International Writers Magazine: Asia:
Duty in Tondo
do you shower on a twenty-four hour shift?" I asked, noticing
that there was no plumbing in the radio shack, where I was told
we would be sleeping.
can use the hose from the firetruck," answered the chief.
Suddenly, I wasn't sure if EMS was really the best career for me.On
Sunday afternoon I started duty in a rough, Manila neighborhood
called Tondo with the Chinese volunteer ambulance company. Its the
same story all over Asia, the Chinese pool their money, to pay for
the best schools and community resources of any group in the country.
The ambulance and
rescue team had three fire trucks, two of which were pumpers. The bigger
one had a capacity of 3.5 gazillion liters of water. I may be off on
that number, but it was more water than I would care to drink. Water
carrying capacity is really important in the Philippines, because of
a severe lack of hydrants. The guys told me that the trucks had to be
specially designed for the Philippines because the streets are so narrow
in the neighborhoods. American trucks wouldn't fit. When I told my classmates
I had been assigned to Tondo, they all said, "Oh, good, you can
learn a lot about stabbings and gunshot wounds."
Tondo was a pretty frightening place, but I was taking my life in my
hands during the commute. I had to take the elevated train (LRT ) to
Recto, a den of thieves, prostitutes, and fake diplomas. On my first
trip, they were running a special promotion, two STDS and a PHD for
250 Pesos. At Recto I had to take a taxi, but taxis are afraid to stop
Standing in the road, in my blue uniform, the only white guy, waving
at passing cars, I felt like a target. A couple of taxis slowed down.
One or two even stopped, allowing me to shout my destination through
a two inch space in a partially rolled down window. When they heard
Tondo, they just laughed, and took off. "Take me with you!!!!"
I shouted as I watched the taxi disappear. The street people had been
casing me. Like the Sand People, they were easily frightened, but they
would be back, and in greater numbers. On my first day of duty, I was
lucky enough to find a taxi after only twenty minutes. I got in, locked
the door, got away from the windows, and slipped a scalpel out of my
medical bag in case the driver tried to rob me. From Recto, we turned
into a worse neighborhood, then a worse one, then a squatter area, and
finally a really, really bad squatter area, where people were roasting
dead animals on trash fires in the street.
Eventually we arrived at the EMS base, in a neighborhood which was no
worse than where I live in Cubao. By American standards, it was pretty
awful, but not too terrible by local standards. My classmate, Sam, was
the son of a Chinese family who everyone in our class referred to as
"muchos," rich people. They owned a number of businesses as
well as the EMS service and the fire tucks.The rescue service volunteers
consisted of one trained EMT and several Fist Responders, on the medical
side. On the fire side, there were at least eight or more firemen. The
Chief took me to visit Sam's house, and of course, they were rich. The
house was huge, possessing every amenity known to man.
Back at EMT school, we were all fond of Sam. He was brilliant and had
already logged countless hours as an ambulance volunteer, although he
was only sixteen years old. We were all impressed when he became the
youngest graduate of our program ever.The whole rescue crew also loved
Sam, to a point that it bordered on cultish adoration. "That is
Sam's bicycle." said the Ambulance Chief, giving me a tour. "He
rides it to the station. Those are Sam's dogs, but they are sleeping.
That is the table where Sam sometimes eats
" It went on and
on. I was waiting for him to say, "This is the air that Sam breaths."
Unlike at City rescue, the people were welcoming and very pro LSTI,
the EMT school I had graduated from. Unfortunately they didnt
really have a base. There was a small office where the radio equipment
was kept. There was a bathroom, but no running water. Even the toilet
had no plumbing. So, you had to pour water down it.The tiny office was
only a radio room. This was not where we waited to be called. The actual
crew area was on the sidewalk. They had pulled the seats out of an old
car and laid them out on the sidewalk, like a display living room at
a furniture store. We sat there under an awning, all day
The men talked mostly of their love of karaoke, prostitutes, and beer.
Although they were volunteers who didn't receive a salary, none of them
had jobs, except for a young good-looking firefighter, named Bob who
sometimes worked as a driver for the TV station and occasionally had
parts in TV shows or movies. He was also called for some modeling work.
