Sunday, April 6, 2014


Lance Brannigan (L) with me (C) and a colleague from British
Columbia came to assist post 911 in front of Engine 5 in 2001. 

I recently watched a Discovery Channel documentary about the attacks on the World Trade Center. There is nothing new for me to learn about the facts of that event. I watched the video because my old friend Jay Jonas was included.

I worked with Jay for many years. Jay was a Lieutenant in Ladder Company 11 when I was in Engine Company 5 in the East Village of Manhattan. We responded to many fires together. Jay was a top officer, highly competent, as was his company. We held each other with mutual respect. We knew we could rely on each other's respective companies to  be doing what they were supposed to do. We would ignore life threatening circumstances, events that, if not controlled, would surely kill us. We knew if Ladder 11 was handling it, we could trust our lives to their competence. It was a mutual affair and worked both ways. I was especially confident when Jay was in charge.

Jay became a Captain and was leading his new company, Ladder 6, on September 11, 2001.  Jay and his men became media heroes when they survived the collapse of the North Tower. They survived inside the building as they were carrying an injured woman down the stairs. Had they been higher or lower in the stairway they would have perished like nearly 3000 others that day. They survived because Jay made very difficult decisions. Jay and his men were aware that the South Tower had collapsed and their survival seemed dependant on running like hell to get out of the building quickly.

Jay ignored his survival instinct and made difficult decisions based on what the right thing to do was. They remained together assisting an injured woman, Josephine.

Watching the Discovery Channel Video what struck me was not Jay's incredibly courageous ethic. I worked with Jay and already knew his character. What impressed me how his men followed his lead without hesitation.

On arriving at the Trade Center when Ladder 6 got their orders to ascend into the building, Jay had a brief discussion with men from another company, Rescue Company 2. They acknowledged the possibility of getting killed, shook hands and went about their work. When Jay told his men their assignment he also said "guys, they are trying to kill us today".

The men of Ladder 6 simply said; "we're with you Captain".

Jay was well known in the Lower Manhattan Fire Service as a good fire officer. But beyond that, what is it that inspires men to follow a leader like Jay to nearly certain death?

It is solid ethical character that makes a leader. He will do what is right to the best of his judgement. Jay's values were based on the traditional, brave and altruistic values of FDNY. His tactics came from years of study and experience. His men, like me, trusted him with their lives even if it meant their liver were in danger. And their lives were in obvious mortal danger. All the men of Rescue 2 perished. But we will submit ourselves to the risk within the leadership values because it is the right thing to do. Period!

Jay modeled the right thing.

Jay in 2009, a senior Chief (Deputy Chief) FDNY

Am I still living from these kinds of values?

I do not live in the dangerous, high adrenaline world of New York City firefighting anymore, and I am thinking about values. I am a decent person. But am I living from the kind of values that were once a part of my every day life in the Fire Department?

Can those values be applied to my every day life today?

Can I, should I, seek to do the right thing always, even in the absence of life threatening circumstances?

In my placid everyday world are those values still relevant?

I guess they are if I say so.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Bacolod City, The City of Smiles

It ain't Kansas

My most meaningful experience from the last four years of world travel occurred over three days in Negros Occidental, The Philippines, where I became a part of a different way of life, a different way of being. It was quite moving.

I have been living in Singapore for a total twenty-six months since December of 2010. For much of my stay I lived very near the busy downtown section near Orchard and Scotts Road.  My apartment was in a quiet alcove of older buildings behind the fancy hotels, condos and Lucky Plaza, a not-so-high end, older mall where Filipino ex-pats gather on Sundays. The gathering of Filipinos, mostly women, set up elaborate picnics on the grassy hill behind Lucky Plaza that begin early and last until past dark. It's a colourful happy crowd.

 One Sunday morning three years ago while I was taking photographs of the picnickers, one of the groups gathered there invited me to join them.  I met Gwen and Angela, cousins who work in the nearby Marriott Hotel as cleaning staff. They were amongst a larger group of friends from Bacolod City in the Philippine province of Negros Occidental. Even though Gwen, Angela and I come and go from our home countries, we've remained friends. The ladies have been inviting me to visit them in The Philippines for three years now. Two weeks ago, I accepted the invitation and went.

