One of the great things about travel is seeing how mundane activities are done differently from one place to another. Take, for example, such a rudimentary activity as catching a metro train. In London, you have to stand on the right when using the escalator. Meanwhile, in Tokyo some carriages in the mornings are reserved solely for women.
In Manila, the capital of the Philippines, you have to enter the station in single file. Then, after a bag check, a security guard runs his hand over the small of your back. Manila, you see, is awash with guns.
“They solve everything with a bullet here,” one UK expat I’ll call Dave told me over a bottle of San Miguel. “You read the metro section of the Inquirer [a local English-language newspaper]. Every day there are stories of people being shot dead over really trivial things, like a 20 pisos taxi fare.”
Twenty pisos, by the way, was about 29 pence when I was there.
Dave then cited the recent case of a woman shot dead over a parking space somebody else wanted. She was seven-months pregnant.
“I used to drive [in Manila] but I gave it up. It’s too dangerous,” he said.
And it wasn’t because the traffic’s a mare. Compared to Jakarta, it’s practically non-existent. Rather, he got sick of people waving guns in his face.
New Year Manila Style
But it’s not just firearms you have to watch out for. Dave, who had spent more than 20 years living and working in Manila, could no longer raise his right arm above his head thanks to an incident one New Year’s Eve.
“This taxi driver pulls up and asks if I want a girl. I said no but he kept on following me. He wouldn’t give up, so eventually I told him to [eff] off.”
This, in hindsight, might not have been the best thing to do.
“I walk on and he keeps following me,” he explained. “Suddenly he’s driving at me, accelerating. He hits me and I go flying over the bonnet.”
Dave celebrated that New Year’s Eve in hospital, his shoulder broken in three places. “You don’t want to annoy anybody round here. They take it personally and they’re a very vindictive lot.”
In a country where the average family income is less than £2,000 per annum, life, as Dave put it, “is very cheap”.
So too are hitmen.
A Gun for Hire
The word on the street is it costs as little as 2,000 pisos to whack a person. Five thousand if you want it done cleanly. The preferred method is a hail of bullets from a passing moped that then speeds off never to be seen again. Of course, there are other methods too.
One former club owner who had spent the last three decades in Manila spoke of a Canadian he knew who wanted revenge on his landlady. “He hired two guys to stick an ice pick through her lumbar. She’ll never walk again,” he said matter-of-factly. “He turned religious after that because he couldn’t accept what he’d done to someone else. They can’t handle it, the expats. Not like the locals.”
Piety, though, is no guarantee of safety.
As we ate lunch together in the tropical heat, an American expat recounted how his missionary friend learnt this the hard way on the steps of the Manila Cathedral. “He got talking to two old ladies who were selling rosaries,” he said. Then they bought him a coffee, slipping him a little something extra when he wasn’t looking.
“He couldn’t move or speak but he could see and hear everything that was going on. He was totally helpless. He just had to sit there and watch while they robbed him. They went through his pockets, his bag. They took his wallet, his passport, credit cards. Everything. Two old ladies.”
It’s not just foreigners, though, that need to keep their north eye open.
“I don’t like Manila,” a local Filipino told me. He was about 25 and had grown up in the city. “I was walking on the street and my phone rang. When I answered it, this man put a knife in my side.”
He lost his phone and all his numbers that day.
Fortunately, he kept both his kidneys.
To be honest, I was quite glad to leave Manila. Admittedly, no one ‘popped a cap in my ass’ while I was there. However, picking your way through whole families sleeping rough on the streets while the rats scurry over them can soon lose its appeal.
Every two seconds it seems, hookers and hawkers hassle you, assuming that if you’re a lone white male you’re obviously looking for a bunk-up. “Hey, Americano,” the hawkers say regardless of what your passport does. “You want nice lady? Viagra? Cialis?”
No, now [eff] off!
As I boarded my boat for the haunted island of Corregidor, a security guard checked the small of my back for weaponry. On a table before me was a clear plastics box. On it scrawled in marker pen was the single word “Gun”. I counted three 9mms and a .45.
Call me naïve but I’ve never seen that on the Torpoint Ferry.
Notes and Credits
This article was written in 2012 and recounts a visit made in December 2011. Words and pictures © Ignatius Rake.