A Philippine Retrospective

Today's post won’t have much to do with fountain pens and nothing at all to do with economics, but it is about community and the unexpectedly central role that the FP community played in my time in the Philippines. So this post won’t be for everyone but if community interests you, you will enjoy it.

This week, my partner Lisa uploaded hundreds and hundreds of photos to Facebook about our Philippine adventure and I spent a couple of hours this morning going through them. It triggered a lot of happy memories and reminded me that I haven't really written about my time there. Given that I've been back since April, this post is obviously long overdue. But that time has given me some perspective, time to forget the things which bothered me (the traffic!) and to discern which things really mattered. I’ve come to realise that the most valuable thing about our experience was the people we met, the friends we made, and the wonderful community we were welcomed into.

Makati!

Makati!

 

Community

Even before I left, the community had reached out to us. Filipinos made contact through every social medium, offering their help and advice. Being somewhat cynical, it wasn’t easy for me to know which of these voices could be trusted but one definitely stood out: Jose ‘Butch’ Dalisay. A PhD in English literature, full professor at the country’s top university, celebrated novelist/playwright/newspaper columnist, and founder of the country’s pen community (FPN-P), amongst many other things. If anyone could be trusted, it was him, and the trip really started the moment he sent me an email. His kindness and generosity set the tone for our entire Philippine adventure and made me wonder why the government doesn't have him as a roving ambassador, demonstrating the hospitality and enthusiasm of the Philippines to the rest of the world. In our first uncomfortable, culture-shocked days in Manila, it was Butch who helped us find our feet, and for that I am endlessly grateful.

Although it took some time for us to meet, Butch and I became fast friends, spurred on by his infinitely fascinating stories and our shared perspective on the world — a handy reminder that anyone with a background in economics is a good sort! It helped that Butch is an avid collector of FPs and has all sorts of stories about his acquisitions and adventures. From him, I learned an economic history of fountain pens, the nature of politics and power in Philippine history, and what it’s like to be shot at by government soldiers (spoiler alert: it's not something you want to experience!).

Butch holds court at a nibwork-focussed meet (their meets have themes!)

Butch holds court at a nibwork-focussed meet (their meets have themes!)

Through Butch, I became acquainted with the strange and wonderful world that is the Philippine pen community. At my first visit to the monthly Manila meet, I found dozens of people — at least 50 — spread out across a delightful Italian restaurant, with entire tables given over to retailers of modern and vintage pens, inks, paper, etc. Pockets of old friends clustered at booths, sharing their latest acquisitions; a small audience gathered to watch Leigh Reyes show what magic she could weave with a little ink and a couple of Nakayas; others sat at long tables with friends and strangers, sharing their experiences and debating the merits of one brand versus another. In this group were the most ordinary members of Philippine society sharing space, pens, and food with government officials, judges, senior businesspeople, and other members of the social elite.

The meeting itself was a blur — I met a couple of dozen people in a matter of minutes, the names and faces all mixed together to the point where I cannot remember who was and wasn’t there, who I met and didn’t meet. But some of those people I was to meet again and again, people who became my friends, people who I miss now that I'm home. 

One was the local Diamine distributor, Peter Bangayan. When we first met, he was so quiet that I worried I had deeply offended him but it later became clear that this is just his way and, in all honesty, a welcome relief to the noise and exuberance of most Filipinos. Peter was one of the most generous and humble people I met in the Philippines, someone who it was very easy to like and respect.

Peter very kindly organised a mini meet here and it was amazing in every way.

Peter very kindly organised a mini meet here and it was amazing in every way.

Another was the local nibmeister, John Lim. There aren’t many pen folk who have the same breadth of experience as John so there was plenty to learn from him about the different brands, models, nibs, and the like. Not long after I left, John, Leigh, and a few others had a get-together where they set about grinding their Twsbis and making them into elastic, almost flexible nibs. I was intensely disappointed to miss out on that — not just to have a unique, semi-flex Twsbi but also to enjoy the dynamic and learn about the process of nib grinding.

There’s also Marian Ong, who founded Scribe less than a decade ago and built it up into a chain of six stores specialising in fountain pens and calligraphy equipment. Leave aside the fact that she’s built a successful chain (can you think of any others?) or that she pulled this off as a woman in a developing country, she’s also one of the most interesting and likeable people in the Philippines. We spent an entire afternoon in a coffee shop talking about business and pens, and it was one of my best days in Manila. Totally worth the two hours spent in traffic!

I also met many other kind and wonderful people in the community, like Claire, Hazel, Caloy, Eliza, Karlo, Leigh, and Corinna. It wasn’t until I’d been home for months that I checked my Instagram inbox and found an ancient PM from Karlo, offering his help with settling into Manila. Sorry Karlo! I was grateful to meet and spend time with them and wish I'd been able to get to know them better. It's one of the things I'm hoping to organise when we return.

 

Academia

Butch also introduced me to Bombit, someone he'd actually never met. Butch had a feeling that the two of us, both being economists and pen nerds, would really get along and he was absolutely right. We met for coffee and became instant friends -- I'm not exactly sure how it happened, the shared interests certainly helped but I suspect it would've happened anyway. We just seemed to be very similar, a surprising find in a country whose culture was so different from my own.

Bombit also happened to be a senior member of De La Salle University's School of Economics, where Lisa was studying. He organised for me to join the School as a visiting scholar, a position that allowed me to attend and participate in school events and get a first-hand perspective on life at another institution. Having been at my current uni for more than 10 years, and only visiting other unis briefly, this was a really interesting and much-appreciated experience.

