Volcano Child - A YA Novel in Progress by Candy Gourlay
Two weeks ago, Mouse decided to dig his way to London.

02 September 2008

Life After The End of the World

This is what it’s like at the end of the world:

The sky is blue, deep and rich like an ocean, and yet so bright it hurts to look.

It is silent, the cocks do not crow, the dogs do not bark, the water buffalo do not low. The silence is piercing. It hurts my ears.

It is hot, the sun sits forever at its zenith, turning the blood in my veins into molten rivers.
And at the end of the world, there is nothing.
Excerpt from Volcano Child

These are the new opening passages to Volcano Child, imagining what it is like in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption.

My novel is based on the eruption of Mount Pinatubo after my younger sister took me on a trip up the mountain in 2005, 14 years after its eruption (the second biggest in the 20th century) which destroyed huge swathes of countryside.

Ashfall covers the landscape like snow.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The eruption taught us Filipinos a new word - Lahar - water and volcanic debris combining to create a cement-like torrent that swept the countryside. In some places waves up to six metres high were reported.

View of village buried flows of lahar. Photo: US Geological Survey

By the time we visited in 2005, many of the towns and villages had been rebuilt, there were acres and acres of bright green paddy fields, and people had somehow rebuilt their lives.

Bright green paddy fields have been planted over the devastation.

A village shop. People got on with rebuilding their lives.

Just in case, concrete barriers were built to control lahars which
occasionally still flow down from the mountain.

Life simply carried on ... even with the shadow of another volcano - the massive Mount Arayat - glowering on the horizon.
The next volcano along: Mount Arayat

We visited San Guillermo Parish Church (originally built in 1576 by Augustinian friars) - or what was left of it after lahar buried the church to half its 12 metre height in a flash lahar flood (if you can call a lahar a flash flood).

San Guillermo Church lost six metres
of its bottom

Services are now held where
the rafters used to be

It is only when you go inside that you realise how much of the church was lost. The new floor occupies the space where the rafters used to be. Windows are the tops of the old arches.

Ghostly survivor of the calamity

A walk in the church grounds and there are more chilling reminders of the deadly lahar flood.

Rooftops are all that's left of mausoleums
and church buildings after the lahar

What's left of someone's house opposite the church.

Broken statuary in the church yard.

The only vehicle that could cope with the rough mountain road was this massive juggernaut kindly lent to us by the mayor of Porac Town at the foot of Pinatubo.

From the top, one can see the gullies carved by the lahars flowing down the mountain.

The mountainside was smoking with small fires used by people to "clean" the land before planting it. Slash and burn farming like this is responsible for some of the terrible floods and landslides experienced in this part of the world

we stopped at a village on the way up the mountain. Most of the villagers were tribal people called Aetas. The number of Aetas who died are hard to count because they prefer to live deep in the jungles on the mountain. I asked one old man what the eruption was like. He said: "The sky was red and the children looked like little white statues in the ash."

A small community that has appeared since the area was evacuated

Aeta children crowded round us when we stopped at the village

Our massive truck couldn't make it all the way up the mountain because of a landslide the night before so we switched to a small pick-up truck and followed some really scary windy unpaved trails down to the 'riverbed' carved by the lahar.

The lahar 'riverbed' is flanked by five to six metre walls of compacted debris from the volcano, now overgrown by vegetation. It is like a moonscape, fragile and crumbling.

It was quite an adventure for the teenagers who came along:
my son, Nick, and his cousins, Misha and Coco (not in picture)

A thin stream rushed throught they strange riverbed made of volcano debris

Close up of Lahar and other volcanic debris on the riverbed

Hot springs have sprung up where there were none, and the original river's flow has diverted elsewhere. It was an amazing trip, but I felt somehow a bit reckless, because driving on that river bed (our guides often had to climb out with shovels and dig us through) on the fragile moonscape, we were lucky not to get caught in a landslide!

We visited the Philippines two years later and I was amazed to see this poster (right) in the airport, advertising the lahar riverbed and the crater of Pinatubo as a tourist attraction!

Photographs unless otherwise indicated by Candy Gourlay (Please let me know if you want to use them!)

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21 July 2008

Grace Nono Sings a Lullaby to Migrant Workers

It's a song about journeys and loss and I have to say seeing the pictures of gone away mothers and left behind children never fails to break my heart.

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07 May 2008

Burma: a Natural Disaster or Political Calamity?

A Filipino journalist happened to be in Burma during the terrible cyclone that recently claimed tens of thousands of lives. Here is her account:
Cyclone Nagris that hit this former capital of Myanmar and its neighboring areas last weekend has made the already impoverished people in far worse situation in the months, and maybe years, ahead. Read more
View surreptitious photos taken by Tita Valderama here

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22 April 2008

Madonna Decena on Britain's Got Talent

Thanks to Peps for forwarding this.

