Category Archives: Impressions

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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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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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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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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Return to Catigan

Poor old me left Catigan in quite a state. I was injured from a motorbike accident as described in Crash.

Still, my own flesh and blood are in Catigan so naturally I was to return. I spent 4 months in Cavite enjoying the comfort of a bed again and water from the tap whilst I recovered. I left Cavite and moved to Valenzuela City and then back to Catigan for another four-month stint. This time, I was much more ready to learn.

Back to a familiar place

Back to a familiar place

It was nice to return to a more stable environment. Last time I came, we were not in our own place. We found our house on my last visit and it was good to return to the same place. I was promptly told of a rent increase from P300 pesos a month to the astronomical rate of P400 pesos a month (under $10).

Catigan Life

This time around, I took much more notice of the way of life here in Catigan. Unsurprisingly, it is pure farming country. Very often, land remains in family hands generation after generation and for them, that’s security. I certainly never became any kind of expert, but I got a glimpse into how these people survive. Catigan is a fruit basket with abundant land all turned over to varying vegetable crops and fruits and small scale livestock.

Some people own the land they farm and live on while others are tenants or sometimes working for the landowner, managing the land with accommodation provided. Sometimes, families build extra houses on their land to accommodate relatives. I came across quite a few places where the land is totally occupied by a family from granddad and grandma right down to great grandchildren.

Many people work often on a temporary basis as and when required and remain without work between various harvests, and others have regular daily employment. The land is utilized for sellable crops such as corn, beans, cassava, peanuts, sweet potatoes, radish and loads of tomatoes among other crops. It doesn’t seem to do so well with many root vegetables due to the soil.

Fruit trees abound but the main product is young green Coconuts (buko) as well as Jackfruit or for parts of the year the famous durian,  fruit of Mindanao for which Davao is well known. Bananas are also everywhere and each tree has an owner. Bananas are a fast crop whereas a coconut tree takes 10 years before it will give fruit good enough to sell. The payback though is many, many years of being able to utilise everything on the tree, and I do mean everything. It’s said there are 165 uses from a coconut tree. An extra one is the local intoxicant Tuba, or as many referred to it to me as coconut wine. I shall go into that in another article soon.A coconut tree will give fruit for up to eighty (80) years and longer but I don’t know at what age the fruit becomes not good enough for selling. When it has served its purpose, it is cut down for coco lumber. Throughout its life, every part of the coconut tree is utilised and one of the most lucrative uses is cutting out the meat for copra.

The meat is cut out by hand

The meat is cut out by hand

I used to worry myself to death when I was with the boys as they simply make a hole, a deep one and fire it with dried coconut casings/husks and it was like looking into the bowels of hell.

Doorway to certain death

Doorway to certain death

The twins being around that just makes you realise the horrendous possibilities as there would not be exactly a health and safety practice going down so I didn’t hang around and took the boys home. The consequences of a child falling into a burning pit like that would mean certain death. I only got glimpses into the process and didn’t see as much as I would have liked to. Copra is one of the many by-products from a coconut and it fetches a very decent price when dried. The shell casings are also dried and sold.

The Drying Process

The Drying Process

The Sweetly Rancid Durian

You will find much talk about durian online. I remember a small feature about it once on British TV many moons ago and remember it being described as disgusting smelling yet tasting wonderful. For me, it depends on the durian. I was given ones I enjoyed and others I didn’t like so much, they seem to vary a lot and freshness is essential when it comes to eating durian. They have a short shelf life and are messy to eat in the sense of sticky but people love durian. The short shelf life is probably the reason you don’t see them in the west. As for the smell, well, it’s not exactly nice but it’s not as bad as some make out. I do remember once though back in Manila, someone put one inside the refrigerator. Every time I opened the door, I nearly fell. Yes, if intensified by being in a refrigerator, it’s disgusting to smell. Other times, I’ve been riding past a street stall selling durian and the smell can even be good. I guess it depends how your nostrils are wired. The smell is quite bearable, but definitely not in your fridge.

Getting by

On regular days, the buyers turn up at the road where the fruits and vegetables have been brought up by carabao. The landowner takes his share; the caretaker gets the rest from which he pays the workers. Nobody seems to be getting too rich from it but it’s a living and that’s how life goes on in Catigan.

