Saturday 1 September 2018

First time in the Philippines

After 4 days in Hong Kong, my wallet was feeling very sore! I headed for somewhere I thought would be a little cheaper but that proved to be expensive for a different reason. I was going there to visit a friend, Nomel, a transgender guy I had met online on a chat website. In Thailand and The Philippines, the common name is ladyboy but most people’s concept of a ladyboy is of a prostitute walking the streets of Bangkok but this is not the case in general. The distinction between male and female in parts of Asia is less than in Europe, many young men have very soft features and can easily pass off as girls even if they don’t plan to. In Spain I can’t imagine any guy that I know as anything but male. Young girls still get strikingly pink bicycles at Christmas and I guess boys get World of Warcraft for their phones!

But times are changing in Europe and there is now a greater recognition of the various shades of (nearly said “grey”) sexuality. But I think in the UK it is taken all too seriously with proposals that children as young as 16 can assign themselves to be male or female because they are “gender diasphoric”.

So, some young Asian men cross over to dressing as girls and usually take female hormones – for example the mini-pill which contains Oestrogen - in order to grow breasts and appear more female. But most stop at what is called gender reassignment surgery which is a very drastic step – expensive and painful. And of course it is not easy to change the voice after puberty. Barry Humphries who of course had the persona of Edwina was very rude about transgender men having surgery, calling them “mutilated men”. I tend to agree although I probably wouldn’t be quite so brutal; even after the surgery, they are still basically male although, of course, appearing female. He, of course dressed as a woman for fun; I am sure he was totally straight.

Many of my friends know that I am not exactly macho-man and I have pride in my female side. And from around 2015 I was a little more open about it, I grew my hair longer and coloured it, I wore more feminine clothes both at home (don’t ask me what I wear at home) and outside. In the summer it is easier because clothes in general are lighter of course.

So, back to my friend, Nomel in Manila. To me he is male although he looks like a girl, so I will use the term “he”. I got to know him over the past few months by chatting online. We stopped that and so, in order to stay in touch (which I had serious doubts about at first) we used video call and texting on Skype – usually texting. I got to like him – I know this will sound naïve – and decided that when I took my Asian trip, I would take a side-trip to visit him. We swapped messages about the trip and he insisted that we always meet accompanied by a friend which initially I thought maybe someone was making a rule for him. But I soon realised that he had more sense than me and it would have looked strange, just the two of us. So initially we were joined by Nicole, a girl friend who I thought at first was his partner (not the case). But I couldn’t see how they could ever have had the opportunity for a physical relationship. They were neighbours and lived in very crowded houses. Anyway I never asked.

Initially I felt it looked strange, the three of us, but we had a really great time. I bought them a glitzy tee shirt each but chatted to the shop assistant while they were checking the size and said that somehow I knew who was going to be paying! She was very relaxed about it as was a restaurant we visited before that.

As the week progressed I ceased to be self-conscious. Apart from one evening when Nomel wore a very short red skirt and I could see men looking. I mean, he looked like a tart, basically. I do feel slightly uncomfortable about seeing large old European guys with young petite Filipino girls because I assume the relationship is sexual, mine isn’t. But we do talk about the subject of being transgender. On the first morning I waited for them outside a vast shopping Mall in Metro Manila called Robinsons Place. There was a security check at the entrance with separate doors for male and female. This intrigued me because I wondered which entrance my friends would use. Some men dress as a woman and then expect to be able to be treated as a woman and referred to as “she”. When Nomel and Nicole arrived, they walked up to the doors in a mixture of indecision and lots of giggling. Finally they went through the female door but I guess they might have been re-directed. I found this enormously funny, clearly they don’t take themselves too seriously. Sometimes they use “he” to refer to each other, sometimes it is “she”.

After visiting the shopping malls, I said that I’d like to show some of my artwork including a painting of Nomel. I asked Reception if I could show my two friends my room because some hotels in Europe don’t allow visitors. I gave a kind of hint that they were friends and we weren’t going to have a love-in. Nomel and Nicole spent a happy afternoon charging their mobiles, watching a popular TV soap about a transgender woman. We ordered coffee and tea and had a great afternoon and I gradually relaxed as I realised that the hotel was perfectly happy about it. They were probably surprised that I bothered to ask.

