POSTCARD FROM MANILA: What we do for love

Everywhere in Manila, one senses the struggle to make a living.

I live in a place called Cubao, on the edge of a slum, and every corner literally teems with people and activity.

The road in front of our house has been ripped up to replace drains with bigger pipes, broken bits of road are piled high on either side, leaving one dusty lane for vehicular traffic. This has all been done by bare-chested men with tiny shovels. No digger in sight. This will take forever, my mother says grimly. My brother-in-law palms a bit of cash over to the men so that they would tidy up our frontage, widen the path for cars.

On the pavement in front of my neighbour’s gate, the tricycle drivers await passengers. There’s a man standing there shouting out their availability – he gets a few pesos for his pains. A boy of about 11 with a wooden box on his arm is selling the drivers cigarettes by the stick.

Two of my mother’s neighbours have set up shop, tables covered with plastic table cloths, pots of food, selling lunch to passers-by. They’re a bit like lemonade stands, except these are adults trying to make a living. They spoon the food into plastic bags for the customer to take away.

In England, the struggle to make a living happens invisibly, quietly, behind closed doors.

In the Philippines, it’s in your face.

I remember my own struggling, as a young reporter earning a wage barely enough to cover my expenses.

It was an exciting time in the Philippines, the decline of a dictatorship and the start of a new era.

I went everywhere, witnessed history in the making, then went back to the camaraderie of our news room to assemble the magazine. I was writing!

On Thursdays, everyone stayed until the wee hours of the morning, putting the magazine to bed – it came out on Fridays. These were pre-digital days, so the galleys were typset, laid out by hand, then filmed. And any corrections were stripped into the film later.

Afterwards everyone piled off to an all-night breakfast place for hot bibingka (pancakes made with coconut and salted eggs) or tapsilog – a breakfast of cured meat, rice and eggs.

It was a fantastic job. No hour was too late, no distance too far to gather information, no story too dangerous (it wasn’t courage, just youthful enthusiasm).

I felt blessed even though the money was only a little better than peanuts and not as tasty.

My friends and I got around the tricky problem of making ends meet in various ways.

Too proud to live with my parents, I shared a one-bedroom (bedroom is a relative term ) flat with other girls who worked for the same magazine. On some nights there were three of us, on others there were five. We all slept on mattresses laid out on our sitting room’s pocket handkerchief floor.

It helped that press conferences in the Philippines always involved some kind of catering. By attending at least three conferences a day, I covered all my meals. When my best friend and I wanted to sample a new restaurant, we would order one coffee and sit there for an hour sipping the one cold cup.

To supplement my income, I wrote press releases for a friend who was a publicist. I interviewed pop stars and drew a weekly cartoon strip for a woman’s magazine. I scripted small talk for a pop singer to do between songs. I dubbed in the voices of American extras who had moved on before their movies had finished. When I realized I could get paid for pictures as well as words, I acquired a camera and took photographs when I was on assignment.

No job was too small, as long it meant I could continue to be a reporter.

And that’s why I felt so blessed.

My work was not a struggle even if I struggled to make a living because I was doing it for love. It’s one of the great things about my new, second career, writing for children.

The JK Rowlings and Stephenie Meyers of the children’s book industry are incidental. Yes, there is money in it – but money is not why children’s authors write.

In the main, we don’t do it for money. That’s why we are the lucky ones. We aren’t wage slaves. We do our work for love.

Doing things for love is the best way not just to make a living, but to have a life.

Even if it’s a struggle.

POSTCARD FROM MANILA: Somewhere Over the Rainbow

The Philippine edition of Tall Story launches in Manila next week so I am winging my way from London to Manila via Amsterdam.

There is only one other child on the flight – a baby in a sling carried by a tiny Filipina. It’s a good bet that they will be on the same direct flight to Manila from Amsterdam.

The baby gazes around her with round eyes that flicker from grey to brown. Her cheeks are a much paler shade than her mother’s . Clearly her dad is pink skinned, just like the father of my own excited two, who are desperate to get on with journey. A two-tone child – just like my own!

In Amsterdam, when KLM calls Philippine-bound passengers forward, the word “melting pot” comes to mind as the very Filipino melting pot melts eagerly into the queue.

The mums are various shades of brown, black-haired and almond-eyed. Like me.