To supplement, many keep small amounts of livestock mainly pigs, goats and chickens. Again, nobody gets rich from it but it’s a guarantee of having food and extra income when they grow to the size that the market in Toril will buy them. They take pigs from thirty (30) kilos upwards and some are kept for breeding.

My two little friends i nicknamed Pinky and Perky

My two little friends i nicknamed Pinky and Perky

Ideally, a pig fetches its best price when it gets to around 30 kilos and is used for Lechon and when it’s that size (30 kilos), it fetches around P80 pesos (under $2) a kilo. A massive 80-kilo pig does not get such a good price per kilo as the meat is regarded as not as good.

Common sights are goats tied to stakes as you wander around. Catigan is lush. The beauty of a goat is you don’t need to buy feed. Well, from what I’ve read online goats need their diet supplementing a little but here they just seem to leave them to graze. Knowing goats are herd creatures, it was a little sad to see them always staked and out of contact with other goats.

They move them around for fresh pasture and they feed themselves. A kid can be bought for around P1,000 pesos (around $23) and sold for over P2,000 pesos. I believe it takes not much over a year before they are ready for market. I liked the idea of doubling your money without having to buy feed. I have little idea if it’s actually as simple as that but of course if it was something anyone would consider doing, they would naturally find out a few basic facts about goats first before they went on to the next level. It’s not a long wait till they are ready for market. After around a year, you can breed and you may get lucky and have 2 or more kids for the future. So, from very few goats you can self supply and again you won’t get rich but it’s worth doing.

Chickens are outside many people’s homes but I didn’t see anything on any large scale. Chickens are kept mostly for the pot and a few eggs although they are bought and sold locally but its small scale or at least on the purok I was living. I saw some less common types of livestock such as turkey and geese but when I asked the owner if it’s for market, I was answered no but just for themselves.

It would take me years to learn anything solid about their farm management techniques and four (4) months observing and asking only taught me so much. It held a quiet fascination for me and I observed its efficiency although it never fully convinced me it would be a good project for an expat with a few dollars to invest in.

That’s how it is for the majority, enough to live, not well but they get by. Advantages of living in an area like this are free water even if you have to carry it yourself, its free and far sweeter tasting than anything I’ve had from a tap. Water is provided from local springs.

Charcoal was becoming another successful venture locally and on the increase, still most people cook using wood which is just lying around everywhere including coconut tree fronds which fall to the ground with regularity. You simply dry them and after trimming you have fire accelerant great for boiling a kettle quickly and the wood is ideal for cooking.  Another thing I learnt was it is far easier to cut wood when it’s slightly wet. As time goes on, you start to enjoy the extra effort you have to put in for the most basic of needs like firewood and water but you don’t mind as there isn’t much else to do. I hardened up by the day.

I had got a lot better at managing the terrain and I learnt that it’s easier to walk through mud barefoot than on a flip flop and knowing that isn’t exactly rocket science. It’s standard everywhere to wear flip flops in the Philippines but if you get caught out in a shower, then the chances of getting home without falling on your arse a dozen times are slim in a place like this part of Catigan.

I got a lot better but noticed that locals manage the terrain much easier than I ever could even though I had got better. After falling down, slipping around on wet and muddy flip flops, I took them off. It was much easier to walk barefoot. Then came a time when my flip flops broke so I had to go around awhile without them. I got into it. My feet adapted but it’s not stones or concrete so it’s not that difficult.

Future Journeys

I just touched the edges of life here. I learnt much, but there was so much more to learn. I had probably absorbed 3% of it. I did learn enough to appreciate the way of life here but I would not be a great teacher. Catigan is just one tiny part of the Philippines. Like many places here, it has its uniqueness.  Mindanao in particular is immensely diverse.

I write these pieces aiming my sights at foreigners who are considering a visit or even planning to stay here. Catigan, and its way of life, has its negatives as well as positives. In future articles, I intend to highlight some failings and give some reasoning as to why some of the problems are here. I also want to introduce some alternative options for foreigners as regards to life in the Philippines.

Catigan for a business venture? I shall go a little more into that in the next article. The positives and the negatives seem to cancel each other out. Most likely, the same can be said about much of the Philippines for varying reasons. This is an opportunity to show some alternative ideas as to how to live here. It can also highlight how difficult it can be, too.

