Postcard from Lille, Part 22

Paradise Problema

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Philippine Sunset 

One of the better things that the ‘Anglo Philippine Friendship and Enterprise Company’ did was sponsor young people in their education and the earlier part of their careers. There’s a famous statistic that forty six world leaders were educated in Britain, an example of, they say, soft power in action. Another tranche was educated by the humble proceeds from the sale of flood damaged cakes, Computer Class, unsellable car silencers (sold to scrap), motherboard improvements, gambling on fighting cocks, returned airline tickets, perfume samples, the rising pound et al.

They may not be leading countries (yet) but they’ll be leading people elsewhere in work places, families and congregations. And yes, every now and again, all these years later, somebody appears from nowhere and surprises me with a ‘thank you’. I smile, say it was the least that we could do, and then pump them for tall tales and gossips which might add colour to a boring old fool’s memoir.

They say that Hungary behind the iron curtain, during the Cold War, in the Warsaw Pact and under Russian Soviet communist dictatorship was the ‘happiest barracks in the prison camp’. I was ‘enjoying’ the place at the time and that’s what the comrades kept on shouting at me to try to cheer me up.

Likewise, thinking back to my own education, my concentration camp style provincial boarding school was as happy a place as you’re likely to get given the circumstances. My mother had decided that I should be a doctor. She had wanted to be a nurse but her education had been interrupted by the war. Her school had been used for building spitfires, instead of for teaching, and my mother and others of her generation felt that they’d missed out.

Earlier in our never-ending approach on Lille, Princess Fahdma had to make not only her own marriage but also what was lacking in her parent’s. Likewise, and I’m sure many of you are nodding in recognition, I had to have my mother’s education as well as my own. I make this as an observation with no judgement attached but I must add a line from the Simpsons, when Principle Skinner complains that, when asked, he can’t possibly in one word sum up his relationship with his ‘smother’.

I had to learn Latin as my mother thought that prescriptions were written in Latin. Maybe they were? And I had to do sciences at A-level, at which point the brute force of long hours before a desk had reached its limit and some kind of (in my case lacking) aptitude was required. For two years I didn’t have a clue what was going on. It was like listening to dogs bark. You might like to think that A-level physics was about death rays and space ships, alas no, it was very mathematical.

As ever, salvation was at hand. Amongst the mathematical theory of logic gates (Ands, Nands, Ors and Nors to the initiated) they actually took us to the local technical college and sat us in front of a computer. Or rather the telex machines which, via a cable as thick as gypsy’s arm, communicated with a room full of valves and some serious air conditioning.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Coding via Telex Machine 

I found computer programming very do-able and was hooked. Thanks, you really have to say, in the round-about way that females achieve these things, to my mother.

Many years later the French newspaper ‘Le Monde’ wrote an article about me, reflecting on the political side of things and on a life of travel, business and derring-do. At first glance, with my primitive French, I was thrilled to bits, especially with the part that said I had the ‘gift of speaking with the computers’.

However a friend fluent in the language, aware of its precise and diplomatic meaning (taking into account where the commas had been put and counting up the gerundives) took me to one side and whispered that, in fact, they’d ripped me to bits. Everybody in France was laughing at me and my favourite line really referred to the kind of communication that a charlatan (pretending to be Dr Doolittle) might claim to be having while chatting with the wrong end of an elephant.

Bugger the French.

As a consolation, I had four times as many column inches as Hilary Clinton. Albeit just for one day.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Your Author in Le Monde 

Years previously and oceans away, I would visit schools in the Philippines. The teachers were very dedicated and very hardworking, adjectives which by comparison are overused when referring to teachers in our country. They were mostly young women and the religious.  Teaching tended to be chalk and talk, with not a lot of equipment, but none the worse for that. Standards were very high. As were numbers, in a pyramid distribution, with few children in the older secondary years, more in the earlier secondary and uncountable swarms in the elementary classes. The country’s population explosion made itself flesh in the school yard.

Nearly all of the schools were private, however the fees were hundreds (rather than thousands) of US Dollars per year and I take no credit for paying to educate some of the less fortunate pupils. It was the very least I could do.  And yes, I taught a few lessons, and if you think having to read this is bad, you should have sat in a class with ninety children on a boiling hot day listening to my unplanned, shouted opinion on something or other.

After school was Computer Class, which was very useful, with the brighter pupils being forced to work on projects that could be sold commercially. How did you think I paid for their school fees? The children were well motivated, bright and kept busy. The ethic was just right for future success but that wasn’t the case everywhere.

Before we move back to our story, I must tell you this. The nuns used to post the most graphic pictures of venereal disease all over the school. Their explanation was that there were enough problems with volcanoes, typhoons, earthquakes, terrorism, communism, Islamism, drugs, violence and much more, that the last thing they wanted was an Aids epidemic as well. By graphic, I mean really graphic. Imagine that and then image it a bit more, then stitch up your fly.

Meanwhile back in our story, myself and my business associate Gisele are guests on the exclusive BF homes residential gated subdivision in Metro Manila. A place which, if visited by Alan Whicker, would have been honoured with a moniker such as,

‘You don’t have to be a billionaire, but it helps’.

