Poverty and Prosperity in the Philippines

Boracay Island, Philippines, 2014.

Google Boracay Island, and you will find pictures of White Beach, boats waiting on the shore, or attractive people cliff-diving and parasailing. Which was the tourism department doing their job well, and my girlfriend and I, playing the part of tourists, getting hooked. Our work as Guest English Teachers in South Korea allowed us a week-long vacation in the Pearl of the Orient Seas in the summer of 2014. The thought of reading a book on the beach of a country we didn’t currently live in was enough to make us book the plane tickets.

It was also going to be a sort of pilgrimage for me. My extended family took trips to the homeland once a decade, but since everyone was growing up and time was becoming a commodity more precious than the Filipino piso (but not more than the American dollar), a large trip wasn’t going to be in the works anytime soon. So I seized the opportunity that I could get, driven by nostalgia for my mother’s meals and being in a country where everyone looked like me.

The prospective visitor to the white, sandy beaches has to take a boat from Caticlan to get on the island proper. Once there, you take a trike, the Filipino version of the auto rickshaw, to the beach of your choice. On the way, you pass the natives. You see the self-constructed shanties they live in. You see their shirtless children running circles around honking trikes. But they don’t see you.

They see the long train of trikes driving through their roads. One after the other, carrying the multitude of foreigners making their way to a hotel that, besides the occasional cockroach or two, has all the amenities that someone who isn’t impoverished is used to. There was really no one there to look at. Just another tourist. Which made me realize something I had never thought about before that: I’m on vacation. If I don’t like it here, tough deal, I’m going to be gone by the end of the week. They don’t get that option. The homeland of my parents or not, I felt like I was intruding.

Banaue, Philippines, 2014.

Flying into Manila airport, one of the first things you see are the slums that pepper the area. Multi-colored tin roofs huddle together, housing whole and broken families alike. As of 2014, the estimated count of slum dwellers in the capital is four million. That figure rivals the population of Los Angeles, California. There are two sides to Manila: the one showcasing Rizal Park and the Spanish architecture, and the one full of cramped but surviving lives.

As far as citizens of the Philippines go, my family is one that is well off. When we had visited, we stayed at a nice, big house in Cavite, we had plenty to eat, we had air conditioning and cable television. Even though we were situated in the middle of a crowded barangay1, our gate still opened to a courtyard big enough to celebrate my grandmother’s 90th birthday with a party that was dozens of people strong.

At the same time, outside that gate, we saw the underfed kids who would look through the bars. We heard stories about how they were smoking cigarettes already and how another one of them had drowned swimming in the river. We heard the food peddlers that would shout what they had available. Our parents told us about the corruption of provincial governments and the ineffectual police. The more we saw and heard, the gladder we were they decided to immigrate.

Boracay is like Manila. There is the advertised vacation spot, the island that was voted the best in the world by Travel + Leisure in 2012, and then there is everyday life. And much like Manila, the two sides exist on the same plane. There is no turning a blind eye to the poverty. Walking down the length of the beach, drunk off cheap cocktails and full of hearty food, you will get urged, “Ma’amsir2, sunglasses?” or “Ma’amsir, nice turtle shell?” You will be sold everything from selfie sticks to tour packages, eat at restaurants that do their best to stand out from the crowd, and pass by more nameless storefronts than you can count.

But that’s how it is. Thanks to the stories my dad would tell my siblings and I about the homeland, and from seeing it through the eyes of an adult, I have a new admiration for the knack of my people to make do with what they have, and thrive. I don’t know if this kind of nation-wide disparity can change. But the food peddler will keep walking down the street. The slum dwellers will keep rebuilding their shacks. And the natives of Boracay Island will keep watching the trikes drive by. And life goes on.

The Filipino term for a neighborhood.

At first glance, a lazy portmanteau of ma’am and sir, but apparently this is also how Filipino salesmen and women open the pitch. As in, “Don’t care what you identify as, buy my thing.”

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