Sunday, December 7, 2008

Philippines - Manila

There is no easy way to describe the incredible things of the Philippines. My life is impacted in some way each day. Everywhere I go there is something that either profoundly touches my heart or causes me to laugh out loud. Our Up With People visit to the Philippines is much different than any other city or country we have been to. The cast has been split up into small groups which have been formed to favor our community outreach projects. Students are placed in host family homes that are somewhat close to their CI (community impact) Projects. We have spent only a week in every city we have been to so far during our six-month tour, but we are spending 2 1/2 weeks in Manila. We are teamed up with organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, an organization that is building homes in regions of the world where housing is unavailable.

My experiences in Manila so far have intensified my abilities of being a flexible leader. I am adapting to new elements of decision making and conflict management. The cultural differences of the environment that I am living in have caused me to develop leadership skills that can only be reached by a complete change in surroundings. Being a catalyst for others in a foreign country is the ultimate classroom for individual development.

I am living in a beautiful home in a neighborhood called the Valley of the Green or Valley Verde. My host parents’ house is in an area called Ortigas, which is located in Metro Manila. This area of Manila is filled with large buildings and is a metropolis of shopping and attractions. As a non-native Filipino, I am having a great deal of difficulty speaking Tagalog, but the majority of those who live in Manila speak English. Living in a tropical climate is of course very humid. The temperature during the day is usually in the upper 80s and it stays fairly warm throughout the night and there is often rainfall every day.

Manila is filled with cultural aspects that I have never witnessed before in my life. Pollution is a large problem here, yet the amount of recycling that takes place is profound. A piece of sheet metal that was originally manufactured to be used in building construction can be modified and used to manufacture a motorcycle sidecar or side panel on an old vehicle. One glass Coke bottle can be used dozens of times so it is important to drink your soda with a straw. Two days ago I saw that a man had used half of an old car tire as a fender on his motorcycle.

The people in the Philippines are without a doubt the friendliest group of people I have ever witnessed. Because of my white skin color and blonde hair, six out of every ten people call me Joe. As I walk down the streets of the city, people of all ages and genders yell out, "Hey Joe!" or "Yo Joe, where you from." I have never witnessed a cultural title before, but unlike many other racial titles, the Filipinos call a foreign man with white skin Joe with a smile and greet them with kindness. Filipino people are helpful and kind. Some of the poorest people I have ever seen in my life are the friendliest individuals I have ever met. They are probably so happy because the Filipino Christmas season starts in September and lasts until the end of January. Just imagine all of the rock-bottom deals that I am bombarded with daily!! It is the perfect country to visit during November and December. Nothing says Christmas like sitting in a rain forest climate listening to holiday music as you eat spaghetti at McDonald's. Yes there is a place in the world where you can eat McSpaghetti!!!

Everywhere we go, Filipinos say Hello sir!, Right this way, sir! I have what you need right here sir! Handkerchiefs for only 40 pesos right here sir! Do you need help finding anything sir? It is very polite to call someone “Po”. If you do not need a service or a product you might say, "Oh no thank you, not today Po." The kids in the Philippines are without a doubt God's children. I am convinced that they are the most gorgeous children in the world and they are EVERY WHERE!!! They are very creative and take on the roles of adulthood very fast. They can be seen delivering water on bicycles, inventing new ways to play, and sometimes running naked through the streets. Yesterday, one left a wad of gum in my hair after a short ride on my shoulders. They have no problem finishing your soda or taking one of your crackers and feeding it to a monkey.

As my cast group and I have passed through neighborhoods, we have seen men sitting outside their homes patting their roosters as they wait for weekend cockfights. Manila is never asleep. A large portion of the population work in call centers which operate during North American time schedules. As the daytime workers are eating dinner, modes of public transportation become filled with thousands of night workers. Traffic in the city is absolute chaos even at one o'clock in the morning. The cultural differences of Manilla have stimulated my initiatives and have heightened my perseverance towards the understanding of others.

Meals in the Philippines have been incredible so far. My host Dad and his son are from Puerto Rico so dinner at the home usually consists of some sort of Puerto Rican dish. This adds for an exciting amount of cultural meals since meals outside of the house are... made Filipino style! I love to eat in this country because I could eat rice every day. Filipino food is very sweet and saucy so it's good to have a substantial pillow of white rice under each meal. The Filipino people primarily use a spoon and fork while eating. They use a fork to chop up their food and then slide everything onto the spoon for clean transportation to the mouth. I have only seen the Filipinos eat with chopsticks at Japanese and Korean restaurants.

I never go to McDonald's in the states, but I love McDonald's in the Philippines. For the grand price of three dollars, you can enjoy a chicken strip sandwich, rice, McSpaghetti, and a regular sized soda. But, the coolest thing is that you can call McDonald's any time day or night and a guy shows up on a motorcycle and brings it to your door. McDonald's in the Philippines is fun, but when I am looking for a real cultural experience I head over to Jollybee which is the Filipino version of McDonald's. Absolutely everything looks just like McDonald's, but they try to mix all the American foods at one time. On just one menu you can order a cheeseburger, fried chicken, mashed potatoes or spaghetti. If you need to “Asian it up a bit”, you can still order a burger wrapper full of rice. I suggest everyone should go to Jollybee, see pictures for details.

