Three Historians Talk about Pearl History

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/w3csyp4p

A recent BBC radio discussion about the history of pearls, featuring Victoria Finlay, Beatriz Chadour-Sampson and professor Molly Warsh. It’s a wide-ranging discussion, touching on pearls from a range of times and places. All in 44 minutes, but it’s amazing how much can be covered in such a short time. They also experiment with dropping a pearl into vinegar, testing the legend of Cleopatra and Marc Antony.

I was particularly interested in the discussion of pearls in the Caribbean and the hardships faced by the divers there and in other parts of the world. The change from natural pearls to cultured is also discussed. In many ways, Mikimoto did the world a great service in eliminating the pearl diving business.

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Attempt to Revive Pearl Cultivation in Hong Kong

A video from South China Morning Post shows an effort to revive the pearl fisheries around Hong Kong.

 

The clip shows a seed being planted in the oyster, not a microchip. Perhaps that is inserted after the seed?

In this region, it seems the oysters are destroyed to recover the pearls. I wonder if attempts have been made to use processes which allow the oyster to be used multiple times? If the oysters can survive longer it would reduce the problem of destocking. But perhaps the economics work differently with freshwater pearls.

The video raises more questions than it answers, but a lot of information is conveyed in a short amount of time.

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The Professor Views some Huge Diamonds

The Professor from Periodic Videos is at it again. Alrosa let him handle some huge diamonds, including a few lovely coloured ones and he explores fluorescence again. He discusses types of cut briefly. We also get to see the cutting room, a close look at how a lapidary works at his bench and how lasers are used to quickly cut off large sections of unwanted gemstone material.

 

I was surprised to see that the laser leaves a black surface on the stone on the face it cut. But I should have expected it as a laser works by burning material. The diamond material, where the laser cuts, is converted into graphite by the heat. It really does generate a lot of heat, so water has to be directed onto the cutting surface to cool the stone, otherwise the diamond itself could ignite. That water, of course, then needs to be cleaned of graphite and re-cooled so it can be recycled. I don’t know why they don’t just dispose of the used water and use fresh, cold water for diamond cutting. Maybe it’s special water?

A huge pink diamond is showcased throughout this video. It seems Alrosa is expecting to sell it for some $tens of millions. It certainly is beautiful. There is also a big purplish pink diamond and a bright yellow diamond, which are also valued by Alrosa around the $10 million range.

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Answering Questions on Quora

Just before last Christmas, I started using the social website, quora.com. It’s a ‘question and answer’ site where anyone can post a question and anyone can take a shot at answering. It’s a bit of fun, but sometimes you come across some interesting content. I don’t know if any celebrities use that site, but some seem quite well qualified (according to the credentials they give themselves). Some answers are quite well referenced anyway, and I’ve learnt a few things from reading them.

Success on that site is firstly measured by ‘views’ (how many people actually look at your answer), then by ‘upvotes’ (how many people hit the button to say they liked what they read), then by ‘shares’ and I guess one’s real status is shown by how many followers you have.

I started trying to answer questions about diamonds, gemstones, history etc. I was getting up to about 50 views on some of my answers, which I think is quite satisfactory.

But after about a month, I happened to answer a question about Indonesia in a slightly controversial way. Well, that answer proved to be very popular. Since early February that answer has had 22,000 views, 426 upvotes and 6 shares. That’s a lot, by my standards. I’ve also acquired a few followers, though I don’t know why they chose to follow me.

A couple of other similar types of answers also proved to be quite popular. You tend to get most of your views soon after you post your answer. The view count might increase over the next few days and then they start to tail off quickly. So an answer that started getting thousands of views per day, after a month is now receiving a few hundred.

Sometimes Quora notices an answer that is getting good results and ‘promotes’ it by including it in the Quora Digest, an email it sends out to Quorans every day or every week, depending on what they’ve subscribed to. Some of my answers have made it to there, and it’s boosted the number of views they received.

But after the success I had with (slightly) controversial answers, I’ve decided to go back to answering questions on diamonds, gemstones and history (for the most part). It’s fun to engage with lots of people, but I prefer the satisfaction of sharing the little knowledge that I have with people to bring them to a better understanding of the topics I’m most interested in.

I also think it might be a way for people to find my book. If they like what I write on Quora, they might be interested to view my profile and find the link to this website and either engage in conversation here or find some of my bigger works.

So far, I think some people have visited here from Quora, but not in huge numbers. Perhaps it will happen as it did when I posted that slightly controversial answer, people will suddenly start visiting here en masse from Quora. But if that doesn’t happen, that’s ok too.

One of the real benefits of using Quora, for me, is to practice my writing and be open to criticism from viewers.

Another benefit is that I can find the questions people are asking about the subjects this blog covers, particularly diamonds for now. I have decided to post here some of these questions and my answers, and sometimes also the answers given by other people. That way, people visiting this site, and not interested in Quora, can engage in the conversation too. I’ll start tomorrow if I’m able to.

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The Professor Washes his Hands in Diamonds

Periodic Videos featured The Professor on a visit to an Alrosa diamond sorting facility. He shows us some amazing diamonds, including some coloured ones. Purple, pink, yellow, octahedrons, cubes, twins. Fluorescent colours.  We also see a few unique shapes such as one that looks like a hollowed-out skull and another rounded crystal with soccer-ball markings.

 

 

Towards the end, he gets to play with a huge basin filled with diamonds. It’s an experience few people get the opportunity to do.

Some of his quotes: “I just can’t believe that nature can make anything quite so beautiful.”

“This is the most extraordinary thing I’ve done on Periodic Videos… and certainly the most fun!”

Considering the amazing things that Periodic Videos have shown in the past, that last comment is a huge statement.

 

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Endpapers for a Soft Cover Book

The Guardian recently acknowledged the obsession of some readers for endpapers. These are the colourful patterned pages between the cover and the rest of the book, usually on hardbacks.

Although there will not be a hardcover edition of Known Only to Kings, Sam has made endpapers for it, and they will be included in the book. As you might expect, it’s a diamond motif, a repeating diamond pattern in light blue. I think it will look elegant.

