I was working as a contractor with a telecom outfit in Doha, Qatar. I was dating a cute girl from the Philippines, and decided to go to her native land with her, she being the guide. I was working with other contractors, and almost every one of them has a house or business in the Philippines, (which from here on I will write as "PI", for Philippine Islands), so I decided to start planning my vacation.
The other contractors praised life in the PI, telling me how beautiful the girls are, how cheap it is there (so many Americans were living there now), how everybody spoke English; basically paradise on earth. They showed me pictures of their homes and girlfriends, pictures of their servants, indoor pools, etc. I was interested, and had never been there before, so I made plans to go in April of 2007. I surfed the web prior to my departure date, trying to plan ahead and decide where I wanted to visit, and settled on three places.
First we would fly to Manila, rent a car, and drive up to Angeles City, which is near Mount Pinatubo, the volcano next to Clark Airbase that erupted back in 1991, which pretty much ended the US presence in the Philippines. Afterward, we would fly to Boracay for a week and lounge around on its white sand beaches and water. Boracay is the Florida of the Philippines, kind of a vacation hotspot, or so I was told. Finally, we would spend the remainder on Bantayan Island, a large island off the tip of Cebu. Rumor has it that Bantayan is the "next Boracay", so I wanted to check it out and see about maybe buying some land there, opening a small hotel or resort, just in case I did like it and decided to move there someday.
The following is my journal from the two-week vacation.
22 April - Charito, my girlfriend, had flown to the PI to spend some time with her family prior to me showing up, and she was to meet me in Manila. I left Doha on a Qatar Airways flight, and they are all right; I've flown with them several times now and don't have any complaints. The food was great, the service efficient and friendly. I flew directly to Manila. The front row of economy (the bulkhead?) was open, so I moved up there and stretched my legs, but everybody took it for an aisle, so people were stepping over my legs and on my feet the entire trip. I didn't get much sleep.
23 April - Arrived at 4 am, got my bags, and after waiting in immigration for 45 minutes with literally a thousand other people (at 4 am?) and with only 3 officials working the booths, I finally squeezed through and hooked up with Charito. I thought it would be just herself meeting me, but she'd brought her entire extended family along, at least 10 of them. What the hell? I’d given her money to rent a van with a driver so she wouldn’t have to take the bus, and then I’d have a vehicle available until the rental car place was open.
She'd told them she was dating an American, and I guess this was the biggest thing that happened to her extended family since… ever. Because they all insisted on coming along to the airport to see me, “The Kanu”. (Kanu is short for American, as in “Amerikanu”. I wrote “see me”, because none of them actually talked to me. She said it was because they were all nervous or shy, but I didn’t know why; I was alone in a foreign country, they were 10 people who lived there and spoke the language. What did THEY have to be nervous about?
I gave them a large cardboard box filled with chocolates, candy and clothing she asked me to bring, and they were happy and finally took off and left us alone. It was still only 5 am, and (according to the Hertz web site) the rental car offices didn't open until 8, so we had three hours to kill. Since my van was packed to the top with Filipinos and bags and there was no room for me and my bags, I jut told them to leave and go back to their village, which they did.
We hung around outside and talked, waiting until 8 am, then went to the rental car area, and.... no Hertz booth. I checked the email printout from Hertz; it said the office was in "Manila Airport". I called the number on the email and spoke to some guy who said "Airport Hertz" moved out of the terminal recently and was now located about a 20-minute drive away! I was pissed and told them so, and that there was a reason I picked a rental car agency "AT" the airport, not 20 minutes away; I didn't want to get stuck or lost in the infamous Manila traffic. Out of spite, I canceled the reservation and went to a nearby Avis counter instead. Ironically, the Avis office had been open since 6 am, and another in the parking lot was open 24 hours, so we had basically wasted 2 hours sitting around. If I had walked to the Avis counter and had gotten a car, we’d be in Angeles City by now.