I wondered what was preventing him from following this line as a full
time career."Do you want to go with us to fill the tanker?"
Asked the chief. "Sure, why not?" I answered. About twenty
of us clambered onto the truck. We drove two blocks to a fire hydrant,
and while the tanker filled, we stood around talking, the same as we
had back at base. The ambulance and trucks were donated by Rotary. The
problem is that everyone likes to make a high profile donation of equipment,
but no one donates a maintenance plan. Consequently, the crew only had
one running ambulance. There were about eight crew members scrambling
into the back on every call, leaving little or no room for a patient.
After we returned from filling the tanker, we all got in the ambulance,
and they drove me over to a municipal parking lot, where I could see
the other ambulance. The electric system had blown five years ago, but
until today, they didn't have money to repair it. Sam and his dad stopped
by the EMS base. They apologized for missing me earlier, but they had
been at the mall buying a perversely expensive cell phone for Sam.Sam's
father was brilliant, and I hoped that I would get a chance to talk
to him more. He was clever, intelligent, and was one of very few Filipino
men I had met who actually looked young for his age.
True to Asian culture, every adult I had met that day had some incredibly
impressive title, president or director of this or that. They were so
proud of themselves. But, when Sam's father arrived,they all bowed.
Men talk a good game in Asia, but the bottom line is money. Whoever
has it jumps to the front of the line. Seeing people fall all over themselves
to worship Sam made me have even more respect for the boy. He was like
the big man on campus. Everyone loved him, and they talk about him all
the time. In spite of being sixteen he seemed to handle the fame and
attention without getting a swelled head and becoming a jerk. I couldn't
help feeling he was being groomed to take over his fathers' position
as benevolent, man of the people.
After Sam and his dad left, there was talk of turning in for the night."How
do you shower on a twenty-four hour shift?" I asked."We can
use the hose from the firetruck," answered the Chief. What he really
meant was that they could theoretically, and maybe they had even used
the hose from the tanker to shower, but it wasnt like it was the
standard procedure. The real answer was, nothing got washed. I had to
brush my teeth in the street with my bottle of drinking water like a
homeless person."Did you bring mosquito repellent?" they asked
me. "No." I answered, annoyed that in the city there was any
indication that I should carry repellent with me. "Why not?"
they insisted" as if I was really remiss in my planning. "Because
I didnt know we were going camping. "When night came, they
put two mattresses on the floor of the radio room for the crew. It was
like the expression "going to the mattresses" in "The
Godfather." In Mafia parlance that means going to war. Here it
just meant trying to sleep. "You can bring your own mattress, pillow,
and blanket next time."
They told me. I was already having doubts about how long I would last
on this crew. That was all I needed, to strip my bed and take it with
me every morning when I come to work. I was really hating EMS at that
point. The EMS guys and all the bigwigs with titles went home, and I
shared the radio room/bedroom with two firemen who couldnt speak
English. Because I was the oldest, they let me sleep on the trolley
cart. It was so unbelievably uncomfortable, I felt bad for the patients.
Part of the issue was that the mattress was covered by a wooden spineboard.
Back at school, our instructor, Sir Aidan had been a staunch opponent
of these injurious boards. All spineboard advocates should try sleeping
on one, once before recommending them for use on others.The TV apparently
didnt work, but the computer did, and we watched Rambo IV. The
firemen were curious and tried to ask me about the war in Burma. Unfortunately
their English and general knowledge were so limited it was impossible
to explain it to them. My favorite scene in the movie is, when sly throws
the missionary against the wall and screams "Who are you? Who are
any of you?"
was the pain I often felt hearing the suggestions of foreigner visitors
who thought they understood the conflict or understood the needs
of the people. It was quite presumptuous for outsiders to think
they were going to sweep in and save everyone in Burma. My two companions
were completely out. A lot of Asian guys are able to sleep in any
uncomfortable position and be fine with it. I was mostly awake all
night. The radio kept blaring and I wondered if we were missing
emergency calls while the guys slept.
One call came in,
in Filipino, but I understood they were talking about some kind of emergency
in Manila North. So, I woke one of the firemen. "False alarm."
