15th May 2017: What We Take For Granted

Hello from SM Bicutan. Mum is having a manicure, which means she won’t be filling the house with acetone fumes. I am in Bo’s coffee shop enjoying an excellent Americano which requires neither milk nor sugar, and reading the Manila Bulletin, a stuffy old paper founded in 1900 which makes no concessions to modern presentation, style or values. It does claim to be an exponent of progress, but that should be understood in a Catholic Church sort of way. 

Mum has returned. No, she’s off to the kubeta. Anyway we shall now try to find somewhere to eat. Fat chance on Mothers’ Day. Probably end up in the gloomy KFC on the Lower than Lower Ground Floor. 

Its a hard life.

Nothin’ better to do, part 2
I was right about all the restaurants being full. Then I suggested to Becky that we try a Continental Bakery cum restaurant that served European food, not terribly popular, at prices even less so. Bingo! They had a table. We sat down amidst a crowd of people who, like us, looked as if they had access to foreign money. Possibly a pension from working decades in the US Post Office, or a remittance from a relative employed as a carer overseas.

We ordered a boneless chicken quarter with mango salsa apiece. Becky’s arrived in about 15 minutes, mine took longer. When it arrived I set about cutting into pieces, only to realise that it was undercooked. A word with the server had this sorted out quickly and she returned 5 minutes later with the pan-tossed chicken, and a small pot of gravy, on a tray. She lifted the plate from the tray and tipped the gravy all over my shirt. The server was mortified, moaning tearfully  “Sorry Po, so sorry” over and over. 

Becky instructed her to bring a wet cloth and we spent sometime removing the gravy while the chicken went cold. The chicken was good, and I said to Becky not to demand redress, as this would only be deducted from her pay, and might cost her job. Accidents happen!

Becky went to settle the bill at the front of the shop where the breads and pastries were sold and I gazed out of the window only to be roused by a terrible loud noise, one that transported me immediately back to 1958. It  was like the sound of a plank snapping suddenly under enormous strain. It was the noise I had heard when my 8 year old brother had fallen from a playground slide to end up motionless on the ground. It was the sound of a human head hitting concrete at an acceleration of 32 feet per second squared.

I looked towards the counter and couldn’t see Becky, only the slow drift of curious human beings. I made my way quickly to the source of the noise, and rounding the end of the counter saw Becky, ever the nurse, feeling for the pulse of a motionless man who had already been deftly rolled into the recovery position by a bulky foreigner. There was no discernible pulse. Out of decades of conditioning I assumed my position at the side of my former boss, relaying her instructions to the surrounding gawpers. There seemed to be no pulse when I tried to find it, then the man drew a huge breath right down so that his belly heaved. 

“Don’t move him”, I related to the onlookers, “Call an ambulance or a doctor.” 

There’s a Health Clinic on ground floor of the Mall, full of doctors, and a 911 call would reach the emergency services. To my consternation, the gathered staff and spectators looked first at one another, then at me, then back at one another and did nothing. 

“Don’t fuck about, get a doctor’, I said crossly. 

Such things happen every day in any English town. Someone collapses, a passer-by, possibly someone with a bit of experience like a first-responder, a carer, a Polish NHS A&E doctor on his way for a coffee, assumes a co-ordination role. The sick person is assessed, breathing is facilitated, bleeding attended to and further harm prevented. Someone, maybe several people dial 999, a paramedic arrives, then if necessary an ambulance is called and the patient is admitted to hospital. We all know the drill, we could all have a go at it. With this cultural conditioning, and our iconic NHS, it is easy to forget that it ain’t like that everywhere.

In the Filipino Mall scenario the request “someone call an ambulance!” gives rise to unspoken questions. Me? I have no authority, I don’t know this person from Adam. Ambulances cost money, who will pay? Whose responsibility is it? It’s not the fault of the shop-keeper that random people collapse in his premises. Where are his relatives?

It is not that Filipinos are in any way uncaring, indeed they are most compassionate. Those observing the collapsed man in the Mall may well have been reflecting upon the mortality of us all, and even saying a quiet prayer for his recovery, but they are not in the position to do much beyond immediate assistance for people with whom they have no social affiliation. 

Some of the onlookers, unaware of the blood flowing from the man’s nose and mouth, probably assuming that he had merely fainted, urged helping him to stand up, and sitting him in a chair, then taking him out to a taxi, and had to be discouraged from doing so. One of the bakery staff requested that he be moved out of the way so that business could be resumed. The burly foreigner, who may have been French, insisted that this should not be done, as did Becky.

Then, like guardian angels, two athletic and authoritative female Police Officers arrived and started clarifying the situation. The Mall Medico, for there was such a person, was summoned and quickly arrived. PNP officers DO have authority.

The Doctor (most Filipino doctors are women) quickly attempted to measure the unfortunate fellow’s blood pressure with uncertain results. 

“Maybe a stroke,” suggested Becky. 

“Opo,” said the Doctor,  confirming the  possibility. Under her calm supervision, the now vaguely conscious but hardly aware man was removed. I pray that he recovers from his trauma.

May I end with some observations.  One is an appreciation of the powerful role of women in all the professions and in the armed forces and political institutions of the Philippines. Another is the astounding influence of socialised institutions like the NHS on the ways we think and act, and finally, which still surprises me, the depth, the profundity, of our cultural differences, and the consequent need for extreme sensitivity.