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Living in the Philippines

Corruption in the Philippines

I was told that in the Philippines, making money depends on how inventive you are, and how entreprenuerial you can be.  The average salary in the Philippines doesn’t count for much when converted to almost any other foreign currency, and most salaries in the Philippines don’t count for much there either.  This is especially true in the provincial areas, where an average salary might be 7,000 – 12,000 PHP (144 USD – 248 USD) per month.

Even the police and military in the Philippines receive low wages and have to do extra jobs on the side just to get by.  To me, this seems detrimental to the overall health of the nation, especially in regards to the military and police.  If the people who are meant to protect you can’t concentrate on their jobs because they’re so poor, they’ll either become ineffective or they’ll exploit their position, leading to corruption.

It’s no secret that the Philippines already has problems with corruption. The Philippines should be listed as an example of political corruption in encyclopedias, as it’s almost become a tradition for politicians in power to screw over the citizens. According to agencies like Transparency International, and Filipinos, the current president, Gloria Arroyo, is considered to be the most corrupt president in the history of the country. So, where do you lay the blame? The people who elected her? Well, maybe in a country like the US, where there are actually checks and balances and a somewhat fair election, but Gloria openly admitted to cheating during the 2004 election to win the presidency.

So, was the corruption in the Philippines evident even to me? Sure it was. The poor quality of public works like roads, phone and water services, the low quality of life, the rampant inflation between my first visit a year ago and this visit, and fees, fees, and more fees. Did you know you even have to pay a fee just to leave the country? It applies to tourists and Philippine nationals alike, except it’s higher for foreigners, because like I said before, all foreigners are rich in the eyes of Filipinos. They like to call it a “Terminal Usage Fee” and it comes up to something like 16 USD. What’s this fee going to? It’s certainly not going towards improving the terminals I’ve used there. That’s for damn sure. Again, I’d like to point you back to a prior post I made about NAIA, in Manila, here. For my wife, the fee is only 100 pesos (about 2 USD) but to get the paperwork done she has to travel to an office in Manila and sit around for an hour or more. On top of that they regularly charge Filipinos who work overseas exorbitant fees for something called the Overseas Workers Welfare Administrations, and Filipinos are required to upkeep their domestic Philhealth healthcare, even though they’re abroad and don’t need it. It’s all just ridiculous. When I left the US, I wasn’t required to pay extra fees. I’m not required to join an organization just because I left the country and have plans of working abroad. In fact, my foreign earned revenue won’t even be taxed up to a certain point (which is pretty high).

The Philippines is a country with a lot of potential that will never be realized as long as people like Arroyo sit in office, embezzling money from the people for the purposes of self-enrichment (and not the good kind like learning a second language either) and self-aggrandizement. It’s almost disgusting to look at. In fact, it’s almost like watching a large group of schoolyard bullies fight for authority, not realizing that there’s so much more beyond the schoolyard fence.

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Living in the Philippines

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.

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Living in the Philippines

Standing Out Like A Sore Thumb

When you’re a white guy and you’re in the Philippines you’re something like a superstar.  It feels like you’re being followed around by the paparazzi or something.  This isn’t really the case in the Manila area, well not so much anyways, but out in the provincial areas, everyone takes a look at you.

I get the feeling that in the Philippines people who live in the provincial areas don’t travel too much, so they probably don’t see foreigners very often.  When I was walking around the Pampanga area people would sometimes plainly stare.

There was an instance where I was riding on a Jeepney with my wife and my father-in-law.  Two Filipinas were sitting across from us at opposite ends of the bench.  Every time I looked their way they were eyeing me.  One of them had a distasteful or maybe a hateful look on her face.  Maybe she had something against me being there, or maybe the look was aimed at my wife, who’s also a Filipina.  The other one looked like she was hoping I would come talk to her.  When the latter one got off the Jeepney and walked past us, she gave me a funny looking smile, like she was trying to be cute.  I thought it was even more strange, because she didn’t seem to care that my wife was sitting there with me.  It’s not as if I was trying to hide my ring or anything.  My wife told me that it’s normal.  Just the fact that you’re from another country makes you extra attractive in the Philippines and she says a lot of the girls there are very unscrupulous when it comes to married men.

Other times the stares weren’t quite so pleasant.  When we were traveling from Porac to Antipolo I was carrying my laptop in a bag.  Quite a few people looked me up and down like they were sizing me up and contemplating what might be in my bag and whether or not it might be worthwhile to try to rob me.  My wife says that a lot of Filipinos have the mentality that all foreigners in the Philippines must be rich.

That mentality definitely has its downsides.  Everywhere you go people call out “Hey mister! Hey mister!” to you, trying to get you to purchase something from their stall or something they’re carrying around.  Like I mentioned in a previous post, it’s like having a cloud of mosquitoes buzzing around you all the time.

Being a foreigner in the Philippines has its ups and downs.  Sometimes you feel like a superstar.  Other times you wish you could just blend in and enjoy the scenery without being bothered.

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Living in the Philippines

Weird Animals in the Philippines

The last few times I was in the Philippines I didn’t really notice anything but ants and mosquitoes. We had quite a bit of excitement this time around though, with giant spiders and snakes. Here are some photos:

Golden Orb Weaver
Golden Orb Weaver

This ugly bastard is about the size of your average wallet, including the legs. I’m no expert on spiders, so I don’t know what breed it is, but I read somewhere that things that have bright colors are usually poisonous, and this spider has yellow dots on its back. It has a big web in the front yard at my father-in-law’s house. It was there when we arrived in the Philippines on the 25th and it was there when we stopped by before leaving on the 5th of March. As far as I can tell, it never moved. There were quite a few smaller spiders in the web around it too, so assume they are its offspring.

Cane Spider
Cane Spider

The first night we were in Antipolo we opened the bathroom to find this thing waiting for us. It didn’t seem to want us in there, because it started advancing on us. Armed with a stick and a slipper we managed to beat it into submission… well, to death. It’s a bit easier to get perspective on this one than the first. The bulb on the ceiling there is about twice the size of the average lamp lightbulb. Also, you can see that the spider could hug the shower curtain rod with room to spare.

I didn’t get a picture of it but we saw a second one in the kitchen on the night I was having my birthday party. It was hanging out by the back door, which was open for some ventilation. No one but me seemed to mind that it was there. What was even more creepy about the second one is that it was carrying an egg sac. “Arachnophobia” anyone?

Squashed Cane Spider
Squashed Cane Spider

Here’s a picture of a third one, or possibly the one with the egg sac that didn’t get killed, after I beat it to death on the floor of the bedroom. It came out from behind the dresser and tried to hide behind the curtain, but I spotted it. By this point I was really keeping an eye out for them. It didn’t stand a chance.

These things might be common in the Philippines, but I don’t really like the idea of sharing a living space with them. The next time we’re there, I think I’ll front the money to have them all dealt with by an exterminator.

Snake Hanging Out
Snake Hanging Out

We were walking through my wife’s old neighborhood in Antipolo when we saw a big group of students from the nearby De La Salle school gathered together looking at something. I guess this snake must be a python because it didn’t seem to be biting anyone, even when one of the kids picked it up and started chasing his friends with it. Keep in mind that this neighborhood doesn’t have many houses with window screens. Imagine waking up with this guy in bed with you.

Bonus:

3 Pigs Riding a Motorcycle
3 Pigs Riding a Motorcycle

I got lucky and got this photo on the ride to the airport. I’ve never seen anything like it before, or even considered doing something like it. Filipinos will use a motorcycle for damn near anything I guess.

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Living in the Philippines

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.