He said and went back to sleep. As a pleasant addition to my own private
hell, I had contracted diarrhea a few days earlier and needed to go
to the toilet about once per hour. The room was so small and my liquid
poop so stinky I really felt guilty and considered doing it out in the
street. Toilet paper is not so common in public restrooms in the Philippines,
so I always carry a roll in my bag.
Unfortunately, because of all the crime in Tondo, the Chief had locked
my bag in the ambulance. So, every time I needed the toilet I had to
ask someone to open the ambulance for me and wait till I finished in
the bathroom and then lock the ambulance again. It was humiliating.
Finally, I put about half a roll in my cargo pocket, which I should
have done from the start. This worked a lot better. It got me through
the night, but there was still nothing I could do about the smell. The
hot, humid Manila air and lack of air-conditioning or fans didn't help.
During the night I suffered severe cramps and would get up, stepping
over the sleeping firemen, and pollute the toilet. There was only a
very small quantity of water in a jerry-can to flush with, and I prayed
it would last till morning.When I woke up the next morning, or that
is to say, when I gave up on sleeping, I went out to get my toothbrush
from the ambulance, but the ambulance was gone. At first I thought it
possible that it had been stolen.The firemen were as curious as I was.
"Where is the ambulance?" they asked me, as if I had misplaced
it. I was hoping they wouldn't search my things looking for it. Actually
my things were on th ambulance, so we would have to find it first. Anyway
I felt guilty. First I had stunk up their sleep, now I had lost the
ambulance.Finally, a text came in telling us the ambulance had been
taken for maintenance, which was laughable, since we were supposed to
be guarding it. I guess we didnt do that good of job.I found my
bags under the trolley cart. I really did appreciate that someone had
the forethought to leave them there for me. Now, at least I could brush
my teeth. At around ten o'clock the director came in and told me to
go home. Without an ambulate it didnt matter if we got a call
or not, we couldnt respond. We made an agreement that I would
go to duty at 4:00 PM every other day and go home at 11:00 AM the next
morning. That way I could still do Internet and gym every day, and get
19 hours of OJT. I had 31 hours in the bucket. I needed 219 more for
While I suffered from boredom, fatigue, stinkiness, and stomach cramps
at my OJT, on a financial level, I was also suffering from acute broketude.When
I started for home that morning, I had less than $5 USD in my wallet.
After paying for my commute, I only had $2 left, and decided to skip
breakfast. That money would be needed for the Internet to check on the
status of any number of checks and or donations I was expecting. I had
no idea how I was going to return to work the next day, as I couldn't
afford the commute. Magazines that I write for think nothing of paying
me months late. The Philippine News Agency (PNA) had owed me money for
about year and I was having trouble collecting. At one point, they threatened
to have me arrested and deported for working without a permit, so I
had to let the money go. I received some donations in the form of checks,
denoted in British pounds, which had to be deposited in a bank. I might
as well have had Confederate money. It would be months before that money
had flown from Britain, to my apartment in Bangkok, to my family in
USA where it would be deposited. Then the long wait for clearance would
begin. The difference of one or two days was huge to me. Two days without
food can seem like ten days or a hundred.I was really at the end of
my rope, and knew I couldn't keep living like this. I wanted to get
back to Burma border and help out with the war, but with no reliable
support or infrastructure I didn't see how I could.An old friend of
mine, Pierrre, was now Director of Studies at a school in Taiwan. He
offered me a teaching job to help me get back on my feet. The offer
sounded tempting.I felt completely exhausted and defeated. Before leaving
the EMS station, I had allowed the firefighters to buy me coffee.
They had NO income at all, but I let them spend what few coins they
had to buy me coffee. After a 20 hour shift and no breakfast, I NEEDED
that coffee, but I should have said "no." Back in Cubao, my
"home". The room I had been living in for the last four months
was a cement cell, slightly larger than my horribly uncomfortable wooden
bunk bed. There were no windows, no TV, and no air-conditioning. To
make matters worse, every time I tried to sit up in my bed, I would
bang my head on the upper bunk. I was constantly collecting splinters
from the unfinished wood of the homemade bed frame. With nothing else
to do, I lay on my thin mattress, dripping sweat, and thought about
my situation. I was also taking stock of my team mates, who were basically
nice guys, but as bad as I had it at the moment, I didn't want to trade
places with any of them. My new crew in Tondo consisted of Rescue Nine,
who was not married, forty-one, and had a face like a Drakes Coffee
cake, with a Manuel Noriega complexion. That is to say, Rescue Nine
was hard to look at. He was an EMT, graduate of the same program as
me, and had no other job apart from volunteering on the ambulance.Bob
was the son of one of the officers, good looking and twenty-two years
old. He sometimes worked on TV as talent and sometimes worked as a driver
for the TV execs. But, mostly, he was just a volunteer firefighter.
