Monday, 16 November 2009

Fear in The Philippines is strictly from the birds

I'm back from my fortnight's tour of The Philippines, a beautiful, vibrant, chaotic country where every purchase is a bargain, the sun always shines and almost every face wears a smile.

There's no such thing as paradise, however (although Paradise Island in Mindanao Province could certainly stake a claim), and the country has quite a reputation for crime, fairing badly in international comparisons of murder and manslaughter rates and those for other serious offences.  This is inevitable, perhaps, in a land of mass poverty where government and police corruption is so widespread and long-established that the topic elicits little more than a shrug when you bring it up in conversation.

And sure enough, my determination to explore its cities freely meant that I encountered moments of utter terror and even came home with a minor head injury.  This was not at the hands of gun-toting drug runners or even small time muggers or pickpockets, however.  No, my adversaries were a dove and a small, insignificant wild bird that looks a bit like a sparrow or a blue tit.....

After spending a few days in the cities of Manila, Davao and Cotabato, I stopped gawping at signs in hotel lobbies and at entrances to shopping malls kindly requesting me to check in my firearms, although I never quite got used to kindly old hotel doormen invariably packing a hefty pistol.

Nonetheless, it was without a care that I hopped in and out of jeepneys (rattling old minibuses, often gloriously over-decorated) and the ubiquitous motorised trikes (poor people's taxis), many of which have religious slogans painted on the back.  I'm not a believer but, if I had to negotiate the hooting maelstrom of vehicles, forever jockeying for position in the potholed, triple-parked streets, I'd probably put a bid in for some Divine protection, too. 

Friends of my Filipino partner were amazed at my lack of nerves, which made me feel rather proud and terribly British.  What they didn't know is that I suffer from ornithophobia, the irrational fear of birds.  Well, I do and I don't: certain birds in certain situations reduce me to a shrieking, quivering wreck.  Other birds in other situations are fine.

I've no problems with chickens, for example.  My nan always kept a few hens at the bottom of the garden and, as a five-year-old, I remember stroking the tamer ones, and helping her feed them and collect their eggs, even feeling under those too lazy to rise from their nests, to see if a warm egg lurked.  One of them once gave me a good hard peck despite Nan's assurance that she wouldn't mind my little hand groping her nether regions.  I howled at the injustice of the situation ("But Nanny, you said she wouldn't mind.  You said!") more than the pain, but even that experience didn't put me off.

We've lost the chicken-keeping habit in this country, of course, more's the pity, but not so the Filipinos.  You see hens scratching around everywhere.  No-one pens them in, not even the most impoverished of country folk for whom the loss of a regular egg supply would surely be significant.  They wander onto main roads yet miraculously always avoid the thundering traffic by a feather's breadth.

What puzzled me was the number of cockerels.  Every morning at my partner's family home in Cotabato City, my sleep would be punctured by their crowing.

All was explained when I visited the home of three generations of the boyfriend's relatives and was introduced to their very handsome and very tame young cock

"Why do so many people here keep a cockerel when they don't produce eggs?" I asked my other half's auntie.  "Do you fatten them up for Christmas?"

"No, no, it's for fighting," she explained.  "If you have a good cock, you can make big money."  I stifled the obvious, off-colour rejoinder.

Unlike over here, no-one objects to the 'sport' of cock-fighting, it seems, even though the loser often dies.  Dog fighting is popular in parts of The Philippines too, I was told.  Both are legal.  Auntie was fascinated to learn that in the UK, participation in either activity can get you a prison sentence and an unwanted appearance on News at Ten.

It was hard to think of the friendly bird I'd petted fighting to the death a few months down the line.  I tried not to look shocked and I certainly didn't feel censorious or superior.  After all, how many portions of battery chicken or intensively produced eggs have I consumed over the years?  Far worse, surely, to endure life in an overcrowded cage than to be a Filipino fighting cock, wandering freely and doing all the things chickens are meant to do before meeting a bloody but relatively swift end.

"What's his name?" I asked.  "He doesn't have a name," came the baffled reply.  Clearly, Auntie was beginning to think the visiting Englishman was a couple of portions of rice short of a banquet.

So, it wasn't Cotabato's young contender which set off my ornithophobia, but a dove from the same city.

The main reason for my trip to The Philippines was the wedding of my partner's sister (about which I shall blog separately) at which a pair of white doves was released.  Unfortunately, they didn't soar into the blue heavens but merely to the ceiling of the function room in which the reception was held.  As they then flew back and forth overhead, I felt my phobia begin to tickle but I controlled it well.

Everyone wanted a picture with the tale, pale-faced visitor from London, England and, as I was bearing a cheesy grin for the hundredth time, I realised a boy was standing next to me with one of the doves clasped in his hands!  Believe me, this was a very big deal.

I let out a cry of terror which I explained away, perhaps only partially successfully, by saying I'd only just noticed the bird and it had made me jump.  I managed to stay put until everyone had got their picture at which point I beat an apparently unconcerned but nonetheless urgent retreat.  Which only goes to show, I suppose, that I am attention-seeking, compulsive performer first, ornithophobic second.

The really bad moment occurred when the boyf and I decided to get a haircut in Manila a few days later.  No sooner had I sat down in the barber's chair than I realised a small bird that looked like a sparrow or a blue tit was flying around the room.  It was a maya, a common wild species in The Philippines, which, I assumed, had nipped in unbidden and would be shooed out, but no, it was a pet!

For the next 15 minutes, I entertained staff and customers by shouting, ducking, flinching and hiding under the barber's cape.  I suggested someone catch the wretched thing and imprison it temporarily under the basket that held the manicurist's materials - upended, it would have served perfectly.  The flaw in my plan, of course, was that the more staff tried to catch the maya, the higher he flew - until they gave up, at which point he recommenced whizzing past me from all directions, causing renewed shrieking, jumping and trembling.

Somehow, the barber managed to crop my hair with safety clippers inflicting only a few minor cuts to the head.  I was appalled, however, when he got out his cut throat razor for some final neatening up.  What was he thinking?  I was liable to jerk my head at any moment and didn't fancy blood pouring from a gashed neck, however spectacular a finale it might have provided for my engrossed audience.

Now I'm back in south London to face my regular foe, the filthy, feral pigeon.  At least when I'm in the barber's chair down Kennington Lane, his horrible, bobbing head can only stare at me from the other side of a plate-glass window.  It's good to be home.

(Photos courtesy of,, and

1 comment:

  1. Hi Bill, great to see you visiting Asia, I have also recently come back from visiting parts of Asia, including Singapore, Thailand (Bangkok, Island of Koh Samet), Hong Kong and the Philippines (Manilla) Visiting various friends, and family friends. Had a great 3 week little break, Its nice to hear from you on your blogs, Miss hearing you on the radio. Look forward to your Xmas outings on BBC :-)

    Tom x