It’s a little flourish to make the book feel a little bit more special when the reader opens it. Much nicer, to my mind, than a bare white opening.

I’m not sure how much it’s going to cost me. Maybe it was a needless expense. I’ll be interested whether any readers notice it or comment on it.

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How Diamonds are Formed

In Known Only to Kings, I give a brief description of what we currently believe about how diamonds form. As I said, there is a lot we still don’t know about it, and if we did know more, it would probably be easier to find more deposits. Kimberlite and lamproite pipes aren’t the easiest things in the world to find, knowing more about their formation process would surely help us find more of them.

Here is an article published by the Gemological Institute of America, which gives a lot of additional information. It’s not too technical if you persevere with it. There is also a more recent 32 minute talk, which becomes technical quite quickly, but if you read the article first, it might help your understanding.

 

I find with technical stuff it’s best to let it wash over and catch as much as you can. Eventually, you get to understand the words they’re using. It’s a bit like learning a new language.

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The Jewelled Gun of Sultan Mahmud I

Ottoman Sultan Mahmud I came to power mostly by good luck. His predecessor was deposed in a Janissary revolt and Mahmud became a figurehead until the leaders of the revolt became unpopular and a year later they, and 7,000 of their followers were executed. That left Mahmud to reign as he wanted.

And he wanted to write poetry. Affairs of state were handled by his chief ministers. They were involved in a European war, but their best work was done while the Persian emperor, Nader Shah, was distracted in Mughal India. He looted the Koh-i-nur, many other famous diamonds and a vast fortune from India. But it’s not easy to fight on two fronts. In fact, the destruction he brought to India caused the Mughals to ally with the Ottomans for a long time afterwards.

But Mahmud never went on campaign himself, which makes this gun even more symbolic than it already is. We’re so lucky these days to be able to view such a precious object. Notice how the curator handles the moving parts.

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An Idea to Coat Diamonds with Teflon

I attempted to answer a Quora question about the possibility of coating diamonds with teflon so they would not need to be cleaned so often. I pointed out some possible problems with the idea. But it was certainly creative. It will be interesting to see what other people say about it.

In hindsight, I might not have answered the actual question. I will need to try harder on this.

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My Manila Diary

Here is a compilation of the bulletins I sent to friends when I was living in Manila. I’ve posted them here for those who want to get an idea of what my new series of newsletters will be like. There will be less personal information in the new series.

I will probably remove this post in a few weeks.

 

 

7 November 2016

It’s hard to believe it’s over three weeks since I arrived in Manila. It feels like I haven’t done much, yet I’ve been busy. Lucky I arrived the day I did because there was a storm two days later and it closed the airport, so I would have been stranded in Singapore.

We’re in an apartment with a guard in the foyer who asks your business if he doesn’t know you and three guards at the front gate who let nobody through without good reason. They all have shotguns and pistols. So we’re safe here… until a guard decides to run amok.

One unexpected benefit is the complex houses a higher than average number of flight attendants as we’re not far from the airport. This makes hanging out by the pool a worthwhile activity.

We venture outside sometimes to visit the wet market (traditional market) as the supermarket is three to four times more expensive for worse quality fruit and veg. Imported goods and foods are terribly expensive. Fish is excellent value though.

We usually go to market by jeepney (a cross between a U.S. Army jeep and a bus), it’s quite an experience. You hop on and off at the back and crawl to your space on the bench, then hang on for dear life as the driver swerves through the stop and start Manila traffic. I usually choose to pay a few extra pesos to sit up front with the driver, which is much nicer. As long as you close your eyes. The reason I have to pay extra is because they can squeeze two Filipinos on the seat next to the driver, but my Western butt takes up too much space, so I have two pay for two.

To get to the supermarket we just cross a pedestrian bridge in front of the apartments. The steps on both ends are always occupied by child beggars. Some not long out of diapers, some should still perhaps be wearing them. It’s shocking to see them playing in the filth. But there’s nothing to be done for them as they are run by a criminal gang. I’m sure of this because each child is only there for a day and never again, so they must be getting rotated to other begging locations. Sometimes a guard from the shopping centre patrols the bridge and chases them away, but if there’s no guard, they’re always there. Nothing much seems to get done about the poverty here, maybe because there’s just so much of it that donations just get absorbed with no obvious impact.

Mae is a domestic goddess and a great cooker of fish. I’m slowly mastering the art of picking bones out of little fish instead of impaling my gum. I’m also the pasta and curry chef of the house. Home cooking is important as there doesn’t seem to be a dining culture here. Mall food is inevitably oily. There are no Chinese restaurants in my area. We may need to travel to find food we don’t have to cook ourselves.

The internet service in this country is appalling. Irregular, slow and expensive. It’s controlled by two providers. A bit like Australia’s supermarkets used to be. San Miguel is trying to be the equivalent of Aldi, it’s bought a big slice of bandwidth. But the incumbents have taken court action to block it. So competition will have to wait a few more years until it works its way through the appeals process, assuming San Miguel wins, of course.

Now it’s Corpus Christi and this would have also been a bad time to be travelling because most Filipinos take the opportunity to go home to their village about now. Those who are left either spend days milling around one of the big Manila cemeteries or participating in Halloween activities. As if Manila isn’t scary enough already. We have cobwebs, a headless corpse and dismembered feet in the lobby and witches, a body cut in half and ghosts hanging from the trees outside. In the mall across the road, children are dressed up in ghoulish costumes and make up (along with a few fairy princesses and pirates). They wander from shop to shop collecting handfuls of candy.
Mae’s deceased loved ones are in Negros, an island far from here, so we aren’t joining the exodus.