Nomel and Nicole wanted to stay the night but, because it was my first night, I wasn’t confident enough to ask Reception. They live in Novotas City a not very nice area to the north of Metropolitan Manila so obviously the hotel was luxury to them. To me also! Their houses are poorly built and very close together so I don’t suppose they were in any great hurry to get back. I said that I wanted to see where they lived but from what I gather there are bad people there - it is called a squatters’ area although their family owns their house. They suggested it would be dangerous to be seen with me. It is possible it would have been dangerous for me and them. But I would like to have visited Nomel’s family and they wanted to meet this strange English guy who came all the way from Hong Kong to visit their boy.

They travelled most days down to where I was staying and I paid for the taxi. The second day, Nemia, Nomel’s sister came as well. A real girl! I bought them clothes which cost me very little and I bought myself a Philippines tee shirt.

Whenever I see the family, I only see sisters, mum and gran. The father flew the nest a long time ago. And I can see that they look up to Nomel as if he was the male figure in the family. And he is very intense when he talks about supporting the family. It is almost as thought he is taking the place of his missing father which is a bit tough for a young person who needs to make his way in the world.

Now, you are going to ask me two questions. One is why I spent a week with a 21 year old transgender friend instead of someone nearer my age nearer home. Why can’t I pick on someone my own age?

This first question is easy to answer, the second is more complicated. I have friends of all ages, from 18 to 80. My physical age was 72 in 2015 but, inside, I can be whatever I age I like, can’t I? I run a social group and most are much younger than me but when I am with them I feel like one of them, I don’t become some kind of father-figure!

The second question is about money. I used to get a bit of flak about spending money on Nomel and his family. That was not surprising. And I can understand that, so it didn’t bother me. Many Filipinos set out to get money from westerners either simply asking for it or with scams of some kind or another. One reads ridiculous stories of people handing over thousands of euros to someone who turns out to be someone else, or even handing over bank details. Maybe in the hope of some sexual favours in return. That is crazy and I never go there. But it is true after quitting the site where we met and when we transferred to chatting on Skype in text, Nomel asked for money. In fact he actually asked for a phone for his birthday. But by then I had got to know him quite well (as well as one can online) because I was attracted by his ambiguity and we chatted about it (and mine). This helped me a lot. So I bought him a phone. A Samsung J1 which is around 100 euros but I drove him nuts because I wouldn’t just send money because I didn’t trust him. I thought he would buy a cheap Chinese phone and spend the rest on food. I insisted on ordering it from an online store in the Philippines and they delivered it to him. And doing so gave me enormous pleasure because clearly he had no money and it meant that he could communicate with friends.

Subsequently, I’ve helped him financially, once after a typhoon to re-locate from their home which had been damaged. But usually I insist of buying things, not sending money. Currently I’m paying the family 180 euros for a new roof for their home. 180 euros for a new roof!! But it is corrugated steel and cheap. But I insisted on paying a professional to do the work. And in any case, I offered to pay for the work, they didn’t ask. I was watching a video on Skype of the family with new arrivals in the form of twins with one of the daughters. And Nomel mentioned the state of the roof – I could see it!

So, it is not a scam. That is very obvious. They are taking advantage of me? Yes, absolutely. Which is worse? To lose almost 2000 euros in 3 weeks in one of my investments because the markets have plummeted or to pay 180 euros for a roof to keep my adopted family dry in Manila. Who is taking advantage of me now? My bank or Nomel?
But I am not upset when people think I am being taken for a ride or wag their finger and say, “Be careful” because it is the natural response. But something similar happens the world over – it should happen. Wealthy people – and countries – help poorer countries. Sometimes it is through charities where the gift is spread over a large area - in my case it is concentrated in just one family. In Spain, people in Catalunya feel aggrieved because more money goes to Madrid than comes back in kind. Sure, of course it does. Catalunya, being wealthy helps support regions worse off, it happens in Europe too. Speak to Germans about that! I am very fortunate with money and, even after having savings for when I am decrepit (God forbid), I still have more than I know what to do with. No family, no mortgage, no car or need for one. Well, I have a family now!