The girl at the Avis counter was free, and she had a car available, so I told her to "let me have it", and boy, did she. She gave me a copy of the agreement to sign, then pointed to different pages and paragraphs, asking me to put my initials "here, here, also here, oh and here too", but I am not that naive and tried read what she wanted me to initial, and wonder of wonders; it was for that "required” additional insurance nonsense that rental agencies always try to get you to buy. I thanked her for taking the liberty to pre-check the boxes accepting it (on my behalf) and trying to get me to blindly initial them, then told her I was paying with my credit card which already provides insurance for rental cars. She looked at the manager in an apologetic way that said; “I tried”. But the manager scowled at her, so she dug in her heels.
She argued with me about how it was SO vital that I accept it, it was a matter of life or death, that she knew SO many Americans (like myself) who declined the insurance and had to pay for the whole vehicle, and that my credit card company would refuse to pay for anything. She said if I were in a wreck, I would have to pay for the WHOLE car and HOPE that MAYBE I could get my money back from them. She prophesied famine, hunger, and desperation.; she foretold of collection agencies, ruined credit and shame brought onto my family name. For good measure she threw in how, if things got really bad, I could wind up in a Filipino prison. She was tough; I'll give her that. When she finally caved and realized she was talking to a brick wall, I made her print out a whole new contract without any checks in the boxes for accepting the insurance, which pissed-off her and the manager even more. It would be my first experience of dealing with Filipinos regarding money.
Here is the first lesson of many I learned in the Philippines, which I will present to you as tips:
TIP # 1: Almost everybody is on some sort of commission or has a scam going, and you really can't trust anybody in any position that involves money or a service. Almost every person you will meet is receiving, or could receive, some commission or kickback from someone else. Even the woman working at the airport, whose job is to help people find a hotel has a scam going, directing tourists to hotels she gets a kickback from, and only those hotels. She will call them "as a courtesy to you" and have you fill out a pre-registration card "for your convenience", which she will then write her name on and even staple her business card to, for you to give the clerk at the hotel. Of course, if you tell her that you already have reservations somewhere, she will ask nicely which hotel that you are staying, and tell you about how it’s closed now, how it’s a horrible place, how it has hookers and roaches in every room, murderers hiding in the closets. Anyway, back to the story...
Once the paperwork with Avis was settled, an old man in a car came to pick us up to take us out to the Avis lot, just a few minutes away, where they presented me with an older, smelly car that would never have been rented out by an American company. But with all the theft and crazy driving habits here, I didn't really blame them for only having these kinds of cars.
TIP # 2: When renting a car in the PI, insist that it is new or newer and refuse to accept it if you aren't happy with it. My car had some kind of clear plastic coating gunk stuff over the rear window, which, due to the heat, had shriveled and shrunk and made it impossible to see through. Why this stuff was on the rear window I have no idea, except to maybe MAKE you get into an accident. I could understand if it was a dark window tint, but the stuff was clear, so it served no purpose that I could see. I shouldn't have even accepted the car, but we had wasted so much time already. The car was smelly, as if every driver who rented it before me was a smoker and ate greasy food in it. There was dust and grime in all the hard-to-clean parts of the car... but hey, this wasn't the States, so I took off.
We left Manila for Angeles City around 9 am, and the minute we pulled out of the lot, we hit the world-famous Manila traffic. I'll say right now that I have never seen traffic like this; traffic that doesn't even move, just three rows of cars that sit in traffic and maybe, occasionally, if you’re lucky, will move a meter or two. To make it worse, we had no idea where we were; Avis gave me NO map of the city, there wasn't one in the car, and they couldn't even tell me where to get one. In fact, they looked at me like I was a nut for even asking. I guess it makes sense; with traffic that doesn't even move, you sure as hell aren't going anywhere... so why do you need a map? (This is life in the Philippines; even if you are spending money on something like a rental and think maybe they should throw in a free map, you can forget it. If it costs money and they aren’t required to provide it, you ain’t getting it.)
