It was the 1st of November 2012, I was on my gap year attempting to work out if I wanted to sell my soul to the government or to a company in the promise of a piece of paper. I had already come and gone from one university and all I knew is that I wanted to write, but what I wanted to write about and where I wanted to do it was answers lost on me.
The first and continuous impression of the Philippines is people and lots of them, in fact as many as they can fit in the four walls, for a far as you can see. Except for a few Tagalog signs there is very little new culture here, posters for the American talent show The Voice line billboards and Paris Hilton promotes her new holiday resort in pink leopard print posters.
The other recurring theme of the small island is that the heat is overwhelming, it’s past 8pm but the air is as sticky and humid as it was at midday. The car park was another mess of impatience and lack of manners, the British notion if queuing patiently was nowhere to be seen. If you want to feel like you are going to die at least once every three seconds drive on a Filipino freeway.
You hear about how poor the country is and how desperate everyone is to work in the Western world but to a casual naïve eye it all looks pretty hunky dory. The freeways (super wide motorways) are like the ones you see in American movies where cars line for as far you can look, along the side on the tarmac stands these huge billboard where Beyonce poses for H&M, One Direction’s tour is coming soon and there is a Zara sale.
It doesn’t take long before we get pulled over by a policeman because we ‘cut a corner’ despite in front of us is a scooter with a family of five sat on, none wearing helmets. He has a fine for our car which soon goes up when he sees we are not natives, Maria bats her eyelashes and waves a few hundred pesos at him (less than a tenner in British pounds), which goes in his back pocket, and he wanders off like it never happened.
Our destination was Better Livings, a suburb of the country’s capital Manila and, as far as I know, was just a long street with everything piled on top of each other. This street was war I would be staying for four weeks, more specifically in a bunk bed in the kitchen of a dentist’s office come home. The first thing I learnt was that home and the office was not a separate entity. Because of the heat everyone has their windows open so I can that the see that the garage next door to the dentist let their children sleep underneath the cars on ramps while a rotary chicken goes through their front room. Maria’s lounge was her reception and a dentist chair sat in the middle of her bedroom and teeth moulds lined up next to the kitchen sink while jars of medical substances sit in the fridge next to the cheese. Old ladies work until death generally, unless they have well off kids who send their pay packet home, selling sweets and canned drinks out their front room window to kids on their way home from school. Work doesn’t stop here, the neighbours are getting their roof tiled at 4am while someone is drilling at the road until the early hours, it’s cooler in the dark (not much though) so life carries on past 5am. This is baffling to our culture but to them everyone lives like this, Better Living is one of the better streets in the suburbs because these people have at least a business.
There are two sorts of public transport in the country, the cheaper and quickest way is via tuk tuk’s, also known by the more technical name of auto rickshaw or tricycles. There is a passenger or cargo sidecar fitted onto a beaten up old motorcycle with passengers being able to sit behind the driver (and some even sit on the roof of the covered sidecar). Governments are attempting to phase out the two stroke powered motorcycles and replace them with four stroke ones due to the pollution they cause. These tuk tuk’s are the taxi service of the country, though more desperate as you can’t leave the door without stopping by you and hustling for a lift. Often the drivers of these live in the sidecar and can be found asleep in the depots (usually outside malls). The second popular form of transport is their version of a bus, a jeepney, they are kitschy decorated and full to the brim of passengers. The Filipinos, as thrifty as ever, made this transport out of abandoned US military jeeps left over from the Second World War. Painted bright and wonderful colours with rosary beads and curtains hanging from them, there is two wooden seats that run down each side where roughly sixteen to twenty people sit (children go free but only if they balance on an adults lap.) with no backdoor, allowing commuters to pop on and off at their own free will (usually before the bus can stop). When someone gets on they sit on the nearest space, which is usually the end, before handing their money to the person next to them who passes it to their side and so on until it gets put in the hatch at the front for the driver. It may seem chaotic to an outsider but this is a rather nifty system that works perfect for them.
Would I go back to The Philippines again? Honestly, no. I am incredibly glad I had the opportunity and took it. I was very relieved to get home to a nice cool double bed, where work finishes at five and I can turn my radiator off if it gets too warm. I got on that plane at Beijing feeling thankful that I have the chance but next time I might choose somewhere a little bit closer to civilization.