He had two kids by one girl, but he wasn't married to her. His older
child was five years old. So, he became a father for the first time
at age seventeen. "Why dont you two get married?" I
asked ."We have too many plans." explained Bob.This was news
to me, because none of these guys seemed to have plans of any kind.
They just sat around, and sat, and sat. They had no interests, apart
from drinking, karaoke, and whores. They didnt read. They didnt
exercise. They just sat. I didn't see how this plan would leave your
schedule to full to marry the girl who bore your children.
"We are too young to get married." explained Bob. "But
you have two kids. Do you see them?" "My wife is a beauty
consultant for a department stores. She and the kids live with her parents
in the province. On Fridays if I dont have many things to do,
I go to visit them and bring money and food."
Nice, I bet those kids will have a great future. Ivan was also twenty-two
and had five kids by different women. He was only doing volunteer firefighting
and nothing else. I wasn't sure how any of these guys lived .I also
didnt know what to make of these Tondo boys. They just sat around
on their old car seats, on the sidewalk, like rednecks sitting on the
porch. They seemed content to do it. There were a lot of them too, at
least ten firefighters and a handful of EMTs. I was proud of them for
helping the community, but it was strange to me to be so content with
doing nothing all day.
A very small amount of money came in through my Paypal account, and
I was able to return to duty. This time it took nearly an hour before
a taxi was willing to stop in recto and take me to Tondo. After risking
my life to get there, once I arrived, we sat, and we sat, and we sat,
waiting for a call. There is a major problem of education and communication
in the Philippines, so no one knows about the free EMS service. They
also didn't know how to call us, was weren't on the government's notoriously
unresponsive 117, emergency number. People had to first know of our
existence, and then call our direct line to get us. The guys explained
to me that sixty percent of the calls we received were from friends
and family of the crew, because they were the only people who knew about
the service. Luckily, the neighborhood people knew us, so they called
us for all sorts of services. Some poor people used us as doctors because
they couldn't afford a trip to the hospital. At least someone was using
us. But this was a lot of hardware and talent to leave unused while
people died. Finally a call came in for a motor-vehicle accident. Ten
of us piled into the ambulance and drove two blocks. A sidecar taxi
had pulled out in front of a kid on a motorcycle, and he laid it down
trying to stop. The kid had banged up his knee and skinned himself,
up a bit, but he was fine. Of course he wasnt wearing a helmet,
and the first thing he asked us for was a cigarette. He had five EMTs
crawling all over him, rendering first aid. They cleaned his injuries
with water from a spray bottle, then put Bedodine on it and bandaged
it. I dont know how bandaging is done elsewhere, but they didnt
use gauze here. In fact when I tried to buy gauze they didnt even
sell it at the medical supply store.
The EMTs took a four by four bandage and just taped it directly to the
victim's skin. Ouch!The bystanders were pretty excited to see a foreign
EMT. I was naturally much bigger than my co-workers. I outweighed most
of them by forty kilos. Also, I wore a nice new uniform, where they
all wore shorts and flip-flops. Most people thought I was in charge,
and kept waiting for me to do something wonderful. I felt like saying,
"I am not an EMT, but I play one on TV."