I stopped at several gas stations looking for a map, but none had any. What they did have, however, were two or three heavily armed security guards at the door, and I mean “heavily armed”. Shotguns, AK-47's… the works. Finally, I saw a little mini-mall with a bookstore, so I popped in and they had a map book, bigger than what I wanted, but I didn't have a choice.
Luckily, a few years earlier Charito used to live and work in Manila, and she recognized one of the main roads and told me to take it, so I cut off a few Jeepneys and we started heading north towards the "North Luzon Expressway" (or the NLE), stuck in traffic that moved occasionally. I am glad that I spent a year driving in Qatar, where driving is considered an Extreme Sport, because it prepared me for driving in the PI. Many intersections don't have stop signs or traffic lights, there are very few markings on the roads, and many times there are no traffic signs.
It looked like most of the drivers didn’t have licenses, because they would drift into other lanes, Jeepneys would suddenly stop in the road to pick up passengers, pedestrians would walk into traffic, vendors were walking down the middle of the road selling bottled water from questionable sources…
Finally, after an hour, we hit the northern city limits and hit the NLE, which was a toll road, and which was great for us because that kept a lot of other vehicles off it and we were able to make up for some lost time. Heading north, we made Angeles in an hour, arriving at 11 am. I didn't call ahead to make any hotel reservations, because, quite frankly, I couldn't find any on the Internet. Driving through the main part of the city, it wasn't hard to figure out why; there didn’t seem to be any hotels in Angeles City. Well, not hotels in the traditional sense of the word.
There ARE hotels, but there is a catch; they primarily serve the old-men perverts who come to Angeles only to have sex with the young women, and they are mostly seedy, and they are all located next to the old Clark Air Base. Being those kinds of hotels, one doesn't see them advertising on the Internet or in in-flight magazines or in the New York Times Sunday Magazine (perhaps "Pedophile Monthly").
So after driving around for a while and not seeing any hotels, I stopped at a gas station, passed the small army of security soldiers, and found a map of the city. Luckily, it had a blow-up of "bar street", the street that had all of the hotels on it. Bar Street is situated right outside from the now abandoned Clark Air Base, and all of the hotels on it once catered to the US military back in the day.
Driving up and down the street, we stopped at the Clarkton Hotel, which looked half-decent from the outside. They had a doorman and a guard, and the room was clean, so we checked in for a few nights. I made sure the AC worked and checked for bugs, which brings me to...
TIP # 3: Before checking in a hotel in the PI, insist on a room with air conditioning, not on the side of the hotel near the road (the motorcycles and trucks are very loud, everyone lays into their horns continuously, and don’t forget exhaust fumes), and ask to see the room before you accept it. This is much easier than asking to change rooms, or even trying to leave for another hotel if the place is a dump. We settled into the room, took a quick shower and headed out.
We drove around for an hour or so, and somehow found ourselves on the old Clark Airbase, which is now some kind of "free trade or duty-free zone", and because the heat was stifling, we decided to walk around in the new SM Mall for a while. Inside, it had air-conditioning and was pretty glitzy for a town as grimy and as poor as Angeles City. Then I noticed all the “DOM” (or "Dirty Old Men" as the locals call them) walking around and realized they are probably the primary customers.
I myself am a white male with a Filipina girlfriend, and found myself in a town known throughout the PI for its sex-houses and general depravity. There were many white males (the DOM) in Angeles walking around with Filipina females, and they all greeted me and winked at me as if I was "one of them". They also assumed Charito was "one of them" (prostitute) despite the fact that we both looked close to 40, which we were, and most of the hookers were in their teens or early 20s. The entire time we were there, we were very uncomfortable. Whenever we were greeted by, say, a waiter, he would talk to me and ignore her. When we went on the airplane tour over Mt. Pinatubo, the pilot treated her like she wasn't even there, as if she was just some "girl" I picked up temporarily. I always made it a point to mention that we met in Qatar where we both worked and lived.
Back when Clark Airbase was open, many of the soldiers married Filipino girls and settled down here. Many more simply bought a house and retired here and they are still here. I have no problem with this; it is the DOM I hate. I have never been so embarrassed and ashamed to be a white male, as I was traveling around the Philippines.
