Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Philippine Islands: Part I - Land of Hospitality

I just spent the last twelve days in the Philippines and I can't shake the spell that the country has case over me. Despite the sophistication of the major cities, there was no denying that I was in a third world country. I was face to face with people from (seemingly) another era. Face to face (from the semi-comfort of a jeepney, more on that later) with poverty. And face to face with the most overwhelming hospitality I could ever imagine and most certainly would never expect from anyone in America.

Many Philippine people have very little, and yet it was abundantly clear that everyone we encountered would give whatever little they had for the comfort of the American chapter of their family. And when I say they have very little... well, let me elaborate on that. On our first full day in the Philippines, we went to a giant shopping mall in Manila with two "aunties." We treated our aunties to a Starbucks coffee. They seemed unsure of what to order so I asked if they had ever had Starbucks before. One auntie said, "It's too expensive. One or two coffees would feed a family for a week." To which my jaw nearly dropped and I suddenly felt a sickening in my stomach as I clutched my "groceries-for-one-week" vanilla latte. I'm not sure if they enjoyed the drink we helped them select, but you can bet that they swallowed every little drop.

The third worldness of the Philippines was apparent in every glimpse I stole into the everyday lives of its people. Sure, everyone we were with had a cell phone and a Facebook account. They wore clothes that said "GAP" and "Nike." Other than the fact that they spoke a different language (or two), these were people that could have been pulled from any street in America. But then we were blessed enough to be invited into their homes. Everyone wanted to host us. Everyone wanted the opportunity to bestow their kindness and generosity upon us. Over the course of 12 days, we had three meals in our Philippine relatives' homes. Each meal and home visit revealed a different strata of life and culture and economic status. While I enjoyed snorkeling and sunbathing on white, sandy beached (another post), it was the home visits that I looked forward to and treasured the most.

After a day or two in Manila, we flew to Roxas City, near the ancestral home of my late mother-in-law (it was her funeral and burial that brought us to the Philippines in the first place). We were met at the airport by a jeepney. The Filipino people are very resourceful and ingenius and the jeepney is just one example of that. After WWII, the Filipino people repurposed American army jeeps for everyday transportation. Now jeepneys are manufactured as an actual design and are one of the most common vehicles seen on the roads outside the big cities, second only to "tricycles" which are motorcycles with a side car that are packed to the brim with passengers.

While jeepneys do not have glass windows and are not air-conditioned, they are perfect for sight-seeing. And we had plenty of time to do that in the 2 hour drive to our first home visit out in the country.

The ride to the country proved to be the first eye-opening part of the trip. Along the way we passed schools with children receiving their lessons outside in large courtyards as teachers wrote on two gigantic chalkboards riddled with holes.

We passed row after row of run-down cement buildings with tin-roofs which served as dental clinics, businesses, and shops with a family home in the back or on top.

Here's a dental clinic (the green part).

Out of the city we passed scores of nipa huts nestled between rice fields where farmers plowed their crops by the power of water buffalos. Nipa huts are homes which are nothing more than bamboo sticks tied together with tin roofs. These homes did not appear to have any electricity or running water. And I imagine that it is a very common way to live outside of the cities and its "suburbs." I read that 50% of the population lives rurally, that's a lot of people living in nipa huts! We passed hundreds of these homes over the course of an hour and while I saw people and children inside their homes doing chores, hanging hand-washed laundry on a line, cooking, or just sitting on the side of the road waiting for customers to buy their goods (many people live off the income derived from "sari-sari" stores that are directly in front of their homes- many of these stores are nothing more than a collection of random goods and foods for sale). And while I could almost look directly into several of the homes and passed children playing in the streets, I saw not a single toy.

A nipa hut in a "town."

A school. There is no air-conditioning in the country (and in most places, actually). Which explain why school is held outside. We were there in the beginning of the fall season and it was in the 90s every day with high humidity!

Rice fields.

A typical road. They were very narrow. One lane in each direction. Yet, people swerved and passed each other all the time. There appeared to be no traffic rules (though I'm sure there are written traffic laws) and yet everything moved along smoothly, if not a little bit frighteningly.

