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American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

June 2006

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The author, this journal's publisher, sheds light on two aspects of the Foreign Service experience: the inspection function and coping at a small, remote post, in this case in the Philippines. — Ed.

Dining with Great Uncle Fulano And Other Curious Events

The responsibilities of the Department of State’s Inspector General include sending experienced senior officers to visit America’s diplomatic and consular outposts overseas to evaluate their overall effectiveness as well as the individual performance of their personnel. It is a process that likely does less harm than good. In the main, its benefits occur before the inspectors arrive, as the targeted missions rush to put things in order. Regulations require that each post be inspected every three years, a goal almost never met. When our team was sent to the Philippines in the autumn of 1988, it was the first such visit in five years.

After two weeks reading files and interviewing the American and locally hired employees attached to our sprawling presence in Manila, I detached myself from the others and set off to inspect the now defunct U.S. consulate in Cebu, a three-officer post then situated about an hour’s flight south of Manila on one of the thousand or more steamy islands that comprise the Philippine Republic. I marveled to find myself heading for a place that I had not heard mentioned since the darkest days of World War II. Arriving on an early Thursday in late October, I planned to complete the inspection by Saturday afternoon, write up my findings Sunday, and return to Manila Monday.

On the tarmac a beaming consul wearing the country’s traditional business attire, i.e., a crisp, short-sleeved barong (a snugger, pocketless cousin of the Cuban guayabera), stepped forward, hand outstretched to wrench mine in a grip that said “We’re glad you’re here, and we’ve nothing to hide.” Behind him stood the post’s other American personnel, two young vice-consuls. Apparently warned that an inspector’s evaluation carried great weight in determining promotions, they wore wary smiles, like schoolboys preparing to sit for their SAT exams.

Before I left Manila the embassy had booked me into the Plaza Hotel, Cebu’s best, located three miles from the consulate. After introductions and pleasantries, my host informed me that he had changed the reservation to the Tambuli, a beach hotel some forty-five minutes from town. “I’ve not been there, but my local employees say the site is beautiful.” The Plaza, he added, was having labor problems, much of the staff had walked out, communist-led agitators were picketing, and there had been threats of violence. He felt I would be more comfortable (safer was implied) at the Tambuli. Upcountry, gunmen (called “sparrows”) of the communist New People’s Army had murdered three Americans just that week. Everyone was on edge, and the consul didn’t want the first State Department inspector he had ever encountered kidnapped or worse on his watch. I saw no reason to argue.

Off went my bags to the Tambuli in one car as I boarded the consulate’s van headed for the office to start work. Thus I first became acquainted with my quarters quite late that afternoon. The setting was breathtaking, sugar-white sand, the sea tinted with gold under a setting sun. The “hotel,” however, consisted of a bedraggled lodge-like structure in need of paint in the midst of a series of small one-bedroom bungalows set facing the sea. Mine was number 12. It featured walls that in some places did not quite meet the roof, a slim bed with a foam rubber mattress and pillow redolent of mildew, no TV, no radio, a noisy window air conditioning unit dripping water into a puddle on the carpetless, gritty floor, 25 watt bulbs in the room’s two lamps, a shower stall offering cold water only, a drain that wouldn’t, and a roach the size of a toddler’s shoe eyeing me malevolently from a dim corner of the room.

I wanted to bolt; but having no place to bolt to, I unpacked my bag and walked to the lodge where I hoped to find dinner. A discreet inquiry at the desk brought the disheartening news that Number 12 was considered the resort’s star accommodation, so after fried fish, rice, and a beer I trudged back to my bungalow resigned to an early night. Reading in 25 watts of light was out of the question. Nonetheless, I had filched a magazine from the lodge, the only thing I had spied that might serve as a weapon. Rolling it tight I crept about the shadowy room searching for the giant cockroach. No sign of him. Perhaps he had found my presence as unsettling as I his and had crawled out into the night.

Discarding my weapon, I showered before bed. Shivering and dripping I stepped from the stall when a moth, the size and disposition of a vampire bat, took my balding pate for a street lamp and went for it with kamikaze determination. I hopped, whooped, and flailed, razor, soap, toothbrush, shampoo clattering to the floor. Somehow I scored a lucky hit. The brute went skittering into a dark corner. The next morning I found there only some powdery, iridescent scraps. Presumably the work of Mr. Cockroach. Ghastly end. But better the moth than me.