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09 April 2008

Selvakumar Knew Better: a picture book on the tsunami

I was moved by this achingly beautiful picture book Selvakumar Knew Better by Virginia Kroll and illustrated by Xiojun Li which tells the terrible story of the 2004 tsunami but manages to light up its message with hope and innocence. Visit LookyBook to view a larger version of the embedded book.

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11 March 2008

Children at Christ's Table - Joey Velasco's Prayer

Painter Joey Velasco's film is more social commentary than prayer.


17 January 2008

People In the News - Real People

The news about the Kabul hotel bombing on Monday looked like just another bombing.

News reporting makes death and destruction so routine.

But I was horrified when I read this eyewitness account in my friend Steve's blog.
I looked at my car, I couldn't believe what I saw. Blood, guts, black marks from the bomb blast everywhere. The Land Cruiser from behind was filled with bullet holes. The 2nd suicide bomber had detonated himself 5 meters away from the car once he got inside and his finger ended up in the back of my Land Cruiser, and his thumb was on my dashboard. I peered inside the back of the Land Cruiser through the broken glass and saw the finger. I am not at all accustomed to seeing those types of gruesome items up-close. It was pretty damn disgusting. The lack of respect for their lives was proven in this heinous crime.
Among those killed were a Filipina girl manning the gym reception, an American on a treadmill, several hotel workers, and some security guards - apart, of course from the attackers themselves.

As an ex journalist I can tell you - these people you read about in the news?

Well, they're people with jobs and things to do and lives to live. Real people.


06 January 2008

Island Children at Work and at Play

From my travel blog This is Boracay about revisiting Boracay Island in the Philippines

Everywhere on Boracay, there were children working.

Like this boy who tried to sell us coconut drinks while we were on a snorkling trip.

Boracay coconut vendor

And up and down the beach, there were children selling snacks, glow toys and knick-knacks or trying to charm tourists into purchasing parental wares (massage, island-hopping tours, pirated DVDs). Late at night there were children collecting bottles and other recyclables that littered the beach to sell at to a recycler.

A young girl with a broom kept her father's sand sculpture smooth and untrammeled by the passing traffic.

"Please give a donation, my dad built this," she told me, pointing at a date etched in the sand which indicated he had constructed the edifice that very morning.

I noticed during my stay that the sandcastle remained where it was, the date changing daily. The sandcastle was sufficiently magnificent that I didn't mind parting with a few pesos for the privilege of photographing it.

Just a few feet away from the sandcastle, this boy was building his own little version. No question, another future king of the castle.

A boy of about eight years approached me with a handful of glow sticks.

"Buy a glow stick, ma'am?"

"No, thank you."

"For your children?" the boy pointed at my daughter playing with her friend in the sea.

I raised an eyebrow at him. "It's rather sunny, don't you think, to be playing with glow sticks?"

The boy laughed. My logic made sense to him. He performed a perfect Jackie Chan back flip in the sand.

"Wow, you're really good at that," I said appreciatively.

He put the glow sticks down. "Wanna see some more?"

A girl nearby threw down her glow sticks. "I'm much better than him!"

More children joined, each insisting that their acrobatic skills were better than the other's. I sat and oohed and aahed as each in turn performed cartwheels and flips and bridges in the pliant white sand.

The crowd of children grew. They jabbered at each other in what seemed a multitude of languages.

"What language are you speaking?" I asked the first boy.


"Muslim? That's not a language, is it?"

He laughed and told me the name of his dialect which I didn't manage to record. "Have you lived on the island long?"

"A long time," he nodded.

"How long?"

"My dad brought me here in grade three."

"What grade are you now?"

"Grade four."

At which point all the children clamoured to tell me where they were from - which was everywhere. Provinces up and down the Philippines. They came with their parents, they said. And their parents came to work.

Then, almost as suddenly as they had surrounded me, the children gathered together to play a game - the sort you might find in any schoolyard around the world, except they were sitting on the finest white sand, on the shore of a beautiful island.

They played raucously until the sky began to glow orange at sunset.

The sunset was a signal for one of the bars that line the beach to turn on some disco music full blast. The children leapt to their feet. It was like the scene from Where the Wild Things Are ... let the rumpus begin!They danced and they danced.

Then when the night finally closed in and all the fairy lights had switched on in the coconut trees, they collected their glow sticks from the beach and went back to work.


An Acrobatic Childhood in Shanghai

And a happy new year to you all from Shanghai!
Shanghai Acrobats
We caught a performance by this acrobatic troup in an old theatre populated by tourists from all over China. To say the show was amazing is an understatement. I've never seen a more appreciative audience, gasping and squealing at every incredible moment.