If you’re still reading, here’s a typical day like today for us:

Get up early to do exercises. Cancel exercises due to misty rain (apparently getting wet in the rain causes disease). Have breakfast. Notice sky is clear, put washing on. Log on to internet to check market, download one page and half of another before internet drops out. Find light switch in kitchen not working. Go upstairs to the rooftop cages to hang out clothes. Go downstairs to lobby to report broken light to maintenance. Notice clouds coming, go back to roof to take down wet clothes again (rain demons again). Receive notice from internet company, starting tonight there will be a two day outage while they ‘upgrade’ their system. Discover system is down already. Fill in application form for a fibre internet plan. Start writing about my experiences in Manila so far. Now it’s Noon. Mae has some little fish cooking on the stove. After dinner her sister Toots will come for a visit, bringing leftover sweets from Corpus Christi celebrations last night. Then I’ll follow up on why the maintenance man hasn’t called in yet. Then go to the mall to buy ‘load’ (phone credits) for my phone.

21 November 2016

I’m writing mostly to answer a few questions that came up from my last email.

Guns and Security
Although I consider the Philippines to be generally a more violent place than Australia, I’ve never felt threatened in the month I’ve been here so far. On the other hand, I haven’t spent a lot of time out of the apartment complex, and certainly not at night. On the whole, violence here is calculated. Unless it’s in response to a real or perceived insult. In Australia, violence tends to be a random event.

The only guns I’ve seen in public have been in the hands of security guards, but when you see signs outside the entrances to supermarkets and cinemas that tell you that you can’t bring drinks, food or pistols in, it makes me wonder how many people are carrying. I believe it’s quite easy to acquire a gun here, I read an article about a village which is famous for mass-producing cheap pistols to be sold throughout the country.

For all his faults, the current president has made people feel more secure. When I first arrived, Mae would be constantly reminding me to keep my phone hidden when in public. But people are quite relaxed about using their phones. Even in jeepneys, which were regular targets of pickpockets before the law and order crackdown.

The crackdown has come at a cost, of course. It’s said that over 3,000 people have been executed without trial for being associated with drug crime. Hard drugs have only recently been introduced in big quantities to the Philippines. This has brought sudden social changes which shocked the general public. This was the issue which the current president campaigned on. He was elected in a landslide with the public well aware that he has form in being associated with extrajudicial killings as mayor of Davao. But it’s not for me to criticise. Whether they did the right thing in voting for him is something they will have to examine their own consciences over.

Internet
The internet situation has improved dramatically since I switched from wifi to fibre. It’s still expensive, I’m paying about $37 per month for 100gb of data at 10mbps. I can pay more for faster and a bigger cap but it already feels faster than what I had in Perth and I don’t download movies so it’s actually working out cheaper than at home.

So for those who asked, this is how Philippine call centres are able to operate. They rent a fibre connection directly from the internet service provider. Simple as. I’m fortunate that I live in an apartment complex controlled by a company with close ties to an ISP. The building is wired for that provider. The overwhelming majority of Filipinos don’t have this option (if they could afford it). They rely on dodgy wifi which is unavailable more often than not.

BTW, the people working in those call centres have exceptional English speaking skills compared to the general public.

Philippine Economy
The Philippines was considered one of the most advanced Asian economies following the Second World War. My feeling is that it has progressed at a much slower rate than the so-called tiger economies and has been eclipsed by them. Manila reminds me of the Jakarta I knew in the 1980s, but with more pork and less street food.

I have a feeling that Indonesia is more open to competition, while in the Philippines the dead hand of the oligarchy drags down anyone trying to enter a market. I mentioned last time how San Miguel is being prevented from entering the internet sector. Another example is the airport taxi service. For a long time, anyone arriving at Manila Airport had the option of paying three times or more the going rate for a ‘chartered car’ trip to their destination or paying the standard rate and taking a yellow airport taxi. The problem with taking a yellow taxi is there are only 200 of them to service a major airport. So the queue for these taxis is often three hours or more in an unairconditioned kerbside pickup zone, with buses idling nearby. Why haven’t the authorities licensed more airport taxis? Because those taxis are owned by former generals. The generals like to have their taxis always full. I’ve heard the airport arrivals have been changed recently so it is now possible to get a regular taxi from there, but I haven’t tried it yet.

The change only happened after citizens demanded a better service, and months of lobbying the top levels of government. I would say this change only happened because of the demands of the middle class. The elite don’t care because they are collected by their drivers, the poor don’t care because they will take the bus.

I feel the middle class is only now beginning to emerge in the Philippines while it has been growing in Indonesia since the Asian Financial Crisis. A possible reason for the difference is that land reform was completed in Indonesia shortly after the Second World War and independence, while in the Philippines it was only partially undertaken under Corazon Aquino. While land reform causes years of underperformance (as in Communist China), in the long run it has created a nation of owners.

The island of Java is full of small farms which can support a family or be sold to fund a move to one of the big cities and eventually joining the wage-earning class. The Philippine countryside is full of farmers holding questionable title to marginal land on the edge of vast plantations owned by the same oligarchs who control all levels of government.

Two Presidents
Since I last wrote, the news here was dominated by Trump and Marcos.

I’m sure you’ve heard more than enough about Trump by now. But I’d just like to say that to understand why Americans voted for Trump you need to watch a few episodes of the original Apprentice, where he established himself as the archetypal boss. To understand Trump you should read his The Art of the Deal. If Hillary had read that book she could have anticipated him at every tactical step.

President Duterte seems to think he can get along with Trump in a way that somehow he couldn’t with Obama. Something tells me Trump isn’t going to do him any special favours. Trump might have many faults, but he doesn’t tolerate faults in other people. One of Duterte’s supporters once said his greatest weakness is that he is a strongman, which means he can never be seen to back down.

President Marcos was reburied in the national hero’s cemetery just a few days after the supreme court allowed it. The burial took place without notifying the general public beforehand, which meant there was no time for anyone to mount a demonstration against it. The official line is that he is being buried as a former president, not as a hero.

What I’m Reading
I’ve started on Blondel’s Song by David Boyle. It’s about Richard the Lionheart’s hijinks and what was going on in the twelfth century generally. It’s a fascinating period which is strangely ignored by popular culture these days. But all we get from the period is unhistorical Robin Hood films, when Richard I’s actual life was far more entertaining than any fantasy. I’m reading slowly because once it’s finished I’ll have no books.

