Postcard from Lille, Part 21


Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Rough at Intramuros
© Always Worth Saying, Going Postal 2019

Fancy a game of golf? I’ll warn you in advance that I don’t. I started playing golf when I was about nine, but from that point forward got worse and worse and worse. I’m sure I’m not the first to observe that it spoils a good walk in the countryside, or though the tin sheds and sea containers, depending on the course.

Earlier, we established that the best ever airport in the history of the world was Kai Tak in Hong Kong, now I’d like to venture that the best ever name for a golf course is ‘Wack Wack’ (especially if you’re playing off my handicap), part of the exclusive Greenhills subdivision, next to the sclerotic EDSA highway, slap bang in the middle of Metro Manila. Beyond the name, I cannot comment as I neither played there nor visited the club house. But I have been to Greendale. Yes, the facilities are first class and yes, the club house really is a quarter of a mile long.

May I trump myself? In order to do so we will have to return our Bond villain’s retreat at the Taal volcano but then who wouldn’t want to? Tagaytay Golf Course lay on the outside of the bowl of the volcano. The views across the plain were spectacular. The club house won awards, standing as it did just off the steepest part of the volcano’s rim. It was a giant wooden building, in the classic native style, all high beams and thatch. A stream ran through it, between bars and restaurants. The greens and fairways zigzagged back and forward up towards the volcano’s rim, conveying a refreshing coolness as if a holy mountain close to paradise.

In the clubhouses’ roped off VIP area there was a roped off VVIP area where, from the plebs seats in the mere million US dollar debenture restaurant, myself and my business associate Gisele could gaze enviously at the likes of Mr Geronimo De Reyes, owner of the nearby Gateway Business Park and wonder about an introduction. Incidentally, we were able to visit these places by using the membership badges of family members while they were missing or in jail. Wait patiently, all will be revealed.

And yes, before you ask, The Anglo Philippine Friendship and Enterprise Company did try to muscle into the golf sector. Clark field having been trashed by a volcano and abandoned by the US Air Force, the plan was to use it as a new EntrePoint to the Philippines. A rail link would be built from Clark to the northern end of Manila’s Light Rail Transit (LRT) at Caloocan City. All kinds of facilities would be built ‘green field’ at Clark including golf courses. Our rival for the gig was a consortium badged up as ‘True North’. Gisele aided our ambitions, rode two horses at once, and worked for True North too. She shared a floor with a chap called Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada, who subsequently became president of the Republic. Another crook, he was impeached and forced to resign after three years.

Speaking of crooks, ourselves made the newspaper headlines when the poor being evicted from ‘our land’ at Clark were only offered half a sack of stale rice (per several families) as part of the billion-dollar development. The billion dollars would be raised through debentures, as per Wack Wack, Greendale, Tagaytay et al, except no riffraff. Manila’s nouveau riche need not apply. We would hawk around Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore looking for corporate inward investment. The courses were being designed by the top golf stars. Yes, we got to meet them. In the pantheon of all things golf, top of the leader board was Nick Faldo, a gentleman. Second bottom, Nancy Lopez, least said the better. It’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice.

Absolute bottom, in those days, was a golf course at Intramuros where the grand old game was an adventure sport. Intramuros means ‘within the walls’ and is the original walled settlement that the Spanish built when they founded Manila. Within it lie city blocks of old coral brick and wooden buildings, including Manila Cathedral, St Augustine’s and the Spanish’s Fort Santiago, which lies right beside the Pasig river.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Manila Cathedral
© Always Worth Saying, Going Postal 2019

One day I twitched my four iron on Intramuros’s first tee. To my left were those defensive walls, built in a triangulation of crossfire zig-zag style, bounded by a moat. Ahead of me, somewhere, the first green, it’s flag, presumably, being used as tinder to cook a barangay resident’s breakfast. Striking a tin shack didn’t necessarily mean me out of bounds. Far from it, a handy bounce from the roof of an improvised hut might just take me to the green – wherever it might be.

‘Beyond the razor wire is out of bounds’, my golfing companion Ding had explained.

