“You can see the clubhouse at Timberland Heights from here,” Margie’s Auntie Vangy says on a visit one afternoon, pointing out the window of our condo at the mountains in the distance. “They always ask me to bring people there. They think, because I’m a doctor, I’m rich. But we can just visit sometime and make pasyal, if you like.”
I always like to make pasyal—it’s probably what I do best: roam around and have fun. A clubhouse in a wealthy enclave. I can deal. And, besides, I’d never say no to Aunti Vangy or any of my in-laws.
The following Saturday, we’re met by Auntie Vangy, in the company of a Mrs. Laredo of Timberland Heights. Margie and I sit in the backseat while Auntie Vangy, Mrs. Laredo, and the driver sit up front. Forty-five minutes later, we’re waved through the grand entrance to Timberland Heights by a guard in a booth. “See how close it is to the city?” Mrs. Laredo gushes. But what distinguishes Timberland Heights from any other development, says Mrs. Laredo, is how eco-friendly it is. Some of the lots are even classified as farms—organic, of course. On these lots, you can only build on 20 percent of the land. Forty-four percent of the community, in fact, has been designated as farmland.
I could imagine myself living here, I think, as we walk toward a cliff occupied for the present by trees and knee-high grass. A water tower rises in the near distance, but that’s the only obstruction except for the trees. “Once you clear the trees,” Mrs. Laredo tells me, “you’ll be able to see the view.”
“How much is a lot?” I ask when I step back in the car.
Eight-point-nine million pesos, or about $190,000, but that’s for the rock-bottom-cheapest lot, and that’s without the house, and no farm—hardly even any land between your lot and the neighbor’s.
Up, up, up we climb, on roads 350 meters above sea level. “Look at that view, sir!” Mrs. Laredo tells me. We climb toward the fabled clubhouse, a glinting structure as big as the Exxon Valdez. How could I have missed such a behemoth when Vangy pointed it out last week?
As we’re climbing, Margie and I notice that some of the property markers seem to designate sheer cliff sides fronting the road. “How do you build on a cliff?” I ask Mrs. Laredo.
She hooks an arm over the front seat and flashes us a smile. “Oh, that’s not your problem. That’s a problem for the architect,” she says.
“What about earthquakes?” Margie asks.
Mrs. Laredo shrugs. “We’re 1.5 kilometers from the fault line,” she tells us.
Margie gives a little cough/laugh at that and we exchange looks of disbelief. Well, yes, I guess tumbling off a cliff could be considered eco-friendly as long as the building materials were biodegradable. People certainly are.
Mrs. Laredo spots one of her customers, Dr. Lucinda, surveying his farm lot. A lot of Balikbayans (returning Filipinos) live here, she explains, waving to the good doctor, a balding man in his 50s sitting in a bahay kubo (a native-style hut) on his farm property. One Australian bought eight lots for 50 million pesos, or a million dollars and some change. The doctor likes the development so much that when he bought a lot with a house for 10.2 million he also bought the lot next door, as well as the lot in front, so that his view wouldn’t be obstructed. We park in the doctor’s driveway and are met by his wife, their son, and the son’s girlfriend, a woman in her early 30s dressed in a leotard. The son has just purchased an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, in Manhattan—so little space, he tells me, and look at what you can get here for that much. He goes off to play Frisbee with his girlfriend in the extra lot his dad purchased for 9 million.
Mrs. Laredo appears on cue at my elbow. “Look at that view, sir!”
She takes us across the street to the shell of a house, which can be completed to our specifications … if we hurry!
As we tour the half-finished house, I notice, a little down the road, a circle with a big H in the middle. “I was looking for somewhere to park my helicopter,” I tell Mrs. Laredo.
Mrs. Laredo tells me that at least four congressmen live here. “We have to be discreet,” she says. “We can’t say who they are. Unexplained wealth.”
An “African Jew,” she says, is the biggest investor in Timberland Estates—he’s invested billions. But, again, she won’t tell me his name.
We get back in the car and climb further to the clubhouse. “If you buy a farm,” Mrs. Laredo explains, "membership in the clubhouse is free. Otherwise, it’s 580,000 pesos.
“And look at that view, sir!” she says.
My God! I haven’t seen that view for 30 seconds at least.
In a couple of years, a sign as big as the Hollywood sign will lead people to Timberland Heights. “You’ll be able to see it from anywhere in Manila,” Mrs. Laredo brags. “If you’re lost, you can just point to the sign and say, ’That’s where I live!’”
But the Hollywood sign is hardly needed. The clubhouse of Timberland Heights sits as big as Chernobyl on the hill, five stories high, housing an infinity pool, a bowling alley, a karaoke lounge, a beauty parlor, a basketball court, a handball court, and chandeliers as big as water buffalo. Soon, a shopping mall, a five-star hotel, and an international school will rise behind the clubhouse, further serving the residents of Timberland Heights in their pursuit of self-sufficiency, clean air, and the simple country life.
Bodyguards must wait outside, which isn’t a problem for me (yet), but I am outraged that there’s no jai-alai court, and I ask Mrs. Laredo, why the oversight?
Margie tells me to be quiet, though she laughs. “Honey, they won’t appreciate your sense of humor,” she tells me.
Then we leave the clubhouse and descend the mountain to the base of Timberland Heights, where Mrs. Laredo wants to show us the butterfly house and the organic gardens. “It’s too bad you missed the farmers’ market this morning,” she tells me, “because the owners were selling their organic produce.” For a second, I envision the good doctor, his son, and the leotard-clad girlfriend hawking eggplants under the hot sun, but then I turn to Margie.
“The owners don’t sell their produce, do they?” I say. “The servants do.”
“Of course,” she says, as though I just don’t get it. In the clubhouse, a scale model of Timberland Heights is kept like the Ark of the Covenant.
“Maybe I can afford the scale model,” I say, and Margie shoots me a look. A poster beside the scale model proudly proclaims Eco Estate’s raison d’être:
The encroachment of progress has laid siege upon our natural resources and it is up to us to take responsibility for the land. We intend to realize this vision of ecological responsibility at Timberland Heights, a natural living sanctuary where men and nature could harmoniously exist side-by-side. By designing a community that blends in and enhances the lay of the land, we create a viable haven for generations to come.
I’ve read some fine bullshit over the years, but this is the richest. One word of this credo could fertilize an organic farm for a year.
Mrs. Laredo hands us off to a middle-aged man wearing a U.S. Embassy T-shirt, who takes us to a picnic table and tells us of more of Timberland Heights’s wonders: a 24-kilometer nature trail, three waterfalls, and 10,000 trees that have been planted. Where? I wonder. All I saw were hectares of denuded hillsides. Perhaps they planted them in the scale model?
This is a great time to buy, because of the economic crisis, he tells me, as we eat glow-in-the-dark macaroni salad. Once the crisis is over, it won’t be so good anymore. Ninety-five percent of Mandala One (the farmland) has been sold and only 30 percent of Mandala Two remains. It’s here I point out to the man that I am a foreigner and so cannot by law own any portion of Mandala One or Two—and even though I trust Margie (though not quite so much after this escapade), I’d want my name on any property I bought.
Sad, sad, sad, that I cannot be part of this grand environmental endeavor after all. As we drive away, I take one last look at the clubhouse, which is as big as the spaceship in WALL-E carrying all those immobile fatties far away from Earth. Outside the gates, there’s something comforting in the familiar sights: shanties, people burning garbage by the side of the road, a man peeing on a wall unabashedly.