September 08, 2007

Nicholas Stoodley - Living in the Twilight Zone Chapter 11

Tune in every Saturday as Nicholas recalls the Disco Decade in Manila when Martial Law, Cuban heels, Donna Summer, Coco Banana and a lot of hair combined in a frenzy of uncertain excitement.

Chapter 11 - The Necklace Of The Past

Living in the Philippines was not something that was planned. It happened by accident and that happened back in the mists of 1975 when the mists could well have been tear gas. The collective feeling of a growing swell of Filipinos at that time was that the President was mining the country to his own ends and the devil be damned. And the devil was certainly damned. Every day!

I mean who but an avid adventurer prepared to take risks and perhaps pay the price would (in their right mind anyway) enter a country under the iron grip of Martial Law with the intention of living there…of starting a business there? Who but me.

I meet people now and we talk of those days with a certain amount of nostalgia and yet some of those people were imprisoned by President Marcos in Camp Crame! But that's what happens to the past – it starts to take on a rosy pink hue and people look back with a sigh for those "better" days when things were easier, cleaner, cheaper.

But it wasn't like that at all, believe me. It wasn't easy by any stretch of the imagination! I remember well the day I found an apple for sale in the local supermarket. I nearly wept. A real apple. It cost the equivalent of a dollar in those days and was almost as rare as finding s diamond in your back yard. Basic necessities like a bottle of fresh milk or a decent loaf of bread were almost unheard of: fresh milk came in a can and probably no cow was ever involved in the process – bread was bleached of all goodness and served up in vaguely sweet slices of a somewhat chewy substance that I hadn't come across before but definitely not anything that a European would identify as bread.

My next door neighbor, who was also my landlady in that first house of mine, was learning Russian late at night from long playing records and would receive edgy "callers" at odd hours into her heavily curtained parlor. She too had been incarcerated in Camp Crame for telling the truth as a newspaper columnist not over enamored with the President. It was somewhat worrying as I was quite convinced the place would be raided by the police that, quite openly, kept a not so discrete eye on the property from various cars without number plates at various hours. Even my own house had been raided recently by a squad of heavily armed police who had burst through the front door, guns ready to send me to the beyond and just because they suspected I had a dead body in the trunk of my car! Imagine! Well, it WAS a gangster's car – the sort that drug dealers drove in New York B Movies: a Ford LTD with a special small back window of bullet-proof glass. It was huge and black and had plates that announced to whomever may be interested: FOR REGISTRATION. SPANISH EMBASSY. I was going to have it registered but, at that point, I would have to pay a hefty import tax and so I sort of delayed things a bit. OK, a couple of years! The trunk was by any stretch of the imagination, capacious. Yes I suppose it was capable of accommodating a corpse but normally I used it to take my two dogs for a walk in the fields of the campus of the University of the Philippines. The dogs enjoyed the walks so much they didn't mind being placed in the trunk for ten minutes and so it became a daily occurrence. A friend came with me one day. The corpse! He had decided for some reason that has become fogged in my memory to also clamber into the trunk after walking the dogs and thought it would be fun to dangle his arm loosely out of a slightly open trunk as though he really WAS a corpse. Ha ha. This was the late 70's! Manila was swarming with heavily armed police and enforcers in general who assumed everyone was, in some way or other, engaged in criminal pursuit (which they probably were). Needless to say someone called the police and amazingly, after an hour, my story was believed and we all drank beer together until they got called off to investigate a body that had been found on the side of the road near my house. Really!

Taxis were held together with sticky tape, ingenuity and a desperate desire to divest you of as much money as could be obtained without actually sticking a knife at your throat – in those days the concept of a working meter was almost a decade away still! There weren't even malls to escape into….the best you could do was hive of to Rustans in Makati and spend a lazy afternoon getting cool watching all the over-primped wives of the well-to-do who were making underhand deals on the golf course and having people killed as a measure of political or financial expediency. But most of all you had the feeling you were living in a SMALL city in a small country. There was nothing International about it. It was all about being a Filipino and having to cope with that. The rest of the world was but a blur, a distant and hazy vision where people lived by different rules and under another system. Most people wanted out. Distant vision or not you could be sure the grass was a damn sight greener than the local variety! America was the destination of choice. That's if you could actually get permission to travel, and you had the money, and the Americans would let you into their greener pastures! If. It was almost like living in East Berlin when the wall was up during the Cold War. A time when people would risk their lives to escape from the cruel hard deprivations of live under repression into the swaggering economic boom town just across the wall.

No the old days were definitely not better. Sure there were pockets, fabulous glimpses of life, that have merged and melded into an overall impression of nostalgia but that are what they were: pockets interspaced with long periods of deprivation and just plain old surviving the daily problems of dealing with the daily grind.

But what pockets they were!

The Hobbit House on La Laguna beach in Mindoro. Of course these days the beach is wall to wall lower end tourist "huts" where lower end tourists frolic with lower end bar girls appropriated from Manila in a mindless melee of alcohol, sex and lower end rock n roll. But back then the beach was white sand and the waters of the bay were home to one of the most spectacular coral reefs I had ever seen.. The Hobbit House, built in the center of the gently curved beach, rose like a bamboo castle from the Swiss Family Robinson and it was for castaways from Manila and marches and tear gas and lack of apples. Flaming torches lit up the night and diminutive waiters who were even shorter than Nora Aunor would give you wry smiles as they plied you with beer that, thank God, was amazingly cheaper than anything you could find in Europe. Music that stuck a finger in the face of all the pallid, sugary ballads so beloved of radio stations in Manila shook the rafters and it rocked. The whole place was a symbiotic expression of crazy, in your face escapism and I still miss it. It was in those days that I and a group of friends had formed the La Laguna Beach Club but I guess we all moved on to other beaches because all it is now is a distant memory. It's all about Boracay now! A friend of mine had owned a resort in the early days of Boracay when it was still ok to go, but he got murdered by those that were jealous of his success and needed his land title that they also might be successful and that sort of sums it all up. Nostalgia exists in pockets. We string them all together and wear then like a necklace we call the past. But that's not really the full picture is it.

Previously: Chapter 10 - The Moon Leopard Part 2

Start from the beginning! Read: Chapter 1 - An English Virgin

Nicholas Stoodley was born near London and has lived at one time or another in the South of France, Rome, Sydney, Tagaytay, England, Paris and Manila with plans to move to Ibiza shortly. A former assistant to Valentino in Rome, he arrived in Manila in 1976 and pioneered Ready to Wear in the Philippines with the NICHOLAS STOODLEY brand of casual clothing. During his stay in the Philippines Nicholas also won the PBA Invitational Basketball Conference in 1980 with his team from Los Angeles, designed and manufactured a Stainless Steel Sports Utility Jeep that was featured in the Frankfurt Motor Show and opened "Skatetown", a Roller Disco with Jorge Araneta in Cubao. And that was just the first course!

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