I packed and trudged in the sudden heat of a fast rising sun to the lodge for breakfast. After watery scrambled eggs and coffee I paid for the night’s lodging and checked out. As arranged, the consulate van arrived at eight to take me to the office. The fifty-five minute trip of the previous afternoon took more than twice as long in the city’s early morning traffic. I arrived at the consulate an hour late for my first interview.

The consul looked stricken and pale when he learned that I had brought my luggage with me and that I intended to try my luck at the Plaza. Sensible of his embarrassment that I had found fault with his arrangements, I spared him a description of my Tambuli cottage and my evening’s mano a mano triumph, choosing rather to point out with total reasonableness that the time available to complete the inspection was limited and that I could not afford to spend three hours each day in transit.

He rehearsed his objections to the Plaza, the staff walkout, incompetent replacements, aggressive picketing, etc. Faced with a smiling but unyielding inspector and admitting that fears that the Plaza situation might turn violent had so far come to nothing, he told his secretary to reserve a room for me. The matter behind us, I returned to my work, examining files and interviewing staff.

It was once again late in the day when I first saw my new digs. The bland conformity of the building was redeemed by sumptuous landscaping. Hibiscus and bougainvillea were abundant and in bloom. As the van approached the entrance I noticed directly across the avenue a straggly band -- all male -- of about ten protesting strikers. A few carried large placards denouncing the hotel’s management, its scroogelike wage scale, and the inhuman, imperialist-capitalist mentality of its owners and of the craven lackeys who gave them their patronage. The text of one sign I could not decipher; it was written in what looked like Japanese; the others were in English. One of the picketers held a bullhorn through which he sporadically urged all yankees to go home.

Most of the group, however, were taking care not to over-exert. Like middle-aged vacationers at the shore, they had equipped themselves with beach chairs sporting parasols to ward off the sinking, yet still brutal, sun. A large Styrofoam cooler was at hand providing ice and liquid refreshment. (Over the next few days I determined that Pepsi-Cola was the anti-imperialist drink of choice.)

I had expected a larger and more vigorous band of protesters. Subsequently I learned that the communist union had organized the strikers into lightly manned shifts, thus establishing a twenty-four hour presence in front of the hotel. I was intrigued by a table laden with electronic gear and two huge loudspeakers of a size one might find at a rock concert. They served as bookends to the line of strikers. Only later was I to realize their import.

The Plaza’s lobby was impressive. Blessedly cool, it was appointed with comfortable chairs, settees, and desks where one might write a letter or balance a checkbook. There was lots of bamboo, artfully used, and other lush tropical plants set in handsome containers of copper and bronze: the outdoors brought inside.

The effectiveness of the strike was not immediately apparent. The to-and-fro of hotel guests seemed normal. Most of my fellow travelers were Asian, although I was to discover that there were also a number of resident Europeans and Australians. Despite the apparent conviction of the band across the street that the Plaza was a covert outpost of the CIA, I appeared to be the only American.

What the strike had accomplished was a staffing crisis. It seemed that all of the hotel’s low wage employees -- bellboys, waiters, pool attendants, laundry workers, janitors, and other service help -- had walked. The Plaza had met this crisis as best it could. First by bringing its management staff out of the offices behind the reception desk to fill in. The “clerk” who confirmed my reservation and checked me in was, in fact, the hotel’s manager, a surprisingly young woman of unsettling Eurasian beauty. She greeted me with a welcoming smile and charmingly accented English. The plump and happy man who helped me to my room with my suitcase and the typewriter that the consulate had lent me was the Plaza’s chief accountant. Completely at ease in English, he warned me that not all of the hotel’s temporary help shared his confident grasp of the language. “Everyone around here speaks Tagalog,” he explained.

For indeed, the Plaza had drawn on the region’s immense pool of unemployed and had scraped together a replacement staff, most of them from surrounding rural villages and little schooled. They were brought on board temporarily to perform many of the most pressing housekeeping tasks. Though willing, eager to please, and desperately hungry for a paycheck, these replacements, like first timers at Yankee Stadium, were in awe of their new surroundings. None, I would wager, had ever set foot in that hotel before and would never again, once the strike was settled.