I’ve also been researching online about the American writer Joe Gould. Long considered America’s greatest unpublished author, at least one film has been made about him. He’s presented as an eccentric, harmless, brilliant, loveable old man. Digging beneath the surface things are not so pleasant. Funny how the arty elite protects those it calls its own, but they’re also quick to abandon someone when perceptions change.

Financially?
I’m overweight gold stocks. That’s been a good strategy this year. It was supposed to be a good strategy if Trump won the election as the world was going to end. When it actually happened, gold indeed became a safe haven and the price rose strongly and so did the stocks. Then the financial market noticed that the world isn’t coming to an end, at least not today, and the gold price started to crash, along with the values of my gold stocks.

Apart from that, fundamentals have been good. My main gold producing company has defined a big new lode at one of its mines. Even so, its price continues to fall, it’s often better for a company to release no news at all when the market is dropping, it just seems to attract unwanted attention. One of my gold explorers released good drill results which is pushing it’s price up while its peers are falling. One of my Fraser Range explorers has found some sulphides among its drill core, it will be a few weeks wait for the lab to assay that one. My biotech hopeful released more results from its second phase medical trials, they look good to me, so fingers crossed someone in Big Pharma will make an offer for the company.

1 December 2016

Introducing Oliver
Or the true reason I’m in Manila (not that the reason I gave before wasn’t true…). This might come as a shock to some, others of you will have figured it out long ago.

Last Monday I became co-owner of a drinking machine. It’s not a drink dispenser but a kind of machine that consumes drinks. I’m not sure if such a thing has much commercial value, but it can do other things. It processes the drink into poop and pee, it burps, it cries, it squirms. Sometimes it smiles and those moments make me forget where I am. It makes other expressions too. I’m told that it will eventually acquire more apps, such as crawling, eating and throwing stuff. I will have to buy other apps, such as clothes and toys. The hard part will be the apps I have to build into him – respect, kindness, tolerance and so many more. But right now I’m concentrating on learning how to change his diapers.

When I change his diapers I remember King Henry VIII who was always attended by a Lord of the Privy Chamber. It was that man’s job to wipe the king’s pooper. He was happy to do that job because of the ‘access’ it gave him to the most important person in the country. It was a particularly challenging job for those who attended old King Henry because he was known as much for his incontinence as for his appetite for the richest foods and wines. So I think myself lucky because Oliver’s poop doesn’t stink and he’s kind of important too. At least everyone stops what they’re doing and gazes when he passes by. They don’t cheer, but they smile and tell him what a handsome fellow he is. Few kings ever commanded so much respect.

Anyhow, he’s unmistakably a boy. He came in at 3.5kg and 56cm at 11:22 on 21 November. We named him Oliver after my grandmother, Olive Mackay. She was a wonderful woman, the first to manage a supermarket in Perth. In addition to her business acumen, she was generous, pragmatic, forthright and had strong morals. If Oliver emulates her in any way I will be delighted.

Why didn’t I tell you about all this before?
At first, I didn’t believe I was going to be a father, not until Mae showed me the positive test results. Then I waited for the gyno to confirm that it was indeed a baby and not something else… though I was pretty sure by then it was going to be a baby. Then I thought it’s pretty common for misfortune to strike first-time mothers. By the time the chances of that happening had shortened, keeping the secret had become a kind of lucky charm for me. I felt that if I went around telling people I was going to be a father it would be tempting fate. To some extent, I still can’t believe it, even though the proof is wriggling around in front of me as I type.

Mum knew about it pretty much from the beginning, and my sister of course.

So who’s the father, really?
Honestly, it’s me. I fell in love with Mae ten years ago, but I broke it off when I thought it would take too long before we could be together. I wanted to give her the best chance of finding someone else. But I never forgot her. Late last year I found out she hadn’t forgotten me either and we got back together, picking up where we left off. As much together as you can be when you’re forced to live in different countries two flights away from each other.

Earlier this year, we travelled to Mae’s hometown, a little village squeezed between the sugar cane fields and the forested hills of Negros. I met Mae’s mum and some of her family. By the time we left the village, I felt the only thing keeping us apart was the laws of our respective countries.

So now I’m in Manila with a future wife and a present son. It’s our first day out of hospital after four days, which is another story. Between drinks, Oliver has been listening to the first three of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos on repeat. Dad has been learning more about babies than he ever expected to. Mum is also on a steep learning curve.

Next time I will write more about what happened after Oliver was born, but I think I’ve said enough for now. Those of you who have been praying for us, please keep it up. It seems to be working, even if you didn’t know exactly what you were praying for.

9 December 2016

Our Hospital Experience
One thing most people travelling in Asia should do but don’t is to research the hospitals before they go. It’s something I started thinking about when I was visiting Mae’s family in Negros and I thought – if I had an accident in one of the more remote areas it would take a long time to get medical attention. But even in the cities, which hospital should you choose to go to out of so many? It’s not easy to know, their websites all look the same and it’s not like anyone reviews them.

On the doctor’s recommendation, we chose a sort of middle-class private hospital for Mae to give birth, but in hindsight, it wouldn’t have been much more expensive to have chosen one of the best hospitals in Manila. Fortunately, we all ended up coming home in good health.

One thing that surprised me is the hospitals require a deposit before they will admit you. I paid 20,000 pesos (about $600) to get Mae admitted. One time I saw a family with a baby turned away from the NICU (Natal Intensive Care Unit) apparently because they couldn’t pay their admission. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise that was their situation until much later or I might have helped them.

Getting discharged can also be difficult. The hospital expects payment in full before you leave and they have guards at every exit. You need to show your discharge paper to the nurse, who escorts you to the exit. While it might be illegal for them to hold a baby until its parents can come up with the money, it would take too many resources to challenge them. Fortunately, hospital costs are much lower than you would pay in Australia, but even though I could pay immediately it took about four hours for the hospital to make up the bill. A long half a day sitting around the hospital waiting to be discharged.

