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Another White Guy In Manila

PHILIPPINES | Friday, 14 March 2014 | Views [4758]

Last Wednesday I got up early and my girlfriend drove me through the hell of the M11 and M25 morning traffic to Heathrow...the start of a two day journey to the Philippines, where I would spend two months working with a research team from UCL, living with the Agta tribe, a group of hunter-gatherers in a remote and mountainous region of Luzon. The expedition is part of research into the resilience of hunter-gatherer groups. http://www.adapting.org.uk/agta.html


Agta Tribesman

I had been invited by my good friends Rudy and Andrea, with whom I had worked in Brazil. Andrea is a biological anthropologist, specialising in hunter-gatherer and pygmy tribes and has worked in the Amazon, New Guinea, Philippines and Congo. Andrea developed a new theory on why pygmies were so small, which was widely published: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/12/071210-pygmy-size.html

Her husband Rudy, is a forestry engineer and a father figure to me. He is also the source of all my unrepeatable jokes, many adventure stories of kidnap and tribal warfare and is the guy I would most want to be with in a disaster situation...Their boy Philip, aged eight, would also be coming, his second visit to the Agta. He had been raising funds to buy books and stationary for the tribe’s school as part of Agta Aid. http://philipschl.wix.com/agta-aid

While I waited to board the Emirates flight to Dubai I looked around at the other passengers; colourless and nervy Brits, silent Arabs, chatty and relaxed Filipinos…people on the move, for fun, for work, for the sake of moving. The general hum of the waiting lounge was shattered by a loud voice, with that very English accent that has the quality of sand paper, grinding and abrasive, eminating from a heavy set woman holding a toddler "Well I fink dat 'int the proper way t'do it!”, she was talking to her husband. I looked at her, and caught the eye of the toddler in her arms, looking back over her mother's shoulder...perhaps I should have known then that this child would make the eight hour flight a misery. 

We boarded, and I found myself trapped behind the lady and her toddler, as her Arab partner talked business into his mobile. After finally squeezing past her I found my seat was next to theirs, ah well. She then whipped me in the face with a hoody as she set about making what can only be described as a nest of clothes, bags and assorted items. The baby began to cry. When everyone was on board I saw that there were free seats and fled four rows back, where I had three seats all to myself by a window. The plane was new, comfortable and the rear of the seat in front of me was equipped with a screen, remote control, usb and power plugs…such luxury. Around me I noticed other passengers settling in, and glancing at the family with the crying toddler, relieved to be not too close. Toddlers cry! Of course they do. I decided to simply accept this. I closed my eyes and prepared to relax for the flight. THUMP! The seats in front of me launched backwards as Heavy-set and her toddler lay down on the three free seats and made themselves a bed. I couldn’t believe it. She’d moved back 4 rows, across an aisle, and set up home in front of me! The baby began to cry again. I looked around desperately for escape, but there were no more free seats. Others around me looked equally panicked. An asian lady with a baby clutched to her chest (which was sound asleep) looked pleadingly at me, no there is no escape…well ok, a toddler can’t cry for eight hours right? Wrong. 

I staggered off the plane in Dubai along with the others from my section of the aircraft, all of whom moved with the sway and gait of zombies. Heavy-set, Businessman and toddler cheerily thanked the staff and waded through the crowd. The toddler giggled and laughed, reaching for her daddy who was on the phone again. I will never have kids I thought, simply so I can’t be called a hypocrite when my child torments a planeload of people for eight hours.

I had four hours of waiting in Dubai for the connecting flight to Manila. I sat next to a Filipina lady and we began chatting. Roh's story was that of so many Filipinos. She worked in Holland, and spent most of the year 8000 miles apart from her six year old daughter. Around us, the shops and cafes were manned by Filipino staff. I thought to myself “Why go to the Philippines, everyone is already here!” 

Hard work, long hours and great distances from loved ones do not deter Filipinos from going abroad to work. Legions of them work in healthcare in the UK, and many women work as nannies in the Middle East, often treated as second-class citizens by their employers. But they can earn and save far more than at home and for many families it is the remittances from abroad that keep them clothed, fed and educated. 

