the Supervisor, looking at his watch “but there is no time now,” he shrugged, “already it is 5 o’clock! So sorry.”

There is a very particular shrug, peculiar to the Philippines – half nonchalant, half resigned: it begins with a sad face which says – ‘that’s life and life is tough sometimes’, it continues with an upbeat shoulder-lift which says – ‘but hey! Things could be worse!’ Then it finishes with a hopeful half-smile which says – “and it not really a big deal anyway!’ Sometimes this can be amusing, even charming, but other times it’s very irritating. At 5pm on Sunday afternoon, I was finding it extremely annoying. We appeared to have reached some kind of gridlock. I was getting tight-lipped and slightly fierce; my Filipino colleagues were giving me that blank, impassive stare with which there is no reasoning.

I decided to try talking to the Boat Captain again; after all, we are usually friends. I told him that I sympathised, I felt the same – the weather was horrible, I didn’t want to go either, but I promised him we would not go far, and it would not be a long dive. But, I explained, I had to finish this course or I would not get paid. Lastly, I said, “they might tip!” He listened, but looked very embarrassed. Then he disappeared into the backroom for a conference with the other ‘backroom boys’. I waited.

After a few minutes he returned. He looked shamefaced and would not make eye contact – I was expecting some terrible confession. He took a deep breath and said
“Now it is low tide. Last time we make night dive in low tide, I hit a rock. It damage the propeller and the old manager make me pay – for long time I pay,” he said. He looked close to tears: propellers are very expensive and boat captains are not well paid. “I cannot pay again,” he said.
“No, of course not” I said. “I will speak to the manager.” My friend, the Boat Captain, looked absolutely dejected, I worried he might cry with embarrassment.

And so, I spoke to the manager and the manager spoke to the Boat Captain and, in just a few minutes, the tension dissipated, the Boat Captain was back to his usual happy self and we went out to dive; where he waited patiently, in the pouring rain, while we dived and afterwards greeted my customers with smiles and not one word of complaint. When we got back I got the beers in, and now it seems, we are all friends again.

What frustrates me is that he had a legitimate reason to worry – why not just say that at 4pm?! Or even the day before? It was because, so friends tell me, to give me the real reason, would be to admit two things: that he was nervous and that he might make a mistake. The Filipino man cannot admit either possibility. The sad thing is that I should have known this. Our Supervisor and the Coastguard were backing him up, because they understood, and did not want to shame the Boat Captain by making him admit this out-loud. By forcing him to spell it out, I shamed him.

If I had not been there to force the issue – the Night Dive would have been cancelled, and the guys, through various hints and off-hand comments would have slowly got the message back to our boss that they were worried about Night Diving on the backside during low tide. Nothing would have been said directly but over a few days it would be been dealt with. It’s true, the shop would have lost some business in the mean time – but [shrug] that’s life and life is tough sometimes… but hey! Things could be worse and, in the end, it’s no big deal.

I'm sure if one of my Filipino colleagues was writing this blog the emphasis would be on the strange Englishwoman who is mostly OK (I hope), but sometimes… ‘oh my God, she can be so stubborn, so inflexible – so unwilling to ‘go with the flow’ like a normal person. Worst of all, sometimes, she is so outspoken, so outrageously direct, that one hardly knows where to look!’ But I am a ‘long-nose’, a foreigner, and foreigners often behave very strangely – so I think I have been forgiven. I also think the beers helped.