Overall I think the hospital we used would be equivalent standard to a public hospital in Perth. I hope we don’t need to test any more hospitals before I can get a visa for my family.

Getting a Birth Certificate
The day after Oliver was born, the hospital records section asked me to fill in the necessary forms to kick off the birth certificate. After a week I should go to the local council to finalise it.

A week went by and Mae, Oliver and I took a taxi to the Council building. There’s nobody to look after Oliver and I figured they would need Mae to sign things, so we all had to go. We told the taxi driver our plans and he agreed to wait for us to do the business. But when we arrived he changed his mind, telling us there are plenty of taxis. So we paid him and went to the births registry.

Sugar, the lady in charge of Births, surprised me by being as sweet as her name. I think we were given a bit of priority thanks to the baby being with us. Unfortunately, the news she gave wasn’t so sweet. The hospital hadn’t sent her the paperwork. So we had to go back to the hospital to get the forms. This was when we discovered there weren’t plenty of taxis, in fact there weren’t any taxis at all.

The municipal building is in a strange location, halfway down a one-way street and past a huge wet market. It’s always jammed with traffic, so I guess taxis don’t like to go there. We had no other option than to take a ‘tricycle’, a motorcycle with a covered sidecar. They properly seat no more than four passengers, but here I’ve seen nine. The driver has to stand in his seat because there are three sitting behind him. Mae has seen tricycles with a dozen passengers.

The queue at the tricycle stand is nicely organised until the tricycle arrives. Then it’s everyone for themselves. People swarm the little bike to get a seat. I grabbed a seat but Mae came to it a bit late. I was about to give Mae my seat and follow on the next tricycle. Luckily the person who had the seat next to me gave hers up in consideration of the baby.

When we got to the hospital, we found the reason they hadn’t sent the paperwork to the municipal office was that the doctor still hadn’t signed it. After a week of it being on his desk. He wasn’t in that afternoon, so we went home.

The next day I thought we would have the same problem with our taxi driver, he was an old guy with a wart on the end of his nose. But he promised to wait at the hospital and at the Council office, so off we went.

As it turned out, he was a lovely old guy with an interesting background. 72 years old. He had spent thirty years working in Saudi Arabia as a long haul truck driver. Some of the money he earned helped put his three children through university. He had been back for two years and kept working because he didn’t want to waste his time sitting around at home. I asked him what he thought of working in Saudi, he said he loved it, he would still be there if he could get a working visa at his age.

We gave Sugar the documents from the hospital, signed some papers and she told us to come back next week for the birth certificate.

The next week’s taxi driver was a grumpy young man. He didn’t like the idea of waiting for us to do paperwork so we promised him a big tip if he had to wait more than half an hour. As it happened, there was no waiting. I hopped out of the taxi when we arrived at the building and went to see Sugar. All she did was write some numbers at the top of the form and that was it. She told me to come back in six months if I wanted a more fancy looking birth certificate. By the time I left the building the taxi hadn’t had a chance to park. Even so, with all the traffic it took over an hour to get home. I gave the driver a big tip anyway.

Taxis in Manila are cheap, when you can get them. They’re cheap, but not very good because very few drivers own their cabs. They rent their cabs for twelve hours at a time, so there’s a lot of stress when they’re trying to make their costs. I like to give them a sizeable tip, sometimes it really seems to make their day.

Financially??The price of gold took a nasty tumble these last few weeks and though I’m overweight gold stocks I didn’t have the sense to get out in time. I should have heeded the warning a few months ago when a friend congratulated me on my successful stock picking, that kind of thing is often a sign things are getting toppy. Now it looks like the price of gold is starting to find it’s feet again, but where it goes now is anyone’s guess. My saving grace is that I know to only invest in well-funded companies, so at least they should survive for the time being.

Oliver adds a bit extra to my outgoings, which I expected. So far it’s all within the budget.

20 December 2016

Internet fun
Our interaction with Philippine bureaucracy didn’t end with the hospital and the birth registry. We weren’t home for five minutes before the internet connection broke down. It would take fully four days to get it repaired. We wouldn’t have minded quite so much if the customer service line told us at the beginning that it was a complex problem and would take a few days to fix. Instead, we were told each day to wait for the engineer and every day the engineer didn’t come. We were prioritised, promised, expedited, guaranteed, advanced, promoted, assured, given utmost urgency. At one point I was being transferred to a supervisor only to find myself bumped onto yet another customer service rep. These guys are craftier than Telstra. The engineer even rang one time to tell us he was on the way. That was on the second day. We never heard from him again.

In the meantime, in order to get online, we eventually reverted to the pocket wifi that caused us so much trouble when I first arrived. A little bit of internet is better than no internet at all, at least I could send some baby pictures to Mum.

Finally, an engineer showed up and after he fixed the problem he told me my phone connection was old and he could replace it for 200 pesos ($6), that would stop the internet breaking down again. And no, he wouldn’t give me a receipt for that. As the building is no more than ten years old I figured he was telling porkies and decided to live without that extra upgrade. So far the internet has been working fine.

Being down on the Philippines
I tend to whine and moan a lot about the Philippines. If I liked motorcycle touring or sailing or scuba diving or rock climbing or American style food or jungle trekking or gambling or golfing or deep sea fishing or basketball or a host of other things… I’m sure I would be having a great time here.

Given its history, it’s not really fair to compare the Philippines with other Asian countries. Their history is more like that of a Central American country. Spanish colonisation setting up a hacienda system, followed by vicious civil war followed by US recolonisation followed by more civil war followed by continuous US intervention to prop up a decrepit elite. Followed by communist and native insurgencies which the regime never really seems to want to bring to an end. But the Central American countries didn’t also suffer a brutal occupation by the Japanese during WW2.

Plenty of expats choose the Philippines for their retirement, or even as a place to live before they retire. I’ve met people from the US, the UK, the EU, Switzerland and Australia who’ve chosen to call the Philippines home.

