Manila is complex. There are layers and layers of history, sociology, and economy that has left its mark over the generations. I have been intrigued to see how Manila today reflects some of juxtapositions of life. As we travel around the city the scenery changes from one complexity to another. We live in one of the older areas of Manila that was completely leveled at one point during WWII and the 'money' moved to communities farther out. As we drive to see our friends, who live in the newer, more modern areas the contrast is drastic. Living conditions are so different it is hard to realize we are in the same country not to mention the same city.
Small huts and grey cement houses make up much of the poor area of Manila. As Lady Hiva said today, "It is hard to see all of the suffering." They all have so little. No car, a one bedroom house for the whole family to live in, only a few articles of clothing that if not being worn hang from eaves of the hut to dry, and earning money is extremely difficult--when jobs like driving, cleaning wealthy people's houses, and selling goods in a small store are not successful people are forced to beg and commit other acts of degradation to earn for food. It is sobering to see.
The other day we pulled up to a stop light and a young girl with a baby came up to our window and begged for money for food. They stood there for quite a while making motions of feeding themselves--I am assuming they figure if they stand there making you uncomfortable long enough you will give them something. The baby was about eight or nine months from my guess and she was pressing her head and hands up to my window I could see her sweet little fingers dirtied from sleeping in the streets and the heat rash on her forehead. It was heartbreaking. But the reality is that the poverty cycle is vicious. Most often that baby is not the young girl's and both of them are being exploited by another person who knows they cannot earn as much as these two girls can. So giving them money only makes the problem worse.
So what is the answer? I have been asking myself that all week as I have traveled the city and met many people. I am afraid there is not an easy answer to be found. Yes, it would be nice to help these people find jobs, but some of the jobs available require nicer clothing, skills or a vehicle of some sort--of which they cannot afford and may never see in their lives. It is no wonder they have to subject themselves to begging and worse. Today a lady was standing outside a local market Lady Hiva and I went to visit and she asked us for money as soon as we exited. We politely said no and kept walking. She followed us down the road making the same eating motion as the young girl at the car window. Finally I told her to leave and she did. I felt guilty afterwards. Yes, I did not give her money but what I felt guilty for is the way I told her to go away. The Tagalog language is a very respectful and passive language reflective of the culture that speaks it. You always differ kindly and respectfully to the people older than yourself and strangers. When I told this lady to leave, I was neither kind, nor respectful. In her eyes here I was, the young wealthy American tourist who was taking photos with a camera worth more than she will make in a year and I had the gall to walk in her neighborhood then tell her to leave me alone in the most abrasive way possible in her language without actually swearing or yelling at her. As I told her to leave, I heard her mutter under her breath the exact words I had just said. I thought about that for awhile, I was the stranger here and I was acting as if I owned the place.
Hiva and I try to make sure we pay a little bit more for the taxi driver and the server knowing that the extra Pesos do not really make much of a difference in Dollars, yet I have learned it is nothing compared to what I have witnessed the Filipino people willing to give.
No matter where we go people are genuinely happy. Even if they are staring, I usually stare back and then smile. It does not take more than a second until a genuinely beautiful smile spreads across their faces too. In that moment we accept each other. Our many differences of nationality, color, economic and experience melt away and we are two people providing the gift of joy. The people I see this the most in are the ones that slept on the curb the night before, or that have to eat small portions to make sure the whole family at least gets something. NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF A GENUINE SMILE.
One day this week I had meetings in a large, beautiful hotel not far from work. The area around the hotel is home to many of the poor people I am describing. I had a meeting back at work at lunch and then returned to the hotel. It was not a long distance so I decided to walk. Again let me remind you that there are NO sidewalks and the traffic is CRAZY so the walk was naturally interesting. However, I was greeted by some extremely friendly people. Most of them were huddled in the shade of a towering office building or gathered under the shade of a coconut tree next to the road for a respite from the heat. As I walked, they stared. Stared at the white guy dressed in a suit walking down the street. I could see on their faces they did not know what kind of reception I was going to give them. I would smile and nod in greeting as I passed each of them and if I was close enough I would say hello. Every time they too responded with a friendly greeting. I walked through one group that was talking with each other and I had to walk between them, interrupting their talking, I apologized for my intrusion in Tagalog as I passed and the approval that I was willing to greet them with respect was palpable.
I approached one family that was sharing a small portion of rice and what looked like some small bits of pork. I smiled at the mother and nodded. She stood and motioned for me to come over and asked if I wanted some food. It still touches me when I see her face in my mind and I get emotional. Here I was in a crisp business suit just leaving a meeting with food provided that could feed the whole family for months and she must have worked for hours to get this small meal for her children and she was willing to share with me.
We had a BBQ one night at the pool with a bunch of us from work and everyone brought friends to enjoy too. As we were eating I noticed the Filipino guy that manages the pool sitting off to the side watching us. I did not know until later that he lives in a small room off of the pool as the caretaker for the compound and so he was actually home at the moment. I called over to him and offered some food, of course he said no. I mentioned it to a few of the people sitting around me and one of the guys went with me and we walked over to the caretaker's room and once again offered food. He shyly accepted the invitation but asked if I would just bring it to him. I was taken back when I went to get a fresh burger off the grill and I off handedly told the guy cooking them that I was giving this plate of food to the caretaker and he said, "Did everyone else eat first? If everyone is full and there is some left over then maybe you can give him a burger." I was shocked, I was not sure how to respond. I stood there trying to process what he he had said and the range of emotions his words caused me--pity, shock, anger, and disgust--must have been broadcasting across my face because he said, "It looks like we have plenty so here you go." I could not help but think that if I would have known I was going to get that answer, I would have given the guy MY burger and eaten cold cereal when I got home later. The caretaker was extremely thankful for the small bounty that we provided. His face, full of gratitude, was warming to my soul. In that I-want-to-do-service-everyday-because-this-feels-so-great-to-not-be-selfish-for-a-moment kind of way. I stayed and talked to him for about ten minutes and hopefully made a friend for life because his upbeat personality was wonderful and I can draw strength from that.
It has been a gift this week to rethink all that I have. The simple things--Lady Hiva, who loves and supports me, a family that wants to be part of my life, a clean house to come home to and feel safe, food on the table that usually is in excess, and my biggest worry is which shirt and tie to wear each day, yet I do have a choice. There are so many times in the hurried-ness of life that I forget the beauty of the world around me. It may be a sidewalk and grey cement walls, under a tree on the side of the road, or a small room next to the pool, but there is love and I am blessed.