The decay of decadence

“It was then that I began to understand that everything in the room had stopped, like the watch and the clock, a long time ago… I glanced at the dressing table again, and saw that the shoe upon it, once white, now yellow had never been worn. I glanced down at the foot from which the shoe was absent, and saw that the silk stocking on it, once white, now yellow, had been trodden ragged. Without the arrest of everything, this standing still of all the pale decayed objects, not even the withered bridal dress on the collapsed form could have looked so like grave-clothes, or the long veil so like a shroud.” – Great Expectations.

While being given a very unenthusiastic tour of the Santo Niño Shrine & Heritage Museum another quote sprung to mind, “Money can’t buy taste.”

The Santo Niño Shrine is one of the 29 presidential rest houses that the late President Ferdinand Marcos had built. It was designed by his wife Imelda who was born near Tacloban, and is deteriorating from the tropical heat and neglect. Her family, the Romualdez, hold a great deal of political clout in Leyte, the relatively rich neighbour of poverty-ravaged Samar.

The Romualdez still command a large political following in the area and I noted that my sarcasm and open ‘dissing’ of Imelda’s lack of taste and opulence where not appreciated by the tour guide (it wasn’t that my comments were just not that funny, impossible).

It did strike me how the bathrooms are bigger than your average Filipino’s home and that the communities work with have communal latrines and a water pump.  And here was Imelda with all this – stuff.

Stuff including: chandeliers from Czech Republic, crafts from throughout Asia, antique mirrors from Austria and my personal favourite a Louis Vuitton leather-clad bedroom for old Ferdi. Not wallpaper or paint on the walls – Louis Vuitton leather. Who thinks of Louis Vuitton walls? And the dioramas were fantastic: each guest room depicting a scene from Imelda’s life, her humble beginning, helping the poor, winning a beauty pageant, hanging out with men in lab coats. Like the many reincarnations of Barbie – collect all Imeldas today!

And how can one talk about Imelda without mentioning the ultimate collection. Next on my list is the Marikina City Footwear Museum in Manila which contains hundreds of pairs of shoes, many of them found in the presidential palace when Imelda and Ferdinand fled the Philippines in 1986.

In her own words, “They went into my closets looking for skeletons, but thank God, all they found were shoes, beautiful shoes … Filipinos don’t wallow in what is miserable and ugly. They recycle the bad into things of beauty.”

I wonder what Santo Niño would have to say.

Money can't buy taste

Money can't buy taste

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Crucifixion: A great day out with the kids

Needless to say in a religious country like the Philippines, Easter is a big deal. In Pampanga and surrounding towns in Luzon this manifests in self flagellation and real crucifixions.

Personally I had a very rough start to the day; I was paying penance for eating from a baymaree the night before and was having internal self flagellation. But praise the Lord for Gastrostop, I was on my way in the back of a truck with the rest of the volunteers to one of the strangest events I have ever seen.

The scale of the religious devotees carrying crosses in the searing heat and flagellants was well beyond what I expected. Hundreds of people scattered across roads from town to town to endure suffering, becoming “little Christs” by following the teachings of the Saints to achieve a higher degree of holiness.

So was I moved by their devotion, disgusted by the gore, gripped with voyeuristic anticipation as the nail was driven deep into human flesh? Not really, the whole atmosphere was more like the Royal Easter Show; simply replace the carnival rides with crucifixions.

Kids were on their dad’s shoulders with ice creams, locals posing for photos, eating corn or fish on a stick – a nice family day out. No nannas in shawls wailing, revered silence, rosaries gripped between blistered fingers. Perhaps long ago that was the case, I wouldn’t say it has been overly commercialised either, no souvenir t-shirts that say “I went to self flagellation and all I got was this bloody t-shirts” (bad pun intended).  Give it time.

You can have your ice cream after the self flagellation

You can have your ice cream after the self flagellation

Jen-esis 1

Attending a Filipino wedding was always going to be an interesting experience for this little heathen. A disciple of Bill Hicks and a believer of Richard Dawkins, I was stranded on a tropical island with 100 churchy-types of my own free will.

Talking to one of the two pastors who presided over the wedding (yep, two priests) began well, we had a shared interest in Samar’s history and helping the poor. In fact I felt like we had more in common than not until he mentioned his new cause “curing and preventing” homosexuality.  His wife was virulently homophobic saying how they are lobbying against the anti-discrimination act and how it is “one of the greatest issues in the country” (corruption and poverty would have been my guess).

Did I step up and defend the rights of anyone to love who they damn well please? Pragmatic Jen kicked in and realised there was literally no escape from the island and I let the issue slide (cultural sensitivity 1: personal moral compass 0).

Later that evening I met a friend of my neighbour who invited me. As is the Filipino way, I answered a barrage of questions about my income, past relationships, religion, politics, but this time I decided not to self-edit so heavily. When explaining that I did not practice any religion she said, “You may not be a Christian but you follow Jesus’ teachings in your own way so I think you will go to heaven.”

My neighbour smiled and looked me in the eye; “No you will not, the only way to pass through the gates of heaven is through Jesus …” thus the great debate of my eternal salvation began. After watching my soul bounce back and forth like a tennis match, I decided to go for a walk by the sea.

Down by the water I found the real party, the groom’s camp brother and his fellow ‘ladies’ who loved my accent and taught me ‘gay language’. And here lies the paradox, the Philippines loves gays. They are popular performers on TV and are widely tolerated or accepted in this exceptionally religious society.

I have learnt a lot about the Philippines through my weekend with homophobic and homosexual Christians. Also, always take a good book to read, or you will be left to read The Good Book.