My plan had originally been to make my trip to Asia after Christmas, but Carla had told me that she was unlikely to be available then. I was in contact with a number of girls, but only she had that spark, and I knew I wanted to meet her. She was lively and enthusiastic, but had an edge about her and a depth too, that I liked. She had a way of just knowing what I was thinking, even before I said it, that always bodes well for a new relationship.
So I rearranged my schedule. In fact, November is the best time to go to Southeast Asia in any case. The typhoon season should have come to an end, and the temperatures are relatively low, with lots of sunshine. In addition, flight prices are twenty per cent or so cheaper then, than in March or April. I readily persuaded myself that making the trip sooner was justified on a whole raft of counts; other, of course, than my interest in getting to know Carla a whole lot better…
I was thinking about these things as we sat in the back of the taxi, heading for the hotel. If the taxi-driver was shocked by the fact that he had a middle-aged Western guy with a tall leggy ladyboy draped all over him aboard, gave no sign of it, and seemed to chat easily to Carla. It wasn’t that he didn’t know, either. Carla is feminine and very beautiful, but most ordinary girls in the Philippines are about five feet tall, and Carla, at five-nine in her bare soles, towers over them. That’s probably enough to clock her from the off, but she makes no attempt to use a falsetto voice, so as soon as she opens her mouth she’s given away. (I asked her about this at some point and she just gave me one of those looks, and then put on her ‘girl’ voice. I could see at once why she didn’t’ bother. Sounding like Eartha Kitt may have been distinctive, but it was definitely easier on the ear.)
The Philippines can be a shock to the system, at least to the Western system, in a way that is hard to describe. The poverty here is grinding, and everywhere. Indeed, it’s not just the poverty, but the juxtaposition of the stratospherically wealthy and the utterly destitute, that really jars. The only other place I have ever been where the extremes of society are so obvious is India, culture shock central.
The poverty, and the people’s stoicism, is humbling. In Europe this would never be tolerated. There would be riots, revolutions even, as there have been, frequently. But here it’s almost like a part of life that simply cannot be changed, that just has to be accepted. Asians are known for their fatalism, and this completely blasé attitude towards utterly crushing want of the most basic essentials of life – both on the parts of those who suffer it and the more fortunate – is a manifestation of that. It is God’s will, and there is nothing to be done; his ways are mysterious and not for us to know.
To me, these platitudes sound as hollow as I believe they should, as a modern European; however this is not Europe, but Asia, and it is unwise to try to impose the mores of one culture upon another.
At one point as we had into Manila from the airport, we are held up at traffic lights and a boy dressed in the rags of what might have been handed-down clothes several children before, approaches the taxi, he expression on his face that familiar on of beggars everywhere. To my surprise, Carla reaches for her purse and fishes out a twenty-peso note. Without really thinking I glance down and note that it was a lonely enough note in there; yet without hesitation, she rolls down the window just enough to get her fingers, with the note, through the opening, and the boy snatches it with a grin. Carla sees me looking at her quizzically but says nothing.
I came to learn, later, that she is one of those people who would literally give away her last peso, if she thought someone else needed it more. Then I just remarked the gesture, and filed it.
The hotel I have booked is in a part of Manila known as Ermita. Carla is visibly concerned that we are going to this part of town, but she knows that this is how it must be; she had been unable to find a hotel that offered the same quality and price nearer to her own home in Pasig City.
Manila, to explain, is a vast conurbation of many cities, home to over thirteen million people. Since 1960, the population of the Philippines has multiplies by a factor of five to 100 million, and the consequence has been urban sprawl and unplanned development on a gargantuan scale.
Ermita is actually one of the more upmarket areas of the older city, though it still has its sidewalk shanties of homes built from old blankets and tarpaulins thrown over salvaged metal and timber. They remind me of the ‘benders’ used by New Age Travellers in the United Kingdom, before they were clamped down on. But here they are not beside a beach or in some idyllic wood, but outside the entrance to the mall. At first sight, you assume that they are rubbish dumps, piles of old rotting cloth casually thrown in a heap. It’s only after you see the filthy material pulled aside and someone actually enter, that the penny drops.
At the heart of Ermita is Paco Park, which is really a delight, and our hotel, the Oasis Paco Park, is right in front of it. I must admit that as we travelled into town, Carla cuddled up beside me, I began to drift off to sleep despite all the fascination of a new city. My flights and connections had taken nineteen hours and I had been hanging around Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris for hours before that. I was shattered, and easily lulled by the rumble of the motor and the soft caress of Carla’s fingers – which are incredibly long and delicate – on my bare forearm.Click here for reuse options!
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