Crowd-pleasers were these two contortionists who smiled placidly as they bent their bodies into impossible shapes.
Shanghai AcrobatsLike this:
Shanghai AcrobatsThen there was the boy who performed feats of balance on a tower of chairs.
Shanghai Acrobats
His colleagues kept adding to the chairs until they stood 10 high!
Shanghai Child Acrobats

It was truly amazing.

At the end of the performance, there was a brief burst of applause as the troup bowed then they all stepped back politely as the audience began to quieue to have souvenir pictures taken with them.

The acrobats stood patiently, applauding after every photo was taken. It was obviously part of the job.

Not for them, wild adulation and flowers at the stage door.

Coming away from the performance, heart still pounding, there was one thing that stayed with me.

These performers - they were all children.

The contortionists must have been 10 at the youngest. The boy acrobats - and there was a whole troup of them - were teenagers, voices still unbroken.

My Westernised sensibilities bridle at the thought of rigorous training, daily performances and lost childhoods. And yet my Eastern heart chides me for this soft reaction.

Given the realities and extreme inequalities of China, an acrobat's life and the future it assures on the stage may be as good as it gets for some.

Other childhoods, other places.


21 August 2007

Siobhan Dowd

I was so, so sad to learn from a friend that Siobhan Dowd, author of A Swift Pure Cry and The London Eye Mystery has died.

I was at the London Book Fair when Siobhan appeared at one of PEN’s writing masterclasses. She stood on the stage and gave a deep sigh. Only recently, she said, she had been in the audience of aspiring writers at one of these masterclasses. She couldn’t believe that she was on the stage talking about her book. But when I read her book I realised she was not just a fellow traveller on the thorny path to publication - the emotional honesty and simple beauty of her prose revealed a massive talent.

A few months ago, I asked my husband to read my YA novel but he was reluctant, never having read YA, he didn’t know what standard I was aspiring to. I gave him A Swift Pure Cry. That’s the standard, I said.

A Swift Pure Cry is a beautiful novel with heartrendingly believable characters – from motherless Shell who resorts to shoplifting when she realises she needs her first bra to the alcoholic father who copes by sending the children to pick up the stones in the field.

I do not know Siobhan, but after reading A Swift Pure Cry, I felt like Siobhan knew me.

I grieve for this wonderful writer and, selfishly, I grieve for the books we will not be reading as a result of her death.


08 June 2007

Authenticity as Hostage to Expectation

I've seen two strong and sticky-in-the-mind Filipino movies the past few months: The Debt Collector and The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros (which coincidentally is showing at the ICA just until 20 June, catch it if you can!).

Watching them, as I did, in London, far far away from the land of their inception produced some uncomfortable realities.

Did I really want the rest of the world to see the grinding, smelly canal poverty in which these films were set?

Some of my Filipino friends were downright upset. One, a film-maker based in London, said, "There is a huge selection of Filipino movies, why do the gatekeepers of the London Film Festival only support the films that portray the awful poverty in the Philippines?"*

Interestingly, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who just won the Orange Prize for her book Half of a Yellow Sun, expresses the same sentiment (albeit from an African point of view):

Half a Yellow Sun"We have a long history of Africa being seen in ways that are not very complimentary, and in America [where she has been studying for the past 10 years] being seen as an African writer comes with baggage that we don't necessarily care for.

Americans think African writers will write about the exotic, about wildlife, poverty, maybe Aids. They come to Africa and African books with certain expectations.

I was told by a professor at Johns Hopkins University that he didn't believe my first book [Purple Hibiscus, published in 2003] because it was too familiar to him. In other words, I was writing about middle-class Africans who had cars and who weren't starving to death, and therefore to him it wasn't authentically African."

Madonna's not our saviour by Stephen Moss, The Guardian

Adichie by Martin Godwin

She is right. Authenticity, unfortunately, is a hostage to the expectations of the (Western) beholder.

I am currently working on a novel set in a dystopia modelled on the Philippine capital of Manila, for the moment titled Ugly City, a world populated by a range of characters - educated, uneducated, English speaking, familiar with third world poverty and yet well-versed in The Simpsons. In constructing this world I find myself editing the reality to fit reader expectations .

I salute Adichie — only 29 years old and walking the walk I'd love to walk. More than just winning the Orange Broadband Prize she paints a world of people — individual, complex and real — and not just the mass of suffering dark faces so ubiquitous on the television screens on this side of the world.


*I agree to a certain extent that the West tends to open doors to developing world art and literature that conform to expectation. However I think The Debt Collector and The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros were chosen for being damn good stories.


