Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Hey Joe

Early in his short career, Jimi Hendrix wrote a blues song called "Hey Joe," that was nothing more than a pretext for his improvisatory guitar genius. The lyrics are simple and formulaic:

Hey Joe,
Where ya goin' to
With that gun in your hand?

I'm going' to shoot my old lady
I caught her messin round
with another man.

I'm reminded of that Hendrix song every time I leave my house here on my Philippine island and walk down the highway. Every time I do, I hear someone yelling "Hey Joe!" at me. It's an exclamation that foreigners have heard for decades in the Philippines, ever since World War Two, when American GIs were the first foreigners ever seen in some parts of this country. You won't hear it in Manila or in any tourist area, simply because there are far more foreigners around. But down here in the Sticks, where foreign faces are still a notable occasion for the natives, it's uttered almost as a joke. Living here as long as I have, however, has made it the most irritating phrase I know.

One of the things that some people hate, but that I happen to love, about living in a big American city is the utter anonymity that living there makes possible. One can live anywhere in such a city without ever knowing the names of one's neighbors and, more importantly, without their ever knowing yours. Standing in a crowd, one might as well be invisible.

But here in the Philippine provinces, from the moment I emerge from my house to the time when I go back inside, I am the center of attention for whomever is outside. I am aware of a number of eyes that are on me. I can feel the weight of their stares. My Filipino friends are shocked when I tell them this: that when I go to town, or to the market, or into a mall or supermarket, I am watched with unnerving scrutiny. The looks seem inspired by various things, everything from simple curiosity to sexual attraction to downright hostility. I have found that wearing sunglasses helps to soften the stares.

Men will make comments in dialect that are easy to guess at as I walk by a group of them, and the comments are usually scatalogical. They will make feeble jokes, like all of their jokes, at my expense. There are even a few who will simply stand in my way, agape, and scowl at me as I pass by them. Women will be so bold as to address my companion with questions about my sexual predilections. Am I sadistic? they will ask. (They have all heard stories about how foreigners are all sexual "manyakes" [maniacs].) Young women, many of them still in high school, will exhibit curiosity in easily misconstruable terms. Most of their overtures are innocent, but I have never been crazy enough to take therm seriously.

Taken all together - the pervasive heat, which glues my shirt to my back within minutes, the constant hazard of being overcharged for everything (my companion handles all my cash transactions), the staring eyes, the contemptuous jokes, the come-ons, and the cries of HeyJoe - it is with understandable relief that I arrive home and close the door. It is only within the walls of my house that I can relax, that I can let down my guard and be myself. I am rarely out of range of one or another electric fan. And as time has passed, I have found fewer occasions to leave the house. Moritz Thomsen, a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador, got it right when he wrote: "I think anyone who has not lived the wholly public life of a foreigner in a small town, where every scratch and belch is noted with fascinated curiosity, cannot realize how essential it is to have a place of refuge where you can hide from time to time and reform yourself."*

Privacy is something of which Filipinos have only a nebulous understanding. For them, to be "private" seems to carry some of the Latin meaning, to be "deprived." Rumors were spread among my neighbors about my staying indoors so much - that I must be hiding there, that I'm living here in a Philippine province because I am on the run for some mysterious offense. Like everything else, these rumors are merely to be endured. There is nothing to be said. And how should I explain myself?

Why did I have to travel six thousand miles to become a recluse? In Alaska, where I lived prior to coming to the Philippines, I lived indoors because of the cold, which lasted half the year. Despite it's reputation as America's "last frontier," I didn't encounter much in the way of outdoor activities there. Here, among 7, 107 islands belonging to the Philippines, beaches are ubiquitous. But because virtually all of them are privately owned, and because Filipinos seem to fear the water (most of them never learned how to swim) and would rather not further darken their brown skin, the beaches are deserted. I don't go sightseeing. I have seen all the sights worth seeing. There are no centuries-old Spanish churches on my island. There are several garish mansions, all belonging to the despotic governing family. There are views, most of which require some amount of travel to view.