OK, we’ve got that out of the way! If you still feel uncomfortable about it, then I understand completely and I hope you are not offended by my being so open about it.

Let’s get back to my week in the Philippines. After a few days I was beginning to feel trapped in Metro Manila, I had no idea how to escape to a beach of which there are many. Public transport is pretty awful and I wanted to take my friends on an excursion. And then by a lucky chance I got talking to an Australian guy and his Filipino wife, both in their late 40s I would guess, who were staying in the same hotel. She told me that directly across the road were cars for hire, with driver. Ah, problem solved! I planned a trip for the next day to Taal Volcano and then to stay overnight near Batangas which is in the south of Luzon, the main island of The Philippines. It wasn’t cheap but then it was quite a long way. I booked a hotel using

Next day, Nicole decided not to come so Nomel brought another sister, Mercy and his cousin Aisa and we set off at 9am.

I have lots of photos of this trip so I will only publish one or two here and include a Google link for the rest.

Taal volcano is currently inactive and it sits in the centre of a huge seawater lake to the south of Luzon. Our driver dropped us off at a small jetty where boats with outriggers waited to take us across the lake and I’m sure they paid him a commission. It is all very touristy, with a pony trek up the hill to the crater and my three young friends had never ridden a horse so they were rather nervous. One or two of the photos show a discussion where they wanted to walk back down the hill but finally they were persuaded to ride down. Everywhere there was an outstretched hand for a tip but they have very little money. And I am a wealthy (to them) westerner.

We crossed the lake again, our driver was waiting for us and we drove for about 30 minutes before stopping for something to eat. I am sure you know who was picking up the tab. Then we drove on to the hotel which was in a peninsular called Mabini. But we would have done so if we could find it. We took for ever to find it. Even with the help of Google Maps which I had on my iPad. The location was wrongly marked on the map, the address was wrong in and the published phone number had digits missing. We found it in the end, of course. The name was obscured behind a large post and the whole hotel was below the level of the road because it leads down to the beach. With my feedback, the location has been corrected in Google. No wonder the hotel was so quiet!

I had assumed the driver would go back to Manila and pick us up next day but he planned to sleep in the car. We couldn’t allow that could we? So I paid around 40 euros for a room for him but, since he was only our chauffeur, he stayed apart from us and made friends with the staff. That was his “tip” because otherwise he would have expected something.

At first the proprietor was a bit snooty, a little bit school-mistressy and I was a little anxious because I had booked a family room for the four of us and of course we were not a family. But, hey this is The Phils, she had no problem with that and became a lot more friendly as time went by (until I came to check out, that is). In any case, my “family” all slept in their day clothes and when they took a shower and wanted the freedom of the room, I sat on the terrace. The only problem for me is that they are accustomed to sleeping with the light on but I had my Emirates eyeshades so I was able to sleep in the dark! I think we were the only guests because presumably all the other guests were driving in circles around Mabini.

The food was absolutely brilliant, beautifully prepared so we had a great time and slept well.

There is a reef, not a beach and we hired snorkelling gear to splash around in the sea but none of the girls could cope with all the squelchy rubber bits and pieces and rapidly gave up. We had lunch and then at 3pm we checked out. Or we attempted to. In order to verify my bank card, the proprietor had taken a small pre-authorisation amount the day before we arrived to check the card so everything should have been fine but when I came to pay… bad news. Authorisation Refused. I didn’t have enough cash to cover the hotel bill, I had spent a lot the previous day at Taal and I had left my UK card in the hotel in Manila. The others were all waiting by the car (actually a large and comfortable 4x4) wondering what was happening. This was all very embarrassing and do you know what happened? The proprietor came with us to the nearest town which was 30 minutes away so that I could withdraw cash from an ATM. As you can imagine, this was an anxious moment, with her standing a few yards behind me. Fortunately the machine produced the cash and we were on our way and not cleaning plates in the hotel kitchen.

