Sunday 13 February 2011

Transporting the Soul

One of the books that I carried took with me on this Asian trip was The Dig by John Preston. I think it is a fine book, but I am biased. In my life the longest period that I have lived in one place was for fifteen years in a small Suffolk town called Woodbridge. Nearby is Sutton Hoo a place that became famous when Basil Brown unearthed the burial ship of an Anglo-Saxon king; a royal burial ship that quite remarkably had remained untouched since its incarceration some fifteen hundred years ago.

The book is semi-fictional tale of the dig from the points of view of Basil Brown, Mrs Pretty the owner of Sutton Hoo, and various other key players. There are personal details to give pep to a story that might otherwise not expand to a full novel; there is a sensitive portrayal of the dispute between the local amateur archaeologist (Basil) and the experts drafted in from Cambridge and London; and for me there is the added bounce of recollection: places in Woodbridge are mentioned that I once knew really well.

The treasure discovered in the Sutton Hoo burial ship was amazingly intricate and the find proved that the English Dark Ages were not so dark at all. However, what darkened the soul of Woodbridge was the transporting of the treasure to the British Museum. Naturally local people felt that it should have been held locally and displayed in the context of East Anglia where King Radwald had reigned. This loss is still felt, and the book explains Mrs Pretty’s odd decision to some extent.

In the Philippines boats are used for their true purpose: with more than 7000 islands boats are in the blood rather than the reverse. Rusty ferries ply between the islands and delightful bumboats buzz around them - their bamboo outriggers giving stability and character; their occupants mostly engaged in fishing of one sort or another. However, in this deeply religious desperately distributed country the serious business of transporting souls is left to the roads rather than the sea: roads that can be as choppy as the sea in some places. I find Philippine road transport fascinating, especially public transport. We have now travelled on pedicabs, habal-habals (literally pigs mating, actually multi passenger motorbikes), trikes ranging from motorcycle and sidecar to motorcycle and covered trailer, jeepneys (jeeps of astonishing length and decoration), vans with open tops, vans with air-conditioning, and an astonishing range of vintage buses. All of these heave, hiss, pant, roar, belch and grind along heavily congested roads mostly at speeds which are well below the limits of western countries.

Why so slow and why so congested? There are private cars here, but not many and they are not the source of congestion. The problem has much more to do with the strange uses made of the roads and in some cases their poor condition coupled with an almost complete lack of pavements. Here are a few of the uses that I’ve noted in the weeks that we have spent here:

1. Ambling (Philippinos do not walk and certainly do jog)
2. Drinking (overspill from the roadside bars and karaoke joints)
3. Chatting
4. Shopping (the shops often push right up to the road and at least one into it)
5. Drying (anything from rice to corn to coconuts laid on sheets or directly onto the road)
6. Grazing (usually tethered cows, goats, water buffalo, chickens)
7. Sleeping (I have had to circumvent a patchwork of prone dogs on some motorcycle rides)
8. Repair (anything from all of the vehicles listed above to aircon units and boats)
9. General retail
10. Urinating (mostly males who smile and engage you in conversation whilst peeing)
11. Parking (of course)
12. Watching (at regular intervals there are ‘resting stations’ for sleeping, chatting, observing)
13. Travelling in the wrong direction (can be very scary)

All of this slows progress to a speed somehow suited to this moist and hot climate and its cheerful ‘que sera, sera’ (in Tagalog ’ bahala na’) people, but does result in a constant beeping of horns from the lower orders and bellowing from the large buses and trucks. It is not the music to transport souls to, but, blended with the outdoor karaokes and discothèques, is the music of the Philippines.

