the worst meal i've ever eaten, part 2

The next few working days in the Philippines set a pattern: wake up early, meet Dindo and the entourage in the hotel lobby, spend the day shooting and doing interviews in and around Manila. Dindo taught me how to say hello, goodbye and thank you in Tagalog. His protegé Anthony, a guy with wavy feathered hair and an air of 1970s-era insouciance, gave me some phrases for picking up girls in the Philippines. It did not faze him one bit when I told him that I was married. "So?" he said. "Man is for woman, and woman is for man!" Then he would point at the nearest young woman. "Look! When she walks past us, you say, 'Heeey, magandan babai'!" I thought that Anthony was twenty-five holding on to eighteen. I found out later that he was forty, and unsurprisingly, still single.

On the third day we shifted from Manila to the Taal area in Batangas. Dindo could be a little exhausting, especially in combination with the constant humidity and heat, but so far he had been everything that other guides had not: reliable, punctual, and helpful. When the foreign office had no idea who we were, Dindo smooth-talked them into issuing us press passes (I still have mine). When the police pulled our van over in a routine play to shake some money from us, Dindo told them that we were foreign journalists working at the behest of the government. And so on.

The lunch in our honour was being held in someone's backyard. As we pulled up, Dindo explained that there were many prominent people in attendance, and they were all expecting me. Greg and I began to feel a bit underdressed for the occasion, I in my jeans and light shirt, he in shorts and T-shirt, but Dindo waved away my anxieties. No problem, he said, this is a traditional Easter brunch, it's not formal. And anyway, he continued, some people there will not know who you are.

It turned out that no people there knew who we were. The brunchers were wearing what I suspected was their Sunday best: the men in pressed dark slacks and starched white barongs, the women in floral summer dresses and hair set in loose but rigidly held curls. Dindo went from table to table, assiduously introducing us to the the mayor and his family, to various council members, and to anyone he deemed important enough to deserve an introduction. Without exception, they greeted me with polite blank smiles and gentle nods, welcoming me to the Philippines and the town of Taal. They were friendly, gracious people who had clearly had no idea who I was or what I was doing there. No one invited us to sit down.

We sat down anyway, at the only unoccupied table. It was set off in a corner apart from the rest of the tables, under the shelter of a dead tree with curious brick-red bark. As soon as we took our seats I could see why no one else had chosen it. The chair seats and tabletop were covered in a layer of sticky damp dirt, with a few ants and other insects crawling on the surface. I brushed off my seat discreetly and sat down. Dindo and Anthony did the same. Greg gave me a glance that I had come to know as his "What the hell are we doing here?" look.

The lunch itself was a buffet-style meal. The most readily identifiable items were pieces of sushi, but I had no idea how long they'd been sitting out. I took two pieces that did not appear to contain raw fish and began to pick at random from the rest of the table. I couldn't tell what I was putting on my plate, but the entire buffet seemed to made of casseroles.

I tried a piece of sushi. Despite the overwhelming moisture that crept into every single thing in the country, the rice was chokingly dry. I swallowed one piece and moved the other to the side of the plate. Anthony and Dindo had not eaten their sushi either, but they were tucking into the casseroles readily enough. I tried something that seemed to be raw pink meat with a crust of corn flakes.

No good. My tongue couldn't figure out what I had just put in my mouth. My jaw refused to move. I had to reach into a core of calm, a near-Zen state of tranquility, just to unclench my teeth and bite down again. I couldn't even interpret the taste; all I could register was the raw texture, the overripe softness of whatever it was I had agreed to eat. I wanted to ask Dindo what it was, but he was ignoring me. He had picked up on my unease and had chosen not to talk me through it. I swallowed the food and readied myself for the next bite.

That's when I spotted the dog. It was making a thin yipping noise, somewhere between a bark and a whine, constant enough that I had effectively ceased to hear it a few minutes after arriving, but a sharp peak or break in its cry had punctuated its presence. I turned in my seat and realized that the dog was under the tree only a few feet from me, a tiny starved mutt in a wire cage so small that there was no room for the dog to move. It had twisted its body around to bite at its own hip, which had gone bald and raw. The thing was staring at me from its cage, eyes nearly rolling back in its head, baring its teeth at me before remembering to bite at its hip again. Its body was covered in little sores.

I looked at Dindo and Anthony to see if they had noticed the dog as well, but they had gone to get another plate of food. I leaned over to Greg, who was carefully moving pieces of his food back and forth around his plate. He hadn't taken a bite.

"Do you see the dog?" I whispered.

"I hate this place," Greg replied.

Dindo and Anthony came back. "You're not having more?" Dindo asked. "Go on and have some more". I explained that the traveling had killed our appetites, but in the interests of politeness I put a bite of something else in my mouth. Raw fish? I honestly couldn't tell. By this point I was starting to look forward to the breakfast at our hotel, which I had been told was a local specialty: pork gristle covered in chocolate. At least there was coffee and pineapple.

Then something stung me.

It felt like a little drop of something like boiling water on my foot. I looked down and saw a bright red mark, a rapidly rising little welt of fire. And then another. I took a closer look and realized that the ground was busy with red ants. These were probably the source of all the little spots on the poor dog. I stamped absently on a few ants. Then I felt one bite my wrist, and then another on my upper arm, and then on the back of my neck. Shit, I thought. The ants have crawled up the chair or the table leg. And then, sweet lord, I saw one land.

The ants were dropping on me from above.

I looked up at the overhanging branch and saw, to my complete horror, that the tree did not have the red bark that I'd thought. It was coated in a living, crawling crust of red ants.

Somehow I didn't scream "HOLY LIVING FUCK!" and bolt. I had reached into that same calm center that had allowed me to eat the raw-meat-and-cornflake casserole, and I'd decided to have a rational conversation about it.

"Mr. Dindo," I said, "I think we've got some ants at this table". As indeed we did; enough ants had dropped from the tree by this time that they were clearly visible, scurrying over the table and hunting down scraps of food.

"No we don't," Dindo said with a dismissive wave of his fork.

"No, Mr. Dindo," I said, "we do have ants at this table. We have ants, and they are biting me".

"No, they're not," he said, and went back to his food.

When I saw him slapping at an ant that had bitten his arm, I realized that my good relations with Dindo had reached an impasse. We had a week to go.