Transporting Metro Manila Forward

It’s good to be able to focus on some positive things. I’m not going to overstate anything as there is still a long way to go. All you can do with a bad situation is to attempt to improve it. After small improvements have been made then go through it again and improve further. I think the same theory applies to many things from politics to improving your home.

The case in point for the purposes of this discussion is transportation. The topic here is train travel in Metro Manila. With public transportation, there have been some improvements of late. It may be a reflection of general improvements affecting other aspects of the Philippines or not. Transportation is a crucial aspect in how well a nation fares and how much it is progressing. If the small improvements being made in transportation are any indicators as to how well the country is progressing, then the summary would be slowly. It’s getting there, but at a snail’s pace. It could be fair to say that that is the current state of the Philippines but for purposes of this piece, let’s stick to train travel.

It’s still not there yet but better and in a country where a few years ago I had no hope, I will say now I see these small improvements making a small difference and sincerely hope that the usual attitude of giving up does not come back and that they persevere.

Somehow, I think that if I’m still blogging in the next few years, train transportation in Metro Manila is something I will be returning to. It may not be a reflection on all aspects of the Philippines but it does seem to me that there is a will to improve the quality of life. My hope is, every time I return to pieces I’ve previously written about, that I shall be reporting improvements. In some areas, I can say that’s happening, and in others, it’s not.

The Common Sense Factor

No, the service hasn’t been vamped up. There are not masses of extra trains and it’s still very far from perfect. Still, it’s good to see that some rare common sense is being used by the train company authorities. Common sense is not much in abundance in the Philippines so when you see it happening, it just gives you a little hope. Discipline and the lack of it has been something I was very quickly made aware of when I first came here. It continued over many of the years I had been spending time being in the Philippines and I was of the mind that thought nothing will change as it sometimes appeared that the simple lack of common sense was killing any hope of any general improvements.

I used to find myself saying that it will never change as, if you can’t master basic common sense then where can you go, how can you improve things generally.

I intend to go through previously discussed topics and measure things against how I spoke at the time of writing them previously. Basically, I’m using my own observations and sentiments as a very loose barometer. The focus here is on MRT/LRT systems, or in short, trains. Nothing much has happened other than some enforced common sense. I really felt the all-round lack of it was probably the main reason train travel was such a stressful experience in the past.

It’s my belief that the cure for many ills in this country is the introduction of common sense. Without it, how can anything develop?

Start thinking before you start acting. The changes and improvements in train travel are purely down to the application of a little common sense. It’s something that an outsider would observe in a very short time. Common sense has never been taught. People just don’t have it. I feel the people badly want things to improve.

Common sense is missing from the everyday culture here in the Philippines. Generation to generation nobody gets taught it. That’s been a huge feature of my time here knowing that it’s so missing with Filipinos. I came to realise that if it’s never taught, nobody will have it. It’s the first step towards improving the Philippines.

It’s hard to define exactly what I’m saying but it really needs to come from the top. When I say top I mean authorities in general. It seemed that authorities didn’t possess much common sense either so I wasn’t hopeful at times. When common sense is enforced as it has been at the LRT/MRT stations, then you detect that people embrace it. I don’t hear moaning when they wait in long queues. It’s as if they realise that a long queue is better than a daily stampede. They are craving to be led by some common sense.

MRT Queue North Avenue Station

Long queues outside North Avenue MRT station but people accepted the need for order without too much complaint. (Photo courtesy of Connie Diegor)

It was surprising just how people readily accepted it and the simple fact that they accepted it so quietly told me they possibly had some sense of common sense after all. Train authorities showing the way is a small part of introducing a little common sense into Filipino everyday life.

When I last wrote about train travel in Metro Manila in a piece called Train Trials, I reported that some changes were being introduced. It consisted of implementing obvious basics as the first thing they needed to do was make the platforms safe and enforce some general courtesy. It was so sadly lacking in the past. So much pushing and shoving, ill manners and selfishness were totally out of hand. The minority set the standard and the majority had little choice but to behave just as badly or they would be left behind. It’s something you see in so many aspects of Filipino life. The lack of common sense even if from a significant minority influences how people who know better will behave. It becomes a domino effect of insanity. It blights so many aspects of Filipino life.

It may not be because everyone wants to behave as the significant minority do; it’s just that they end up with having no choice. If people simply barge in front you and refuse to form lines and exercise no patience whatsoever, you end up permanently at the back of the queue. The only way in the end is to join in with the bumping and barging.

I often wondered how people would respond by being forced to show some common sense. By all accounts they are mostly getting it on the MRT/LRT. There are still some arseholes that haven’t got the message yet but the majority is starting to have things how they probably wanted things to be all along. It needed some enforced order so badly and for many years I saw no signs of it and had no hope. The MRT/LRT is actually implementing some common sense practices. It’s helping a lot.

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Kjwan

Kjwan LOGO HI RES

One of the reasons I have been introducing snippets from the music scene of the Philippines is to show that there has been a quiet revolution brewing in the music industry over many years now. I’ve learnt that things don’t operate in the same way as the music scene I grew up with back in my own country and things are a little prone to over commercialization drowned out in what seems to be all too important sponsorship deals and many talents sell their souls to the industry for fame.

It’s also fair to say that there is a whole crop of working bands that choose to not go down that road and stick to doing what they love whether it makes them famous or not. I think it’s fair to say that Kjwan fits into that bracket.

I’m sure they would embrace a little public adoration naturally but I don’t get the impression that fame is what they are exclusively seeking; they just seem to me to be having a good time.

I get a special buzz in introducing these guys from Kjwan for a slightly silly reason, I know them. They are great lads and I’m sure they won’t mind me saying very ordinary lads at that.

In my usual lazy amateur journalistic way, I will allow the existing online material to educate you further about this band that are not exactly what I would call rising stars. They have been around awhile and their efforts are being taken notice of even outside of the Philippines.

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I’ve never seen them playing a big gig personally. I’ve watched them playing small bars and to audiences of a few hundred at best. Don’t let that have you thinking they are not known or popular. That’s the way it is for a working band that are just enjoying themselves in the Philippines and all the more credit to them for that.

They soldier on and these lads love each other’s company, know each other well and that comes across to me strongly when I’ve watched them play. The consequence of that is they are a tight, non-pretentious, talented and unique band whose music I genuinely enjoy.

Just a personal view here from me when I say that I see a lot of decent bands and some excellent levels of musicianship. My comment though is often the same when I watch these working bands as I go around. I tend to end up saying that most of these bands are good, some a little better than good but always I end up further commenting that they are good but nothing special.

I doubt very much any world beaters are going to take the world by storm from the Philippines. Originality is still in short supply all too often. It’s not always important whether you have something new to offer or not. Kjwan just plays. For me, that’s what music is about.

I’ve never listened to one of their cd’s. I’ve listened to them through the usual online sources of YouTube but above all I’ve watched them play live many times and never failed to enjoy watching their set.

Enough said so let me introduce to you Kjwan.

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Sari-Sari Syndrome and Other Businesses

Now you can’t fault the Filipino for survival skills; when it comes to prospering skills, not so much. This can be said in so far as many small business ideas go at least. A classic example is the Sari-Sari store.

Now sari sari stores are the things you stumble upon every 14 seconds at walking pace. That is really the problem with them. It’s many an aspiring entrepreneurs’ idea of a sound business, but personally, I wish someone would give them a few economic facts.

When you come to terms with the lack of opportunities many have here, it’s easy to see why people dream the impossible dream and it is totally understandable. This article is meant to give a little insight to anyone out there whose perspective partner is telling them that all they need to secure their future is a sari sari store. It’s not usually an idea that has been subjected to a business study.

Now sari-sari roughly translates to anything and everything. So many people’s idea of a good little business is to turn the front of their home into a little local store and in many cases as its part of their own home, this means no rent and its profit all the way, or is it?

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I’ve witnessed so many of these stores fall down within a few years. It’s a nice thought to have one but probably not the best idea.

A typical sari-sari is little local store selling all the everyday products from cigarettes and alcohol to canned food, flour, eggs, diapers and of course, the load for the cell phone. And if they stood alone in their street, it would be a great idea. But it is likely that you have 2 or 3 stores already within a stone’s throw from you. Everybody seems to be a sari sari store.

This may be deemed as a controversial opinion by some but for me they seem to keep each other poor and it’s just down to lack of imagination and common sense. It’s not intentional, of course. It’s simply a situation like many others here in the Philippines where people make poor decisions based on hope more than sense.