This was a big mistake, coming abroad with just two bank debit cards. The trouble is, I am so used to travelling in Europe but this was a long way from Europe. But they were accepted in virtually every place I went on the whole trip. And in any case, I could have done banks transfers, that kind of thing, because I could always go online to my bank. But it wouldn’t have saved me on that occasion so, before I went on my next trip, to Ukraine, I ordered a credit card from my bank. In fact they gave me three, including an Amex card which I never use.

We arrived back in Manila quite late because the traffic in Batangas was very slow. I didn’t have the cash to pay the driver but, because he was based next to the hotel, he had no problem with that and I paid him next day. We went out for some food, returned to my room which is twin bedded, we chatted and laughed a lot but my three young friends were soon in bed giggling. I had requested an extra bed earlier in the week because Nicole was planning on staying (but in the end she didn’t). So two were in one bed, Nomel in (or on) the other and obviously I was destined to sleep in the extra bed.

I thought it would be polite to check with Reception because there were now 4 of us in the room but of course they had no problem with that and they stayed the night.

The last day, Nomel’s grandmother came along so we were now: Me, Nomel, Mercy, Aisa and gran. And guess what? All stayed the last night. So there were 5 of us for breakfast next morning but I was trying to keep an eye on the time because I had a flight to catch! Again I told the hotel how many there were in the room and I paid extra for the extra guests and breakfast.

After breakfast, I had to take a taxi to the airport and they would all go back to Navotas. So we said very brief goodbyes and I turned to see my taxi. It was the smallest, dirtiest, most horrible taxi you could imagine and the driver wasn’t much better. Normally the taxis are smart white cars. I have no idea how this happened, the hotel has a flunky at the door to summon a taxi so I don’t know what he had in for me.

The journey to the airport was a nightmare, the driver had just sufficient brains to swear at other drivers and sound his horn. One block away from the hotel, a car was calmly doing a 3-point turn. My driver attempted to get past but obviously blocked the other car as it attempted to reverse back across the road. Much cursing and swearing. Hey I want to go to Hong Kong, I don’t want to spend the morning in a back street in Manila. A woman came up and remonstrated with my driver – by this time all his remaining brains had fallen out onto the seat next to him. Finally he relented.

Worst was to come. There is a toll Skyway to the airport so I had to yell at this guy “Skyway”, “Skyway” because obviously he didn’t want to pay the toll!! Once we were on the Skyway, I was home free, plenty of time to catch my flight. Except that he came off at the exit before the airport, got stuck in horrendous traffic and I was bemused. Where were we? I took out my iPad and I could see exactly where we were in Google Maps. And we weren’t going to the airport. We were about 3km away and going in the wrong direction. I felt like getting out and walking. I could see on my map a small terminal in the far corner of the airport, a long way from the main terminal - maybe cargo I thought. It became clear that is where he was taking me. Finally we arrived. I yelled abuse at him and entered the building. It was the domestic terminal with two small planes on the stand. In the distance shimmered Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

As you can imagine this was not a huge problem because there was a shuttle bus between the terminals so finally I arrived in the international terminal. And I still had plenty of time. And that is how I left Manila for Hong Kong on my way home. I miss my friends but we chatted on Skype afterwards.

When I arrived from Manila I was left with an afternoon in Hong Kong and I returned to the hotel because I left behind my art materials. I had plenty of time because the flight back to Barcelona via Dubai was quite late in the evening and I was glad of something to do. And the rest was uneventful. I slept on the plane between Hong Kong and Dubai, had about 3 breakfasts, two one in the air and one on the ground in Dubai in the Emirates Lounge waiting for the flight to Barcelona, which was relatively short compared to Hong Kong - Dubai.

I have three online friends: Nomel in the Philippines, Nini in Colombia who you will read about soon and Marina in Ukraine. “The” Philippines but it is definitely not “the” Ukraine because that harks back to the time when it was a part of the USSR. By now it was an independent country but still with the big bear breathing down its neck.

My next journey abroad was to Ukraine. And I chose the coldest time of the year!