In fact, I have a lot of things to thank the Philippines for. Cheap baby clothes, plentiful and cheap seafood, tropical fruit, my lovely future wife, the fact they let me live here while Mae applies for her visa (not that the two things are connected). Oliver is a Filipino and always will be, even when he becomes an Australian.

But it’s more fun for me to write about my little struggles and conflicts than the everyday things that are easy.

I should make a blog/be a writer
I probably should, since it’s one of the few things I’m good at.

In fact, I kept a blog a few years ago and it was just starting to take off when the person who was doing the technical and design stuff threw a tantrum and stripped the site. A few years later I thought I would try again, but I got bored with the technical bits and couldn’t find a voice I was happy with.

I think most content providers get a raw deal from the internet. On the other hand, traditional publishers just seem to want to own a writer’s work and do nothing with it, so they’re not attractive either.

So I’m thinking about writing a book of my own and self-publishing it. I’ve written a few stories about scams I’ve heard about or experienced in Asia. I might be able to put them and a few more together into something people might want to read. It’s nowhere near enough to make a book yet though.

Oliver
He celebrated his one month birthday the other day. He loves to hear me sing ‘Happy Birthday’ as loud as I can. We can’t use ‘newborn’ sized diapers any more, he’s a good deal bigger than most Filipino babies.

He’s learnt how to cry and he’s pretty good at that. He tries to speak, but nothing coherent yet. He can lift his head, follow an object from side to side and up and down. He’s figured out how to resist swaddling.

He grabs at things randomly, he has a strong enough grip to cause a welt when he grabbed his own face once. It made him cry.

He’s survived one bad bout of colic and one of nappy rash, both caused by inexperienced parents and he’s better now.

Financials
If I had sold my gold stocks last time I wrote about how far they’d fallen, I could be buying them back today with a healthy surplus. Right now we’re enjoying a Christmas rally. Maybe the price of gold has stopped falling, maybe it will fall again next year – gold doesn’t react quickly to demand and supply signals.

One of my gold explorers has identified a 4.4km long corridor of gold on its tenement. That news did nothing to help its share price. Apart from that, there hasn’t been much news from the other companies lately, as you’d expect.

The Australian dollar has fallen against the $US, which is also good for Australian gold producers. Unfortunately, it’s also fallen a little against the Philippine Peso, which is bad for self-funded Australian expats.

Christmas
Filipinos are as crazy about Christmas as Australians. Never ending parties (luckily we’re off the radar, so we only had to attend one). If I need to go to the mall I do it in the morning before the crowds gather. I’m told travelling anywhere is hell, with everyone trying to return to their home village. The international airport is also jammed with people coming home from overseas.

Mae’s former employer, Debra, called by last night with a carload of toys, food, baby clothes and more. I think Debra is almost as much in love with Oliver as we are. We’re waiting for a special delivery of treats sent from Mae’s family in Negros.

We will miss the traditional Filipino Christmas because Mae’s sister’s children have flu and we don’t want to risk Oliver catching it. In these circumstances, I would normally book a buffet at one of the better hotels in town, but Oliver isn’t ready for long trips away from home yet. I’ll ring around the hotels and see if any of their chefs are willing to do takeaways.

28 January 2017
A small but major event
We’re planning to get married this Monday 30th January. Although it’s a major event for both of us, it will be a small scale. Just a few of our Manila friends and family. But don’t worry, you won’t miss out, we’re planning to have a Mass and party for all our friends in Perth some time after we get to Australia.

I asked Mae to marry me before I left home and I was planning all along to have ceremonies in both countries. This way we get to involve the most people from both countries. When we went to the municipal office a week ago, they said we could get it done in ten days, so decided to hold them to their promise and set the date then and there.

I was surprised how happy so many people are now we’ve set the date. I guess people don’t truly believe until you take action.

A big and major event
If all goes according to plan, Oliver will no longer be a heathen after 5th February. This will actually be a bigger thing here than the wedding, with people coming from all over Luzon and godparents from Java. Oliver will wear the same baptismal gown I wore many years ago.

So far I’ve found the biggest difference between a Philippine baptism and an Aussie one is the baby gets a multitude of unofficial ‘godparents’ in addition to his actual ones. This actually caused a bit of confusion between the parents. Mae kept announcing new people who wanted to be godmother, only for me to protest that we already chose a godmother, both of us getting upset until Mae explained carefully that the godparents we chose will be the official ones, the others… well, I’m still not sure what the role of the extra godparents is going to be. But I’m ok with it now.

Anyhow, we’re pretty busy preparing for a wedding and a baptism both in the same week.

Christmas and New Year
Christmas ended up being a quiet time for us. Mass at the local cathedral followed by a peaceful day at home. We found it very easy to get a seat inside the church, which is suspiciously unusual for Christmas Day. Then I started to wonder if we picked the wrong section to be in when I noticed the people sitting around us, some with tattoos on their hands, others on their necks and that was just the kids! Our neighbourhood is gentrifying, I guess that’s why I can afford the rent.

Leaving the church was fun too. For a long time, there was a stalemate between those trying to leave and those trying to get in. They have a lot of Masses here, one after the other, so you need to get in early if you hope to get a seat. Unless you’re not fussy who you sit next to. Thankfully there was no stampede and those coming in yielded to those leaving. I don’t know if that had anything owing to the people we happened to be sitting with.

New Year’s was much more fun, we stayed at Debra’s house (Mae’s former employer) in the suburbs and were treated to American style free flow of food. Debra and her husband, Bong, treated us so nicely and they loved Oliver.

Fireworks
In the days leading up to New Year’s, you can find people selling fireworks just about everywhere. In the shopping malls, on the roadside. I wanted nothing to do with them and Bong, for his own reasons, decided not to buy any. But as the day got closer temptation got the better of him. He mumbled something about needing to chase away the bad spirits and let the good luck come.