If you’re in a community of say 1,000 households and there are around 150 sari-sari stores within this community, it’s not too surprising to hear that many of them struggle. They survive it would appear but only a few truly prosper. Too many dreamers per square kilometer tends to be the problem but it’s easy to know why when you see how the usual doors are not open. This is the Philippines where a dream can be an inspiration or a suicide mission.

With many here, it’s more about getting by. When westerners think of business they think of making a lot of profit. If that’s not possible then most times the plan ends there. With Filipinos it’s more about surviving, so with that in mind, although it doesn’t make too much economic sense from an entrepreneurial point of view, for them it’s all about eking out a living which makes perfect sense. Sadly though for many it does not even achieve that.

The Downside of Competition

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The sari-sari store is the ultimate example but it is not confined to that market. If somebody opens an internet café and it does well then someone else will open one over the road. Fine, a little competition is good for the consumer especially, but it doesn’t end there. Before you know it, a third one will open also, and not too long after, a fourth and so on.

In no time at all, the area will reach saturation point and nobody is making a good living as there are not enough bums to fill the seats. There would be but there are so many seats for the bums that it’s a waste of time.

The Business Plan of the Philippines

The internet café is another classic example. Many a Filipino business plan consists of opening the door, looking inside and saying to themselves, “Hmm busy” and that’s all it takes and before you know it they are acquiring a local premises and filling it with computers. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that too much of anything means numbers are filtered down to the point of bankruptcy.

In fact, in so many fields, it seems saturation is the name of the game and the result is the majority scratching out a living and some survive, some don’t but they all try it. There is no trade protection that limits how many similar businesses can operate in the same area.

I’ve often questioned why there is no protection for local traders from saturation. Nobody has any real solutions to unemployment so they leave them to try and fail without much forethought.

Unimaginative Businesses for Unimaginative People

You will see it in many areas and notice the lack originality when it comes to business. Filipinos for me do not show much ability to be an original thinker. I’m sure some will argue against that but for me at least, it’s very much a part of the cultural mindset. It’s no different within business. They follow more than they lead or innovate. Hope is the reason and lack of capital means they all try small ideas based on what others are doing.

Food is very commonly sold and many in Metro Manila rely on ready cooked food, as there may not be cooking facilities in their accommodation especially if it’s a dorm. So as you wander round the streets and side streets also, you will stumble upon countless food eateries or cantinas. Mostly little places with a few chairs and trays of food on display. But you will soon notice that the variety is just not there. They all sell exactly the same dishes.

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Again, it’s often saturation point with these establishments all selling the same food with very little variety and few customers want to try anything different which makes it an uphill struggle. They simply compete with the cantina next door and rarely think of doing anything alternative and sell virtually the same dishes all with mounds of rice as is the norm here. They have their talents but original thinkers when it comes to business, they are not.

Clients Heads Stuck In the Mud

On the other hand again, in their defense, I have noticed a tendency with Filipinos that they are not adventurous when it comes to different foods and many won’t try anything new or different. If someone started selling novel food or even a sandwich stall, I doubt they would touch the imagination of the general public. It’s a frustration for me that most Filipinos in my experience will not step out of some comfort zones. They won’t taste new food, they don’t relate to concepts. Just my opinion of course and it definitely does not apply to all, but it is a noticeable feature with many.

If it’s not served with mounds of rice, they simply don’t seem interested. Many here are simply totally narrow and won’t even try the different. Maybe among the more professional types yes, but as regards the everyday public then sadly not. I can imagine many a westerner thinking of making a business here thinking that if I do something different, they will try it. In my experience this is not so at all. Maybe within niche markets yes but as regards everyday folk, they don’t want to know.

It’s Not Novelty Land

I met an Australian once, a nice guy who was talking about opening fish and chip shops. I didn’t know how to tell him not to bother. I saw one once in Ortigas; next time I passed it was closed down. Seen the idea tried elsewhere, too and rarely does it have any success unless you’re surrounded by non-Filipinos. Many simply won’t try anything new.

Business for Survival

It does seem strange from an outsiders point of view that this situation exists and you find yourself questioning why go into a business where your best chance is to merely eke out a living only. It is my belief, and I stand to be corrected, that Filipinos don’t think so much in terms of making it rich, they think in terms of surviving only. Lower expectations bred purely from the economic climate over the last few decades.

In a country where few have known anything more than struggle to survive, I think this is fairly natural. Generation after generation has grown with a mindset of poverty in varying forms which in turn has made this thinking normal. So before we call it crazy, you have to be aware that yet again, things are different here and always have been, and it becomes simply a culture of survival and thinking in terms of making it big is a luxury they have never known.

Listen to Yourself

At the risk of being controversial, I will leave this article on a note of advice for prospering in the Philippines. Always listen to Filipinos when it comes to understanding the business climate as this will make you see how all things are possible. However, don’t always act upon it. It’s often more of a dream that is not realistic. Competition has Filipinos eating each other. Don’t fall into that trap, think carefully and observe. There are many great potential businesses here. Listening to the family of your partner may not always be the best advice. It’s a dream for them. Be realistic yourself.

 

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The Americano from Europe

Without a doubt, this is a well worn and overly discussed topic among non American expats. So just to annoy you more, I am going to add my 3 pennies (note not cents) worth.

Is it petty to be bothered that so many Filipinos assume you come from somewhere else other than where you actually come from?

I’m not an American, so it’s quite possible that like me, some of us members of the non-Americano speaking community could occasionally get a little pissed at always being thought of as being one.

I confess although I know it’s silly, I don’t like it myself either.

Americans Can Switch to Another Channel

Now, if your name is Joe and you’re from Washington, New York, Chicago or anywhere in the USA, then this will not be much of an issue for you.

But if you are John, Mike or Barry from Europe, Australia or even the Caribbean, then get used to being an American. There is no other world apart from China, the Middle East and India.

Some are aware that there are other mostly white people that come from a place called Europe who talk such a weird tongue it sounds like another language.

If they hear a Germanic, French or Latin sounding lingo, then at least that’s a clue to most that you’re not from the USA. If you are an English speaker though, you’re now American in the eyes of many.

Get used to endlessly hearing “hey Joe, what’s up?” and more generally “where are you going, Joe?” All these remarks are frequent and some of us get seriously tired of it, others don’t. I’m just letting you know if you’re a non-American in the Philippines and you’re white or maybe even black, you better get used to it; you are now an American.

Give Me Back My Heritage

Should it bother me? Probably not.

Does it bother me? OK, a lot.

But it’s not anything particularly anti-American in me; it’s simply a little frustration and annoyance at feeling pushed off the Earth. It will become an everyday part of your world while you’re here.

If you’re interacting with locals, possibly at the store or market or even in a taxi, you may get overloaded with assumptions. Again, keep in the back of your mind that plenty of Filipinos don’t assume too much but at the same time, remember that many do.

A taxi driver could say something on the lines of “My sister is there in your country”. Don’t for one second think he has worked out you may be anything other than an American, and his sister is in Hampshire. Just take it as read, he means in America.

I play a little game to test my nerve. I see how long I can go without saying that I’m not an American. It’s a great game but one I usually lose as it becomes hard to not say it. I’m not someone that would consider myself to be overly patriotic, but as stupid and harmless as it is, it still drives me nuts.

I’m Labelled Non-Americano

SelfieIt used to irk me so much at one time; I had a tee shirt made announcing the fact that “I am not an American.” You can’t help but get tired of it and the tee shirt was a small way of trying to make the assumption makers think of the possibility that I’m not Americano. Did it work? Sometimes.

It had foreigners smiling at me; Americans giving me dirty looks, yet with expats from non-American parts, it seemed to strike a chord. I think they may be experiencing the same level of assumption overload and could identify.

Similarly, many Filipinos responded too and would often raise a smile. So obviously, it’s not the whole nation that makes that assumption and even some locals would straight away pick up on the point of the tee shirt and smile at the joke.

Putting Britain Back On the Map

At times, it can get ridiculous. Ok, it’s easy to inform and get round it that way. Simply say “I’m not American, I am from England” but when the next question is “what part of America is England” it kind of saps your spirit a little. Yes, that has actually been said to me. All I could think of to reply was “the European part”.

I’ve had it asked of me, “what language do you speak in England?” It’s so difficult to know how to answer it. I just say French.

