Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Hobbit House


The latest episode of Tony Bourdain's "No Reservations" found him in The Philippines where, in spite of his protestations to the contrary, he clearly found the food uninspiring. Having visited the archipelago (can it possibly be?) 20-plus years ago, I have to agree.

Which isn't to run down the place. The Philippines was one of the most beautiful places I visited in my years of traveling and its people neck and neck with the Irish for the friendliest. Unfortunately, it was also the poorest.

How poor? The taxi driver on the road from the airport (you could barely see your bags the lighting was so poor at Manila International) bought a single cigarette, not a pack, from a street vendor at a stoplight. After my traveling companion and I got to our ramshackle hotel in Irmita, Manila's entertainment-red light district (Asian cities don't make the distinction), we ventured out for dinner. Every restaurant had guards at the door casually leaning on their holstered revolvers. The streets were filled with urchins who would stare at you through the window as you ate your meal. Dickensian to say the least.

The one Filipino dining experience I vividly recall was dinner at the Hobbit House, a place known to my fellow traveler and others on the backpack circuit. Its entire staff was made up of dwarfs. They were waiters and bartenders, as wells as floor walkers pushing Hobbit House T-shirts and other merchandise as you ate. I don't know if they cooked the food, but I doubt it. Somehow I suspect the owner was a typical-sized person (trying to be PC here) who figured out a way to make a buck.

Exploitative? Maybe. But in a place as poor as the Philippines, there are precious few opportunities and services for little people who face far greater social, physical and health challenges than most of us. My guess is that dwarfs who work there have a better lives than most of their compatriots.

I searched the Internet and found the Hobbit House is still going strong strong. It has opened a second branch on Boracay, the island paradise -- and I mean paradise -- where I spent most of my time in the Philippines.

When I went there, Boracay was literally huts on the beach. Not so any more.

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