Memoirs of a Philippine Mongerer
C How they made me chapter 21:
Upon hearing Garcia’s words I felt a cold shiver down my spine and before I could react I heard a gravely voice behind me say, “please come with me sir” and I then felt a firm grip on my upper arm and next thing I knew I was up out of my seat and being marched to the holding cell. Now at this stage in my life I wasn’t exactly a choirboy but let me tell you nothing could have prepared me for the Philippine holding cell. I had watched Midnight Express, I had seen the movie Bangkok Hilton and I had even heard about the prison systems in India and South America but even if I had of experienced some jail time in New Zealand or Australia, nothing could have prepared me for this.
The officer walked me down a long empty corridor, similar to long empty corridors all over the world. The floor was spotlessly clean and composed of some non descript vinyl floor covering that was showing signs of wear and tear from the years of footsteps and it wouldn’t surprise me if the same vinyl was still there today, 19 years later. About every ten yards there was little doorways on both sides that obviously led to the inner sanctums of this particular branch of Philippine law enforcement and from each room I could hear smatterings of Tagalog along with the click clack of ancient typewriters. At the time I was being somewhat hurriedly escorted to the cell whilst protesting my innocence but it soon became very obvious my so called escort was non communicative so I had nothing better to do than take note of my surroundings and hope that I would soon see them again but this time heading out of the police station rather than in.
At the end of the corridor we came to an old wooden doorway which my escort used one hand to open whilst maintaining a firm grip on my arm. We entered through the door and there were three tiny cells all cram packed with Filipino males. I asked the officer if this was the holding cells and he replied yes sir as he inserted his key into the lock, opened the door and rather unceremoniously pushed me inside. I stood there dumbfounded looking at my six cell mates who were staring back at me and then the sound of the cold steel door clanging shut penetrated my brain and I thought to myself, what the hell am I going to do now.
I must have stood stock still with my back against the cell bars for about thirty seconds engaging in a stare down and trying my very hardest not to let my fear show. It was very obvious to me that I was the outsider here and drastically outnumbered still I thought to myself, if these guys give me a hard time I will take one or two down with me and I sure as hell am not going down without a fight. The group of six were a raggedy bunch all wearing tattered jeans and dirty singlet’s and all of them sported an assortment of tattoos together with what I would say was probably a three day after growth. After about one minute the smallest of the bunch came towards me and gave me a toothless smile while he announced, “Hey Joe me Arnel what you name”. I looked at him guardedly and somehow managed to smile as I pronounced, “my name is Martin nice to meet you Arnel”.
Upon hearing my voice and having weighed me up the group began to relax a bit and the piercing stares gave way to looks of curiosity. Arnel proceeded to introduce me to his “kompares” and then invited me to take a seat on the floor as he asked me “why you here Joe? You bad man Joe?” I looked at Arnel and decided it was probably best to keep my answers simple and non confrontational so I replied truthfully “Arnel I don’t know why I am here. My girlfriend have an accident and now they blame me.” One of the other guys who I was to later learn was named Jason asked me, “what kind of accident”? This was the question I had been dreading but deciding fortune favors the bold I mumbled “my girlfriend died from an overdose.” Arnel looked at me and said “your girlfriend dead diba, how she make dead, maybe you kill her?” By this time I was ready for this accusation, I mean it wasn’t exactly the first time I had heard it in the last twenty four hours, so I simply replied, “No Arnel I am a gentle man who love and respect the Filipina. Hilda died because she take an overdose of my pills and I was not even in the room.” This statement seemed to confuse the group a bit and they mulled it over intensely then there was a rapid discussion in Tagalog which resulted in Arnel looking at me and saying “you good man Joe”. To this day I am not sure what made this gang accept me but I am internally grateful they did otherwise I well may not of been around today to tell this story.
