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Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Pile of Bodies

I know that I’m not going to be able to sleep as I’m wide awake so I don’t attempt it and instead wait until 430am. Yep, you’ve guessed it, another trip to Olongapo seems to have moved itself to the top of my priority list. I get up quietly, not wanting to wake my five peacefully sleeping housemates, and begin to get ready to leave. A sound startles me and I turn to see Chiqui the kitten bounding playfully into the room, probably having been sleeping just outside the bedrooms on a pile of boxes that he seems to find comfortable. I groan inwardly as I realise it will be a challenge to make Chiqui understand that I haven’t got time to play and that he needs to be “very quiet.” He runs around excitedly then lies on the floor watching me, then pounces on my feet, making me jump several times. Next, like a child, he deliberately baits me as he rolls towards the various wires plugged into the wall. I stopped him “playing” with them earlier in the evening because part of his game involved chewing and I was worried he might electrocute himself. I decide to leave him to it, assuming he will get bored as children do, knowing I’d given him fair warning, and hoping he would find a different game before he electrocutes himself. I switch off the light and walk down the stairs.

I head into the kitchen and open the fridge, and then jump for the third time as I hear a colossal bang from the general vicinity of my bedroom upstairs, that I am sure will wake everyone. Then I remember that although I have unplugged the cables in my room, I haven’t removed the desk fan from the desk and its cable is hanging tantalisingly over the edge, and had probably been too difficult for Chiqui to resist. I walk back up the stairs in trepidation hoping not to find a concussed or squashed ginger kitten at the end of my trail. I enter my room, once again switching on the light and happily note that my desk fan still in place. I look around trying to work out what the loud bang had been and trying to locate the culprit who, having earlier craved my attention, has now mysteriously disappeared. I don’t have to look far as suddenly said kitten takes a flying leap from his hiding place under my desk landing squarely on my feet and making me jump for the umpteenth time. “Goodbye Chiqui “I tell him firmly as I head back downstairs and straight out of the front door quickly shutting it behind me before my playmate follows, and I have to spend the rest of the night trying to catch him, for fear of breaking the heart of the only senior citizen resident in our house.

I head towards the exit gate for my road noting that it is still locked and hoping it isn’t padlocked as that would involve some undignified climbing. I fiddle with the chain to no avail and am in the process of wondering what to do next when our friendly neighbourhood guard approaches me with a small towel around his shoulders. I wonder where he has emerged from as I see only a wooden shack house on the pavement in the general direction he has come from…surely not? I hope he doesn’t lie awake all night on tenterhooks just in case a crazy resident decides to leave at 430am and needs the gate unlocking. I wait for him as he greets me cheerfully and then wonder why he is smiling until he reaches my location and gives the gate a very small push to emphasise that it is already open. We both laugh at my stupidity as I head down the street and he returns, I assume, to his very un-peaceful sleep.

A teenager greets me cheerfully in perfect English as he cleans out a plastic bowl in the street. The stray dogs are mostly awake already and wander around sniffing the rubbish bags, one of them lifting his leg over it. I recoil as I know that later people will sift through the same bags for their recyclables or in dire cases left over food. This subject while distasteful to many is worthy of further comment. There are crude signs everywhere advising people not to “urinate.” Whilst I’m quite sure the signs are not for the dogs and that many people here do need the signs as it is a particular problem in this part of the world, I wonder what the street homeless people are meant to do. The government doesn’t provide facilities for them so what choice do they have? Even with this knowledge it is fairly disgusting walking through the streets and having to avoid any wet patches just in case, especially wearing flip flops, which is the standard footwear. It is quite normal to see people in various stages of undress either because they have nowhere to get changed, because they are high on drink or substances and don’t care, or because they have no clothes. It’s just another part of the undignified reality of living publicly on the street.

I see a mass of bodies with limbs all entangled on top of various raised traffic islands in the centre of the street with noisy traffic flowing both ways just inches from their sleeping bodies. This is the equivalent of people parking themselves on a central reservation on a dual carriageway! I stare openly trying to work out whether they are adults or children, if I saw this in England I would find it difficult to accept that they were real people due to the location, but here anything goes. As I continue to examine the spectacle, I realise sadly that I have reached the vicinity, of the current hang out, of the rugby boys and girls (solvent users) that I saw just the other day. There are many teenagers here now, at least 15, maybe 20. It then dawns on me that they were probably high on solvents when they collapsed into their current pile which is probably why they chose such an absurd location for the night and also probably why they don’t care about the noise or the fact that it is such a visibly public place. There is a definite element of safety in numbers here as well and I recall how the Olongapo boys used to sleep in a similar fashion even though it always looked terribly uncomfortable to an outsiders eyes. I think again that something needs to be done about this and hope that soon people with a real heart to work with these children will join me…

