This Canadian is helping to build a recreational outlet and group solidarity among the poor in the Philippines.
I’ve been skateboarding on and off for over twenty years. When I was teaching English in Taiwan, I needed to leave the country to apply for a work visa. A high school friend was filming skateboard spots in Las Piñas, so I came to the Philippines, stayed with him and his family and did some video footage of skateboarding spots. It was such a wild week that for the first time I realized my partying was just too much. So I went home to Canada, saved money and came back to the Philippines about a year later. We kept filming.
There’s nothing like rolling down the street on a skateboard with my headphones on. I hold onto jeepneys. I go in and out of traffic. People say I’m crazy, but I get a natural high from it and sense of freedom. Everyone else is stuck in rush hour traffic, but I can go from Malate to Makati in fifteen minutes, down Adriatico to Corino to the highway to Buendia, then into Makati. That was what got me so caught up in skateboarding, not doing tricks on the board, but the freedom of rolling past everything with my music on. It’s bliss. Of course it’s dangerous being in traffic with earplugs on, but when you practice it enough you’re aware of everything. No, I don’t wear a helmet, only shorts and a tank top. Sometimes not even a shirt because it’s so hot. I’ve never taken a nasty spill in traffic. I’m pretty confident about it. Even though I’m in and out like a maniac I’m still somewhat in control, aware of what’s going to happen next and what my options are. If they’re not good, I’ll just slow down. But I have a sense of fearlessness. This freedom everyone is looking for, it’s hard to find.
Back home in downtown Vancouver, if I went through a red light in full-blown rush hour traffic, there would be consequences. In America I’d get thrown in jail. But here I seem to get away with it, although unfortunately my habits seem to have caught up with me. I’m thirty-eight years old, and I’ve sprained or strained this ankle many times. This current injury was from trick-boarding, jumping off something too high, not from skating in traffic. You see how swollen this ankle is in comparison with the other one. I thought it would just heal like it did the other times, but there’s a weird pop to it, and it hurts after I skate. It’s not as strong as it should be. It could be broken. It could be a snapped tendon. Or it could be just a sore muscle that isn’t healing. So next week I’m going to a sports therapist, who will probably tell me that I need either surgery or cortisone shots every six months. Maybe I’ll hear there’s nothing really wrong with it and I’m just old. I’m worried about it, but it’s rainy season time to take a break, although it’s been a test mentally. Usually when things happen I skate out my anxiety or my anger. So now I’m just being frustrated, sitting with my ankle up, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s been good in helping me learn to deal with things.
When you get to a certain stage in life, you want to put back into the community. Skateboarding saved my life. It gave me something other than self-destruction. When I wasn’t skating I was always getting into trouble. I’m very grateful, and I want to give back. For roughly the last four years I’ve been promoting skateboarding in the Philippines. I struggled a bit in the beginning, partly because I’m an outsider, partly because I’ve been sticking my neck out and making a statement, which a lot of people here don’t like to do. So I’ve gotten negative reactions. Sometimes I get called an arrogant, obnoxious Joe. One guy spit on me and wanted to get into a fight. But others have embraced my ideas because they want to see the change.
All over the Philippines there are little street spots that are unique in the world—and I’ve been to Europe and all kinds of places. For example, in Imus, Cavite, near the city hall there’s a cool plaza that’s one of the best places I’ve ever skated. Of course here it’s warm all the time, which as a Canadian I really appreciate. People are kind and don’t kick skateboarders out, which people do most of the time in other places. They say, “What are you doing? You’re loud, you’re noisy, you’re damaging property.” They see skateboarding as a threat, rather than as a lifestyle—as recreation.
At the plaza in Imus they embraced it, which is very rare. People were standing around watching us skate, and locals were skating too. We call spots like that hidden gems. They’re very hard to find, and when you find them you want to skate them all the time. They exist in all the little cities. In Batangas City near the city hall there’s a brick quarter pipe, a curved ramp which resembles a quarter of the cross-section of a pipe. It was built as part of a monument, but it’s ideal for skating. The architecture in Barcelona is like that, beautiful for skateboarding. I just came back from a trip to Angeles, San Filipe and Subic. In Liw-liwa, San Filipe, there’s a guy who built a skate bowl next to the beach, so you can skate and then go for a swim. There’s no wi-fi, and the phone signal is really lame. It’s the ideal place to disappear into, do what you love and forget about the mayhem of the city.