After the Tambuli, room 309 seemed palatial. Situated on the back side of the hotel, its two windows gave onto a swimming pool and some poorly maintained tennis courts. The bed was firm, the lighting ample. The bathroom was equipped with clean towels, and the water was almost hot. A radio sat on the bedside table tuned to the town’s sole station (it had picked that weekend to do a retrospective of Michael Jackson’s complete oeuvre). There was a chair and desk where I could work and where my borrowed typewriter now sat, urging me to get on with it. Once settled, however, I decided to explore the premises before risking whatever the hotel might offer for dinner.

In many ways the Plaza had the trappings of a luxury hotel. The public areas were shiny and impressive, although the more I wandered the less I was impressed. A notice in the lobby invited me to try one of the hotel’s three restaurants. Two, however, were “closed for renovations.” The swimming pool was “closed for renovations.” The tennis courts, the newsstand and souvenir shop, the bookstore, the hair salon, the florist shop: all “closed for renovations.”

Two facilities were still operating. One was a bar and what was in those days called a disco down a flight of stairs from the lobby. The other was the hotel café. There I dined and there fell madly in love with my waitress, one of the strike replacements.

Picture Popeye’s Olive Oyl, and there you have her, a casting director’s dream. Tall, curveless, awkward, unspoiled, hopelessly inept, totally charming. Her first words: “Walcome suhr, my name es Baby. I am come to be your servicer.” This phrase, painstakingly memorized, apparently exhausted her English vocabulary. At my every effort thereafter to communicate, including pointing at things on the menu, she would dissolve in giggles. Finally she ran to the kitchen to bring back a glowering interpreter, possibly the cook himself, who eyed me as though I were the carrier of some vile disease. In the end I dined on Pancit Mola and chicken-pork Adobo. Baby pushed the dishes in front of me and fled before I could react. She spent the rest of my meal hiding behind a pillar, peeking out intermittently to see if her strange and amusing alien was still alive. Obtaining the check from her and paying for my dinner was a scene worthy of Abbott and Costello.

Back in my room I buckled down to the chore of working two days of notes into prose. Evening dusk had just turned to night when the shock wave hit, rattling the windows. When the frisson of fear subsided I remembered those two mammoth speakers facing the hotel. This was no seismic event; this was labor agitation high tech style. With malicious ingenuity the protesters had recorded on tape a torrent of invective, amazing in its volume and variety, which any one of them could, with the flick of a switch, hurl against the Plaza and its inhabitants. And this they proceeded to do until morning’s first light. With the help of a wad of toilet paper in each ear I slept. Though not une nuit blanche, it was certainly grise.

This nightly bombardment was to continue throughout my stay at the hotel. If you have lived next to a rail line or a busy highway, you know that humans adapt. After that first onslaught the nightly noise of the speakers became a part of the environment that registered only on the edges of my consciousness. It did not again affect my work or my sleep.

Walking into the lobby the next evening after a productive Friday at the consulate, I sensed that something was afoot. The staff, bustling about purposefully, seemed energized. There was an agreeable tension in the air, as if the hotel were a theater preparing for opening night. A notice slipped under the door of my room invited all guests to the hotel’s annual All Souls’ festivities starting at nine in the disco-lounge. There would be music, dancing, general revelry, and prizes for the best costumes. All Souls? Costumes? The light dawned. Today was October 31! Hallowe’en.

My thoughts, however, were on dinner and the lank and enchanting Baby. When I descended to the café, however, my spirits fell. She was nowhere to be found. Perhaps in her heart she knew that East and West etc., etc. Or worse, she had been packed off to her village because she had been unable to take the difficult American’s order. Pangs of guilt are with me still.

Tonight I drew Suzie Chou, descendent of Ming the Merciless, whose cruel mouth and blood-red nails made it clear there was to be no giggling. When she hissed that the Kare Kare (a yellowish, bubbling stew of unidentifiable blobs) and the Vindalu Ajam (some barnyard fowl atop the ubiquitous rice) were especially good, I could only nod weakly.

