Saturday, March 12, 2011

Eggs and Literary Criticism

An Edifying Evening of Cultural Discovery

In 2010, British writer TOM SYKES relocated to Manila with his young family. Meeting a series of unorthodox locals over one evening, he gained a very different insight into the Filipino culture.

AFTER A MONTH of living on the University of the Philippines campus, Donna, Daisy and I moved into a peeling Art Deco condo on Esteban Abada Street which looked like something out of Gotham City. Just behind us was Katipunan, a hectic boulevard-cum-motorway flanked by fast food joints, language schools and men selling helium balloons with Disney characters on them. The growl and whine of traffic was non-stop, except when Manny ‘Pac-Man’ Pacquiao was fighting a boxing match. Clinging to the wind was a cocktail of smells: the bittersweet stink of ancient diesel engines and the incinerator reek of pavement barbecues, among other things.

One night I decided to sample the bohemian nightlife Quezon City was known for. I stepped out our building and waved to two grinning teenage lads armed with revolvers. These were our security guards. I hopped in a tricycle, best described as a World War II-style motorbike and sidecar, the sort of vehicle Steve McQueen frustrated Nazis with. I asked the driver to take me to the best bar in the barangay. We zoomed past signs that read ‘Happy Cupcake Dental Surgery’ and ‘S.D. Lucero—Maker of Artificial Legs’. The driver was polite and talkative, but made two wrong assumptions about me, that I was American and had come to the Philippines to look for a wife.

We stopped at a hangout called Ride and Roll. Its sanded floorboards and minimalist furniture reminded me of a Western coffee shop. Less familiar were the walls filled with paintings inspired by the Star Wars trilogy. As soon as I entered, a chirpy man in a Metallica T-shirt rushed over.

“I’m Jose,” he said, shaking my hand vigorously. “I’m the owner. How are you? Why are you in the Philippines? What do you think of Manila?”

He didn’t give me time to answer.

“Somebody got shot in the bar up the road the other night,” he continued, no less cheerily. “But not in this bar, you see. Never this bar. This is a friendly bar.”

“Oh good,” I replied. “I’ll stay for a drink in that case.”

“Crazy people,” chuckled Jose as he went to get my beer. “Shooting each other all the time!”

I got talking to a small group of trendy types, who, by sheer chance turned out to be some of the leading artists and writers in the country. Bayani was a poet and Professor of English who had won literary prizes in Britain and the US. He had an intense mien, underlined by his habit of pressing his hands together as if in prayer. He talked about his humble upbringing in the provinces, where electricity was still a rare treat, switched on only for weddings and funerals. A stern, ever-frowning woman named Karen (nickname: JoJo) gave me a lecture on nationalism. In her view, a ‘national’ Filipino literature was needed to unite the 7,107 culturally disparate islands that made up the country. She ticked several Filipino writers whom I quite liked for being too foreign influenced. I was surprised by her audacity and brusqueness—not traits I associated with her countrymen. Urged on by the beer, I called her narrow-minded. Hadn’t a lot of great literature come from the meeting and mixing of cultures? She herself spoke in a kind of hybrid New York/Filipino accent. I used a one-word quote from Paul Gilroy—‘conviviality’—to straighten my line of argument. It didn’t work. Karen got tired of me and started hectoring someone else.

Bayani then introduced me to Bob, a slight yet strong 40-year-old who coached the local all-female university’s basketball team.

“You tried balut?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “What’s that?”

He called a street vendor over and bought what looked like three hard-boiled eggs. Following his lead, I peeled the shell off one and ate it. It was delicious. Contrary to Bob’s expectations, it didn’t stop being delicious even after I’d found the half-formed duck embryo inside. He slapped me on the back. “Respect to you, man. Not many foreigners can handle this stuff. Want some more?”

I gladly reached for another.

“Oh actually,” he said, grabbing my arm. “Best not to. They’re very high in cholesterol. Some guys have keeled over with a heart attack after eating five of these in a row.”

“Thanks for letting me know,” I said. I slipped the balut into my pocket. I thought I might scare my wife Donna with it later. She’s a vegetarian.

Feeling that the night had been eventful enough, I got up to leave. Jose bounded over with two incredibly tall (by both Western and Eastern standards) men with a dozy yet mean look in their eyes. “Tom, you gotta meet my friends. They’re SWAT policemen. I think you’ll find them fascinating.”

“Fine,” I said, looking at my watch.

It was now two in the morning. Another hour wouldn’t hurt, especially if I got some juicy material out of it.

Unlike any other Filipinos I had met so far, these policemen couldn’t speak a word of English. Bayani agreed to translate. They told me that they’d recently assaulted the hideout of a weird cult that was going around throwing acid at innocent people. All the cult members wore amulets that they believed would protect them from bullets. Ironically, the opposite happened. The SWAT team made extremely accurate head shots and the operation was over quickly. One of the policemen took an amulet with him as a memento. The next time he was in a combat situation he wore the amulet and its power seemed to have returned: he miraculously dodged being shot at point-blank range twice. Wondering if its magic was back for good, he hung the amulet up at the police station rifle range and fired at it. It smashed to pieces immediately.

When I got home, I gave the last balut to our security guard who was half-asleep on the reception desk, revolver laid down beside him.

Looking back, that evening was a strange, roundabout introduction to Philippine society. I learned about the prevalence of guns and the death and destruction they wreaked. By eating balut I was not only sampling a unique local dish but proving my mettle. I got a taste of attitudes to literature, sexual morality and national identity. But most importantly, I learned the whereabouts of my nearest bar!

Reproduced from the January-March 2011 issue of Quill magazine


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