Three sari-sari stores. The stores and the homes abutted right up against each other pretty much everywhere but the rural countryside.

View from the back of the jeepney. More nipa huts.

Before we arrived at our uncle's house in the country, the jeepney stopped on the side of the road in front of a bamboo structure which featured random, cooked pig body parts. I was puzzed at first. Then our uncle got out and purchased a hunk or two of pig parts. This was clearly to be our dinner. Gulp.

We finally pulled up in front of a bright (paint-chipped) cement home surrounded by large plants of unknown variety and wandering chickens and dogs. We were here! And, oh man. We were told that this was the ancestral home of my mother-in-law. That it had been a nipa hut some 15 years ago, before my mother-in-law sent money back home to help pay for the new concrete block construction. There were small windows, but they did not have any glass panes. The floor was concrete. In fact, nearly everything about the home itself was concrete.

Front of the home

It was adorned with ornately carved wood furniture, bright drapes, religious statutes, and a couple pieces of small wall art. My eyes were immediately drawn to the wood furniture. Which seemed alarmingly out of place, casting visual warmth into an otherwise dark and cool-feeling room.

There were two bedrooms. Each had a mattress on the floor and a wooden bed against the wall (no mattress). Jon was tuckered our from our drive so a room was offered for him to finish up his nap. This is where I placed him. It's the room shared by our uncle's two teenage daughters. Stickers on the wall revealed the play and treasure of children many years ago.

I came out of the bedroom to find that my mother-in-law's Sacred Heart of Jesus urn had been placed at the front of the room, in front of a Mother Mary statute nestled between two sets of white flower blooms. It was the perfect place for her to rest. The table seemed calm, holy, and sacred next to the turned-down tv.

My older boys and I giggled and delighted at the lizards that moved along the wall of the house. I marveled at the tin roof and the unfinished quality of the home. This house would certainly be declared uninhabitable in America. And yet, it was a very decent (perhaps one of the better) home in the rural Philippines.
When I joined the rest of the family outside (it was too hot to stay indoors), my uncle smiled and handed me a chicken. Chickens freely roamed near homes, I learned. The only time they were bounded was when a single leg would be tied, ensuring that that night's dinner they wouldn't roam too far. 

It wasn't long before the table in the front yard was piled with food. This may not look like a feast by American standards but I learned that it WAS a feast by Filipino standards. Usually only one dish would be served with rice or pancit (noodles) for dinner. And here we had crab, TWO chickens, pork, clams, and rice. Just one example of the infamous Philippine hospitality.


I'm generally not very brave at all when it comes to eating new foods. I stick to my favorites and you'll rarely see me try anything unconventional. In the Philippines I discovered a very courageous foodie within myself. And OH the things I ate! That is a separate post all in itself, but I promise the stories WILL be told.

They had a star fruit tree in their front yard!

They tasted like sour crab apples. Jon was a fan.

As we were chatting, a roaming chicken joined our conversation. I didn't notice him/her at all until I felt a sharp peck on my toes. The chicken was trying to eat me!

Our uncle picks up passengers and gives them rides in his tricycle for a living. This is the primary source of this particular family's income. He was kind enough to give us a ride down to the family's old rice field, which was sold to another family many years ago.
Here is the tricycle, the rice field (not really pictured) is to the left. There is my uncle in the yellow shirt holding Jon.
I rode in the cab with Jon on my lap and my sister-in-law with Ryan on her lap. Yep. All four of us fit in the cab. Three more rode on the side and/or standing up on the back. That's pretty typical of how people get around. No carseats. No seatbelts. Gives you a whole new perspective on how much we perhaps over worry and over protect ourselves in our own overly sterile first world environment.

I mean, you can't really put a seat belt on a water buffalo. 


 We rode like this for a little site-seeing of the country. I have to crash into bed now so I'll have to tell you all about the open market we went to and our other adventures in my next post. Stay tuned!