In the Disney movie Aladdin, the idea of being a “street rat” was glorified as an honorable way of making a living, with a code of ethics and a comfortable life. In reality, things don’t work out quite that way. I’ve seen poor people on the street here in the Philippines and they don’t look like they’re having quite as good a time as Aladdin was. They’re dirty, they’re hungry and they live in a way that’s dangerous because at any moment of the night someone could take their lives. It’s not that adventurous when you think about it. It’s a torment that must be a horrible way to live. Even at my worst, I’ve always had a roof over my head and a little something to eat every day. So, I have pity for these people when I see them in the street.
In the Philippines, and perhaps everywhere, that pity has to be tempered by wariness about the real nature of the person holding the cup or the annoying children that flock around me like little vultures. Here in the Philippines there are organized begging rackets where beggars are put out on corners like a pimp would set out prostitutes in other parts of the world. The individuals doing the begging are made to look more forlorn than they may actually be, and some of them may have homes that they go home to in the evening. Most people probably learned about this activity by watching the movie Slumdog Millionaire. The same practices you see in that film are employed in the Philippines. So, you can’t be too free with your money when you see these types of people coming up to you in the road, or holding a cup out to you in front of a store.
The ones that really annoy me are the groups of kids that try to surround you and start asking for money. They even go so far as to start grabbing at your clothing. My guess is that this is to distract you while their friends start fishing in your pockets for whatever they can grab and run with. When I first visited the Philippines in 2008 I had a lot of patience for this sort of behavior, to the point that it annoyed my wife. She always shooed them away as fast as possible. I didn’t really care. My attitude about it has changed now though. I suppose that when you visit a place, those minor inconveniences seem quaint and entertaining, but when you actually move to that place and you know it’s something you’ll have to deal with on a repeating basis, the patience you had before wears thin quickly. Now, when these kids surround me and start asking for money I give them a very gruff, ‘”No!” and keep walking. If they persist, or start grabbing at my clothing, I push them away physically and tell them to “Fuck off”. That message normally gets through to them and they break off their pursuit, often accompanied by a string of expletives in Tagalog, the local language. I suppose that they think that just by being white, I must have tons of cash and I’m just holding out on them.
If you think that’s a little rough, given that these are kids, keep in mind that it’s typically organized. They do it every day. They beg as a job, rather than out of necessity, and I’d rather come across as a jackass than have my belongings stolen from my pockets while trying to play nice. Life in the Philippines isn’t just hard because the money is worth less, it’s hard because you have to be hard to survive when you’re out of the house. No one has bottomless pockets and every peso counts.