Just for a little balance, I will add that some of us outsiders don’t know much about the Philippines or Filipinos before they get off the plane. Too much sniggering at this mindset isn’t really apt as I’ve known some who just think of Asian as being Chinese. The main difference being though is that it’s a few in the west who are that dumb. Here in the Philippines, there’s a lot who will automatically assume you’re American.

He Must Be Proud To Be Pinoy

Sadly, sometimes the point behind wearing the “I’m Not An American” tee shirt was all too often missed. Based on some responses, I realized it was giving the wrong message or at least its intention being misinterpreted by some locals. More than a few times, the reaction was “Ahhhhhhhhhhhh, so you’re not an American anymore, you’re a Filipino now.” I tried very hard to not bang my head against the nearest wall and just smile. You know when you’re fighting a lost cause so why explain.

Obviously, it would get a favourable response from a local that misreads the intention behind the statement. They believe you’re so in love with the Philippines that you’re renouncing your American heritage and now feel and want to be thought of as Filipino. How do you explain to those that that wasn’t the meaning behind the message on the shirt? Just smile along saying yes, you will never make those ones understand but they will love you.

Assumptions, Assumptions, All Are Assumptions

So as spoken of before in previous articles, you are now not only rich, you’re also American. I deliberately exaggerate the extent of it for the theatre but there will be days that assumption of your Americanism as well as your assumed wealth will drive you nuts.

It’s not difficult to understand where it comes from. The Philippines has had a lot of historical interaction with the United States. I’m guessing there was a time that nearly every Caucasian or black guy here was an American.

Somehow, the assumption has got firmly lodged into the mindset even though these days many foreigners are frequent visitors to the Philippines. It’s the first thought many have when they see you; you’re an Americano.

I have taken the trouble many times to explain that I’m not a citizen of the United States. Most times, it’s clearly understood after explaining. It just gets funny when you hear of conversations after you have explained which run something like “have you heard, the Americano is not an Americano, he’s a British”.

So this is to serve as a warning to all non-American visitors to the Philippines, be ready for it, take deep breaths and go with it. I know it’s stupid to allow something like this to piss me off. I’ve come to terms long ago about losing my national identity whenever I’m here. I still wear the tee shirt for the sport and have reluctantly come to terms with the fact that for many, I’m an American.

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Three Worlds

This blog is an amateur attempt to introduce the Philippines to those that do not know it but have some kind of interest in getting to know it better and therefore understand a little clearer. It is only my account. When I write articles like this one, I have to cast my mind back to how I perceived it in my early days here. I put myself in the shoes of new arrivals and imagine how they may view it when they step off the plane and go and greet Metro Manila.

The Tapestry and Confusion of Metro Manila

Many fall into the trap of judging the whole country on what they see in the capital. The Philippines is a hugely diverse country with many less obvious aspects to it. It takes years to begin to understand but it is important that you know that Metro Manila is not representative of the whole of the Philippines, even though the media often thinks that it is.

Many things you experience and observe in Metro Manila are due to the wider Philippines coming to the capital. People are there from every corner of the Archipelago and it creates a fusion along with confusion. It’s quite difficult to explain it to anyone who hasn’t glimpsed this collection of cities but as you get about the country from North to South, it makes more sense. Metro Manila is crammed full of people many of whom have spent their whole life in the capital and an equally large amount from everywhere else.

Class Division

The massive difference between rich and poor becomes obvious. You observe it in every corner of the Philippines but it’s very apparent as you go around Metro Manila. You only need to visit any of the shopping malls that are in abundance. If you stand at the entrance, you will observe people with their own full time drivers dropping them at the entrance with yayas (nannies) coming along for the ride to take care of the children whilst their employers shop or eat in the best restaurants.

There is a huge amount of wealth in all too few a people’s hands. Check the stats. Put simply, I know but I think true.

The first super rich group is not too obvious but still you will see them. They are easily detectable without having to search for them.

Much of the wealth of the Philippines is with this small group of very wealthy or even the super rich. Often, its money that has been in the family forever or at least a few generations, what some call “old money”. Whether it is a simple matter of saying that the large amount of wealth in a few people’s hands is responsible for all the woes here would also be debatable and would not really be giving you the complete picture.

Some of the problems here are directly due to huge class divisions for sure but it’s too simple to say that that is the reason for all the problems. The Philippines has positives that should not be overlooked and it’s too easy to judge all based on an obvious gap between rich and poor.

The political, social, historical and cultural make up of the Philippines is very complex and many outsiders are quick to make judgments but they are often missing much. A lot of things are negative due to some misinformed mindsets many of the people have here as well as poor education for many and a society where business regards the people here as mere fodder for profit. It would be aimless of me to go too much into details but this is an attempt to encourage the first time visitor to slow down and not to assume too much. Many things reveal themselves to you over time and your early impressions of the visible problems you see are possibly not all down to what you think they are as regards the negatives at least. Class division is an obvious wrong which you quickly pick up on but the Philippines is not the only country with such a divide between rich and poor. It may be said by some though that it is one of the biggest gaps between the haves and the have not’s anywhere in the world and they could well be right.

It’s very easy to make a surface assessment but it’s likely that you only have an outline; the real picture is far more complicated and you need to give yourself several years observing and learning before you can claim to have any real understanding of how the Philippines clicks and why it has so many seemingly unsolvable problems.

Wealth Equals Power

The wealthier classes are not starved of a good education. It is likely this group are very aware of the problems and many among them can be caring and mindful whilst others simply wouldn’t care. It would be wrong to assume the wealthy are all heartless. Some only care about themselves as is the case in many societies all over the world. My experience has taught me that there are good people within this class of people too. I was one who jumped on the backs of the elite and put most of the blame on them for everything. That was an early unfair assessment of mine. However, it is a contributing factor but only in conjunction with many other things far too complex to fully explain in an article like this.

The political control that this rich and powerful group has upon the policies of government however is a critical factor. Wealthy families can place themselves into the political circus ring and from within can nurture the country to their own best advantage. I am sure the Philippines is not alone when it comes to political dynasties and influential family influence within politics but here it is done to excess. They can stand directly for political positions as they have the money to finance their own campaigns. They can also back politicians of their own choosing that they can rely upon to do there will in their own best interests. This also extends into placing other family members into power and if you make a study of Filipino politics you will very quickly learn that there are many representatives from the same families.

The Predominant Working Classes

It is also worth noting that much of the working classes get by OK in general although as is often the case anywhere in the world, it can be a struggle sometimes. Working class in the Philippines can mean anything from poor to comfortable but most probably fit into the bracket of fairly poor but managing. The large family structure of many Filipino households can actually work for you or against you depending on the situation. Often more kids means more mouths to feed and education can be expensive. Jobs are hard to come by for even college graduates so there could well be a high dependency factor in many working class households.

Many families here comprise of bread winners and dependents within the household. Like much of the working classes throughout the world they live probably in debt but they get by. No real surprises there I know but being a country where families tend to be on the larger side it complicates matters further making understanding all the more difficult. We outsiders usually come from demography of around 2.2 children per household. In the Philippines, families are often much larger. Having maybe six kids, some of school age puts a greater strain on many households. Father may well be working and even bringing in a reasonable salary but he could be the only one bringing in any money.

The 7% Myth

Getting on the career ladder in the Philippines is something you need to do young as once you’re past around 23, many doors start closing on you. We westerners come from a culture which is against age, race and sex discrimination but here none of those things seem to be happening much. There are millions desperate for opportunities and few of them exist.

In the west, we are spoilt by legislation that ensures equal rights and opportunity for all regardless of race, age, handicap or physical appearance. There is little such protection here in that department.

It very much appears to me at least that unemployment is far higher than the figures of around 7%, which government agencies speak of. These figures are based on a survey which could be deemed unreliable but that is another discussion for another day.

Asking people in shopping malls if they are working could mean some debatable stats. Some may be on 150 peso a day and even less in the provinces but still the survey would count them as being in work. Some will be on part time or casual occasional positions yet still if they answer the question as doing any kind of work, then they would be counted as employed.

I doubt the surveys go to the poorest districts such as Tondo as if they did; the results would be very different. It is a bit like asking people outside a factory gate if they have a job. I may be wrong but I suspect they are not asking these questions in the right places hence very misleading unemployment stats.

The working classes though are without doubt the largest group as they are in all societies and probably the least noticed by visitors. It’s not all gloom and doom for sure but in my opinion and in my opinion only, I find 7% extremely hard to believe in real terms.

