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Essays, Words

Between Poverty and Paradise

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A version of this was published in the Sunday Inquirer Magazine, Manila Philippines

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA- Last night, I had dinner with my German friend to talk about her planned trip to the Philippines. She had just completed an internship program in one of the law firms here in Malaysia and wanted to take a short holiday in a nearby country before heading off to Australia to finish her studies. She wanted to know more about the Philippines and asked me for tips on making the most of the two-and-a-half weeks that she had allotted for this vacation.

We planned her trip between bites, armed only with a faded map of the Philippines that we downloaded from the Internet. My goal was to identify all the “must-see” places (her criteria: beaches and volcanoes), plot them according to distance and flight routes then cram them all in 17 days.

A tall order indeed, especially for someone like me who’s never had a sense of direction even in my own neighborhood. For the life of me, I couldn’t spot where Boracay was on her map. So I took the easy way out and told her to go to Palawan instead.

I carried on with the task like a diligent student trying to remember my geography, starting from the rice terraces in Banaue up north, moving down south to the Mayon Volcano in Bicol and the Chocolate Hills in Bohol. It was an embarrassing ordeal nonetheless as she could see that I was struggling to find all the other attractive destinations on the map, which in turn made me realize how little I truly knew about my own country.

She was very excited about the trip, eager to learn more about the country and its people. She imagined the Philippines to be an eternal fiesta of Spanish and Chinese Third-World flair, filled with warm and accommodating people who all speak with a clear American accent, where all men have the handsome earthy appeal of Jericho Rosales and women the heavenly mestiza charms of Kristine Hermosa (thanks to Filipino soap operas that have become so popular here in Malaysia).

It was certainly one of the most honest cultural impressions I’ve ever heard, and quite amusingly, one shared by many. In my German friend’s opinion, the Philippines is one of the most open-minded countries in Southeast Asia. I found this view rather interesting, especially since it came from a European who’s never stepped foot in the Philippines and whose only direct exposure to the country was me.

The funny thing about cultural impressions is that they often come from a place of both acute perception and blatant ignorance, split in the middle by what is painfully true. But they are what they are—impressions.

Quite naturally, my friend and I have come to build our own impressions about Malaysia in the several months we’ve been here. Malaysia is a beautiful country that seems to be in a hurry to develop economically, but is hampered by a palpable trace of social reluctance. It seems grounded on an age-old culture that simply doesn’t mix well with progress, or at least the kind dictated and exemplified by the Western world. I find this true for most developing Asian countries, including the Philippines.

My friend pointed out that she’s never seen a beggar in the streets of Kuala Lumpur since she moved here and asked me if it’s the same in the Philippines. As a matter of fact, she admitted that she’s never seen a beggar up close in her whole life and asked me to explain how it is to live in a poor country. She wanted to know more about poverty.

Her question struck a chord in me because I realized that apart from Jericho Rosales, this woman had absolutely no idea about the country she was going to and how it was out there. Here was someone who came to me wanting to know more about my country and the best I could offer was a geographical representation of scenic destinations, which I hardly even knew myself.

By this time I had put down the pen I was holding, set aside the map, and got ready to explain details about my country. I didn’t know where to begin. After all, how does one explain poverty to someone who has never experienced it before?

To make things more relevant to her, I started by comparing the Philippines to Malaysia. I told her that blue-collar workers in the Philippines didn’t have the same opportunities as the ones in Malaysia, who can afford to eat in the same restaurants as executives or even shop in stores where their bosses shop. I told her that unlike the ones I have met in Malaysia, secretaries and administrative clerks in the Philippines eat in posh restaurants only on very special occasions and can barely afford to travel to other countries.

I then told her about the beggars, young and old, who parade in the streets of Manila, the children who knock on car windows selling sampaguita, the mothers who have to forage for food in garbage landfills, and the unemployed fathers who waste their lives on drugs and alcohol. I told her about the shanties that bedeck highways and railroads, the unproductive traffic jams, the garbage-infested streets and sewers, and the regular typhoons that flood the country and exacerbate already poor living conditions.

I told her that poverty in the Philippines hits you in the face unapologetically the very moment you step in. It’s an open wound waiting to be healed.

My friend looked shaken, as if experiencing for the first time a world she has seen only on TV. That was when my tears started to fall. I couldn’t help it. I have never cried in front of a semi-stranger before but for some reason, I cried this time because she was still not immune to these things. Her unawareness taught me to see poverty as if for the first time myself – bringing a lot of pain. I’ve become so used to the pain that I’ve forgotten how it felt until I painted the sad face of poverty for her.

I then found myself having to explain to her that despite all these, the Philippines is still a beautiful country and this you also feel the very moment you get there. It is a beauty characterized by the indomitable human spirit of a people who have seen better days and yet still have the capacity to find a piece of heaven in their lives. It is a beauty defined by the untiring faith of a people who have learned to acknowledge their plight with reverence and yet have never lost the courage to dream big dreams. It is a beauty characterized by the painful history of a people who have been abused and pillaged through the years and yet still have so much of themselves to give.

Now her tears were falling, smearing the map I had earlier vandalized with circles and arrows. But I knew it didn’t matter at this point anymore. I realized that my friend had learned all she needed to know about my country and my people. She thanked me profusely, saying that she came to me wanting to know more about how poor the Philippines is but in the end, she learned how abundantly blessed Filipinos truly are.

A beach is a beach and a volcano is a volcano anywhere in the world, but it’s the people who make the difference. I learned in that moment that I may not know the geographical features of my country all too well, but I sure know its heart and its soul because it is who I am.

The real poverty lies in not knowing this. 

About Paolo Mangahas

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