Typhoons and Shootings

Last week was a rare occasion for the Philippines, as the country saw massive exposure in news media that would be widely read or watched around the world. Unfortunately, this exposure came as a result of the tragic deaths of 8 foreign nationals at the hands of gunman Rolando Mendoza, whose bus hi-jack and subsequent hostage stand-off was broadcast live to millions of viewers as it unfolded. Whoever said any publicity is good publicity was really quite deluded – this event is more than likely to leave a lasting, negative impression of the Philippines in their own and other countries for years to come, in much the same way that news coverage of the floods last year in the wake of typhoon Ondoy have caused people to think of the Philippines solely as a country ridden by unmanageable natural disasters, or the news on ongoing civil unrest in Mindanao has caused people to consider the country to be a dangerous hotspot of terrorist activity. Local friends here considered the Philippines to have been greatly shamed by the incident. Continue reading “Typhoons and Shootings”

Kain Na Tayo! (Let’s Eat Now!)

If “halo halo” was the first Tagalog phrase I learned, “kain na tayo” or “let’s eat now” was close on its heels. That they were both in some way food related is no coincidence – eating seems to be a bit of a national hobby in the Philippines and “kain na tayo” sums up their attitude nicely, often used as it is to express that food should happen before anything else, however important, can be done.

Lechon
Lechon! A Filipino favourite at parties

Another indicator is the strictly enforced “merienda” – a meal that translates as “afternoon snack” but usually happens at least twice a day and sometimes more in between the three main meals which all almost religiously feature rice and an accompaniment.

Food is not only a matter of taste – its a big part of the culture, and it’s usual for friends and colleagues to share their food with each other. By doing this, my friends have explained, you feel closer to the people you share with and the lunchtime ritual of asking “what is your viande?” (viande is Spanish for meat – it’s fairly rare to be having vegetables although it does happen) is part of the ethos of eating together. Here there are no sandwiches hastily consumed in front of the desk – lunchtime is time out to socialise. Food is also a big aspect of the famous Filipino hospitality and I have been presented with all sorts of local delicacies to try over the last few weeks.

Unusually for a country so dedicated to cuisine, it doesn’t have much of a reputation for fine dining, despite the often unique and flavoursome dishes that form the staples of food here. This may be related to the Philippines’ relative obscurity as a holiday destination (outside of Korea), and like most Asian countries there is also the usual range of dishes demonised somewhat by anxious Europeans and Americans because they fall outside of what are considered to be normal or acceptable constructions of “food” in their cultures. In the Philippines it is the local delicacy balut – a boiled, fertilised, nearly developed, duck embryo – that is most often presented to scare squeamish tourists1, and both dog meat and bulls balls are apparently available in some parts of the country.

Schedule of meals
There are five meals a day in the Philippines

Equally it could be the overly sweet nature of foods that might otherwise be familiar (spaghetti bolognaise is made with banana sauce for example) or even the Filipino adamance that the heads or skin of fish and animals are the best bit. However in spite of any misconceptions, Filipino cuisine is a rich mix of spicy, sweet and salty flavours, and without wanting to sound too much like a cliched advert for WOWPhilippines, lifting the lids on the pots at my local turo turo eatery is a daily delight. With traditional dishes that range from jackfruit or fish stewed in coconut milk, to sizzling sisig (a bar snack made from chicken or pork) to the magnificent spectacle of lechon – a whole roasted pig, there’s no wonder the nation’s food obsessed. The pig pictured was part of the feast that made up the sixth meal on the day in question. The skin was definitely the best bit.

1Yes, I have tried it. My verdict? Pretty tasty actually – just like a meaty egg.

Halo Halo

Halo Halo
Halo Halo

“Halo halo” was the first Tagalog term I learned, some thirty minutes or so after I stepped off the plane into the heat of Manila two weeks ago. It means, literally, “mix mix”, and is commonly used here to describe a frozen milk dessert with banana, coconut and some garish, unidentified green and purple stuff mixed in. However, I think its an apt term for my first impressions of Manila, and of the Philippines in general so far – a mix, in all kinds of ways, of different cultural influences, lifestyles and people. Continue reading “Halo Halo”

Pop Politics

So the UK wakes (after a long night of swing-o-meter fun) to face the reality of a hung parliament with a Conservative majority. Change has been promised by all of the candidates throughout their election campaigns, but there will be much skepticism as to what can be accomplished in the face of this result, whatever the intentions of those in charge.

In the Philippines meanwhile, voters face a tense weekend as they wait to cast their own votes in the presidential elections on Monday 10th . Here, too, the talk is of change, but election campaigning is a wildly different beast, and popular participation is something the Filipinos haven’t needed televised debates to secure. In fact, talk of policy in general is scarce to invisible, but use of the popular media certainly isn’t – Filipino television is rammed wall-to-wall with colourful adverts for each of the seven presidential candidates. Cameron may have had Gary Barlow on his campaign trail, and Eddy Izzard was on our TV screens supporting Labour, but such efforts seem lazy in comparison to the catchy campaign songs and celebrity endorsements that each presidential advert boasts.

Political Banners
Political banners hang like bunting in the streets

It’s not just the television that is packed with propaganda – everywhere you walk the streets are lined with thousands of equally colourful posters, strung up from houses and telegraph poles like festive bunting, while teams of colour co-ordinated campaigners drive round in brightly painted trucks, singing their candidate’s blaring campaign theme. It’s not just the presidential candidates that have these either – local elections, mayoral elections, and positions for senators and members of congress are all decided on the same day, and each candidate seems to have their own theme tune and team of enthusiastic canvassers to sing it, making the whole process seem entirely incomprehensible.

But the bright banners and pop songs hide a darker side to the Filipino elections and while many are hoping for a change to the corruption endemic to the current government, others are just hoping for a peaceful election. Violence, particularly in the provinces where local family clans vie for power, has come to be closely associated with election time, and already it is reported that 90 people have been killed in connection with the current campaign. Even in Manila there could be trouble if the new computerised voting system doesn’t work as planned – threats of politically organised “brown-outs” – cutting electricity in areas where the vote may go the “wrong way” – are rife, and problems with the memory chips mean that the teachers who will be administrating the polling stations on Monday still don’t know whether votes will be counted electronically or by hand (the latter option could take weeks).

Despite all of this, the expected turnout for the Philippine election is about 80% of the eligible population, and the popular appeal, or perhaps the great desire to see some change, seems to have won through. Even so, most of my friends here don’t hold out much hope for any real difference, with the current leading candidate described only as “the lesser of two evils”. Given the blatant corruption, celebrity culture and family loyalties that seem to characterise Asia’s most active democracy here, suddenly a hung parliament with a Conservative majority doesn’t seem to look so bad…