I just spent a week in Manila. More properly, perhaps, I was in Makati City – one of the 16 cities that makes up ‘Metro Manila’. Never having been to the Philippines before, I had no idea what to expect. And with the devastating typhoon that tore through the country just two weeks earlier, I wasn’t even sure if I would really get to see things in their ‘normal’ state.
As it turns out, the typhoon, while unfathomably powerful, did most of its damage in the middle of the Philippines. It is a long, stretched out country consisting of over 7,000 islands. Tacloban, in the centre, caught the brunt of it, and left the country’s capital and nerve centre – Manila (in the north), and the country’s famous Southern vacation spot, Sibu, virtually untouched.
Makati City is the prominent business district, and if it were all one ever saw about the Philippines, the impression would be of a very wealthy country. Shopping everywhere – including the massive Greenbelt complex (which is dwarfed by Manila’s astonishingly huge EDSA Mall.). It’s not cheap, by the way. Once you do the conversion (about 40 pesos to the dollar), prices are pretty comparable to Canada. Because I was working, I did not have a lot of opportunity to leave Makati, but those times I did painted a stark picture of contrast. A scant 8 block walk from my hotel, I was in an area where people slept in the streets, under makeshift lean-tos, on top of concrete walls surrounding churches. The roads were littered and you could smell the dirt and decay. One area was an intricate shanty town with hundreds of linked tin-roofed structures, maybe 60-100 sq. ft. each. A very different life than I can imagine. It’s not the absence of money that is the issue – but the absence of opportunity and hope. I’ve said this before, and I will say it again – true poverty simply doesn’t exist in Canada or the United States.
One of the cool things about the Philippines, is that everyone speaks English – so the communication challenges are minimal. They have their own language, of course – Tagalog – but there is an equal fluency in English. The people here are gentle, and concepts such as customer service come naturally to them. (The standing joke I heard was that ‘no’ isn’t in the Filipino lexicon – but that there are 3 types of yeses. A slow yes means they understand. A fast yes means they have no clue, and a ‘yes-yes-yes’ means they weren’t listening in the first place). It is a predominantly Christian country, and relatively conservative in dress and behaviour.
My hotel, the Makati City Hotel,was a 5 Star hotel, with service levels that would be off the charts in Canada. Despite its size, it seemed that everyone knew my name. At one point during dinner, I began to get the feeling that I understood what a rock star must feel like – almost too much attention. I’m pretty confident, though, that at least some of the tremendous friendliness – both inside and outside of the hotel – was largely a reflection of my skin colour. (Being born white is a huge, sometimes unfair, advantage that most of us take for granted.). When I had the opportunity to step outside of the tourist and high-end shopping areas, I got a sense that Filipinos didn’t always extend the same courtesies to their fellow Filipinos, but even so there is a kindness that one doesn’t see everywhere. It really is a gracious culture.
Filipinos don’t take things for granted, and are extremely appreciative of the things they do have or receive. The first three people I met in the country, after finding out I was Canadian, instantly said thank you for all of our country’s support for the tragedy in Tacloban City. They were quite earnest, and very touched with the support from half a planet away. They feel the same about the Americans.
Speaking of Americans, they truly left their mark here. After WW2, they left behind a whole mess of Jeeps. The Filipinos, ever industrious, converted them into larger bus-like things called ‘Jeepneys’ that became the popular transportation mode – and now a real symbol of the Philippines.
The Philippines is an emerging nation. I think that a combination of greater education, health care and opportunity is all they need. The country has really been focusing on technology infrastructure, which is already starting to pay off. They have overtaken India as the #1 place for call centres, and they are still growing in this regard. Their unique culture sets them up well for these customer-focused industries.
I hope I have the opportunity to come back. I have the very strong sense that I have only scratched the surface of a really interesting place