The Shock of Poverty

When foreigners write about the Philippines, the focus is often on the poverty, but there is another side of life here too. The extreme poverty that is abundantly clear for all to see gives the less travelled types a jolt when they see it and subsequently start making rash judgments. Maybe if you have been to India or other poorer Asian countries before, then it would not give you the same shock, as its true, the Philippines is not the only country in the world with major problems.

What I think shocks many visitors is the sheer gap between those that have an abundance of wealth and those that have virtually nothing, sometimes not even food. It’s visible and time introduces you too much of it. It’s definitely something which rightly we see as very wrong and we react but there is a lot more to it than uneven distribution of wealth.

You do not have to look hard to see that the Philippines have some desperately poor people. Once you are out of the mall and walking round side streets you will observe one hell of a lot of people that spend their whole day collecting plastic bottles and the wage for their efforts is probably just enough to feed themselves and nothing more. Nothing different from many third world countries I guess, but to westerners unused to it, it’s one of the first things that you notice.

I think the over indulgence with poverty which many foreign observers dwell upon is forgivable because it is stark and in your face, and it is bound to mould early impressions, but it is only fair to talk about some pluses too. The majority are probably on the poor side for sure but poor also has a wide spread between desperate and having difficulties.

The Unnoticed Classes

It would seem that for many commentators, it’s all about rich and poor. These are the things that catch a visitor’s eye and it can sometimes take the focus away from the fact that for many live a life that is not so bad or that great. I’m talking about those that are doing fine without having a huge bank account and not living in desperate poverty either.

I notice that many students are congesting fast food outlets on the way home from school and many brandish tablets and some even laptops.

I do not really know what this means but it does suggest that there is money around. There is an abundance of very decent motor vehicles driven on the roads, probably on credit, but they are out there. Unfortunately, not being an economist, I cannot really say what it means, other than to say that poverty or extreme wealth is not everything. Many live perfectly normal lives but they are the unnoticed. It could be true to say that instead of only commenting on the extremes, some attention should be given to the very many who get by just fine.

I know of many who are doing just fine but nobody writes a blog about their situation as it does not catch the same attention as the poverty or the wealth. Perhaps we should be paying a little more attention to the ordinary people who carry on their lives relatively unnoticed and its possible that by watching this group, we can get a fairer and clearer assessment of how life is in the Philippines. I guess ordinary isn’t news worthy and makes for boring blogging.

The Struggling Classes

The have not’s are not a small minority. Many live on less than 2 dollars a day at the extreme end. Everywhere you go, you will see people, young and old, living on the scraps of this messy city. Every plastic bottle, tin can and glass bottle is picked out of rubbish bins outside malls or generally left around the city and collected by a huge army of what I can only call survivors who then cash in their treasure in one of the many junk shops around the capital. They usually start early, finish late and they go hungry sometimes, but mostly they do get to eat and just go on day-to-day hand to mouth.

This is the bottom end of society and just above them is a massive amount that is working for a fraction of the legal minimum wage. The likes of maids (despite recent legislation), stall and sometimes shop sellers and waiters/waitresses earn enough for food and a shelter. It is not unusual to come across pedicabs, which are not just a work tool, but also a home. Life is very hard for all too many and it’s clearly visible to a visitor.

Many live in dorms or small rooms often shared to keep down costs or sometimes with a family member such as cousin, aunt, sister or brother. This is often the case mainly with those that have low paid jobs or studying and its all they can afford in the harsher property climate of Metro Manila.

I have learnt that life is very much day to day and with few prospects for them to plan a future other than getting through the day and the next day. Of the three worlds here, that is a group that is simply too big. I am hopeful for the future, but right now, it hasn’t gone away and shows little signs of ever going away.

The working classes are a wide range of people. Someone on minimum salary would be bringing home around 10,000 to 11,000 pesos a month. There is a minimum wage policy in the Philippines but far too many are still below it for varying reasons. With such mass unemployment as there is here then they are not likely to complain as complaining or reporting an illegal salary would probably result in you having no job at all.

In many cases, a visitor will simply bypass the poorest group. They interact mainly with the middle group, the majority group of the working classes. They encounter them as hotel staff where they are staying or in the stores and restaurants they visit. Not many in this group are above minimum wage.

Welcome to the Third World

I make no attempt here to explain it any deeper than that but only to say that there are many layers and much of it gets missed because we are too busy focusing on the extremities which are clearly visible to the eye. Subsequently we don’t notice the large group that are doing better as they simply seem to blend in unnoticed. None of this is meant as any kind of apology for a deeply unequal society. I am saying though that it’s not something many outsiders are used to so therefore it’s easy to simply say that everything that is wrong is because of that. It most definitely takes a lot of time and observation to work anything out.

Don’t make the mistake of many who come here and oversimplify the reasons why. I’m not offering any informed reasoning to any of it. I’m just saying learn a lot more before you make any assessment.

This country has so many complexities and defining it is not easy on any level. Travelling around the archipelago is the best way to learn. Taking in the various ways of life and understanding the history gives you a far more complete picture and then it starts to make a little more sense but you probably still wont understand it anything like enough.

There are 3 worlds in the Philippines: the haves, the have not’s, and them that have the most. In some ways, mindsets and even cultural values hold back development too.

This article is quite mixed up and confusing I know. As I read it back, I wanted to try and make it neat and tidy and give the piece easy definitions for the reader to understand.

Put simply though, that’s not really possible. It’s confusing for an outsider to work out what they are seeing. I have not tried to make this neat, tidy or concise. I’ve left it as it rolled. I think that’s the fairest way as nothing rolls simply or concisely here. It’s a collage which you have to put together yourself, this is just a rough guide to what you’re seeing.

Yes, the huge gap between rich and poor is an obvious reason as to why so many have hard lives here. As you go deeper, you soon realise that there are so many other issues apart from class division that keeps these people down. The saddest thing is that poor distribution of wealth is only part of it.

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The Possibilities and Impossibilities

After the second of my two 4-month stays, I decided to leave Catigan not sure what the future would hold. I went back to Metro Manila. I was not happy to be away from the peace and quiet of Catigan but delighted to be able to get back into my city ways. I had learnt to live without many things whilst I was away but none of that means I didn’t miss having a more convenient and easier life by being in a city.

I’m a city boy and I guess if you’re city-orientated from birth then you are always going to feel more at home with what you’re used to. The eight (8) months I spent in Catigan was my first real taste of rural Filipino life. I was quite pleased with myself that I did adapt over time and once you stop missing things you think you need, you learn that really you don’t need much.

Understanding the WTF Factor

This project of mine is about trying to show varying sides of Filipino life. It’s done in a totally amateur way with lousy photos taken on a cell phone and being broke means I live in a way most foreigners wouldn’t want to which in turn brings me face to face with some of the hardships that many everyday Filipinos have to endure. I don’t have the resources to venture into surrounding resorts nor food taste in restaurants. I bloody well want to and dream of that day ever happening. I give a perspective from places many outsiders would not want to bother with. Not entirely by choice but as that’s how it is for me: I embrace it, learn from it and share it.

The reason I’ve sub-headed “Understanding the WTF Factor” is because although some people are aware of how life is here for many, it still comes as a bit of a surprise when you venture into the everyday world of the Filipino. The more you learn, the more you realise just how life is hard for so many every day. Most get by with little and they live and eat daily. As you venture into cities and in the countryside, you experience situations where you find yourself asking, “How do they survive it?”

Time possibly hardens you as you become used to it. For newbies, it’s inevitable that on several occasions, you will find yourself exclaiming “WTF?!” It’s something only those that have travelled extensively around the third world would not be a little overawed by the lack of opportunity and the difficulties they endure. It’s not every Filipino of course but still many more than any official stats would suggest live lives unimaginable by anything the average westerner is accustomed to. The Philippines is not just a country with some in poverty, it’s a country of mass poverty.

For us, it is culture shock as well as astonishment at the patience these people have even damned stupidity of how they don’t fight back. Time teaches you why they don’t. We as westerners would probably make discord and find scapegoats as we do that in our cultures. I’m not even knocking the concept of fighting to improve man’s lot, but I have learnt from my time here that sometimes you’re just too powerless and finding a way through it is energy better spent.

Many of us become opinionated and I was and sometimes still am no exception to that. Only time can paint you a fuller picture. How you get to understanding it is naturally a unique trek for every individual, nobody experiences the same things. Time is the main teacher. Over the years, your “WTF” becomes a gentle roll of the eyes and when you have reached that place, you have begun to adapt and accept. Some things you never fully accept but you will at least understand it more.

