I can’t say that my 17 days in the Philippines were in any way what I expected. Before coming, my friends who had been there before asked me why on Earth I would want to stay there by myself for 17 days. People mentioned the discomfort of being surrounded by such poverty, and described it as similar to India. Others mentioned the utter chaos and congestion of major cities like Manila. I half expected to surrounded and taken down by a sea of hungry people the moment I stepped onto the city streets. But on the other hand, I remembered pictures of beautiful beaches and snorkeling, and pictures of the colorful and vibrant streets.
The reality is really neither. Aside from my first day in Cebu, when I mistakenly wandered into the slums, I received a very warm welcome in the Philippines. Though the poverty and the disparity in income was evident, no one seemed resentful. The differences in consumption are vast. I will always recall the woman on the ferry who, sharing a packet of ramen noodles and a scoop of rice with her family for dinner, happily offered me to join them. I guiltily declined, for I had just enjoyed a feast of an entire chicken, rice, and a big box of oreos with my aunt on the upper deck.
Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan hit while I was in the south of the Philippines. Luckily, it did not hit the area where I was staying. The power was out for a few days, and it was rainy, but we were all happy; we could still swim in the ocean, though it was fierce. At night, we sat together in candlelit huts by the ocean. We were a bit sad when the power came back on, because it was kind of a romantic time to get away from all of the noise and electronics. We all thought that the typhoon had magically passed through without any destruction.
I was sickened to see what had really happened, and all of the devastation just to the North of us. All of us at the hostel gathered supplies to send to the typhoon victims, pretty much buying out the entire town of its stock of noodles, canned goods, candles, and water. Then the owner of the hostel took them to Palawan on a rescue plane, but they were intercepted and looted when they got to the island. That was the sickest part of all, to see the way some humans could take advantage of kindness and use it to gain power over others who are suffering. At the time, they weren’t transporting under-qualified volunteers into the area; the cost was too much and they were more focused on getting people off the island. It took me a few days to process all of the destruction and evil nearby, but I had to eventually recall the good things in life and move on before being driven into a bad place.
My aunt came to meet me in the Philippines, and we continued onwards to Dumaguete, a city that was touted to be a beach town. I thought I would be lounging on the beach for the next few days, but I arrived to discover that the entire beach was trashed out with litter and nasty looking seaweed. There was so much pollution that my eyes stung as soon as I stepped outside. There went that dream.
But not far from the city was Apo Island, a snorkeling and diving heaven with the clearest waters I’ve ever seen. You could see down 30 feet. Giant sea turtles were all around the island, and it was amazing to watch them glide up from the depths of the ocean. The area is so unspoiled that the Earth is still releasing methane bubbles, and at one spot, all I could see were tiny bubbles streaming up from among the corals. It looked as if everything was glittering.
There was one other creature who was purported to live around this island– the sea snake. It’s supposed to be one of the most poisonous snakes in the world, but it’s mouth is so small that it’s hard (but not impossible) for it to bite humans. When I first heard about it, I thought it was insane that the snorkel guides hadn’t even warned about these. Guess there’s no liability here at all. But after calming down, I realized I wanted the chance to see one (from a distance). By the end of the day, I was actively and desperately looking for sea snakes. Unfortunately, no such luck.
Had an experience with visiting a third world doctor. She basically talked with me for less than 30 seconds and then prescribed several broad spectrum antimicrobials that would effectively wipe out everything in my body. Nooooo thanks, honey bear.
Another third world experience I will never forget is the overnight boat from Siquijor to Cebu. This was a massive shipping vessel that was carrying several trucks, boats, and large cargo bins to the city. On the upper floors, there were tiny beds to serve the mass of people who opted to take this dirt cheap overnight ride. Hundreds of people were crammed into the sleeping spaces of the boat, which had endless rows of bunk beds all out in the open, with babies crying and people blaring mini radios, and all sharing a single toilet that didn’t flush. The boat operated on a continuous schedule with about 20 minute turnaround time between ports, so you can only imagine the condition of cleanliness on those beds. Big signs saying “OBSERVE HYGIENE” were posted all around the boat. Despite the chaos and grime of the boat, it was such an interesting experience that I don’t regret. And it was beautiful to watch the moon on the water over the unadulterated wilderness we passed through, and to be lulled to sleep by the rocking of the boat.
After almost two weeks in the Philippines, my aunt and I were getting desperate for vegetables. Everything in the Philippines is rice, noodles, meat, and bread. It’s possible to look all day without finding a dish with a healthy vegetable content. Don’t get me wrong– it’s all flavored well, with lots or garlic and ginger. But it’s all meat and bread. I stopped at a local market one day and saw some carrots. I asked how much it would be for a tiny, 3 inch carrot, and I was quoted at one dollar. Well, no wonder no one eats vegetables. Even I, a veggie freak, would not pay for that. Okay, actually I did because I needed some freaking produce.
From a very young age, Filipinos are taught how to survive and how to produce. One of the cooks at the hostel I stayed at mentioned that Filipino children learn to cook when they’re very young, so that if they lose their parents they won’t starve. In the Philippines, everyone is a mini entrepreneur. If you ride a motorcycle around one of the islands, you can stop along the roads at people’s houses and they often have a little something for sale inside. Often it’s “ice candy”, a frozen treat made with mangoes, sugar, and milk. I ate more than my share of these, taking my chances on getting a horrible waterborne disease.
Filipinos are extremely hard workers. They do a great job and are thankful for the chance to earn a little money. The global community is beginning to take notice of this; a lot of freelance jobs online are beginning to say “Filipino only”, alluding to the fact that Filipinos will produce the highest quality work at the lowest rates of pay. Every one is extremely polite, and the word they say more than any other is “ma’am”. And their level of English is incredible, owing to good English education and the fact that almost all signs in the country are in English. I found them to be incredibly smart, knowledgeable about the world, and quick thinking. Despite all of their talents, their daily income is around $5 for a full day’s work.
The thing that struck me the most about the Filipinos was their good nature. Almost no one seemed to resent their poverty or any of the problems they dealt with on a daily basis, including frequent natural disasters, parasitic waters, disease, crime, corruption, pollution, congestion… the list goes on. They are the quickest people to smile and say hello out of any that I’ve met around the world. They never stop being kind, even when we as tourists inadvertently act like asshats, forgetting all of our privileges. I saw a lot of rain the the Philippines, but I’ve never seen as many rainbows before in my life.