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#14 No Problem Sir, I'll Make Change

As the PanAm 747 descended into Manila I looked out on an old dirty looking city. Immediately surrounding the city are rice paddies and I am reminded of Vietnam era movies. The door opens and a hot rush of humid air enters the cabin. The airport is crowded for sure and I go through immigration without a hitch. I am arriving on a 90 day tourist visa. The baggage claim was unbelievable. There were bags and boxes everywhere piled up to the ceiling. I was to learn that Christmas was a huge migration deal for Filipino foreign workers and they bought and brought everything they could. The baggage claim was full of people but as near as I could tell they were all travelers. There were tons of guys with blue vests and "porter" embroidered on the back. Remembering John's advice that everyone wanted to steal your stuff I decided to hump my own bags after finding the last unused baggage cart in the whole place. Suddenly John rocked up. I was to learn later that the reps had complete airport access including the customs areas.

John ushered me to the customs line and told me he would see me outside. Once I passed into the arrival hall it was mass humanity on another level. It was shoulder to shoulder with touts, taxi touts, food vendors, travelers and the extended family of travelers. The driveway was a sea of cars with horns blaring and no one moving much. It is really hot and really humid and by now I am sweating like crazy. John led me towards a car and a well dressed older guy in a barong tagalog (Filipino dress shirt) reached for my bag. I literally slapped his hand while jerking away and John said, "What are you doing? He's the driver!" Wait, what? Drivers? Who has drivers? Apparently everyone. So with bags loaded John bundles me into the car and says, "OK. Go to the hotel, check in and relax. I will pick you up for work on January 2nd." John jumps into another car and I don't see him for 5 days while the driver delivers me to the hotel. Filipinos love their holidays and Christmas/New Years is a big 2 week+ shut down for just about everyone.

The hotel was nice and the room was nice. I stayed close to the hotel venturing out bit by bit. I eventually found a small mall and was just walking around with a X on my back as a tourist who didn't know anything when I was approached by a young guy and we got to chatting. Of course in my naiveite I fell for his pitch. Apparently there was a cool party to go to and he would go buy tickets and pick me up at the hotel. I gave him the equivalent of like $40 and of course never saw him again - little did I know how much $40 USD was worth but for a laborer it was more than two months salary. I knew at the time I gave him the money there was a risk and as I walked back to the hotel I was sure of it. I did wait in the lobby on the off chance but no joy. New years came and I ended up watching huge firework displays all over the city from my room. By 3am the entire city smelled of Sulphur and a black cloud hung over everything.

The first couple of days at work there was not much going on. The first was a Wednesday and most of the staff were off until the following Monday. John showed me the office and introduced me around to maintenance control and more importantly the other company reps. I met the Boeing guys, the Airbus guy and Sam Lee. Sam invited me to go out Friday and I gladly accepted.

Sam picked me up about 10pm and drove to Mabini Street. This was the red light district and comprised a number of small streets and alleys. We just called it Mabini. As a 23 year old single guy it was like Disneyland for degenerates. There must have been 100 bars mostly the same but many having a theme. They all had dance floors and dancers in bikinis with poles and mirrors. I think a San Miguel beer was about 25 pesos and a girl's drink was 40 pesos. 40 pesos was about $2.

The bar scene in Asia is a big part of my story so maybe some context is in order. Prostitution and nude dancing were illegal in Manila. The girls got hired at a club to dance and be hostesses. They received a portion of a girl's drink so the big thing was to get the guys buying them drinks. If a girl wanted to leave work early she had to pay a fine to the bar - a bar fine. If she made private arrangements with a customer then that was her business. The bar fine in those days was about 300 peso or about $15.

Was there exploitation? Absolutely. Working in a bar and being a prostitute is driven by poverty. There are few girls that dream of being a pole dancer and sleeping with men for money. Over the years I got to know a lot of the girls personally and developed a deep empathy for most of them. I never asked a girl to go home that didn't ask me first but maybe that isn't an excuse either. All I know is that pumping the money I did into the system probably fed a lot of people. People from the countryside would send their daughters to Manila to get a job. Many reported to their parents that they were secretaries and what not and no one at home asked how a secretary could send home $200 a month when a secretarial salary was like <$100 a month. Forget the fact that most of these girls had little to no education.

Sam took me to all his favorite places and he seemed to know a lot of the girls and bartenders. Sam was a bit of an introvert and had a wry sense of humor. He spent a lot of time chatting up the bartenders. Bartenders were different. They must have made decent money because they rarely went with customers. They were also usually pretty smart and better conversationalists. any of them also did the books so I guess it was a challenge to date one of them. It was a bit weird but one had to cultivate a relationship with a bartender. Most all the girls had a dream of getting into a relationship with a regular and hopefully getting married. In my early days it wasn't unusual to be having a conversation with a girl only to have her jump up and run to her "regular" when he walked into the bar.

The girls would get very possessive about their regulars and there were often shouting matches and swear words when one girl perceived another trying to poach her guy. It was hard not to get tagged as someone's guy and I tried to avoid it as much as possible. I was there to listen to the usually really good music, drink some beers and blow off some steam. I like not being cornered.