Thursday 3 February 2011

The Philippino men and their cocks

Soon after arriving in the Philippines you become vaguely aware of something different, something strange. It is not one of the obvious things like climate, people, buildings, or language: it’s something else, something fairly ordinary yet not so ordinary; something that’s constantly in the background; in Manila there are sounds that you would certainly not hear in central London or any other big city that I have visited. And there’s something else, not remarkably special but just a little odd: men carrying cardboard boxes. The boxes are about the size of carrier bag, perforated and tied with string. There is something alive inside these boxes. Sometimes they make an unmistakeable sound.
Then you see your first tethered chicken (cock actually) and perhaps a man carrying one under his arm: gently, respectfully, even lovingly, and everything falls into place. The men of this country are obsessed by cock fighting. In most countries the display of magazines for sale is much the same even if the language differs: there are car magazines, computer magazines, angling magazines, girly magazines and so on. Here in the Philippines the displays are dominated by what, in translation, must be “Cock Fighters Weekly”. Really and truly. I have a photo of a magazine stall from the streets of Manila and there are at least seven different cock related magazines, all displaying a fine specimen, undoubtedly a champion.
I became obsessed. I had to know what this thing was all about. In Miagoa I met the deputy mayor in a bar. He was drinking with a local lawyer and an engineer: the engineer was a cock man. He had the least English so the other two talked about him and his hobby. They told me that many wives felt jealous of their husband’s cock because he paid it more attention than her. They told me that the cock was better fed than the children, that the cock was given special food to enhance its fighting ability, that the cock was even given steroids and other drugs which makes the loser inedible.
Later I met Eddy who had been a seaman (in common with so many Philippino men) and was now retired, running a small resort near Miagoa. Behind his house was a field dotted with little huts and tethered to each was a cock. I soon found that there are thousands of cock-rearing enclosures like this in the islands. Eddy showed me his pride and joy, a three time winner and very good looking bird. He had won Eddy 10,000 pesetas in one of the fights. Eddy breeds cocks and sells them to a middle man in Manila who sells them on to individual cock fanciers. Cocks are big business in this country.
I had to see a fight. In a way I was repelled by the whole business, but I still felt the need to observe it – even though I am quite determined never to attend a bull fight in Spain since I regard bull fighting as particularly cruel. Cock fighting is different I reasoned, they do it anyway and no one is sticking barbs into their shoulders to weaken them.
In Bais City, Negros, we walked a long way to a beach. The beach was quite disappointing but the walk was fun. We were constantly greeted by the people who live in the ramshackle huts that we passed. Children smiled and waved, hard-faced beachcombers forever resting in hammocks shouted “Hey Joe”. We took a trike back; we had been over-greeted and could take no more. Along the way I spotted something going on and thought, “aha cockfight”. I stopped the trike driver and he seemed to agree that there was a cock fight. In fact what I had seen turned out to be preparations for a beauty contest that evening, but people were climbing the steep slope alongside the arena - and some were bearing cocks. I asked around and there was indeed cock fighting up there somewhere. I immediately started to ascend. Mrs Walters demurred. A sudden aversion to the bestiality of the cock fighting world? No, she thought the slope was too steep/dangerous/slippery. I helped her up one slope by holding her hand. Trouble was that I had difficulty getting the impetus needed to rise as she hesitated behind me. The second slope was worse and when she saw an old man slip she would not go further. I went on alone then returned to report that it was pretty easy beyond the sharp muddy slope. We managed it with some difficulty and at last got to the cockpit. There were lots of people there, almost entirely men. There were also lots of men with cocks. A heaving group surrounded the almost invisible pit (just a flat, fenced square further down the slope). I couldn’t see much and wondered whether I really wanted to. I tried to photo the fight from above. Typically in this country one man wanted to move me to the front, he kept on and on but I did not want to be in the crush or to spoil things for the people really taking part. M could see even less than me on account of height (in fact she didn’t really see a fight at all). We wandered around. I watched a man removing the knife that they tie to one of the spurs from his dead cock; blood spotted the area around him. I could not gain any sense of his emotional state since he was fixated on the task in hand. We looked at the knife stall. It reminded me of a cutlery box, very shiny sharp knives about four centimetres long with a clip at the end for the cock’s leg. This use of a knife seems unnecessarily cruel. I put this view to a Philippino in a bar later. He looked puzzled then said, “But the winner has to kill the loser”.
There were stalls selling beer of course with enormous bottles of Red Horse on display. Then I found a gap with some vantage to one side of the pit and managed to get a view. Each fight starts with the owners holding and stroking their cocks. There is a referee between them. Some announcements are made. The birds are poked at one another but not released, their hackles rise. Their knives are wiped by the referee and their feet carefully cleaned by their owners. All is ready for the fight and an enormous cacophony of shouting arises from the crowd. Hands being held up with fingers extended. This is the betting phase and I could not understand it. The cocks are then pushed at each other and released. They fight in a furious flurry of feather that I could not disentangle and nor could my camera. Within a minute or so one is lying prone. The referee then picks up both birds and if the prone one is still alive pokes them at each other and releases them again. There is another fight, the victor seeming to peck at the eyes of the loser. This process is repeated until the loser is dead.The victor is held up and those who bet for it cheer loudly. Payment is then made and the whole thing repeated. Each bout is about ten minutes, the fight itself probably three. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but as I led M down a different slope, this time with steps, I was glad that I had witnessed it. I don’t think our presence either encourages or discourages the practice.
What an odd activity it all is! It is a natural pursuit and mostly the fights take place on a Sunday in this land which claims a population 90% Christian, mostly RC.  On the next leg of our exploration of this strange but fascinating country we saw an advert for a six cock fight offering a first prize of 2.5 million pesos! That’s about £35,000 – a fortune to most Philippinos who mostly live in very poor housing and certainly do not have a car. That’s why public transport here is so varied, so good and so cheap. But that’s another story.