After a while the group got tired of questioning me and I get the feeling they only understood a smattering of my answers anyway. Once their curiosity had been satisfied they kind of left me alone and drifted off into their own conversation none of which I could understand so I just sat there with my back against the wall wondering if I was ever going to get out of this and if I didn’t how the hell was I going to survive in a Filipino jail.
As I sat there huddled in the corner a thousand questions crossed my mind, how had all this happened, why was I locked up but no charges had been laid against me, if I got charged with something how was I going to fight it, did anybody know where I was and what had happened to me, would I ever see Australia and my family again, what would be my sentence if found guilty, would I be able to survive a Filipino jail and if so for how long. All of these questions and thousands like them popped into my head and most frustratingly of all I didn’t have an answer for one of them. I was literally in limbo with nothing to do except try to survive. After what seemed a life time of agonizing questions the events of the past 60 hours overwhelmed me and waves of fatigue and anxiety began to assault me. Despite my uncomfortable conditions and uncertainty of my survival the need for sleep was paramount and as my head began to droop I remembered the old prayer “if I should die while I sleep, I pray the lord my soul to keep”.
I have no idea how long I slept but I do remember waking up lying on the squalid jailhouse floor with my knees curled up around me and an assortment of aches and pains coursing through my body. As I opened my eyes I looked over at my fellow cell mates only to see them glancing at me while playing a game of cards. Noticing I was now semi conscious Arnel smiled at me and said, “hey Joe you like play cards”?
Now even though I was in what I considered an extremely precarious and uncomfortable position the bizarreness of his request dawned on me straight away and I couldn’t help but smile as I silently thanked God I was still alive and hesitantly accepted his invitation. To this day I am constantly amazed at the Filipinos ability to accept whatever situation they find themselves in and not stress about the circumstances of their life. Here these guys were penned up in a tiny squalid jail cell and yet they seemed oblivious to their surroundings as they happily played a game of cards. Of course I understand the logic of why worry about it as worrying will not change anything but for me this logic is a case of easier said than done. For me it was bloody hard not to worry and yet these guys seemed to have the haphazard approach to life which basically precluded them from worrying and encouraged them to adapt and make the best of any situation no matter how bad it was. Over my years of living in the Philippines I have seen this same attitude surface in different shapes and forms on numerous occasions and I have slowly learnt that becoming resigned to the hardships of life is a necessary survival tactic. In a country where you have nothing and little opportunity to improve your lot acceptance becomes an ally and dissatisfaction together with ambition becomes your enemy.
Slowly I raised myself into a prone position and the group parted slightly to make room for me. On the very first hand they dealt me in but I declined to look at the cards telling them I would just watch a few hands first while I learnt to play the game. I watched the hands being rapidly played complete with various gesticulations of disgust and triumph and I decided this game was a variation of Jim-Rummy a game which my mother had taught me to play at a very young age. These days I am all to familiar with the card game named Tongitz and on many occasions I have seen this game used as a sort of social entertainment as well as a chance to earn a little money through gambling on it.
After watching 5 hands being played I decided I was ready to play so I requested them to deal me in. For the first half hour the hands seemed to fly by and no matter what I did I couldn’t win but as they say lady luck is fickle and just as I was about to give up and go back to musing over my situation I won a hand which was greeted by pats on the back from the Filipinos and warm smiles.
As the game progressed I slowly got a better understanding of its principles and as I did my luck seemed to change as well. I had been playing for about an hour and had amassed a small fortune of ten pisos when suddenly the game was interrupted by the same guard who had escorted me to the cell. The guard looked at me with an mixed expression of contempt, disgust and a hint of sorrow and then deliberately announced “Mr Martin you come Captain Garcia now“. Upon hearing this I was filled with dread visions of police beatings bombarding my brain but still I managed to say goodbye to my cell mates and then I slowly raised myself, took two steps to the door and next thing I knew I was walking down that same corridor heading towards an uncertain future and a meeting with a swarthy Filipino cop who literally held my life in his hands.