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Road to Recovery

As this is to be my last post about my first trip to Catigan, I think I need to explain my approach. It’s hardly compulsive reading for some I know. While writing it, I was very conscious of that. It’s some fat English geezer playing native, I’m sure has come to some readers minds. Well, I was there for my own reasons, I didn’t go seeking a story, and I’m not from the BBC giving a report or making a documentary. I’m an amateur blogger with a cell phone for a camera. I came to spend time with my kids and all I can write about is how it was from where I was sitting. Sorry, if I haven’t interviewed tribal elders or videoed native dances but I never saw any.

It’s been largely about me. The reason I have approached this recent series of 7 articles in this manner is because all I can realistically do is relate it to my adaptation and experiences for whatever reason I was there. I cannot write through the eyes of a local as I’m not a local.

My blog is an attempt to create an alternative insight based on my limited experiences and relate it to other foreigners who are curious about life here. I found myself in Catigan and had no wish or intention to make it this personal, but I could not see any other way to credibly write it. So having justified my mundane approach, I will continue.

After leaving the hospital, I went home in a legal sidecar. Had no choice, it was late and nothing else available so 180 peso later I’m dropped at the end of the path. Every pothole, of which there are many, made the sidecar shake, rattle and roll and where as normally I would hardly notice it, after the accident, every movement felt like I was being hit with an iron bar.

After being dropped to where sidecars could go no further, I had a 20-minute walk to the house down a bumpy path. Fortunately, it was a dry night and although pitch black, I didn’t have the concern of having to negotiate its treacherous nature when wet. If it had rained that night, I simply wouldn’t have made it home as I could not bear the pain of a fall in my current condition. 

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The Walk Home When Wet

Walking was agony too, although not as bad as the sidecar ride. Eventually, I made it home and then it started to hurt. 

Poorly Equipped For Recovery

I had a day’s worth of medication for pain and anti- biotic as that’s all I could afford at the time and settled down to recover. It soon became apparent that I couldn’t lie down which is all I wanted to do but I couldn’t. I slept in a plastic chair as that was as comfortable as I could get. Over the next few days, I just felt worse as the agony set in and became a prolonged and difficult time.

I couldn’t dress, wash, use my beloved toilet and above all, I simply couldn’t rest properly which was what my aching body was crying out for. I was better standing and could walk but with great pain and extremely slowly. After many hours, I decided to force myself down so I could rest. I was in agony. It took me around 10 minutes to get down on one knee and I became simply stuck there unable to get back up or lie down. When helped, I had to ask to be left to do it myself as any pull in the wrong direction was agony. It was pain like I’d never known before and I managed it by simply gritting my teeth and forcing myself through the pain barrier and eventually, I made it onto the hard wooden floor which was my bed and rested. It took me around an hour to get down there. Little did I know at the time that getting up was going to be a whole heap worse.

Money being so tight I could only afford to complete the course of antibiotics and had to suffer the pain as painkillers was an extra expense I couldn’t afford, but I knew the antibiotics was crucial to my well being. They weren’t cheap. I used mefenamic acid for a painkiller as it was inexpensive but it wasn’t really helping as much as I would have liked.

Other injuries came to light, one of which was a broken tooth which was giving me as much agony as the other injuries and I was having one hell of a bad time. I was totally helpless for around a week. As time went on, I kept pushing myself and eventually was able to stand from a lying position and I started walking round the locality gingerly which I felt at the time was my best way to fight back against the injuries and pain. By this time, the locals had worked out I had no money therefore I had no friendly morale boosting visits.

My kids kept looking at me sympathetically and pointing to my wounds and saying “Yayay Daddy” and I could only reply “yes, yayay”. I can’t find anything online that confirms this as a childlike Visayan word for hurt, but that seems to be the meaning of it with my kids.

I am not complaining too much about the hospital as they are just a part of the system. It is not the fault of the private hospital system that this country cannot protect its poor. It wasn’t nice to be put in the situation I was in and I’m sure many will unkindly be thinking that as I’m a foreigner then I should be left to suffer anyway if I have no money. Unfortunately, that does seem to be the thinking with some here.

Equality of Poverty

If they treat me that way due to lack of money I can only surmise that that’s how a poor Filipino is treated, too. As I pointed out in Crash, it may have been another matter had my injuries been life threatening, I have no way of knowing. However, I cannot understand the logic of one public hospital only in a huge city like Davao. The difficulties of living in a place like Catigan became increasingly obvious.From all the research I have done, it would seem that Davao Medical Center is the only public hospital in Davao but it must be said also that it has an excellent reputation.

