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Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Metro Manila at 430am...

As I walk through the darkened streets of Central Manila at 430am I realise that I have never voluntarily got up at stupid-o-clock before, apart from for the odd flight that is. Being a very non-morning person due to being born with my body clock the wrong way round (at least that's my excuse) the pain is just not worth it, but after struggling to sleep for hours and getting to that particular time when it would make it even more painful to get up if I fell asleep then, I bit the bullet and braced myself for the 30 minute walk to the bus station.

They say Manila is a dangerous place and I'm sure that's true but it doesn't "feel" dangerous, maybe I've been lulled into a false sense of security. Working amongst the street homeless and solvent/rugby boys helps as they are always around and would probably be the first to come to my aid if I had cause to summon them. I have heard that the current trend is bag slashing with a long bladed knife and making off with the contents that fall out. Personally I can't understand why this yields more than just grabbing the bag but I'm sure there's a reason. The only visible sign that this is a rough area are the numerous hotels with their hourly rates posted proudly outside in bright colours for all to see.

The streets are already alive with people beginning their daily routines, unfortunately for many this involves rummaging through other people's garbage to salvage anything recyclable or edible. I notice that the street dogs that usually also partake in this activity are asleep leaving the first pickings to the people,, which kindof makes the situation more desperate. It never becomes normal to see this and bizarrely I find myself wondering why they are not wearing gloves before I catch myself. Several people acknowledge me cheerfully and I reply at the same time being aware of the usual open and curious, but not unfriendly, stares that follow me everywhere I go because I'm a "foreigner" on their turf.

The rampant homelessness is more evident at this hour as numerous people shelter under plastic umbrellas lying uncomfortably on flat cupboard boxes, their children huddled next to them, the most recent victims of floods and typhoons. Street teenagers lie alone; friendless, unwanted, unloved. For some the result of rebellion as they have perfectly good homes to go to, but for most the result of broken families, abuse, and poverty. Sometimes I wonder why they choose the main high street of Cubao with the 24 hour traffic and high pollution but I guess there are other dangers in a more remote place and one dirty dusty street is more or less the same as the next. I quicken my pace as the desire to gather them all off the street and into a proper shelter in any building anywhere, hits me along with the realisation that the problem is overwhelming and that providing somewhere for them to sleep doesn't go to the route of the problem, not really. Living here makes me truly thank God every night for an actual bed to sleep in out of the weather conditions be they too hot, too rainy or too stormy as is so often the case in this part of the world.

I walk over the very dark and dirty overpass unable to see even my feet in front of me and narrowly avoiding tripping over things and people setting up their stalls on the bridge, by following the path of the many others around. I wonder how people motivate themselves to get up at 4 or 5am to sell sweets for 1 peso (1.5p) that they have purchased in a supermarket for half the price. There are already many such vendors around selling these as well as individual cigarettes from a packet. I guess they have no choice as they have to feed their families.

I finally approach the bus station wondering whether the many foreign students sleeping within the terminal have been there all night, and then have a tough decision to make (any decision is tough for me at 5am!) Should I get the 5am bus that is patiently waiting to take its passengers the 3 to 4 hour journey North to Olongapo or should I wait for the 530am bus that takes the quicker route but costs a little more. I ask the conductor for the time. Its exactly 5am yet it doesn't look as if the first bus is going anywhere any time soon. I ask him if the bus will be late leaving whilst still deciding which ticket to buy. He says it will be on time but I'm dubious as he stretches lazily on his chair and yawns. I opt for the 2nd bus, purchase my ticket and stumble away to find coffee, failing at the first shop within the bus terminal which has really missed a trick. I locate a lone female with a thermos outside on the street and pay her 13 pesos (20p) for the privilege. I then buy a few items in the terminal and give the vendor a Christian tract, he immediately stops serving a customer to read the front of it then thanks me with a smile. (I love it here!) 515am and back at the bus stop I am pleased to see that the 1st bus is still in situe and that the 2nd bus is now behind it in the queue. I feel briefly sorry for the people that are being ushered into the 1st bus not realising it will take an hour longer as they haven't done the route before.

On the bus I am seated next to a middle aged Filipino man and I notice that the TV at the front of the bus is flickering annoyingly and the picture jumping around with grey lines all the way through it. This doesn't seem to bother the locals most of whom watch the screen absent mindedly. I am grateful that it is a harmless, if irritating, Filipino daytme TV show rather than the violent and gruesome movies that are sometimes shown regardless of the audience. On these occasions I spend most of the time trying to hide so that I don't inadvertently catch a glimpse of the horror. The view that we can watch whatever we want and are somehow invincible is widespread here, even amongst Christians.

The air conditioning is as usual turned up far too high and blasting out of vents that are often broken and cant be closed. Most regular travellers, including me, are wearing extra layers. It is the same in Filipino cinemas. I haven't yet worked out the reason. I am grateful for a seat as some late comers end up crouching or standing in the aisle for the entire 3 hour journey.
At the half way rest stop everyone piles out of the bus to buy snacks and the street vendors pile into the bus to try and sell snacks to the few passengers left. I hear "mani mani mani" over 100 times (peanut) as the bucket is thrust towards me in the hope of a sale. I glance sideways as a man sits back down next to me and think that he doesn't look much like the person that was there before, then all becomes clear as the other man comes back and demands his original seat. I am amused that I almost mistook one for the other as one is about half the age of the other and they don't look anything alike.

Traffic as usual is totally crazy my bus sometimes jumping across 4 lanes to pick up extra passengers and doing this at the very last minute nearly colliding with every other vehicle that hadn't been made aware of the drivers intention. The solution; everybody hooting their very loud horns constantly to warn each other that they are about to do something very dangerous and potentially life threatening, the big question; what is it they are about to do!? I see around 24 people squashed into the back of a small pickup truck packed in like sardines all facing the front with their knees bent awkwardly in front of them. Then around 100 people in a line running parallel to the main road, I guess they are waiting for a bus, but its a long line. I see a sign with a Japanese flag over a toll booth and wonder what the "Philippine/Japan co-operation project" at this road block is, as I'm sure its not a border crossing, at least I hope not!

But I have neglected the important part of my story, why the very long journey and why the sleepless night. It began last week, (well actually it began 2 years ago but if you want the full story you will have to buy and read my book.

They're Rugby Boys, Don't You Know? by Natalie Vellacott)

Last Monday I took two former rugby/solvent boys that I have been working with and that had accompanied me on our church camp in Cubao back to Olongapo where they reside. We'll call them Paul (now 16) and Joel (now 15) as named in my book. I had decided as per their suggestion that it was time to give them an opportunity to leave the overcrowded and under resourced government youth centre (35 boys with 18 beds and counting; the boys not the beds.) The plan was to find a place for them to rent with Paul's Grandma who is technically his only legal guardian although she hasn't been involved in his life for a while.

After a very long day with a lot of complications (maybe to be detailed in a follow up book)we fInd a suitable place and I leave all in the capable hands of my Christian friend Zee with a bit of help from her family. Unfortunately things did not go entirely to plan so today I was summoned to reappear in Olongapo due to Paul's Grandmother walking out on the two minors after just one week apparently never to return (or so all sides relayed in a very confusing conversation that had the words big house, grandma, leave and cradle...yep didn't make much sense to me either!) be continued...