Relating to Metro Manila

By having a small amount of understanding of how people live outside of Metro Manila, it helps you understand why Metro Manila is how it is. Many come into the capital from everywhere in the archipelago and the city absorbs it all. The diversity is something a visitor cannot grasp with ease. Millions of people from every corner of the Philippines have come and tried to make a life for themselves in the city as I wrote about in Cities of Broken Dreams . The cities fuse together but in a completely incomprehensible fashion. Seeing the wider Philippines brings home to you just what a combo the Philippines is and therefore Metro Manila, in all its insane glory, becomes just a little more comprehensible.

People are there from all over and it’s like a machine made up of parts of other machines but it just about functions. Seeing where all those parts have come from can also help you appreciate it and understand it a little more.

Metro Manila has always been Metro Manila but the influx from everywhere else is also what makes Metro Manila what it is today. It’s crazy but there are not too many cities under the strain this collection of cities is under. The influx from everywhere else adds extra incomprehension but it also makes it what it is, diverse, insane, unfathomable but fascinating.

Business Thoughts about Catigan

All I report is simply based on my limited experiences and I share the little I learnt. Like many foreigners, I always had an eye for spotting business possibilities. Like a lot of things here, some business ideas make good sense whilst at the same time you encounter many negatives to put you off. The same applies whether town or country. I’m always watching for good ideas that may suit locals and foreigners alike as business ventures. In Catigan, Davao City, I spotted some and at the same time discounted many.

I have already spoken about the minibus idea I had had in Ideas, Opportunity and Self Destruction and my mind would keep thinking up other crazy ideas about making a living in Catigan. My financial future is very uncertain so I have to content myself with dreams and discussing possibilities for others and sharing ideas at least for the moment anyway.

Is there any worthwhile ways a foreigner or local could make a living in Catigan. The answer is as always a frustrating one, it’s maybe.

I had many rushes of blood to my business head and had some crazy thoughts go through it. Some was totally out of the lunatic areas in my brain such as pony treks through beautiful Catigan, off track using local horses which some locals had as a mode of transport. You would see horses grazing as you went about Catigan and kids would enjoy galloping across the open areas on them having a great time using rice sack saddles. I asked myself would the owners be up to being hired along with their horse for a Sunday afternoon.

Then I thought of how thin some of the horses were. They would have needed a little food supplement for sure to build them up and make them healthier. I don’t know the reason why but most of the horses I saw looked a little underfed despite the fairly lush pasture and therefore possibly not up to the job.

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Next reality check was when I started thinking about supplying proper saddles and the cost of them. I finally gave it up as a bad idea when I began to think about how to market it. For sure, it would not be made easily marketable I would think. Although such crazy ideas are doable, it really is debatable as to whether all the cogs to run the machine would work well. Then you consider marketing it alone, it becomes more of a nice thought than a viable business.

Living off the Land

There are many foreigners around the Philippines who have successfully made good business with farming. Whether growing crops, fruits or keeping livestock, it certainly is a potential livelihood that has some merit. The opinion I give here is really meant only as my thoughts after leaving one location, Catigan. I’m at no point saying that farming is not a worthwhile venture.

If you fancy yourself as a farmer, well it’s quite possible you can find some land for sale at surprisingly good prices. Depending on your legal status of course then land is easily obtainable. If you’re not a local, then investing in farming could be an extremely risky business. You need to be able to take the time to learn before you even begin.

You would be highly reliant on staff which is to be expected and would certainly be available. On a positive note; you would be surrounded by a lot of experienced heads. In communities like this, it’s likely through friendship you can obtain plenty of localised farming knowledge. There is a lot to know and it would take years to acquire enough knowledge to manage it yourself. Take time out to learn then it becomes a far more realistic path to a livelihood.

If you were thinking about such a venture, you should simply spend a year just living in the community and getting to know people whilst observing. The reason being is that it’s a way of life you need to know if you’re cut out for. Of course, you can just have it managed for you and I believe there are foreigners doing just that in the area. Even so, it always pays to immerse yourself in knowledge to lessen the risks from making bad uninformed decisions which stem from inexperience.

Aspects of farming seem attractive. For those that just want to supplement an income then a little small scale livestock farming can supplement your food at least. Pigs, goats and chickens make many here a little extra income.

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Managing the land takes a lot of knowledge and you’re in a community that is raised doing just that and the knowledge is passed down from generation to generation. You would be well served to integrate into the community where there is a market already available for your produce and buyers collect regularly or you can seek out your own buyers.

Land ownership is a complicated matter for foreigners but there are ways to do it even if you’re single and non-resident. The drawback of course is it won’t be in your name entirely which for some is a risk too far. A foreigner not being able to own land 100% does not seem to be really helping anyone whether local or outsider but that’s another discussion. Let me know your situation and I will see what is possible legally.

Who Let the Dogs Idea Out?

If you wanted to simply spend your days in a beautiful peaceful idyllic setting with very little to do for entertainment then Catigan would be ideal for you. It even went through my head that it could be an ideal spot for a dog breeder. The dogs would be supremely fit with regular exercise up and down the hills of Catigan. I really don’t have too much knowledge of dog breeding personally but it did seem like a nice thought. You could have a local carpenter build kennels extremely affordably and it’s an option as well as endless space which is essential to keep dogs healthy and in peak condition. Location could be a difficulty if you were thinking of boarding kennels but not fatal. It’s a little out of the way but that can easily be presented as an asset. To higher class clients it could be sold more as a holiday for the dog as I’m sure any healthy dog would have a great time chasing chickens and running up and down the hills of Catigan.

Not knowing too much about the dog market, I can’t really tell you more but I’m sure it could be a viable option. I was told that breeding certain breeds has a constant market and again, a nice thought. It’s not the kind of idea I put too much thought into and I’m sure I’m missing something but it does seem like it could have potential.

I won’t go through the sillier ideas I had as I prefer to save myself the embarrassment.

Vacation House

An idea that had me curious was a venture into offering holiday accommodation. Catigan definitely has its appeal and I’m sure many would appreciate a weekend or even longer away from it all. Land can be obtained at very reasonable prices and if you keep it traditional then the cost of building a house is surprisingly cheap. I estimated that for around 200,000 PHP ($4,500 approx) you could buy land in a beautiful setting and build an ideal perfectly comfortable house along with a side house which you could move yourself into whenever you have a client. You could earn extra again by offering meals and with a little imagination, you could make it comfortable using traditional furnishings all very affordably.

Drawbacks would be that Catigan doesn’t have all the facilities that many people seeking a break may expect. One thing I have learnt from my time in the Philippines is that many things can be done but there will always be obstacles. At first, you think that only having cold water available would be off-putting for many. Although some would be prepared to be hardy, unfortunately those looking for a break and can afford a break, well, they may have other ideas. Realistically, most would be seeking some comforts.

Again, the difficulties can be overcome although a little expensive. It is perfectly possible to fit a water heater and I’ve even seen ones you simply plug into the mains and drop the heater into a tank of water and it warms it. With a good builder, you could even fit a shower of some sort with an overhead tank but my god, it would be a challenge keeping it filled. You would need to supply all the water manually by either fetching it yourself and filling tanks, or you have the option of paying the local carabao man to deliver your water for you, there are ways ‘round everything but a little costly.

A vacation house was my favourite idea but whilst you could buy land and build a house extremely inexpensively, that could well be the only advantage.

The beauty and cooler climate of Catigan would surely be an attraction. As beautiful as it is there,there are many factors that make it difficult, although difficult most definitely does not make it impossible.

Building Your Vacation House

On a positive note, buying land in Catigan is affordable, I would even go as far as to say very affordable. Despite its location being a little off the track, it is easy as well as cheap to arrange having a house built including septic tank. Using local builders and suppliers, you can build a traditional house in the Bagobo style and I saw some houses there that were enchanting as well as perfectly comfortable.

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A small house could be built for around 30,000 PHP ($670 approx) and a more lavish and larger construction should not really cost any more than 100,000 PHP ($2,300 approx).

A common feature here is building other houses on your land to accommodate extended family. Many families live side by side creating family compounds.

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As I went around Catigan, I came across some wonderful unique structures.

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There is wealth and poverty in Catigan and much between the two. The locations furthest from the road are where it’s possibly cheaper to live. As you ride up the main Catigan road, you see glimpses of affluence. As you move more into the farmed areas away from the road, walking is the only option, and I’ve visited people that were a full hour’s walk away.

