Sunday, February 10, 2008

Poverty is pungent

Poverty is pungent. And few places on earth stink of destitution more than the Philippines – an archipelago where the wealthy, corrupt few lord it over their impoverished constituents.
I’ve been to many poorer parts of the world; Africa, Bolivia, and myriad Asian destinations but when it comes to the stench of deprivation Manila wins hands down. Whether it's the garbage dumps of Payatas, the slums of port side Tondo, the amoral goings on in Ermita, Metro Manila does poverty in loud, full technicolour – an assault on all the senses. Yet, perhaps the most intriguing slumville area that until this weekend had eluded me were the rail tracks by Bicutan.
I presumed by the deep, well pressed garbage into the buffers that no train passed this depressed area. The kids played, the garbage stank, cockerels faced off to fight each other, while ingenious converted wooden crates ferried folk up and down the tracks. The stench was awful, the huts lined up close to the tracks, electric wires bunched overhead and sewage flowed freely. Yet happiness reigned.
I guess this is the key point with being poor – people get by, their glass tends to be half full, where as us with a living and bills, etc are forever stressed. God knows this is a lame comparison but when I was poor (this coming from an Old Harrovian!)– when I first came to HK and literally scavenged to get by for a while – I now look back as some of the happiest days of my life.
Back to Bicutan. I’d walked up and down the tracks, snapping away, attracting much attention – the typical Philippine call out ‘Hey Joe” – and was still getting to grips with the torrid smell when a loud whistle blew. Up ahead a slovenly, battered train made its way through the trash. As it passed me, kicking up near vomit inducing dust, a plane soared up overhead. I knew where I’d rather be at the moment.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

First trip to Asia

Onboard the air hostess made her way down the aisle. “I’ll have a vodka and…” I paused, checking her embarrassment, reminded myself that the cheapest flight I could find was a dry Arabic one with a stopover in the desert somewhere. “Make that an orange juice,” I corrected myself.
We’re going back more than a decade now to my first trip to Asia. At uni, there was a charity with the catchy acronym H.E.L.P. that posted people on the summer hols all over the world to do good, worthy things. It was always oversubscribed and it was potluck where you were assigned.
I got the call sometime in February. “Congratulations, you’re going to the Philippines!” Wow, fantastic. Elated, I put the phone down and only then wondered where the hell the Philippines was! A soggy four and half day bike ride from London to Edinburgh a couple of months later stumped up the cash for the alcohol lite flight. That summer I headed out.
I’ll always remember the huge round of applause plus many crossings of hearts as the flight landed in Asia’s only Catholic country, and one of the more superstitious places I have ever been.
That first night in Manila was intensely raucous (and distinctly non-religious); a pair of Australians saying we just had to go to the dodgiest bars imaginable down on Roxas Boulevard. The exuberance would wear off in the devout, basic surroundings of the mentally handicapped camp we were sent to build various things like greenhouses and ditches. Rice and rain were two constants that month. Before long mutiny broke out in our camp …

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The killing fields

His eyes lit up manically as we unfolded the map. Spread over his sparse wooden floor he pointed to the heart of southeast Asia to Cambodia and grinned wildly. “Kampuchea, shhfff, shhfff, shhfff, shhfff; Kampuchea, shhfff, shhfff, shhhfff,” he cried out in joy, miming a jeep held machine gun spraying all and sundry. He was delighted with his memory and also that we had at last been able to communicate between each other.
It was more than a decade ago. I was traveling with a lovely Scottish girl, slightly built, with braided hair, called Mary who was on her first big trip overseas and was determined to ‘find herself’. Thus far she’d managed to find me, some grotty backpacker dorms, mindblowing Cambodian weed and a sense of adventure that had led us to this backwater.
We’d hired a motorbike and trundled up to see some magnificent temples in the back and beyond of central Vietnam’s jungles. Coming back though along rural mud tracks flanked by padi fields we’d run out of petrol.
The gas pump had a padlock on it and somehow, via the power of point and mime, we’d worked out the gas attendant would be back in a couple of hours at a which point a friendly family invited us into their spartan hut on stilts for tea and rice.
Now I was kinda proud of my perfect dialect in being able to count from one to five in Vietnamese, but that was the absolute limit of my language repertoire so conversation with the male of the family, who had shooed away his wife and kid and pointed to the floor where we should sit, was going to be limited. And indeed it was, for a while. And then we unfurled our map by way of pointing where we had been in his country and the placid nature of our host changed, his eyes glowed and danced, his memories rekindled of mowing down countless soldiers of Pol Pot in the late ‘70s. “Kampuchea, shhfff, shhfff, shhfff, shhfff; Kampuchea, shhfff, shhfff, shhhfff,” he repeated endlessly and joyously. Happy times!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Kung Hey Rat Choi!

Rubbish when wet and on the road, trodden down by thousands, turns grey and mushy. It was smeared thick on the unseasonably chilly streets of Guangzhou yesterday when I rocked up to gawp at the stunning volume of folk heading to the city’s main train station ahead of the Spring Festival.

The perfect storm had descended upon the world’s most populous nation just as people were turning their attention to the week-long holidays. The worst snow storms for more than 50 years wreaked havoc to the already strained Chinese transport system, just as the biggest human migration was about to get underway – where millions upon millions of Chinese head home from their factories, offices, farms for a well earned rest.

The taxi driver took me as far as he could. About one kilometer from the station barriers had been erected and swarms of police funneled the pedestrians from there on in. Looking ahead the street, Hua Shi Lu, was just jammed – a sea of people pushed, heaved, shimmied and shuffled their way forward, the swarms of cops becoming battalions – I’d never seen so much bacon in one place.

Barriers ensured progress was slow and irritation was high.

Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers had passed before me desperate to get home and still, with just a couple of days to go authorities estimated two million more had to process through the station.

An errant banker might have squandered €4.7bn in Paris a week earlier and the Federal Reserve may well have been slashing interest rates quicker than Freddie Kruger but the real story affecting the world economy these past days has been the frayed Chinese transport system. The engine of the world has blown a gasket and really it’s hardly surprising. Latest World Bank figures show that a quarter of all rail movements – both freight and passenger – take place in China on just 6% of the world’s tracks. Manufacturers here are on edge. Wait till they see how the Beijing Olympics messes with their crucial Christmas deliveries this August. At least then it will be hotter, though that’ll make the sodden, trodden trash wreak more.