So I stay indoors, watching the American - and some British and Australian - news, Hollywood movies, with an occasional foray into a true foreign film (Filipino movies and TV are beneath comment), reading and writing, and going online. I show up when I'm invited to a bash, with barbecued pig, lots of tuba (fermented coconut juice), and Empy (Emperador Brandy). But because men and women are segregated, and because I can hear my lonely electric fan calling to me from across the kilometers, I don't stay long. And as I stroll toward the highway to hire a trike to take me home, I always hear, like a constant refrain, voices calling "Hey Joe!"

*Mortitz Thomsen, Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Willful Neglect

In various places of the world, especially wherever the Spanish established a colony, the Day of the Dead is not just a day set aside on which everyone visits a cemetery to pay respects to their dead loved ones. For families it is the actual day on which an individual - a mother or father - had died. It is a day fraught with superstitious rituals that are supposed to guarantee that the dead will rest in peace. April 23 is traditionally believed to be the day of William Shakespeare's birth. One of the reasons we know this is because it coinicided with the day of his death in 1616.

What is there left to say on Shakespeare's 450th birthday, except to comment on how someone so universally revered could be so obscure to the vast majority of people. It's only partly because of his stature as probably the greatest poet-playwright in history that most people are willfully ignorant of his work. Literary fame is only dimly recognized today. And it doesn't seem to matter that he's as strange to native English-speakers as he is to speakers of some aboriginal language in Papua New Guinea or in Amazonia.

The King James Bible was published in Shakespeare's lifetime, and most people today can't read it without consulting a glossary. A Christian friend of mine, who believes that the original Bible, written in Hebrew and Greek, is the inspired word of God, prefers one of the modern translations to King James' because the language of Shakespeare's age seems to him to put distance between him and his Creator. Never mind that the Standard Text, as it became known, contains poetry that occasionally rivals that of Shakespeare, and that, for centuries, it was the only book that could be found in nearly every household where English was spoken and that it provided uneducated people with beautiful and noble language with which they could describe the most mundane events in their daily lives.

What most people who fear Shakespeare's language don't seem to grasp is how utterly clear he is, and how convoluted and muddied English has become since his death 398 years ago today. Would Shakespeare be able to read The New York Times without a lexicon?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Proscription Television

I recall, with enough residual amusement, watching The Playboy Channel in the mid-1980s, when the amount of quality softcore erotica was scarce and the channel's producers had to resort to airing hardcore, adult movies with their hardcore scenes scrupulously "softened" to appease the FCC, which forbade (and still forbids, I think) scenes of suchan explicit nature shown on a licensed cable channel. This often rsulted in reducing feature-length movies like Debbie Does Dallas to sometimes half their original length. The raison d'etre of such movies was compromised by the removal of depictions of genitalia and penetration to the extent that they were rendered pointless [pun]. The Playboy Channel's censorship was self-defeating - porn stars, while well-equipped for combat copulation, are no good as nude models. And the very notion of a porn movie without porn is nonsensical.

Here on the Pacific Rim, some of the major American cable channels have Asian affiliates whose programming is tailored for a non-subscription, basic-cable audience. Consequently, much of the strong language, graphic violence, and the nudity that are routinely featured on programs produced by HBO, for example, have to be removed in order to reach a PG audience. The appeal of programs like Boardwalk Empire, now in its fourth season, depend to a large extent on plentiful gore and sex. Game of Thrones, also in its fourth season, is a clumsy mixture of medieval fantasy of the sword and sorcery variety and soap opera - and is HBO's most unlikely hit show. But it, too, is awash in blood, butts and breasts - all of which has to be excised when every episode is aired, often on the same day they are seen in the States, on HBO Asia. Without the periodic surprise of spurting blood and/or heaving naked bodies, Game of Thrones is a thoroughly moribund and feeble saga of Lord of the Rings proportions. The shows fans, sensing this, try to argue that the TV series doesn't do the books on which Game of Thrones is based justice. To which all I can say is -- the nudity is so much better on TV.