I boarded the flight to Manila, a chaotic and noisy affair, not as plush as the previous plane and packed. Bright eyed Norwegian teenagers, Filipino families, backpacking Germans, Arab businessmen, all of us shuffled and shoved onto the plane. Wildly colourful shirts, beer bellies and pallid, grey faces identified the old men, mostly Brits, who made lurid jokes about their upcoming holiday plans. If they were not already holding the hand of a young Filipina girl, they soon would be. I sat next to two men, one a dark swarthy Indian and the other a brooding Arab. The Indian gentleman seemed to have a bit of an issue, where every minute or so he made a "Thbbbbtttt!” sound with his lips and sprayed the back of the chair in front with spittle. Luckily I had Arab as a buffer between us, and he buried himself in his Koran or the entertainment system for the entire trip. Stepping out of the airport in Manila I was grabbed by two men from different taxi firms, one official and expensive, the other cheap, unlicensed and desperate. I went official, with apologies to cheap. 

Manila Poverty

My driver was Boyed. Within two minutes of our trip he had established that I was unmarried, unemployed, an unbeliever and going to work with ‘the black ones’ as part of some strange thing called anthropology. At every intersection he kissed his fingers then touched his statuette of the Holy Mother, crossed himself and quizzed me on god. He had three kids and two grandchildren, they lived in a poor neighbourhood in the same house and he worked all the hours that god gave, which given his devotion, didn’t seem enough. He asked if I’d like to meet a Filipina girl to which I responded that my Spanish girlfriend wouldn’t like that and that I’m sure they were lovely and if I was single then maybe. “But you are single! Until you are married you are single!” Ahhh catholic morality…

A knock on the window had me looking into the eyes of a thin woman, clutching a baby and begging. I had no change, I tried to convey this in sign language and felt disgusted by myself and the same time. I had a 1000 peso note in my pocket, about £13. She looked at me pleadingly. I put my hand on my heart and slowly shook my head. She acknowledged and moved on. Children ran through the grinding traffic, thin brown waifs dodging private ambulances and jeepney buses. In the tree-lined islands in the middle of the larger roads, hammocks and tents made of rubbish were home to families, carrying water, cooking or running out to beg or wash car windows. 

Pollution, poverty and palm trees. It felt like being back in Brazil or Colombia, but worse. Unlike those countries there is not the mega-divide between the richest and the poorest in the Philippines, though the difference is still great. Manila is now, how Rio was in the 80’s, disease, starvation and state indifference stalk those living on the streets. Though it has improved in Brazil, the income gap has grown. Here in Manila, it felt that there were simply different and endless levels of poverty, until the plateau of middle class rose up through the forest of vulnerability. 

We arrived at the Armada hotel and despite instructions not to buy the taxi firm, I tipped Boyed. I told him to spend it on his grandparents. I gave him a 1000 pesos, it wasn’t until I checked online that I realised that I had tipped him about 3 days earnings. I checked in and collapsed onto a sumptuous bed. I thought about the street kids outside, the majority of the city’s 20 million people living in poverty and the desperation of their lives…I reminded myself to value every drop of water in the shower and every minute of clean sheets, comfortable bed and every mouthful of food. 

After showering and calling my girlfriend to confirm my survival I crashed into bed. I slept for a few hours but awoke at 3am, partly due to the time difference and the fact that my room is opposite the staff service elevator, which emits a fantastically loud BING BING! every time the doors open and close. It seemed the elevator was in use every two minutes until 8am, when I finally decided there was no point in trying to sleep any more and got up. 

At breakfast I looked around at my fellow guests. A large Australian couple, a muslim gentleman, a few Filipinos and a number of white men, young and old, with unfortunate faces and beautiful Filipina girlfriends, or companions, or hookers or whatever. Sex tourism is a huge industry here and there are an estimated 800 000 prostitutes in the Philippines. I looked at the staff, smiling and pleasant, the men well put together if not handsome, and the women pretty and elegant. I felt a great sadness and looked down into my chocolate chip cereal…I hoped that they knew that not all white male tourists were in the Philippines for the same reason and reflected that for every red-faced outraged Daily Mail reader jabbering about immigrants there must be a thousand Filipinos, vocally or silently judging, resenting and despising the thousands of Western and Asian sex tourists looking to use money, class and the fact of being born in a more developed part of the world as a method to gain the affections, however real or not, of poor, desperate women. However, it can’t all be seedy, false and money-based. While sitting in the waiting lounge in Dubai, I saw a large white man, perhaps in his late 40’s, with a Filipina lady, of similar age sat side by side. Their postures, they way the snuggled into each other like two halves of broken pottery and the simple contentment of their expressions suggested that here was a real, loving relationship. I thought of them as I finished breakfast, and hoped that the staff wouldn’t make assumptions about me, another white guy in Manila. 

Tags: agta, manila, philippines

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