People of the Philippines are rich, but not many of them. Far more find themselves utterly destitute. No matter the income, however, they prove themselves industrious, eager, resilient, friendly, and able to maximize available resources. They sleep in mansions encased within barbed wire walls or unprotected on a couch in an alley, in a concrete apartment, in a lean-to, in the sidecar of their “tricycle”, in a skyscraper penthouse, in a stilted bamboo shack over their rice terraces, in their family’s cemetery crypt (you read that right), and directly on the sidewalk surrounded by their playing children.
They eat in lavish western restaurants or from sweat-drenched street vendors, at McDonald’s, out of a pot heated over a fire in an alley, Italian take-out and in their own very modest, sparely-equipped kitchens. Gas stoves run on propane and dishwashers are a luxury. And beware, products follow seemingly no safety standards and are all trying to hurt you.
The wealthier shop for food at bright new supermarkets where everything is neatly packaged behind plastic. For a country whose staple is rice, there is a baffling array of spaghetti options, but good milk products are impossible to come by. Strawberries cost $11 a box but, thanks to agro-science, the perfect mango can be savored year-round.
If the “Hyper Market” is too expensive or riddled with preservatives, live fish can be found flapping on counters at the public market. Beef and pork slabs are hung from hooks and every part of a chicken is spread out for purchase. Feet, hearts, livers, heads and entrails are available as well as the usual breast and leg, all eagerly displayed beneath repurposed ceiling fans outfitted with makeshift fly swatters.
In stalls past the fresh animals (so recently slaughtered, and often on-site, you can smell the ocean as well as the manure) you will find pungent dried fish, rice, and eggs – the standard poor-man’s meal. Cooking oil is sold in single-dose bags. Even eggs are sold separate from their shells in bags.
Step past the puddles of ocean water and mammal blood and you find fresh veggies and fruit overflowing bins direct from the farms. Mango, banana, papaya, and “native” tomatoes are the staples. A blind man could easily shop the market following only the rich aroma of this locally produced food.
Vehicles on the road are as varied as the chicken parts: BMW, Nissan, Ford, Toyota, Hummer, and Lamborghini are all represented on the choked streets alongside home-made monsters. Watch out; lanes and traffic lights are merely suggestions, and bumpers here are used like they are named.
Like sand in a jar of marbles, the roving hordes of motorbikes pour through the tiny spaces between buses and cars and frequently take to the sidewalks. Yet the vehicles that will run you down fastest are Jeepneys and tri-cycles. They represent the most popular forms of ‘public transportation’. Each of these smoke-spewing clunkers are privately owned and make just a few cents off each passenger.
Jeepneys are repurposed WWII American military jeeps (originally at least. They seem, at last, to have used up the supply), cut, stretched and decorated (usually with blinding amounts of stainless steel) to become a sort of open air bus. They stop anywhere and everywhere along their cryptic course to pick up and drop off passengers no matter how thick the traffic, how risky the maneuver, or how detrimental to traffic flow.
A 20 cent fare will take you many miles, and is passed forward between the squished passengers to reach the driver, who dislocates his arm backwards to blindly reach the cash, calculates change while swerving between pedestrians, and returns change via the passenger brigade. Occasionally he will need to purchase a cigarette from a wandering vendor in order to break a bill. Often he will need to wait for the fare of a new passenger. He may even stop to refuel.
A tri-cycle, conversely, is a motorcycle welded to a covered side car. The fanciest of these have a ‘trunk’ that replicates the vibe of a ’57 Chevy. The fare is a bit higher, but personal space is even more precious. Within this side car there is room enough for one adult, so of course two to five people are folded inside. To increase profits there are an additional two adults riding side saddle behind the driver. Occasionally extra bodies will stand on the trunk or sit on the roof, totaling up to perhaps 14 souls. A pedestrian with a brisk pace will easily outrace a heavily laden bike, but walking for more than a few blocks here is contemptible. To see white people doing it is downright puzzling, for they nearly always take a taxi outfitted with the equally important AC and air filter.
Carburetors are a luxury for any class of vehicle, so an oppressive film of black covers every surface in town, including ones lungs. When the time expired to pay back an American loan and cash was on short supply, Hilary Clinton mercifully instructed the government to keep the money and plant trees. This resulted in an unexpectedly green and shady city, far more pleasant places for the homeless to sleep and, anecdotally at least, better air. Cough, cough.