Away from the road, the more beautiful it is but as you go further then you are not able to connect to the local unofficial electricity supply. Seems, Catigan has pluses and minuses and if we’re talking vacation house and offering a few amenities then you would need to find land not too far from the road for electricity connection purposes. It also helps to be situated somewhere your clients wouldn’t need to take an hour’s walk to get to.

Another option could be a generator but that would be an expensive investment. Water is free everywhere and a series of hoses runs all over Catigan from local springs but in some cases, depending where your situated, it can be far.

From a health and well-being point of view, as long as you have a little stamina, it’s great fitness-building country. Whilst I was there, I only ate vegetables and rice which helped me develop the body of an athlete. Simply walking up and down the hills built my fitness and stamina a lot. I wasn’t panting and lost several pounds after a few months of being in Catigan. All these things I felt if presented in the right way, could be plus points for those who want a break away from the stresses of life and seek somewhere quiet and relaxing as a typical vacation house client would. Possibly a selling point but for most, that doesn’t appeal. It’s another world and the lack of things to do for some is not exciting but for others, it’s perfect. Every way you think about it, it was good and bad, positives and negatives, all of which made it very difficult to make a solid assessment.

I even had the silly notion of promoting it as a weight loss vacation but it was at this point I started to realise the higher altitude was warping my mind.

As is often the case, when you think ideas through a little deeper, you encounter the reasons not to do it even more. If everyone who wanted a break or vacation were hardy souls along with having immense patience, then it could be a winner, however, not too surprisingly if someone wants to pay out good money for an escape then they are going to want things to be just how they want it. Enduring some adversity is most often not any kind of selling point.

Although these points against it may seem trivial to such as me who has become used to the more difficult aspects of life in Catigan, not many will want to have to endure potentially having to walk up to their knees in mud nor have to listen to the awful sounds of squealing that come from the local videoke. Someone paying out good money to get away from the stresses of life in a city could be put off by these factors.

There are places out of earshot of the horrendous noise of locals attempting to sing bad rock ballads but I suspect they would be possibly a little too far off the track and although this isn’t fatal, it’s certainly a problem which I doubt many would want to gamble with if they are investing in a business.

The final negative is what I reported in The Catigan Social Experiment Failure and that being the problem of lack of garbage collection. Catigan can be a little untidy and the beauty is a little spoilt by the garbage that gets thrown around. It’s not terrible but bad enough for people to notice and it does somewhat let the place down. It’s a common problem which you tend to encounter in many places in the Philippines and possibly something many are used to but still, it makes Catigan a little less idyllic.

None of the negatives I’ve mentioned are fatal to any of the ideas. Viable projects? Probably not. Still all the same, the unbalanced side of me would have loved to give it a try especially the vacation house. Maybe it’s a blessing I don’t have money for any such ventures. You can’t always trust yourself when you get a crazy idea. Riskier ventures somehow add to the thrill. With me not having the money, the options weren’t there so I just allowed myself to dream and let my possibly overly optimistic business fantasies run amok.

The final blow to my vacation house business fantasy was marketing. Maybe with more thought, a way to bring it to people’s attention was possible but I just didn’t imagine people would be queuing down the Catigan road for a weekend there. I would imagine it could quite possibly be empty much of the year. I’m sure a marketing consultant could tell me otherwise, I don’t really know.

If you could afford to potentially take the blow of having a vacation house without clients for much of the year then that’s all well and good and of course it suddenly becomes a less risky project. I’m sure some are in a position where as long as they end up with a nice house, then they would be prepared to take the risk. You haven’t really lost as you have a nice house for yourself even if it’s a failed business. Catigan is beautiful; it can be a very decent place to live especially if you have your own transport.

Maybe or Maybe Not

This was my first taste of rural life and in the 8 months in all I spent there, I learnt much but you can never learn enough. I really wanted to come up with good ideas for ways to make business in Catigan. I had no reason other than to try and prove to myself i have a sharp eye.

I quite possibly missed some and I would never rule out the possibilities of succeeding as a farmer, renting out a vacation house and even the more insane ideas such as pony treks or dog breeding. Really, they were stabs in the dark and I am certainly no expert when it comes to seeking out good business opportunities. Future ventures around the Philippines I hope will make me a better potential good business idea spotter but this was my first real rural experience and I’m simply playing with ideas. As regards Catigan, the cautious part of me would have me thinking to look somewhere else.

It has huge potential but possibly better suited to someone that just wanted somewhere peaceful to live without the uncertainly and risk of trying out any of my crazy ideas. I felt Catigan is possibly too problematic to risk putting your cash into with its logistical and geographical problems which had me imagining many reasons to play safe and not take a risk than to go for it.

For someone who has knowledge of farming techniques in this part of the world, then I suspect that it could be a very successful venture. The thing there though is that not many expats have that knowledge. In partnership with a local that does, it could be a worthwhile and safer business but as a single investor and not having experience of such things, I myself wouldn’t do it.

I’m not saying don’t consider it, I’m just meaning that I personally didn’t see or think of anything that I felt fully at ease with as a business opportunity, at least not in Catigan anyway.

A Place to Settle Down

Of course, another option that is not business related is to simply build yourself an affordable house on affordable land. For less than 100,000 PHP ($4500 approx), you could spend your days in a beautiful part of the world and adapt to life as it is here. You can drink tuba in the mid afternoon, go on endless walks and lose yourself in another world.

If you just want somewhere to spend your weekends or holidays then it’s an affordable dream. Why do I mention these things? Because people do it. I was shown a few properties that had caretakers looking after them that were owned by foreigners. Most of the year, they were unoccupied but were used for visits. Residents come in and out of the country and Catigan is where they chose to stay when in the Philippines. Considering how inexpensively you can find land and build on it, it’s easy to see why. Usually though, that happens due to family connections.

Filipinos have a more hardy nature than your average westerner and many would come from a place with some similarities to Catigan. For them, cold water and fetching it yourself is just something they are used to. It really isn’t that bad in most cases and if a foreigner living here can make a few simple adaptations, they can spend their time living quietly, cheaply and enjoying the beauty.

It is Catigan I speak of because I’ve been there but the same applies in so many places in the Philippines. As for Catigan, I would recommend it to anyone who just wants somewhere peaceful to stay. For a business? I’m not so sure. For excitement? Definitely not.

It’s easy to see why I hoped Catigan could have possibilities as a tourism haven even. Its beauty and appeal are obvious.

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I spent many quiet hours just enjoying the views, watching the daily life and thinking I could stay here forever. I believe there are thousands of places all over the Philippines that would have a very similar effect on many of us. Dreams are possible in the Philippines.

I saw a house being built and was told by the owner the whole structure was going to cost him 70,000 pesos (1,600 US$ approx).

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Laws which prevent foreigners from owning land restrict many. If you want to find out whether your wishes could be fulfilled, it’s best to just tell me your dream and I will try and help you and see if it can be fulfilled. I can find out the requirements related to your specific needs and guide you through some of the legalities. The possibilities never end. This is a free service; I do it because I love the exploration of seeking possibilities.

I’ve said enough about Catigan. I’ve lived in many places in different situations but this was my first truly rural Philippines experience. It’s good to not think about expectations and just take what there is. I hope to be bringing some other perspectives and maybe better ideas for some alternative ways of living in future writings. For now, it was back to the city where other kinds of possibilities lie and a good wash.

Catigan taught me a lot about myself. It’s sparked my imagination with a first proper taste of a rural way of life in the Philippines. I shall keep looking for good ideas as I get around and share them. Anyway, back to Metro Manila, adventure over and who knows what the future will hold.

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Filed under Culture, Impressions, Philippines, Travel

The Catigan Social Experiment Failure

 

It’s Not Their Fault, Is It?

 
Every now and then, I move into self appointed scientist mode. I don a white coat, arm myself with a clipboard and begin my research. This was one of those moments and my subjects for experimentation was the people within my vicinity in Catigan.

This silly little experiment I conducted because for a moment I fooled myself into thinking that the people of Catigan had some ways forced upon them. I wanted to end my experiment with a theory of mine backed up.

I believed for a foolish moment, that if you gave people an opportunity to make their world a more beautiful place, that they would grasp it. Not meaning to be like someone who tells you the ending of the film before you watch it, I will say here and now I was wrong. The people failed massively and my theory was left in tatters.