There must be literally tens of thousands of old, fat, balding "losers" (I refuse to call them "men") walking around with Filipino girls young enough to be their grand-daughters. Everywhere. There was one common trait that all these losers shared, and it was that they looked really creepy. If you showed me a book full of convicted child-molesters, these guys would fit right in. There was just something about these guys; you could tell why they were there. Also, what kind of a “man” actually has to fly to another country to have sex with women?
I also suspected many of them were pedophiles, or borderline peds, but didn't want to get in trouble having sex with an actual 12 year-old girl, so they come to the PI to get a girl who looks like, and has a body of a 12 year-old girl.
Once I returned to Qatar, I did some research online about Angeles City, and scanning through several groups, bulletin boards and chat-rooms on Yahoo, most of them were filled with right-wing rants about hating feminism, feminists, how they loved Bush, Iraq, & Vietnam, and how they decided to move to the PI because they were tired of "American femi-nazis" and wanted to be the "Man of the House", etc.
I didn't get the point of the groups, because there wasn't all that much about living in the PI. Most of the posts were just right-wing, macho bragging about how they "rule their roost" and their women "do as they're told". They were mostly retired military guys, and all you had to do was sit and talk to one about Bush or Iraq and they would start praising him and talk your ear off. Most had probably been left by their wives for being assholes.
I eventually got kicked out of the chat-rooms and bulletin boards because I would post bulletins asking: why, if they were such red-blooded Republican Americans, they were living in the PI, married to Filipino women? Why are they complaining about politics and life in the States when they didn't even live there anymore? I also threw in a few posts about why they all married girls that looked like they were 16 years old, and finally the moderator kicked me out.
Look, just to clear things up and not get too much hate-mail, I have nothing against a man going to the Philippines to marry a Filipina woman, and have a good life. I’ll most likely be one of these guys myself, one day. However, these guys are taking advantage of poverty. If they want to impress me, stay in America and marry a beautiful, college-educated, American 20 year-old. Don’t go to a Third-World nation and marry a poor young girl, then think the rest of us are impressed.
The worse thing about these guys is that once they are married, most of them SCREW AROUND on their wives! This is why most old American men live in the Angeles area; because it has the highest number of bars, strip clubs and cat-houses! It isn't enough for these losers to move to the PI in order to marry a girl, but most of them don't even respect them enough to stay true to them. And these same guys preach “family values” and being conservative, etc!
After being freaked out by all these old men, we had a bite to eat and drove around town. Truthfully, I have never seen such poverty in my life. There were people living in shacks made out of driftwood and plastic tarp, plastic bags, sheet-metal -- anything that would keep the sun and rain off them while they slept. It really broke my heart, driving around and seeing little kids, shoeless and dirty, playing on the side of the road outside of their ramshackle houses, but there wasn't really anything I could do.
There just isn't very much work or money in the Philippines for its 90 million+ citizens. Many are forced to go overseas to work, mostly in the Middle East (the Greek work for maid is "Filipineza"). There are more Filipinos working in Qatar than there are Qatari's; almost every cashier, clerk, customer service person, and waitress there is a Filipino female.
Again, I was totally unprepared for the poverty and squalor I encountered in the Philippines. People living on less than $1 a day (the luckier ones $2), their homes made out of trash, with dirt floors. Fathers working at fixing flat bicycle tires for just a dollar a day, hoping it's enough to feed his three kids. And here I am drinking a $4 cup of coffee after a $20 meal... it really put things into perspective for me.
Walking around the city, I would buy something to eat or drink, and the price was always so ridiculously low, so I would round the amount up to the nearest 50 Pesos and just let the cashiers keep it, much to their surprise. We came across a coconut vendor selling them for 50 Peso each, which is just over one US Dollar. Just because the poor guy looked so dirty and beat down, sitting on the side of the road in this heat, trying to make a living, I gave him 100 Peso, which is almost nothing to me, but meant his kids could eat more rice that night. I hoped that, but noticed that behind many of the huts, there were always big piles of empty rum bottles.