During the day of New Year’s Eve, I could hear occasional fireworks being set off. I could also sometimes hear a crowd shouting in the distance. I thought it was some kind of protest but found out later it was cockfighting in the village square. Anyhow, the fireworks became more frequent as dusk settled. Then we got some heavy rain and I thought fireworks would be off. But by about 10 pm the rain stopped and fireworks started again. By a little after 11:40 pm the fireworks started in earnest. The neighbours were setting off all kinds of rockets and wheels. We were lucky to have a little wind that night because there was so much smoke in the air. Mae told me there would have been even more fireworks going off in central Manila, but even though we have a clear view of the CBD from our apartment the fireworks would have been invisible in the fog caused by the smoke. In other words, we would have heard the fireworks but not seen them.

Bong waited until a little after midnight to set his off, just as the neighbour’s main fireworks were spent. His fireworks were the best of the neighbourhood. They came in six cartons, each box with a single fuse. Some spewed out a shower of lights in rapid succession, others held a dozen or so rockets which fired off one after the other. It would not be exaggerating to say some of the rockets could stand with the best of the Australia Day ones. Yes, we heard the sad story of why the fireworks in Perth were cancelled this year.

Private fireworks were already banned in Perth by the time I was old enough to miss them, so it was fun to be able to get up close and personal while they were being fired off. I didn’t stand all that close to them, I stood next to a pillar of the carport, hoping to duck behind it if one of the rockets went the wrong way, but in fact, there wouldn’t have been enough time to react. One of the servants, Belle, was so excited she danced around the boxes as they exploded, too young to recognise the possible danger, or to care.

Oliver
He celebrated his second month birthday a few days ago. Taken to sucking his thumb sometimes when he’s left alone. In a way, we’re glad because it means he’s gaining control over his arms, even though we’re training him not to do it. He gets frustrated and cries if we take his hand away from his mouth too often, but he also cries if his thumb slips out of his mouth and he can’t find it again. I didn’t realise how long it takes babies to learn things, but now I really understand the meaning of the term ‘baby steps’.

Apart from the thumb sucking, he’s a really good boy. Always well behaved when he has to leave the apartment for whatever reason. He has some lovely outfits to wear to the two big occasions that are coming up.

I’ll try to attach some photos, but if you’re on Facebook you can send Mae a ‘friend’ request, she’s always posting his latest pics there. Maybe we should set up a page for Oliver?

Financials
Weddings aren’t cheap, even here. The baptism will be almost as dear. The budget will probably blow out this month and force me to sell some shares before I go home for Easter. Luckily the gold price has been strong this year so far and it’s brought a strong recovery in gold stocks. Selling into a rising market is always more pleasant than the alternative.

Visa Application
As we’re getting married, Mae will apply for a visa as a spouse, not as a fiance. So we need to wait for the Philippine records office to issue a certificate of marriage to show to the Department of Immigration. That will take a month. In the meantime, we will start gathering the relevant evidence together so we can lodge the application as soon as we get the marriage certificate.

Some people have asked if they can help, the Immigration Department has a statutory declaration form where you can set out what you know of our relationship and why you think it is lasting etc. We can use that as part of the evidence for the application. Let me know if you’re interested and I’ll send you a link to that form. I can’t think of anything else you can do to help just now, but I’ll let you know if I think of something.

20 November 2017

It’s been a while since I’ve sent out one of these emails. I haven’t felt like writing while the visa situation for Mae and Oliver has been coming to a head. Now I have good news to tell you… the three of us will be arriving in Perth next week, 23 August. Oliver has his Australian citizenship and Mae has been granted a one-year tourist visa. You can imagine how excited we all are. We’re still waiting for a decision on Mae’s spouse visa application, but at least we can wait for that in Perth rather than Manila.

It’s been such a long time there’s so much I could tell you. But when I saw I was getting close to 2,000 words I thought I’d better close off and save it for another time. If I find the time in the next month I’ll tell you about my dental experiences, more about the transport situation here and maybe a bit about some of the characters we’ve met here. Anyway, I’m looking forward to seeing you again in person before long.

The Wedding
I guess you want to know mostly about the wedding. But there’s not a lot to tell you. It was quite an intimate event, just a few friends and family. My bride looked lovely, as she always does, and everything went off without a hitch. Those who love going to weddings will get their chance in time, after we’ve moved to Perth. If you’re wondering why we didn’t ask anyone from Perth to come, you might understand why a little further down the page.

About the only difference between our wedding and a Western one is that we needed a Ninong and a Nina, an older couple, in addition to witnesses. This older couple is supposed to make the marriage lasting through sympathetic magic. Talking about which, we had to order pancit at the wedding breakfast. Pancit is a dish consisting of long thin noodles, which is also meant to symbolise something very long, which is why we eat pancit here at birthdays too.

If we had held the wedding at Mae’s hometown in Negros there would have been more for me to write about. At least two pigs would have died and a crate of rum drained. Dancing and karaoke would have continued into the morning hours. But we didn’t want to risk Oliver travelling at his young age.

The Baptism
This was a much bigger event. We had a lot more people attending. Winarto and Liliek, long-standing friends of mine, came from Indonesia to act as godparents. They brought along their two cute little daughters and added some colour to the proceedings.

It was a long day for Oliver. We had to be at the church for instruction at 8:30 am. Then came Mass, then the baptism itself. About the only difference between a Western baptism and a Filipino one is that in addition to the official godfather and godmother there is an abundance of unofficial godparents. I still don’t really understand their role in it. As I see it, they’re friends who wish to have a continuing relationship with the baby and its parents in some way. Anyhow there are about a dozen of these secondary godparents, we had to pay an extra 110 pesos ($AUS3.00) for each one to be on the baptismal certificate, and we gave each of them a little souvenir gift, which is another traditional thing.

After that, everyone was invited for lunch in a restaurant (Original Savoury) in the mall across from our apartment. It’s one of three local chain restaurants that cater Philippine food to the middle class. The other two that I know of are Kuya J and Max’s. They’re all good value for money.

After the meal, most of the crowd moved on to our little apartment for the afterparty, which involved a lot of homemade food and much talking. The last guests left at about 3 pm and we could finally relax for a little while before I took my Indonesian friends to see the sunset over Manila Bay.