Monday, April 7, 2014

No Exit Poll

[I wrote the following piece in November 2012 and, somehow, never found an opportunity to publish it. As time passed and its topicality receded into the distance of irrecoverable days, I have turned back to it as more than just an anecdote. So many months after the event, I think it captures more than just a moment in time, a few hours of a day when an American presidential election was taking place thousands of miles away from where I was traveling to a nearby city.]

While the election results were just beginning to be counted on Tuesday evening, November 6, 2012, it was early Wednesday morning here in the Philippines. The only ATMs on my small island that accepted my American bank card had been "offline" - so I was told -since the first of the month, and rather than throw away much-needed money on a Western Union money transfer, I decided to buy a ticket on one of the shuttle vans that zoom past my house every hour to use the ATM in the nearest sizeable city called Tacloban.

I knew a dispatcher for the van company who arranged for the van to pick up my girlfriend and I on the highway just before dawn. I always bring my girlfriend along for protection. She protects me from being overcharge for everything from soft drinks to house rent - since everyone suffers from the delusion that all foreigners are millionaires. It was my first ride in a van in almost five years. (I haven't ridden in a car, dear reader, since November 8, 2007.) On climbing inside the van, I was relegated to the rumble seat nearest the sliding door. There wasn't a seatbelt in sight and as soon as the van hit cruising speed (approximately 80 kph), I also noticed that all the "oh shit" handles near the ceiling were missing. With the window open, I had to cling to the sliding door whenever the highway took us veering to the right and onto my girlfriend's knee when it took us to the left.

Having traveled often on the highway aboard a trike or on the back of a motorcycle, I knew that the internationally-observed rules of the road were regarded rhetorically in the Philippines, like friendly advice rather than enforceable laws. And many drivers on the roads had either never bothered to acquire a license or had one that was expired, simply because they couldn't spare the money for the fee. This meant that even the most rudimentary driving regulations were ignored - ones like not passing on a bridge or on a hill or a curve.

All manner of conveyance known to history, from wagons drawn by water buffalo, pedicabs and motor scooters to jeepneys, SUVs, vans, buses and trucks all travel these spindly highways. Right of way is negotiated only in the breach. The speed at which the van was moving made the passing world into something of a green and grey blur of coconut palms, rice paddies and wooden shacks. And people seemed to glance at me as I sped past their inscrutable lives. I latched onto a certain view of trees and houses and engaged in the fantasy of living with that view always before me. Everything I knew started and ended there - my boyhood, school days, my first encounters with love and death. But when I opened my eyes I saw a different view sliding past me - another group of people, another arrangement of destinies.

The speed of the van became more alarming when it drove that Wednesday morning past uniformed boys and girls on their way to school. I saw the usual number of women with babies stapled to their chests,who are everywhere in these overcrowded islands. And toddlers scampering within inches of the highway seemed inured to the life-threatening passage of buses and trucks that do nothing more in warning than give short blasts from their horns as they explode around curves.

Imagine a busy two-lane highway slicing through the heart of your neighborhood, with homes, grade schools, basketball courts, and meeting halls all abutting within a few feet of it. For reasons that are hard to explain, this is precisely what a typical provincial barangay is like in the Philippines. It's as if the houses were situated that way before the national highway was put there, when it was a dirt and gravel road. And rather than require that houses too close should be moved or removed, the highway was laid down smack on people's doorsteps.

Speed limits through these barangays are posted at a maximum of 60 kph (nearly 40 mph). Since delivery trucks and passenger buses are on tight schedules, they go as fast as mechanically possible. If one of them should lose control, which happens occasionally, the flimsily-built houses would offer little resistance as they careened straight through them.

