20180425 : I know where my towel is

It would be odd if the headline reflected my state of mind because it would mean that I'm locked into a Douglas Adams / Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy / Ford Prefect phase.

So. It's odd, then.

I've been drifting around the world for so long, shedding things I don't need as I've gone, that basically all I now have with me is two pairs of shoes, a toothbrush, three changes of clothes (office shirt, t-shirt, polo shirt, three pairs of underpants, two pairs of shorts, a pair of trousers and two pairs of socks). I've got what a shop called a face-towel but, when I unpacked it, turned out to be a hand-towel and therefore three times bigger than I need. Oh, and I have a hat. My beautiful handmade wallet has, like almost everything else, been packed up and sent away, along with my Longines watch, the only two luxuries I had set off with in any case. Well, those and my Bose noise cancelling headphones but they began to suffer from perishing foam so they went back, too, to be repaired when I eventually return to the UK.

The thing is, I'm not hitch-hiking and I'm definitely not backpacking in the sense of what I understand the term to mean. And yet, seemingly, that's what I'm actually doing - but with even less of a plan than a backpacker.

I don't need to find work as a washer-up in a restaurant or picking fruit in an orchard, I don't need to bum around trying to cadge a floor to sleep on (unless I actually want to and, surprisingly, I often do) and I don't need to think twice about whether I can afford a bottle of water or a cheap plate of food. Unlike backpackers of old, I can earn a living on the road simply by spending an hour or two at a shared computer in the corner of a bar somewhere.

Sporadically, I write for PleaseBeInformed.com but, as I have an informal interest in that site, I don't get paid for doing that. But I can still do some work, in my other, previous life, name and money miraculously appears in a far-off bank account.

And sometimes, dear Reader, I think of you. Here we are, then. And before we move on, I know, so don't bother thinking you've found something I've done wrong, I know "Filipino man" and "Filipina woman" is tautology. But many readers, not versed in Latin-based languages, won't realise that an "o" denotes male and an "a" denotes female so, casting linguistic accuracy aside (for once) I'm going to make the mistake on purpose to help others understand.

Right now, I'm sitting in a rather scruffy café on the side of the road in the Philippines. I got off the plane in Manila, found out how to get to the bus station and got on the first bus out, wherever it was going. It was going north. I told myself I'd get off at the first stop after three hours. Bad traffic meant that was a journey of only 25km. So, here I am, drinking a San Miguel (the original Phils version is not as nice as the Hong Kong version was when the brewery in HK was in Causeway Bay) and watching the world go by. Occasionally, I wipe the humidity off my face with the stupidly big towel and try to remind myself to go to a seamstress and get her to turn it into three of the right size. Bloody Family Mart and its American bent.

The Philippines fascinates me: when I was researching The Mission, I'd spent time in places where governments dare not tread. Everyone told me not to go, that I'd be kidnapped or worse. I met people who had suffered and the experiences of some of them were hinted at, and the experiences of others were described in some detail, in the book. That was in the South. When I think of it now, just a few years later, I wonder what the Hell I thought I was doing down there. A friend once invited me to Manila for a few days. That's not in the South. When circumstances turned out that I couldn't make the dates, she said "actually, I'm pleased. I've realised I couldn't protect you." From what, I asked. "You'd get kidnapped or robbed." Ho, hum. Well, probably not in my current state of dress with shaggy hair and unkempt beard.

The Philippines is a country full of spectacularly pretty young women with incredible body shapes and smiles that warm one from top to toe, like a good Armagnac. Then it's as if someone flips a switch as they work through their 40s. It's one of life's tragedies that many Filipinas age incredibly badly.

That may be one of the sources of the country's greatest disgrace.

Right now, I'm sitting using a borrowed laptop writing in what is almost certainly an illegal copy of Microsoft Word. I don't understand why anyone pays for it: I'm not suggesting they should steal it but they could use OpenOffice.org free and it's every bit as good as MS Office Suite. But the power of marketing, and de facto monopoly, is strong. Around me, young people, male and female, are concentrating on the menu - they will often choose their food based on the equivalent of one US dollar. But they all have new model phones that cost them almost as much as a year's improved diet would cost for food, in small cafés, in this 'burb. The boys are showing off to the girls: in this predominantly Catholic country, machismo, or being overly camp, is de rigeur.

