So my first flight was on the way to London with a twenty-four hour stop over in Manila. Manila wasn’t really in my considered places to visit but it was the cheapest airfare by around $400. However, I am really glad I went as I feel it opened my eyes to a lot of things I have seen in the media and gave me perspective just how lucky we are in the first world.
Flying over the city highlighted the two extremes – at one point you are flying over colourful quaint mansions with swimming pools and the houses of the affluent middle class who live in lovely rolling hills and have lush green grass. The next you are suddenly confronted with vast slums in dirt fields constructed of rusty corrugated iron, old sheets and whatnot with roofs held down by old flat tyres.
I was actually quite impressed by the slums as in a way it is an excellent example of the theory of innovation through scarcity but mainly a gentle reminder that just by being born into my family and country I have access to many choices and freedoms that most of the world will never experience – that although I am by no means driving a Bentley and sipping filtered water from crystal glasses, my standard of living is a lot higher and enviable in contrast to ninety-five precent of the worlds population.
The airport is a weird example of Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ applied to socioeconomics. While everything in AU and NZ airports are designed to make you comfortable (e.g. many restaurants, expansive offerings at duty free and electrolyte enhances water to make you refreshed pre flight), Manila’s first priority is security and safety. You can’t even get through the airport doors without a ticket. No casual last minute goodbye over spring rolls and coffee. Then everything is written in double carbon receipt books – the lack of electronic documentation makes everything take longer than it should. These little things sound petty but as a sum it makes up a picture of a stark cultural difference.
Although I had researched a bit about Manila from home I still got a bit of a shock when I got here. I befriended a middle-aged local couple on the plane, which in hindsight was a great move as getting through customs and security was a bit overwhelming. Although they are by no means as strict as at home, there are few instructions and it felt like I could have been ‘Schapelle Corby-ed’ at any time. Also, unlike at home, it’s a bit weird to stick to yourself and mind your own business. The community presence is everywhere and they like to take care of their own and you are better off if you have an in with a local. My new friends talked to the security guards who helped me get my bag and arranged transport, which I don’t think I would of been able to do as easily myself due to the language barrier.
Although I Googled taxi fares and how not to get ripped off, just the process to get a safe taxi seemed strange and foreign. It felt like everything was happening so fast that I didn’t really know what was going on and what I was agreeing to. When I mentioned the hotel I was going to “The Sofitel” I think their ears pricked up. Although I was wearing cheap costume jewellery and my watch is pretty old by our standards, this was enough to be showy.
An average taxi should cost P240 (Philippine pesos) or $7 AUD. I got a prepaid taxi fare, known as a coupon, which is a set price to get to where you are going to help ensure you are getting a good price and help ward off against being charged for the driver going round in circles. It’s pretty easy to work out what you should be charged – Google the distance you’re going and Google the average fare then convert that to AUD.
Not really knowing what was going on I agreed to P440 just to keep going along and feel safe in the chaos that was around me – I was grateful I had a pal and didn’t want to push the boundaries of my new relationship. It wasn’t until I was in the car did I realise I had literally been taken for a ride but at that point there was nothing I could do. As I was going through traffic I was talking to the 64 year old driver who couldn’t afford to retire and who had never travelled. Ok, I’m probably pretty blessed that I can even afford to be ripped off.
The main roads are nothing I have ever seen. While at home we shoo away the annoying window washers at the lights, in Manilla there are legitimate mini portable businesses running at every intersection. Dozens of men selling cigarettes, bottled water, toys, chocolate etc. from their caddies right through the car window as well as beggars going from window to window all skin and bones asking for loose change. It is actually quite impressive the amount of entrepreneurship present in this country – everyone is just making it work. We could actually learn a lot from them – if people want water and ciggies in the middle of traffic, give them water and ciggies in the middle of traffic.
The car doors in the taxi are locked by default. Another gentle reminder of the freedoms we have back home living in a country safe enough to drive around without fear. Like a lot of the destitute back at home, poverty here is caused both by the genuine bad luck of being born in the wrong time and place as well being semi fuelled by the abundance of crystal meth. The drug as one girl I met said “steals your soul”.
The chaotic roads in Manila are always traffic jammed. There was no distinct system of road rules – it’s more of a free for all. There are two main kinds of public transport – the bus, which is air conditioned and modern (and I assume for the more wealthy) and the Jeepney or Jeep, which is probably equivalent to Melbourne’s trams.
The Jeeps are these charming no frills old surplus U.S military Jeeps that the Americans sold / gave to the Filipino’s after WWII. They have no seat belts and most barely still have windows. The back of them is often used as advertising space or putting up cute images of cartoons such as Mickey Mouse. They are really quite awesome and look quite fun to ride.
Although the Jeeps follow a route like a normal bus or tram, unlike our system you can basically flag the driver to get on or off wherever along the route you please – with or without consideration to on coming vehicles. No ergonomic elevated platforms or sheltered seats at predetermined stops where cars are by law required to cease moving as per Melbourne. Just pull over to the side of the road and on or off you get. And why not just ride on the back?
The pseudo rules and regulations here in regards to safety are semi relaxed. While sometimes I think AU / NZ is too extreme with safety – riding on a motorcycle with a helmet seems a pretty sensible law to me. Development is big in Manila with many construction sites. Again, where our sites have strict building regulations, a lot of their scaffolding is made from bamboo… Eco friendly at least I suppose.
Again, where comfort and freedom is a big focus in the western world, security is the main order of the day when it comes to the upper class. As I was travelling by myself the easiest option for me to stay in a hotel. When I arrived at the hotel the taxi I was in was screened by three security guards at the gated hotel grounds. Only once the car was approved was comfort and freedom within the compounds of the grounds granted.
Comparing home to Manila, both places have their advantages in regards to freedoms and it’s a very small difference based on the subtle difference in the meanings of security and safety. While at home we are free to walk around at any time of day or night (security freedom), we are often crushed by bureaucracy and by a nanny state type government who try to save us from ourselves (safety freedom). In Manila, even though they might not be privileged in terms of security freedom, their safety freedom and lack of bureaucracy allows them the ability to start and run businesses from anywhere they want and act accordingly to how they see fit in terms of conducting oneself, which I guess lets Darwinism play out. Although there is the obvious downside of high crime and poverty, these people have a strong sense of awareness about their surroundings, street smarts, overall life knowledge, resilience and onus for themselves.
Although short, my two contrasting experiences of Manila were profound. A great example of what the wider world is like and how I need to remain focused in my resolve to make the most of the advantages I have in life. That although I have only sixty-five litres of stuff to my name to live off for the next seven months, it’s a damn load more than a lot of people have.
It would be very easy to get trapped by feelings of guilt in this scenario, and every now and then I am – what makes me so special? It seems so unfair.
The only way I can create equilibrium is to remember that everyone deserves to pursue happiness and if they had a chance to live my life they probably would. That it is my responsibility to both recognise my situation, make sure I take full advantage of it without complaining about the petty things that are not real problems, then one day also find a way to give back to those less fortunate. To remember when I am sitting on a shitty plane with a crappy meal devoid of any flavour or nutritional benefits that I even know what comfort and good food is. To even be on a plane at all is an amazing sign of wealth in itself. To have the privilege of quitting my job to travel for seven months as I was able to earn a living and still have money to save at same time. To count my blessings and not take anything for granted as nothing is promised and anyone’s situation can change at any given moment.