The most traditional thing to eat in the Philippines is a duck egg called Balut. Everyone and is a fan of this delicacy. When a Filipino finds out that it is your first time in the Philippines he or she will strongly encourage you to enjoy Balut. I have mixed feelings about eating balut since the duck egg is served with a small embryo inside. Here in the Philippines it is customary to crack the egg open, drink the dark juices inside and then eat the small duck and its soft yellow yolk. Today, I found out that fish eye shots are enjoyed as well, but there is no way in the world I would ever eat that.

In the area of our CI project, many families open restaurants below their houses and sell meat and rice meals in small plastic bags. It is common to see a small child running down the street drinking a bag of juice through a straw. The Filipino people use every part of the food animal and waste very little since poverty is so prevalent in their country. It is common to see a man or woman standing outside grilling hard pieces of blood and sticks of intestines. I do not suggest eating these products, but it is incredible to see the Filipino ways of conserving their resources. With food selections like these, I have often found myself practicing my conflict management skills. The Filipino people are so nice and generous that they try to give you all that they have as they greet you in their country or build new opportunities for business. It is important to make wise decisions, but I have gained a lot from showing kindness even when I am saying no.

The best thing about eating in the Philippines is that every fruit is fresh from the jungle and is always delicious. The mangoes, bananas, and kiwis that I have had so far have been ridiculously good! I hope to be hosted with a Filipino family next week in order to become fully immersed in a Filipino meal. As for now I am enjoying my Puerto Rican style food at home and eating Filipino goodness with the cast. I hope the food in Subic Bay is as good as in Manila.

Our community impact project in Manila has been the greatest opportunity of our stay in the Philippines so far and has caused me to become very achievement driven. Myself and nine other cast members have teamed up with Habitat for Humanity Philippines. Habitat for Humanity originated in America, but has branches all around the world and is working in the Philippines to build unit housing for families that are now living in some of the worst slums in the world. Habitat's building project in Pasig City will provide homes to 120 families. The building process that we are able to help with is one that uses cement bricks reinforced by concrete and rebar. The construction design in this housing development was designed by Habitat and is a quick and reliable. Our cast works alongside 30 local people. The Filipinos are either skilled construction workers from Habitat or they are the home partners who will eventually live inside these houses. The home partners are unbelievably hard workers. They are men and women who are incredibly poor and work day after day to construct their new home.

Before we started to work with Habitat Philippines, I was chosen as the crew leader of our site. I an no longer required to be a crew leader on this tour because I served my six week position earlier in the tour, but because of my work in Mexico I was placed in charge of our 10 person group on this project. I have been given a great opportunity to develop close relationships with Ving and Noel who are two of the leaders of Habitat Philippines. We are broken up into two groups. One works with individuals who are pressing cement bricks and the other works with the gentleman who are involved in placing the bricks and pairing concrete for different areas of need.

The guys at our worksite are an absolute blast. Many of them do not speak English, but everyone at the site knows Christmas songs. Because of the Filipino's love for Christmas, singing the songs of the holidays keeps us moving and is allowing for relationships to begin to start between the Up With People cast and the Filipino workers without us even speaking the same language. In addition to our help building the home partner's homes we have been able to play with their children twice during our 2 1/2 week stay in Manila.

During the end of every November, Ateneo University in Manila hosts The Blue Christmas Celebration which is a large holiday party for over a thousand street children. University students tie-dye shirts, cook food, decorate bags, sing songs, play games and interact with children that would otherwise have no Christmas celebration. The University has a large entertainment show and moon bounces set up in their large quad. Half of the Up With People cast helped with this day long event which is the highlight of hundreds of children's Christmas season.

Transportation to and from my CI site everyday is an ultimate test of my independence and my ability to navigate a foreign city. In order to travel to Pasig City, I have often had to take two or three different modes of transportation. In the morning, I walk with my roommate, Umberto, to a main street where we wait for a taxi. The taxis are commonly occupied in the morning, but 20-30 may pass every five minutes or so as we wait. The taxi then takes us to the Pasig City Hall near the Pasig market. After a 25-30 minute cab ride through stop and go traffic, in what looks like a parking lot, we then pay a trike to take us through the market to get to our Habitat for Humanity worksite.

A "trike" consists of a motorcycle and side car and is almost always customized and hand fabricated. It is not uncommon to see 5-6 people riding a trike. Comfortably, two people can be seated in the sidecar, but I have seen a third wedged inside or riding on top. The motorcycle then holds the driver and 1-2 people behind him. I have commonly had to sit on a seat extension or luggage rack which sometimes provides for a somewhat uncomfortable trip. This mode of transportation would be extremely dangerous in the states or in other countries, but because of traffic and thousands of people in the street, the motorcycle driver rarely ever goes above 25-30 miles an hour. Trike drivers as well as cabdrivers commonly try to charge foreigners more than the normal cost of transportation, so the cheapest way to get around is without a doubt riding a jeepney.