Religion has a lot to answer for in the Philippines. Whether it's Catholic (as in most of the country) or Muslim (as in the south-east, terrorism-riven, areas), it has failed the people and failed them badly. And it's failed women in the most terrible ways.

Child marriage (i.e. under 18) and teenage pregnancy (many as young as 12) are rife and both religions actively encourage both and, indeed, actively militate against e.g. contraception. Worse, they promote early childbirth: they preach abstinence with one breath but encourage juvenile parenthood with the next.

The beneficiaries are the men. While Muslims can easily divorce (at least under religious law, national law, not so much), they don't need to: polygamy has gone from Mohammed's original intention of a man protecting his brother's widow to a lifestyle that guarantees a man a selection of up to four wives at a time. While modern, educated, Muslims increasingly eschew this, in fundamentalist communities the message is contorted still more: it is regarded as a man's duty to have four wives and for each to bear him many children to be brought up in the faith. "Marrying out" is forbidden and can lead to serious retribution.

Radical Catholics are the same, in that they actively promote large families and for a Catholic to marry a non-Catholic is a sin. But they are, in one major respect, worse than the Muslims: Filipino Catholic men routinely cast their women aside at will - and they abandon their children. They can't divorce them (annulment is possible but not easy) and so they can't remarry. So they then shack up and produce multiple families of, in the truest sense, little bastards. And the Church says and does nothing to discourage them or to encourage them to face up to their responsibilities.

This is at the heart of one of the world's greatest tragedies: many of the young people in this café will have grown up with their grandparents. When they were children, their fathers may have run away to shack up with a woman not very different, in terms of age, to those sitting here. He's probably had a child or two with her and then gone through the cycle again. And he's probably paid nothing for the maintenance of any of the children. That is so commonplace here as to be normal. Priests and Judges both, metaphorically, shrug and say "what can you do?"

It's hard to make a living in the Philippines. Even those with jobs earn, for millions, barely enough to pay food, electricity and rent. Uneducated young women, which all those abandoned wives and mothers almost all are, have little or no opportunity to get out of the grinding poverty that they are condemned to.

And so, they leave their, often infant, children with their parents, the last generation that stayed together and who are now in their 50s, 60s and older, and look for work overseas. The Philippines government is, increasingly, making that difficult by demanding exit visas before they can leave, a process that can take a number of tortuous, highly bureaucratic weeks - and a significant problem for those who don't live in large cities with access to government offices.

When they do get out, across much of the world, Filipina women are the new niggers: they are poorly paid, they often live in windowless "maid's rooms" with room for a single bed and a rack to hang clothes on. They work six and a half days each week, allowed out for, if they are lucky, six or seven hours on a Sunday and at no other time. They have a curfew that might be as early as 8pm. Their employers keep their passports and running away from an employer is, in some countries, a crime. Deportation is the least of their worries.

In the time they are able to go out, they are prey to hoards of men who turn up at the places they congregate or, even, run so-called "tea dances" which the girls see as a great chance to meet their friends in similar circumstances and have one or two drinks and dance themselves out of their misery. The men see it as a cattle market and regard the women as easy meat.

To be truthful, some are. Some are so anxious to escape from their horrible lives, earning just enough to send money home to pay for school fees and to contribute to food for their children, that if someone will buy them a meal, or even a couple of drinks, in exchange for sex, that seems like a good deal. In some parts of the world, the "Sunday Filipina" is genuinely a thing, a highly sexually charged few hours each week between two people who meet regularly and where consequences are for tomorrow. No one sees any of this as a form of prostitution.