OTOH - I found it crazy when a couple of (drunk) guys would get into a fight over a girl. There were girls everywhere but maybe that's the nature of guys. There was too much fun to be had to get into a bar fight over a girl even if the girls sometimes manipulated these situations.

Of course running referee were the mama-sans. They kept peace and order, collected the bar fines and settled what disputes they could with the customers. It was an hourly occurrence that some drunk bar goer thought he was getting ripped off over one thing or another. Getting "ripped off" was a subjective thing to me. Everyone was poor and everyone was on the hustle. I never got robbed the entire time in Asia but I treated people with respect and never argued over a few bucks.

Anyway, Sam gave me lesson one in the bar scene and I got home pretty drunk and wanting to go again. I had already gotten my rental car (more on that later) and I decided to drive myself there on the Saturday. I am sure Sam would have willingly gone again so I don't really know why I went on my own other than being an explorer. In the days of no GPS I always had the habit of driving around a lot in the first weeks so that I could find out where stuff was.

The map below shows the route from my eventual apartment to Mabini. The hotel wsa just south east of there on Ayala Avenue. The long northwest stretch was South Super Highway. I had paid attention to Sam driving there and found Mabini. I proceeded to get pretty shit faced and around 2 am I was pretty much out of money and really drunk.

I get in the car and attempt to retrace my steps but I the small stretch circled is a one way street going west and I could not remember how Sam got back. So I risk it and go down the one way street the wrong way. as soon as I turned left a motorcycle cop runs out in front of the car and waves me down. He is dressed in the white uniform, knee boots and leather sash of a motorcycle cop and was probably 5" 2" - A really little guy and quite portly.

"Excuse me sir. You made a violation!"

"Oh. I did not know I am really sorry."

"Sir can you step out of the car?"

"Look I really can't. I am really drunk and it's hot out there."

"Oh my Gods, sir. You cannot drive while drunk. That is a big problem!"

"Oh. I don't like problems. Is there anything I can do."

"You have to pay a fine and if you want you can pay your fine to me."

"OK how much is the fine?"

"100 pesos!"

"How about 50 pesos." - I had learned enough in a week that everything is negotiable in the Philippines. A smart, sober guy would have paid the $5 and taken a taxi home. I was none of those things.

"OK, sir. 50 pesos" - I looked in my wallet and I had a 100, a 20, a 10 and a 5.

"Oh, no. How about 35 pesos?" - He of course observed my money and immediately snapped back.

"No problem, sir. I can make change." - So I hand over the 100 pesos and he literally runs down the street to a little gedunk (small roadside store) and comes back with 50 pesos change.

"Have a good evening sir and drive safely." I literally could not stand up out of the car and he sends me on my way. Disneyland for degenerates. Say what you want about Manila cop corruption, at least they have integrity - LOL...

I told Sam what happened and he (of course) told me I got ripped off by the cop. That was part of the craziness. We'd go and drop $200 in the bars and then argue with a taxi driver about the fare being 30 pesos or 40 pesos to take us to Makati like the 10 pesos was really gonna matter. It was true in a way because traffic was so crazy it was almost impossible to get around without making "violations" - Lane grabbing was cutting someone off but it could mean anything a cop wants to get paid for. It was often normal to be in the third lane of a 4 lane street and make a right turn across the right two lanes of gridlocked traffic. Inevitably there would be 4-6 motorcycle cops there. Often you were stopped for like 10 seconds as you hand over your 20 pesos. It was a crazy violation because literally everyone did it.

After my intro to Philippine night life it was time to figure out how to live here and find out what it is a rep does.

Typical Manila "Trappic!" - Like some Tetris game cars fill spots until no one can move. On many occasions I left my car within a couple of blocks of home and went to a bar until 10 or 11pm when I could get the car home.

This is also typical - Pedestrians spilling into the street competing for limited spaces on Jeepneys, traffic wardens in yellow vests and cars filling up almost every available spot of tarmac. Manila went to an "odd plate" "even plate" system for a while. The rich bought a second car and the well to do bought a second plate. Unless you had the patience of Job Manila trafic could drive you nuts.

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I still remember showing up in Manila in 1987 after the trip from hell and you deciding that I needed to have a good time - lots of 40 cent beers, watching pole dancers gyrate in front of me and of course fresh (?!) balut ! I do remember you telling me I had to haggle with the kid selling leis because at 60 cents he was ripping me off ! I remember you telling me at the time that Manila was Disneyland for rich white people.

I also remember the girls all playing bar games- checkers or something (I can't remebmer what it was) - they were super experienced and so they won more often than not, I thin…

Dan Deutsch
Dan Deutsch
Aug 10, 2022
Replying to

The girls were probably playing poker dice or another dice game called Balut. Lots of time to kill in bars if you do it for a living.

I am so glad that you visited me there. They say what ruins a good war story is an eye witness but if it's a real story you have backup.

I knew you had the piss knocked outta you in Europe, especially the scooter crash. I vividly remember balut night. I couldn't believe you ate more than one. But hten again I think you were pretty drunk - LOL.

Another vivid memory is Celing (the maid) making you home made hamburger after hamburger. I think it was Celing's cooking that got you bac…

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