It then got me to thinking, what if one of my sons was bitten by a venomous snake. What happens? It would take about an hour to get a sidecar or bike most likely and that’s after carrying them for 20 to 30 minutes to where you can find a bike.

I see the problems due to remoteness and geography; it became all too clear that getting sick in a place like Catigan was not a good position to be in.

Not much happened due to my condition over the course of my last month. I was in the same flip flops as millions perhaps throughout the Philippines. I had no money left as my income was cut off. Public hospital was an option it must be said, but so far when you’re not fit to travel.

Tortured by Professionals

My tooth had developed an abyss which was causing me agony. I couldn’t simply grin and bear it, I was in a lot of pain. I was expecting treatment for my abyss before any thought of pulling a tooth. However, the dentist had dollar and pound signs in his eyes when he saw a foreigner and he had other ideas. I asked him not to stick his poking stick into the tooth affected as it was agony. Within 12 seconds of me saying it he pushed it in hard and it made me almost jump right out the chair and hit the ceiling. I thought for a minute I was in a scene from Marathon Man He wasn’t even listening to me although he spoke perfect English. He was going on and on about how much he would charge me to clean my teeth and then proceeded to try and pull the tooth which I had already told him was too painful to be touched.

I listened as he told me he will pull it easy; I foolishly agreed to let him try. The abyss really needed to be treated first. He kept telling me I was a baby and I should just endure it. He gave me around 5 injections of Novocaine in all and after each attempt it was agony and he still would not give up till I said “no more, stop now.”

It’s hard to say what his motive was as I told him again and again I had little money. By the way, he was telling me how badly I need a whitening clean for my teeth and to book it for the future. I got the feeling he wasn’t listening, and if he was, he didn’t believe me.

He was like a mad man and he charged me plenty of money for my torture. Every Novocaine injection, he obviously charged me for. He wanted the extra 400 pesos which would have been the charge had he managed to successfully pull it. Each shot of Novocaine was a separate charge. It was hard to believe how much he salivated over my perceived money even to the extent that he was prepared to give me agony to get his hands on a little of it. I can only speculate but sometimes being seen as rich when you don’t have money makes that poverty all the harder to bear.

I didn’t care if my teeth were purple. No amount of Novocaine was ever going to numb the pain and I left as quickly as I could. I’m not a softy, believe me. This was an almost surreal experience for me. It felt like a date with Jeffrey Dahmer.

Worse part was I had let myself get talked into being tortured. I kept telling him it was no good, it was too painful; he was like a dentist possessed. I was too messed up by the experience to simply take my mouth to another dentist besides he had had the last of my available cash at the time.

I believe, in his mind, no matter how much pulling that tooth was going to hurt me with an abyss under it, he wanted it removed so we could move onto the next stage which would have been to have my teeth gleaming like pearls which naturally, as a foreigner, I could afford. Professionals can often be the worse examples of greed in this country.

Sensing that my ribs may be cracked and my shoulder damaged, I went around Toril enquiring about the price of x-rays. They weren’t hugely expensive but I just so happened to have virtually nothing at this time. It was food for the kids or x-ray. Obviously, it was no contest so I went home just to pray things will heal themselves.

I improved, got most of my mobility back and had no further treatment. I still don’t know if I had cracked a rib. People tell me since the accident, my ribcage had become just a little out of shape. It was a simple case of no money, I had to just go on. It took around four months to recover and I still have clicking sensations in my rib and occasional shoulder pain. I have no idea what damage there is but I’m ok now.

I’m sure millions of people here have felt that awful feeling of helplessness that comes with having no money.

I recovered and went back to Cavite where I had come from and fully recovered there with a toilet, cold shower and a bed to lie on. Heaven, I needed my city softy convenience to recover from what was a very nasty accident from which I have to say,I was very, very lucky and proud of myself for enduring it even though it wasn’t really through choice.

A month after the accident, I left Catigan and all my new found fitness didn’t really seem relevant anymore. However, I believe having lost weight and having eaten so well on fresh vegetables and fruits, my body was better equipped to recover from the injuries.

I went back to the city and for a few months lived the easy life again. I was only just getting to the stage where I was actually learning about how people live in Catigan. To learn more I would have to return.

I watched, listened but didn’t learn much at all as I was so caught up in adapting to notice others' lives. Events hampered my education and I would return a few months later to try again having my health back and a little wiser as to how people live outside of the city.So it was sad farewells to my boys but I vowed to return. Next time, I would actually learn something.

