Back to the Philippines

17 04 2011

So its been a long time since I’ve posted, and you may be wondering what exactly happened to me after Taiwan. Well, I returned to the Philippines of course! I’ve been living here about 3 months now with Gloria, the wonderful girlfriend I made before I originally left the last time. I’ve since found work, visited her family in Mindanao, taken business and leisure trips, learned lots of Tagalog, and learned lots more about what I like and dislike about this country.

Let’s back it up. On January 12th, I re-arrived back in Manila and b-lined it immediately north, on the 7 hour bus ride back up to San Fernando, where I fell into the arms of long awaited Gloria! We spent about a week or so in San Fernando, visiting old friends, doing some minor excursions, and pondering our future. I knew I wanted to start looking for short term employment here, as I didn’t want to go home in March (the date of expiry of my old plane ticket, and my only option if I couldn’t get any work, as I’d probably have been out of money by then), so I started emailing old contacts for ideas.

Not more than a couple days later, I had arranged myself an interview with the Center for Advanced Philippine Studies in Manila, thanks to a glowing reference from my old American colleague from USAID who had supervised our sanitation work before. We travelled down to Manila and I got the job: a 5 month contract to research and document cases of decentralized sanitation and ecological sanitation projects in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. While they could only pay me a Filipino salary (25,000 Pesos per month, like 500 bucks), I was nevertheless happy, as it meant it would be enough money to keep me here for that time being with Gloria.

However, they wanted me to start soon, on Feb. 1st, though Gloria had been yearning for me to take her to Mindanao so that she could visit her family (who she hadn’t seen in 8 years) for a few months at least. This ‘few months’ idea unfortunately couldn’t be, but we nevertheless agreed to do a hasty 8 day trip there. So, we raced back up to San Fernando, she packed her bags, I booked tickets, and we raced back down to Manila for the flight. The original idea was that we’d go 8 days, then she might stay longer while I came back to start work (but, of course, after being apart so long, she couldn’t bear to leave me again and so came back with me after those only 8 days).

The flight was fun, as she had never flown before and was, of course, scared! It was then a couple hour bus ride from Cagayan de Oro airport over to Iligan City, which we arrived at in the evening and where her parents were waiting for us. I figured there would be an emotional reunion after 8 years apart, but pretty much all they did was hug and start chatting/gossiping/arguing as if they had never been apart! Only in the Philippines..!

We spent that night in Iligan, then rejoined her family in the morning out in a small nearby town, about a 30 minute, 2 jeep, ride away. There was definitely some initial shock for me to come across their tiny, electricity/water-less shack and the volume of people inhabiting it (see photos below), but everyone was super nice and we luckily got put up in the somewhat less populated and more comfortable beach shack of Gloria’s aunt and uncle. Our days were spent mainly by Gloria catching up with her family (which seemed mainly to consist of fighting a lot!) and with seemingly simple tasks becoming major affairs – e.g. doing the wash was a hour-long affair at least, including walks over to the well and the various gossip that happened there (and Gloria insisted on doing it at least every other day); cooking food (especially dinner, when it was dark and there was only light from 2 little oil candles) always took a few hours (even if we were just making rice and a simple vegetable dish; which was the staple {with the veggies provided free from the nearby wild bushes} – most meat or fish was bought by me and not something they saw too often); and most days involved an hour or two trip into the nearby small town for provisioning or errands. On the remaining time we played on the beach, visited the gorgeous Maria Cristina Falls, Tinago Falls, another swimming river, a spring-fed swimming pool, Iligan City, and other such places (see photos below).

Needless to say, this was a part of the world that basically never saw foreigners, especially a young, tall, handsome white guy (their words, not mine!), so the number of “Hey Joe!”s (that also occurred occasionally elsewhere in this country) I received skyrocketed, and I usually had at least 5 or 10 children from the nearby fisherman’s village following us around. Any time we approached a school or market or other congregating place, most activity paused for a lot of open staring, and if I did anything unusual, such as carrying a 15kg bag of rice we bought by balancing it on my head through town – a la African woman style – I went from a minor celebrity to a major one!

