I’m in Josephina Island in the middle of the Philippine archipelago and have just rendezvoused, now that the typhoon has passed, with my business associate Gisele. She has pleasantly surprised me with a business opportunity, a franchise. Not only that, she has already signed for it and, in not such a pleasant surprise, signed it for me as well.
We say a poignant goodbye to her mother, Nini, her Girl Twin sisters and Matilde the house girl (my little spy in the family) and make our way down to the docks for the Superferry journey to another island. The maritime safety record isn’t great and the ferries are very packed. Part of the lifeboat drill is for the older men, and that includes me, taking off their lifebelts and giving them to younger people who haven’t got one. A rehearsal for realising, the lifeboats already being more than full, as you untie your lifebelt and pull it over your head, that you’re about to drown. Unless, of course, you’re an alpha male who doesn’t need a lifebelt, in which case the sharks are about to eat you alive.
At the next port we connect with a hydrofoil to another island and then a pump boat to our destination island. A pump boat is a big canoe shaped boat, carrying dozens rather than hundreds of people, powered by an outboard motor, or two, and kept stable by an outlying spa on each side.
We arrive at the next little dot on the map and Gisele begins to explain the franchise to me, as we haggle for a pedicar to take us along a dirt track. She’s signed us up for an exclusive muffler franchise for the island. A pedicar is a motor bike, or bicycle, pulling a bench on wheels for passengers. A muffler is another name for a car silencer. At the end of the track the route is very rough but there are horses to hire. We continue on horseback for about half an hour to a better road. We have committed to take ‘so many’ automobile silencers a month, more or less for the rest of our lives, at a reasonable price.
At the main road we hail two rickshaws to take us to the capital of the island, a busy place, packed with water buffalo and carts, horses, motor bikes and more pedicars, rickshaws and cycles. We will find premises and staff and train people up. It will run itself. It’s an exclusive franchise. We just keep the difference between buying in bulk and selling one at a time – can’t fail. Money for nothing, after fitting the automobile silencers to the, oh, horses, cycles, rickshaws, buffaloes and pedicars. Yes, we’d committed to a car silencer franchise for an island with no cars.
There was a mad dash, all the way to Manila, to untangle our legal obligation via small print, escape clauses and force majeure. Mufflers R Us was stillborn. You may recall one of Gisele’s sisters, Narissa (or Issa), was an attorney. I hear you say,
‘It’s unethical to represent a very close relative.’
Gisele and Issa got around that by sending me the bill. You live and learn.
Issa’s house was 5227 San Augustin Street, in one of the better public avenues (rather than a gated subdivision) in Makati City. It was our base in Metro Manila (MM) and was also the base for other members of Gisele’s extended family, which allowed for a bit of networking.
We’re engaged in setting up a Trading Triangle between Paranaque (MM) where Gisele’s relative (Freddie Webb) is senator, Davao City, where I’m based and Josephina Island, Gisele’s family seat.
Because Davao is in the Christian half of the lawless south (in the Foreign Office’s skull and crossbones zone) the British Embassy maintain a bit of extra interest in me. Mrs Thatcher always used to say, and rightly so, that the FO exists for the benefit of foreigners. They do tend to go a bit native.
At the time, the embassy was a couple of floors in a skyscraper, which wasn’t much fun. Disappointingly, embassy receptions would be there or in a postage stamp sized garden at somebody’s residence. You would wait to be invited, someone posh would circulate, start a conversation about the weather and then gently draw you towards being pumped for info.
It was bad form to invite yourself to these gatherings, but I did so twice. Once when a smartly dressed man on a bus, in a business suit, offered to buy HMS Broadsword from me. I kid you not. I felt I had to pass the message on, just in case. The other time was an interesting little opportunity that contained so many unlikely co-incidences that I felt it might have been meant to happen.
Everybody likes a pretty girl and I was plagued by them. One stands out in my mind and I shall use her as a relevant example. For reasons that will become obvious, I have no hesitation in using her real name. She was called Evangelista ‘Vangie’ De Reyes. All this began in the first-class departure lounge at the domestic terminal at Manila’s Ninoy Aquino Airport, where one meets a better class of crook. The domestic and international terminals were separate but at the same airfield, named after the deceased opposition leader Ninoy Aquino, who had been taken off a plane and shot dead by Ferdinand Marcos’s goons when Aquino had returned from political exile.
The domestic airport and it’s first class lounge were modest, slab sided concrete boxes in those days. Outside was an aviation museum line up of the day’s flights, including Sky Vans, Dakotas and IL 76’s. One day I saw a Constellation. There was also a row of BAC 111’s, many being cannibalised for parts. Noisy things. Avoid.
I was standing next to a big fan, suffering in the heat, when a very pretty girl came up to me, introduced herself as ‘Vangie’ and we fell into conversation. She was flying down to Davao City too, a resident of Sunnyhills subdivision, her father a businessman in retail, a friend of Mr Gaisano. She was kind enough to offer to help me to use up my unused baggage allowance with her packages, at which point I told her to get lost (in case she had a bomb in them).
