Those of you who have reached a certain vintage will have fond recollections of that wonderful film “The Life of Brian” in which a recurrent theme was “What have the Romans ever done for us?” The film was set in about the turn of the modern era, as it is now perceived, in Judea. Each time the question was asked in a group of rebels who were trying to overthrow the Romans, one of the revolutionaries would pipe up with “Well good roads actually” or “Peaceful streets” or “Clean water” etc.
So, what did the Americans do for the Philippinos?
I think I had better provide a bit of background.
After the Americans had kicked out the British in 1784 they soon expanded over the Appalachian mountains and kept going like most expansionist powers do. Their contempt for and mistreatment of the indigenous people was typical of all the imperialist powers of the 19th century – they, the indigenous locals, are savages. If we can’t convert them to Christianity, kill the lot and take their land.
President Andrew Jackson, in the 1830s, decided that this was wrong and that the “Indians”, as they were called, should have their own (very poor) land in certain areas called reservations. So, the Indians were rounded up and dumped on these “reservations.” Of course, they had no schools, hospitals etc. Alcohol was banned so they all drank like fish. Leave them to whither and die - that is how you get rid of this embarrassment. There was no attempt to integrate them in any form of society.
That has been US government policy for 180 years and remains the policy today. When you hear Americans talking about “minority rights” in other countries then you know what the word “hypocrisy” means.
I digress, as I often do.
When the USA had reached the West Coast they had a bit of a problem. How could they continue their imperialistic expansion? Sure, they bought Alaska off the Russians, took Hawaii but what to do with the army?
Cuba? Good, let’s invade there. The Panama Canal – yep, built by a Frenchman but we don’t allow Froggies (or anybody else for that matter) in the Western Hemisphere. This imperialistic racism is dressed up as the “Monroe Doctrine”.
Now where? Ah those nasty Spaniards have no right to be half way round the world in The Philippines. We kicked them out of Cuba so let’s kick them out of The Philippines and call it liberation. (The reason why the Spanish were in the Philippines and not the Portuguese is a long story going back to the beginning of the 16th century.)
Boot them out they did.
I have done it again. Digressed.
So what did the Americans do for the Philippines?
First of all, they left a passingly good imitation of the English language. The country is made up of 7,000 islands with lots of disparate tribal groups – not really a nation at all as the long running civil war indicates. The multiple languages have been sorted of welded into something approaching a common language called Tagalog. However, the education system that the Americans created was, of course, in English. This has endured. Many people speak good English. In fact, my Guide, Chris, who I will come back to later, said that the Philippines is the second English speaking country in the world. This is a bit of an exaggeration but you get the idea. Many towns and cities have Spanish names from 300 years of occupation but the language has gone completely.
Jeepneys. These are a peculiarly Philippino institution. The Philippines was a big (and I mean big) military base for the USA throughout the 20th century until the locals finally got rid of them. This meant that the US Military brought in lot general purpose vehicles - jeeps. After a few years each jeep was scrapped by the military. The locals picked them up, extended the wheelbase, and put a few seats in, paint them in garish colours, give them a stupid name and you have something for people to travel on. There are some conventional long-distance buses but jeepneys are universal. They are now built from scratch and any resemblance to a modern jeep is purely in your imagination.
Driving Standards. As most Europeans know Americans are pretty shit drivers – they kill about three times as many people on the roads as Europeans do. However, such high standards are unknown in the South-East Asia. To give you an example, in China every thousand vehicles will kill one person a year (it is 20,000 in the UK). So, in the Philippines you are pretty safe – drivers know what indicators are for, red lights are respected, traffic is slow, fighting your way across the road on foot is relatively easy etc. I am fairly sure that a high proportion of fatalities are motor-bike riders – of which there are a great profusion. Don’t get me wrong if you are aged between 20 and 45 by far the most likely cause of death in almost any part of the world is a badly trained man – and they are nearly always men - behind the steering wheel of a piece of heavy equipment weighing a tonne or so mowing you down whilst he is playing with his mobile phone.
Rock n’ Roll. I won’t say much about this. It is often old, poor or both. It is just such a relief not to hear crap Chinese pop music and endless dreadful Karaoke.
So why was I in the Philippines?
Well I like it. It was my third visit.
It is cheap. We bought a full-size bottle of rum and a 1 ½ litre bottle of coke for two quid. For those not familiar with the UK just guess how much that is. Whatever your guess it will be too high.
Everybody smiles and says hello. This is not because you are a tourist; it is just that they have a cheerful inclusive nature.
Of course, neither of those are reasons to go per se. Matt and I had gone to learn to dive.
On the first night, we found a bar in Manila where one girl seemed to think it was perfectly normal to throw up on the floor and carry on drinking.
At the bus station where we went to get to our destination there was a sign saying “Unload your firearms here.”
I will keep the next bit short because it is not very entertaining.
We arrive, fill in the forms, Chris (our instructor and a thoroughly nice bloke – even if he is Christian – that is his name as well as his religion) says I need medical clearance because of my blood pressure. I go to the clinic, Doctor says come back tomorrow for a heart x-ray (it was a Sunday and many Philippinos are very Christian.) A hard afternoon in the pool learning drills about what if things go wrong.
Monday. Back to the clinic. Doctor says I am not signing; your heart is too big but you can go and take the x-ray to a specialist in the city an hour and a half away by jeepney. Back to the resort, Matt too ill to do anything, I may as well go and see if the quack would clear me. (I wasn’t worried, I had been to 4,500 metres high two weeks before). He signed. A lost day.
Matt is out of the picture (he is always ill when we go on holiday) so Chris is my personal instructor but we have lost a day. Get on with it. The exercises on the surface I am crap. Get down a few metres I am fine (well apart from the fact that my eyesight is so wonderful that I can’t read the gauges or the dive computer but we will gloss over that). I lost a flipper that cost me a few quid but the rest was OK. Because I was shit at the escape stuff on the surface Chris, as I had anticipated, only certified me as a crap diver.
Would I recommend diving? Without doubt. Some people will struggle with “equalizing” – that is adjusting to pressure changes (it doubles every ten metres) but I was fine once I relaxed enough and went down to 17 metres. But what you see down there is fantastic; I will be forever spoiled about snorkeling – of which I have done a lot.
Is it risky? A bit, but learn the drills, you will never have to use them - Chris never has.
Would I go cave diving? No, it is for idiots. You die.
Will I go back to the Philippines again? Undoubtedly. When I get kicked out of China where do I go? A tourist visa is good for three years, they speak English, the people are lovely and you can easily live on a pension. But I won’t live in a dive resort. They are dead, dead, dead. As I would be very quickly if I lived in one by drinking all day every day out of boredom.