 

It’s Only Garbage

 
Catigan is a beautiful place yet it was noticeable that for a community that was fairly small, there was a hell of a lot of garbage strewn around. On the walk back from the sari sari store, I would pick up endless plastic wrappers from corn chips, plastic bags in general and wrappers removed from whatever was bought from the sari sari and just thrown on the ground. This is far from unique to Catigan as I think just about everywhere I have been in the Philippines, I’ve come across the same problem whether town or country.

My first instinct was to be appalled at the disrespect they had for their own community. Everywhere I have been in the Philippines, it’s been noticeable that most people don’t care a damn about such a trivial matter such as keeping their environment free from garbage. The plastic wrappers I would collect to use as fire starters and melt them unto the wood which in turn helps to ignite it. I was fully aware that burning plastic is not good for the environment but it was better than leaving them strewn all over Catigan or at least that was my logic. Most likely they would get burnt eventually anyway if not trodden into the ground.

Yes, I hear all you first world citizens asking why I simply didn’t put them in the garbage. Well, that is the problem here as well as in many other parts of rural Philippines, there is no collection of garbage. Hence, Catigan is littered with paper, plastic and endless bottles.

Someone would call ‘round every now and then and buy certain kinds of bottles, substantial pieces of plastic and metal for a low price. Many would hang on to the materials that they could get some money back which included tin cans and gladly exchange it for cash, but as regards household garbage there was limited ways in getting rid of it. It was burn it or bury it, there was no other choice.

So a bottle that was not of the kind accepted by junk shops would end up in the ground. In Catigan, garbage disposal tragically consists of making a hole somewhere and burying it if it could not be burnt. I’m not saying it’s too obvious to the eye. Burning gets rid of much of it and the rest is buried or sold.

Being aware that there is no garbage collection, I gave people the benefit of the doubt and believed it was only that way because there was nowhere else to put it, so might as well just throw it down on the ground as it’s going to end up there anyway. Well, there was no garbage bins around that was for sure. If there were, surely they would put it in one and keep the place looking decent, wouldn’t they?

Just give them the means to clean up Catigan and keep it clean, then naturally they are going to embrace it. By the end of my little experiment, the conclusion was that they had no wish to make Catigan a more beautiful place, even given the means to do it.

 

It’s The Local Government’s Fault, Isn’t It?

 
I automatically blamed the problem of garbage on the local government for not having any garbage collection there. It’s an easy conclusion to come to until you give it deeper thought. Most places in Catigan are inaccessible to vehicles.

So realising the logistical nightmare that garbage collection would be in a terrain like this, it debatably excuses local government. I thought that some initiative by local government at barangay level could help things by supplying bins or at least nailing up some rice sacks for people to put the trash they strewn about into. Thing is even if they did, whose going to empty them and where are they going to put it.

So it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that a garbage collection of some sort could be arranged. Perhaps it could but it would be one hell of a task. Garbage would need to be taken over lengthy distances by carabao as nothing else could manage the terrain. The collected household waste would have to be taken to the road where a garbage truck could collect it. Yes, possible I’m sure but it was easy to work out why it wasn’t happening. That would mean employing people to do it and I guess the local barangay would not have a budget for that so in short, Catigan is like many other places in the Philippines, having no garbage collection.

I’m sure they could be doing something more than they are doing but it’s hard to say what, so for that reason I’m not going to blame anyone in local government entirely. It’s one of those problems like many in the Philippines that are just too difficult to organise and therefore nothing is done. It’s a problem in many places I imagine throughout rural Philippines. It’s simply too much of a complex and expensive project to undertake. It’s never as simple as it seems so therefore no garbage collections.

 

Spring Test

 
So still slightly deluded in the belief that people would do something about it themselves if given the encouragement and means, I began my social experiment. It was simple enough; clean up the spring where my neighbours wash clothes and themselves as well as collect drinking water and I’m sure they will want to keep it clean and beautiful. I was very, very wrong indeed.

Every time I went to the spring to wash myself, I would feel sad at how disgusting the people had made it. Water was supplied through a hose which was ran all over the community and various springs scattered around would be the washing of clothes area as well as place to wash yourself.

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It was a beautiful spot surrounded by ancient bamboo trees. The spring attracted beautiful butterflies as well as various dragonflies of varying colour. I would enjoy the peace and quiet and listen to the gentle running water which made the disgusting mess the people had made of it all the more tragic.

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Under this pile of garbage was more. Seemed someone’s idea of cleaning up the spring was to throw soil over the top and cover it and a new layer would be made on the surface which eventually would get covered over with soil and on and on it went.

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I always found this unfortunately typical Filipino problem of environmental apathy heartbreaking. So I set out to prove that it only happens because people get no help or encouragement to make things better. I really did think that if they were shown what it could be like and to give them somewhere to dispose of their soap packets, used toothpaste tubes and worse, they would want it kept looking good and be grateful that a small part of their immediate environment would be free of garbage.

 

The Clean Up

 
I set out to clean it up. I picked up endless plastic containers, wrappers and even used diapers. I didn’t go as far as to turn over the soil and pull out the previously buried garbage as I didn’t have the tools but I picked up every piece of garbage that was on the surface and I was delighted with the end result.

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We also put up some poles for hanging the washing on and hung rice sacks so that people could easily dispose of their garbage. Of course, this was all it ever needed in the first place. Just give them the means to keep their environment nice and of course, they will do the rest. Surely, it was just a lack of local organisation; of course, from now on the problem was solved and the spring would become once again a pleasant place.

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Well, the theory was good but I was soon to discover that the problem with good theories and making a small difference is that it needs others to share the sentiment and wish for something better, even if it was just a matter of cleaning up one tiny part of their world. There were plenty of other springs around the purok. Most of those were used by more people than this particular spring and were far worse as regards being covered with garbage.

Good Start


For the first week, I was starting to believe I was very clever and all my theories were being backed up. It just so happened to be a time of plentiful rain which meant that the spring was not having the usual people go there to do the washing.

My cleanup operation was taken well by one or two and it was said to me that “yes, it’s awful how people make such a mess”. So a week of wet weather had me fooled and I never gave it much thought that if people are not going there due to the weather, then there won’t be so much mess. However, week 2 started to present another story.

I noticed that once people started attending the spring again that garbage was being thrown around; slowly at first with just the odd soap wrapper or discarded empty shampoo packet. Rice sacks had been put in place to make it easy for people to simply put their garbage into them. Seemed actually putting anything into them was too difficult for many people in Catigan.

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Each time I went down to the spring, I would dutifully pick up the new garbage that had been thrown around and put it in the rice sacks provided. It wasn’t a huge amount but this was probably because only around 10 people used that spring.

It appeared some were even hostile towards my efforts. The garbage would be placed on the floor right alongside the rice sack. It appeared like someone was trying to say something as it would have been easier to just drop it in the sack.

Word got back to me that there was some bitching because I had cleaned up the spring and I really believe some of the garbage was strategically placed right alongside the rice sacks as if to make some point.

Maybe they resented a foreigner cleaning up part of their world. I ignored the provocation and continued to pick up anything that was thrown down daily and hoped that at some point they would change their ways. It never got too bad as my daily efforts to keep it clean countered the anti social spite which some was displaying.

I concluded before I flew back to Manila that I was on the verge of a losing battle. It was kept clean purely because I was picking up what they had thrown down. I left knowing what was going to happen after I was gone. Just a few weeks after my return to Manila, I asked my sons’ mother what kind of state was the spring in. Sadly, she told me that it was back to how it was before I cleaned it up.

 

The Real Blame

 
It’s possibly being trivial to say too much about a little challenge I set people involving a little spring. It may seem harsh to make any conclusions based on the outcome. Yes it’s trivial and I’m sure some would say that people here have greater things to concern themselves other than garbage and its disposal.

I would heartily agree if it wasn’t for the fact that I’ve seen the Philippines being brought down by some Filipinos far too often. It’s not only Catigan, it’s all over the country. Filipinos too often do not respect the beauty they live in. I’ve heard endless excuses in the past and most of it revolved around not being given the tools to make a difference. This is often true but we won’t go into that here right now. In this case, I supplied the tools and incentive, but the reaction was depressing.