24 March 2007


Darling Mouse, Bowow wouldn’t like the giraffe but I think you would. It has long, long legs and a long, long neck. I don’t have to go into the zoo to see the giraffe because I can see them over the wall, they are so tall. Love, Mother

Excerpt from Volcano Child

I found out from my friend Anita Loughrey's blog that it was World Poetry Day on 21 March. Funny that — because I wrote a poem on that day. This is for all the children separated from their mothers, and sorely missed, whether by force of circumstance or by design, but especially for my son Anton, born on 22 March 1993, who died at five months old, a cot death.


Cherry blossoms cling
Like fat snow flakes
To the trees
Just like the time
You came to me.

People march
Up and down
Down and up
Busy as the time
You came to me

Life’s promises
Some granted
Hopes, some unmet
Still dreaming like the time
You came to me

I celebrate
Joy still singing
Life unquenched
Heart warm
And you, my son,

On Anton’s 14th birthday
22 March 2007


07 February 2007

Unbearable Truths

Louise and her brothers from the Channel 4 documentary 'Age 12 and looking after the family'Age 12 and looking after the family was the third in a series of films about children with extraordinary lives.

Many found the story of 12-year-old Louise devastating. Louise and her eight-year-old sister are the primary carers of her four brothers with one more sibling on the way. The parents are both blind and having refused government support, rely on their daughter.

The programme drew shocked commentary – on the digiguide forum, the comments have reached 23 pages at last count, and ran along the following lines:
I have never posted a message before about a programme that I have watched, but I felt compelled to do so and voice how ABSOLUTELY DISGUSTED I am with what I have just witnessed. The 'parents' are blind - not too blind to pour themselves a pint of beer and light their cigarettes tho... The filth that the children were living in, the way they were sleeping on the floor, when the bedroom got really hot - THAT IS SO DANGEROUS. These people need to have their children taken from them.
Interestingly, there was also a strong reaction from visually impaired people, who felt the programme slighted the ability of blind people to care for their children. Here is one reaction on the Radio 4 programme In Touch for people with visual impairment:
As visually impaired people my wife and I were appalled by the portrayal of the couple with visual impairments. They were perhaps emotionally damaged, they were arguably lazy but to suggest that their dependence on their older children had anything to do with their sight is an absolute travesty, which will probably damage perceptions of the rest of us.
The programme strongly criticised the film-maker Jane Treays for her portrayal of blind parents. Treays appeared on the programme to point out that it was about one particular family, and it was about child carers - not blind parenting.

I had great sympathy for Treays as she tried to defend her programme while expressing respect for the feelings of the offended blind people. Truth has its many sides to many people, and observational documentary can't quite present the "on the other hand" stuff you might find in a current affairs programme.
But can observational documentaries reflect any better the truth of everyday lives? "It's a huge question. What is reality? Are they different when I'm not there? I cope with it by literally making it my view of the situation. I write it, direct it, research it, and I ask very deep questions: 'What does that mean to you? What happened next? What are your dreams?' The films are like moments in time, because they are what happens on a particular day when I'm there."

From Jane Treays: Up close and highly personal (By Jane Thynne, The Independent, 7 February 2007)
What, indeed, is reality?

I asked this of myself while writing Volcano Child. The migration phenomenon in the Philippines is not going to go away, leaving many children in the same situation as Louise in Jane Treays' documentary.

And yet there are many who think open discussion of migration’s social cost is not only an insult to the sacrifice of Filipino migrant workers who prop up the country’s economy to the tune of US$12 billion – more than aid and foreign investment.

Besides, we are sensitive folk, we Filipinos. Recently, I caught the screening in London of two brilliant Filipino films The Debt Collector (Kubrador) and The Blossoming of Maximo Olivares (Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros), pictured below. Enthusiastic applause - except from several Filipinos who were worried that the gritty poverty so evident in the films would mar the image of the country.

Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros

This is one of the reasons why, unlike Jane Treays, I have taken the coward’s route — setting my story in a fictional location that just maybe could be the Philippines.

Nobody likes washing their dirty linen in public.


20 December 2006

Spare a Thought for the Virtual Mother

She took me into her arms like I was a baby. But the night was hot; you could light a fire where my skin touched hers and I wriggled in her embrace.

"Stop, Mother," I whined, my elbows digging away at soft places. "It’s too hot."

Mother laughed softly, laid her cheek gently against mine, and then quietly left.

When I woke up in the morning, she was gone.

Excerpt from Volcano Child

Following is an article I wrote for a mothering newsletter in 2002. Since I wrote this piece, my friend Frances Luna featured in the Radio 4 programme Motherless Nation, which I wrote and presented. In the original I did not use Frances' real name.

'Tis the season for demented shopping sprees, unmitigated parental blackmail and appalling infantile greed. It’s Christmas, here we go again.