The other funny story was on the first night in the village, we were going to take a shower, which is done at the communal well via bucket and scoop, and is always done in at least some clothing, unless you’re a small child. I knew clothes were suggested, but I had just been in Japan (where everyone is naked in the baths) and it was a quiet evening with only us at the well, so I stripped naked and bathed, all the while with Gloria and her relatives giggling fiercely and attempting to convince me to put clothes on. Word of it basically spread through the whole town the next day, and from then on I had a ‘family escort’ to the well each night, as it were, to ensure I kept some clothes on. (Filipino culture is religious conservative and so nudity is, of course, viewed as wrong, but I nevertheless had fun causing a scene!)

The other thing you might be wondering about is if I ever felt unsafe or if I ran into any Abu Sayyaf terrorists or anything. I can assure you I didn’t. While there was a good proportion of Muslims around, Iligan is still part of the Philippines and not “ARMM” (Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao), where most of the terrorist activity and kidnappings/etc. have occurred. While I probably wouldn’t want to walk around Iligan City at night alone (but I wouldn’t do that in many places anyways), I nevertheless felt safe throughout and think most of the fear is unjustified.

This leads me to my “pro-Muslim” rant, as it were. While there in Mindanao, I was disappointed to discover how many Christian Filipinos view their Muslim counterparts as “all evil” and other such close-minded prejudice. Even Gloria and her family basically hate them (though Gloria is softening a bit since I’ve started challenging her on this view every time she brings it up). While past violence and other isolated incidents (e.g. apparently the boss of Gloria’s dad is a Muslim and wasn’t paying Gloria’s dad his salary, therefore all Muslims are evil, right?) have certainly occurred, I would argue they have every reason to. You want to know why Abu Sayyaf exists? Because in this country, there is basically no effort made at all to engage Muslims in any form of society (who consist of 5% of the population). In 3+ months of watching Filipino T.V. every night, I’ve never once seen a Muslim on it in any way, shape, or form (other than one news segment highlighting “This crazy Muslim who lives in a pink house and everything she owns is pink!” with large emphasis placed on the MUSLIM portion of that). Is it any wonder Muslims in this country feel left out / second-class citizens? And for Filipinos outside of Mindanao, basically every single one of them I’ve met so far has recoiled in horror when I’ve told them that Gloria is from Mindanao (even “educated” Mayors/government workers/etc.), warning me to be careful of her/etc., and every time I have to smile and laugh and gently remind them that she’s Catholic, Iligan City is safe, Muslims aren’t all bad people, and that I’ve been to Mindanao and had a great time, even though I really just want to smack them for their close-minded ignorance. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m no fan of Islam either (but I’ll clarify that by saying I hate all religions equally), but if I was a Muslim in this country, I’d probably be sympathizing with Abu Sayyaf too, as the prejudice is just ridiculous.

So yeah, anyways, the 8 days we had in Mindanao were safe, happy, and, while ‘roughing it’, still loads of fun. I’d happily do it again!

After that, we returned to Manila and spent a long, hot day looking for a place to stay, which we eventually found. And a sweet one too. About a 30 minute walk from work (I do it for the exercise, its only like a 10 minute jeep ride), its fully furnished, complete with a guest bedroom, 2 toilets, kitchen, water filter, aircon, hot water for the shower (actually necessary, as it gets cold at night), a nice backyard, and in a peaceful and quiet neighbourhood. Unfortunately, it costs 300ish bucks a month, which leaves us only like 200 bucks a month for food (not much, even by Philippine standards), so I’ve had to dip into my dwindling pool of savings from time to time, but I’ll have enough to make it to July (the end of my contract) no problem.

