Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Dark Clouds

I've debated writing this story for a while, but have held back because the fellow involved was still trying to get out of the country, and there was a fair bit of fallout from this incident; both legal and personal. But it's an example of how, just when you think you're in paradise and all is well, something awful can change your life overnight. I think it's a tale worth telling: judge for yourself.

Dean, the American Divemaster we'd worked with, lives pretty fast and lose. I'd been witness to a particularly reckless episode when he'd taken off his scuba gear before climbing into a 2' square hatch to the boiler on the Kogyo; I'd stuck around, wasting the best part of my dive, to make sure he could get in and out, at one stage having to push his tank and jacket in after him. Had he got in, and not been able to get back out...he'd have needed all the help he could get. All that to look around inside a boiler for 30 seconds?

He's a man looking for love in all the wrong places, illustrated when he paid for two girls he'd met in the notorious city of Olongapo to come visit Coron; it was obvious they were bar girls taking advantage of a westerner willing to splash out on them. To cut a long story short, he was getting nowhere with the one he liked, but decided to follow her back to Olongapo after the pair were asked to leave the island by a couple of locals. We were due to meet him and another diver to head for the wrecks of Truk Lagoon a few weeks later. These plans soon altered irrevocably.

Dean likes a drink, amongst other things. I've been on the back of a scooter with him late at night after a drinking session, and it was certainly a one-off. In Olongapo he took delivery of a fast bike, and it seemed he'd be there a while. It was little over a week later, after I asked how things were by text, that I got a message that everything had changed: Things have got far worse, I'm in hospital with a broken back and a dead girl on my hands.

He'd been hanging around the floating bar in the city; bar being a very vague description for this establishment. At 1am he'd offered a girl a lift home. Soon after, on a long stretch of road, a driver ahead performed an illegal U-turn ahead of Dean, completely misjudging the approaching bike's speed. Dean was thrown from the bike; the girl hit the pavement and was killed on impact. He was rushed to the local hospital.

This came as a shock to everyone, but not as much of a surprise; to neither people in Coron or Olongapo. He'd been drinking, despite his claims to the contrary, and had a reputation for speeding on his bike already. To make matters worse, the guy who'd made the illegal maneuvre leading to the accident was related to the Chief Of Police: this could get messy very quickly. It was pretty clear that the portion of blame was 50-50, but there was no way the locals would let go once they smelled the white man's cash. Getting out of this situation requires paying off the police to make evidence disappear, and paying the family blood money. She left behind a daughter, no-one knew where...and it would not be long before people started coming out of the woodwork to lay claim.

I got in touch with H, as she was flying into Manila from Borneo after a week's trekking. She knew Dean better, and it made more sense for her to go see him. We were under the impression at the time that the girl who'd been killed was a local he'd fallen in love with. H was quite shocked to walk into the hospital room to find the girl who'd visited Coron eating pizza and watching TV, and said she'd thought she was dead? It became clear that this girl had come back on the scene after the accident, and had possibly been sent by the madam of the floating bar to make sure Dean was not leaving; with two broken vertebrae and a fractured foot, this was unlikely.

Within hours, H found herself in a situation which did not sit well with her. A local from Coron had asked a friend in Olongapo to help, and he was doing all he could. Waton explained that the dead girl was not registered at the bar, and the madam and her henchmen wanted Dean out of the city as soon as possible, before the police started looking into her activities. Waton also told H that they would have to buy the police evidence and photographs of the crash scene, effectively erasing the incident, and then meeting the family to negotiaite a settlement. Often, working girls are disowned by the family, but they will still require compensating for their deaths. H is a social worker back home, and told me in an emotional phone call that she could not go through with it. On arrival, she thought Dean had tragically lost a lover, the reality was he'd been involved in the death of a young hooker, and the vultures were circling. She decided to leave and let Waton handle the business, but felt she was letting Dean down and worried everyone in Coron would think she'd abandoned him. This clearly was not the case: Waton had things under control, as long as Dean wanted to be helped.

H had clearly been upset by the fact that Dean was asking how he would recover his motorbike and helmet, and was concerned about his dive gear at the shop in Olongapo. The bike and helmet should have been the last things he'd want to see. A phrase he used implied he was lucky that the girl had no immediate family in the city, and that it should make things easier to settle. He also mentioned the fact he may still be able to make the Truk Lagoon trip. Strange things to consider with a dead girl on your conscience.

Life can change pretty quickly, and this is a tragic example of that. And life is cheap here, the blood money being a tenth of Dean's hospital bill. There's a family in Olongapo which considers the matter settled, and an orphan with an uncertain future. Dean's future is also uncertain: I hope he recovers from his spinal injury, and that time heals the mental scars; it won't be easy. He'll have to learn from this experience: a life-changing one. The last I heard, he'd made it back to the States, where they'd had to re-break his foot after the Pinoy doctors had botched the op; he's lucky they didn't operate on his spine, so hopefully he'll walk again.

Some of you may think this tale should not have been published, but it had a big impact on me...and I'm just telling it as it happened. I've tried not to be too judgemental; it was an incident which could have been avoided, with many contributing factors. If nothing else, it's a sobering example of how you just don't know what is around the corner in life.

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