Dogs laid and men stood on the highway's brink as if to say, "Go ahead. Hit me!" But the true heroes on these highways are the pedicab, or"multicab" drivers - bicycle-driven taxis for one or two passengers. Unlike Thailand, where the bicycle is in front, or Vietnam, where they're in back, Philippine trishaws, modeled on the motorcycle trikes, with the bike mounted on the left. This makes the steering a lot harder, but it also exposes the driver to the brunt of traffic.

It seemed that around every curve there was one of those large signs with the cryptic message ACCIDENT PRONE AREA. Areas don't have accidents. People do. What made the message on the signs more emphatic was the sight of some of them grotesquely bent out of shape. Had the sign been in an accident? There were also signs that read SCHOOL ZONE and REDUCE SPEED AHEAD, to which my driver paid no attention. I wondered how many Filipino drivers on these highways understood what the signs meant, since English is spoken sporadically, at best, in these provinces. I have found that my knowledge of Spanish has actually got me quite a lot farther in breaking down the formidable language barrier here than English.

We covered about a hundred kilometers in two and a half hours, with an average speed a measly 40 kph. The breakneck spurts of speed, that momentarily made the journey feel like a marathon roller coaster, had been neutralized by the nervous jockeying for a break in passing every trike or pedicab or wagon. I withdrew all my cash from the ATM, and when I finally made it home it was going on 1 pm - Midnight Eastern Standard Time. I turned on my TV, expecting the worst when I tuned to CNN. But Barack Obama had just been declared the winner by Wolf Blitzer. I double-checked the BBC to make sure it wasn't another 2000 election night gaffe. But the BBC had also declared the winner. I called out to my girlfriend, who had patiently endured the campaign year along with me, and she was pleased enough to come tome and give me a hug.

On my way to town a while later in the day, I asked the trike driver if he had heard the news. He was either oblivious or indifferent - it was impossible to tell.

In his book, Essays of Travel, Robert Louis Stevenson captures the peculiar aspects - for the traveler - of a road:

And now we come to that last and most subtle quality of all, to that sense of prospect, of outlook, that is brought so powerfully to our minds by a road. In real nature, as well as in old landscapes, beneath that impartial daylight in which a whole variegated plain is plunged and saturated, the line of the road leads the eye forth with the vague sense of desire up to the green limit of the horizon. Travel is brought home to us, and we visit in spirit every grove and hamlet that tempts us in the distance. Sehnsucht—the passion for what is ever beyond—is livingly expressed in that white riband of possible travel that severs the uneven country; not a ploughman following his plough up the shining furrow, not the blue smoke of any cottage in a hollow, but is brought to us with a sense of nearness and attainability by this wavering line of junction. There is a passionate paragraph in Werther that strikes the very key. ‘When I came hither,’ he writes, ‘how the beautiful valley invited me on every side, as I gazed down into it from the hill-top! There the wood—ah, that I might mingle in its shadows! there the mountain summits—ah, that I might look down from them over the broad country! the interlinked hills! the secret valleys! Oh to lose myself among their mysteries! I hurried into the midst, and came back without finding aught I hoped for. Alas! the distance is like the future. A vast whole lies in the twilight before our spirit; sight and feeling alike plunge and lose themselves in the prospect, and we yearn to surrender our whole being, and let it be filled full with all the rapture of one single glorious sensation; and alas! when we hasten to the fruition, when there is changed to here, all is afterwards as it was before, and we stand in our indigent and cramped estate, and our soul thirsts after a still ebbing elixir.’ It is to this wandering and uneasy spirit of anticipation that roads minister. Every little vista, every little glimpse that we have of what lies before us, gives the impatient imagination rein, so that it can outstrip the body and already plunge into the shadow of the woods, and overlook from the hill-top the plain beyond it, and wander in the windings of the valleys that are still far in front. The road is already there—we shall not be long behind. It is as if we were marching with the rear of a great army, and, from far before, heard the acclamation of the people as the vanguard entered some friendly and jubilant city. Would not every man, through all the long miles of march, feel as if he also were within the gates?