Since then, we’ve basically just been living peacefully there. I go to work M-F, then we spend our evenings together watching t.v. and our weekends shopping for food and relaxing. Manila is a hideous city – huge and hard to get around – so we haven’t travelled around much of it yet. I really don’t see any point. There’s a nice market right near our place and there isn’t really anything else we need or want to be involved in, as we’re more than amply entertained in each other’s company! Seriously though, Manila is brutal. Its polluted (it has some of the world’s worst air quality and has really been affecting me – I’ve had to start wearing dust masks when outside), filthy, hot and crowded, and basically has no tourist sights worth seeing. While we’re based in Quezon City (within Metro Manila), the couple times I’ve had to actually go into Manila City itself to renew visas / etc., I hated every second of it. The place has literally the world’s highest concentration of people (more than 60,000 per square kilometer in some places!), stinks like high hell, has its streets, gutters, and rivers overloaded with trash and shit, and is crawling with some of the poorest (and filthiest) people you’ll ever see – bodies caked black in dirt, eating garbage, passing out on the sidewalks, shitting openly onto busy streets. Its brutal. There’s some of it here too in Quezon City (there’s some of it everywhere but the Central Business District of Makati, basically – where the place is crawling with soldiers, bomb sniffing dogs, and police escorts). I even had my nice digicamera stolen on a jeepney a month or so ago, picked out of my pocket, with the thief gone out of the jeep before I could realize it (and I’m someone who’s *very* aware of my belongings at all times, which is why I had never really lost anything or had anything stolen before in my entire trip). In short, I hate Manila and am proud of it. You don’t visit the Philippines to visit Manila. If you ever come to this country, stay the hell out of this city, seriously. Get on the first bus or flight you can out of it. Get out into the countryside, like San Fernando or Mindanao, that’s where the real Philippines lies. And that’s why we basically spend all our free time in our house!

My work’s been fine. We’re a small NGO, though with a fiscally smart boss who’s management is much more North American-style than City ENRO ever was, so our office is really nice and we even got to go on a free company vacation to 100 Islands (I had been before, if you recall, but still cool) on a recent weekend. The only problem is we’re located in a kind of residential area, so we don’t get any of those glorious snack vendors popping in our door like in SF. Besides that though, its cool – Everyone speaks to me in Tagalog, and I’ve taken it on to study it on my own time too, so by now I’m getting quite good at it. I can understand most conversations I hear (at least in getting the gist of them) and can communicate my thoughts basically. Still a long way to go, but at least I’m seeing nice results! Recently, I also got funding to go on a study trip for my work back up to San Fernando, where I spent a couple days re-meeting Firth (who’s still there! working with the Provincial Government on language conservation) and the new batch of interns, and getting toured around to our old project sites.

As for Gloria, she spent the first couple months looking for work here, but without a high school diploma (in case you forget her backstory – she left Mindanao to work in San Fernando at age 13) there was basically nothing for her other than 7-day per week, 12-hour per day jobs paying like 4 bucks a day. Since my whole reason for remaining here was to be with her, I certainly didn’t want her to do that, so now she’s hoping to enroll in some sort of high school completion course at the school near our house (this is a real thing run by the Dept. of Education, good for one year). She’ll start it here, then, when I have to go home in July, she’ll return to Mindanao and finish it there.

So wait, I’m coming home in July but she isn’t? Unfortunately, yes. I want to do a Master’s degree this coming Sept. (applications are underway), and see needs her high school diploma to ever be able to get a job overseas, and since neither of us have much money, I can’t support her in Canada/Europe while I do a Masters. Its alright though, while super sad, we’ll both wait for each other again, get our respective education, and I hope to return for her and take her to wherever it is my next job will be.