Driving out in the area that was covered with ash and debris from the eruption, we came across this string of old shacks on a dirt road, and several kids came out to look at us. We still had the coconuts we had bought earlier, and neither of us had really drank anything from either of them, so when one of the boys came forward and smiled when I gestured at the coconuts, I gave them to him. They seemed happy to have something to drink and eat, and ran back into the house. After we drove away, I hated myself for not doing more for them. There are literally millions of families in the Philippines in the exact same situation.
I wanted to help all the kids get out of those shacks, I wanted to help the parents get decent work and education... the only thing I could really do to have any lasting impact on this would be to MOVE to the Philippines and open some kind of clinic to help educate these people; as in job skills and job training, sex-ed, birth control, maybe some kind of food charity. But in a country with millions and millions of desperately poor, how many could I help? It would literally be like a drop in the ocean. Of course, it’s much more complicated than just helping people. The government in the PI is corrupt, everybody is looking out for themselves… they need to fix their own way of life and government before anyone else can help them and make an impact.
I remember when I was in Iraq in early 2004. Me and a buddy gathered up all the unused CARE packages we had lying around, going building to building on our base and asking people if they had anything to donate to the Iraqi kids. We ended up with boxes of toothpaste, tooth brushes, toys, beanie-babies, soap, etc. We divided everything up and put them in bags for several dozen kids. Then took it all off-base and drove to where we knew many of them hung out playing soccer.
We pulled up and the kids saw what we had, and we tried to get them to line up so we could have some order, but then some older teens came running up, and then some older guys, and seeing that we weren't on a patrol, they started rushing, and then everybody was rushing, grabbing whatever they could, the older guys stealing from the younger kids, many grabbing more than one bag... in a minute it was all over and everything was gone.
It was a scene from "Gone with the Wind", bodies everywhere... all that was left were some young kids crying in the dirt and some older ones counting their bags. What a scene. We never did that again. We would just drive around and try to secretly give a bag to an individual or small groups of kids, then beat it out of there so as not to attract attention.
But back to the Philippines... to see these poor families living in these shacks with no work, no money, and very little food... and so many children in each family. This brings up another topic which I am sensitive about: the Catholic Church in the Philippines. Now, despite being born and raised Catholic, I am not an expert on them, and I do not live in the Philippines, but seeing what I saw and listening to what people told me, I feel it would greatly benefit the Filipino people to kick them the hell out of the Philippines, or at least make them quit meddling in the politics of the place.
Don't worry - I'm not going to go off on a long-winded anti-religious rant. But seeing a poor man with no job, living in a small shack made out of tree branches and plastic tarp, trying to support a wife and 10 kids, all because she doesn't have access to birth control because the Church doesn't let people have access to that information, and discourages anyone who tries to give it out.. .there is really a problem here. I am not even talking about abortion, just basic birth prevention tools, like condoms or the pill.
I met people who hadn't even seen a condom, much less used one, and most didn't even know what a condom was. I met a woman over there that told me that when she was a young girl, a nun told her she could get pregnant from holding hands with a boy. This same woman didn't even know how babies were born, and as a result had 3 babies before finding out it was through intercourse. No education whatsoever.
I saw very young girls, in their mid-teens and upward, walking around with babies strapped to their waist, all because their mothers were nervous (and discouraged by the Church) from talking to them about sex. My own Filipino girlfriend was very naive about it when I met her, and told me that her mother never once mentioned anything about sex to her while she was growing up. Many of her friends have babies, single and married.
While in the airport in Cebu, near the end of this vacation, I was sitting in a coffee shop with some other families. Two priests came in and started smoking. They asked me if I minded, and I said, "No, I don't, but I don't think it is good for priests to be smoking in front of children.”
They looked at me, then looked at the kids, and laughed and lit up. They knew from my accent I was American and started the usual questions: where am I from, where have I been, where have I stayed, etc, which I politely declined to answer, saying I didn't discuss that information with strangers. They said they weren't strangers, they were priests, to which I replied, “Well, most priests I know are strangers to reality and rational discussion.”