Where the wire was trampled down and covered in squatters was ‘in bounds’. A fine shot straight up the middle of where the fairway should be might be unplayable anyway, in which case it could be dropped (or replaced, if carried off by a dog or child) without penalty. I aimed for a hunched figure, dangling an improvised fishing rod in a water hazard, and addressed my ball.

‘Shot,’ Gisele and Ding exclaimed as one.

It gathered height, curled into the light green rush hour air and described a steepening arc back to earth where it bounced (heartily) on parched ground and came to rest, thankfully on thin yellow grass, near a bright blue shipping container. Gisele cited local rules and neglected to drive. Despite her full set of clubs, she would confine herself to the occasional carefully placed stroke from the fairway and take either gentleman’s easier putts, as the mood took her. Ding accompanied us, as far down the fairway as he could, before following the line of his earlier slice, towards some shacks, from which he hoped to buy his ball back. If there isn’t a Royal and Ancient rule about your ball landing inbounds but in a cooking pot, then they haven’t been to Intramuros.

‘But the poor will always be with us, it says so in the Gospel, Our Lord himself predicted it’, Gisele observed, unprompted, ‘the Holy Father will be here soon to remind us.’

On the green, which was remarkably well kept, there was no sign of a hole. Neither was there any sand, in what were either bunkers or evidence of stolen turf. Both myself and Ding took two putts to nestle our golf balls between Gisele’s feet. We teed off again, this time trying to follow a tight angled abutment (with a cannon on top of it) which pointed to the second green and also provided welcome shade.

We are having a chat with Ding about a business meeting at the Ayala residence of the said Mr Geronimo De Reyes. This has been arranged through his niece (Evangelista or ‘Vangie’) who I have been able to cultivate after I caught her stealing my airline baggage allowance. We need to fly her up to Manila, first class, as part of our introduction to her uncle and Ding is our chap at the airline.

‘By Jove’, I hear regular readers chant, ‘you don’t half spend some money on air fares.’

Well, yes and no. As late tickets were returned, refunds were reduced or refused and then the tickets resold as if never returned. ‘No shows’ were also very high as the road traffic was so bad people couldn’t get to the airport, allowing for some more creative ticketing.

Airline employee Ding and an accomplice (or three) made hay. For a while it worked a treat. One year they made more money than the airline but the seeds of their nemesis were sown in thousands of pieces of paper scattered across the archipelago. A black and white confetti, with signatures, places, dates and receipts, cheques, cheque stubs, credit card payments and statements were his undoing. His attempt at a cover up spread like a pyramid buying scam. He was paying out more to protect himself than taking in fraud.

In need of legal help, he was one of Gisele’s sister’s (Issa the attorney’s), clients. A web of distant family obligations meant that Issa had to take him on, on a ‘no chance of winning, no chance of ever getting a fee’ basis. Bizarrely he was suing the airline. Issa palmed him off onto myself and Gisele (who charged her a commission) to pour out his heart, as far away from Issa’s office as possible, during which time we pumped him a bit harder for more desperation discount cheap tickets.

‘It’s a conspiracy Gisele. It’s the government behind it all’, Ding wailed.

‘It is terrible, all this because of refunds. If the planes were better, it wouldn’t happen, Ding, they’ve abused you, sue, sue, sue’, she encouraged him.

Mr De Reyes lived on the Ayala residences which is part of BF Homes, a gated community and a big one. It will be the size of a small British city. It is south of Manila airport and therefore is in Paranaque City but it runs into Pasig and Multinlupa cities too. As the urban area has sprawled, it has become administratively part of one place, Metro Manila or MM.

There are checkpoints and private security. Entrance is by appointment or by badge and permit. There are other gated communities within it, some more exclusive than others. If you ever visit any of the Asian mega cities, prepare to be surprised by the poverty and absolutely astonished by the wealth, and the very small geographic distances between the two.