But instead of indulging in the traditional yuletide whinge, let me tell you a story.

Poverty and abandonment by a philandering husband drove my friend Frances to seek work overseas as a cleaner. It was the only way she could support her seven kids.

Virtual Mothering: Frances views a photo of her youngest child who grew up without her

Early each morning before scrubbing her first toilet in North London, Frances pops into the local supermarket in search of bargains. A bottle of Nescafe Gold Blend, a tube of Colgate, a tin of baked beans. At the end of every month, she ships her little hoard of groceries to her kids in the Philippines.

"Why don’t you just send them the money?" I ask her. "These things are cheaper in the Philippines."

"This way," she retorts fiercely, "I feel like I’m really looking after them."

Frances is mothering her children the best way she can from across several oceans. She is a virtual mother.

This Christmas, spare a thought for thousands of virtual mothers like Frances. It turns complaining about Christmas excess into just another unnecessary luxury.

Frances has been working as my cleaner since 1994. She left the Philippines to work as a maid in 1988. Her youngest child was a baby, her oldest was 12. She didn't see them again until 2001 and yet during that time, she watched my own children grow up. This year, she is spending Christmas with them, five years after her last visit.

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10 December 2006

Disaster and the Politics of Forgetting

There was a lot of controversy surrounding the screening last week of Tsunami: The Aftermath, the BBC TV drama series written by Bafta winner Abi Morgan (Sex Traffic and Murder).

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a father searching for his missing child in Tsunami, The Aftermath

Was it shown too soon after the disaster (it is only the second anniversary of the Tsunami that devastated so many coastlines in 2004)?

A photo from the 2004 tsunamiDid it disregard the feelings of survivors and families of those who died?

A long, long time ago, I wrote an article about a tsunami.

It was rather ignominous journalism — I reported from the comfort of my desk at the Philippine Daily Inquirer in Manila, telephoning the mayor’s office in Tacloban, Leyte hundreds of miles away, to get the stats from a garrulous PR person. Earthquake out there in the sea. Very high on the richter scale. Drove a giant wave to the shore. Hundreds dead, so many casualties. Property destroyed. It was automatic writing as far as I was concerned. Then he said, wait a minute, there’s a man here who was a witness.

The man was sitting in the mayor’s waiting room, hoping to ask the mayor for some help. He took the phone and told me how he and his family took shelter behind a thick concrete wall, thinking the water would simply wash over them. But the wave was so strong, the concrete bowed inwards and cracked. His family ran. They made it but lost everything, their animals, their home. "I don’t know what to do," he said. "What should I do?," "Thanks for talking to me," I replied, eyeing the clock above the subs’ desk to check how much time I had left to file the story.

He was one of the lucky ones.When my piece came out on the front page of the following day’s paper, people complimented me on how moving it was. They said they were so touched they donated money to the tsunami relief effort.

The story was accompanied by a photograph. Four tiny white coffins in a church hall, a woman kneeling, head touching the ground. Weeping for her four dead children.

The photograph was like an accusation.

What did I know about how it felt, to have your life wiped away by an unexpected act of fate?

I knew nothing. I had no idea.

Sometimes I comfort myself, thinking, that photograph, that article, must have moved many to donate money towards helping those poor people.

But I was not to know. The story was over: even as people began reading the article in their morning papers, I was already working on the next story. Something about a clash between government troops and insurgents.

But of course, the victims of that tsunami had not moved on. They were in the thick of their ruined lives. They may still be picking up the pieces to this day, 20 plus years on.

Was it too soon for the BBC to remind the world about the 2004 tsunami? It’s never too soon.

Disaster is not an end. It’s the beginning of a long process of survival.

Please give generously to the Philippine Red Cross appeal for victims of the recent Typhoon Reming Disaster. From the UK, you can contact my trusted Filipino remittance company London Manila Express and cheaply arrange a transfer of funds to the Red Cross account.

Photo of Tsunami, The Aftermath © the BBC, photo of the tsunami in 2004 from freerepublic.com.

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03 December 2006

Calamity is about People

"They fled a toxic cocktail of volcanic gas and ashes and then suffered an avalanche of volcanic debris that has buried most of their homes," he said in an official sounding voice. "Now they shelter where they can —"

He pointed the camera directly at Mouse.

Mouse puckered his lips and made a rude noise, "Pfffttbbbfff."

Excerpt from Volcano Child

When you watch television news videos of calamities in the Far East, do you see sad, hopeless, faces with nothing much to say and nowhere to go?

When I see videos like that, I see my own brown face multiplied a hundredfold.

It happened again the other day.

