Sunday, February 5, 2012

The trouble with the Philippines

One of the best things about traveling is the interesting encounters you have along the way.

By now, with a thousand trips to my name, I have a couple of hundred stories to tell -- so thank goodness I have a magazine, a blog, and a television show to put everything in as it would certainly be a shame to have all these conversations, insights and lessons and no venue to share it with others.

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Well, yesterday morning I was at Tokyo's Narita Airport waiting for my Japan Airlines (JAL) flight back to Manila after a couple of freezing days in Tokyo.

As usual, I was at the JAL lounge having my regular 8 AM breakfast-before-flying of scrambled eggs (the JAL lounge makes the best scrambled eggs in the world), piping hot white rice, simmered sausages and two Maison Kayser/ Eric Kayser croissants.


It would have been just another lounge breakfast in a lifetime of lounge breakfasts, except that I struck up conversation with an impeccably-dressed man seated at the next table wolfing down his croissants by dipping them in a bowl of yoghurt.

Now I can admit that these two things initially got my attention: first, that he was dressed so well for a flight at such an ungodly hour, compared to the rest of humanity in JAL's business class lounge.

Assuming he'd arrived at the airport just before 8 just like me, this meant he'd probably gotten up at 6 am at the latest, sleepily fumbled in the dark and cold for clothes and luggages, and then gotten into a car or a taxi three quarters of an hour later.

Unless he's terribly OC, which to me means he woke up at 4 am to get as well dressed as he was this morning, then he must have a talent for putting things together.


I certainly have more than my fair share of such talents (or so I believe), but this morning, I was in a turtleneck and boots, and I'd lazily tied my hair into a messy bun without combing it.

So I was pretty impressed that he looked like he'd just walked out of a high-end British catalog.

Then, of course, there was the way he was having breakfast.

Croissants dipped into yoghurt? Who does that?

And especially with Eric Kayser croissants, which are among the best in the world, it seemed almost a crime to eat them soggy. I'd even put my croissants into the toaster oven for a few seconds just to have them hot and fluffy, so we were at opposite ends of the spectrum.


But that alone wouldn't have made me talk to him, as I'm so not the type to strike up a conversation first, with a stranger. Especially not if my Macbook Pro is with me, as it was this morning.

But the third most astonishing thing was that he was actually reading an issue of the Philippine Star from last week, and there we were in Tokyo. I just had to say something.

"That's a Philippine newspaper," I said.

Actually, I thought he might let me have it so I would have something to read on the plane back to Manila.


"You're Filipino," he said with a smile. "It's not just the newspaper. I can tell by how you speak."

It turned out he'd come from Manila a few days ago and he was going back to the States, and he was a very astute observer of the Philippine situation.

He knew a lot of important people personally.

"You've got a basket case of a country," he said to me. "Not that I don't like it, because I went to school with lots of Filipinos at Penn, and some of them are really good friends. But it doesn't erase the fact that your country is a complete basket case. I don't know whether to feel sorry for Filipinos or to just say "you deserve it because you've loused up your chance again.'"

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Oh my. This was certainly appropriate conversation over croissants with a stranger.

He continued. Obviously he'd already been in deep discussions with people in Manila about these things because he flared up with a readymade speech. "Take this impeachment of the chief justice, for instance. What's with that witch hunt?"

He added: "They're combing through his life like they need to find something rather than because he did something really bad. We're talking parking spaces and condominiums paid on installment here. He's not god, for christ's sake. Of course they'll find something if they look really hard. But that's the same for everyone, including those people scrounging around for dirt on him."


This is where he raised his hands so dramatically and emphatically that I thought he was a Filipino in disguise. "And those people looking everywhere possible for dirt on him -- are they so clean? Do you honestly think any of those people after him has filed a 100% accurate tax return, whether intentionally or unintentionally? It's a case of the lame chasing the cripple here."

"And I don't get your politicians. You have some of the smartest people in the world in the Philippines, and for once you have a government with a very high approval rating. Do you know what the Philippines could have done with that, if it had its head on straight? You could've turned your economy around, you could have actually made life better for the underprivileged."


Boy, he was on a roll here, and I had nothing to break his speech as I'd come to the table with a full tray of goodies.

I couldn't stand up, say "let me just get another croissant," and then move to another table.

He continued: "Your country could've changed the world in a positive way. This government could've done really great things. Instead, it's stopped functioning except to replace or seek revenge on people it perceives as enemies. You have senators spending days and weeks looking for flaws in a pretty human person instead of making useful laws. That's a really sorry and petty state."

I was speechless.

I actually like to talk politics a lot with clued-in people, but recently I've studiously refrained from doing so because I personally find that we're living in a very George Orwell kind of state where good and bad have become relative, and truth is not what's real but what you read about in the newspapers.

When I was growing up, people knew exactly what was good and what was bad.

But these days, no one's sure of these values anymore and it's become such a hypocritical world where truth is just another sound byte or a headline. It doesn't matter anymore even if it's somebody's fiction or just poorly done research.


But this morning, there I was in Tokyo having a pretty depressing conversation with a stranger from America as our plane schedules coincided in the JAL business lounge. I was getting a dressing down as if I was running the country rather than running away from it.

Finally, after about 45 minutes of this kind of talk, my flight was called for boarding. As I stood up, feeling very heavy all of a sudden about returning to Manila -- and I can tell you it wasn't because of the croissants -- I asked him: "What do you suggest we do then?"

It was more a way to end the conversation than an actually request for advice.

He looked at me kindly but it was in a way that I couldn't tell whether he was serious or joking.

But finally he said: "Honestly?" And here he drew a very deep breath. "What you have here is an endemic situation. Everyone's in the deep and you're all going to end up burying yourselves in mud. Just look at history and see how unstoppable things got once witch hunts began. Frankly, I think it'll probably be easier to just move to another country."

There's more.


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