An Exciting Ride
One of the pleasant things to do in Manila is to watch the sun setting over Manila Bay. The best place for that is the seafront promenade of the Mall of Asia where there are fun park rides, drinks stands, restaurants and a fireworks display on Sunday nights. There aren’t many public areas like that in Manila where people can just relax and hang out. The main drawback is that sunset ends with nightfall, which can be scary.

It wasn’t hard to find a taxi from the Mall of Asia, but the driver said the road was jammed so he wanted 600 pesos ($AUS20), twice as much as we paid the previous driver to get there. I hadn’t seen any traffic jam so I told the driver not to be greedy and promised him 350 pesos.

As we drove, I noticed we weren’t taking the same route back as the one we came on. We went there along main roads, but we were returning via a light industrial/urban village area. I started to worry that maybe we weren’t returning at all, maybe the driver was going to take us into an abandoned warehouse where we would be robbed and worse. But I didn’t object to the route because I didn’t want the driver to know that I didn’t know where we were.

As the ride continued, the traffic began to bank up in both directions. Then an oncoming car veered in front of us. Our driver slammed on the brakes and stopped just in time to prevent a head-on crash. The other car also stopped. Our taxi started to drive around the car and I told the cabbie to drive on, but I knew what he was going to do. He did what every Filipino driver does when another driver has inconvenienced him, he pulled up next to the other driver’s window and started a shouting competition. But I noticed even as the other driver was trading insults, he was scanning the inside of our taxi. He and his passenger were well dressed but had hard faces and I won’t forget the coldness when his gaze met mine. His partner was pulling a satchel from their rear seat and I ordered the taxi to drive on in my most authoritative voice. Thankfully he took notice of me this time and the other car didn’t (or couldn’t) follow us.

It turned out that the taxi driver had been right about the traffic. He had been taking a shortcut and when we eventually pulled onto the main road we slowed to a crawl. I ended up giving him his 600 pesos plus an extra hundred, which pleased him greatly. I had let him sit through an hour of creeping traffic thinking he would make so little for his effort.

For a while, I wondered whether the men in that other car were criminals who thought it was a good thing to hold up taxis. But Winarto noticed we had passed a police station shortly before the incident, so they were probably undercover police. Knowing that they were police didn’t do much to settle my nerves. I’ve never seen police pulling out satchels when they’ve stopped a car before.

This happened around the same time the main story on the evening news was about a Korean businessman who was kidnapped by local police who executed him before the ransom was paid and then planted drugs in his office so they could accuse him of having been a drug dealer. They made the mistake of planting the drugs in daylight, in front of the office staff and in full view of security cameras.

I’ll never know what was in those satchels but these days we don’t go out at night. Not even for the nicest sunsets.

Not Everything is Getting Worse
The Western media is focusing on the bad news from here. James Fenton has written two articles for the New York Review on the extrajudicial killings that are an ongoing thing, you can find them online if you’re interested. But good things are happening too.

Smoking. President Duterte doesn’t like smoking and it’s banned in public places in Davao, where he was mayor. Since he became president, it’s become uncommon to smoke in public areas. There is some legislation planned, though I haven’t seen any details about it, I’m sure the cigarette companies won’t like it.

Gambling. Gambling is a national pastime. Every village festival and market day attracted a cohort of carny style gambling games at festival time and cockfighting on public holidays. These are now banned in many villages. There are still plenty of other ways for people to satisfy their gambling urges though.

Crime. As I’ve said in previous emails, people feel safer now. It’s mostly the police you have to look out for.

A Charitable Opportunity
A month or so ago, Mae told me about one of her distant cousins who had a baby boy. The baby was born without intestines connecting to any exit (I hope you understand my complex medical terminology). The doctors had to make a hole in his side then fish around for the end of the intestine and attach it there to let out the waste. Then the surgeon couldn’t connect the intestine to the side where they made the hole in, so they had to open up the other side before they were able to connect to the exit.

Last weekend we were visiting Mae’s sister’s house, which is in one of those urban villages of Manila. We had a visit from the baby and his parents. The father is only 17 years old and had to give up any ideas of college to support his unplanned family. He found work as a janitor, but it’s not enough to cover the ongoing medical costs as well as the living expenses. So they rely on the support of the other people in the village and people like myself. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to give much as I’m stretching my budget to fill the gap until my superannuation kicks in. But we gave what we could.

Some people would say they shouldn’t have had a baby if they weren’t able to support one. That’s very true. But the fact is that they did and we can’t blame the baby for the parent’s mistake. At least the father has accepted his responsibility, when he could easily have denied it and moved on as so many men do.

Oliver
We had a bit of a scare a couple of months ago. The rainy season has started and there’s a few more mosquitoes about than usual. One day after lunch, we noticed Oliver seemed to have a welt from a bite and we made a mental note to buy some insect spray. A little while later I found another bite, which puzzled me as I hadn’t noticed there being so many mosquitoes around. About an hour later, Mae called me over to see he had big patches of red all over his face, arms and legs and the ‘bite’ marks dotted all over his back. I went on to the Mayo Clinic site online and the closest thing I could find to Oli’s condition was measles.

So we raced off to a nearby hospital where the doctor diagnosed Oli with an allergy and sent us to the emergency. By now his rash had spread even further and some places on his face were swollen up like blisters. He caught sight of himself in a mirror in the lift on the way to emergency and that didn’t make him happier. His condition continued to get worse until a nurse injected him with antihistamine and steroids. I was on tenterhooks in case the doctor got the diagnosis wrong. But soon the red patches began to darken and the swelling eased. An hour or so later we were discharged from the emergency ward.

Since then we’ve done some testing and it’s confirmed Oli has an egg allergy. With a bit of luck, he’ll grow out of it in a year or so. Meanwhile, we will have to be careful with what he eats.

He’s a very happy baby. But he won’t be a baby for much longer. He can stand for more than a few seconds and with increasing confidence. I’m hoping he won’t take his first steps until he’s in Perth and my Mum can see him do that.

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