I’m really very much in love with her. She has been wonderful beyond my wildest dreams and really makes loving fun. We’ve been together now almost every minute of the day that I’m not in work, and yet we’ve barely had more than a few cases of minor frustration with each other, certainly never a fight. Part of that has to do with the wonderful Filipina trait of “tambo”, which basically is this: any time I do something that makes her feel even the slightest bit miffed or emotionally unappreciated, she’ll (and other Filipinas too, apparently, as there’s websites about this) put on a big show of getting all “HMPH!” like, and, to the untrained eye, seeming legitimately angry. However, this will be over and replaced with love and affection again sometimes in less than a few seconds (in the time it takes for me to crack a joke or something), other times in a few minutes (never more than a few minutes). What this does is allow any issue to be settled immediately and all emotions to be displayed in the open, so that nothing gets held back and nothing gets bottled up inside that could then explode later on in a typical North American rage. I love this and have started doing it too! Of course, that’s not the only reason we’re good together. We’re basically just very compatible people; we make each other laugh, we are totally comfortable around each other, and we help each other out (though she definitely does more of the housework, often threatening me physically if I even step near the dishes! – She’s a tough one!). She doesn’t speak a lot of English, but certainly has the basics, and with my improvements in Tagalog, we understand each other perfectly, usually using a nice mix of the two languages. The best part too is, she doesn’t ask too much. Obviously, I have more money than her (she, in fact, has none); and obviously her family always needs money (someone gets sick and needs medicine, its someone’s birthday party, whatever); yet she doesn’t ask too much of me, which is great. This can often be the biggest problem in an economically unequal intercultural relationship like this, as the person with money (me) isn’t always willing to help the family as much as he’s helping her (or even helping her – I certainly wouldn’t be keen on buying her a whole new wardrobe and other such frivolities). Luckily though, she knows this and, while we still have to deal with the money issue at times, she only asks occasionally and I’m usually comfortable with providing money for the things she asks for (e.g. sending her brother 60 bucks so he can come here to Manila and find a job and send money back home to the family; and, when I was in Mindanao, giving her family about 70 bucks for 6 months rent on a new, slightly improved shack nearby that had electricity, water, and a toilet!). So, happily, this hasn’t posed too much problem yet. In short, our relationship is exciting, always unexpected, and always keeping me happier than I’ve ever been, with no end in sight. The most common question – when’s the wedding? Well, not yet, but after we’ve finished our respective educations and all that, anything’s possible! 😉

To close this off I want to touch on some of my new / refined observations on Filipino culture in general that I’ve made since being back here – the things I like and things I dislike.

Let’s start with the likes. Filipinos are some of the easiest people in Asia to communicate effectively with. I think this is because of the myriad languages existing in this country and because of the fact that, while most people “know” Tagalog (the national language), they actually can’t speak it that fluently (i.e. their vocabulary is simple, due to it almost always being a second language). Though, because they generally don’t learn their native, regional language in schools, they’ll often only have a simple vocabulary in their native language as well. Basically this means much of their conversation uses simple, repeating words (in any language they use), and is easy to pick up once you get the basics. Or, even if you don’t have any basics, they’re totally cool with body language conversations or even just smiles (for those who don’t know much English, which is rare to begin with). This makes it a pleasure to communicate here, rather than a place like China, where body language isn’t understood, English isn’t understood, and people don’t generally have the patience to try to understand you.

Something else I’ve noticed that I hadn’t before is the very big difference between the different regional cultures of the Philippines, for example, the Ilocanos of the north, the Tagalogs of the middle, and the Visayans of the south (there are more, but let’s keep it simple for now). Keep in mind what I write it is *broad* stereotyping, but still based in some truth – witnessed both in my conversations with people and in their portrayals in the media. Before in SF, I figured the major difference between them all was language only, but there’s a lot more to it than that. For example, the pure Tagalogs can be very class-based – judgemental toward ‘lower’ classes and always following the sort of prescribed rules of behavior (showing respect to elders; asking the parent’s permission first to take their daughter on a date; etc., and thus are the subjects of lots of those ‘scandal’/’rich & poor’-type soap operas). The Visayans, on the other hand, are much more relaxed about these things, and much more open and bombastic in their emotions (like Gloria), which also helps to explain why a *lot* of the prostitutes found in any Philippine city will likely have originated from the Visayas. (I’m not implying Visayans are all in-born hookers, but rather that perhaps if you take two equally poor and desperate people, one Tagalog and one Visayan, the Tagalog’s more conservative and class-based nature would make them shy away from considering prostitution as an option). Ilocanos are perhaps more conservative still than Tagalogs, but less class-based. While I’ve still got lots to learn about the specifics behind these differences, its nonetheless an interesting observation I hadn’t made during my last stay here.