Jeepneys are retired USA World War II convoy trucks that are privately owned and customized. The jeepney is an international symbol of Manila and provides transportation to hundreds of thousands each day. The convoy trucks are usually given large chrome decorations such as windshield guards and fans that make them appear to look like large Batmobiles as they intimidatingly roll down the streets with blaring exhausts, spewing out black smoke. I have found jeepney drivers to be some of the nicest people in the public transport system. They always return your change honestly and can be a big help when navigating the streets of Metro Manila.

The greatest thing about a jeepney is that the entire thing is a seat. Whether or not you are riding inside, hanging on the back, hanging on the side or riding on the hood you are still considered a passenger and will pay the fare. I will always remember the sight of a jeepney driver who can to drive stick shift and count back change as they maneuver the streets of the Manila markets and neighborhoods. It is crazy to watch one of these individuals because they are driving a very large vehicle through incredibly tight spaces with different denominations of bills wrapped around their fingers and almost always smoking a cigarette.

The jeepneys run in circuits so it is not unusual to see a driver talking to a passersby, but the most incredible thing is that the jeepney driver will reach a certain point in his route where he will honk his horn and receive a soda from someone on the street as he drives by. This might not seem that impressive, but the extreme chaos of the streets in the market make this an act of phenomena timing. You can only see it if you paying attention to every detail.

Just about everyone who travels wears something over their nose and mouth to protect them from the large amounts of exhaust that is in the air. My travel buddies Javi and Umberto both wear bandannas up over their noses in the same way that I do, so the three of us look like bandits as we ride the jeepneys and trikes. It is important to remember to hold your belongings tightly and enjoy! Salomit Po!!!

The US dollar is worth around 49 pesos. A family in the Philippines must make over 10,000 to15,000 pesos annually stay out of poverty. This is around $230 USD per year. The fare for a taxi is generally somewhere between 50 and 100 pesos, while a trike ride averages between 20 and 30 pesos depending on distance and number of passengers. A jeepney ride is always eight pesos no matter where you go. Soda in a bottle can be purchased for six pesos but it can sometimes be 20 inside the city. Meals at nice restaurants average between 200 - 400 pesos and a ticket to a movie is 150 pesos.

There are thousands of markets in this area of the Philippines, but the Green Street Market is one of the greatest aspects of Metro Manila. Shoes such as Adidas, Pumas or Nikes are commonly 900 pesos but can be haggled down to around 450 or 500P, which is about 10 US dollars. Most products like shoes are imitation quality. Other merchandise which is usually very expensive in other parts of the world are commonly very cheap here since they are manufactured and exported from the Philippines or other neighboring Asian countries. Products such as Coach Purses or designer sunglasses appear to be just like the real thing and are sold for around 1/10 of their usual price. The Philippines are known for their genuine pearls. Many pearl necklaces that are purchased in the Philippines for around 5,000 pesos or $100 USD can be appraised in the US for $900.

Shopping at the Green Street market is kind of like banana time in the monkey cage. Products all pretty much taste the same, but no one really wants to lose anything in order to get a lot. While you shop it is common for people to sneak up behind you and ask you if you would like to buy a DVD. They speak with the confidence of knowing that they might make a sale, but creep up like thieves and speak to you as if they are making some sort of drug deal. Of course they see no problem with totally creeping you out because to them, they are simply providing an easy avenue to pick up a bootleg copy of your favorite flick. After the fourth or fifth time of telling them no thank you Po, it is common for me to then tell them that I do not have a TV. Shortly after the salesperson becomes aware of my "tragedy". They either sadly walk away or make sure that I understand that it is the easiest thing in the world for them to get me a TV and that they will go pick it for me and then still give me a rock-bottom price on my DVD.

Independence is a large part of our stay in the Philippines. We are given transportation money, but are in charge of getting ourselves around. Having the cast broken up into small groups of 10 has really caused the students to call upon their skills of Individual strength. My roommate, Umberto, and I have become very good at navigating various parts of the city. We have developed a pretty good ability to determine if an individual is trying to help us out or just trying to get our money.

Being in the Philippines has given me a lot of flexibility. Whether it comes to transportation or to working with individuals at our Habitat construction site, I have been able to mold my thinking and orient my expectations in a way that benefits the goals of others.

As I go through each day I am met with my thoughts of exhaustion or resentment for the climate, but the people that I am with and the things that I am doing will only happen during this month of my life, so I am constantly overjoyed and soaking up each moment of my opportunity. Beginning with the Filipino boy that I sat next to on the airplane, my new Filipino friends have opened new windows for me to look through and they have expanded my ability to understand the art of life.