Next I see a rough looking man walking towards me and I feel just a touch afraid as it is still pretty dark, until the man brushes past me with the customary “Hello ma’am.” He would’ve tipped his hat had he been wearing one and I am instantly reassured as thoughts of robbery or other violent crime vanish as quickly as they came. I head across the darkened overpass and notice a man in front of me on the steps attempting to carry far too much. I think of offering to help him but as he is ahead of me and might be embarrassed by the offer of help from a white foreign female I think better of it and then we head in different directions at the top of the stairs. I walk down the other side and quicken my pace as I walk along the edge of the 100 metre high railing separating the pavement from the road where the buses are. It is really irritating, when walking in this section, when you see a bus going to the place you want to go to but can’t catch it because the railing is in the way, so most people rush to reach the end of the railing so that If their bus happens to be passing they can buy a ticket on the bus and get to their destination more quickly.

I reach the terminal and face the usual dilemma. Slow bus which is perversely marked “express” or fast bus which hasn’t yet arrived. I head for the ticket desk and see a long line of people in the queue for “Olongapo,“ how annoying. Even more of an annoyance are the four members of staff standing behind the glass screen chatting to each other and staring at us in the line, as a lone female cashier frantically tries to shorten the queue. There are always many customer service people available here but not many who actually want to serve customers. Being a foreigner, in general, I actually experience better customer service than the local people, it might have something to do with money but I’m really not sure :) But I really don’t know how or why people put up with it as it really can be infuriating. Immigration is the worst, where they have various different lines for slightly different things and if you accidentally get in the wrong line they won’t serve you under any circumstances even if they are not doing anything else. (But tales of immigration are for another day as I can feel my blood pressure rising.)

Suddenly a booming voice announces that the slow bus is leaving (although they don’t call it that of course) and one by one people are turned away from the desk as they are ushered towards the waiting bus. I quickly reach the front of the queue and ask for the fast bus WITHOUT insurance. Insurance that you pay 5 pesos (7.5p) for can’t really be worth much; maybe it would buy me one plaster or a paracetimol (which are sold as individual tablets.) With all these extra emergency trips to Olongapo the cost of insurance adds up! The woman gives me insurance anyway which I return to her politely asking for my 5 pesos back as she looks at me as if I have two heads, and her illusions of rich white foreigners are instantaneously shattered. Well I am a missionary…During our exchange I am disconcerted to see a white board behind her with the heading “Suspended conductors.” The list of names below is extensive and each one has dates listed next to it. It appears the conductors are suspended for approximately a week at a time and then allowed to resume their duties. I wonder what their indiscretions are and hope they have nothing to do with road safety.

Whilst waiting I purchase coffee at a booth where the woman tries to get me to buy bread in addition. I ask for coke as a happy compromise but she misunderstands me and I have to say it about 10 times as she is crawling around on the floor desperately emptying the bottom of a large refrigerator when I can see the item that I want in the middle section above her. Pointing is done by protruding the lips in a certain direction which is one of the strangest things culturally but it definitely grows on you. I give up and rudely point with my hand in an attempt to save her any further trouble, When she realises what I actually want she laughs and apologises. I pay the grand sum of 40 pesos (50p) and notice that the coke that I paid 25 for has a printed price of 15 stamped on it by the manufacturer. This is quite normal here and how smaller vendors make their living but it’s amusing to see the proper price so blatantly displayed.

I sit in the bus terminal observing people and see a man escorted by a conductor walking unhurriedly towards a departing bus. Although his walk is casual he is loudly shouting towards the bus and holding up a single finger, indicating that he is just one passenger. I watch in disbelief as he continues shouting rather than running towards the open door of the bus as its obvious to me that the driver can’t possibly see him. The conductor makes no effort on his behalf and ambles off indicating that he should catch the next bus which is probably in an hour’s time. The man walks dejectedly away putting an end to the dilemma in my mind about whether I should stop the bus for him as he really wasn’t making enough effort.

My bus arrives and I note a sign in the window stating “Road testing now.” Shouldn’t the bus have already been tested as it is already on the road?! These and other questions fade away into irrelevance as I board the bus, sit down in my numbered seat and am then joined by a VERY large male who proceeds to fall asleep next to me half squashing me in the process. I am amused however as he frequently leans into me in a fairly uncomfortable way until I am forced to prod him. Then he occasionally snores waking himself up. At one point he even emits something like a sneeze cough and then apologises profusely as I try to hide my smile.

The bus gets on its merry way every so often braking just that bit too hard as it approaches lines of stationary traffic on the highway. The locals continue sleeping completely unperturbed as I wonder about that insurance…To be continued…