Some will enter into ill-advised relationships. They can't marry because they can't get divorced and in any case some countries make it a condition of a work permit that they are not allowed to marry a national while working there. All too often, they end up recycling their previous experience. Some, simply, want sex as a recreation and/or diversion. It's difficult to criticise them.

Many end up overstaying a work visa, some overstaying a tourist visa. They work illegally, being paid far below minimum wage, with no job security and hassled by the police who, if they stop them as they often do, demand substantial sums of money not to take them to immigration. And, in many cases, they demand a "date," too. The girls, terrified, turn to loan sharks, some of whom turn them to prostitution to recover the loan granted at rates of interest to ensure it is never repaid.

Some of the women fall into prostitution in any case, some make it a deliberate choice, and some ply their trade in bars aiming to become a mistress, usually for a foreigner who they know will, one day, leave. But women with foreigners are usually paid an allowance, usually more than working illegally, so no matter how they are treated, they cannot afford to leave. A mistress doesn't need a work permit, she doesn't need papers: she just travels out, and back in, every few weeks and gets a tourist visa because that is, on any reasonable test, exactly what she is. Moreover, when the girls are out with what they hopefully call their boyfriend, they are unlikely to be stopped by the police. Unless it turns violent, or even unless it turns very violent, the women often consider it a good bargain. And, compared to the alternatives, it's not a bad bargain.

All of this comes to a grinding halt as the women approach 50. No one knows what happens, or why it happens, but the ageing process takes its toll incredibly fast and incredibly cruelly for many, many Filipinas. They trawl dating sites, their hard lives written on their faces, the omnipresent laughter and lush locks of their younger selves which showed even in the hardest times, are replaced by dry hair, saggy cheeks and baggy eyes heavy with sadness and the reality that even hope has gone.

The young women around me, in their inexpensive but tasteful clothes and the few in close-fitting strappy tops and short denim shorts, the global uniform of youth, aren't there yet. And maybe, as they are already in their early 20s, they have avoided the first hurdles. Or maybe they are already in their post-first-failed-marriage state, taking a few minutes out while they pick up the shopping for their mothers who remain on the hamster-wheel of parenthood as their own children do the best they can.

One of them catches my eye. She's extraordinarily pretty, her body shape would be the envy of rivals on a catwalk, she's got a smile I could go swimming in. She's friendly, not flirtatious. "hello, sir, welcome to The Philippines. Are you on holiday here?" Her English is slow, there's a Filipino-American burr to it. But her pronunciation is clear and she is obviously happy to practice. Perhaps she has avoided the traps. Perhaps she's got a job in a call centre or on the front desk of a hotel. Her bag and clothes don't indicate wealth so she's not here slumming it with her friends who can't afford to go where she would prefer to go. This is her territory. I smile back "I am, but I don't know where "here" is - I got off the plane, got on a bus, got off here." I can see, on her face, the effect my very English voice has had on her. I'm old, fat, maybe not ugly but for sure I'm not good looking and I look like what I am - someone who's been travelling in hot sweaty conditions for the best part of a day and a half.

But I have a voice that a female friend once told a TV booking agent "makes girls squirm in their seats."

And that's the trouble. It would be so easy. All I have to do is finish the question.."where is here?" It's been so easy so many times before, in so many bars in so many countries. I tell myself that, so long as I'm honest, there's no harm, no foul. But I think of the older Filipinas, and I think one thing above all else: no matter how clear I am, she's bound to wonder if there's hope because that's what desperation causes.

It would be so easy to ask her about the town, so easy to suggest she recommends a bar, a restaurant, a hotel. And it would be so easy to think "she is so pretty, just having her near me would make me feel good."

I pay my bill, knowing that what's going to happen next. I'm going to post this article, drop my security-on-a-stick USB thingy in my pocket, clear the browser history and hand back over the counter the borrowed laptop. I'm going to pick up my bag, smile at her and her friends. I'm not going to be one more disappointment in a life that's going to be shit enough without me being another stone in her shoe during the journey she's going to take between now and the sadness and loneliness that her middle age will, statistically, bring.

I'm going to stuff my towel in my bag and leave.