Poor in the Philippines: It’s All in the Details
I suppose I’m like most professors when I try to give students a sense of the difference between the First World and the Third World. I talk about infant mortality and life expectancy rates and per capita income and the proportion of the labor force working in agriculture rather than in manufacturing and the service industries. I invariably go on about a continuum and countries that are close to being classified as First World, and then say a word about those at the bottom, the basket cases—Haiti, Nicaragua, all those African countries south of the Sahara. I rarely forget to mention how there are Third World countries within the richest First World nations, as with South Central Los Angeles and East St. Louis and Harlem.
What I don’t do enough of, and sometimes not at all—depending on the class and how much time I want to devote to these distinctions—is provide the details, what one can see with the naked eye, and the thoughts that come to mind. As, for example, along the coastal road that runs between Puerto Galeria and Calapan and points south on Mindoro in the Philippines.
Mindoro is the seventh largest island in this nation of some 7,000 islands, and it was first settled some 800 years ago by several different linguistic groups of proto-Malays. By some estimates, Mindoro today has a population in the neighbourhood of 1.4 million people, growing at the obscene rate of around three per cent a year. Of this number, about 100,000 of the island’s inhabitants are Mangyans, those first on the island. They are and have long been socially and geographically isolated in the remote spine of mountains that divides Mindoro Occidental from Mindoro Oriental. Now they are exploited as all minorities are exploited: their lands stolen, taken without reasonable reason, signed away on documents they cannot read—always by the rich, of course.
Yes, the details. Or the kind that might do more to get students to palpably understand what it means to be poor in the Philippines, a Third World country with too many people and growing too rapidly, for everyone’s good.
Find yourself going south from Puerto Galera and just about every hundred yards or so you’ll come to a stretch of paved road that’s full of holes or chunks of broken concrete or room-sized patches of dirt more than cement, that kind of road where every known kind of vehicle is forced to slow to five miles an hour or less. And then with uncommon frequency move around road construction crews of eight or ten men, all of them with torn bandanas on their heads and wearing broken shoes or flip flops or barefoot, pouring or smoothing cement, digging a hole or a trench for no obvious reason. If lucky, these workers are paid three dollars a day, and it’s an uncertain job, and one—this a certainty–without benefits. But it’s the best job available for a hundred miles in either direction for men who often have six or eight kids and don’t have a word for condom in their vocabulary, much less ever having seen one. Men who will work hard and have no concept of the future, and who will have more kids with nary a thought given to consequences—this another certainty.
There are few if any gas stations outside the few towns and cities on Mindoro. But now and again on the winding up and down road lined with coconut palms and banana plants and budding mango trees and plenty of lush greenery laced with lianas you come upon a crude wooden sign that reads: Gasoline for Sale. It’s nailed to a fence post that fronts a crude and unpainted and often unfinished–and maybe never to be finished–cement block bungalow that’s the size of what someone who calls himself middle class and with a decent job in the First World would describe as a large bedroom. These kinds of gas-for-sale signs are one of many reminders of the scale at which people in the Philippines—the lucky ones who don’t sleep daily on the slum-riddled streets of Manila and get their only meals from begging–carry on their lives. The sign announces that there’s a place to get a litre or two of gas for any of the thousands of trikes (small motorbikes with side cars) that dot and clutter stretches of the coastal road, and are everywhere in the urban and rural streets and pinched alleyways of a country destined to go nowhere fast. The trike drivers with their tiny enclosed buggies—too small for two decent-sized non-Asians–move mothers and their children and bags of groceries and sacks of rice and taro–and even snoopy interlopers like me, two or three or half a dozen miles for ten or twenty cents; and if they run out of gas, well, there’s that sagging sign for gas nailed to a fence post or a tree that they just passed where they can buy another litre or two, enough for several more short trips.
The last thing anyone ever thinks of in this part of the world is zoning, a rational ordering of buildings and spaces and ways of doing business. The landscape of human artefacts has no apparent order, other than that dictated by opportunity, necessity, what comes about because someone found a patch of vacant land and bought a pile of cement blocks and bags of mortar and began building. Order there is not, or only rarely: a tiny falling down store here, a small cement block home made liveable with discarded corrugated iron there, a sagging and sad hut made of bamboo and thatch with a dirt floor. Everywhere the eye wanders there’s garbage and rusting sewer piping and sheets of discarded and misshapen corrugated iron. There’s a two-story home nicely painted with a car beneath a tarp and belonging to a Chinese merchant. And then twenty yards on twenty or thirty trikes, three of four with dead engines and flat tires lined up beside the road.