Around Mayon Volcano, the scenery turned from this:

Mayon Volcano before Typhoon Reming

To this:

The aftermath of super typhoon Reming.

A super typhoon slammed into the Philippines and Mayon Volcano unleashed a torrent of mud and boulders, burying towns and killing (by the most recent count) almost 1,000 people. And there, on the BBC news, were the sad fathers and the sobbing mothers and the homeless orphans.

Living with mud.

This is one of the reasons I wrote Volcano Child. I wanted to show that calamity happened to real people.

Like me.

Like you.

The Philippine Red Cross is on the scene now and I am sure donations will be welcomed. This can be done via a bank transfer (see the bank details on their website). From the UK, funds can be transferred more cheaply via a Filipino remittance firm. The one I use is London Manila Express

Photographs © Tommy Bombon, English Al-Jazeera and Red Cross Philippines

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Who’s afraid of Imelda Marcos? I am

Nowhere in Volcano Child do I name the country in which the story is set. Why? Because of Imelda Marcos.

Article in the Financial Times about Imelda's recent move into the jewellery businessLet me explain.

If you’d never heard of the Philippines and you read my book, your own wonderful mind will colour detail into the story and the setting will be a parallel world which could be anywhere, informed only by the universality of its themes.

If I were to declare that Volcano Child was set in the Philippines, this is what many people are likely to say: "The Philippines? Isn’t that where Imelda Marcos comes from? The one with the shoes?"

Asia Magazine cover at the time of the People Power revolutionIn 1986, Imelda Marcos and her dictator husband Ferdinand fled their palace in Manila when it became clear that they had lost their hold on millions of Filipinos protesting peacefully in the streets. This was called the People Power revolution. When journalists and protesters entered the palace, they found that Imelda Marcos had left a collection of 3,000 shoes (US size 8 1/2) in her haste to leave. Pictured above left is Asia Magazine's cover story at the time of the revolution.

The shoes were an appropriate metaphor for their corrupt regime. Unfortunately as the years passed, the image remained stuck fast in the world’s consciousness. Mention the Philippines now and the 3,000 shoes immediately springs to mind.

Recently, Mrs. Marcos launched her own jewellery collection. It made headline news everywhere — pictured above is the feature the Weekend Financial Times ran about the collection. If you really, really want to read it, here’s a pdf of the press cutting, if you’ve got the bandwidth to download it.

It is very amusing, that one woman’s ridiculous obsession continues to attract so much international attention — nice or nasty, does it matter? She thrives on the notoriety, going as far as to open a museum of her famous shoe collection.

But spare a thought for an entire nation that continues to be represented — at least in the eyes of the rest of the world — by an ambassador of such dubious merit.


How is Imelda Marcos?
Are her shoes still on the go?
When I first came to London
It was all they wished to know
I tried to say that there was more
To me than meets the eye
That a flat brown nose and straight black hair
Does not mean I can’t ask why
They don’t try to get to know me
Or find out what I do
Or say Fine Weather Isn’t It
Or ask me How Are You
I tried to talk of normal things
Like Politics and Fashion,
Burglaries, Movie Stars,
Sport and Television
I wanted them to talk to me
The way they talked to each other
But all that seemed to interest them
Was Imelda’s collection of shoe leather.

Small Talk © 1989 by Candy Gourlay

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26 November 2006

Going on a Witch Hunt: interviewing the Santo Niňo

Resurrection wasted no time launching a campaign to save Miracle’s white eye. She lit candles at the church; attended church services everyday and fried up a side of belly pork for Father Bert the parish priest so that he would include Miracle in his prayers. She wholeheartedly believed that prayer would have the power to heal the white eye.

Excerpt from Volcano Child

In Catholic Philippines, the image of the Santo Niňo, as the Christ Child is lovingly known, is more ardently venerated than any other religious icon.

And here’s a claim to fame you won’t hear anywhere else: I am probably the only journalist in the world who has ever conducted an interview with the Santo Niňo face to face.

Ate Vecing – the Christ Child’s miracle workerIn the first installment of my witch hunt adventure, I described how my photographer friend Mandy Navasero and I observed and interviewed psychic surgeon Alex Orbito who performed bloody operations with his bare hands. Our next subject was Ate Vecing, a woman who performed miracles with the aid of the Santo Niňo.

The Santo Nino and Ate Vecing’s Chapel’Santo Niňo and Ate Vecing’s Chapel’ was an unassuming breeze block building with a large sign above the gate, here pictured with one of Ate Vecing's acolytes.

When our ancient Volkswagen Brasilia rattled to a stop in front of the gate, a woman came to greet us, dressed in white with a blue sash around her waist, blue rosary beads around her neck.

“Excuse us, we came to see Ate Vecing,” I said, politely explaining that we were journalists and wanted to write a story about her.

