Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Bacolod City, The City of Smiles

It ain't Kansas

My most meaningful experience from the last four years of world travel occurred over three days in Negros Occidental, The Philippines, where I became a part of a different way of life, a different way of being. It was quite moving.

I have been living in Singapore for a total twenty-six months since December of 2010. For much of my stay I lived very near the busy downtown section near Orchard and Scotts Road.  My apartment was in a quiet alcove of older buildings behind the fancy hotels, condos and Lucky Plaza, a not-so-high end, older mall where Filipino ex-pats gather on Sundays. The gathering of Filipinos, mostly women, set up elaborate picnics on the grassy hill behind Lucky Plaza that begin early and last until past dark. It's a colourful happy crowd.

 One Sunday morning three years ago while I was taking photographs of the picnickers, one of the groups gathered there invited me to join them.  I met Gwen and Angela, cousins who work in the nearby Marriott Hotel as cleaning staff. They were amongst a larger group of friends from Bacolod City in the Philippine province of Negros Occidental. Even though Gwen, Angela and I come and go from our home countries, we've remained friends. The ladies have been inviting me to visit them in The Philippines for three years now. Two weeks ago, I accepted the invitation and went.

It's a good idea to hire a car and driver when traveling in the Philippines. It's cheap, usually less than $35.00 USD a day. And with poor road markings, it is nice to have a local guide. While there are many different forms of ground transport, including licensed taxis, many provincial car owners are happy to be a driver and guide for a traveling Yank. The challenge is arranging for a trustworthy driver. Being the guest of Gwen and Angela, I had an inside advantage and arranged for Christian, Gwen's brother-in-law, to pick me up at the airport. As I exited the airport terminal, I got my introduction to how it's done in Bacolod.

Life with these nice folks is not a solitary experience. With Christian was his wife and son, a neighbor who drove, along with Gwen and Angela.  Turns out this was the smallest crowd I would be part of for three days. I attended two back yard parties and a wake for an aunt of Gwen's who had passed away a day prior to my arrival. I was welcomed by this community of people as if I were one of them. I was as comfortable with them as I am in my own family and communities. But then there were my eyes.

At first I simply thought I was a bit of a curiosity, being a Westerner and a little different looking. But people kept staring at me. When I would catch and hold their glances, they would defer and usually giggle. But the kids, and there were a lot of kids, just stared and held the stare as if perplexed.  I asked Gwen what was up.

"Your blue eyes" was the reply. My blue eyes killed them. Especially the children who had never left Bacolod City. Other than on TV, they don't see blue-eyed people. Once I understood that it became a charming experience for me. I would stare back at the kids and make a face. they would usually run away laughing.

Negros Occidental is an agricultural region growing mostly sugar cane. Bacolod City hosts two large call centres and hopes to promote more economic growth as the Philippines continues to grow and modernise.  The tourist trade is not significant. They hope to change that. I am glad I got to experience the place before that occurs.

Middle class Westerners would consider Bacolod City a poor place. But it isn't really. Economically, the people who live there do not have a lot. But they have what they need and have learned to take care of each other. Much of the region's financial support comes from folks like Gwen and Angela who find work abroad and send money home.  The World Bank estimates 10% of The Philippines Gross National Product is from remittances. Back in Lucky Plaza, the Filipino gathering place in Singapore, there are a dozen store front mini-banks that specialise in transferring money to The Philippines. On Sunday, the only day off for these mostly service workers, all the remittance counters have long waits for service. Now that I have been with these people, I understand what a sacrifice it is for them to be away from their extended network of love and support.

Gwen and Angela's best friend hosted a backyard birthday part for her four year old. There were about twenty kids and perhaps thirty adults. I was amazed at how well the children ranging in age from three to young teens got along. The women played games with the kids. The men stood aside drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. When food was served the entire yard came to a halt. It was the only time it was quiet. After the food, four of the guys dismantled the plastic tables that needed to be returned to a party rental place. They loaded the tables onto a motorcycle sidecar that the kids had been climbing all over during the party. It was a beat up bike, dented and rusted. I thought it was a derelict. The kids certainly had fun with it. These motorcycles with sidecars, called tricycles, are ubiquitous in The Philippines. I was truly amazed at how much they could load on to the contraption and still drive it.

Filipinos love, love, love Karaoke. They claim to have invented it and allege that the Japanese co-opted it. The Japanese name stuck. Many homes in the crowded sub-division we were in have big Karaoke boxes with giant speakers. As the sun set, the entire neighbourhood erupted with Karaoke.

I was, I am, moved by the calm and loving atmosphere present always. In my brief stay attending backyard gatherings, two parties and a wake I never witnessed any inter-personal stress between or amongst them. Quite the opposite, the love and support they show for each other is quite special.

The Philippines has problems. It is far from a perfect place. Its infrastructure sucks. While the government seems to be trying to reduce corruption, results are painfully slow. But if they get it right, watch out! The Filipino people are creative, adaptive, clever and hard working. And they are damn nice.

At the backyard birthday party, in addition to a yard full of kids and adults, there were two dogs, several chickens and four rabbits in a cage. I was watching some of the kids torment one of the dogs who really just wanted to nap. From under an overturned row boat hopped a rather ugly looking duck. It had grey, white and brown feathers with no particular pattern. It had orange circles around its eyes. It had only one leg.

The duck hopped determinedly on its lone webbed foot pecking at the ground competing with the chickens for scraps on the ground. Occasionally, the duck would fall down. Undeterred, it got right back up pecking at the ground and chasing chickens.

It was a perfect metaphor for the Philippines: a plucky, one-legged duck that would not quit. I suspect  if you put it in a pond it would swim determinedly, perhaps in circles, but it would not give up.

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