She looked pensive, close to tears, she bit her lip, apologised, looked up at me though her fringe, with big dark eyes, and with a wavering voice, offered to make it up to me by, when we were called, checking me in at the desk in the native language, speeding everything up and getting me a better seat and meal. The old fool fell for it.
On the plane her enthusiasm waned. She became monosyllabic, unenthusiastic about swapping phone numbers, developed a headache and then on disembarking disappeared, although from the corner of my eye I might have caught the back of her head as she sprinted away.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a problem trying to leave the airport and I was directed to a desk and invited to settle my wife’s upgrade to first class and her excess baggage bill. Which. Was. Vast.
I was so busy looking at those big eyes, perhaps I’d missed her manhandling one of those giant refrigerators, or a crate full of beer bottles (filled with lead), behind her back?
In truth this often happened, I just refused to pay the airline, told them I’d been conned by a pretty stranger (again) and got away with it. In fact, myself and Gisele would sometimes pull the same trick.
However, just out of interest, as Vangie had given me enough free information, I made enquiries around Davao. I had a network of housemaids who I paid (in little perfume samples) for information. They came up with a surname. Not only was Evangelista a ‘De Reyes’ but one of THE ‘De Reyes’ with a bona fide address in the exclusive Sunnyhills subdivision. I should pay a visit. A few days later I did. But first, did somebody mention Mr Gaisano? I hope it was a complement.
Mr Gaisano owned a downtown department store at a time when that particular type of retail was moving towards out of town shopping malls. At least it was in Manila, a trend bound to spread to the provinces.
The big malls in the capital could easily manage a footfall of half a million per day and have floor space exceeding two and a half million square feet.
It always made me smile that, at the time, such big malls in the economically challenged parts of England were taken as some kind of futuristic sign of success. The business model is based on cheap land, cheap labour and a mountain of imported goods, bought by another mountain of consumer debt.
Mr Gaisano’s downtown department store had seen better days. Imagine Grace Brothers, semi derelict, fairly deserted, covered in lizards but with the same overheads, the same immaculately turned out self-important staff and complacent management.
Not only that, but competition was on the way, in the shape of Davao’s first mall, under construction, Victoria Plaza, quite a monolith to mammon, on a main road half way to the airport. And it boasted the mother of all (five hundred miles from the equator) unique selling points – an outdoor ice-skating rink.
Just as you might think that things couldn’t get any gloomier for downtown Gaisano’s, the place burnt to the ground in the middle of the night. Worse still, the police made no progress at all in hunting for the arsonists. Just when you might think the (tropical) sun had set on Mr Gaisano’s empire, the Gods of Retail began to stir.
They say that ‘retail is detail’ and ‘success is timing’. Fortunately, the day before the fire, the store had been insured. In fact, close attention to the small print showed that it had been massively over insured. When questioned, the insurance salesman’s recently abandoned wife reported, in what was probably a rare outbreak of honest truth, that her missing husband had been called in the middle of the previous night and given the consumer offer of; a roll of money to disappear with or two broken legs.
Being a publicly spirited kind of chap, Mr Gaisano declared that he would carefully invest the insurance windfall, and help to develop the local economy, by building a giant mall, well placed to compete with Victoria, who’s cynical and untrusting management were now spending nearly as much on security as on bricks and concrete.
This, dear reader, is the kind of competitive business environment that I was tip toeing towards, as I approached the security gates at Sunnyhills, with a proposition that Miss Evangelista ‘Vangie’ De Reyes couldn’t refuse.
They say that, before the war, Kim Philby was a currier for the Soviet Union, based in Vienna, travelling across Eastern European borders carrying currency and sealed instructions to other Soviet spies. They also say that he was never challenged on account of his demeanour and British passport.
I can second that, as I was able to stroll past security and onto the subdivisions in Davao, just on demeanour, without even bothering either of my passports. A trick I wasn’t always able to pull in Manila, where some of the residences were more exclusive and I was less of a novelty.
I would find Vangie’s house, introduce myself to the maid, say that I would like to thank Vangie personally for helping me with my flight and, if I may, hand her a little present, the most expensive, exclusive and branded of my perfume samples.
She would be pleased to receive me, being stuck in front of MTV all day, trapped in her room as a result of busy, absent and protective parents, wary of kidnappings.
Over glasses of mango juice, she would be thrilled with the perfume. I would continue with excessive flattery and slightly restrained, bluffed blackmail (claiming the airline has showed me a manifest of the contents of her excess luggage). Silly girl, her parents would be disappointed – if they found out. She would be comfortable with the idea that she should introduce me to one of her uncles. In fact, she might even think the idea was hers.
For her uncle was an important man, one Geronimo De Reyes, founder of Gateway Business Park in Cavite, half way between MM and a Bond villain millionaire’s row on the edge of the Taal volcano. There he assembled, with cheap labour from over here, expensive high technology components from over there. This equipment was of strategic importance and I assumed that the FO would have been bursting to get into it for years. On my own opportunistic initiative, I couldn’t resist giving it a try. Similarly, no one can resist a pretty girl and Mr Geronimo De Reyes presumably therefore, can’t resist a little favour asked for by his favourite niece.
To be continued ….
© Always Worth Saying 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file