I thought I’d take a break from telling about our day-to-day activities to tell you a little more about the things we’re seeing around here. There are so many things to take in that we can’t even begin to absorb it all. It’s a strange mix of completely foreign and really familiar. There are so many things that are different, but there’s just enough familiarity to keep us comfortable.
They have these things called Jeepneys. They look like little school buses that have been smushed down a little with all the doors and windows ripped out. They’re everywhere, and people use them as public transportation. They’re really cheap to ride in, and they’re usually packed like a sardine can. It’s only a few cents for several miles, and kids who sit in their parents laps ride for free. They have specific routes that they follow, and usually it’s written on the side so you can see where they’re going. They’re all individually owned; people buy the outside part of the vehicle, then buy an engine and all the under-parts at a Japanese surplus shop. Then they paint it up and start charging people to ride in it. These things are EVERYWHERE. We haven’t ridden in one yet, but we’re planning to use them on Tuesday afternoon when Manny won’t be available to drive us.
They also drive little tricycles around. They are actually motorcycles or dirt bikes with a little side-car. They are pretty cheap to ride in as well, and they’re all over the place. The Jeepneys usually go on the main roads, and these trikes are used to go on back roads or into the subdivisions. Sometimes you see multiple peopled piled on one of these things, and I’m not sure how they all fit.
Speaking of driving around, I’ve already mentioned how the traffic here is crazy. The sheer number of people here is amazing. I’ve never seen so many people! The side of the road is always filled with people walking from one place to another, or begging, or just sitting there. No one drives really fast because there’s no room, plus there are always people darting out here and there. There aren’t even any speed limit signs posted, because there’s no point. Even the interstates are always backed up.
I think it would be difficult to learn to drive here, because the rules are so different. The main one seems to be that if there’s a hole in traffic and you stick your bumper in it, it’s yours. It’s called “squeezing.” Anywhere your bumper fits is yours for the taking, no blinkers necessary. There’s also an unspoken rule for honking. Everyone honks all the time, but not in a rude way. One honk means “hey, by the way, I’m here..just wanted to let you know,” in a very polite way. Two honks means “I’m going to pass you, so watch out.” 3 or more usually means “Please be careful, you’re about to hit me!” although no one actually does hit anyone. And the only time you really lay on your horn is if you’re really mad….but Filipinos are much more polite than Americans, so that never happens. Despite the chaos, there’s no road rage.
That’s because Filipinos are EXTREMELY laid back and fun-loving. You see people in the cars next to you during a traffic jam and they’re just talking and laughing, or texting on their phone (this nation is #1 in the world for texting, by the way). Everyone is very careful not to hurt someone else’s feelings about anything. They’re very non-confrontational and sweet, and they always want to give you things and help you. At first I thought we were being treated this way because we were Americans, but then I started realizing that it’s how they treat each other as well. Their culture is just very kind and gentle.
We do get treated a little differently as Americans, though, but in a good way. People always wave at us and tell us “good morning” or “good evening.” I get a lot of doors opened for me, and we get lots of hugs and kisses on the cheek. This place is great for my self-esteem, let me tell you…. I get told how beautiful I am multiple times a day by women, men, kids…anyone. And Nate is constantly told that he is “bery hand some.” I’ve been told that I have beautiful skin (who are they kidding?!) and a lovely voice. Something about Americans are just intriguing to them, and it’s funny the things that they notice and are attracted to.
They also love having their pictures taken. Anytime I pull out my camera, people are wanting to be in a picture. Then they want to see what it looks like. Even if it’s random people on the street! If I have my car window rolled down and hold up my camera, people will shout “Picture! Picture!” and start smiling or posing. They love it. And if it’s a group picture, they always want to stand beside me or Nate. They’re really affectionate, so there’s usually an arm around me or a hand on my knee (always another woman, don’t worry!). It’s the same for Nate. Usually another man has his arm around his shoulders in a picture, or even just when they’re walking and talking.
Speaking of affection, that’s another thing you see a lot of walking down the street. I’m not talking about PDAs between couples, but rather just friends who are walking or sitting together. They’re usually physically touching in some way or another, whether its an arm around them, or interlocked arms, or a hand draped across the other’s knees. I see a lot of little girls holding hands as they walk and giggle, and middle-school aged children holding hands with their parents. It’s just normal here to show affection of some kind or another.
