Monthly Archives: August 2014

White on the Outside, Poor in the Middle

The White Man’s Really a Poor

One of the things I do in these articles is to try and take the Filipino perspective into consideration. Being a foreigner, it’s not always possible to do that sincerely as I can’t help being a foreigner and that alone puts limitations on how deeply you can get inside of everyday life for the normal Filipino. No matter what circles I move in, I will always be a foreigner obviously. I won’t be treated the same naturally and some unfortunate mindsets prevent many Filipinos seeing you as anything other than a comfortably off foreigner.

Due to having already spent some months there previously, I had got to know many people. Coming from Metro Manila, it always felt good to simply not be in any rush for anything. Life is slow in Catigan but I enjoyed that aspect. Going to the store which was a 20 minute walk away could take 4 hours. Most times I went to the store; I would get sidetracked by people armed with Tanduay or Tuba. It was impossible to escape them as they would be sat outside the store you were going to.

I have my own demons and weaknesses so I was rarely strong enough to say no and refusal was something many wouldn’t accept anyway. I was always given drinks, almost daily. Only on a couple of occasions was I ever asked to buy a bottle. Most times it was give, give, give and I would take, take, and take.

A shift in mindset happened because it was about this time that people started to realise that the big fat Americano who isn’t an Americano “is not a rich, he’s a poor”. At least, those were the words used to describe the general drift of conversation which got reported back to me.

Due to some calamity in my financial world, I was suddenly cut off from income. I was left to live on debt repayments of 6000 pesos less than $140 a month. That was all I had to feed myself, my twin sons of 4 years of age and their mom. I had less than many of the people here and on par with most whilst most were certainly doing better than me. I really was even more than ever in the same flip flops as those around me, having just enough. This meant the basics, food, water, rent and electric being our only overheads. If you eat what is around you, it cuts down your costs and lashings of rice to fill your stomach, you get by.

I stopped buying my cherished Mighty red cigarettes at 30 pesos a pack to tobacco (Fresbie), 10 pesos a small block and rolled it in newspaper or notepaper. They turn out ok once you get used to it and at this level, cigarettes, even cheap ones was a luxury.

I don’t know what made the penny drop with the locals as regards my poor standing in the financial world but there was a change of mindset compared to my previous visit. Maybe it just seemed more obvious because just like the locals, I was crediting. With people always being sat outside the store, all gets noticed and spread around the community via the verbal media machine.

However, I will say that although I was not doing well on my last visit with finances, I had more cash than I had now. The mindset at that time was I’m a rich foreigner as is usual with many all over the Philippines even though I had no outward signs of wealth. On this visit, that mindset was successfully altered by my obvious lack of money.

My cash crisis started on my first visit to Catigan 4 months previous to this visit. However, I had some put by and it made things easier. On this second visit, the funds were depleted. I was down to $140 a month repaid debt money and it showed.

I stopped being the centre of financial conversations and they soon stopped wondering which piece of land I had come to invest my millions of dollars in. It came to rest that I was not the wealthy foreigner that it’s always assumed you are when you are a foreigner, or at least as many people see it here. Did it mean they treated me differently? No, not really. For that I have to give a little credit.

Like many of us grumpy foreigners here, I was too often of the mindset of thinking people sometimes are only interested in your money. It’s something very apparent to every foreigner here. Yes, there were many occasions, situations and conversations that told me this was still in the thinking of many in my locality. Having said that, it’s not right to fail to point out that many, even most, treated me no different on the realisation that I wasn’t what they expected.

Ways of Seeing You

This leads me to talking about acceptance as regards being a foreigner. You will never completely get away from the money mindset when you’re a foreigner. When they turn on the TV, they see foreign films, mostly American. It’s a world of big houses, everyone having a car, fitted kitchens and lush furnishings and your house isn’t made of wood. If you live how millions do here, that looks mighty damned rich. It gets tiresome but you have to remind yourself how it looks through their eyes.

You come from that world, you’re rich; just realise why they think it and learn to live with it. It is particularly hard to deal with it when you’re not exactly rich but struggling to survive. It just feels all wrong when you’re down on your arse but you’re thought of as rich. That was my problem; it was pointless getting pissed as they don’t know about my misfortune.

What was more interesting was how those that came to know I was having a hard time did not noticeably change towards me. I was still given shots almost every time I went to the sari-sari. The majority remained friendly but yes there was some bad mouthing from a minority and of course, those that never get to accept that you’re anything other than rich if you’re a foreigner.

Showing Respect through Language

When I conversed with the genuine majority, I was frequently asked if I spoke Visayan. Shamefully, I would always say no and fraudulently say I spoke Konti lang (little) Tagalog. I only said it as a deflection away from my shame at my own uselessness at never being good at picking up on tongues.