It's a good idea to hire a car and driver when traveling in the Philippines. It's cheap, usually less than $35.00 USD a day. And with poor road markings, it is nice to have a local guide. While there are many different forms of ground transport, including licensed taxis, many provincial car owners are happy to be a driver and guide for a traveling Yank. The challenge is arranging for a trustworthy driver. Being the guest of Gwen and Angela, I had an inside advantage and arranged for Christian, Gwen's brother-in-law, to pick me up at the airport. As I exited the airport terminal, I got my introduction to how it's done in Bacolod.

Life with these nice folks is not a solitary experience. With Christian was his wife and son, a neighbor who drove, along with Gwen and Angela.  Turns out this was the smallest crowd I would be part of for three days. I attended two back yard parties and a wake for an aunt of Gwen's who had passed away a day prior to my arrival. I was welcomed by this community of people as if I were one of them. I was as comfortable with them as I am in my own family and communities. But then there were my eyes.

At first I simply thought I was a bit of a curiosity, being a Westerner and a little different looking. But people kept staring at me. When I would catch and hold their glances, they would defer and usually giggle. But the kids, and there were a lot of kids, just stared and held the stare as if perplexed.  I asked Gwen what was up.

"Your blue eyes" was the reply. My blue eyes killed them. Especially the children who had never left Bacolod City. Other than on TV, they don't see blue-eyed people. Once I understood that it became a charming experience for me. I would stare back at the kids and make a face. they would usually run away laughing.

Negros Occidental is an agricultural region growing mostly sugar cane. Bacolod City hosts two large call centres and hopes to promote more economic growth as the Philippines continues to grow and modernise.  The tourist trade is not significant. They hope to change that. I am glad I got to experience the place before that occurs.

Middle class Westerners would consider Bacolod City a poor place. But it isn't really. Economically, the people who live there do not have a lot. But they have what they need and have learned to take care of each other. Much of the region's financial support comes from folks like Gwen and Angela who find work abroad and send money home.  The World Bank estimates 10% of The Philippines Gross National Product is from remittances. Back in Lucky Plaza, the Filipino gathering place in Singapore, there are a dozen store front mini-banks that specialise in transferring money to The Philippines. On Sunday, the only day off for these mostly service workers, all the remittance counters have long waits for service. Now that I have been with these people, I understand what a sacrifice it is for them to be away from their extended network of love and support.

Gwen and Angela's best friend hosted a backyard birthday part for her four year old. There were about twenty kids and perhaps thirty adults. I was amazed at how well the children ranging in age from three to young teens got along. The women played games with the kids. The men stood aside drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. When food was served the entire yard came to a halt. It was the only time it was quiet. After the food, four of the guys dismantled the plastic tables that needed to be returned to a party rental place. They loaded the tables onto a motorcycle sidecar that the kids had been climbing all over during the party. It was a beat up bike, dented and rusted. I thought it was a derelict. The kids certainly had fun with it. These motorcycles with sidecars, called tricycles, are ubiquitous in The Philippines. I was truly amazed at how much they could load on to the contraption and still drive it.

Filipinos love, love, love Karaoke. They claim to have invented it and allege that the Japanese co-opted it. The Japanese name stuck. Many homes in the crowded sub-division we were in have big Karaoke boxes with giant speakers. As the sun set, the entire neighbourhood erupted with Karaoke.

I was, I am, moved by the calm and loving atmosphere present always. In my brief stay attending backyard gatherings, two parties and a wake I never witnessed any inter-personal stress between or amongst them. Quite the opposite, the love and support they show for each other is quite special.

The Philippines has problems. It is far from a perfect place. Its infrastructure sucks. While the government seems to be trying to reduce corruption, results are painfully slow. But if they get it right, watch out! The Filipino people are creative, adaptive, clever and hard working. And they are damn nice.