They looked shocked and laughed. No one had talked to them like that before, I guess.
Most of the Filipinos are ass-kissers towards priests, from what I saw. Anyway, they pulled up chairs and immediately became friendly with me and wanted to talk. They asked if I was Catholic, and I said I was born one, but left the church. The younger one asked why, and I told him it all started when I went to a Catholic summer camp in Subiaco, Arkansas, and saw a priest smoking, after being told my whole life (up to that point) not to. They had a big laugh over this, and we talked some more. They asked why I didn't like the church anymore, and I brought up the whole deal about "Filipinos having 10 kids in the family because of the church's view on birth control" and the younger priest replied, "Son, don't you know children are gifts from God?" to which I replied by laughing.
"'Gifts from God?' Tell that to the poor man who has to slave all day to feed his seven 'gifts'. Tell that to the mother who is trying to take care of her gifts, and tell that to the child himself, picking through a garbage dump for aluminum cans to sell. Tell him he is a gift to his parents from God, and watch him look at you in puzzlement!"
(I was getting hot now!)
"You know what? FOOD is a gift from God, which is why we thank him before dinner (if one is lucky enough to have dinner)! Food is a gift from God, not 10 hungry kids.”
“This is a great reason why priests should be allowed to marry and have children, because I know you guys would change your views on birth control if you had 10 hungry children! If God wanted the parents to have a gift, how about a decent place to live? How about a house? How about a decent job in which he can earn enough to feed his other 'gifts'?" How do you call giving a poor man ten starving children 'gifts'!?"
I remember the priests looking at each other and grinning, as if I was just a stupid, lost child who "drifted too far from the shore", as they would say. As if I had no concept of what I was talking about, as if I had just said the earth is flat. They said the usual "God provides" answer to my rant, but I knocked the ball back into their court. I asked that if "God provides", why did they make their churchgoers tithe 10% of their income to the church?
If "God provides", why is he "providing" so much to so many other nations and almost nothing to the Philippines? Why are so few nations so rich and so many wallowing in poverty?
My girlfriend was sitting with me, and I asked her if she had to give 10% to the church, and even though she is shy, she said yes. I then told the priests that I made her stop giving, as she is trying to support her family, and the last thing she needs to do is support a couple of fat priests who like to travel by air instead of the much cheaper alternative, the ferry. The other people in the coffee shop were listening by now, and some snickered at this. I think I may have actually embarrassed them. I hoped.
I kept going... "Tell me, how many children could eat for a year on what you and him paid for two airplane tickets? You could have totally taken a ferry up to Manila, but you are flying coach, and I know it is at least $125 each. The average monthly income in the Philippines is $40, and a parent has to feed the entire family on that. The church could have given the money for both tickets to a family and fed them for six months!
We talked like this for 20 minutes or so, until it was time for our plane to leave, and they seemed to be having fun. One of them even gave me his email address, because he said he really enjoyed talking to me and hoped I would write him.
But back to the vacation...
We drove around Angeles the rest of the day, sight-seeing. We made it onto the old Clark Air Base before it got dark; I wanted to see how it looked 16 years after being evacuated. We saw the old barracks and houses, all deserted. All that was left of the houses were the walls, their roofs having caved in from the weight of the ash. The jungle was quickly taking everything back; some of the houses were already covered under vegetation. The barracks fared a little better; I didn't see any where the roof had collapsed.
Unfortunately, instead of guarding them, the PI government allowed the people to go in and strip the buildings of anything of value. All those barracks, which were much needed shelter after the eruption, were just stripped of anything the people could get a few bucks for. It was a shame. Even now, the buildings are still standing, but with no doors or windows. It’s really stupid, because just down the road you have people living in makeshift shacks, and here you have a strong three-story building that could house 15 families.
When it got dark, we went back to the hotel, swam around in the pool for a while, and then went to sleep early because of the big hike the next day.###