The De Reyes were a lovely family, very well educated and well-travelled. They were at the Ayala Alabang end of BF which was the very posh bit, with the President in his helicopter tearing up the neighbourhood as a spoiled teenager might with a souped-up car. The De Reyes’ joked that they were tempted to vote for the Communists, instead of President Ramos, to try to keep the helicopter movements down. The President lived about three doors away but, in his defence, there was quite a big distance between doors.

Three decades ago, a plot at Ayala cost half a million US dollars with a commitment to spent at least another half million building a property on it. Blue tiled roofs were fashionable and marked out the better homes. If you’d like to have a look round, tough, all these years later the paupers at Google haven’t been able to get a permit for their Street View car. From aerial photos, you may notice that the individual family crypts on the neighbouring cemetery are bigly bigger than your house and mine (combined).

Despite that, some local customs crossed class divisions. As in the most humble of dwellings, there was water for the orchids, a hose for the grass but an empty bucket and a search for a tap after you’d used the toilet. Likewise, children were allowed to smoke, drink alcohol, gamble for real money with strangers, own guns and shoot live ammunition in the back garden but weren’t allowed coffee, ‘because it’s bad for them’.

After the niceties, Vangie would visit some local sights with her cousins, as an excited girl from the provinces visiting the most glamorous parts of the big city. The rest of us would talk business.
I introduced Gisele as herself, rather than Senator Webb’s relative, as the speculation around the Webb family was becoming problematical. Gisele was a business woman to her finger tips and excellent at presentations. A framed MBA hung in her office at True North and on days like this a neutral might be tempted to think that it was genuine.

We’d prepared some printed material and showed it to Mr De Reyes in a classic two handed ‘he said / she said’ sell, completing each other’s sentences and starting the laughter off at each other’s jokes. Mr De Rayes was an old hand too, but if he if he did miss any of the obvious questions, myself and Gisele just asked them of each other.

The crux of it was this: you’ll recall that getting doctored electrical components into Sadam Hussein’s supply chain during the Iran Iraq war was a bit fraught, eye wateringly expensive and dangerous. It would be a lot easier if they were already there. Imagine if every motherboard in the world had a little bit England on it, able to ‘know’ in certain circumstances what was being asked of it and make a few alterations accordingly. Sir Geoffrey Howe might have called it realising you were in the pavilion and having the option of breaking the cricket bats before or during the match.

Mr De Reyes’s Gateway factory made the motherboards, with expensive American and Japanese components and cheap local labour, that went all over the world into the latest generation of computers. These days, delivering an effect would be done via embedding viruses or compromising communications but in those days such things were in their infancy and computers very often ‘stand alone’ or in a ‘closed’ network of relatively small numbers.

I’d contacted the Embassy on my own initiative (frowned upon) and they were as sniffy as I had expected them to be, wanting a box on their desk, signed and sealed (rather than a good idea), before they’d pick up the Bat Phone to the boffins in the UK.

Our opening position with Mr De Reyes was that he should pay us for these components with no need to tell the Americans. Our final position would be paying him to add them, something which would get a big ‘non’ from the Embassy.

However, I did have a bit of a trump card, and a bit of business for myself and The Anglo Philippine Friendship and Enterprise’ Company’s bright children’s (forced labour) Computer Club. Regular readers will recall my work with timers, averaging out the difference between long and short seconds which software, operating systems and processors tended to churn out. If we made the most of the long seconds then we could make the motherboards look as though they were doing a lot more work than they really were. In the extra virtual time allowed, performance tests would put the De Reyes Gateway motherboards to the top of the leader board. In new money, the words ‘Volkswagen’ and ‘emissions’ spring to mind.

At a time when software development was running ahead of hardware, performance was vital and a very important and profitable selling point. Also, this alteration was a ‘flash’ that could be added to the existing American imported components, so there was no need for anyone in America to know about it.

The mood music was fine and, as far as I could tell, at the end of the meeting, we had a nod from the man himself to move on to the next stage and pass the worst of the spade work onto our Embassy and the boffins back home. En cue, Vangie and her cousins arrived back. She looked crest fallen. All was not well in paradise and on leaving the De Reyes residence she told us why.

To be continued……..

© Always Worth Saying 2019

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