There are all these people walking along road edges, or down the middle of the broken and rain-soaked road. Little boys and girls are everywhere, barefoot and half naked and cheerful and laughing, this their whole world, the only world they know or may ever know. And who but a First World outsider would stop and pause and think of words like disorder and chaos and mess, and then juxtapose them to words like paradise, and for no known reason bring to mind a youthful Gauguin painting in a similar landscape…death and muddy poverty and cheerful ignorance in a humid breeze never the issue, the wayward mind concludes.
You come up over a rise and the trike tilts and makes a hard right and you nearly fall out, and off to your left you see a pile of rocks and boulders and slabs of slate. They would be but another mess, of little value, but for the two young Filipinos sitting on the ground with small hammers breaking the rocks and boulders. A rice bowl wage for the day long effort. A scene impossible to even imagine in your sanitized and almost perfectly ordered First World country.
Welfare—another thought, a word not known here. A concept that belongs to privileged people who are forced to show niggardly generosity and grouse about it endlessly.
Several tiny homes along the road come into view. Sagging. Tiny and insubstantial. All of them with unpainted wooden fences marking off a garden, with perhaps a large banana plant or two to one side or in the middle of a mix of flowers and peppers and weeds. The small homes with flat roofs made of crude gray concrete blocks may be painted, or painted in part, or not painted at all, and perhaps painted or not festooned with bent and rusted rebars sticking up on two or three edges, suggesting that another floor will be built. Suggesting only… Another reminder—to you if not to the these locals–of that kind of dream that as often as not has no future.
Beyond the sagging wooden fence lies dirt, and table food in the making. Large rectangular spreads of drying rice, all of it be taken to a mill and then either sold at market or, as often as not, consumed in a family of six or eight or ten for whom rice is the most essential of staples. Rice first, rice last…maybe only rice two or three days a week.
If you’re traveling this road in a trike or a jeepney or by any other means, there may be a sudden slowdown and a long line of jeepneys ahead, ten or fifteen of them, none making any obvious effort to pass where passing other vehicles on these kinds of roads is done casually, all the time, always with little regard to oncoming traffic. A closer look reveals an ambulance van in front of the line of jeepeys, and in front of the ambulance a dozen or so young men and a few women seated behind them on small motorbikes, all of them without helmets and wearing shorts and flip-flops. You guess—you know it’s a good guess because you’ve seen them before—that inside the ambulance there’s a coffin and the body of a mother or father or brother or sister or cousin, on his or her way to a cemetery not far up the road. The person—invariably young, and certainly young by First World numbers–just died because there was no way of doing something for someone who didn’t have the few pesos needed to get to a doctor; and maybe, but not likely, have enough money to get the most minimal kind of treatment, just to extend life for a couple of months.
If you’re in a van or a jeepney the driver with the deformed left ear reaches for the dangling rosary beads and brings the cross to his lips, then releases the rosary beads and makes the sign of the cross. Just as he does when starting the stop and go journey of an hour or two to go two dozen miles. There are no seat belts for anyone because they’re all broken, and so you turn your eyes and attention to watching the young driver with the deformed left ear and a sixth grade education search for some loud music, all the while checking his cell phone and dropping a splayed bare foot onto the gas pedal, doing automatically what he does every day, and day after day for just enough to feed his large and growing family.
A couple of hard taps or slaps by the young kid hanging off the end of the jeepney is a signal for the sturdy and durable and noisy carrier of a world war era to stop to let someone off, or let someone on. It’s a scene repeated scores of times as settlements and towns and cities or simply trails into the bush appear out of nowhere. The jeepney stops to let off or pick up students in pink or tan uniforms, old men whose broken and missing toenails and weathered feet suggest they have never known a real pair of shoes, a young mother with her youngest child at breast and one a year older holding her hand. And a grandmother a dozen times over who hair is streaked grey and is missing all but one or two of her front teeth.
Another stop and the woman with five teeth in her mouth gets off and hands the kid who commands all starts and stops a folded twenty peso note so old and abused that only the color betrays the denomination.
The engine chuckles and then roars, and as the slow journey south in Mindoro Oriental continues your eyes fall on a man of uncertain age who just got off the bus and is carrying a green plastic bag about the size of a soccer ball. It’s full of charcoal that he bought in the public market for twenty pesos, fifty cents in your money. It will be used to cook rice and a couple of hand-sized fish and maybe some taro or sweet potatoes. It will be enough fuel for five meals in a crowded tropical paradise that only has one obvious future—to become more crowded and poorer than it already is.
You've done such a marvellous job with these submissions on life in the Philippines that I feel I have a really good idea of what life over there is like – with no need to go and see it for myself!