Mandy feeling for a pulse when Ate Vecing collapses

To our shock, no sooner had I finished speaking than the woman collapsed at our feet. Another woman in white with owlish spectacles rushed to gather her up.

“This is the Ate Vecing you are looking for!” she declared, rather imperiously.

“Is she all right?” Mandy asked, her voice anxious despite the fact that she was clicking away furiously with her camera.

To which the unconscious woman suddenly stiffened. “I am the Santo Niňo, I am the King of the World!” she cried in a high-pitched voice.

I didn’t quite know what to do. But Ate Vecing’s assistant seemed unfazed by the peculiar moment. She helped Ate Vecing back up to her feet – eyes still closed – and walked her into the chapel. On an altar, covered with a red plastic table cloth stood a large collection of Santo Niňo images. Rising above them was a crucified Christ and the figure of Maria Dolorosa – the sad Virgin.

“I am the Santo Niňo!” Ate Vecing piped up again.

Ate Vecing’s helper smiled encouragingly at me.

“Uh, what should I do now?” I said stupidly.

“Go ahead,” the helpful lady said. “Interview the Santo Niňo.”

All my years of journalism had not prepared me for this one. What was the etiquette when confronted with a divine interviewee?

I swallowed … and interviewed the Santo Niňo – who it turns out was pretty media savvy, opinionated about the state of the world, and given to speaking in verse.

Later, when Ate Vecing had emerged from her trance and the Santo Niňo had taken his leave, she told us her story.

Ate Vecing had a husband who beat her but she stuck by him because she was a woman of no education and they had eight children to feed. During one of his rages, he tied her to a chair and stabbed her several times with a knife. She survived and spent much time in Church begging God for an answer to her problems.

It was while she was praying at church that the Santo Niňo inhabited her for the first time. She found herself speaking in languages that she didn’t understand, speaking with wisdom and confidence that she didn't know she had.

Amazed supplicants watch Ate Vecing become the Santo NinoThe townspeople were amazed and word of her transformations spread quickly. People came from far and wide to beg her intercession with the Christ Child and the Virgin Mary. They donated sums that helped her build a home for her children and allowed her to live independently from her violent husband.

Most importantly, the group of believers that constantly surround her keep her safe from his attentions. Pictured is the small crowd that gathered while we were interviewing Ate Vecing.

Ate Vecing speaking as the Christ ChildThe Santo Niňo did more than just change Ate Vecing's fortune. He gave her peace.

Each of the Santo Niňo figures on the altar had a different facial expression. “See,” Ate Vecing explained to us. “Since the Santo Niňo came to me, I haven’t had to feel any pain in my heart. When I’m sad, the sad Santo Niňo speaks through me. When I’m angry, the angry Santo Niňo comes.”

Ate Vecing's collection of images covered a gamut of emotions and moods – even a flirtatious Santo Niňo.

Ate Vecing is truly blessed. The Santo Niňo has set her free ... in more ways than one.

Photographs © Candy Gourlay.


22 November 2006

Our Fathers

At the beginning, it was Father who was going to leave; it was Father we were going to miss. It was Father who was going to earn plenty of foreign money to fill our bellies and put shoes on our feet.

Like the characters in Volcano Child, my father went overseas to work because foreign money paid so much more than Philippine pesos. That was in the early eighties.

Orland Quimpo and family in 1986, shortly after he returned from working in North Africa. Photo by Mandy Navasero.

The week before he left he taught me how to drive the old Renault16 that he’d patched up from scrap. While he was gone, it was going to be my job to drive my little brothers to and from school (that's my family pictured above, soon after Dad came back from overseas. That's me second from left).

I remember how impossible it had seemed. How were we going to cope without Dad? What was Mom going to do on her own with six kids? How was I going to drive that car?

We did cope. Just. And I crashed the car twice in that first week that he left. But I did get better eventually.

Still, it was the loneliest time in the world.

Years later I discovered that there were hundreds of other young people like me in the Philippines who had experienced that same loneliness. Ask any Filipino, we don't have to try very hard to name someone close who left to work abroad.

When one thinks about it, the Philippines must have some of the loneliest young people in the world.

Portrait of my Dad, Orlando Quimpo, as a young manLast July, Dad died. He was 73.

To be really honest, I was relieved. He’d been dying for a long time, his last four years spent in a bed, unable to eat except for a tube into his stomach, unable to breathe if it hadn’t been for a tube down his throat, and unable to speak.

Dad had always been a brave, uncomplaining sort; my mother used to say that there was something heroic about him, that Dad was something of a superman, someone who could make things happen, you know the type. But nobody deserved to die like that.

