Montage of Poverty and Upscale Construction

While we were commuting back and forth through the Philippines I noticed something that I haven’t seen anywhere else.  The Philippines is like a montage of poverty, middle class, and upper-class establishments and homes.

What I mean is that in, say, the US, you have neighborhoods that are well-to-do.  The houses are all very nice.  Then you have middle class neighborhoods, lower class neighborhoods, and poverty level neighborhoods.  In the commercial areas, everything is fairly well put together.  Everything has a sort of continuity to it.  You see what you expect to see for the area of town you’re in.  Maybe it has something to do with zoning, or with developers buying large plots of land.  I don’t know.

In the Philippines, however, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of zoning.  There doesn’t seem to be any sort of building code either.  You might be standing in front of a popular mall that’s as modern and attractive as any mall in the US or Singapore, but right next to it, or across the street, are buildings that look like they were constructed entirely of plywood and sheet metal.  You could be standing in front of a McDonalds, but when you look down the alley next to it, you see shanties that would make the Red Cross cringe for the lack of quality of life.  It’s an incredibly jarring experience.

This seems to be common to almost every part of the Philippines.  The old and the new, the ultra-poor and the ultra-posh, set up right next to each other.  You can even see this in the housing areas, such as they are.  You might have a nicely built home right next to a house that even bums wouldn’t want to live in, in the US.  From what I can see, as long as the land is yours, you can put whatever you want to on it, of whatever quality you want.  There was one instance where I wondered about whether or not the homes were built legally.  We were riding a bus on the highway between Angeles City and Manila.  The portion of the highway we were on was raised about two stories above the ground.  I’m not sure why it was raised, except maybe that there were quite a few little streams passing below the road.  What caught my attention is that people who were farming the land had set up their houses below the road, in the shade it created.  Maybe laws are different in the Philippines, but I assumed that doing something like that would be considered unsafe and illegal.

There are areas where land developers seem to be trying to build a more modern type of sub-division.  One in particular comes to mind, near the housing area where my wife’s family lives in Antipolo.  It’s walled off, gated, and the houses inside have a modern construction to them.  Just outside the wall, though, is the normal eye-jarring experience.  I’ve also seen posh, walled and gated apartment complexes situated in the middle of an area that looks like a slum.

On my next trip I’ll try to take a few pictures to add to this post as examples.

Beggars In The Philippines

Beggars are a pretty common sight in the Philippines, but not all of them are what they seem.

In the U.S. there’s a running joke that some bums are just bums part-time to make some extra money. When they’re done they go home to wash up for the night and get ready for work in the morning. My wife tells me that in the Philippines there are professional beggars.

It was pretty easy to pick out the people that were actually having a hard time there. In front of the Nepo mall in Angeles City there was a man sitting on the ground, begging for change. The guy was really old, really browned, really wrinkled, and really skinny, to the point that he looked like he might starve to death at any moment. We happened to have an extra cheeseburger on us (we’d bought some stuff from Jollibee to sneak into the movie theater; we don’t keep cheeseburgers in our pockets usually) and passed one off to him. His reaction was a bit odd. He looked at it, sniffed it, and then eyed us, as if he wasn’t sure it was really safe to eat. I couldn’t tell if they guy hadn’t seen a wrapped burger in so long he’d forgotten what it was, or if he was accustomed to people handing him garbage as a cruel joke.

On the other hand, there was a little girl at the bus station in Angeles City that was really annoying. Looking at her you could see she was well fed. Her clothes were a bit worn out looking, but not the ratty type you would expect to see on someone so poor they had to beg. As soon as she saw me she ran over to me and started begging for money, but it wasn’t just that. She started grabbing at me and grabbing at my bag. If her hand had found its way into my bag I’m sure she would have tried to run with whatever she got her dirty little paws on. Telling her no didn’t seem to work. It took having my wife tell her to get lost in Tagalog for her to finally give up. It seemed to startle her and she fled. She must have had a short memory though, because a few days later we passed through that same station and she tried her trick again. This time I didn’t even bother to stop. My wife turned to tell her to get lost again but when she realized the girl wasn’t there anymore we kept walking. I remember the kid sort of bouncing off my hip. I’m not sure if she wound up on her ass or kept her balance, but I don’t really feel bad about it, surprisingly, even though she couldn’t be more than 8 years old.

I guess by that point I became numbed to the people trying to rip me off and they stopped registering as ‘people.’ If you visit the Philippines you’ll have a better understanding of what I mean, but imagine having a cloud of mosquitos buzzing around your head whenever you’re in the street, but instead of biting you, they talk: “Bzzzzzzz hey mister bzzzz buy buy buy bzzz cheap bzzz good deal bzzz mister mister!”

That wasn’t the only time a little girl tried to hit me up for money in the Philippines. It seems like little girls, the cute ones at least, are the weapon of choice for Filipinos looking to make extra money off of foreigners and foolish locals. Child exploitation anyone?

In March of last year I was sitting with my wife at Gloria Jeans coffee at the Galleria mall in Manila, watching the traffic and the rain when a little girl walked up to the table. This was my first experience with this, though I’d been warned. At least this kid was trying to offer something in return. She had a handful of fake flowers that she was trying to sell for an insanely inflated price. I told her I wasn’t interested, and tried to shoo her away, but she played dumb and kept insisting. This was the first time I had to be rescued by my wife, who told her to get lost in Tagalog. I need to find a way to get rid of them myself, because my wife might not always be nearby when they launch their attack. I suppose I could just whack them in the head and tell them to leave me alone, but that might land me in jail.

This last trip, just after I plowed through the grabby little girl at the train station (and checked all my belongings) my wife and I sat down in a Jollibee and had lunch. While we were there I saw a dirty looking boy outside the window, lying down on the pavement in the shade. I asked my wife what was up with him, and she told me that he’s another fake beggar, but one that uses a different tactic. Instead of being energetic and grabby, like the little girls, they try to appear forlorn and destitute.

It all reminded me of a story she told me about how my former boss handed out money to beggars while he was visiting the Philippines and wound up getting lectured by his wife (a Filipina) about letting himself get suckered. Maybe I’m just a bastard, but I’ve decided to not take the time to try to figure out if they’re genuine or not. Unless it’s obvious, like the guy in front of the Nepo mall, I’ll just ignore them all.

It’s hard enough to hold onto your Pesos in the Philippines without letting yourself be done in by fake beggars. Keep that in mind if you ever go to the Philippines for a visit.