De La Salle University

De La Salle University

The first seminar I attended was fascinating. Seminars at home take place in a comfortable but plain room and we're lucky to be served a tray of wraps. At La Salle, two waiters served a three-course meal in a charming, wood-panelled board room! And this was just for a master’s candidate, someone approaching the end of his degree and sharing his research with the staff. It made me wonder what perks were reserved for the VIPs who came to present.

As I polished off the delicious (and totally mysterious) dessert, the presenter finished and asked forquestions — and the experienced researchers in the room were ready and waiting. All postgrad research is constrained by time and the student's limited experience, and the role of experienced questioners is to help determine whether the student has given adequate thought to the core parts of the project and -- if they haven't -- to help them see where they need to devote their time while preparing their thesis. They didn't hold back: it was a thorough, brutal experience where the student's work was comprehensively pulled apart.

I lobbed in a few softball questions to help the student find his feet, but it was obvious he felt like he’d been punched in the stomach by Manny Pacquiao. The inquisition had exposed some flaws in his work, things which needed deep reflection, so it had done its job. But I couldn’t help but feeling sorry for the poor guy: students go in hoping (or expecting) that it'll be a short, pleasant event. Instead, it was a very rough hour and I wouldn't be surprised if he had thrown up afterwards.

Most students are -- shall we say -- a bit soft and would hide in their offices for weeks after something like this, licking their wounds and perhaps having a bit of a sulk. But this chap showed up at the very next seminar, all smiles, and I couldn't help but respect him for that. He was knocked down but not out. Resilience is one thing that most students lack but desperately need for professional success. 

School spirit is off the charts here. The kids are seriously proud to be part of the University.

School spirit is off the charts here. The kids are seriously proud to be part of the University.

Although I was keen to present my academic research — I have developed a theory about resource markets which is in desperate need of evaluation, criticism, and feedback — Bombit encouraged me to put together a public lecture on fountain pens instead. Initially, I wasn't terribly enthusiastic but it turned out to be a great idea. Although it was written and organised at short notice, giving a lecture about pen economics and getting into a discussion with academics and pen enthusiasts was an awesome experience, one which will definitely be repeated on my next visit.

Talking with Bombit also helped organise some of my observations about the Philippines, particularly the things holding the country back from economic development. This sparked an interest in development and opportunities to spur economic growth and poverty reduction. Less than two months after our first conversation on the topic, I presented a seminar at La Salle which argued that the School ought to engage with the government and civil society and drive productivity improvements. This won their support and I’m hopeful that the government and the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) will get onboard too. (Speaking of which — check your email, Caloy!) Productivity is not a simple, easy solution to the problem of mass poverty in the Philippines, but it is a necessary part of the solution. I'll have more on this in a future post.

The main table at the Manila pen meet in January 2016

The main table at the Manila pen meet in January 2016

 

Life

When I reflect on life in Manila, I mostly just remember the good things: the friendly staff in our apartment building, the leafy park across the road, the Sunday markets up the street with fresh fruit and roasted meats, and the nearby shopping centres (with Montblanc and Scribe!). I also remember how security guards would routinely salute me and wave me past checkpoints and metal detectors, which was nice even if I never quite understood why. (Oddly, not somethingexperienced by the other Australians. Maybe it was the beard!)

Makati!

Makati!

But I have to be honest and admit that Manila is far from perfect. You don’t know traffic until you’ve tried to cross the city on a Friday evening: a eight kilometre (five mile) journey once took Lisa four hours! There’s also the pollution, which you can sometimes feel in your throat, and the volume of the place. Every moment on the street is filled with a cacophony of horns, brakes, chatter, singing, dogs, chickens, and so much more. Especially in traffic, chaos is a way of life. Mix in the heat and humidity and it’s a recipe for instant nausea. Even the rain offers no relief: it’s not cooling or cleansing but worsens the humidity and makes everything seem dirtier. Go figure.

There’s also a very different attitude to the value of life. More than 50 people were hit by stray gunfire on New Year, a fact that didn’t even make it to the front page of the newspaper. Right now, there's a wave of killings being carried out by police and vigilantes, targeting drug dealers and users, carried out with the explicit approval of the new president. In an excellent, recent article for Esquire, Butch notes that this policy is supported by the majority of the population and the outrage is largely limited to foreigners, human rights activists, and a few brave locals. Life in the Philippines, especially of the poor, is not given the same sanctity as it is in Australia and I'm not sure I could ever fully adjust to that.

 

Conclusion

Any one of these things would normally be enough to keep me away from a country but, when it comes to the Philippines, none of it really seems to matter. I know that I’m going back someday because there are so many people that I want to see again. I’m looking forward to hearing Butch’s wonderfully rich voice as he tells me about yet another utterly incredible part of his life, debating economic theory or teaching philosophy with Bombit, watching John smooth out another nib, talking to Marian about the challenges of payments processing of staff management, playing with a Pelikan that Claire has “borrowed” from Hazel, drooling over Eliza’s amazing pen collection, listening to Ernesto tell tall tales that blend his love of pens and guns, watching Anthony show off another fascinating acquisition of his, or just playing with Leigh’s absolutely, indescribably amazing Sheaffer with its flexible, factory stub nib. And that’s just the start of it.

The view of Makati from our apartment building.

The view of Makati from our apartment building.

When we first flew into Manila, I knew that the pen community would be a part of the adventure — but I only expected it to be one small part. I knew that we’d also be spending time with the other scholars and that we’d be spending time with the wonderful folks at the Australian embassy. I certainly didn’t expect that the pen community would become the main part of the trip for me, the thing that made the journey so enjoyable and fulfilling, nor that it would be the main reason that I would want to return. And, for that, I have to say a long overdue and very well deserved thank you to Butch, Bombit, the FPN-P admin team, and everyone in the community. You turned five months in 2016 into one of the best times in my life.