Taking no chances with what had been identified as a problem customer, the kitchen had also assigned to my table Jo-Jo, a young man of some education. He was another strike replacement, recruited apparently out of the rice paddies. His joy at being assigned to my table was palpable. That fortune had so smiled on him was almost too much to bear. Jo-Jo must have missed the news of Howard Hughes’s death and was persuaded that I was he, come incognito to this hotel to rewrite my will. Muscles tensed, he positioned himself at my elbow throughout the meal, poised to leap forward at my slightest moue of dissatisfaction. Any pause in my chewing or move to reposition myself in my seat would throw him into a state of severe agitation. “Suhr! You are not happy?” Only prolonged reassurances could restore Jo-Jo’s toothy euphoria.

Later, Jo-Jo, still braced at full attention by my elbow, “Excuse suhr, I must say something.”

“Yes, Jo-Jo?”

“You makes me think very much of my grandfather.”

(Coldly) “Really?”

“Yas. It is how you talk.”

Long pause. I needed to digest this information.

(Reluctantly) “Jo-Jo?”

“Yas, suhr.”

“How old is your grandfather?”

(Proudly) “He is eighty-eight.”

(Very coldly) “Oh?”

“Yas, suhr.”

Heavy chewing.

“And where does your grandfather live, Jo-Jo?”

(Smiling broadly) “Oh suhr, he is dead.”

After settling the bill with the gimlet-eyed Madam Chou, I retreated to the lobby and sank into one of its easy chairs to watch the world go by. If I had hoped for anonymity, it was not to be. By now the entire hotel staff, down to the little man whose job was to prowl the lobby spraying Glade air freshener at anyone foolish enough to light a cigarette, had learned my name and were enchanted by it. “MIS-ter MOOON. MIS-ter MOOON.” They gave my name a singsong cadence that must have struck some primal chord. They sought to use it at every opportunity. I wondered if they crooned it to themselves - a mantra - while they worked. As I sat gathering strength to return to my waiting typewriter, a succession of concerned employees approached my chair. “MIS-ter MOOON, are you wanting something, suhr?” Clearly they had never seen a westerner not in the act of consumption.

Nine o’clock approached. From the dim lounge below I could hear the band warming up, an unmusical foursome picking at electrified guitars. I wondered who had let them out of their garage. The night of All Souls was imminent and promised to be loud and discordant.

I had long ago learned that in whatever poverty stricken part of the third world we may find ourselves, the rich and privileged are always with us. Setting off new decibels of outrage from the loudspeakers across the way, the city’s gilded youth began to arrive for the party. Young men in black pegged pants, black slouchy jackets, flashing their Rolexes, their dark, dark glasses, and their glittering women, soignée to the toes. They might have been extras from a James Bond movie. Other pairs stepped out of their Audis, Toyotas, and Subarus in costume. Men in Dracula capes, some wearing shrouds and carrying scythes, accompanied by women representing mysterious chthonic apparitions unknown to me, apparently drawn from local folklore. I watched, fascinated, as this ghoulish, happy crowd trooped down into the maelstrom below. Just then the Plaza’s social director, a lacquered, callipygian beauty, leaned over my shoulder. “Mister Moon, you will be joining us in the disco?” I mustered my best, and quite fraudulent, been-there, done-that smile, shook my head, thanked her, and headed for the elevator and room 309.

“The van won’t start. It’s probably the battery. And we won’t have another car to send for you for about an hour.” It was Saturday morning, and an anxious vice consul was on the phone. He needn’t worry, I assured him. I would find a taxi. I had seen two or three frequently parked near the hotel entrance.

Stepping out into the oppressive morning heat I found only one. It was an early Japanese model with a name I didn’t recognize, a mini-sedan missing one front fender and headlight and the rest half eaten with rust. I aroused the driver from his Saturday morning torpor, told him my destination, and reached to open the rear passenger door. No handle. With a sigh of disgust and disdainful thrust of his head he motioned me to the other side of the car where I found a door that would open. Gingerly positioning myself to avoid springs sprouting through the upholstery I noted that although the car was tiny, there was ample room for my legs. The entire front passenger seat was missing.

Muttering sourly, the driver sought to coax his machine to life. Like a catarrh-ridden old man trying to clear his lungs, the ignition would wheeze, cough, and gasp futilely, growing weaker with each attempt. Then at last, with an alarming detonation from somewhere beneath me and a shudder that surely loosened whatever rivets were still holding the chassis to the frame, we achieved combustion. With a triumphant snarl the driver jammed the taxi into gear, and we lurched forward, leaving behind a black cloud of noxious exhaust and the sarcastic cheers of the strikers who, from across the street, had been watching with amusement.