Finally, lets touch on some of the traits that I’ve really grown to dislike. The biggest one that’s jumped out at me since I’ve been back is the reactions of people shown when I walk around hand-in-hand with Gloria. It’s amazing how people change when they see you with a local girl on your arm. Whenever I walked around alone before (and now), reactions are usually friendly/curious, but when I walk around with Gloria, it seems like everyone turns into a total asshole. Stares become more open, especially directed at her; and the men will often yell out rude comments that they never had before. We’ve been catcalled, jeered at, and had various Tagalog comments yelled out that, while I didn’t understand, would often piss off Gloria and make her yell something mean back. The only one she’s translated for me so far was a recent one when two teen boys walked by and yelled to her in Tagalog, something along the lines of, “Hey girl how big is his dick?” (Thanks to the US porn industry, a lot of people are under the impression here that all foreigners have gargantuan penises – it was something Firth and I got asked before too). This sort of reaction really surprised and depressed me at first, as one of my favourite activities before had been the friendly greetings received while walking around, and now, with Gloria, they’ve all but ceased. I guess I can understand in a way, since so many gross old foreigners come here for wives and often leave abuse or bad memories behind, but I still don’t appreciate the reactions, and so its really made me turn inward again, such that I don’t bother even smiling at most people any more unless I’m walking alone, which is really a shame.

This is sort of the tip of the iceberg though. It makes you wonder what other prejudices and close-mindedness Filipinos are keeping behind their smile. Why would someone be friendly to me if I’m alone but jeer at me if they see me with a Filipina? Why would someone seem really friendly until I tell them Gloria’s from Mindanao, at which point they unleash a stream of prejudiced nonsense warnings at me? Why would they invite you, in a very friendly manner, for a shot of liquor that they were having when you passed by, only to, a few minutes later, demand that you then buy not just the next shot, but the next entire bottle or two, with a *big* scene being made if you don’t? (This was another thing I’ve discovered and have therefore since stopped partaking in). These reactions have unfortunately made me wary of that formerly welcoming smile I used to think was so unique and so much better than the ‘cold’ people of North America. While I won’t deny I still enjoy walking down the street more here than in North America (people do still say ‘hi’, even with Gloria, just not as many), the “exciting high” of it all has definitely faded, now that I know what’s going on behind the scenes.

I’m sure these same sorts of negative attributes would emerge if I spent enough time in the other SE Asian countries I loved too. Perhaps the cool people of Northern Burma would turn into assholes if I walked around with one of their girls on my arm too, who knows?, so I don’t necessarily blame the Philippines itself. And anyways, with the loss of some of these things I used to enjoy about this country, I’ve gained others, such as a much better ability to communicate like a Filipino, understand things in the Filipino context, and gain a deeper appreciation of the things I like about this place, so it all evens out. I hate some things about life in Canada, I hate some things about life here, that is inevitable and to be expected. Nothing will ever be a fairy tale, but I’m nevertheless still happy here and could do it again if I got another job here later in my life, no problem.

With that I’ll leave you with the photos! I probably won’t update again until it’s time for me to say goodbye to the Philippines, as I anticipate mainly work from here on until July, but there will be at least one more update to this blog, so keep reading! Until next time..




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