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Documentary : The Ups--and Downs--of the Philippines : A correspondent reminisces on 4 years covering a country of conflicting images.


MANILA — Shortly after I moved here in September, 1989, I went to cover my first real anti-American demonstration.

Dan Quayle, then vice president, was arriving at the airport, and dozens of young leftists wearing red bandannas on their faces had gathered outside to chant, wave garish posters of Uncle Sam and burn an American flag. Like most people, I'd never seen a flag burn. I moved closer, if nervously, to watch.

I learned two things that night. First, it's not easy to burn an American flag: The cloth is flame-retardant. By the time the protesters got one lit, Quayle was long gone. The second lesson came when the wind suddenly shifted and burning fragments of the flag blew onto my shirt.

As I twisted and jumped to brush the sparks away, several demonstrators rushed to my aid. "Are you all right, sir?" one masked youth kept asking as he helped swat the embers from my back. "Can we help you, sir?"

That conflicting image--the sickly flicker of a burning U.S. flag, and perhaps the world's politest protesters--lingers as I finish a four-year tour as a Times regional correspondent based in Manila. It's been a roller-coaster ride of an assignment. I've written stories from two dozen countries, from palm-fringed atolls in the South Pacific to the grotesque Highway of Death in Kuwait.

I've been strafed in Sri Lanka, beaten with bamboo in India--and meandered by mistake in a minefield in Cambodia. I've met presidents, prime ministers, gunrunners and treasure hunters. I've dived on Australia's Great Barrier Reef, hiked in the Himalayas and sailed the South China Sea. I've seen great tragedy and been shown great kindness.

But nowhere quite compares to the Philippines. It's been said that 400 years as a Spanish colony and 50 years as an American one produced a nation raised in a convent and educated in Hollywood. I prefer to see it as a land of great contrasts linked by two overarching themes: Catholicism and kitsch.

Where else do grown women use names such as Baby, Precious and Cherry Pie? Where else do the professional basketball playoffs feature the Swift Mighty Meaties and the Purefoods Oodles? Where else do customized passenger jeeps, a combination of public transport and folk art, come complete with flashing disco lights, blaring stereos and names such as Sexy Baby?

Every new culture takes getting used to. Shortly after I arrived, I was taken to the Hobbit House, a nightclub popular with politicians, generals and journalists. I was stunned to discover the club's entire staff, from waiters to singers, were midgets.

But I was impressed a year later when I returned for a night of Elvis impersonators. The winner crooned mournfully, played a mean miniature guitar and was draped in tiny white fringe and scarf. He was indisputably the best miniature Elvis I'd ever seen. I was getting used to the Philippines.

I never quite got used to the guns, however. Uniformed guards with pistols, shotguns or assault rifles stand outside most hotels, restaurants, banks and offices. Shootouts are common enough that I once saw several men gunned down during an armed robbery in the middle of a busy street at rush hour. Traffic barely slowed down as cars weaved around the bodies sprawled in the road.

The Wild East atmosphere hit home--literally--the day my living room ceiling began to leak. When workmen checked, they found three incoming bullet holes in the roof. I assume they were from New Year's Eve, when so many people shoot guns in the air that dozens are killed or wounded each year by the falling lead, and the city fills with a choking cordite haze.

Nor did I ever get used to the corruption that eats at the country like a cancer. When my house was broken into, police asked for money to fill out their forms. My overseas mail has been routinely opened and checks, a credit card and other documents stolen.

Firemen looted a friend's apartment when called to put out a blaze. Another friend, whose car was stolen from his pregnant wife at gunpoint, was told that the military was responsible. Yet another friend, who needed phone lines for his business, was asked to pay a "special fee" of $2,000. And he was a subcontractor to the phone company.

Few institutions seem immune. The country's Department of Foreign Affairs recently stopped issuing passports because so many were being sold. Soldiers sent to join the U.N. peacekeeping force in Cambodia came home with crates of smuggled guns. And investigators are checking for cheating after 22 graduates of an obscure medical school won the top 26 spots in the nation's medical board exams.

Corruption isn't unique here, of course, but it may be uniquely harmful. In Thailand or Indonesia, for example, corrupt generals may take a percentage of a road building contract, but at least roads get built.

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