Although hardly scientific, my silly social experiment did echo what many say. That being, in certain matters, the Filipino is his own worst enemy. It isn’t something you can afford to get too fed up of as it takes no time for you to realise that you aren’t going to change a thing. Positive messages and guidance is scant. I always have my sons put their wrappers in a bin. If nowhere to dispose of it, I get them to hand it to someone in a sari sari store for them to dispose of. The point being that people can be educated to do the right things as it wasn’t hard with my kids with this particular issue at least.

Authorities offer no guidance or influence and it goes on because nobody anywhere is saying to do otherwise. It’s just one of so many classic Filipino dilemmas you observe daily. To take on the issue of trying to clean things up would be so very difficult. Consequently nobody will step up and begin to tackle it. Unfortunately, this is in far more aspects of life here than mere garbage. It’s a mentality which is not exactly what I would call the Filipinos strongest feature.

You can sympathize with authorities on one level as the collecting of garbage in rural areas is often a logistical nightmare. When you see how so many citizens don’t even want to see a less polluted Philippines along with no real will from media, politicians and the people themselves, then you start to experience that given up feeling. Seems people haven’t even given up, they never started.

The message and training I give my kids is not something you would hear too often from locals. Mom and Dad would most likely be throwing their garbage around so not surprisingly the kids follow suit. It must be considered though that I come from a culture where it’s quite logistically possible to collect garbage and dispose of it. Naturally, my view on this is influenced by that and I do have to think a little wider and be aware that it actually is such a mammoth task; it’s just so much easier to give up.

So the obvious conclusion is that if you give the people here in Catigan the tools to improve their world as far as keeping it beautiful at least, they won’t do a damned thing about it. It’s their right to destroy your own environment or at least that’s how some seem to see it. I was disappointed to say the least but not completely surprised either. If you are new to being in the Philippines, straight away you will notice that people don’t exactly have any conscience when it comes to simply throwing things around. We sometimes come from cultures that have such things pushed harder into us. We are told to put things in the bin by our parents when we are out and about. I don’t ever remember seeing a Filipino parent pushing that message. If Filipinos wanted to put something in the bin, it’s doubtful they would find one. Simple fact of life which is all part of the Philippines experience.

I just wanted to be proven right in my experiment. I really hoped I would see a sign that in this small spring, people would demonstrate that they can do things right. I was sadly wrong.

You see the same scene replicated in so many places. It’s too easy to give out blame. It’s more about reasons. Could it be logistics, lack of funds as well as apathy about the environment? All of them, I guess.

It seems that perhaps they have other priorities. Yes I hear all the excuses and see the difficulties and I have learnt to accept it but still, I was disappointed.

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Lazy Hazy Crazy Days

It would be easy to assume this is knocking at a place that on the surface would seem to have such a heavy drinking culture but I’m not. If I was thinking overly negatively about what I witnessed, I would be a complete hypocrite as I merrily indulged in the same vices as many here in Catigan. I have witnessed a lot of drinking in my time in the Philippines generally and I make no denials that I am prone to the very same vices as those around me.

In Catigan, they can drink and drink hard. It’s hardly surprising in an isolated community with very little to do as it is in Catigan. I witnessed people drunk at 7 in the morning and just to emphasise that I’m not above such things, I would be offered my first shot by locals at that time if I was up early enough and I would often take it.

Drinking so early wasn’t general, far from, but I saw individuals who regularly have a bottle of Tanduay for breakfast and would be sat in a small group sharing a bottle of the lethal rhum and very much the worse for wear, yes even at that hour. However, it must be said that this was only a few who had such tendencies but I completely understood why and how they got into such a state.

Many people here are rooted in Catigan; in fact, they have little reason to go anywhere else and drinking was all there was to do. So whether they had a day’s work ahead of them or not, some would happily begin the day intoxicated.

Drinking to the extreme like I just described was not typical though. More typical would be people getting up, do their work and maybe by mid afternoon indulge in the local favourite of tuba (coconut wine). I confess, I was a little more typical than most. Often fuelled by boredom, I would often find myself buying a half gallon for 20 pesos, have a few glasses and sleep away the late afternoon.

Sundays were the most social time as many would have the day off and they get together at the local videoke and spend the whole day drinking. Also, drinking was done frequently in homes and outside sari sari stores. I have to admit that despite its debilitating effects, I fell into the same trap much too often. Yes, I have had many a day when I’ve drank far too much of either Tanduay rhum or tuba or even both.  I won’t over indulge in the social consequences as life went on for most normally but I will say that in a place with nothing to do, it’s inevitable. Drinking was the only pastime for many.Here, I was experiencing my first taste of living among one of many of the tribes of Mindanao, the Bagobo tribe, yet I did not see anything much of the culture or learn much about the roots of these people as everything just seemed like most rural places in the Philippines. I know that some are proud of their roots and they speak in their own dialect and some express pride in their ancestry but nevertheless, I really didn’t feel I was living among a tribe; they just seemed like every day Filipinos living off the land and getting by.

Cheap and Cheerful Tuba

Tuba is a common feature of Mindanao. In fact, there are a few varieties; some fermented over a period of time but here it was fresh and was on sale in the sari sari stores within hours of being tapped from the coconut tree.  It’s a cheap resource and readily available and it most definitely has a big influence on everyday life for many and during my stay, me also. So enough said about that, what I want to tell you about is the fascinating process of collecting tuba and how it is made.

It seems simple enough on the surface to produce tuba if scaling 30 ft. or more up a tree to collect it is simple. It most certainly isn’t something I could even remotely imagine myself doing. I get dizzy on a bridge and watching these guys effortlessly climb up the coconut tree had me in awe for their courage and tree climbing skill.

Tree Climbing

Climbing coconut trees is a skill many possess and I’ve even seen them do it at night holding a torch. Many do it to bring down the young green coconuts as part of their living and tuba collecting is effortless to these guys. I would have a vertigo attack looking up at them from the ground so it most definitely is not something I would consider as a white boy who has only climbed the odd apple tree as a small boy.

I was completely in the dark as to what tuba was when I first got here and foolishly believed it was made from the coconut juice from fresh young green coconuts. I was very wrong.

Tapping the Flower

Photo 3Tuba is actually made from the sap of the flower.

A bamboo vessel is then placed over the cut end which collects the sweet sap and that is collected often in the very early hours and taken back to the home for processing and it’s left to ferment awhile but not too long. It is then filtered and taken off to the sari sari store where it was freely available and freely drank.Photo 2

Thetungog (bark of mangrove tree) is added into the bamboo tube attached to the flower in the mid afternoon and the sap is collected very early the following morning. The tungog is what gives it its kick and it certainly has a kick, even more so when its more mature but mature tuba loses its sweetness and is much nicer drank fresh as its sweeter then. As the day goes by, it deteriorates quite quickly which makes it stronger but it becomes sour. I would only drink it fresh as I didn’t enjoy it old. It was less potent when fresh but still potent enough.

It seemed different producers varied the amount of tungog they would add to the sweet sap and you soon got to know who made the nicest batch or at least one that suited your taste. Some like it sweet, some like it sour. I was most definitely a sweet man.

Health Hazard

Photo 5Photo 4It was said to me on a few occasions that tuba is not good for people with high blood pressure. Well, generally throughout life, I have always failed tests, so I am particularly proud of the fact that every time I have had my blood pressure tested, I’ve come out with a good reading. After a few glasses of tuba, I would feel my blood pressure rising. I would go reddish and could be prone to the odd temper tantrum after drinking too much of it. The danger I experienced was liking the taste too much. It’s so sweet when fresh, too easy to drink and a half gallon could slip down my neck very quickly. It was also noticeable that very often on Sundays, which was the most sociable time in Catigan, fights would often break out among bickering drinkers. I also noticed that people tended to talk more shit than usual under its influence and probably myself, too. I soon learnt that the best place to indulge was at home.

Tuba is a big part of the life here and a cheap way for people to pass the time. It may not be good for the blood pressure but locals will tell you, it’s full of vitamins. I have no idea how true that is but that would be my excuse for my excesses. Since leaving Catigan, I haven’t been anywhere yet where it is so freely available. Free shots was commonplace as its cheap and even an old kuripot (tightfisted) foreigner like me would happily share as another 20 pesos would get me another half gallon. It was also available in the sari sari at 2 pesos a glass.

Photo 6I loved tuba when fresh. I have to be honest though that I’m glad to be away from it now. I could see how easy it can be to get drunk daily with something so cheap and easily available. Mixed with Tanduay, it was lethal.

Well, I doubt I shall be returning to Catigan after this last trip as my kids have moved away from there. Probably, just as well.

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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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