Monday, October 4, 2010

Living Up to the Hype

T's "I'm on a Boat!" face
We had pretty high expectations coming into the Philippines. It seemed like the perfect starter country, not only geographically (“start at the bottom and work our way up”) but transitionally from Canada to Asia. North American culture is very prevalent. I have heard Justin Bieber more times here than in Canada by far. I would guess there are more McDonald's restaurants in Manila than Toronto and more Starbucks in Quezon City than Ottawa. Today, Filipino cuisine is basically the same as Canadian -a mishmash of restaurants from every country in the world, with the occasional local food thrown in.

It's a country in transition from Third World to First, although still with large disparities between rich and poor. Linguistically, English is spoken widely. The people are known to be friendly, polite and generous, similar to Canadians (although Toronto missed the memo). Perhaps my heritage biases me and, consequently, the other girls, but we were expecting big things -hot weather, lots of singing and dancing and some beautiful scenery.

As we finish up our travels around my father['s]land, I can give you a better idea of what our reality has been. While we agree it was the best choice for our first location and all intend to return here again one day, there were a few things that didn't work out so well.

Geographically, it was a bit tricky in terms of getting around. With over 7000 islands, clearly there is only so much we can see. Unfortunately, we left our helicopter in Toronto and need to stretch our money over the next 3-4 months so buses and ferries have been our primary modes of transportation. Not only are these time consuming on their own with the horrific traffic of Manila (Day 1 – Auntie Vera: “Do you have traffic in Canada?” Ania: “Yes”. Day 3 – Ania: “We do not have traffic in Canada.”) but rainy season also held things up. We felt the wrath of Filipino October in Boracay, one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, where it rained the entire 2.5 days we were there. My attempt to defy the universe and sit on the beach despite the rain was punished when sandflies decided to attack.

Despite being fairly accustomed to seeing economic disparity in our previous travels, the level consumerism has been a bit of a shock. I have never seen so many billboards or malls in my entire life. Guess, Hush Puppies, Bench, Calvin name it, you can find it in the major cities of the Philippines. Within view of the malls and below the billboards are shacks or children begging for money or selling small items. Signs publicize that brands are here from the US/Canada/Europe and encourage people to buy these luxury imported goods. Shopping as an activity is promoted here like it is in New York. It's pretty gross.

Other things were even more simple than we expected.

Too Easy
In terms of language, we have been fortunate. Since most of our time has been spent in Manila, Quezon City, Bacolod or tourist areas, we haven't had trouble. It's a bit of a mind trick where Ania and I grasp at Spanish words in conversation to try to figure out what people are talking about. It doesn't really work, particularly when frequently used words like derecho, sigue and seguro all have different meanings in Tagalog. We only had communication issues a few times with the odd cab driver or vendor.

The food has been beyond our expectations. It is delicious. Chicken adobo, chicken asado siopao and pancit bihon are generally less than $1 for a serving and oh so good. If you want to be boring and get a burger and fries at McDonald's, they're about 50 cents each. We have not indulged in fresh fish as much as expected (Puerto Galera: “We're out”?!), but the shrimp, lapu-lapu and something else that I ate the other day whose name escapes me completely have all blown my mind. And the mango shakes, of course, will change your life.

Our first mango shake of the trip in Eastwood!
But the overall joy of this trip has been the Filipino people, of course, who have certainly lived up to the hype.

Living up to the Hype

This country is known as one of the most karaoke crazy countries in the entire world, if not the most. (Personally, I would like to see a global ranking system for this because I'm sure the Philippines would come out on top. If someone would like to fund this new organization, I would happily take this up as my new career post-No Plan Plans trip.) During the afternoon at White Beach in Puerto Galera, karaoke carried across the water to the beach for my one successful attempt at sunbathing during the rainy season. When we stayed overnight in Roxas, a teeny port town (town might be an inaccurately large classification) that we had to go through, we could hear locals belting it out at competing bars from our hotel room late into the night. Apparently Shakira is the artist of choice in Roxas.

But the inner divas aren't restricted to karaoke bars. Within the first two days of arriving, Ania and I had seen people practicing choreographed dances and rehearsing harmonies in the small Eastwood area where we're staying. Buying my usual chicken asado siopao at 7-Eleven the other night, 5 strangers started to sing along to Beyonce's “Halo” on the radio. They broke into perfect 3 part harmony within seconds. At the Negros Museum, our tour guide showed us the lyrics to the provincial song and then sang a verse beautifully, a capella, in the middle of the museum to Ania, T, Auntie Lenee and I. That was definitely a first at a museum for me.

Plus, all of the formal performers that we've seen live have been incredible (with the notable exception of Basil Valdez, but I think he hit his peak a few decades ago). A male trio at a hotel buffet in Tagaytay performed Can You Feel the Love Tonight and, if you closed your eyes, you'd be sure Elton John was in the room. Even more impressively, an incredible girl group with a male DJ performed at a seedy bar in Sabang. They were some of the best singers I've seen live in my life and they were performing largely for prostitutes and the Australian/European/South African men who were meeting them there.

Subtle Ania took a picture of a fishing boat in Busuanga. Upon checking the photo on the screen later, she realized that a fisherman on the end of a boat in the distance fully posed with a large smile for her picture.

Work it!