I quietly prayed after my exaggerated claim to having a little Tagalog knowledge that they won’t speak to me in Tagalog and expose my obvious false statement. I know several words in Tagalog but have never been able to put them together into anything like a sentence, and I’m not proud of that at all.

It really gladdens a Filipino when a foreigner even tries, even if badly to speak in the local dialect. I guess, it’s a sign of respect. Naturally enough, being asked about my competence in the local Bagobo language wasn’t a feature but it seemed they expected me to be speaking Visayan. I managed to camouflage it by saying I’ve been living in Manila so wouldn’t have had the need to know Visayan.

To my knowledge, I was spoken badly of by one or two for not having any knowledge of Visayan. It was said “7 years in the Philippines and can’t speak the language, tsk tsk”. This was not put to me in Manila so much or any of its surrounding provinces. It was definitely important to some of these people that I should speak Visayan. It’s a fair comment to say I should be at least speaking Tagalog by now and I see their point. I say this to point out that it may be a good idea to at least know a little, even if it’s just the very basics. It earns you a lot of respect for trying.

Despite my lack of language, I felt pretty much accepted by most and never really felt any hostility. A few slanted remarks are normal and if you can’t take that then best not leave your own country.

However, apart from passing through other rural areas, my 2 visits to Catigan in Davao was my first experience of rural life. I hope future travels will show me that each place has its own quirks.

This is Mindanao where it’s as diverse as it gets. I was living among mostly Bagobo people. I don’t feel I learned a great deal about them nor did I see too much outward evidence of a rich culture. However, I also knew that my lack of language skills and the fact that they just live as any of us do possibly meant I missed a lot.

The culture is now very vague it appeared to me. Many outsiders live among them and it’s not too surprising that their tribal roots are only something in the background. However, I’m also aware I was not one of them and I was probably simply not seeing things. I learnt a few things about how they live, their everyday life but real knowledge, of course not.

Everyday Pictures

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Ideas, Opportunity and Self Destruction

The Entrepreneur in All of Us

Naturally enough, we expats, all think we have great ideas in spotting business opportunities even if it’s not our culture. The mistake many make is to think of business ventures in the Philippines as being similar and having the same possibilities as back in our own culture. The first thing you need to realise is that it has very little in common with our culture here. I think I have been here long enough to know that this country has endless possibilities, yet at the same time, why there are a lot of reasons as to why a good idea can be prevented from working here.

I don’t have the resources but that never stops me from dreaming up crazy ideas which on closer inspection don’t always stand up to being all that viable. I dreamed up many crazy ideas and one by one ruled them out for not being feasible due to varying reasons.

Mini Bus Project

I spoke in my earlier article Moving On Up about the nightmare of transport in and out of Catigan. There is an unofficial transport system using motorbikes. The only other method is an illegal sidecar which is outlawed by local government. The motorbike riders never or at least rarely wear a helmet, let alone their paying customers. This is normal practice throughout much of the Philippines and I guess the authorities turn a blind eye.

It has many downsides other than the obvious danger of helmetless motorbikes with numerous passengers riding on the back with you. If you want to get back to Catigan after 6.00 PM, chances are you are going to have to pay a legal authorised sidecar for 180 Pesos. Another problem is when the rain comes, which it frequently does in Catigan, you are going to get wet.

I thought long and hard about this problem and wondered why there was no jeepney service available. The answer I was given reminded me that despite its charms and beauty, the Philippines can sometimes be a lunatic republic.

Apparently many years before, there was a jeepney service between Toril and Catigan. However, when people started offering the unsafe motorbike service unofficially, demand for the jeepney waned and it gave up. It was around the time that the Catigan road was concreted, making motorbikes very popular. Some of those who acquired bikes after the concreting of the Catigan road then offered themselves and their bikes as a service and the people gladly accepted.

Why I regard this as lunatic is because the people themselves, by taking up the dangerous service of the motorbike unofficial service so readily, kind of ended up losing them their only safer and more reliable and comfortable option, the jeepney. I often wondered whether they regretted forcing the jeepney to give up. As a consequence, these dangerous and unreliable modes of public transport became their only option. Not something you expect the people to have given a lot of thought to at the time granted, but the end result in accepting the dangerous motorbike service meant it was going to end all other options. For most, a motorbike is not a problem and locals would not understand my point. It’s only when you want to take small kids with you that you realise that there is no safe way to do that.

This led me to wondering whether or not it may be a good idea for someone to invest in a minibus and take up where the jeepney had left off by offering safe and above all dry comfortable public transport. Not only a good business perhaps, but a benefit to the community.

I did my homework and worked out it could work for someone who was doing it themselves and wasn’t paying wages. It wouldn’t be a high profit but it could be a modest living for whoever was brave enough to risk it. I was confident of the need for such a service. Catigan is not densely populated by any means but there was possibilities for a service say every hour and a half. People get to know your times via a timetable and as long as it wasn’t too much more expensive than the existing motorbike service, I felt some if not all would appreciate the reliability, comfort and safety of such a service.