A murmur went through the crowd, as people wondered about me. A young
girl turned to her father and said, "I have seen his photo on friendster.com"
Once again I thought, if I could just sing, I think I could be a huge
star in the Philippines. While I had the power and admiration of the
crowd, I walked up to the patient, puffed out my chest, and spoke in
an authoritative voice, loudly enough that everyone could here. "I
am going to be working in this neighborhood now. If I see you riding
without a helmet again, I will pull you off the bike and beat you senseless
Basically it was the "I am the new sheriff" speech from an
old Gene Hackman movie, but I was hoping that maybe it would make an
impression on someone, and they would all start wearing helmets.This
may sound completely awful, but on some level, I really wondered if
the desperately poor of Manila's slums really wanted to live. Maybe
the smoking, drinking, and non-helmet or condom wearing was a form of
slow suicide. It made me sad. But then, I had less than five dollars
in my wallet again.The next call came at about nine at night. It was
a rekindle. There had been a huge fire earlier in the day in a Chinese
factory, next to the Chinese school. The school had been evacuated,
then the firefighters climbed up on the second story roof of the school
and cut holes in the walls of the second story of the factory to pump
water in. As always the people of Manila, or the people of Philippines,
have luck, fortune and corruption completely against them. In the case
of fire, fore example, the Bureau of Fire Protection only has 60 fire
trucks in all of metro Manila. From that number only 10 - 15 are working
at any given moment. The rest are waiting for maintenance.The volunteers
have about 40 tanker trucks and if someone is saved it is normally because
of them. Fire hydrants are few and far between so tankers are the most
important trucks, brining new water for the hose companies. Complicating
matters is that most of the vehicles are donations or picked-up second
hand at the lowest price wherever in the world they happened to have
been doing duty. Many come from America. Others come from Japan, China,
or Korea. A few are European. Some are very old. As a result none of
them have compatible or interchangeable parts. So, the pumping procedure
is that they find one tanker that can connect to the hoses, and he stays
put for the duration of the fire. Then all of the other trucks come
and replenish the one that remains stationary. In addition to the tankers
there was a single fire hydrant about five blocks away. We arrived on
scene just as a stand by. You have to have one company of EMTs standing
by when you have firefighters in the field. Some of the men had been
there since nine in the morning, and they were exhausted.
The BFP, the government fire service, only showed up once, with a single
truck, and left. Rescue-nine lead me into the fire. Always in the Philippines,
you have to second guess and think about your own safety because those
guys werent careful. I was pretty certain I shouldnt be
walking into a smoldering building with no protective gear. Walking
down a long dark corridor, I could hear the firefighters walking around
on the thin aluminum roof above me. Water trickled down, ice cold. We
climbed the stairs and there was a company of firemen standing at the
huge smoking holes they had cut in the walls. Their hoses were turned
off while they waited for more water.I crawled out on the roof to get
a photo. Thats when I learned that the green bits of roof were
aluminum, but the white ones were plastic. I almost fell through.
"Some of the firefighter have been there twelve hours." said
Rescue Nine.There was thick black smoke billowing out, and I wondered
if the men shouldnt be wearing respirators or air tanks. "We
dont have anything like that." Explained Rescue Nine. Many
of the men wore turnout coats, helmets, and boots, but that was it.
Out in the street many were shirtless or just in shorts and a t shirt.
And the preferred footwear was flip-flops.
Philippines is huge on titles, and every single person I was introduced
to was the president of something or other; president of a fire company,
of the volunteers, of the unit
. I guess if you are unemployed
those titles mean a lot to you, but man I dont get it and I hate
sitting around wasting a life like that all day.The guys asked me again
about drinking and sex with prostitutes. It makes me angry. They all
smoke. They are already poor. Do they have to make things worse? Cant
they think of something else, like studying and working out or improving
themselves? Instead they asked me about drinking and whores. I get email
from people all over the world who would give anything to hang out with
me and ask about martial arts or linguistics because I have experience
most people could never get. But these guys only want to ask me about
drinking and whores. While we were standing around watching the Chinese
factory burn, one of the many presidents I was introduced to asked me,
"have you gone drinking with these guys yet?"
No, and I never will, because I dont understand this type of behavior.
I was one of only three qualified EMTs in the group. No one had asked
me, "Have you started giving classes to these guys yet?"
Sams dad was a really intelligent guy and I thought we would have
some good conversations. He told me that he was coming to Thailand and
would call me. I said, please do. "I will show you things you have
never seen and never could see without me." I meant I could introduce
him to the last Muay Thai monk and ride horses with the warriors on
the Burma border, and visit the tribes where I know people by name,
and visit the Khmer temple where I study with the monks.