The dads – well. There are all colours of dads. Here a black father with tall, strapping walnut sons, the peaks of their baseball caps turned backwards and white cables flowing from their ears. There, a slim blonde girl with her brown mother’s full lips, a head and shoulders taller than her mother. All colours of babies, fuzzy haired, curly haired, hairless.

I imagine the excitement of relatives back home, cleaning their houses, laying out extra bedding, cooking stews in advance, setting alarm clocks to wake them at cock’s crow to beat the rush hour to the airport, dreaming of the gifts that the guests no doubt will bring.

Last week, on Facebook, the author Malorie Blackman launched a huge discussion by declaring her opposition to the term “mixed race”. I, personally, have never liked the term – every single person in the world is a mixture of some sort. Which means even the concept of race is becoming muddled.

I learned a new word last year. Heterogenous. My neighbour, a doctor, remarked at how heterogenous Philippine society is. As in not homogenous. I didn’t know there was a term for it. Aren’t all island nations like that? Voyagers passing through inevitably leave traces of themselves in the population.

With the immigration phenomenon in the Philippines and so many of us living abroad, Filipinos have become just like the voyagers of ancient times, leaving traces of ourselves wherever we live and work. A global gene pool.

Methinks the colours are blurring.

Getting on that plane was a little bit like wandering into a Filipino rainbow.


Flights to the Philippines are always exciting affairs.

These are not people returning from blah business trips or from routine holidays abroad.

We are exiles on reprieve on our way back to the motherland.

One overhears a common thread. “How long since you’ve been home?” And the answers are mind boggling.

Ten years. Six. Four. Two.

The hand-carried bags are mind boggling as well. Having been away for so long, we return with all our missed opportunities and good intentions packed into our bags. How can a 25-kilo baggage allowance account for the years of unexpressed affection and yearning? The gift of ourselves translates into pasalubong (roughly translated: homecoming gifts), in quantities that measure our homesickness, guilt, despair and love.

And of course, love weighs a ton. No baggage allowance could ever measure up to an immigrant’s homecoming.

So we stuff what we can into our hand carry. My non-Filipino friends often ask me why in any airport terminal in the world, there are always Filipinos wandering around dragging ridiculously heavy bags.
Now you know why.
Soon after we board our KLM flight from Amsterdam to Manila (14 hours! Hup!) I am touched by the sight of an elderly woman, walking with difficulty, on the arm of one of the stewards. He is carrying her bag. How kind, I think to myself.

When they get to her seat, he turns to her. “Do you speak English?”

She smiles and nods. She is so grateful.

He points at her bag. “Well I want you to know: this is unacceptable.”

She continues to smile as if she doesn’t understand.

He raises his voice. “THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE. You cannot expect me to lift this ...” he lifts and drops her bag with a thump (Is that the splinter of breaking china bought for Brother Johnny and his new wife? Is that the tinkle of cracked perfume bottles procured at great sacrifice for Sister Del’s teenage daughters?)

His voice rises to a roar: “THIS IS TOO HEAVY, you understand me? UNACCEPTABLE!” And he lifts the bag up to the baggage compartment and slams it onto the shelf (the laptop that took a year to save up for – will the nephew still be able to use it?).

My sixteen year old’s eyes are wide, shocked that someone would use that tone with an elderly person. “If it was too heavy for him,” he says, “I would have helped her instead.” My boy’s gone home to the Philippines many times. He knows that there is much to carry besides the luggage.

Dialogue races in my head.

I could have jumped up and insisted on taking the bag and shamed him into politeness.

I could have reprimanded the steward, said something smart and fast and cutting.

But it’s too late. All I can do is turn round and say apologetically, “He should not talk to you like that. You didn’t deserve it.” The other Filipinos sitting around are tut-tutting and saying lame things like, “How could he?” “How mean!”

As compatriots, we feel it our responsibility to make the old lady feel a little bit better.

The old lady just keeps smiling and says something like. “It’s okay, that’s how it is.”

And we all smile and nod because of course, that’s how it is. And we are – all of us – just as guilty of flouting airline baggage limits.

We all go home knowing that the weight of our hand luggage is totally unacceptable. And will ever be.

Because no matter how much pasalubong we carry home, there is no gift or object or token that can even begin to make up for the weight of our absence.