Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Philippines: A Reflection on the People

Until visiting the Philippines, I never knew much about them.  I didn't really know where they were or their history or geography.  Why did we visit the Philippines, an archipelago of over 7000 islands in Southeast Asia on the Pacific?  Well, we'd heard a lot about it as a magnificent tourist destination with a beautiful white beach, tropical climate and inexpensive costs.  Several colleagues mentioned it as their favorite vacation spot.

So we took our family of four away from the chill of freezing temps in Seoul to Boracay Island (about 4.5 hours by plane) for a two week vacation.  As is typical of vacationing in the Carribean, the tourists live vastly different lives from those who are native to the land.  Yes, the vacation WAS fabulous, the scenery beyond belief, the breezes and water warm, the water an amazing azure.  Yes, the food was delicious and cheap.  (I especially loved the fruit shakes and the crepes.)  But here I would like to reflect on the disparity between the life of the served and those serving.

Our vacation cost around $4000.  We find this reasonable and doable in our current situation.  This includes accommodations, airfare, food, entertainment, and souvenirs for 4 people.    This averages out to $289 per day.  Keep this in mind as I talk about the life I observed of the Philippinos who so kindly waited upon us night and day.

Everyone who has traveled to the Philippines observes the same thing: the people are gracious, polite, and go out of their way to serve.  They appear to be genuinely happy.  They are dark skinned and dark haired - reminiscent of Hispanics.  On Boracay Island the first thing you notice on the ride to the condo are the homes scattered along the one paved road (no stoplight or stop signs).  They are somewhat hidden behind corrugated metal sheets that line the road the way a fence or sound barrier might.  The living spaces mostly appear to be shacks with grass roofs.  Laundry is hung to dry, dirt and dust abound.  Children wander here and there amongst the abundant roosters and stray dogs.  Several miles of homes are tucked behind roadside businesses with open concepts (no doors only open window wells and doorways), as is possible in a tropical setting.  Businesses consist of a variety of services: pharmacies, groceries, bakeries, banks, money exchanges, fruit and vegetable stands, knick knack shops, handmade materials, toy stores (with faded and dusty kids' snorkeling masks to Barbies), a myriad of restaurants, an Animal Bite Center, a school, a Catholic Church, and gas station.  Noticeably missing are any fast food joints or outlets as well as cars.

There are no cars on Boracay.  All of the vehicles are designed for public transportation.  By that I mean there are hotel shuttles (mostly a cab with two benches in the back - we once fit 18 people into our shuttle!), motorcycles with 1 - 3 people (driver with a helmet), and trikes.  These trikes are nothing more than a glorified motorcycle with a sidecar big enough to hold 4 people.  With a driver and passenger on the bike, that makes 6 people the motorcycle.  Sometimes locals might hitch a ride by standing on the back, thereby making the motorcycle carry even more people.  Tourists pay an average of 20 pesos per rider (roughly 40 cents USD).  The drivers (all men) of the trikes seem to work this same 7 mile stretch of road 24/7.  I wouldn't be surprised to learn they work 7 days a week for 15 - 16 hours breathing in diesel the whole time.  Upon inquiry, one driver said he typically made 400 pesos  a day (that's about $10!)  I often wondered how they paid for their motorcycles, gas, and repairs!  Not surprising, I saw no trikes that looked new.

Our wait staff at Alta Vista were likewise amazing.  The same people seemed to be working behind the counter, cleaning rooms, or maintaining the grounds during our 2 week stay.  New Year's Eve we saw the staff working and entertaining us until midnight, then up again delivering towels to housekeeping staff at 8 AM.  To reinforce my observations that the locals put in long days, my friend observed that there were over 1000 people attending a 4 AM Catholic Mass the week prior to Christmas.  We surmised that the only time for them to attend mass was at 4 AM, very likely having to report to work by 7 or 8 AM.

And it wasn't just the adults working.   During the day young men and women would walk the beaches with their wares trying to sell the tourists hand carved wood sculptures of Mary and Jesus, shell necklaces, pearl necklaces, sunglasses, hats, fruit, icecream, etc.  In the evening, about sundown, the children would work the beach.  They walked the beach in a group of 4- 6 kids ranging in age from 5 - 10 years old selling handmade bracelets, ankle bracelets and necklaces.  While we may have seen them as pests, this was no doubt necessary for them to help bring in income for their families.

I observed the various wares the locals would sell on the beach.  Certainly some were restaurant or shop owners, but many were self-employed, doing whatever they could to make money: making and selling jewelry, carving wood into bowls or bongos, applying henna or permanent tattoos, providing massages, manicures, pedicures, foot scrubs, or transportation by trike.  Others had a small 6x6 ft. space for a shop selling fruits and vegetables.  Others were employees of tourism businesses providing island hopping and snorkeling, the zipline or banana boats.

Everywhere we looked, we were being waited upon by kind, smiling Philippinos who, thankfully, spoke English very well (the official languages are Philippino and English with 171 individual languages in the country, as well!)  Everyone seemed to be working for a pittance ($8 for an hour body massage, $20 - $30 to feed a family of four, $50 for 4 people to island hop, $1.5 per SanMiguel beer, $5 for a sarong).

So, in closing, let me say, my vacation WAS wonderful.  We got sun and sand and surf, mango and banana fruit shakes, and plenty of rest.  We made good friends and celebrated the birth of Christ at the Catholic Church and rang in the New Year  by watching 4 different fireworks displays on the beach.  We snorkeled and ziplined and tanned and ate a multitude of buffets.  More than that, we breathed fresh sea air, enjoyed the palm trees and clear blue water.  But what may stick with me most is coming to appreciate another part of the world and the people that inhabit it.  Our lives couldn't be any more different!  Thank you to all those hard working Philippinos who helped to make our vacation special!

And to the rest of you, if you ever get a chance to visit Boracay, I highly recommend it.

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