Soon, horn blaring, we were careering through the streets of the city at Nascar speeds, ignoring stop signs, driving bicyclists onto the sidewalks, and causing pedestrians in crosswalks to scatter like leaves in a windstorm. I wondered if the car’s brakes worked. Foot glued to the gas pedal, the madman hunched over the wheel was never tempted to try them. That other pedal, apparently, was for sissies. Terrified, I wanted to yell for him to take it easy, but I knew I wouldn’t be heard over the din of our passage. Rust had eaten a hole in the floorboard the size of a football, and, looking down, I could see the pavement rushing below me at a sickening rate. Now I could understand the driver’s passion for speed. It was self-preservation. Had he observed the posted limits we both would have perished in a miasma of monoxide rising through that hole from the eroded tailpipe.

Then, miraculously, we were there, standing in front of the consulate. He told me the fare, and I handed it over without demur. The wicked grin he flashed at me as he drove off made it clear that another naive American had been cleverly outwitted and overcharged. What did I care? I was alive.

Later that day I rode back to the Plaza in the consul’s car. He spoke to me about his secretary, Maria, who had worked for the consulate for more than two decades. As is the case with many locally hired employees at our diplomatic missions throughout the world, Maria, he said, was the glue that held the post together. She was from a highly respected Catholic family that had played a significant role in the history of the region, and she knew everyone “worth knowing” in the city. “The family is having a celebration and dinner tonight. I am invited,” he said, “and she wants you to come too.” We agreed that he would pick me up at 7:00. As he dropped me off in front of the hotel he added, “Dress is casual. We’ll be dining in the cemetery.” He pulled away before I could process what he had said.

As we drove to the party that evening he explained that it was traditional among the country’s Catholics to celebrate November 1, All Saints’ Day, by gathering for a picnic at the site where their ancestors were buried. It was not a solemn thing, but rather a lively occasion not only to remember the dead, but also to renew ties with one’s kinfolk and to welcome family friends. Our destination was a Catholic cemetery situated near the edge of town. As we approached I could see cars parked everywhere on the cemetery grounds, and I could hear laughter and music.

Each family apparently had its own burial area. Tonight they were lit by candles and kerosene lanterns by the hundreds, creating a ghostly, smoky haze. Armed with a map, we had no trouble finding Maria and her relatives, 20 to 25 of them spanning several generations. There were folding chairs, and the family had set up a canopy in the midst of an imposing assortment of elaborate statuary, monuments, crypts, and tombs. No paupers buried here. Over one large rectangular crypt someone had thrown a cloth, and an abundant feast was set out on top of sainted Great Uncle Fulano, the name I secretly assigned to the crypt’s inhabitant. There were soft drinks, beer, and wine. Later one of the cousins nudged me and said he could produce some rum if I was interested. A battery-powered tape player provided a medley of sentimental ballads interspersed with sambas from Brazil and meringues from the Caribbean, barely audible above the happy chatter of Maria’s animated clan. We ate a bit, drank a bit, and finally, over the loud protests of my increasingly boisterous new friends, the consul and I said our goodbyes.

After my soirée with the dead, Sunday was tame indeed, most of it spent in my hotel room putting my report on paper. This draft would eventually become an annex to the larger report on the embassy that would be completed by my team in the capital city. Monday at 9:00 the van arrived to take me, my suitcase, and the borrowed typewriter to the consulate for what in the bureaucratic parlance of the times was called an “out briefing” with the post’s American personnel. It went well. Praise was due, and I gave it, for this was an energetic, well-led team. I also went over areas where improvement was needed, leaving behind a short list of remedial recommendations. Once the Inspector General approved them, I explained, the consulate would have 60 days in which to report compliance with these recommendations or to report the reasons it had not.

At the airport, striving hard to hide his relief that I was going, the consul again crushed my hand and told me how useful it had all been. I boarded my noon flight, and we rumbled into the air. There, seated hip bone to hip bone with close to 80 other sweaty, fragrant bodies, I reflected back on the long weekend I had just spent and gave quiet thanks for the decision casually taken more than 30 years earlier to commit myself to this curious and endlessly surprising career, the Foreign Service.



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