At a Philippine outdoor brunch, no one can hear you scream

by Aidan Morgan

The saddest, most terrible meal I’ve ever had was served to me in the Philippines in late summer 2004. I was a field producer at the time for a television show about historical disasters. It was a formulaic but popular program on floods, volcanoes and the most crushtastic engineering failures that the world had to offer.

During the selection for the international component of season five, one of the researchers found information about the Taal Volcano.

Taal holds the distinction of being one of the world’s smallest and nastiest volcanoes. It had killed hundreds of people throughout the twentieth century, periodically spewing cannonades of magma and boiling mud on the people who made their homes at its foot. Ever hot on the trail of old stories about the long-dead, my company sent me and my cameraman Greg in to investigate.

In countries where the population speaks only a little English and cultural differences need careful navigation, a good interpreter can make the difference between an enjoyable time in a foreign place and an endless nightmare of stomach-clenching anxiety and rage. My production company refused to spend money on a professional interpreter, so we usually ended up hiring someone who had been recommended by one of our contacts. These people were invariably useless, unemployable weirdos who seemed to take pleasure in working against us. There was the one who smelled of old sweat and didn’t show up for most of the interviews, the one who repeatedly showed up late and took offense when I mentioned it, the one who antagonized the interviewees, the one who dressed exclusively in leopard print and the one who kept bursting into tears every time someone brought up the topic of head injuries.

And then there was Dindo Montenegro.

Dindo was our tour guide and cultural interpreter, a flamboyant fixer who seemed to do a little bit of everything. I discovered that Dindo’s main talent was rapid smooth talk, effusive explanation and a semi-clandestine whispering that gave mundane details an inexplicable edge of excitement. He came with a young man named Anthony, who taught me the basics of picking up girls in Manila and seemed completely unfazed when I told him I was married. As we threaded the streets of Manila at rush hour, Dindo informed us that we were to be guests of honour at a luncheon three days hence.

The alleged lunch in our honour was being held in the small town of Lemery 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 knew who we were. The brunchers were wearing the local version of 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 orderly curls. Dindo went from table to table, assiduously introducing us to 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 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 of mostly casseroles — the local version of church picnic food. 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 from the sushi plate and began to pick at random from the rest of the table. I couldn’t tell what I was putting on my plate, and I wasn’t sure whether to ask.

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.

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 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. He slapped at an ant on his arm and popped another forkful into his mouth.

I realized that my good relations with Dindo had reached an impasse. We had a week to go.

Aidan Morgan reviews restaurants for Prairie Dog. Sometimes his arms itch for no reason.