Recycling is not only the ‘responsible’ thing to do in a city with 12 million inhabitants, it is a way to live. Trash and recyclables, if not casually littered, are placed in single stream garbage bins and workers sort and separate out the usable or profitable items. There is no warehouse or collection point for the sorting and no automated system or special truck. It is the roof-challenged residents who find, sort, transport, and sell the recycling or repurpose it for their own makeshift domiciles (however, in a land where plastic is the default packaging, most garbage lives a very short life and usually ends up on a shoreline).
You can witness the full efficiency of the recycling program as a stake bed garbage truck rolls by with half a dozen self-appointed sorters perched atop, scouring through the heap of bags, collecting their livelihood as the truck maneuvers the city streets.
That sort of resourcefulness is what keeps the poor self-supporting, but it has a nasty black lining. As seen in the population of New Orleans, it is the poorest hit hardest when Katrina comes to town; they cannot insulate themselves against hardship and have few opportunities to run away. When even the midrate parts of the Philippines are hastily built with questionable techniques and decaying material, what hope is there for shacks built from repurposed signage and bits of plywood, or a tarp tossed over a tree branch and pinned with rocks.
We watched with anxiety as Manila’s homeless prepared for Super Typhoon Yolanda, because it is they who line the shores, etching out a living on their scrappy fishing boats or within piecemeal food carts. While we pondered the structural integrity of our 34-floor high-rise with its already significant cracks, they seemed rather matter-of-fact as they placed a few additional rocks on their tarps and settled in for a rainy and, ultimately, uneventful night.
Other islands saw no luck that day and towns were utterly decimated, but they are as far from Manila as New Orleans is from our Michigan home. And with miles of ocean between islands, there is little an average citizen can do to aid the ailing when even the Philippine government struggles to reach the desperate.
Here is a country perched uncomfortably between modernity and chaotic squalor, while suffering the worst effects of rampant capitalism. An eyebrow can be raised at Manila’s ever-shifting downtown; a neighborhood of shiny skyscrapers and malls is erected over a “useless” patch of green earth or the forced graveyard of a former slum, ushering in the newest standards of cleanliness and urban design, only to eventually fall victim to age and decay and be left to rot as a shinier downtown is constructed several miles away. From the air the skyline appears a mottled patchwork of high-rises vs. shantytowns.
One could remain insulated for a while within the cathedrals of consumerism, marveling at the Asian mall experience with its labyrinth of escalators, in-house supermarkets, call centers and open-air chapels, but eventually you’d notice that the workers building the newest downtown are all sleeping there as well. In shacks. On the construction site.
Take a few steps outside the area and urban planning lays in tatters with the tangled, bird’s nest power lines and crumbled sidewalks and filth and homelessness and a traffic jam of Jeepneys that have been regulated to the periphery of the Shiny Downtown where are they forced to navigate cramped residential neighborhoods, trying to get their passengers close to the Consumer Cathedrals without crossing that invisible fence themselves.
Here also is a country that chooses the labor and time-intensive method over the machine every time, because manpower is cheap and it gives a larger number of the burgeoning population an income, however meager. Why mow the highway grasses with one big machine and two guys when you could employ 40 men with weedwhackers? Why buy a front end loader when you have hoards of workers with shovels? It’s a logic that almost computes, until you ponder how much pollution 40 weedwhackers spew forth and what other currently ignored tasks could be tackled with that kind of dedicated workforce, like picking up all of the damn useless garbage or repairing the barely-navigable sidewalks.
But then, in small doses, you see that happening too, because there are just so many damn people to employ. Within certain Barangays (an urban village with its own tax structure and powerful Captain), big strides to improve quality of life are being taken, and some of them are choosing to be pretty. We’ve seen several employ gangs of grinning grandmothers to manually sweep the gutters with bamboo brooms and improvised dustbins (admittedly, Filipinos are obsessed with sweeping; we’ve seen a dirt yard swept of leaves minutes before being plowed, and sidewalks broomed right before a Typhoon).
One such Barangay was using its authority to construct concrete drainage ditches along the main road and, because houses are built directly adjacent to the street (an incomprehensible practice that allows no buffer from traffic noise or view) the encroaching entryways and porches and balconies of these structures had to be ruthlessly ripped off to make way.
Eventually they will discover the bureaucratic beauty of permits and building codes that will prevent such spacial conflicts but, until that dull day, it’s a bit of chaos and noise and doing things over and over until it looks just like its perfect Big Brother America.