We have a day permit from Mr De Reyes (of Gateway Business Park fame) with whom we’ve just had a promising Computer Class sales meeting. We also have badges and permits from my associate Gisele’s family members, unused because they are missing or in jail. Mr De Reyes’s niece from the provinces, Vangie, is also with us as she secured the introduction. And the Pope is on his way. Confused? You will be.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Mr Geronimo De Los Reyes (Pictured in 2016)

Our car has diplomatic plates. I have two passports and the demeanour of an English gentleman. We’re going to push our luck and drive around BF, through all the check points, as if we own the place. Gisele wants to do some timings. Short of a watch we chant, ‘one dollar’, ‘two dollar’, ‘three dollar’ as we drive about. We start at the business centre at Ayala, which in those days was just one office block marooned in open ground. Off we go, ‘one dollar’, ‘two dollar’.

Gisele drives, I sit in the back seat beside Vangie and ask her why she looks so glum. Vangie is a girl from Davao City in the south. She’d disappeared with her cousins during our meeting with her uncle for a tour of the glamorous and exciting places in this, the most expensive and exclusive part of the capital. But it hadn’t gone well.

Their driver and bodyguard wouldn’t take them to the mall. Instead they went to the Country Club, which wouldn’t let them in. They drove around BF but on leaving their FX for sightseeing, had felt intimidated by some of the local young people and had had to be escorted back to their vehicle by security. They returned to the Country Club and although this time, after haggling, they had been allowed in and it was ‘good-good’, it wasn’t the mall and it wasn’t the streets of expensive houses and glamorous people.

After a few hours, the Country Club became a bit dull for the youngsters so they sat and chatted over cold drinks at a bench table under an umbrella. As the conversation fizzled out, her cousins were left to confide some uncomfortable, whispered truths.

The mall wasn’t safe and neither was much of BF, especially after dark. They say you should never meet your heroes and, it’s worth adding, especially not in their own billionaire’s paradise. The area had long been terrorised by gangs of spoiled young brats from prominent families.

The residents feared these young monsters because they had induced many others to become drug addicts, in these subdivisions they were the main source of illegal drugs from marijuana to a methamphetamine known locally as ‘shabu’. Shabu is a potent stimulant and an aphrodisiac. It is often mixed with cocaine. When politicians or celebrities think that stories about themselves abusing drugs when they were younger makes them ‘down with the street’, the following is what they’re normalising and promoting.

Many young girls had been raped, and their families had been intimidated against complaining to the authorities. Many young boys who dared to  cross the path of the gangs had been beaten up. Some had been stabbed or shot. In the evenings and early mornings, the subdivision’s streets were converted into drag courses as they gambled obscene amounts of money racing their souped-up expensive cars. In the shopping malls they created havoc, not paying restaurant bills and bullying theatre personnel into free admission. Most of them carried guns, with the silent permission from ranking police and military officers. They had heavier weapons inside their cars including compact automatic machine guns.

Subdivision guards didn’t dare arrest them. Those who did had been dismissed upon the insistence of powerful parents. They held regular sex and drug sessions in their posh homes when their parents were out partying or gambling. When they ran out of money, they broke into subdivision homes to commit robberies [2] .

That killed the conversation.

We passed through security and onto a pubic highway, Gisele still counting. We slowed down and passed though security again and back onto a less exclusive but still gated residence. These plots were smaller, no room for gardens, with individually built properties filling all the land available. The street was cluttered with parked cars and numerous wooden poles carrying bundles of utility wires.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Vinzons Street

We continued for about two hundred yards and then stopped on a corner. Gisele shouted out the big number of seconds that she had counted to. The three of us got out of the car. It was late afternoon, still light, but night time fell quickly and there was already a slight red fringe across the roof tops. Elsewhere, on the Manila Bay side of the city, the sky would be deepest red and the hills to the west, crimson and scarlet.

Gisele had been listening to Vangie and, as a precaution, opened the car boot so that we could take out our guns. We had a short walk, the three of us in a line. We stopped at another corner.

‘That junction is where plot number one hundred and three would be so that’s why there isn’t a hundred and three property’, I explained, not least to myself, pointing at a side road,  ‘The next one is one hundred and five, and opposite,’ I pointed to the right, ‘That must be seventy-eight. So,’ pointing a bit further, ‘that must be eighty.’

We walked to number eighty and looked at the frontage. There was a side gate that had been left open on a violent previous night. The light was fading quickly now, from blood red through to black, dark enough for the first three stars of the night to shine.

Gisele just stood, trying to turn her big number into minutes and seconds and miles per hour. She tried to change the shape of the world, witness’s memories and time itself, to shift blood-stained suspicion away from ourselves, her family and our sponsor Senator Webb. I said the words in case Vangie didn’t realise,

‘That’s the Vizconde residence.’

‘I know,’ she replied, ‘I can feel the ghosts.’

 

To be continued ……….

[1]  Photo Credit – Sheena Tan

[2] Ariel Bocobo, 27.6.95, Manila Sentinel.

[3] Modern Day via Google Street View.
 

© Always Worth Saying 2019
 

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