After all we’d been through, my family saw Dad’s death as an end to a long and harrowing period. And so we were taken aback by the number of well-wishers who came to condole at his wake. People he had helped. People who had looked up to him. People whom he had cared for.

Orland Quimpo as a boy with one of his model airplanesPutting together an album of old photographs for the wake, we found images of a sparkling young man, obsessed with building model airplanes (that really flew!), an artist who was forever sketching, a tinkerer and gadget lover who could take a junk car and bring it back to life, a prize-winning inventor, a father who, confronted by children to entertain, could build a tank out of tin cans or a Christmas tree out of newspapers.

The fact was, we had forgotten that before he became a bed-bound patient, Dad had a life. And it was a life to be celebrated.

We won't forget you, Dad.

Orlando L. Quimpo died in July 2006 in Cubao, Quezon City, Philippines


16 September 2006

Going on a Witch Hunt! Psychic Surgery

“It’s only a story, Magic Auntie,” I said crossly. “And I was talking about witches in England, not witches in Santa Rosa.”

Magic Auntie stuck her bottom out and slapped it with a loud smack. “How is a fat bottom like this supposed to balance on a broomstick?” Mouse giggled and Bowow whimpered, as if suddenly afraid.

I scowled, but I knew that I could argue till kingdom come and the plain truth would be that Magic Auntie knew more about witches than I ever would. She was the real thing, a pro. Magic Auntie was a witch.

Excerpt from Volcano Child

Witch Child by Celia ReeseI once went on a witch hunt. No, not the accusatory, flesh-burning, blood-curdling sort of witch hunt described in that wonderful book Witch Child by Celia Reese.

It was the eighties, and I was a young, starving journalist on the look-out for pocket money and adventure. Mandy Navasero My great friend, photographer Mandy Navasero (pictured left in typical wacky mode), proposed we do a coffee table book about witches in the Philippines. She would do the photographs and I would do the text. So I hopped into her clapped out Volkswagen Brasilia and off we went.

Those were pre-Harry Potter days but I’d read quite a few stories about witches, usually to do with Halloween, brooms and screeching black cats. Nothing like the witches we met on our tour.

Witchcraft, in various historical, religious and mythical contexts, is the use of certain kinds of alleged supernatural or magical powers. A witch is a person who practices witchcraft, and may be male or female.

That’s what Wickipedia says about witches. Our first subject would not have liked the word – but what else would you call person who performs surgery with his bare hands?

Alex Orbito, psychic surgeonMandy and I were ushered into a hall filled with very ill but hopeful looking people. They sat in rows of plastic chairs peering through the glass wall that separated them from the brightly lit room where the 'surgeon' was operating on patients.

The surgeon invited us into the room. His assistants positioned me in one corner, at the foot of the operating table and put Mandy at the other end, at the head. A young woman wrapped in a sheet climbed onto the table.

The surgeon explained that the young woman had breast cancer and need to have the tumour removed. She bared her chest and he proceeded to knead the skin above her bosom. There was a loud pop and blood started to trickle from under his fingers. He began to pull little lumps of red fleshy stuff from her chest. The surgeon wore a short-sleeved shirt and, from where I stood I could see the area between his torso and the operating table – but no, nothing suspicious to report.

The whole time he was pulling blood and guts out of the woman’s chest, his assistants kept spraying the air with room freshener because, they said, he couldn’t stand the stink of blood.

Here’s a video I found of a female psychic surgeon performing an operation, all the while singing the Lord's Prayer. It’s pretty much similar to what we saw.

Now my friend Mandy is given to unexpected whims. When the surgeon finished and dismissed his grateful patient, Mandy wondered aloud if psychic surgery could help improve her eyesight, which was getting a bit blurry.

"Certainly," the psychic surgeon replied.

Mandy tossed her camera into my hands and climbed onto the operating table.

Without further ado, the surgeon shoved his finger into her eye socket. The eyeball popped out, or seemed to. He held it up to the light.

"Hmm, it’s just a little bit dirty. Needs a little wash," he said. His assistant rushed forward with a pan of water and he carefully rinsed the eyeball. He held it up to the light again, "Perfect!" And then he popped it back into Mandy’s eyesocket. Or seemed to.

Afterwards, Mandy’s eyesight didn’t improve but we came away with a good story to tell.

Later, I discovered that the psychic surgeon we met was quite famous. His name was Alex Orbito.

Here's an anti-quackery blog debunking Orbito's psychic skills:

… it's all an illusion by hiding animal organs and a balloon filled with fake blood in their hands, that’s that.

Even an amazing skeptic will be able to perform a "psychic surgery".

And here is a video of amazing sceptic James Randi doing just that:

In 2005, Mr Orbito was arrested for fraud in Canada.

Stay tuned for more true witch stories.