It’s also very normal here for everyone to be late for everything. Of course a lot of that is due to the insane amount of traffic no matter where you’re going, but it’s also because Filipinos are just relaxed and laid back and don’t worry about what time it is. Everything runs on “Filipino time” (kind of like Presbyterian time!), which can be roughly interpreted as “whenever you feel like it.” That means that parties that start at 5pm Filipino Time really begins whenever anyone feels like arriving. We went to one party where the person who was supposed to be leading the music was 2 hours late. Except they weren’t late, they were just running on Filipino time, and its normal. Even church rarely starts on time, and they can’t have announcements until the end because otherwise no one would be there to hear them. It’s pretty much a good rule of thumb to just plan on everything getting started at least 30 minutes after the actual start-time.
As a matter of fact, everything runs a little slower here, no matter what it is. Standing in line for any kind of service takes longer, because no one is in a rush…even the people behind the counter. They talk and laugh and enjoy themselves while they’re serving you, and they don’t really worry about efficiency. But for the most part, it doesn’t matter, because the people standing in line don’t really care about efficiency either. They’re busy talking and laughing and texting, too, so no one really notices that things are moving slowly. They say its a good day if you can get 2 or 3 things done, and between the traffic and the laid-back atmosphere, I’m beginning to see why! The American way of being stressed and busy and worn out just doesn’t work here. The Philippines is not the place for someone who is extremely OCD! It’s different, but I’m getting used to it.
I’m also getting used to the smell. Everything smells differently here, but I think a lot of that is because there is such a huge number of people living in a really small land area in extreme heat and humidity. That combination will ALWAYS lead to B.O., no matter where it is. But I also think that part of the reason is because things aren’t packaged and wrapped like they are back in the States. I think I mentioned before that in the grocery store, the meat is just sitting out in the open… fish, chicken, beef, pork, you name it. Same goes for any kind of produce. All of those smells together aren’t pleasant. But it’s not just in the grocery store… there are lots of little “Sari-Sari” stores all along the streets that sell the same type things, and none of it is wrapped there either. All of that food sitting in the heat mixed with the general smell of B.O from sweaty people (including myself!) equals an aroma that takes some getting used to. It’s not really everywhere, but I often catch a big wave of it when we’re walking somewhere. You just kind of ignore it and keep going. It’s actually a big difference in how much I notice it now compared to the first day we were here.
Actually, the humidity is the same way. I don’t know if it’s actually cooler and less humid, or if our bodies have just started adjusting to the heat, but it’s not nearly as bad as it was. It just kind of feels more and more like typical Mississippi summers, and I don’t really notice it anymore. We had some rain at the end of last week, which really cooled things off and brought a nice breeze in, so maybe that’s part of it. Either way, I’m much more comfortable than I was the first couple of days.
One thing that has been very difficult to get used to, however, is the amount of people living in extreme poverty that we run into on a daily basis. It was hard at first, because we would just drive by these “Squatter villages,” and we wouldn’t know what to say. There are massive amounts of people who live in these little villages made up of wood, cardboard, tin, and whatever else they can find to throw together to make a shelter. And these villages go on for miles. The people there don’t have jobs, (partly because its so difficult to find a job here because of the amount of people) so you see them just sitting outside their little make-shift homes during the day. Many of them are barefoot, and you see kids running around in the dirt and mud. Lots of kids. The shacks are all connected and are usually on public or government property, especially along rail road tracks and highways. This is where most of the street children live, and it just rips your heart out to see it. It was especially difficult at first because we were just seeing it from a distance. We would drive by on the way to something else, with no insight into how the people lived or what they were like. We could only see the poverty and the mass amounts of people. Literally, there are millions of them. And it’s totally normal. The squatter villages are as common as the suburban sprawl back in Mississippi. It’s not one little slum area in a big city, its entire towns made up of these shacks. And its like nothing you’ve ever seen. It’s even harder when you look across the street and see a big resort or hotel or beautiful villa-style homes. You look back and
forth between the two and think “how in the world am I able to see both of these at the same time?” It messes with your head, because I can’t understand the wealth and the poverty living right next door to one another. Literally, you see children on the street in front of a shack that is falling apart, and across the street is a beautiful and totally landscaped resort with expensive cars in the parking lot. I just don’t understand. I’ve heard it called the Land of Contrast many times, but I couldn’t grasp it until I saw it for myself. Even now, it doesn’t make sense. And the hard thing is knowing that no matter how much I tried to explain it to you, and no matter how much you thought you could wrap your brain around it, you wouldn’t begin to comprehend how much of a dichotomy it is until you stand in the street and look back and forth from one to another. Being here and seeing it for yourself makes all the difference.
Well I guess I’ll get back to some more of the day-to-day things we’ve been doing. But after a few more days of observing the people and culture around me, I’m sure I’ll have more to say!