So what’s the point in telling you all this? Well, if I was a Filipino telling you how life was so different for me in a new environment, I’m not sure anyone would be interested. I guess the thinking may be, well, you’re a Filipino that’s what your used to so what’s to talk about. Well, as a foreigner, I relate this story of adaptation and people are curious because I’m a foreigner. That’s a shame because I was playing at it in some respects, these people or some of them are treated like this every day. It’s not malice, just simply lack of facilities and when you're incapacitated, being in a place like Catigan makes everything seem so far away.

By the time I was well enough to travel to public hospital many miles away on a jeepney, I was not in so much need of any help.

Yes, I had briefly lived in a little paradise. However, the conditions and problems of living in paradise were all too obvious, especially when you don’t have money, which applies to most in this community. So my mundane tale of 4 months in Catigan is for a reason. So you have shared how it was for me over these 7 articles. Do many question how it is for millions of others?

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Crash

I was never comfortable with riding one of these bikes. If the police had a checkpoint on the way to Toril, then word would spread around the drivers and they knew exactly where the checkpoint was and wouldn’t go past it. No genuine attempt to stamp out this dangerous illegal mode of transport and for the people of Catigan, no alternatives.

They would take you to the bottom of the hill only leaving you to catch a legal registered side-car which was safe into Toril. It was extremely unlikely you would see any of the safe legal and registered side-cars in Catigan.

If no police checkpoint then these death traps would take you all the way into Toril. You do it because there is nothing else. The longer you have been in the Philippines, the more reckless you become.

Whenever I had the opportunity to not ride a bike, I would take it. Coming back, you have the option of riding a safe legal side-car but at a massive cost of 180 pesos.

An illegal side-car would wait till he had around 3 or 4 passengers and it is 40 pesos a person up the Catigan road and 30 going down as it takes less fuel. If you’re alone, they would ask more. However, they were still far cheaper than the legal ones so naturally in a community where people have little money, they will always ride with the cheapest option.

One Friday in June, I waited patiently for an illegal side-car in Toril to get back home. Unusually, it was only me in the side-car and they would usually ask for more money. As he lived in Catigan and was going home anyway, he took me for 40 pesos. All was fine and as we got a short distance up the Catigan road, he got a puncture on the side-car’s tyre.

Of course, a spare tyre was rather not thought about or more likely, there was simply nowhere to put it on one of these crates on wheels. His only option was to carry on home without the extra weight of me leaving me stranded. He gave me back my 40 pesos and set off, and I waited patiently hoping another side-car would come along.

The only sidecar that passed was full so I started walking up the Catigan road towards a populated area where I hoped I would be able to find some mode of transport to get me home. After not too far a walk, I came across two guys sat on motorbikes. I approached them and asked if they were offering a service. At first one of them said no. After a discussion between the two of them, he changed his mind and asked how much I’m paying.

I said from Toril its 40 pesos so 40 then. After an attempted haggle for more money from the Americano who was not an Americano, he reluctantly agreed and off we went towards my puruk.

All I remember was chatting nonsense with the driver and the next thing I knew, I woke up lying on the road with many people around me. I had no idea what had happened, where I was and was asking myself why I am lying here in the middle of the Catigan road surrounded by people. I come to realise I was badly injured and still had no idea what had happened. My bag was gone although later returned to me as it was taken into safe keeping by a tanod. Most people in this community are basically honest. I was put into an illegal sidecar which served as my ambulance and I was rushed to a private hospital in Toril.

Private was not a choice; it was the nearest hospital in Toril and I wasn’t questioning it whilst blood was pumping out my head, and I felt that my ribs and shoulder were smashed. I wasn’t feeling as badly you would expect at the time; a little shocked but the pain hadn’t set in yet.

It was one of many examples of when I found out how hard life can be being poor. No way could I afford the excessive price of being made well again but naturally at the time, I wasn’t thinking about that. I just let them get on with giving me pain killing injections, stitching my head wounds and preliminary cleaning of my other wounds.

After the stitches, I became conscious that this was going to cost a fortune and I had little money and no way of getting any. I was confused as to what happens next when you have no money so I asked to see the bill for the treatment I had received so far. I don’t remember the amount but it was more than I had and was even charged for the surgical gloves at way above their value.