A lot of people like street skate spots. You can find little spots to skate, but you almost always get kicked out. Occasionally, you can buy the security guard a bottle of Coca-cola, and he’ll say, “Yeah, okay, it’s cool.” But usually you’re expected to behave like everyone else. In Canada you get thrown out less often than in the States. In some places in southern California you can actually be put in jail for skating. Here, oh they say, “Bawal na bawal” [strictly prohibited] but when you ask them for the ordinance code there isn’t one. They were told to just say no to anything that’s not “normal.”
On the way to Bicol there are little towns with open areas in front of beautiful churches. If you show up and ask permission politely—you smile you say kumusta [how are you] and gwapo [handsome] or maganda [beautiful], depending on whether it’s a guy or a girl—they laugh and say it’s no problem. There are a lot of hidden gems in this country, but a lot of people don’t come from abroad because they assume from the broadcast news that the Philippines is a third world hole with guns and violence and terrorism. Sure, there are slums in Malate and Tondo, but if you get out of the big city and into the provinces you’ll find it’s just beautiful—just jungle with little cities here and there and nice people, who may be living in shacks. I was in Naga City, Bicol for six months working for Gov. Lray Villafuerte as a skateboard park manager. I just hung out and had a good time with tourists there.
I’m working toward some urban development projects now. They’ve been slow taking off because a lot of the local governments don’t have land, and they have priorities other than building a skatepark. I have a contractor, and I resource land. Going through government channels turned out to be an endless process, so now I’m looking at the private sector to help set up multifunctional family facilities where maybe one kid could skate, another other use the wi-fi and the parents watch from a restaurant or coffee shop—like a shopping center with skateboarding. For the last year and a half, I’ve been working with Primer Group, a corporation of a lot of surf-skateboard brands. I come up with ideas and they give me a little money here and there, and the company helps out skate communities. Eventually I expect to be getting a monthly salary as an athlete consultant.
We’re making good, slow-but-sure progress, and the kids are very appreciative. The skate crews, or posses, include the Tondo crews—which I’ve been involved with the most—then the Makati crew near the KFC on Buendia, the Tagaytay mountain crew and the Malate crew. They’re just groups of kids getting together to have ownership. They don’t have a lot of money, so the structures they build to skate over are really shabby—made of wood rather than concrete. The community wants to build something like a box twice the size of this coffee table.
In Las Piñas we built a transition wall. There’s also a new indoor facility there, since it rains all the time in during rainy season. The owner of a warehouse wants to help the skate community, which us rare, like the security guard who’ll let you skate after you buy him a coke. We’re really excited about that. He’s charging 20 pesos [47 cents] to skate. We’re trying to get Primer Group involved so we can give back to him. I’ve been waiting a couple of years for something like this to come along. I was just about to give up on it when we started making progress. But that’s life, eh?
Skateboarding is a beautiful art form which allows people to express themselves. You’ve got your guys who cruise-board, your guys who jump down big things, and you’ve got some guys who just keep it simple. You’ve got your long-boarders, you’ve got your short cruiser boarders, it’s all different. Skateboarding always was a lifestyle and an art form. If the corporate world embraced it as that and understood the passion people have for it, there probably wouldn’t be such conflict. On the one hand, there are the smaller core skateboarders who want to keep it a lifestyle and make just enough money to be comfortable—like Primer Group, which wants to make a contribution, just good will. On the other hand, there are the corporations who started trying to take it over in the 1990s and promote it as an “action sport.”
People use skateboarding as an outlet to keep in touch with themselves for life. Surfboarders pick up energy from the waves, we get energy from the street, which sounds really hippie-spiritual, but there is an energy to it. Windsurfing, volleyball, football—those are outlets like skateboarding. When people get paid for doing what they love, that’s amazing, but also the way everyone should live. It’s harder now than it was in the 1980s and 90s. Still, skateboarding is forever.
Todd is now doing physical therapy, recovering and skating a little. He has returned to Canada for the holidays.