As with America, I went back and forward, back and forward to the Philippine Islands for about five years, but will tell the tale as one continuous story, in situ over there, perhaps including an occasional commute to Hong Kong. Am I allowed mild exaggeration and slight embellishment? What, it’s compulsory? Excellent. Then let us begin.
May I start with a photograph? They say one’s worth a thousand words. At this particular point in my career I was struggling with my demons, in a very dark place, wondering if it was all worth while. In truth, as you can see from the photo, I was having the time of my life and seized, cherished and enjoyed each day as if it might be my last. Which it may well have been given the gunfire, bombings and kidnappings. At night time, I couldn’t wait to wake up the next morning, which is also just as well because the days started at about 4:30 am. It got boily, boily, boily hot, too hot for me, so I made an early start and had a breather in the middle of the day, with the air conditioning turned beyond max all the way up to ‘spitting ice out’ and the fridge door wide open with me trying to get into it.
I used to chill a tray of water every morning in the fridge and then fall asleep sat in it naked and upright for my siesta. And so, dear reader, would have you.
At 4:30 I would get washed and dressed and then walk to church. There was no need for breakfast. I had no appetite in the heat and lived off the occasional light snack.
Away from the main road the un-made up tracks were bounded by squatter areas and big family’s small two room bungalows. The smell of the previous night’s charcoal fires, and a mild and not unpleasant tang of dung, lingered.
During the walk the sun would pop up like toast, going from total-absence-of-street-light darkness to full brightness in a few minutes. At church, there were no walls, just pillars and a roof and bench space for several hundred people. During the first service of the day there’d only be a couple of dozen parishioners, plus a few giant frogs and lizards. Goats wandered through the service as well as the occasional horse.
On the way back to my accommodations I had to be a bit more vigilant as I was easier to shoot in daylight and the homeless and their children were on the move as were workers heading into the centre of the city. The roads were filling up with jeepneys, busses, cars, trucks and every kind of hybrid charabanc in between.
I would do a bit of admin back in my rooms and then strike out and seize that day, always with a driver, assistant or bodyguard and sometimes with all three. I don’t know a great deal about guns but have done a bit of shooting. When I was small, boys were encouraged to have airguns and .22’s, added to which I used to go wild fowling with an uncle. I was occasionally armed in the tropics, it would have been impolite not to be given the company I occasionally had to keep. More of which later. Never having served in uniform, I do it all wrong but have surprised our local regiment at their pistol range at our county show with some ‘good shooting’. Not really being a rifle and prone kind of chap I have also surprised the plaster and brickwork at our local gun club.
Because of the sensitivities around these things, even in those days, I wasn’t allowed to bring anything back to England, not even spent bits of ammo that had been fired at me, for souvenirs. You will just have to trust me dear reader. Nor was I allowed to bring back my monogrammed crocodile skin shoes but I was able to get slightly more than I paid for them and suspect that they’re, as I write, still cruising the dockside beside the cockpit at Kilometre Thirteen, padded up with newspaper to make them fit a Mindanoan dandy’s tiny feet.
I digress. Let’s have a look at that photograph. The eagle eyed and intuitive will already have noticed your author at one end. The especially sharp eyed may have been able to make out a stain on the hoopy shirt. Dry cleaners and medical students may recognise this as human gore.
Dynamite was on sale over the counter and was often used for fishing. A stick would be thrown into the river or sea, detonate, and then the floating dead fish would be collected. This made swimming an adventure. On dry land nefarious types would make grenades out of dynamite, by packing metal around it, and then throw them about, which made walking down the street an adventure too.
Unfortunately there wasn’t a big cross on the sidewalk marked ‘wrong place’ while the clocks chimed ‘wrong time’, just a sudden and unexpected ‘thud’ and a sickening ‘splat’.
In the photograph the rest of the team are school teachers and some of the older pupils. Those of you with pin sharp vision and x-ray eyes will already know that the concealed sign says ‘Office of the CAT’, which stands for Citizens Army Training, which was a school cadet force used to prepare children for a future career in the military and also to help them to defend themselves and their school in the here and now.
Alpha male types were teaching small arms, unarmed combat, explosives, sabotage, counter sabotage. Whereas the nuns were teaching the dark arts of perception management, propaganda, counter propaganda, political warfare and the like. Because of the sensitivities regarding foreign interference, other church goers of a blue eyed and pale skinned, and large nosed (compared to the natives) demeanour were tip toeing around these things while being available to be invisibly helpful by doing a bit on the business and money side of things.
Although we were at the tail end of communism in Europe that wasn’t necessarily the case elsewhere and there was no guarantee of which direction it was all going to go in. An added local element was the remarkable and corrupting difference between rich and poor and the fact that relatively small amounts of hard currency from overseas could go a long way in local money and cause a lot of problems.
The broader strategic view was that Handover was inevitable in Hong Kong. The Americans were very unpopular in the archipelago and there was a possibility that the hosts would instruct them to leave their naval base at Subic Bay and their airfield at Clark (which they later did, albeit Clark was affected by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo).
Taiwan was problematical because of it’s strained relationship with China, Singapore a little bit too far away and Guam far too far away. The thinking at the time was that it would be a big help if there was a bit of Union Jack stuck somewhere in the Philippines.
President Ferdinand Marcos had been deposed and died in exile (although his widow Imelda lingered) and People Power had appointed Corazon Aquino to be president, way beyond her ability, she was useless, and lost control of large parts of the country, especially the south.
In the up coming elections (General) Fidel Ramos would be our favoured candidate but any obvious support for him from the West would be a kiss of death at the ballot box, (recall President Obama trying to send John Bull to the back of the queue) so it was softly, softly, catchy monkey, teach the youngsters and influencers the basics, be nice to people and make a good impression, await further instructions and never swim near a fishing boat.
Remember the stranded transit crone at Karachi airport? ‘Never go south of Cebu’. Well that’s where I was, beyond the Foreign Office’s red zone and well into it’s white skull and crossbones on a black background zone. I was uninsurable and loving every second of it.
Local politics was a bit of a tangle. There was the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army on the left. The Philippine army proper were stretched and struggling and different units often owed their loyalty to different well established political families. Wealthy local land owners had their own small (and sometimes not so small) private armies. Everybody was armed, including a hostile and dangerous Muslim minority which leant towards the terrorist organisation Abu Sayyaf.
Don’t like guns? You will learn to love yours as soon as you realise that other people intend to kill you. There was private security on every building, some of them more professional than the police, some of them little more than armed criminals in uniform.
Parts of the countryside were ‘critical’ and the civil authorities had no control over them.
A militia had been set up to counter the CPP and NPA in the countryside. My recollection is that it was called “Ailsa Massa”. It ran out of control very quickly. Fired up by fundamentalist religion (communism is atheistic, the locals very superstitious) and alcohol and worse, they had no discipline at all and were responsible for pointless and savage murders of suspects with no evidence against them. It became a forum for settling old, often trivial and pointless, scores based on innuendo and rumour.
People are not fundamentally good. The opposite of authority isn’t liberty, but savage chaos.
Fortunately salvation was at hand in the shape of a bright chap as local major. A bull of a man, not born but found fully formed on the rim of a local volcano. You may have heard of him, he’s now the president of the republic, Rodrigo Duterte.
To be continued ……
© Always Worth Saying 2019
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