Confused?

In Tagalog, the word for ‘horny’ is ‘Malibog’. Many tourists in the Philippines have been taught this word as part of their initial linguistic training, freely provided by the helpful locals. But in this part of the archipelago, there is an amusingly subtle linguistic variation: in the local Visayas dialect, Malibog means ‘confused’.
It’s a useful word. The Philippines is a pretty confusing place. There are a lot of very confused people here – in fact, one might say that they are here because they are confused. And the most confusing aspect of the place is the interaction between locals and the very confused foreigners who come here.
Filipinos have a deserved reputation for friendliness and warmth. I’ve been the happy recipient of Filipino hospitality on many occasions, in Manila, Antique and Cambridge to name a few places. This is why I decided to come here: as well as being their country’s number one export (as the famous joke has it), Filipinos are its best advertisement.
Since coming here, I have seen the other side of the coin as well. And this can be best described as a very deep confusion. I’ve met quite a few foreigners here, and they too have shown me kindness and hospitality. But in so many cases I’m finding it hard to fathom the relationship they have with the locals. Sometimes it seems that theses relationships, which are of course absurdly wealth-asymmetrical, are based on genuine affection. Sometimes on mutual flattery and suspicion. Each has something the other desires: on the one hand, money; one the other, youth and beauty. (One particularly confused sexagenarian told me, when explaining why he is here, that he likes “the smell and texture of Asian women.”)
The initial reaction to me, as a white foreigner in the Philippines, is predictable. You could go mad wondering whether everyone you meet is just pretending to like you so they can get money out of you. But try to cut through the surface tension and you will find people responding to you on another level. It’s difficult to do, but possible, I think.
Or perhaps I’m just as confused as everyone else.

Samsara

“Welcome to the Philippines.” It’s a sentence I have heard many times, with several distinctly different meanings. This is a place of contradictions. Some think it’s Heaven (especially the ageing white men). Some think it’s a place to get out of as quickly as possible. It’s full of genuine, friendly, warm, enthusiastic, creative people who will give you a huge smile and show you around. It also has a fair number who just want your money.
From where I’m sitting I can see motorised tricycle rickshaws manoevring the busy streets and jungle-covered mountains rising over the rooftops. During the time I’ve been here I’ve met retired ad-writers, bounty hunters, southern ocean sailors, bar girls, entrepreneurs and a missionary called Pastor Tree. I’ve seen the site where Magellan was killed in 1521 by Lapu-Lapu, preventing him from completing the first circumnavigation of the globe (some of his surviving sailors managed to finish it). I’ve seen the Basilico del Santo Nino (if you thought praying to Baby Jesus was just a scene from the movie Talladega Nights then think again … he’s the Philippines’ national saint). I’ve played pool and drunk beer and sung karaoke.
Some might say this is not the most transcendental leg of my journey. Some might think that I have descended from the rarefied atmosphere of the mountains to a more worldy location. Here the endless cycle of desire is enacted daily, the struggle for food, for money, for sex, for life itself, like the myth of Sisyphus, endlessly pushing his rock up a mountain, only to see it roll down again. But, as Albert Camus once wrote, we must imagine Sisyphus happy. This is our lot, the human condition. We must find our enlightenment where we can, whether it is on a Himalayan peak or in a ramshackle pool hall shaded by leaning palms, with a bottle of San Miguel.