Helpful and Generous
I will be posting an article in the coming weeks on my personal blog about Gawad Kalinga, a development organization in the Philippines that focuses on nation-building by building homes and communities. This organization is largely funded and staffed by Filipinos and Filipino companies. (And harkening back to my last section, according to Butch Villaneuva, the head of community infrastructure in the Negros Occidental region, first TV antennas and then karaoke machines signal the change from slum to GK community!) The generosity and caring of Filipinos is evident in GK.

When Ania arrived on her plane back from Busuanga, she was unable to follow the bus directions I gave her to get back to the condo as the “Manila airport” is actually 3 airports that are not particularly close to one another. She landed at a different one from where I had picked up T. The abbreviated version is that she was trying to get a cab to reach the condo from where a bus had dropped her off along the highway and every cab driver, seeing her blue eyes and backpack, tried to charge her an additional rate to take her in the cab. She would have none of this. After being kicked out of multiple cabs for refusing to have her rate more than doubled due to her skin colour, a local woman who had been helping her navigate home since the airport finally shoved her into a cab, got her brought back to Eastwood and then refused to accept any money for the fare!

My dad's cousins, who I had no contact with prior to this trip, have been exceedingly helpful and generous. Auntie Vera has been driving us around the Manila area, taking us on day trips, feeding us, helping us figure out its ridiculous transit system and letting us stay at her condo. Auntie Lenee and Uncle Pepe generously hosted us at the very last minute, helped us research flights and buses, fed us and have been driving me around as I volunteer, do interviews and see the sights in Bacolod. Auntie Ana will be picking us up from the airport in Manila, returning from island hopping and taking us to dinner for our final night before T and I head to Indonesia! I haven't been able to meet up with Uncle Raul but he has been checking in and sending suggestions for places to see -next trip!
With Auntie Lenee and Uncle Pepe in Bacolod
When helping out at a GK site the other day, one of the residents presented T with a bracelet. He explained to her that it matched her earrings.

Big on Appearances
Okay, so maybe that was more about hitting on her than being generous. Or a bit of both. (I overheard him explaining to his friend later in Taglish -that's like Spanglish- how she was so beautiful.) But we'll take it as a symbol of the kindness of Filipino strangers.

So far we've benefited from the superficial preferences of people around the country. Ania's blue eyes have meant that she doesn't always get the best price quoted to her, but she can't walk 2 feet down the street without a smile and a “hello ma'am!” The Philippines became much quieter for me after she left to go diving. My mixed background has been a great conversation starter, breaking the ice to talk to locals, many of whom can tell I'm half. (I've also been pegged as Italian and Brazilian...the big eyebrows and squat exercises are throwing people off!) T is our resident Canadian celebrity, having been compared to such beauties as Shania Twain and Nelly Furtado. She got even more random comparisons in Burkina Faso, so I'm eager to see what else people come up with along our trip.

One of the few times we left the VIP section of Circa in Eastwood, hanging with the DJ and DJ manager
My favourite “locals” moment was in Sabang (Puerto Galera) when we were on our way to the seedy bar. Throughout tourist spots in the Philippines are spas with plenty of employees hanging around the streets to entice you in for “a massage ma'am”. Going through an alley to the bar area (this should have been a tip off that we were headed to the red light district if the red lights already weren't), there was a group of over half a dozen spa employees in their uniforms sitting at the side of the alley. After the usual chorus of “massage ma'am”s and our “no thank you”s as we continued on our way, one of them called out, “such beautiful girls!”. Immediately, they all broke into, “Beautiful girls! All over the world!” I have no idea if they rehearsed it, but it was completely in unison and incredible, reducing us and the staff into laughter.

For my final commentary on how awesome Filipinos are, I will leave you with two examples of innovation. The first is an account by my Auntie Lenee and the second by my Uncle Pepe.

The 1980's in Bacolod were very discouraging. There was a lot of poverty. The atmosphere was generally quite down. In order to bring up spirits in the community, the municipal government decided to introduce a festival. Masskara was born, a masquerade festival for the masses. It was a huge success! People don masks, partying in the streets for a weekend. There are performances, eating, drinking and dancing. Tourists come to be a part of this Asian Mardi-Gras. Unfortunately this year it is taking place a couple of weeks after our departure but the whole month of October still has the festive atmosphere with decorated streets and elaborate colourful masks on store shelves, on restaurant walls and on posters.

Family planning in the Philippines, the only Christian country in East Asia, is obviously a tricky subject. As is the case in most places around the world, the poor and uneducated have very large families that are difficult to support. In Negros, sugarcane is the major commodity and is grown on plantations, farmed with large amounts of manual labour. Since there is no electricity in the plantation area, after it gets dark at around 5:30-6:00 pm, there is nothing to do. And that's how babies are made, children.

Uncle Pepe's father, a sugarcane planter, had a simple, not-too-controversial solution to the population growth happening on his farms: a television hooked up to a battery in the plaza. He reasoned if there was something for people to do at night, there would be less baby making going on. A year after he began this experiment, the television was unplugged. There had been a boom in the population on the farm! The evening entertainment meant that parents could send their children to watch television in the plaza while they, ahem, tolerated the non-entertaining darkness. A brilliant example of Filipino ingenuity, on the part of the farm workers.

Peace out from Bacolod!

Coming soon: why no plans were the best plans in the Philippines and our country summary, complete with video montage.

If anyone has a favourite local development organization in Indonesia that I could be linked with to profile them and raise awareness via articles and blog posts, please pass on their info!

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