Maayong Pasko, Pinas Kuhan? ("Merry Christmas, where's my present?")

Christmas 2001

Early September: Cebu stores put up Christmas decorations and sales displays. I complained that Christmas season is supposed to start after Thanksgiving, but did anybody listen to me? Hell, they don't even celebrate Thanksgiving here, no wonder they don't know when Christmas starts.

Early November: Metro Gaisano department store had half of the ground floor devoted to Christmas decorations, toys and gifts. Time to start buying, but how many Filipinos have the money?

December: Filipino acquaintances and even strangers on the street started accosting me with "Pinas kuhan?" ("Where's my gift?"), accompanied by an outstretched hand. At first I was charmed. After awhile it just seemed rude. Finally (if you can't beat 'em) I started sticking my own hand out and asking for a gift.

Mid-December: Fireworks vendors set up their stands along Colon Street. Tables and tables full of firecrackers, sparklers, Roman candles, rockets, cherry bombs, barrel bombs and other scary-looking things with long fuses. Birthday of baby Jesus?

December 20: Christmas party. Gary my Java teacher at first resisted the idea of a party at his house, then agreed to it. We invited all the Java lovers we knew. The turnout included Gary, myself, Augie (another of Gary's former students), and Ana (she doesn't love Java but I think maybe she loves me, so she came.) We drank Tanduay and sang karaoke and danced to top 40 and bemoaned the difficulties of starting a software business in Cebu, until 3am. Ana got up and went to work at Ayala, I worked on my hangover.

Christmas Eve: Ana went home to Dalaguete on short notice, I declined to come along because I was still wrapping presents and getting ready for the next day. At midnight, Mark and Dave (two other foreigners at the McSherry), and myself wandered around downtown for a few hours. A wonderful scene: few vehicles, stores closed, and thousands of people out in the streets. A big mass let out at Basilica Santo Nino, with hundreds piling out of the churchyard. People everywhere talking, drinking and setting off fireworks. Pretty dang loud. Mark has "scared dog" syndrome, so he was complaining and jumped three feet every time a cherry bomb went off or somebody threw a lit firecracker at us. I was really digging it. We were hungry and wanted food, but instead of the usual barbecue stands everywhere all we could find was a woman selling hipon (salty fermented shrimp paste to be eaten with green mangoes) and ginamoos (fermented baby fish sauce.) Still hungry?

Christmas Day: Ana knocked on my door at 7am. She had spent the evening at her sister's house in Dalaguete with her family, eating and drinking and singing and playing parlor games. Then she caught a 3am bus back to Cebu and came to the McSherry on no sleep. We traded presents, she took a short nap and then headed to work at Ayala. This is the most Christian nation I've ever been in, but no way were those greedy bastards who own the malls giving their employees the day off.
About 10 am, Mark and I walked down to the pier where there are lots of poor squatter families. I had bought a big bag of cheap toys and candy yesterday, so we walked around playing Santa Claus. I had also bought one of those little wooden vendor boxes that I filled with cigarettes and candy. Every time we stopped we got mobbed by kids with outstretched hands. After filling empty hands, I'd get busy stuffing cigarettes in the mouths of the adults. What am I, a promo guy for Philip Morris? I can't believe I'm doing this, but it sure is fun.
Later we headed uptown to a poor barangay near Ayala and spent an hour finishing off our supplies. Then we met Remedio, a woman who said she and her husband had no work. We gave her the vendor box with a starter supply of cigarettes and candy; maybe she'll turn into a successful capitalist!

New Years Eve: I spent part of the day out walking, and the whole town had a frenetic atmosphere: jacked-up Filipinos without the caffeine. Fireworks vendors were aggressively emptying their tables amidst intense competition, I'm sure there were hundreds of these guys on Colon Street alone. Not wanting to be a passive observer, I bought a big bag full of firecrackers and rockets.
Gino the McSherry owner put on a big party for his employees: buffet dinner, a disco in one of the empty guest rooms, then a gift raffle of small apppliances (rice cookers, electric fans, etc.) I picked up Ana from work and brought her over about 10pm. The explosions were already pretty frequent. For the first time since I've been here, the swarms of street dogs and cats were nowhere to be seen. By 1130 the neighborhood sounded like an urban warzone with intense house-to-house combat. The bikini bar down the street was setting off big strings of firecrackers (one string has about 500), sounding like American gunships strafing Al Queda training camps in Afghanistan. Gino finally gave the OK for the pension house boys to set off the McSherry arsenal, with the expected result of wayward rockets shooting into open hotel room windows next door and showers of sparks spraying the exposed neighborhood electrical wiring (see photo of Andy setting off a cage full of big bottle rockets while smoking a cigarette.) The newspaper later reported several fatalities and hundreds of injuries in Cebu City alone. Oh, really?
By 1am things were quiet for the first time in weeks, just a residual pall of wafting smoke and gunpowder stench. Once Ana got off the phone (cellphone addict) we wished each other welcome to the new year and called it a night. 2002, please be good to the Philippines.

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