It’s only my guess as I had not conducted any studies or questionnaires and it was just a hunch. I know Filipinos always take the cheapest option. It used to amaze me that people would put their own flesh and blood into such danger by loading rider, wife, 2 kids and even a baby on a low powered bike which was clearly not able to cope with the load adequately. Watching them struggle to steer the overloaded bike due to the weight that it wasn’t designed to carry was quite disconcerting, yet they did. Filipinos only seem to recognise danger when it’s too late and someone has died. Even that doesn’t stop them more often than not.

This is not just a Catigan issue as I have seen it everywhere, even in Metro Manila. It’s always been that way and without meaning to defend insanity, I’m guessing simple economics dictate. Taking your own family around on an overloaded bike without helmets is madness to us expats. Here, it’s everyday life and it’s rarely questioned. I doubt many would understand what the fuss is about if you tried to point out the insanity of it.

So not entirely convinced a mini bus project was a good idea I mentioned it to others. Many half heartedly said it would be a good idea whilst others said that people will always go with the cheapest option, that being the bike. It was a valid point; I have seen that mindset over all the years I have been here, cheapest is best regardless of the discomfort and even the obvious danger. Many put their loved ones at risk daily based on that simple economic principal and to be fair, in a country where so many are struggling to survive, I think it’s fairly obvious as to why.

However, not everyone in Catigan is poor. As you travel the Catigan road, you pass many more affluent looking houses. Again, this could be an asset but another factor to consider was that the more affluent usually have cars. To start such a service would be very far from a safe bet. I would go as far as to call it a fairly risky project and could just as easily fail as succeed. The only way to find out really would be to just do it and see.

Whoever was so bold would have to go through the usual bureaucratic nightmare of obtaining permissions as well as registering the business which based on my experiences in government offices in Davao, could be a very stressful procedure dealing with extremely unhelpful staff who are simply hideous and pointless. I have a few tales to tell on that score but shall save it for another day. However, once it’s done, it’s done; and after you have all the bricks in place, off you go.

Another setback would be that even if it was a service that someone set up as a self-employed project and manned it themselves, realistically one person could only manage part of the day. If it started at say 7AM and the last run was at 8PM that means it would be finished by around 9 PM. Which in turn means a 14-hour working day and I’m guessing that’s too much even for the hardy and industrious Filipino. It would need to be 7 days a week also so obviously there would be a need to employ someone to help take some of the time as for one, it’s simply too much.

That’s fine if it’s a family business and you have a reliable relative to help you but if not then you’re going to have issues with trust, etc. Still, I didn’t see these as reasons to turn your back on such an idea as yes, these were problems but ones that with thought and effort could be overcome.

I considered all the negatives and was never fully convinced of its viability but it wasn’t any of those things that finally made me put the idea to bed. What finally ended my pre-occupation of thinking the possibilities through was something that was said. Sadly, the comment was valid and unfortunately, an issue so Filipino and at the same time somewhat lunatic. Still, it was something that for most would tip the balance towards thinking, “I won’t bother then.”

What was said was “the bike drivers would get angry” as it would jeopardise their income. People catching a minibus would to them be taking money out of their pockets. Just by allowing the bike service to exist in the first place meant the end to all possibility of safe transport in and out of Catigan for those unfortunate enough to have no other way of getting to Toril.

In other words, they had created a situation where they had made the people reliant on them and the people complied. Anything that was going to threaten the dependence of the local people on the bike service and offer them something better, safer and more reliable was going to upset the dozen or so bike service providers. I have no idea what angry could mean but I think it’s obvious that being so unpopular with a few in a small community could be hazardous to your health.

What they would do about it if anyone started a minibus service I have no idea but it’s entirely possible that if you become a threat you would at least be made to feel uncomfortable living in that community.

The end result being that local people have the unsafe and unreliable option only and nothing else is likely to take away the monopoly the bike drivers had created for themselves. Bike drivers monopolise the transport in and out of Catigan. It’s a sad thought that it’s only in their interests to keep the transport options in and out of Catigan limited. So the dangerous, uncomfortable sidecars and bikes rule the roost and it may be an overstatement to suggest they would do a rival any harm. However, it’s enough to put most off from providing something better.

So in conclusion, there are ways for the brave to exploit the many inadequacies and improve things for a community as well as themselves and make successful businesses in many situations around the Philippines, town and rural. The problem is with so many things here is that the minuses often outweigh the pluses and the hurdles just seem too immense.

A minibus service would be a huge plus for Catigan. The difficulties hold back progress. I would love to see places like Catigan given a decent transport service. I think the headache it would bring to such as a minibus public transport service provider would rule it out. I may be wrong and it could be accepted in the right spirit. Somehow though, it seems that if it’s not in the interests of those with a monopoly, it isn’t going to happen. Sound familiar?

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