At the backyard birthday party, in addition to a yard full of kids and adults, there were two dogs, several chickens and four rabbits in a cage. I was watching some of the kids torment one of the dogs who really just wanted to nap. From under an overturned row boat hopped a rather ugly looking duck. It had grey, white and brown feathers with no particular pattern. It had orange circles around its eyes. It had only one leg.

The duck hopped determinedly on its lone webbed foot pecking at the ground competing with the chickens for scraps on the ground. Occasionally, the duck would fall down. Undeterred, it got right back up pecking at the ground and chasing chickens.

It was a perfect metaphor for the Philippines: a plucky, one-legged duck that would not quit. I suspect  if you put it in a pond it would swim determinedly, perhaps in circles, but it would not give up.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Philippines

I visited the Philippines for the first time for a week in 2010. I stayed in Quezon City, a sub-division of Manila. Last week I returned seeking a more meaningful experience of the country and its people. I was not disappointed.

I arrived in Manila at Nino Aquino International Airport stranded with no place to stay. There was a friendly Pinoy at an airport concierge desk earnestly trying to help and accomplishing nothing.

I blame myself.

A week earlier back in Singapore a Filipina work colleague learned I would be visiting Makati and invited me to talk to two guys selling condos there.  Makati is the up-scale, downtown part of Manila currently experiencing promising economic growth. While I am not much interested in owning new property, I am curious about the economic growth currently happening in The Philippines. I had lunch with the two friendly condo sales people and my work colleague. They offered me a free stay in one of their luxury condos in Makati for the two nights I was planning to stay there. And they will send a car to pick me up at the airport, all free!

There was a nagging little voice telling me something would not work here. I don't know why. I just did not have faith it would all come to pass. But my colleague was insistent, she was, after all, a cousin to one of the condo sales folks. I agreed.

When I got to Manila, no car. The friendly Pinoy concierge called the condo, no answer.

I find it amusing the Catholic Church considers itself to be mono-theistic. They have more saints than the Greeks had demi-gods. Most Filipinos are Catholic and celebrate many, if not all, of the minor Catholic holidays. The day I arrived in Manila was, however, a humdinger: Ash Wednesday.  There were no hotel rooms to be found.  The concierge happily told me there was free wireless at the concierge desk where I could use my laptop to look for a hotel. The wireless signal was more of a tease than a tool for booking a hotel.  

"Click here" it seemed to say. "Then wait and watch the little loading bar ever so slowly make progress; and just when you think it is going to load, I will disconnect you". 

My Singapore cell phone did not work either.

A woman representative from a fancy hotel arrived to greet her incoming guests and direct them to honest taxis, an issue in Manila. Prior to working at the fancy hotel, she worked for the airport concierge. In addition to being very nice, and earnest , she had a cousin in the travel business.

You know how geneticist say we all come from a common mother, something to do with mitochondria DNA?

In the Philippines it seems everybody in the country is somehow a cousin to everybody else in the country. Do a genetic map of that!

So the smiley, happy and earnest - I felt she would have taken me home with her if she failed to find a room for me - hotel greeter and former airport concierge arranged to get me a nice suite in a decent hotel near the Mall of Asia. I had to pay her travel agent cousin cash and get back in a taxi with only a voucher. I was a little nervous about that. But it turned out to be legitimate. The cab ride was overpriced, another cousin no doubt. But I was happy to get a room.

I spent my one full day in Manila near the Mall of Asia getting exactly what I was looking for: an experience of everyday people in the city. The noise level is high. There is music playing everywhere.  Shouting into inexpensive cell phones is apparently socially acceptable just about everywhere also, well maybe not in church. Manila is over crowded, a little smelly, and nothing really works the way it should. There is an attempt to do things nicely but they leave off the finishing touches, so to speak. They are a little frayed around the edges.

But all the people I met greeted me with a smile and made me feel welcome. I left the city with only a pleasant memory of the warm and friendly nature of the Philippine people.

Next: The Provinces; Bacolod City, The City of Smiles:)