The mother of my twins had been informed and came quickly to the hospital. I saw the colour drain out of her face when she first saw me. Strangely enough, I was laughing and joking still not really realising the extent of my injuries although by now it was hurting.

The following events highlighted some other realities which I have to say are sad ones. I’m not going to go into a wholesale attack on the Philippines’ health system as I believe if I was in a life threatening situation, I’m told I would have been delivered by ambulance to the only public hospital in Davao which was far away. I can’t get clarification on this but it’s possible that it is true.

I wasn’t in a life threatening situation, thank God, but I was very hurt and needed help. What I found to be saddest of all, coming from a country with a brilliant national health service, was once I told the staff I had no money, everyone walked away and left me.

I was awaiting X-rays to be done on my chest, shoulder and head but once I uttered those immortal words, “I have no money,” I was left with most of my injuries still untreated, and it got more bizarre after that. Money is more valuable than human life. I already knew that I had been in the Philippines long enough to be aware of the obvious, but it was hard when you’re directly affected.

I cannot say what would have happened if my injuries were more serious. I’m inclined to believe what I’m told that I would have received treatment to save my life or at least taken to the public hospital far away. However, it was a strange feeling when everyone who had previously tended to me so diligently suddenly treated me like a leper.

Once word was out that the rich foreigner was actually poor, an administrator came down to assess whether or not they should carry on treating me although I had potentially broken ribs, a mild dislocation of my shoulder and had one hell of a bang on the head. It seemed he had decided to give me no further treatment. I’m not bitching as I was obviously not in any serious danger. He had a job to do and I accept that, just felt odd.

I suppose coming from a more privileged place with a national health system that treats you no matter if you’re rich or poor without a bill at the end of it all, by comparison this was strange and alien to an English boy.

For my further entertainment, the police arrived and asked me if I wanted to file charges against the driver. I found out at a much later stage that the driver had no licence and the accident was caused by the simple fact that his front wheel came off. I knew none of this and could not see the point in having someone who rightly or wrongly gave me a ride thrown into jail. I had the choice to not ride on his bike and wait for a slightly safer illegal side-car.

That was the irony for me. There was no other choice, a dangerous motorbike or an illegal side-car which was almost as dangerous. I opted to ride the bike so in my thinking at that time, I was equally to blame. However, I wasn’t in receipt of any of this information at the time regarding him not having a licence or the dangerous state his bike was in. I wasn’t in a position to make an informed decision.

Looking back, I don’t regret it even armed with that knowledge. To punish him surely you have to punish local government for letting this dangerous transport situation flourish and offer no realistic alternatives. The approach to upholding the law seems to be to find a scapegoat, punish him but do nothing to stop such occurrences happening again. I say this because I was only one of many people injured and killed on the Catigan road over time.

After I declined the invitation to file charges, the driver turned up. I did actually think it may have been out of concern for me but by the time he left, I was no longer sure. I told him the police wanted me to file charges but I declined then he started to tell the twin’s mom what had happened. This was the first bit of any information I received as to how I ended up in hospital. Apparently, I went over his head when the wheel came off and landed in the road. I’m glad to say the driver, as it turned out, was not seriously injured; just surface wounds.

His wife proceeded to keep on informing us how much of a problem this accident was causing them as now he can’t work and his bike has damages to the tune of how many pesos, I can’t recall, but was interesting to note she already had a figure on it.

I may be wrong and some of the conversation was not in English but Visayan. It seemed she may be suggesting, I should pay towards it although she never asked directly. It is possible I may be doing her a disservice and assuming too much but it felt that way. There again, idle chat can get quite insensitive sometimes in the Philippines. It’s possible she wasn’t thinking about what she was saying.

The reply from the boys mom was “yes, you have a very big problem there, and we have a bigger one here,” looking at me as she said it. They left.

Having realised I couldn’t pay for the treatment, I decided to leave. We didn’t have enough between us and a cell phone was left with them as security for the balance which we paid a few days later. This was to be the start of a very difficult final month for me here in Catigan.

In short, the moral to this story? Make sure you have accident insurance at the very least before you come to the Philippines. Reckless? Well, maybe; living in Catigan, you have no choice sometimes.

Possibly improved my looks

Possibly improved my looks

Taken the morning after

Taken the morning after

My shoulder, arm, knee and head took the brunt

My shoulder, arm, knee and head took the brunt

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