He said, "yes, and we wont bring Sam, ha ha ha ha."
The implication was more prostitutes and drinking. Is this all they
could get out of life? I had trouble liking them. I had trouble not
feeling superior. I was down to my last twenty pesos and I still felt
like they were weak. I spent another shitty night at the base. When
we woke up in the morning, the first thing Ivan asked me was, "have
you had breakfast yet?"I looked at him like he was insane. "Are
you serious? I just woke up. You saw me just wake up. How could I have
had breakfast yet?"
"Oh you dont eat breakfast."
"Thats not what I said. I said I havent had breakfast
yet. I just woke up."
"Oh, you walked up and ate breakfast."
"Woke up! I just woke up!"
Part of the problem was probably linguistic, but some of it was just
logic. How did he not know that I hadnt eaten yet? It was weird.
Getting back to my place in Cubao, there were no taxis so I would have
to take a jeep back to Recto station. "Its easy to take the
jeep." Said Sams dad. "Only one ride. You will be there
in ten minutes." It turned out it wasnt one ride. It was
two. And it would take more than half an hour to get to the train. Worst
of all, I would have to change jeeps in a horrible squatter area which
was scary and dirty and dangerous. Bob and his dad agreed to drive me
in the ambulance to Recto so I could see how to go. One more issue that
I hated was that the people couldnt give directions to save their
lives. "You see that jeep? The one that says, De la Mancha?"
Asked Bob Sr ."Yes, do I take that one?" I asked
."No, it goes to the wrong place."
"So, why are you telling me about it?"
"Take the one that says Sra Clara."
"And it takes me to the train?"
"Yes, and you change jeeps."
"Why do I change jeeps if it takes me to the train?"
It went on and on ,as it always does. My brain was filling with extraneous
information."Dont take the jeep that says Borton. That will
take you to the wrong place too."
"I wouldn't dream of it."
He began listing off every possible jeep I should not take. "Dont
take the one marked this or that its wrong."
"Ok, I definitely won't do that."
"Do you see the train station there?" he asked slowing down."Yes,
do I need to go to this one?"
"It is called Salvador. Dont take that one."
It went on and on, till I was going nuts. Then the other thing they
love to do is give you options."You can also take the jeep to such
and such, and then take a train from y
yelled. "Please stop giving me information. I have enough information.
I just want to know how to get to Recto. That's it. I need to get to
Recto and take a train to Cubao."
After showing me so much stuff then he said, "If you want to go
to Cubao you will have to go another way."
Another way? Where did he think I wanted to go? I was going to Cubao.I
understood I was in this vehicle so he could show me how to get to Cubao.The
travel just looked impossible. On the way in, it had taken me 45 minutes
of standing in Recto, waiting for a taxi, which I am pretty sure is
a record. Now I was going to be taking a jeep which didn't seem advisable.
When they showed me the place where I would have to change jeeps, it
looked like a scene from The Road Warrior, a post-apocalyptic
collective of people, teetering on the edge of survival.
"There is no way I would get out of a moving vehicle here."
Looking around the squatter area, my heart went out to the people, but
I was terrified of them.I had reached a point where everything about
the Philippines was wearing me out. I hated seeing the poverty. I hated
traveling through dangerous or dirty squatter areas. I hated sitting
on a car seat on the sidewalk waiting for a response. I didnt
even like talking to my workmates because they depressed me. They were
unemployed, they smoked and drank. They had kids by who knew how many
women, and appeared to have no desire to do more than what they were
doing, which was simply sitting around on the car seats talking and
smoking. When a charitable thought came to my mind I realized they were
stuck, and there was nothing they could do. And I always had to remind
myself that no matter how much I disliked the life, I could leave. They
would have to stay forever.That though depressed me even more. So, once
again, I hated everything I was exposed to.I finally made the call to
Taiwan. "Pierre, my old friend, Ranger needs extraction. Get me
out of here."
A few days later, I was on a plane to Taiwan, where I would be teaching
English to children.
is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. See his website
You can contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or join him on
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The Monk from Brooklyn
Bikes, Boats, and Boxing Gloves
The Desert of Death on Three Wheels
Adventures in Formosa
© Antonio Graceffo June 20th 2008
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